Classics and/as fandom, part 1: knowing the past

Hello! Happy New Year!

Today I’m launching the Call for Papers for a special issue I’m editing of the journal Transformative Works and Cultures, on classical literature and/as transformative work. (You can see a pdf of the Call here, with an email address if you want to contact me about any aspect of this project.) I’m excited about it for a number of reasons (see below!) but perhaps especially because when TWC launched back in 2007 or so, I remember thinking ‘But there’s tons of transformative work that isn’t contemporary fanwork – Latin epic! Shakespeare! Film adaptations!’ And now here I am (imagine!), getting some of those works and questions into the journal.

This post, then, is a space for me to start thinking around some of the ideas that I hope might be explored more fully in the special issue (though if you’re checking this post out because you’re thinking of submitting to the issue, please don’t take it as prescriptive: it’s also just me following up some loose threads left over from a book chapter I wrote recently for Vanda Zajko’s forthcoming Wiley-Blackwell Companion to the Reception of Classical Myth, on the way myth works in contemporary popular culture). It’s the first of two posts on classics and fanfic: this one is a bit more theoretical, and the second (next week) will be a recs post, with links to some of my favourite fan fiction dealing with classical myth.

So. Classics and fanfic: why? Well, there are two kinds of texts that I have mostly worked with/written about as an academic: one is Latin literature and the other is fan fiction. It’s not hard to see that there are lots of things that those two bodies of work have in common. Latin literature was produced by and for a small, elite, single-sex community, who were mostly rewarded by prestige within that community rather than by direct payment for their works (this was before copyright, royalty payments, or the idea of ‘intellectual property’). It was written in the shadow of Greek literature and mythology; most of its major works take place in shared narrative universes, with characters and story arcs borrowed from earlier works or taken from the common store of myth. It often produces its meanings and its effects on the reader by appropriating and reworking specific events, phrases, or lines from earlier texts, with which the audience is expected to be extremely familiar. Similarly, contemporary fan fiction is written by and for a small, single-sex community of writers who take up and rework earlier texts for a highly informed and knowledgeable audience.*

So both in terms of their particular literary techniques – allusion, intertextuality, adaptation, appropriation, transvaluation  – and in terms of the dynamic between authors, readers, and texts, classical literature and fan fiction are very similar – similar enough that sometimes people will just assert that they are the same thing.** But there are differences, too, of course. The really big one, I think, is legitimacy.*** Classics, as everyone knows,**** is proper literature (it’s, well, classic), and fan fiction, as everyone knows, is basically kind of stupid and laughable.***** 

And one thing that’s really interesting to me about classics/fanfic parallels, which are often made, is that they tend to be made by people on the fanfic (or the pop-culture) side of the divide. Fans claim that the Aeneid (or Greek tragedy) is the first piece of fan fiction; Henry Jenkins explains contemporary transmedia storytelling by comparing the Matrix to the Odyssey; Roz Kaveney compares the vast narratives of contemporary comics universes to the ‘megatext’ of Greek mythology.

Which is where we get back to the question of legitimacy, and ultimately of ownership. Because all these comparisons attempt to claim legitimacy for fan fiction or contemporary popular storytelling by pointing out its similarities to classical culture – which in turn means that the legitimacy of classical culture is beyond question, goes without saying, can be taken for granted. And one of the things I’m interested in at the moment – it’s a big part of my chapter for Vanda’s book – is the way in which classicists appear to celebrate the ‘afterlife’ of the ancient world, its culture and its texts, but are in fact often attempting to assert and maintain a kind of disciplinary ownership of that world, that culture, those texts. Simon Goldhill’s popularizing 2004 book Love, Sex and Tragedy: How the Ancient World Shapes Our Lives is upfront about this, arguing that the ancient world has provided ‘the basic building blocks of the modern self’, and that we cannot, therefore, understand ourselves or our world without ‘understanding classics’:

The motivation which drives this book is the need to reassert the importance of understanding classics for understanding these building blocks, now above all, as educational and artistic amnesia seeps further and further through contemporary culture… The grounding principle of this book is simple. It can be summed up in a single idea – taken, of course, from an ancient writer: ‘If you do not know where you come from, you will always be a child.’ (p. 3)

Goldhill talks about contemporary culture as amnesiac, ignorant, and childlike, in need of professional help from classicists, who alone can provide understanding and knowledge of the ancient world. In a similar moment, Ghita and Andrikopolous write (in an essay on the videogame Rome: Total War in Lowe & Shahabudin’s 2009 Classics for All):

Given [the game’s] apparent lack of concern for historical authenticity, classicists are confronted with the age-old dilemma: should they condemn the product for propagating inaccuracies and creating false beliefs about the ancient world, or praise it for reviving the interest of the public in antiquity, by whatever means? (p. 119)

There are a bunch of assumptions here. Firstly, that there is accurate knowledge of, and a set of true beliefs about, the ancient world, and that trained classicists have privileged access to this.****** Secondly, that the consumers of popular culture can only relate to representations of the ancient world in terms of historical accuracy, either being duped into thinking that the ancient Romans really did fight chariot-mounted Amazons, or being inspired to do their own research and discover that they really didn’t. But aren’t there other outcomes, other pleasures, other practices involved in playing a videogame set in Ancient Rome, that the question of ‘accurate representation’ doesn’t get at?

Of course there are, and equally of course, lots of classicists are doing good work on precisely these questions – Dunstan Lowe’s essay in the same volume has some brilliant things to say on classical motifs and settings in videogames, and people like Tony Keen, Gideon Nisbet, Nick Lowe, and Kim Shahabudin, also immediately come to mind (more recs would be welcome in comments!) What I’m trying to get at, I guess, is that pop-cultural understanding/knowledge, and especially fannish knowledge, doesn’t always look like traditional academic or philological ‘knowledge’ (although sometimes it does): it can be more productive, more explicitly about making something out of the past or using the past. The knowledge practices of fandom may be more interactive, more affective; they may look more like two-way encounters between the demands of the present and the resources of the ancient world. I’d like to see (and do!) more work along these lines, drawing perhaps from the way in which ‘knowledge’ is being questioned, pluralized, relativized, in fields like Science and Technology Studies*******.

I should also make it clear that it’s not just classicists who get it (in my view) wrong. Classicists tend to over-specify, fencing off an ancient world which can and must be known accurately, and which only they know how to know; but fans, on the other hand, often over-generalize, insisting on a vague and universal category of ‘myth’ in a way which sometimes leads to outrageous claims. In Convergence Cultures, Henry Jenkins records a Star Wars fan, Elizabeth Durack, arguing that ‘Star Wars (based purposely on the recurring themes of mythology by creator George Lucas)… take[s] the place in modern America that culture myths like those of the Greeks or Native Americans did for earlier peoples’ (original post here). This consigns the living cultures of Native American peoples to ancient history and elides the coexistence of Native American sacred stories with Star Wars.********  

So, in conclusion. It seems to me that the comparison between classical culture/work and fan culture/work isn’t so much a neat overlap (‘hey, these two triangles are the same shape and size!’) as it is an intersection of lines, mapping out a really intriguing space to explore a bunch of questions about literature, myth, storytelling, value, legitimacy, popular vs high culture, the web of interconnections that makes up literary traditions, and the web of readerly and writerly practices that makes up interpretative communities. It’s also an opportunity to read some really good stories, though, and next week I’ll be putting up some recs for works that exist right on that intriguing intersection between classics and fanfic…

* There are lots of men who write fan fiction, in fact, but the community tends to conceptualize itself as a female one nonetheless, which has effects on community dynamics and participation. Similarly, there were women who wrote literary works in ancient Rome, but literature was conceptualized as a masculine activity. (See Plant, Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome, Equinox 2004: Google preview here.).

**For an eloquent statement of the view that most literary production is fanfic, see bookshop’s 2010 post ‘I’m done explaining why fanfic is okay’ here; for an eloquent statement of the view that fanfic is its own thing, brought into being in a new, post-copyright world, see Paul M. Rodriguez’s essay on The Ruricolist here.
*** Or ‘canonicity’, to make a hilarious pun.
**** What ‘everyone knows’, or what ‘goes without saying’, is always the most blatantly ideological stuff, as Althusser and George Orwell both point out.
*****Laurie Penny has written a wonderful essay (here) arguing that Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss’s Sherlock is Sherlock Holmes fanfic, and it is only seen as more legitimate than online slash fiction because of Moffatt and Gatiss’s higher cultural capital/privileged status. She writes, among many other brilliant and sensible things:
‘What Doctor Who and Sherlock offer us right now is a chance to see what modern fan fiction would look like if it was written by well-paid, well-respected middle-aged men with a big fat budget. That sort of fanfiction is usually referred to simply as “fiction”
The proper way for cultural mythmaking to progress, it is implied, is for privileged men to recreate the works of privileged men from previous generations whilst everyone else listens quietly
******Classicists (like academics in lots of other fields) are often very sophisticated, theoretically rigorous, and nuanced in the way we think and write about the problems of access to the past when we are talking to each other, but very clunky and absolutist about accurate vs inaccurate knowledge when talking to ‘the public’.
******* Science and Technology Studies has a historical narrative about scientific knowledge which goes a bit like this, though different scholars have different versions of how and when the change occurred: (1) Once, scientific knowledge was understood as the domain of experts, who needed to communicate accurate information downwards to an ignorant public who would otherwise behave irrationally and wrongly, much like Goldhill’s version of the amnesiac, childlike public in need of TRUE KNOWLEDGE produced, certified, and communicated by professional experts in the Classics; (2) Now, people are much more interested in the idea that scientific knowledge is ‘co-produced’ in interactions between experts, the media, ‘citizen scientists’ and the public in general. STS insists that ‘knowledge’ can be a plural noun (even though my spellcheck disagrees!): there are different ways of knowing and different kinds of knowledges.
******** (for a take on Star Wars and Native American ‘culture myths’ which acknowledges this, see, for example, the painting ‘Boba Fett and Trickster Encounter’ by the Diné (Navajo) artist Ryan Singer, and the discussion of the painting by Singer in his ‘Artist Statement’ here.
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6 Responses to Classics and/as fandom, part 1: knowing the past

  1. Hi Ika! I saw your CFP for this on the Classicists mailing list, and was thrilled, as I think there is huge potential for productive thought around this issue, and you are absolutely the right person to lead the charge. I’m even more thrilled now I’ve read this post! I especially like your ideas about challenging the academic tendency to define one ‘correct’ way of approaching their subject-matter and to want to set up barriers around it. I can really see some great ideas and creative new approaches coming out of thinking about more explicitly fannish means of engagement with the past, and I am looking forward to seeing how this project develops.

    • Ika says:

      Oh, brilliant! Yes, it would be fantastic to see some discussion around the ‘right’ way to approach the past – it’s not that I think the professionalised study of Classics has nothing to offer, obviously, but I think taking things for granted always leads to less interesting and less rigorous practices…

  2. az says:

    Gosh, this reminds me that I should send you a copy of the zine Pocketmyths that Andrea Lawlor and Berdadine Mellis did in the mid 2000s ( — do you know about this? They are compilations of retellings of Greek myths by mainly queer/feminist writers, also with sound and film CDs. The Orpheus version is my favourite, it contains Lawlor’s story Orpheus which is incredible (and published here).

    • Ika says:

      That looks really cool! No, I hadn’t heard about it – I only got into the reception of myth recently and quite reluctantly, but it turns out to be really interesting and now I can’t stop talking about Xena.

  3. Anna Wilson says:

    I’m really excited about this! This post encapsulates perfectly the problems I have with a lot of the way medievalists also talk about fanfiction, although I think medievalists, conscious of their period’s lack of prestige in comparison to the classics, have a much less high-minded view of popular medievalisms. My current chapter is on Petrarch’s classical reception and later reception of Petrarch through a fictional correspondence between Petrarch and Cicero; I’ve also been working a lot on metaphors of childishness and immaturity in relation to ‘fannish’ reading, so it’s so interesting to see that old chestnut pop up in Goldhill. I’m going to be thinking hard about something I can submit to this issue!

    • Ika says:

      Hurrah! Yes, yes, yes I would love something from you on medieval fannishness – have been meaning to email. (Peer review, depends what the range of submissions is like, don’t know how much ‘room’ there is in an issue of TWC, so obviously cannot guarantee anything, but have totally been thinking about your work in relation to this.)

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