April 26, 2006

"A lot of filing, giving things names"

You've likely seen it already, but Making Light set off another round of the neverending fanfic debate yesterday, with this heretical apologia:

Good fiction gets under our skin. It can change the way we see the world. But whatever its effect, it’s a significant experience. It would be a bizarre thing—unnatural, even—for writers to not engage with that experience. ... In a purely literary sense, fanfic doesn’t exist. There is only fiction. Fanfic is a legal category created by the modern system of trademarks and copyrights. Putting that label on a work of fiction says nothing about its quality, its creativity, or the intent of the writer who created it.

Regrettably, if predictably, lots of people showed up to make a lot of generally unconvincing arguments that no, actually, fanfic is just Bad, because it's lazy, or it's creatively bankrupt, or it's just creepy, or it detracts from original works in some way that no one's really able to define; all of which mostly serves to show that people with a squick-reaction to something process their experiences very selectively, including debate on the subject of the squick in question.

I get a bit prickly about this sort of thing, I think in part because a lot of the reactions I see sound distressingly like the way folks who squick-react to homosexuality talk about it, even in the face of long and patient and thoughtfully-presented argument. (Indeed, the more I think about it, the more the parallels are startling: No matter how much you reasonably point out that, look, this is a phenomenon that's been around for as long as we've had history, at least, and it's actually incredibly diverse in its manifestations, has often been actually sanctified, and, really, the closer you look at things, the more you can see it come up in all kinds of notable contexts - there will always be someone who can't stop talking about omg the indecency, and the immaturity, and how dangerous it would be to break down those walls, and if we legitimize it it'll just erode the Real Thing, and please won't someone think of the children? and look, it's just icky, okay? and besides, it was different for the Greeks.) One commenter a ways down the thread objected to the use of the word "provincial" to characterize anti-fanfic attitudes, that that word implies small-mindedness - to which I thought, Yes, it absolutely does, and rightly so. It's a kind of thinking that says This Sort of Thing is Good, but This Sort of Thing is Bad in very broad terms, and comes up with myopic reasons to justify it; I don't like that philosophy aimed at people, and I don't much like it aimed at Art either.

What I find particularly interesting, though, is that almost none of the objectors have really engaged with the examples that have been brought up that, if not for issues of copyright, all kinds of works of acclaimed and established literature - from the Iliad to King Lear to Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead to Grendel to Wicked - would unquestionably be categorized as "fanfic" by modern standards. The few reactions have generally been to assert or imply that those don't count, but without giving a convincing argument for why they don't. The only reasons given seem to me to be very weak, and ignore or sidestep the opening thesis entirely.

All of which has made me think that maybe there's some other phenomenon at work here. I've been sitting for a while on a half-assed and crackpot theory that one of the psychological axes that people show up on is whether they're wired to be connectors or categorizers. A connector instinctively draws parallels and sees the common qualities of things; a categorizer instinctively makes distinctions and understands how things may be separated. Obviously, they're both important ways of engaging the world (note how I'm doing both in this post!), and they yield up different ways of understanding and processing knowledge. But I think that realizing that many people are inclined strongly one way or the other might serve to illuminate why it can be so difficult to come to agreement on certain things.

I don't really want to privelege one over the other, despite being a connector myself (and I married a diehard categorizer, so there you go), but I do wonder if some of the brouhaha over in the fanfic discussion has its roots in a hardcore categorizer mindset that has a hard time seeing boundaries blur and needs the world to be tidier and better-organized than it actually is. I know there are people who get very upset with ambiguities and edge-cases, even in things like genre classifications (and especially in things like sexuality). I wonder if addressing this idea directly would lead to any interesting social breakthroughs; we do live in a culture that is, in many ways, in love with categorization, and resistant to the notion that "they're more what you'd call guidelines."

Has anyone heard of serious thought given to this or a similar idea? I'm certainly not up on my psychological science, so I don't know if this has all been said better long since. Though it is, of course, already on its way to being an old joke: "There are two kinds of people in the world - those who divide everything into categories, and those who don't."

(Cross-posted on the LJ, which I'm reviving after long silence.)

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