Canons and Fan Studies

***This post is written by Kimberley Chiu who analyses how fan fiction is changing artistic canons in relation to the Marvel and Star Wars expanded universes. Kimberley is on Twitter @kimberley_chiu. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission as part of our CityLIS Writes initiative ***


Authorship is considered a collaborative endeavour in the infosphere. What impact is this having on the ways information is valued?

The growth and development of the infosphere has had a profound impact on the relationship between people and the information they create, curate, and receive – one which is in many ways exemplified in the shifting relationship between fans and canon. Canon, or “a source, or sources, considered authoritative by the fannish community”, is a record of “what fans agree ‘actually’ happened” (Fanlore 2020) in a fictional text or property; in other words, canon is information which is considered ‘true’ in the context of a fictional universe. The concept of canon relies on an approach to narrative which, “while recognising [a] story’s constructedness, treats it as if its narrative world were a real place that can be inhabited and explored” (Jenkins 2013, 115), and which thus can contain and produce information which functions in an identical way to information about the real world. This essay will explore the ways in which such information is valued by the fans who engage with it, and how this engagement affects and is affected by various approaches to authorship within fandom.

While ideas about the nature and importance of fictional information certainly existed before and outside of the infosphere, the rapid growth of online fandom and the increasing ubiquity of pop cultural discussion and analysis driven by digital publishing trends have made them much more prominent within, and even outside of, fan communities. The proliferation of headlines like “Avengers: Endgame writers clarify Captain America’s ending” (Chichizola 2019), “How Captain Marvel Changes What We Know About of the MCU” (Stone 2019), and “How much did Doctor Who’s The Timeless Children actually change canon?” (Jeffrey 2020) reflect a growing focus on the construction and amendment of canon as a way of consuming, and a reason to consume, fictional media. Implicit in each of these headlines is the assumption that stories are valuable not only as forms of art or entertainment but also as sources of fictional facts – and, indeed, that such facts have value in themselves. To read or watch a show thus becomes an exercise in finding and collecting the facts contained within the story; the consumption of narrative is, in the infosphere, increasingly becoming a form of information work.
The transformation of fans from audience members to information workers is one of the many ways in which concepts of authorship and authority have become increasingly contested within fandom. The growing interest in canon has also foregrounded issues of authority; canon is, after all, fundamentally an authorised text, and thus implies the existence of an author or definitive authorising force. This force is often assumed to be the rights-holder of a fictional property, especially for franchises where each individual instalment may have its own creator or creators: in the case of Star Wars, for example, it is Lucasfilm and its parent company Disney, rather than any individual creative involved in the series, who is generally considered by fans to be the author of canon. This is in large part due to the rights-holder’s exclusive ability to approve, or not approve, the use of a brand name or other “official” mark of validity in any given work. Instances in which rights-holders have demonstrated this ability, such as when the entirety of the Star Wars Expanded Universe “was famously removed from the official timeline when Disney bought Lucasfilm” (Zakarin 2015), can thus be seen as attempts to claim not only sole ownership over intellectual property but also sole authority over a fictional world. To view canon as valuable, therefore, is also to value a single, authorised set of information – and, by extension, to accede to the authority of a singular author.

Yet the birth and growth of online fandom poses significant challenges to the idea of singular authorship. Collaborative authorship is central to fandom, which “is, perhaps first and foremost, an institution of theory and criticism” (Jenkins 2013, 86) in which “meaning-production is not a solitary and private process but rather a social and public one” (ibid, 75). In the infosphere, much of this meaning-production takes the form of activities which place fans in positions of shared authority over canon. One example of this is the proliferation of fan-created, crowdsourced databases like TARDIS Wikia and Wookieepedia which collect, curate, and present information related to particular fictional worlds. These databases are treated as depositories of factual information analogous to sites like Wikipedia, and their status as fan-made and fan-run projects gives fans a kind of collective authority over this information. Through the creation and maintenance of these sites, fans become keepers and curators of the canon they record, and thus can also be considered “executive author[s]”, who act as “compiler[s] of the verbal text up to the point where it is judged suitable for publication” (Love 2002, 43). Fans also adopt the role of author within transformative fandom, which centres around the creation of transformative works such as fanart and fanfiction, and which has experienced a major boom with the growth of online fan spaces: as of July 2019, there were five million works on a single fanfiction site, Archive of Our Own, alone (Organisation of Transformative Works 2019). Transformative fandom revolves around the production and consumption of fan-made, unauthorised works, and thus offers a challenge to the very idea of the necessity of a single authorised text.

The relationship between fandom and authorship, like the relationship between fandom and canon, is thus complex and contradictory, as rights-holders’ claims to sole authorship of a single text come into conflict with the collaborative meaning-making that defines much fan activity. Such conflicts, and their implications for the valuation of fictional information within fandom, are understood most clearly in the rare instances in which fans reject a supposedly authorised text entirely. Two recent examples of this include the backlash against the films Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017) and Avengers: Endgame (2019), which were vocally decried and, in some cases, disavowed by certain segments of their respective fandoms. While some fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe expressed their rejection of Endgame through scathing criticism, such as the claim that its “ending obliterates years of character development” (Baker-Whitelaw 2019) and that its treatment of certain characters “seems so against [their] DNA that it shakes the character[s]” (Rusak 2019), the backlash against The Last Jedi was so severe that it even included a “plan to remake” the movie (Heritage 2018). Central to these responses was the idea that the objectionable elements of the films in question were not just bad but also wrong, an idea exemplified in a tweet by the “Remake The Last Jedi” project which reads simply “your Luke is not the real Luke” (Remake The Last Jedi, 2019). In these disputes between supposedly authorised texts and the fans who reject them, fans appear to claim authorship, or at least co-authorship, of canon, with the authority to decide what is and is not “real”.

This claim to co-authorship lies at the heart of the Remake The Last Jedi project, which seems to regard fan approval and the approval of the rights-holders as equally necessary to the authorisation of a text. While the fans involved in the project clearly assume their own right to authorise and de-authorise prospective aspects of canon, they also seem to view the approval of the rights-holder as essential, as demonstrated by their repeated demands “that Disney strike down… The Last Jedi from history” (Maine 2017) and “[share] the intellectual property” (Remake The Last Jedi 2018) required to create an official remake. These demands suggest a continuing acceptance of the ultimate authority of the rights-holder; whatever the force of their views, those involved in the project are unable to make them canon without “a reply from @robertiger” (Remake The Last Jedi 2018). Here, information is only considered “true”, and thus valuable, if accepted and verified by both authorising forces. This thus represents a model of collaborative authorship which is focused less on creation than on de-creation, as fans and rights-holders’ claims to authorship rest on their apparent right to reject, rather than to create, new information. This focus on deauthorisation as a form and function of authorship can also be seen in the project’s radically exclusionary stance; their very rejection of The Last Jedi is, after all, also a rejection of the alternative, more positive reactions from fellow fans and viewers, who gave the film “glowing reviews and an overwhelmingly positive response” (Baker-Whitelaw 2019). More significantly, the project was also part of a broader campaign of bigoted harassment as fans “complain[ed] about ‘diversity’ ruining Star Wars”, “bombard[ed]” the director, Rian Johnson, “with angry messages” (Baker-Whitelaw 2018), and subjected one actor, Kelly Marie Tran, to “months of racist and sexist harassment” (Grady 2018).
Seen in this light, the Remake The Last Jedi project, and the model of collaborative authorship it represents, seems to focus not on creating, collecting, and disseminating accurate information, but rather on identifying and punishing what they see as “blasphemy” (Taylor 2018). What this suggests is a conception of canon which uses the term in its original sense, that of “church law” (Online Etymology Dictionary 2020), the transgression of which is an offence much greater than the mere miscreation of information. The emphasis on excising objectionable content from canon, of cutting out what is “wrong” with extreme prejudice, reveals the depth of these fans’ desire for purity, and thus the high value they place on the creation of a single, unimpeachable, perfect story. This vision of fictional information is, in many ways, the logical endpoint of the same ideas which underlie the concept of canon in the first place: if information about fictional worlds can function in same way as information about the real world, then this information can also be either true or false – and, if one subscribes to an objectivist view of reality, absolutely so. Yet the ferocity with which these fans pursue the creation and confirmation of what they see as the “truth” suggests that this truth, to them, carries a higher value than that usually conferred upon information that just happens to be correct. Here, canon becomes not just an authorised text but a sacred one, and information which is accepted is elevated in value, as it is seen not just as something true but as something holy.

The unusually high value which such fans place on the “truth” of fictional information contrasts sharply with the approach to this same information taken by transformative fandom. Like the various forms of criticism discussed above, the creation of transformative works is often, though by no means always, a response to fans’ disagreement with an authorised text. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, for instance, has “spawned an incredibly active transformative fandom” (Jaworski and Baker-Whitelaw 2019) which distinguishes itself by its frequent opposition to official narratives: “the one thing [the fandom’s most popular pairings] have in common is a total lack of recognition in canon” (ibid). Transformative fandom also embraces collaborative authorship; whereas approaches like the one taken by the Remake The Last Jedi project envision a collaboration between the rights-holder and a small group of fans with similar if not identical opinions, however, transformative fandom is dedicated to collective meaning-making within broader communities. Community forms an essential part of the creation and consumption of transformative works, as creators create for an audience of their peers, who often respond with comments, interpretation, or even new creations of their own. The result of this is a sense of collective, rather than individual, ownership over stories and fictional information: as Sheenagh Pugh observes, “fanfic writers do not speak or think of ‘my characters’… but they do speak and think of ‘our characters’, a shared resource that the whole community of that fandom… knows and cares about” (Pugh 2015, 67).

This focus on community and conception of story as a “shared resource” suggests a lack of interest within transformative fandom in creating or maintaining a single, authoritative “truth”. The model of authorship on display within transformative fandom, after all, is in itself opposed to any claims to singular authority: as creators and consumers are peers and collaborative equals, no one person can “claim to have a greater insight into the characters and universe with which they play than their readers, who know the canon as well as they do” (Pugh 2015, 222). In transformative fandom, all fans are thus authors without authority, whose views are no more or less acceptable than anyone else’s; each person has the ability to create new stories and new information, but not the right to decide what is correct or incorrect, true or untrue. This kind of collaborative authorship, with its emphasis on creation rather than authorisation, can never produce a single definitive text; instead, it represents a “kind of composition for which the process of authorship is never a complete one but passed on from agent to agent, all of whom will subject it to their own forms of alteration” (Love 2002, 38), ultimately producing not a static canon but a text which is perpetually in flux.

This text is not only constantly changing but also full of contradictions; if all authors’ stories are equally acceptable, after all, then multiple contradictory stories must be able to coexist without invalidating each other. While Natasha Romanoff may be dead at the end of Avengers: Endgame, she may also be alive and living in the 1940s with Steve Rogers (anothercover 2019a), or a singer in a rock band (anothercover 2019b), or a shapeshifting spider (dirtybinary 2017), or a high school student (M_Leigh 2014). While these stories offer what seem obviously to be mutually exclusive accounts, they are equally “real” to the fans who write and read them; in fact, the ability to consume, accept, and enjoy multiple contradictory versions of a fictional reality is one of the central pleasures of transformative fandom. Not only are none of the works produced by transformative fandom seen as, or intended to be, authoritative, but this approach to narrative also undermines canon’s claim to authority and truthfulness. Though transformative fandom does continue to recognise a distinction between official, canonical text and unofficial, fan-made stories, its approach to fictional reality, which treats it not as a “real” place about which factual statements can be made but as an unreal space which can contain infinite versions of itself, is fundamentally incompatible with the idea of a singular, authorised account. As David A Brewer observes, “the more… manifestations a text [takes], the less it [is] regarded as immanent in any particular manifestation” (2005, 95), and the proliferation of alternate versions of the same text within transformative fandom makes it difficult to conceive of any one of them, even the original, as being definitive. Canon, therefore, becomes not so much a true record of fictional facts as just another story, albeit one with a more impressive origin.

Fans in transformative fandom, therefore, value information about fictional worlds in a fundamentally different way to fans like those involved in the Remake The Last Jedi project. Transformative fandom utterly rejects the idea that fictional information can, like information in the real world, be true or untrue; the value of such information thus becomes decoupled from notions of truth altogether. If it is not truthfulness or accuracy that gives fictional information its value, however, then what is this value based on? The answer to this question lies in the way that transformative fandom approaches canon: not as an authoritative record but as “a framework to write against” (Pugh 2015, 40). Rachel Baverblat more clearly illustrates this relationship between canon text and transformative works by comparing the writing of fanfiction to the writing of “midrash, exegetical stories that seek to explore and explain idiosyncrasies in our holy texts” (2014). To Baverblat, “fans are midrashists who explore and explicate texts” (ibid); canon forms the backbone of fan writing, acting as the central text around and within which fan works are built. At the same time, however, Baverblat argues that “in classical Jewish traditions, midrash are considered to be Oral Torah… part of the continuing unfolding of divine revelation” (2014), and are of a similar status to written Torah even as they are dependent upon it; in the same way, the dependence of fanfiction and other transformative works on canon does not automatically give them a lower status or a lesser value.

Canon texts are, however, more valuable than fan-made ones in one regard: their usefulness as tools to create more stories. Not only do canonical texts form the basis of fan works, but they also serve as a common language shared by fans within a community: as Pugh observes, “fanfic writers not only have their own knowledge of the canon but can assume a similar knowledge on the part of their readership” (2015, 32), and the status of canon as common knowledge thus makes it more useful than other texts as a shared point of reference. Insofar as canonical texts are more valuable than other, unofficial sources of information about the same fictional worlds, it is because of their greater productivity – their capacity to enable the creation of yet more stories, of ever more information.
The growth of collaborative authorship in fan spaces has thus resulted in the emergence of two opposing ways in which to value fictional information. While some parts of fandom pursue collaboration with rights-holders in order to create a pure, ultimately truthful, and thus ultimately valuable narrative, others use collaborative meaning-making as a way to make more meaning, regardless of its claim to truth. Transformative fandom’s approach to fictional information, with its total rejection of fictional “facts”, is a notable departure from the ideas about canon which dominate online pop-cultural discourse. It is ironic, then, that this approach which so vividly reflects captures the ways in which information functions in the infosphere. In valuing uncertainty over certainty, and productivity over authority, transformative fandom rejects a single, ordered reality in favour of a multiplicity of stories, and thus embraces the information overload that defines the infosphere with open arms.

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About Joseph Dunne-Howrie

I am artist in residence in the MA/MSc Library and Information Science department at City, University of London and module year coordinator for MA/MFA Performative Writing/Vade Mecum at Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance.My research interests include intermediality, live performance in digital culture, participatory and immersive theatre, performance documentation, archives, and performative writing.
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