greerwatson (greerwatson) wrote,

Paper at ICFA 33, March 2012 - "Interfictional Dimensions"

Posted to Maryrenaultfics under this title on March 29, 2012, 23:10.

For more than twenty years now, I have attended the annual International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts in the third week of March. Over the years, I have given papers on comics, SF, fantasy, genre theory, and popular culture. This year, for the first time, I spoke about our own [community profile] maryrenaultfics.

You may, of course, be wondering how we qualify as an appropriate subject for such a conference: after all, Mary Renault's books may be !!!FaNtAsTiC!!!, but they hardly qualify as fantasy (or SF, either). However, our community has created the ITOWverse; and that most definitely does qualify.

Our beloved moderators have expressed interest in seeing the paper. For those among the members who are academics, I should point out, though, that it was written specifically for oral presentation. It therefore has a less formal style than would be acceptable to a journal. Indeed, people will note a number of places where emphasis or interpolation has been made explicit so that I won't forget how to read my lines—all in order to improve the "performance"! Furthermore, the paper lacks such supporting apparatus as notes and bibliography (though there were some references listed in the handout). I have, however, added a few pertinent links, so people can, if they wish, check out my sources.

I might add that the most frustrating thing about the paper is the fact that, with only twenty minutes allowed, so much had to be left out!


Greer Watson
ICFA 2012

In 2008, the moderators of a LiveJournal community devoted to Mary Renault's fiction proposed that the members interview the characters of her books.
            Now, obviously, this is not literally possible. Characters exist in the secondary worlds of their stories; and there is no way to literally reach into a book and chat with its characters. But it can be done through metafiction—a type of literature that is self-conscious, that is, self conscious: conscious of itself as literature, and its status as artifact.
           Metafic, as it is more usually known to media fans, has been produced alongside more conventional fanworks almost as long as fans have put pen to paper or fingers to typewriter keys, and long before they took to using computers and posting to the 'Net.
           Perhaps the first (and certainly one of the best known examples of) fan metafic is a Star Trek story by Jean Lorrah and Willard F. Hunt, that was published in Spockanalia in 1969. In “Visit to a Weird Planet”, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are in the middle of transporting to the Enterprise when they materialize on the mocked-up transporters in the Desilu set in Hollywood, replacing the actors, who had been in the middle of filming a scene in the transporter room. The three Starfleet officers quickly reason out where they are; but they are confounded by aspects of twentieth-century life with which they are unfamiliar—not least of which are curious details of the Hollywood television industry, wherein lies much of the interest for the reader.
           “Visit to a Weird Planet” and its ilk (for other fan writers in other fandoms have written similar stories since) are an appealing way to give readers an inside view of the filming process, an insight into the differences between the actors and the characters they play, and a chance to meet—in fiction—the director and film crew of whom they have heard. Indeed, it is fair to say that, for many years, this was the only acceptable face of Real Person Fan Fiction.

Metafic of this type does not, strictly speaking, break the fourth wall: at no point in “Visit to a Weird Planet” do Kirk, Spock, and McCoy realize that they are themselves characters in a TV series. As far as they are concerned, they have slipped between dimensions to a parallel world. Their own twenty-third century, they consider to be real; and they draw a distinction between themselves, as real people, and the characters played by the Star Trek actors.
           When fans use metafictional devices to cast a cold light of reality on their own writing endeavours, however, the characters may well be all too aware of their fictionality, and their consequent vulnerability.
           According to Carla Keehn, her 2004 story, “The Wrong Hannibal Heyes”, was inspired by a comment by her sons while they were watching one of the later episodes of the 1970s Western, Alias Smith and Jones, to the effect that it probably wasn't one of her favourites because it had “the wrong Hannibal Heyes” in it. For those unfamiliar with the series, one of the stars, Pete Duel, killed himself partway through the second season and was replaced—with regrettable swiftness—by a different actor, Roger Davis, who proved far less popular with viewers. As Carla put it, “I started thinking about that and wondered what would happen if `the wrong Hannibal Heyes' showed up and I had to explain to him why I couldn't use him in a story.”
           So, as the anonymous protagonist (in whom we may, of course, see Carla herself) sits at the keyboard to work on her fan fiction, the “other” Hannibal Heyes materializes beside her. It is quite clear that he, his partner Kid Curry, and the original version of Heyes—all of whom eventually end up in the room with her—are completely aware, if not precisely of their own fictionality, at least of their status as the subjects of fan fiction.
           The preference of Alias Smith and Jones fans for Pete Duel over Roger Davis is, of course, specific to that particular fandom. Other authors have tackled fan propensities with broader application: the purple prose and clichéd phrases; the desire to slash characters, even when canon justification is slight; the hurt/comfort trope, especially as it segues into torture and rape fic. Even when stories are born from one particular fandom, the characters' complaints can be universal. Cousin Shelley's “Support Group for Fan Fiction Characters”, for example, comes from Forever Knight and opens with a pained discussion between its vampire hero, Nick Knight, and his master, LaCroix. However, the Support Group—or more specifically, the first meeting of its Slash Chapter—also attracts Jean Luc Picard and Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation, Blair Sandburg and Jim Ellison from The Sentinel, and Duncan MacLeod and Methos from Highlander. Ultimately, though, the meeting has to be postponed: not only do several participants turn up late, several others—such as Kirk and Spock, Julian Bashir and Garak, and the men of Due South—can only send their excuses, for no character may attend the Support Group until the fan stories in which they are currently appearing have been finished by their authors.
           Fans (or at least some fans) are therefore themselves self-aware—at least as self-aware as the characters of metafic.

Now, the LiveJournal community, [community profile] maryrenaultfics—or “Mary's Handmaidens”, to give it its formal title—was, at first, a fairly small group of fans of Mary Renault's stories, Renault being a mid-twentieth century novelist, initially of contemporary novels, most of which had only a small audience, and then of historical novels set in ancient Greece, some of which were best-sellers. From the start, the [community profile] maryrenaultfics community attracted a mixed crowd: some members thought of it as an on-line book club, while others were more familiar with the traditions of media fandom. The community, therefore, not only produced an archive of fan fiction, but also discussed Renault's books and their historical background, mingling great depth and detail with effusions of fannish squee. It is not surprising, then, that two of the members of the [community profile] maryrenaultfics community, [personal profile] my_cnnr and [personal profile] trueriver, had a running private joke about the reactions of the characters to the activities of the fans.
           In July 2006, [personal profile] my_cnnr and [personal profile] trueriver took over as moderators of [community profile] maryrenaultfics, and undertook an invigoration of the community by prompting discussions, and issuing fanfic, art, and poetry challenges. In 2008, they cast around for something novel to amuse the members. On 4th February, therefore, they posted a suggestion that the community interview Renault's characters. Specifically, they asked people to submit questions that they would like the characters to answer—questions about their backstory and their future life, their motivations for their actions, and their feelings about other characters.

"maryrenaultfics reading room" - mentioned 3 February 2007 in reference to the "super-sekrit project" that the moderators were teasing the members about. This proved to be a variorum edition of The Charioteer prepared by two non-members and made available as a download. The post was decorated by a photograph of a sitting room with a fireplace, plumply upholstered armchair, old radio on a side table, flowered curtains at the window, and drop-top desk with a built in glass-fronted display cabinet.

The same picture decorated another post on the 13th of May in which the moderators thanked those members who had participated in the recent CBC of The Charioteer. In this case, though, the post's title, "overheard in the MR reading room....", indicates the conceit employed to amuse readers: a short introduction in the form of a metafictional conversation between Laurie and Ralph, discussing the members of MRF and the CBC:
"They're finishing up, Ralph."

"Good," Ralph said briskly, "I've had about as much of those bloody women as I can take."

"They’re a bit intense at times. But mostly it was fun. And that new boy, the one who writes detective books - he's…” Laurie blushed slightly, "Oh, admit it! You liked him, too. He’s certainly fond of you!"

"Yes, well...a little of that goes a long way. It’s a lot to live up to... tiring, really."

Laurie laughed. "What about me? They're always threatening to "thwack" me..." "Shh, they're coming..."
This was immediately followed by the moderators' own comments to the members.

The following year, the moderators found inspiration in WordPress's ‘In their own words’ series, in which authors of LGBT romance novels interview their own characters. On 16 January 2008, jgraeme2007 a/k/a Josh Lanyon—a member of Maryrenaultfics— had written just such and interview with "Jake Riordan from the Adrien English Mysteries". Onn the 4th February 2008, therefore, in the post "In Their Own Words Good morning/evening. Even those…"the moderators approached the members with an intriguing suggestion: "We want to propose interviewing Renault's characters."

They did not, however, want to employ a formal interview format, such as one in which members volunteered to interview specific characters of their choice. Instead, they wanted to involve as many participants as possible. They therefore asked people to respond to the post with questions they would like to have the characters answer. These would then be collated.
Every week or so, we'll post a list of interview questions for one character . That's your opportunity to reply as that individual. Answer your own questions, if you like, or someone else's; tackle them all or just one. Responders - set your interview pre-novel, post-novel, or right in the middle of Renault's action - your choice! And no problem if someone has already posted an answer - this comm is at its best when we get lots of different points of view. Follow-up questions, requests for elaboration, replies are all welcome and encouraged.

In a follow-up post on the 8th of February, "THE INTERVIEW THING - REMINDER!", trueriver informed people that the "leaders" so far were Ralph and Laurie (combined), Alexander the Great, and Lysis; and that the first set of questions would be presented the following Sunday.

The next day, my_cnnr made yet another follow-up post, "I'm pretty sure y'all saw TR's reminder post and the Interview…". Besides keeping the project close to people's minds, the rapid succession of reminders offered the opportunity to present the appeal for participation in different styles. Unlike trueriver, whose post was fairly straightforward, my_cnnr chose to refer to the characters metafictionally as if they were interested in the upcoming interviews:
[W]hile [trueriver]'s been happily posting, lorie945, poicale, and I have been collecting boys, and now the MR reading room is packed full of alpha males...we've managed to keep everyone occupied - Ralph has taken Heph out by the lake to discuss naval strategy, Thettalos is monopolising Laurie - quoting The Mymidons [sic] while Nikki rolls his eyes in the background - and Bagoas and Nurse Adrian are in the corner watching reruns of What Not to Wear
She then went on to point out that, while the number of proposed questions was increasing, they did not know how many people actually intended to participate as writers. The post included a poll (Poll #1135818 The Interview List) for volunteers to tick off the books for which they were willing to write interviews. In the event, though the majority of members did not respond to the poll, the actual turn-out that Sunday was considerable.

They then sorted the questions, and determined that the one who had elicited the greatest response was Ralph Lanyon, a naval officer who was one of the love interests of the hero of The Charioteer, the last (and most popular) of Renault's modern novels.
           On the 10th of February, the moderators posted the list of questions for Ralph, some fifteen in all. People were asked to comment with his answers—in other words, to respond `in character'.
           Altogether, fourteen people took part that week. Although only half of them actually undertook to answer questions, there were many comments, some of which elicited additional response from the more active participants.
           Some people simply produced lists, having decided to answer most or all of the questions. Typically, such people copy-pasted the question from the moderators' introduction and followed it with a fairly short response. Other people preferred to cherry-pick just one or two questions, and gave more expansive answers.
           Most impressive, however, was an extended interview written by [profile] lorie945, who wrote a dialogue between Ralph and a radio interviewer (who rejoiced in the name “Ava Avocado”). This freeform interview covered many of the questions posed by community members, but did so with no attention to their original order, working them into the conversation naturalistically. Indeed, Ava Avocado was a character in her own right: an inspired parody of the most obnoxious type of media personality, clearly interested only in eliciting scandalous revelation from her hapless subject. Ralph, with the stiff upper lip of his class, is naturally disinclined to talk about his personal life. Fortunately, her interview technique is rendered harmless by the fact that everything she has heard about him is filtered through her assumption that he is straight. The dialogue influenced community members to be less literal in their interpretation of the challenge: the title of each post said "In Their Own Words" and they were supposed to write “in character”; but they were also writing fan fiction...of a sort.
           The following week, when the moderators introduced the next set of questions, they prefixed the list with a short playlet. Location: the Mary Renault community parlour. (It was news to the community that they had a parlour, of course; but some setting was required for the play.) Cast: Ralph, Laurie Odell, and...“the Interviewer”. This was not [profile] lorie945's Ava Avocado, but a somewhat watered-down version, less predatory but more knowledgeable about the romantic entanglements of the characters. In this first playlet, the function of the dialogue was essentially just to shift the first interviewee, Ralph, off stage so that the next, Laurie Odell (from the same book) might be ushered in.
           Over the next few weeks, the moderators' prefaces became longer and richly embroidered with details. The community's parlour was now explicitly in a house, with a verandah on which characters sat and chatted while waiting their turn to be interviewed; there were picnic tables in the grounds, and woods beyond, in which Alexander the Great went boar-hunting, resulting in a barbecue. Consider the following scenario: down the hall comes the eunuch Bagoas, from The Persian Boy, carrying a plastic cup: he is annoyed, because he thinks that—even with a little crown drawn on it—it does not show sufficient respect for Alexander. He is searching for the kitchen, but finally locates a suitable cut crystal tumbler in a sideboard cupboard in the parlour. All of this preamble, mark you, is designed simply to bring him on stage: it is the way the moderators get him into the parlour where the Interviewer is sitting, and thus serves as the preface to his own interview with her. Not surprisingly, with such elaborate introductions, only a handful of fan writers felt able to live up to the standards being set or had the time to write the dialogues, which became ever longer. By the end of the In Their Own Words project, there were only some three or four community members doing most of the writing, though other people continued to contribute through comments.
           Many later posts were made by [personal profile] fawatson. She is familiar with almost all of Renault's books. However, having taken Classical Civilization in high school, she increasingly focused on Renault's historical novels, using their characters to illumine differences in cultural assumptions. For example, she wrote a dialogue in which the Interviewer appalls the poet Simonides by insisting that no one today studies classical epic. However, [personal profile] fawatson was then herself surprised when, in a comment, one of the community members, [profile] rubynye, assured her that this was not, in fact, the case: that students at her school were about to take Homer. [personal profile] fawatson proceeded, therefore, to write—as she had already planned to do—a sequel in which Simonides confounds the Interviewer by presenting her with a trolley full of modern epics, notably including The Lord of the Rings. But she also worked in a reference to [profile] rubynye and her students.
           The introduction of fans into fan fiction is hardly a novelty. Indeed, self insertion fic is one of the most deeply deprecated forms of the art, ranking—if possible—somewhat below even the dreaded Mary Sue. It should be noted, then, that [personal profile] fawatson did not include herself in the story, but referred instead to one of her fellow members. She used In Their Own Words to reference the current activities of the community, specifically a comment made in a previous thread. She thus invested the story with greater significance. Wherever this clubhouse might be, it looked to the [community profile] maryrenaultfics community in more than just name.
           Simonides' interview was the first time that a community member was mentioned in the course of the project, but it would not be the last. In later stories, [personal profile] fawatson would not only mention other community members by name but introduce both of the moderators in person: they were guests of honour (along with Mary Renault) at a performance of Euripides' Trojan Women put on by the actors from various of Renault's books. This story, “Dedication and Sacrifice” proved to be the climax of the In Their Own Words project.

The following year saw the fifth anniversary of the community. Given the success of In Their Own Words, the moderators decided to see if it could be repeated. However, in order to spin the event out that much longer, they approached the three most prolific contributors—[personal profile] fawatson, [personal profile] queen_ypolita, and [personal profile] greerwatson (that is, ME!)—and explained that they were thinking of holding a barbecue at the clubhouse that summer, to which both characters and community members would be invited. Would this “inner group” assist in a new ITOW project—ITOW being the initials of “In Their Own Words”, henceforth used for its spin-offs. The “inner group” of five therefore secretly prepared a series of ficlets in which various characters received their invitations. Although it was initially assumed that these would post daily for about a week, in fact the writers were so inspired that it took from the 3rd of May to the 11th of June for all to be posted. One of the moderators created a set of special banners to decorate the website for the occasion. A series of ficlets about the baking of a giant cake for the festivities inspired the moderators to suggest that members also engage in Renault-themed cake baking; and photographs were posted on the 11th of June. And, for the barbecue itself, writing was thrown open to the entire community, who were asked to come up with something “fivish” to honour the fifth anniversary.
           It was all a resounding success.
           Having said that, though, the 5YO festivities (as they were known) were also the climax of the full community involvement in ITOW and in the ITOWverse (that is, the clubhouse, its grounds, and the events that take place there). Great efforts were made to inspire involvement in 5YO, for the celebration commemorated a real achievement: many LiveJournal communities never come close to lasting to their fifth anniversary. The prefatory invitations were designed to spur excitement among the members; and the cake-baking provided an alternative activity for non-writers. It was all fundamentally communal, with many of the interviews, playlets, and stories involving interaction between the characters, community members, and the Interviewer. However, it was a massive job to organize.
           That Christmas, the moderators decided not to attempt a major project for the holidays, but instead ask only two members, [personal profile] fawatson and her sister, [personal profile] greerwatson (that is to say, ME!), if they would do something in the ITOWverse as a present for the community. Spinning ideas off each other—I was visiting her for Christmas, so this was inevitable—we produced no fewer than two dozen prose ficlets, of variable length, posting at least one a day from a few days before Christmas right through to Twelfth Night. Written by a pair of writers who were in close cooperation, the series presented an integrated story in a way that the 5YO project never could. It described how Laurie Odell's aunt and mother, realizing that the war would prevent his coming home for Christmas, conceive the idea of holding Christmas in the ITOWverse, instead, since the characters could visit the community clubhouse instantaneously, simply by willing themselves there. The extended family festivities, however, eventually include characters from almost all of Renault's novels, both historical and contemporary.
           The sisters went on to produce several stories in which characters comment on current events in the [community profile] maryrenaultfics community. They individually wrote several short series of ficlets exploring the nature of the ITOWverse. And they teamed up in the fall of 2010 for another long series set over the Autumn holidays, starting briefly with Halloween, running through prolonged preparations for Guy Fawkes Day, and ending with American Thanksgiving. The series concluded with Simonides reaching out from the ITOWverse to send e-mails through LiveJournal to all the members of the [community profile] maryrenaultfics community inviting them to join the characters for Thanksgiving dinner. Over a dozen LiveJournal accounts had to be created for the e-mails all to go out on the same day. Members were perplexed, for none had expected to receive personal invitations from a character in a book. Nevertheless, about a dozen did RSVP, and were then written into the story of the feast.

Most metafic takes the form of single works, sometimes with sequels. They therefore have a single focus: certain observations or points that the author wants to make, often to illumine the habits of fandom.
           The ITOW stories began simply as a community project, with no notion that it would continue once the members of [community profile] maryrenaultfics had asked their questions of the characters. However, the project quickly evolved beyond its original intentions, with the development of the Interviewer as a distinct character in her own right, and the invention of a clubhouse in which the interviews could take place. The characters' interactions with one another expanded to include members of the community, written into the stories; and the fact that three quite distinct groups of people were involved—ancient Greeks, mid-century English, and twenty-first century fans from a global community—meant that the interaction of all three could be used to discuss cultural differences, cultural change, and cultural assumptions. Eventually, the ITOWverse itself began to be explored from a meta perspective.
           Throughout its evolution, though, the fundamental function of ITOW remains unaltered. It has become a part of the community's mythos; but it is also a reflection of the community that created it, and bonds its members together.
For those who are curious, the handout included four excerpts from In Their Own Words and its sequels. The first was taken from [profile] lorie945's Ava Avocado interview; the second came from one of the moderators' prefaces (specifically, before Lucy and Olive's interview); the third was the opening to "Dedication and Sacrifice", as the mods and the Author are seated in the theatre; and the fourth was the beginning of one of the Christmas stories, where the Secretary goes through the kitchen to find Theseus directing the tree into the clubhouse.

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Tags: itowverse, maryrenaultfics

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