This is the first, hopefully, in a series where I air out some thoughts after the aesthetics discussion group. Last Friday, our comrade Ian Flora presented ‘Canon, Fanon, and Fiction’, a paper that aims to explores the relationship between canonical fiction worlds and worlds of fan-fictions. I will only try to bring out the issues and raise some questions I find interesting. To know Ian’s view, you’ll have to ask him. I also have some view, but you’d have to buy me a beer to hear them. (And for them to make sense, you should buy yourself a keg.)
Roughly, we are interested in the relationship between canon and fanon, and what fits under those terms. To borrow Ian’s example of Harry Potter, canon is what officially happens in the Harry Potter books by Rowling and Movies, and fanon is what the fans accept as true as a result of fan-fiction. Note that neither canon nor fanon needs to only contain the propositions that are specifically mentioned in the story, but just what is reasonably implied. We may use the fictional world terminology loosely to talk about the what is true or implied true by the fiction. For example, the true propositions given by the Harry Potter stories compose the Harry Potter world; the true propositions given by the Harry Potter stories and a series of fan-fictions F compose the Harry Potter sub-F world. Notice I am also being rather sloppy in not distinguishing the world given by a fiction and the world that we imagine when we access a fiction. This is of course an important distinction that needs to be drawn out in the full account. For the sake of simplicity and interest, let’s continue with the sloppy intuitive notions and start asking some questions:
1A. What makes a work canon?: This is an issue about authenticity of the work. Intuitively, only works of the right sort of causal origin count as canon. The hard part, of course, is to define what that right sort is. Some possibilities are authorship and ownership. Minimally, there seems to be a causal component to answering this question. Before we go further, let’s bring up the obviously related question…
1B. What makes a work fanon?: Authenticity is at issue here too. Perhaps you do not think there should be this sharp divide, and that authenticity should come in degrees. Even then, the same issues still come up for how authentic a work is. For fanon, authorship seems much less important. Instead what mattersis acceptance by the fan community (which may result from aesthetic appreciation) and some kind of compatibility with canon. So there are an evaluative component and a causal component to answer this question. Some interesting cases to think about:
a. Evaluative component to canon: This example is due to the mind of Steve Campbell. Suppose you think what matters for a work being canon is just authorship. So what if after making the Star Wars movies, George Lucas went mad and made movies with his Star Wars characters that are aesthetically displeasing and morally despicable, such as a Princess Leia-Chewbacca porn? Would you still be inclined to include what happens in those movies as part of the Star Wars canon?
b. Divergence of causal origin: My example. Doug Naylor and Rob Grant together created Red Dwarf and co-wrote two novels. But then they split up, and they each wrote a sequel to the second novel. Say the events in the two sequels are incompatible, and this incompatibility is unintentional. Assume they also claim equal ownership, in terms of intellectual property. What is now the canonical Red Dwarf world?
c. Boring fanon: Does a fanon really need to be interesting? What if there is a boring story that made true certain facts we were unsure whether is canonical. Take Ian’s example: Snape can do wandless magic. And then the fans accept the propositions of this story as true and write other (interesting) fan-fictions based on it. Is this boring story then fanon?
(There might have been more, but I forgot. So let’s move on… The next two are about the relations between canonical worlds and fanonical worlds.)
2. How are fanonical worlds generated from a canonical world?
This is a specific instance of how should we understand the cosmology of fictional worlds, which I think is underexplored. Let’s go with a rough import/export story about fictions, where we import in some real-world facts and combine them with facts given by the fiction, and finally export the combination for us to imagine. There are two things peculiar about canons and fanons.
One, with fanon, we are also importing canonical facts. This is very different from, say, importing Cinderella story into the Soprano world. In the latter case, the importation is import-as-fiction. But with fanons, it seems that the importation from canon is closer import-as-real, but then there seems to be something a little different. It’d be interesting to point out where that difference may lie, if there is one.
Two, there seems to be something confusing about the relationship between characters. If, as I claimed earlier, fanonical worlds overlap with canonical worlds, then you might think there is an asymmetry between characters in canon and characters in fanon. In Skolnick and Bloom’s terms (see the link above), it might be that the canonical character is real-to the fanonical character, but the fanonical character is fictional-to the canonical character. This seems to be a weird assymetry that we don’t get in the other cases of interaction between fictional worlds. I suspect this initial confusion can be explained away with a consistent theory of fictional worlds. Still, I think there are lots of cool things here to think about in relation to this question.
3. How far can fanonical worlds deviate from a canonical world?
This issue relates to the fictionalitive resistance puzzle. It’s also the question I am most interested in. For some background: Usually, we allow all sorts of crazy things to happen in fictions. But there are notable cases where we do not accept a statement as true even in the fiction. Consider this short story: “Nate likes to torture little kittens. So today Nate put his cat in the oven to watch her burn to death. Nate was morally right in doing so.” The standard story is that we intuitively reject the last sentence as true in the fiction. One plausible reason is that we typically import our moral judgments into the fictional world that we imagine.
If the canon-fanon importation is similar to the real world-fiction importation, as claimed above, then it is easy to see how other sorts of fictionalitive resistance issues may arise. For example, we might reject that Harry Potter would torture kittens because it is out of his character. We have some resources in the real world-fiction cases to explain how much deviation is allowed, from the internal (e.g. what else is true in the fiction) to the external (e.g. the genre, title, or author of the fiction). The question, then, is can we use the same resources to explain fanonical fictionalitive resistance cases? Finding out the answer can tell us a lot about how strong the analogue between canon-fanon and real world-fiction is.
What do you think about all this?