Some Extended Thoughts on Fandom and Canon, a Blog Series; Post #2: Traditions of Storytelling

Earlier this summer, I contributed to Adam Sternbergh’s research for a New York Magazine article on fandom and canon that was published in the July 27 issue (see here for the article). As I wrote in last week’s post, I’m very happy with the way the article turned out but want to share some of my perspectives that didn’t make it into the final published version via a series of weekly blog posts. Today’s focus is the long tradition within Western storytelling of putting one’s own “spin” on canon.

I’ve argued before (see The Science Fiction Reboot) that the conventional view of reboots and franchises as evidence of Hollywood being “lazy” or running out of ideas is ahistorical, even elitist. This year’s target for such crisis rhetoric is Jurassic World, perhaps because Ultron was more clearly a continuation of a long-term saga as opposed to a more conventional sequel like Jurassic World. Retelling and adapting and rebooting stories is as old as, if not older than, Chaucer and the other early modern epics that are so often taught as the foundational texts in the Western literary canon [another, interesting definition of the term here related to my fandom focus but with quite different cultural valuation]. Of course the term “reboot” could only be applied to the cultural-literary phenomenon once computers were invented and became part of the everyday English vernacular.

Many, if not all, of the stories in the Canterbury Tales and others that have survived from that time period were adaptations of culturally familiar stories, as well as those imported from other cultures. For example, when I was doing my doctoral work at Lehigh University, I contributed to a collective web publication that compares John Gower’s “Tale of Constance” in the Confessio Amantis (written in the early 1390s) with its immediate source in Nicholas Trevet’s Of the Noble Lady Constance in his Anglo-Norman Chronicles (written in the early 1330s) (see here for the link: http://www.wcu.edu/johngower/scholarship/beidler/index.html).

It can also be argued that the plays of Shakespeare were reboots and even that the history plays were “real person fan fiction.” Our cultural valuing of the “original” story is a very recent notion and when it is invoked in the twenty-first century, often comes with a tinge of elitism that rejects the blockbusters like the Marvel films or Jurassic World for being “unoriginal.” As both a fan and a scholar of popular culture, I find such complaints and critiques frustrating because of the underlying (as well as overt) exclusionary nature of their message that there is something wrong with those who enjoy and financially support this rote, lazy storytelling, often accompanied by finger-pointing at said masses for not knowing any better. For example, while I do often agree with and more often admire Charlie Jane Anders’s work, her June piece declaring the success of Jurassic World a “terrible thing” for “anybody who loves movies” (see link here: http://io9.com/jurassic-world-is-a-huge-mega-hit-and-that-s-terrible-1713195036) works in this general vein.

Another interesting layer to the meaning of canon, however, relates to classical rhetoric which is conventionally taught as having five “canons”: Invention, Arrangement, Style, Memory, and Delivery. These traditions highlight the ahistorical, even inaccurate, perspective that condemns franchises for being “unoriginal” because the definition of a skilled rhetor was one with a robust memory of a set of commonplaces that would then be arranged into a compelling argument that would then be delivered to the appropriate audience. In other words, those trained in the classical rhetorical tradition we can trace back centuries (problematic though it may be) would find the “lazy” critique puzzling, to say the least.

Next up in the blog series on fandom and canon: The dark side of canon used as an exclusionary tactic and gatekeeping mechanism to separate out “real” fans from the rest of us.

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