Antinous for Everybody

I worship a dead gay teenager and you can too

Fanfic and ancestor veneration

For the past few months, off and on, I’ve been reading the Aeneid for the first time, in the translation by Allen Mandelbaum. It’s been slow going; I think there’s just something intimidating about reading THE AENEID, but whenever I make myself open the Kindle book, I find myself sucked in to Aeneas’ adventures. (My mental image of Aeneas, I confess, owes a lot to Viggo Mortensen’s appearance as Aragorn in Peter Jackon’s Lord of the Rings movies.)

The funny thing about the Aeneid is how familiar it is. You see, I discovered Dante as a teenager and have read about half a dozen translations to date, including Ciardi, Sayers, and Mandelbaum. (Having read Mandelbaum’s Dante, I felt confident I would enjoy his translation of Virgil.) You can’t read Dante without, as it were, meeting Virgil, both as a character within the poem and as a literary source referenced in the annotations. I knew how frequently Dante quotes Virgil, but until I actually read the Aeneid, I had no grasp of how completely the Italian poet is indebted to the Latin poet for the entire plan of his epic. From my perspective, the Comedy is basically Aeneid fanfic.

I have read and written fanfic and participated in online fannish culture since 1998. When I went to my first convention of slash fans, people who read and write homoerotic renderings of popular culture, I met women who’d been writing Starsky and Hutch as lovers since the 1970s and were afraid that if anyone in their workplace discovered their secret hobby, they’d be fired. Since then, fanfic has, if you’ll pardon the metaphor, come out of the closet. While many authors still strenuously oppose the writing of fanfic based on their work, I think most creators of novels, film, and television are finally coming to realize that fanfic is not a theft of their work, not an insult to their creativity, but ultimately a compliment. Even if you rewrite a whole episode (or a whole season!) of a television show because you think it went wrong somewhere, you’re going to do it because you love the characters and their world, not because you want to poke their creators in the eye.

More than that, however, I think that writing fanfic is a kind of apprenticeship. It takes just as many hours to write 10,000 words of fanfic as it does to write the same amount of “original” fic. It takes as many hours to write a 100,00-word novel in which Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes are not superheroes but ordinary guys who meet in college and fall in love (and have way hot threesomes with Steve’s best friend Natasha Romanov) as it does to write a 100,000 word novel about two queer guys who meet in college and fall in love but have no resemblance to pre-existing characters (or none that the author will admit to). And more and more fanfic writers are moving into writing professional, original fiction, without having to disavow their fannish histories as they once did.

What fanfic really does is challenge the ideas of creativity and artistic inspiration that came out of the Romantic movement in Europe. The Romantic artist is the poet in the garret, the mad painter in his studio, possessed by the fire of genius and creating works that come purely from divine inspiration and owe nothing to any source. It’s a myth that ignores the books, teachers, paintings, sculptures the Romantic artist learned from, not to mention the women who cook his food, clean up his messes, warm his bed, bear his children, and offer financial support and creative inspiration. The Romantic artist is the glorious solitary male, drinking himself to death to bear the burden of his splendid isolation, the condition of his creative gifts. It’s a poisonous myth that Julia Cameron wrote a whole series of books to combat: The Artist’s Way.

The fanfic writer, or the fan artist, by contrast, is a girl, or a woman, surrounded by a community of other girls and women who are keenly interested in her output. She has co-writers for her stories. She has friends who hang out with her in Livestream and watch her draw. She has Tumblr buddies who give her prompts, chat partners to bounce ideas off of. It’s a tremendous challenge to the male ego embodied in the artist myth.

What reading the Aeneid after reading the Divine Comedy shows me is that the fannish model of creativity is the one that actually works. It’s true not only for erotic stories about Kirk and Spock or casefiles with romance about Mulder and Scully, it’s true for all of literature, all of art. Dante made Virgil his guide into Hell because Virgil had already been there. The crossing of Styx in the Aeneid and the Comedy are almost identical, down to the weight of the mortal man dragging on Charon’s boat. Virgil’s Elysian fields are Dante’s Limbo of the virtuous pagans; Dante, like Aeneas, hears great figures tell him how famous he’s going to be. Like Aeneas, Dante encounters an ancestor who prophesies his future, though it is political disgrace and exile rather than the greatness of Rome. I’ve encountered a ton of parallels between the two poems, and I’m not quite halfway through with Virgil.

Then there’s Ursula K. Le Guin’s Lavinia, which I think is the finest novel she’s ever written. Lavinia is the story of the Latin girl that Aeneas marries, before, during, and after her marriage to the wandering hero, told by Lavinia herself. In the novel, Virgil himself appears as a character, a dream-figure encountered by Lavinia in numinous moments. I fear Ms. Le Guin might be insulted by the designation, by what is Lavinia but Aeneid fanfic? She herself admits that she was motivated to write it by her love for the poet and his work, and the love for another creator’s work is the prime motivation of fanfic.

So I have discovered that Virgil is, in fact, my ancestor–my literary forebear, a spiritual and creative root. I cannot overstate how much Dante and Le Guin have influenced me as a reader and a writer. I would also have to mention T.S. Eliot, whose work was opaque to me despite literature courses until I had independently read Dante and Julian of Norwich. When I saw who his ancestors were, I understood him. When I read Charles Williams, I understood Dante better; when I read Dante, I understood Wiliams better. Reading Virgil now, knowing he stands behind all these writers I have loved, I acknowledge and honor him as my ancestor and understand better all the writers he has influenced.

I realize that the logical next step here is to read Homer. Well, he’s on my list. In the meantime, ave, Vergili pater mei!

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7 thoughts on “Fanfic and ancestor veneration

  1. Several things:

    1) I need to properly read the Aeneid one of these days, too…its influence in the medieval period was pervasive, and especially so in Ireland.

    2) In that regard, it was one of only two books that could be used for bibliomancy in the medieval period (the other being the Christian Bible), and its first attested usage in that regard is in late antiquity, by Hadrian!

    3) Pretty much all of western literature, from my viewpoint, is in some way just Gilgamesh fanfic, to one extent or another. But, in two genres, “literature is indistinguishable from fanfic” is especially the case: Gospels, and Arthurian lit. Pretty much every Gospel (except for “of the Egyptians” and a few others) has the title character as the Mary Sue/Marty Sean of the whole works. In the cases of both, it’s also possibly an issue of simulacra–there is no “original” Jesus or Arthur to speak of in a literary sense, and yet you get endless copies of each in the subsequent literature.

    4) While I had heard of K/S and other Trek-related fanfic via the film Trekkies, the first time I actually encountered it was with my old friend Gay Godfather Ash, who wrote some in relation to the Buffyverse that he let me read (and I’m sure other stuff, too). While I know it isn’t accurate now, he lead me to believe that if it wasn’t porny, it was worthless…oh well. But, there are male fanfic writers out there, and people of other genders as well, even though females seem to be pretty pervasive as the “typical” fanfic writers. If your contrast between the romantic writers and fanfic writers is too utterly dependent on a gender dualism…oh well. 😉

    5) From a secular viewpoint, any occasion on which I have written further Antinoan mythology might be considered “fanfic.” But, I’ve only written partial fanfic of any other kind, though I have had further ideas for others…however, I have had no time when there hasn’t been much more pressing things to accomplish to start or finish such things. It’s not remotely to say that “no serious writer should waste their time with fanfic,” but only that if it comes down to a Wild Wild West story based on a bad pun or something about the Tetrad++, I think you know which one will win for me. 😉

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    • Wow, is this what you get when people pay attention to your blog? *g*

      As far as 1, 2, and 3 are concerned, I think you’re spot on about Gilgamesh and Enkidu. There’s a through-line from those guys through Achilles and Patroclus, Holmes and Watson, Kirk and Spock, and even Mulder and Scully, not to mention Picard and Riker and Darmok and Jelad. *g* It strikes me that the root story about a female protagonist in Western literature is, correspondingly, the descent of Inanna.

      Your point about there being no original, no ur-text, for the Gospels or Arthurian literature is very interesting and leads me to ask why that is so. I don’t know that I’d necessarily take it as proof that both Jesus and Arthur are non-historical, but it’s a possibility.

      Regarding 4, I think there’s more of a perceived dichotomy between original/professional/masculine-produced Art and fannish/amateur/feminine-produced hobby than a real distinction. Or to put it another way, it’s a myth in the secular sense of being a commonly held opinion that’s incorrect. On the one hand, the film and television industries *are* male-dominated and there’s a lot of sexism embedded there; on the other hand, I’ve known both cis and trans male fanfic writers, though they were definitely a minority. I remember one of them saying that his gay friends didn’t think it odd he wrote porn, but they did think it odd that he wrote porn about characters from tv shows. So yeah, I think fan writers and artists are majority female-identified, but indeed there are men amongst them. It’s just that fanfic is identified as something chicks do and that’s partly why it gets no respect.

      Regarding 5, everybody has their priorities, and I think yours are in the right place for you. I would rather read your Antinoan “fanfic” or something about the Tetrad++ than your Wild Wild West fanfic (although I really loved that show as a kid)! Personally, I would like to move away from writing fanfic myself, but everything I know about my themes, my interests, my strengths as a writer, I’ve learned from fanfiction.

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      • Several of my favorite literary themes are in Gilgamesh: the male companions/lovers, werewolves, wild men, underworld/otherworld journeys, the flood myth, and the “grail quest”/search for immortality. If that is all there literally from the beginning…well, then, the history of literature has all kind of been downhill ever since. Nonetheless, we still write, eh?

        On Arthur: it’s pretty definite he never existed. On Jesus, it’s hard to say, but I think giving the gospels a kind of historical status as evidence for Jesus’ existence (which is the default for ALL respectable history and religious studies in the U.S., even though religious studies is supposed to be non-theological) is a huge mistake which ends up privileging Christianity over all other religions. Whether or not he existed being a reason to take the religion seriously is only really a matter of concern for Christians; for anyone else, Jesus’ historical existence or lack thereof is no more a cause for worry than the historical existence of Krishna (with the only exceptions being Islam and Baha’i).

        Indeed, you get people following your blog, and the inevitable result is they’ll comment! 😉

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      • Well, one idea that I hang onto as a writer is that you have to tell the story as only you can tell it, even if it’s been told before. So if we’re all rewriting Gilgamesh… maybe after I get through Homer, I should read Gilgamesh!

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      • Yes, that’s it exactly. Every retelling is a reinterpretation, and every reinterpretation is part of the inexhaustible fountain of divinity which the gods, heroes, and other divine beings use to communicate themselves to people. There is no such thing as “just a story,” thus…

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  2. Pingback: [Links] Fanfiction, Poetry, and Reflections | of the Other People

  3. I first heard of fanfiction from a college friend who wrote Kirk/Spock. Oh my virgin brain…Really though fanfic is the folklore of the written age- no one could copyright things when they were just speech. When I sing Irish songs, I notice many of them are attributed to people with very English-sounding names, probably the people who thought of copyrighting them first!

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