Friday, November 23, 2012

Guest Post: Why Context Is King


Since today is Black Friday and I spent it at Ikea wrestling crowds, and because it’s also Doctor Who Day (49th Anniversary of the first ever episode), I couldn’t be bothered to write anything today! So, have a guest article from the inimitable Kyla Gorman of gamestrogen.

Fanfiction: The Meta-Article OR Why Context is Everything

I was recently bumming around the great time-wasting site, "Know Your Meme." They do video articles on the origin and spread of individual memes using fakey pseudo-scientific trappings, but their actual informational content is usually quite good. So when I saw that they'd done an episode on fanfiction, my interest was piqued.

I have to say, I went into the video already skeptical. I've read a lot of people's articles on fanfiction and fandom, and there have only ever been a handful that sounded at all like they knew what they were talking about. (I'm not including here articles written by fanfiction authors about specific aspects of fanfiction; more general overviews of fanfiction written to explain to the general public what fanfiction is.) As I watched the video, I was disappointed to note that not only did they fall into that 'sounds-like-you're-just-reading-off-the-wiki' tone of disingenuity, they also committed one of my personal pet peeves in articles of this type: they quoted from specific works of fanfiction.

This is going to get a little specific, but bear with me. I have larger point. You’ll see…

Article authors and journalists think that by providing an excerpt of fanfic, they're giving readers a window into what fanfiction is really like. The sections of fic that were read aloud in the video were unbelievably awkward, even for me - and some of them were excerpts concerning characters that I normally enjoy reading about! This sort of awkwardness implies to the uninformed viewer/reader that this is the nature of fanfiction in general: all fic is this slightly awkward exercise committed by geeks who don't have the social finesse to realize how uncomfortable they're making everyone.

However, if we learned anything from Role Models (the LARPing thing, keep up!), we know that that isn’t true. By quoting from these works of fanfiction, the authors of these articles are making two big mistakes:

First of all, they’re quoting bad fanfiction. Let's assume for the moment that the authors of these articles didn't go looking for the worst, most awkward possible fiction they could find for the comedic value, in order to write an article intentionally pointing a finger and laughing at fanfiction and its associated fans. These people probably don’t know their het* from their gen**, so it’s not hard to imagine that they had a little trouble finding fanfic to reference in the first place.

So they googled fanfiction, and like anything that you blindly google, they found some weird stuff. It’s the nature of the internet. They clicked on a show or movie that they recognized, and read the first five fics listed. And they were terrible. Because that’s how the internet works. 

The thing is, people who read fanfiction regularly know where to find good fanfic. Just like people who listen to a lot of scream metal know what the good bands are and which ones still suck. There's plenty of really really good fanfiction on the internet, and tons more mediocre-to-not-bad. But you have to know how to look for it.

People who read fanfiction regularly have places they go for it. They seek out recommendation lists from people they trust, they belong to livejournal communities or follow tumblrs that specifically post the sort of stories they're looking for. Finding good fanfiction is not a simple task; it takes a lot of seeking and weeding. Would you really go into a bookstore, choose a random aisle, and buy the first book that came to hand? That's in a scenario where everything has to have at least met the minimum quality standard necessary for publication. And this is the internet. Shudder.

But my second point is slightly broader: namely, context is everything.

Invariably, articles that quote fanfic quote a scene either leading up to a romance/sex scene, or sometimes actually from the middle. It’s uncomfortable and sounds super weird. But you know the thing? Anything sounds weird when taken out of context. Think about it. 

Have you ever walked into a room when someone is watching a TV show you don't recognize, and it's on a particularly dramatic scene? To the person on the couch, it's an exciting moment, full of drama and tension, the culmination of weeks’ worth of buildup and arc plot. They know these characters intimately, and they recognize that this scene represents a fundamental turning point in who the participants are as people; these characters' lives will never be the same.

But to you, just walking into the room, what do you see? You see a bunch of actors being hilariously over-dramatic. You see people waving guns around and shouting about 'What you did to my wife!' It's silly. It's a bit funny. You think, 'woo, dramatic,' in a sarcastic sort of way, and continue on to the kitchen to fix yourself that sandwich you came in for. You and the person on the couch have dramatically different experiences of that same scene, because they have context and you don't.

You know what scene is particularly hilarious out of context? The three-way duel scene from 'The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.' If you don't have any idea what the movie is about, or who the characters are, the idea of the three-way duel is pretty funny. It's just three guys standing - SUPER TENSE - with increasingly close-up shots of everyone's eyes, and then a guy shoots another guy. It's really a very silly scene. You know, unless you've watched the rest of the movie and you know the stakes, and you're invested in the characters.

What I’m getting at here is pretty simple. Basically, in the world of fiction, context is king. It’s most notable in fanfic, where there are specific tropes and character shorthand that a person embedded in the subculture can recognize, and even someone into the subject matter might not understand, but context is really important everywhere. Without context, who cares if some girl named Dorothy gets to go home? We only care because we know the story.

So. Internet people? Stop being dicks and snarking on the fanfic writers. Fanfic writers? Understand that some people may need context to get what you’re writing about. And everybody else? Remember that what you’re reading or seeing probably makes sense to someone, somewhere, and that’s okay. If you’re interested, find out what the context is. If you’re not, don’t. But don’t be a dick about it.

What these images all have in common is that they're hilarious if you get the context. You're welcome.
*Story about a heterosexual relationship.
**Story where romance is not the main focus.

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