"You Mean Everyone Brought Potato Salad?"

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Title: "You Mean Everyone Brought Potato Salad?"
Creator: Merlin Missy
Date(s): 12/28/2007
Medium: online
Fandom: Multifandom
Topic: fanfiction
External Links: online here; archive link
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"You Mean Everyone Brought Potato Salad?" is an essay by Merlin Missy. It has the subtitle: "Knowing What Your Audience Is Bringing to the Table Is Half the Battle."

Topics Discussed

  • fanfiction
  • cultural and social expectations and filters
  • fan works as transformative
  • "Fanfic writers have the luxury of knowing what the audience is bringing to the picnic. If the readers already have cups, forks, spoons, knives and napkins, all they require are plates, food and drink. Reading in an unfamiliar fandom is much like lining up for potato salad without any utensils: it can be done, but it's messy."

An Earlier SORT OF Similar Essay

Slash Fiction is Like a Banquet ("The Hummus Essay") is an essay written by Arduinna in early 1999 in response to a mailing list discussion about the rash of very similar, often very short, stories being posted at the time.

This essay, and Merlin Missy's "Potato Salad" essay touch upon similar topics and use food analogies, but have different conclusions and focus.

Excerpts

.... Henry Jenkins has spent a great deal of grant money saying, fanfiction is our way of retelling the cultural myths that are important to us, and we? Are our own audience. One of the occasional (and stupider) complaints against fanfiction is that fanfic: "is usually devoid of character description, including each character's idiosyncrasies and each character's unique way of talking and dealing with others, because its writers assume that fanfic readers already know the characters.". Nevertheless, what is considered a bug is in fact a feature. Fanfiction, in much the same way as media tie-in novels, take into account the audience's familiarity with the subject matter and rather than spending time and effort on world-building and character establishment, gets right to the story itself.
Fanfic writers have the luxury of knowing what the audience is bringing to the picnic. If the readers already have cups, forks, spoons, knives and napkins, all they require are plates, food and drink. Reading in an unfamiliar fandom is much like lining up for potato salad without any utensils: it can be done, but it's messy. An example: the very first X-Files fanfic I ever read was "Generation X" by Kellie Matthews-Simmons and Julia Kosatka, and I read it because I had read some of their previous work and liked it. Having never seen the X-Files prior to reading the story, I had no context for the characters' actions, but the story itself was good enough that I didn't mind. I ate my potato salad with my hands, and I liked it enough that I eventually got a fork.
Fanfiction is about expectation, and about turning those expectations abruptly backwards. Fandom comes ready-made with expectations. We expect Winchester to be obsessively protective of each other. We expect Wonder Woman to be a pro-woman warrior. We expect Luke Skywalker to continue the Hero's Journey. We expect Captain Kirk to be a womanizer. We expect Buffy to kick vampire butt and look pretty while she's doing it. We expect Harry Potter to have adventures alongside Hermione and Ron, while Malfoy and Snape scorn him and Voldemort tries to kill him. We expect. We write characters who are both broad and subtle, Hals and Falstaffs, Beatrices and Benedicks, even Pucks for a new generation. And because the story's the thing, we don't spend time on stage directions or makeup suggestions, unless it's vitally important for Han Solo to exit, pursued by a bear. We know these people, and we know their backstories (or don't and want to explore them), and we know what we’ve seen them do.
One anti-fanfic argument is that fanfiction cannot survive without the source material, like fleas on a dog's back. But the truth is, many can, in all their "eating mayonnaise-based food products with one's fingers" glory, by taking the basic building blocks and creating a huge castle atop those blocks. And others simply don't care. If my audience knows my subject, I don't need to rehash the basics for them. If my audience knows my subject well enough, I can play on their knowledge and expectations as a frame to tell them a story they never expected at all. And that, children, is why fanfiction is transformative: it takes the stories we know and transforms them into something else, and then gives them to someone in particular. When I write a Beauty and the Beast story, it's not for someone who has never seen the show, it's for someone who loved and gnashed their teeth at it as much as I did. When I write Star Trek: TNG 'shipper pieces, it's not necessarily for anyone who doesn't already 'ship my two favorite characters and who therefore knows all the backstory between them. I've transformed the original text into an intentionally esoteric piece that may be enjoyed by only a handful of readers, or possibly only one if that's the intent. Again, Yuletide is a gift-exchange, designed for people to write each other stories from extremely rare fandoms, so participants are encouraged to write what their recipients, and possibly no one else, will enjoy. Thus, it becomes the exact opposite of the mass-marketed media which we adore: a boutique 'fic, desired by a select few, though at the best of times, a perfect complement to the source itself, be that as a mirror, or a diamond reflection in a vastly different direction. And the person for whom it's written is the one who best enjoys the gift.