Canon Versus Fanon Versus Authorial Intent

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Title: Canon Versus Fanon Versus Authorial Intent
Creator: Merlin Missy
Date(s): July 30, 2007
Medium: online
Fandom:
Topic:
External Links: Canon Versus Fanon Versus Authorial Intent, Archived version
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Canon Versus Fanon Versus Authorial Intent is a 2007 essay by Merlin Missy.

From the introduction: "It's that time again, when something very popular and much-discussed has come to an end, and the folks over at Fandom Wank are delighting in the arguments that have ensued. Once again, the author is participating in the post-mortem with comments on what happened to whom and how and when, and what was meant here and what was just a typo there. Once more, it is time to delineate "Canon" from "Fanon" from "Authorial Intent.""

Some Topics Discussed

Excerpts

Canon is what happened. Sometimes that's hard to determine. In the case of changed media from a series to a movie or a comic, some fans will assume that canon continues and others will say it ended with the show. Both sets of fans are right. In some series, canon says one thing and then goes back and retcons (lit. "retroactive continuity) new canon overtop the old. For example, in the Star Trek: The Next Generation timeline, the Federation was canonically finishing up a bloody war with the Cardassians at the same time first season was running. Except they didn't decide that until season five. Both sets of canon are true; trying to fit them together is possible, though nosebleed-inducing. As for retconning films, there's a reason why the cry of the Wild Fanboy has been "Han Shot First!" for ten years now.
Personal canon is "What happened, as far as I'm concerned." Back in the day, I knew a lot of Buffy fans who thought the show jumped the shark after season two. I know more who thought it jumped after the end of season five. I know a lot of people who are saying right now that they're ignoring all "Harry Potter" books after The Order of the Phoenix. This happens a lot. Shows change hands and casts, quality diminishes (according to some), and whether or not fans continue to watch, they choose not to acknowledge what happens in canon. Season three of Beauty and the Beast? Season Three of Gargoyles? "Didn't really happen." (In the case of the latter, the comic is serving as alternate canon continuity.)
Fanon is any personal canon held in common by two or more people. Lt. Commander Uhura has no first name in canon. One of her early fanon names was Penda. The most common fanon first name for her today is Nyota but since her name has never appeared in a canonical source, it remains fanon. Captain Sulu's first name Hikaru was fanon until George Takei asked to incorporate it into a film.
Author intent is not canon.

Let me repeat, because it's going to be important: author intent is not canon.

Most authors know what happens next to their characters, who they marry, how many kids they have, that the grandkids are called Vera, Chuck and Dave. Their favorite breakfast cereal. How they're going to die. Some authors end up giving out all this information, either via writing it in the text or including it as an appendix in the back ala J.R.R. Tolkien. Some writers can't, because the medium (TV, film) won't allow it, but that doesn't stop them from knowing what they want to do. In this day and age, message boards allow them to share with fans what they intended to do, had they time. It's lovely and helpful for fans who want to know more. It is not, however, canon.

The same thing can be said for authorial interpretation of the source material. Canon is what is in the source material. Reader/viewer interpretation is up to the individual, although the author may have intended something else entirely. For example, Ray Bradbury recently claimed that Fahrenheit 451 was not about censorship, but instead warned against the perils of too much television. In an episode of Torchwood, a character utilizes the alien equivalent of Rohypnol in order to get lucky. Showrunner Russell T. Davies was called on the carpet for this by some female fans, who said these actions made the character a rapist; Davies said it was "just a joke" and did not. Authors don't always intend to show what appears in the text, but the text is the canon.
Canon is hard. Sometimes it contradicts itself. Sometimes it makes no sense. Sometimes it upsets what the fans thought was true for years. Sometimes we ignore it, for those reasons and more, to see what we can find on our own inside the world we've discovered. Many times canon says things that the author never intended, and many times, we sit with our books or in the theatres or in front of our TVs and we swear at what's presented. But there's always something in it that draws us back again.

Reactions and Reviews: Comments at the Original Posting

None of the comments are dated in any way.

[redex]:
I just came upon this by accident, while looking for news posts on the most recent LJ scandal, and just wanted to say that I completely agree. Although I accept some authors' intentions, such as Tokien's, where they have been published and widely regarded by fandom as canon, things said in interviews, blogs, messageboards, or private conversations certainly don't count towards canon because they are not part of the set. Otherwise, it would just be impossible.
[Merlin Missy]:
I wasn't ignoring Role Playing Games; I was ignoring Real Person Fanfiction. Canon in that case can be things from interviews, known history, personal family life, or mentions from other people who know them personally. Canon is weird for RPF.
[Nicki]:
I think you make a good point about authorial intent. In the case of JKR's recent slew of interviews about "what happens after the books," I've heard a lot of fans crying out in fear, running for the hills, etc., because they don't want their fanfic reading to be ruined. But that's what fanfic is about, isn't it? Writing what YOU want to happen? It doesn't matter what JKR says; fans are still going to write THEIR version of what happens. Fandom will ALWAYS persevere. ;D
[irishrose]:
And then you have the cases of authorial intent not being what was interpreted and thus not canon, and the show has to actually go out of it's way to retcon the authorial intent into canon. ie:Buffy - re:Spike's soul
[Kristina]:
Interesting exploration! Another example of authorial intent is the Angel commentary (I think it's for "A Hole in the World") where Joss Whedon mentions that he believes Angel and Spike had a more intimate past than they have admitted. If the creator believes it, it's authorial intent and his personal canon, and certainly many people's fanon (including my own), but not actual canon as it never actually happened or was admitted to in the course of the series.
[disagree]:
Nothing personal but I find your position as a fanfic author is dictating your opinion. If you weren't I might view your opinion as unbiased. Me I don't buy into the belief that the DCAU should be limited to what we just see infront of us. For all I know the next thing you're (or anyone else) going to tell me is that God isn't real because you can't see him in front of you. The head deity (in this case Bruce Timm) is the one with the final say since he is the head cheese of the DCAU NOT THE OTHER WRITERS. EX: In making a decision on whether the flashback in Ancient History really happened. Timm's statement on it being real, would overrule McDuffie's statement since Timm is McDuffie's boss. It's his CURRENT stated belief that matters at the moment. Not his past belief. But his current one. And canon can change with what he changes. Ideas and beliefs are two different things. In all fairness, there's nothing written in stone anywhere that says "It must be produced to be canon." or "That the head authors off screen beliefs are canon." There's nothing concrete proving either of our beliefs. Just our details trying to prove our beliefs.
[Merlin Missy]:
How is fanfic even involved in this discussion? Fanfiction by definition isn't canon, unless you want to split hairs and assume that even the paid writers working on a licensed property are just writing glorified fanfic. There's a discussion in there, but I did that in another essay on this site, and it's not relevant here. The "AU" in DCAU means "animated universe." If it was animated, it's part of that universe. If it was posted on Toonzone, not so much. The debate over "Ancient History" is actually a good example of how authorial intent can screw up what people see as canon. Timm said the flashback was real. McDuffie said it was all in their heads. Which one is canon? Neither. Or both. We can interpret it either way. What's actually bare-bones canon is that the three characters (four if you count Shadow Thief) saw a vision of the past in which they starred. It was left ambiguous enough for even the show's producers not to agree what happened. Canon's like that sometimes. Fans get into flamewars regularly because they disagree on how to interpret what they see in the canon. (Ex: "Did you see the expression on his face? He so wanted to have sex with that guy!" "No way! He was telling the guy to back off, because he wants to have sex with that girl!" *insert fight here*) As I said in the above essay, you're welcome to your own personal canon, and you can feel free to incorporate things the writers said or to ignore them. That's what personal canon is for. Actual canon is what aired. If you don't believe me, go look it up elsewhere; I didn't make this up to entertain myself, I wrote it here to have an easy place to point people when they said, "But J.K. Rowling said *insert thing here*". For better or worse, canon is what happened on the screen or on the page, whether or not you liked it, whether or not the author intended it, whether or not you can handwave it away later with a magical fixit in fanfic (there's a fanfiction reference, happy?), whether or not it even makes any sense. Canon is what's in front of you. Fanon is what you believe happened too. You can use BT's ideas as your fanon (although I'd steer clear of the Terry-as-Bruce's-clone theory). People do. Other people don't, and if they've never set virtual foot online but they have seen all the DCAU episodes ("Gotham Girls" being one of those sticky places) then they still know all the canon. That's how it works, you see.