In the world of fanfiction there’s fictional person fiction (FPF) and real person fiction (RPF). While fanfiction is often viewed with skepticism from people outside of the fan community in general, despite humanity’s long tradition of telling and retelling stories as social currency, RPF is often met, instead, with skepticism from people within the fanfiction community itself, while people outside the community don’t even really seem register it as so specific a category.
And, to be fair, on a pure gut level, sometimes I can find RPF to be really, really weird. But then, I’ve stumbled over stories about a person I went to high school with who is now famous and one about a friend of a friend’s ex that I once had beers with and found to be remarkably unlikeable. RPF, which is arguably about personas and the packaging of fame — when people write RPF they it’s possible (even quite likely) that they aren’t writing about real people’s fictionalized private lives so much as real people’s publicly fictionalized persona’s private lives — sometimes appears to drop under that layer of fictional truth for me, not out of speculation but because Oh my god, I know those people.
I’ve heard all the arguments about the morality or ethics of writing and reading RPF, and it’s not that I don’t think these are fundamentally important conversations on some level (and yes, I’ve thought long and hard about “Well, how would you feel if someone did it to you?” The answer? “Well, like I’d probably have a lot more important things to be doing than reading wank about me on the Internet if I were known enough for that to be going on.”). It’s just that I’m not that interested in those discussions of how not to be an asshole. Not being an asshole is good, but I’m not all that qualified to tell anyone how to do that, despite various attempts I fully admit to having made. Besides, from a thinky thoughts perspective, on this one I’m really, really much more riveted by — and useful to — talking about the critical implications around RPF.
Perhaps the most irritating aspect of RPF-related discussions is the degree to which people dismiss it as, “Oh god, more creepy porn on the Internet.” I think it’s pretty toxic how often both fan community participants and critics dismiss sexualized-content for irrelevancy because it contains sex. Our collective libidos are, among other things, narrative tools, and chucking a lot of fanfiction into the sex bucket and saying it’s not worth looking at from a critical position for that reason isn’t just one of those high-/low- culture false divides moments; it’s a sloppy misuse and abuse of data. The stories people feel compelled to tell and witness and share, whether or not they’re well-written, or whether or not you’re personally interested in them, or whether or not that represent masturbatory material for some people, represent a cultural map that it’s foolish to dismiss (even if I won’t read anything published on fanfiction.net either — I never said I wasn’t a snob).
Now let’s be clear, not all fanfiction, and, I find, particularly not all RPF, is porn. And even when it is, that porn is usually there in service to the idea of the backstage story (which if you’ve been following the development of Dogboy & Justine you know is a particular fascination of mine). And, conversely, not all RPF is fanfiction (e.g., works created on a not-for-profit basis by enthusiasts). Note the erotic anthology StarF*cker, which is fiction about sex and real famous people, but very much not part of the fanfiction ethos. In the less sex, but still definitely RPF department, what do you think Primary Colors was? Or the forthcoming O (not to be confused, amusingly, with The Story Of O)? RPF. Totally, totally RPF.
And that doesn’t even begin to cover how pervasive this trend has become; Steve Erickson, for example, doesn’t just use both historical figures and himself as a fictional characters in his novels, but also included personal encounters with Sally Hemings (a particular obsession of Erickson’s; she shows up in his novels too) in Leap Year, his arguably non-fiction book on the 1988 presidential campaign season. Other examples include the Aaron Sorkin Jed Bartlet advises Obama piece from the last campaign season and an article The New York Times also did on the real people as fictional characters in novels phenomenon, although I’m having trouble finding the link (please leave comment if you’ve got it!).
RPF is a real, saleable thing, both in its smutty and not smutty versions. None of which necessarily makes it less uncomfortable for many readers (or, even, in the abstract for non-readers). Nor should it. Part of the charge of reading RPF, sexualized or not, is, I think, that it is so profoundly unsettling and messes with our boundaries regarding what is real and what is true (two of my favorite categories for making Venn diagrams about stories). Another part of the charge is, I think, the violative nature of reading something and realizing that a particular fantasy, daydream or fear you have harbored is shared, is part of our collective story in the dark. It is the guilty that can bring the pleasure when it comes to RPF.
In the midst of hanging about on Twitter the night Countdown went off the air, there was a tweet saying that AC360 was going to do a bit on the Countdown thing, which got fairly widely misinterpreted as “Olbermann’s going to be interviewed on Cooper’s show.” Which, in the world of the Internet, or at least the people I talk to on the Internet, led me to make a crack about how Olbermann/Cooper would make certain corners of the Internet very happy, which led someone to reply with, “Have you read this?” and a link.
Obviously, I read some RPF. I’ve written some RPF (some of which you’d even be able to track back to me with ease). Some of that I have mixed feelings about. Some of it I don’t. But there’s ton’s of RPF I won’t touch with a ten-foot pole for no other reason than it squicks me. It doesn’t mean the story is morally or ethically wrong (for me or anyone else) or not well-executed; it just means that for whatever reason, sometimes one I can’t even put my finger on, there are some RPF places I don’t want to go unless I have to for some sort of scholarly/critical thingy. For me, pundit slash, as the world of RPF about political talk show hosts is called, is one of those no-go zones for me. I’ve no idea why, but so it is. This surely seems like a perfectly rational choice to many of you.
But I had a headache, and I was in a bad mood, and people on Twitter were like “You have to read this story called ‘The 28th Amendment,'” and I recalled that, that Barack Obama/Rahm Emanuel piece from Yuletide a few years back was one of the smartest meditations on ambition I had ever read, even if I did find parts of the story really, really uncomfortable. So I decided to give the rec from Twitter a go, and that’s how I fell down the rabbit hole of pundit slash on a Friday night, and why I’m writing this post and have a linky or two to share with you now.
One of the biggest problems for me as a (critical) reader of RPF is that I often feel like people who are trying to use RPF for commentary don’t know how to write a story, and people who just want to write a (hot) story, don’t necessarily know how to add criticism into the mix. That both those things should happen in RPF aren’t, of course, anyone’s requirements but my own, but hey, my journal, my pickiness. What’s so remarkable about “The 28th Amendment” (which imagines a The Handmaid’s Tale-esque religious police state in the US under a President Huckabee with our intrepid pundits (Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Rachel Maddow, Anderson Cooper, Keith Olbermann and more) on the run), is that it knows how to do both. While I reflexively read it with an editorial eye (and there were things in there I would have changed or didn’t ring plausible for me even in the suspended-disbelief of the narrative, although it’s hard to say whether that was related to personal comfort or actual editorial consideration), the fact is, it was a well-told story that got under my skin for reasons that I am fairly sure were broader than liberal-paranoia and the fact that I read all sorts of stuff that freaks other people out on the Internet all the time.
Maybe, I decided, pundit slash wasn’t totally squicky. Maybe I should read more! So I started digging around on An Archive of Our Own and found a remarkable number of charming fictions about Rachel Maddow being a cool person to have drinks with, a BDSM-AU about various pundits, several high school AUs (a particular favorite of my partner’s), and an essentially general audiences Doctor Who/Rachel Maddow crossover. It’s a beautiful world out there on the Internet. Or something.
One of the views I have particularly little patience for is the idea that fanfiction isn’t real writing, that it is somehow “practice” for the “real” work you are obligated to aspire to do. Sure, writing fanfiction is one way to learn some craft skills, but to me original fiction and fanfiction are profoundly different endeavors that I engage in for profoundly different reasons. To me, fanfiction is something of an acting exercise: that is, how do I execute, in text, on a character whose blueprint has already been provided to me by a writer/director? While original fiction utilizes some of those acting tools, but also the structural components of the writerly and directorial eye. And I think it’s absurd to tell anyone they have to aspire to anything, especially when I’ve had so much experience turning something I love into a job — sometimes it’s still fun when you do that, and, sometimes, it really, really isn’t.
But I do think that people playing in the RPF sandbox — whether they be part of fan communities or not — would benefit from looking at the bigger picture. If you read Primary Colors, it’s absurd to snark on the existence of RPF in fan communities even if you’ve never read fanfiction and never plan to (because, guess what? In a way, other than that money was involved, you already have). And if you’re writing RPF and think it has to stay in the land of fanfiction but wish it didn’t? Well, sometimes it doesn’t have to stay there. And you should know that too (and I say this, particularly, to people writing historical RPF — have you read The Baroque Cycle? History is a playground! Although please, if we can avoid any more plays about six great minds from different time periods having a dinner party in Hell, I would love you forever).
Fiction appeals to many of us, often, because of the pieces with in it that could be or feel true, no matter how impossible or unlikely for us or for anyone. There is a reason, after all, why so many adults confess to still feeling at the back of wardrobes when they encounter them for the door to Narnia. So it makes just as much sense, really, no matter how discomforting it may be, that there is this not insignificant impulse to put not just truth in our fiction, but fiction in our truth. RPF is a corner of both the fanfiction and generalized fiction space that illuminates, with a sometimes queasy-making light, just why we read fiction and just how far away truth can seem.
Meanwhile, I’ve got a killer story sitting on my hard drive about once-was but no-more Ziggy Stardust David Bowie and Lady Gaga and matters of persona, mentorship, love and desire. Anyone want to buy it?