Proposition: Fictions extend themselves into alternate REALITIES. Fictions, long regarded as distractions from or means of coping with the real world, emerge as powerful reality-building forces.
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Novels: what’s the big deal? Movies and television, those centerpieces of the entertainment industry, are big deals. Every week millions of viewers tune in to a hit TV series; a blockbuster movie pulls in hundreds of millions of dollars in box office receipts. A best-selling novel? Tens of thousands of purchasers, total revenue maybe a million dollars.
How many television series are broadcast every year – a couple hundred maybe? How many movies are released in theaters – a couple thousand? How many novels are published – a couple hundred thousand? But while novels might permeate the culture in terms of sheer numbers of books, it’s a thin scatter. Movies and television invade and saturate. Casual conversation can drift onto the latest episode of a popular TV show, but chances are slim that anyone you encounter during the course of a week has even heard of the last novel you read.
There are those who would like to see written fictions become more of a unifying cultural force – more like television and movies. If fewer novels were published and total readership stayed steady, then each novel would be read by more people, increasing the odds that any given novel could become a topic of conversation. The publishing industry would probably welcome this sort of consolidation. Edit, proof, format, print, warehouse, distribute: publishing entails significant fixed costs that must be met before turning a profit. If the same total revenues are generated from fewer books, then return on investment goes up. Others hail the textual scatter: more books, not fewer, make for a more variegated fictional ecosystem, a broader range of options set before the individual readers who in the aggregate comprise a diverse culture. Increased scatter is happening in the form of self-publishing, a kind of free-market anarchism in which each writer operates as a solo entrepreneur, doing all of the work and reaping most of the economic rewards, scant though those rewards may be.
Consolidation and proliferation: the two poles of capitalist production oscillate in every industry. From the 40,000-foot perspective of classical macroeconomics these opposing forces of supply interact with consumer demand to generate a dynamic equilibrium. Closer to the ground, it seems that the two poles are repelling each other, pushing each other further apart, the dynamic generating two separate equilibria: a corporatist one and a libertarian one. But the libertarian pole is tightly consolidated too, operating under the control of online distribution platforms that are themselves large for-profit corporations. The platforms incur few fixed costs, so they welcome the proliferation of products they can offer for sale. Or offer for free — more books means more user data and more ad placements. Self-publishing exemplifies libertarian platform capitalism: each title might not sell many copies, but the online distributor makes its profit on volume and traffic. Ultimately the self-publishing industry is just a variant of the traditional publishing industry, with individual writers working on spec for a less-than-living wage while the corporate investors make the profits.
Writers assembling themselves into a syndicated network of publishing houses. Readers assembling themselves into a network of anarchist replicating libraries, their members freely downloading e-books from the curated collection. Transforming books from commodities into cultural resources. Transforming the book industry into a public utility. Writers and readers organizing themselves into schools of fiction.
It’s an alternate reality – a fiction. What happens to an idea once it’s been acknowledged as a fiction? First it will be dismissed as unreal, irrelevant to practical concerns. Then, maybe, the fiction will acquire entertainment value as a made-up story, to be read or watched as a temporary diversion from the day-to-day ordeal of grappling with the real world. Even serious fiction, so-called literary fiction, serves real-world functions: as a non-threatening way to practice empathy, for example, or as a means of gaining insight into the world, into the people who populate it and, perhaps especially, into oneself.
This partitioning off of fiction from reality is a death trap, not only for fiction but for reality as well. Fictions are transformed into coping mechanisms, like weekends and happy hours and self-help groups. Sometimes fictions operate as pressure valves to keep people from exploding, at other times as stimulants to help them avoid sagging into inertia. Fiction becomes incorporated into reality, assigned its proper subservient role in keeping things moving along smoothly. And with fictions partitioned off as entertainments, the what-is of actually existing reality becomes reified, immunized from the what-is-nots – the vast and depthless expanse of possibilities and improbabilities and impossibilities on which the actual floats like a rowboat on the ocean.
Automobiles aren’t natural geological formations; they didn’t evolve from oxcarts: they were invented, designed, and built. A car is a physical object to be sure, but it isn’t only that. Its material substance is shaped with intent, imbued with meaning and purpose. Is it a stretch to propose that an automobile is partly a fictional object, and that driving a car through the city streets is kind of like being an actor in a play or a dancer in a ballet? Fiction is typically regarded as a category of writing or performance, an entertaining work of fantasy contrasted with the serious business of nonfiction. But that’s not the intrinsic meaning of the word. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the English word “fiction” first appeared in the 15th century as ficcioun, “that which is invented or imagined in the mind,” derived from 13th century Old French ficcion, “dissimulation, ruse; invention, fabrication,” from the Latin fictionem, “a fashioning or feigning,” originally “to knead, form out of clay.”
The Greek philosophers made a big deal out of the distinction between invention and real creation. Fashioning something out of clay isn’t the same as creating the clay in the first place, ex nihilo. Making something merely by fashioning, by giving shape to the stuff of the world, is a kind of deception, a false creation. (“Fashion”: there’s another word that’s been trivialized over the centuries.) The Romans, who loved shaping clay into things like sculptures and buildings and aqueducts, probably held fictionem in high esteem. Somewhere along the Roman road the shaping of words veered off from the shaping of clay, of roads, of cars. Inventors of stories became artists and entertainers, assigned to the other side of town from the engineers and inventors who shape the world. But the shared meaning element remains: altering reality is accomplished not just by the hands but also by the head. Reality is matter infused with meaning and purpose; invention is labor imbued with imagination.
Fiction writers, their path having forked off from the highway traversed by the shapers of the physical world, might regard themselves as the real creators, imagining characters, situations, whole worlds out of thin air. But are those fictional worlds real?
A world with humans driving down the highway at seventy miles an hour – was that world real before automobiles became real? Imagining such a world, fashioning imaginary devices rolling along the ground at unprecedented speed: was that fiction an escape from reality, a dissimulation and a ruse? Or did imagining guide the hands of the inventors and engineers as they shaped the clay into horseless carriages, as they organized people into assembly lines and auto showrooms and traffic flows? A world with autonomous cars driving down the highway at a hundred miles an hour — is that future world real already?
Traffic jams and car crashes, air pollution and global warming, auto loan defaults, union busting and automation, government bailouts of the auto industry: these aren’t just byproducts of invention. Collateral damage is itself a kind of invention, and destruction is a kind of creation. Even if the consequences are unintended, they remain consequences. Adverse consequences can be anticipated, sometimes even before they first happen; their present and future impact on environment and lives and money can be simulated, calculated, factored into cost-benefit calculations. Risk management becomes a profession of imaginative engineering.
Last night I watched A Place in the Sun, a 1951 melodrama that gets star billing in Steve Erickson’s 2007 novel Zeroville. Montgomery Clift may be poor and uneducated, but he is an ambitious and handsome and earnest young man. He finagles an entry-level job with his rich industrialist uncle, woos naïve but down-to-earth coworker Shelley Winters, gets promoted to management, wins the heart of the beautiful socialite Elizabeth Taylor. But there’s a hitch: Shelley discovers she’s pregnant, and she threatens to expose Monty if he doesn’t make an honest woman of her… Unintended consequences: it’s not until things go off the rails that Hollywood stories start building a head of steam. In the opening credits A Place in the Sun informs the viewer that the story is based on the novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. And now this afternoon I’ve started reading Satin Island, a 2015 novel by Tom McCarthy in which the narrator, watching on Turin airport TV screens the video images of an oil spill while waiting for his flight to board, is engaged in conversation by a fellow passenger. It’s a tragedy, the other man tells the narrator, referring to the oil spill.
I didn’t answer at first. When I did, I told him that the word tragedy derived from the ancient Greek custom of driving out a sheep, or tragos – usually a black one – in a bid to expiate a city’s crimes.
In tragedy even the dirty unintended consequences wash us clean. Maybe that’s part of the division of labor between fabricators of reality and creators of fiction, between the industrialists and the Hollywood movies about industrialists: the reality engineers work with intent and purpose, while the crafters of fictional narratives redeem the engineers’ mistakes. Looking up “tragedy” in the Online Etymology Dictionary I find that tragos doesn’t mean sheep: it means goat. And in the etymological exposition no reference is made to the expiatory function of Greek tragedy invoked by McCarthy’s narrator. Wasn’t that, after all, an ancient Hebrew scheme: the azazel, the scapegoat onto whose head the high priest placed the sins of the people before releasing it into the wilderness on the Day of Atonement? In his story Erickson tattoos onto the head of Vikar, his main character in Zeroville, images of Monty and Liz, the tragic couple from A Day in the Sun, before sending him into the wilderness of Hollywood, perhaps to expiate that city’s sins, the most grievous of which might be the premise of societal redemption through melodramatic tragedy.
It’s not fiction’s job to be the scapegoat, reconciling society to its own unintended consequences, to the collateral damage it inflicts on the innocent and the guilty alike while trying to engineer a better world through goal-setting and action plans. Neither is it fiction’s job to entertain the reality engineers when they’re taking a break. It’s not fiction’s job to instruct its readers in how to be more successful reality engineers by illustrating what can go right or wrong in various hypothetical scenarios. It’s not fiction’s job to redeem the facts of the world.
The publishing industry is a fact. There are real publishing companies, with real offices and real people who work for them and real investors who own them. They publish real books, distribute the books to real bookstores, collect real money from buyers and pay real money to employees and writers and contractors and investors.
The publishing industry is a fiction. Individual writers, working without pay, submit their books for consideration to publishers, often through the mediation of literary agents. Publishers decide which of the submitted books they will publish, their judgments based on some combination of idiosyncratic tastes and industry norms, of perceived excellence and expected marketability. Publishers edit and format and package books according to generally accepted professional standards. Publishers sell books to consumers one at a time for a price based on the going rate in the marketplace for that category of book. Book sales are transacted by bookstores, which retain a generally agreed-upon percentage of the book’s sale price. Publishers pay to the writers and agents a generally agreed-upon percentage of the books’ net proceeds. All of these arrangements are time-tested by tradition and formalized in contracts enforceable by law; still, they remain products of human imagination and invention and artifice.
The publishing industry is fiction made fact. I don’t know the history: did somebody invent the policies and procedures and then set about making them happen in real life? More likely the industry evolved, with a variety of one-off tacit agreements eventually being made explicit, standardized, legalized, institutionalized. The writers and books and readers became seamlessly linked together into organizations and protocols and transactions that depend for their continuation not on the physics or biology but on mutual agreement. Fact and fiction together create the reality of the publishing industry.
Self-publishing and fandom have refashioned several components of the traditional publishing industry into alternative systems. They weren’t invented by anyone in particular: they emerged and evolved, like the English language, like capitalism, like the traditional publishing industry. But because self-publishing and fandom are such recent developments it’s still possible to recognize their origins in the practical exercise of human imagination rather than in ancient mystic life forces waving their invisible hands over the unshaped clay.
What made self-publishing happen? A burgeoning supply of content coupled with flat and declining demand from readers generated a surplus of books without publishers. Technological advances made it possible for motivated but frustrated writers to turn their manuscripts into market-ready e-books with a minimum of financial investment. Online platforms to facilitate the sale of commodities directly to consumers gave the self-published writers an outlet for selling their books. In short, the world presented writers with new obstacles and with new tools for overcoming those obstacles. Humans are clever at solving problems, and maybe even cleverer at copying other people’s solutions. Soon the ranks of the self-published had swollen into the hundreds of thousands.
Fandom extends the fictionality of fiction into the real world. Online fanfic and meta blur the distinctions between writer and reader, between canon and its mongrelized offspring. Organized gatherings and social media pull readers together inside the imaginary worlds described in texts. Regional and national conventions also serve an educational function for novice writers while providing unpublished authors with opportunities to meet one another and possibly to pitch their work to agents and publishers in attendance.
Fan fiction, like self-publishing, accommodates the expansion of fiction writing beyond the constraints imposed by the commercial publishing industry. In part fandom is also a manifestation of celebrity culture, the accumulation of fetish value around media stars produced by the “attention economy.” A celebrity acquires charisma, an intangible attractiveness that lures even more attention, and attention lures money. But fandom isn’t just a personality cult, with convention attendees lining up to take selfies with scifi TV stars and screenwriters and directors and CGI wizards. Fandom also lures readers into the fictional worlds created and inhabited by the celebrities. The fictional characters themselves exude charisma, with fan fiction writers arguably sublimating their attraction to imaginary people by “shipping” them in romances with one another.
Fanfic and meta, conventions and cosplay – the fans don’t just want to sit back and applaud; they want to enter in. The reader or viewer might gain access as a solitary individual to a fictional world, but that world can contain multitudes. Fandom forges social connections among readers by virtue of their occupying imaginary worlds together. Perhaps it’s the urge to escape the oppressive isolation and boredom of ordinary reality that moves throngs of fans into collective fictional manifestations. Maybe fandom participants also recognize that even ordinary reality isn’t all that real – that the actual world, like fictional alternative realities, like the publishing industry and celebrity culture, is as much a product of collective imagination as of material substance. Occupying a fictional fandom universe isn’t so different from spending time in the various sectors of the real world.
Self-publishing frees writers from the constraints imposed on them by the publishing bottleneck, letting them make one-on-one connections with readers unimpeded by the industry middlemen – the agents, publishers, PR specialists, and bookstores. Fandom frames fiction in a social context, joining readers and writers together in alternate imaginary realities. Self-publishing and fandom are alternate hybrid realities comprised of actual fiction writers, readers, and books linked together in imaginative ways that, at least for some, have become preferable to the status quo. But while self-publishing and fandom alter the fictional landscape dramatically, the foundational economic transactions persist. Self-publishing eliminates the agents and publishing houses and the physical books and the bookstores, but the authors still sell their e-books one copy at a time. Fanfic is free for all, but fans still pay for their own individual copies of the authoritative source texts. Alternatives to the book as a commodity can be imagined: can these alternatives, like self-publishing and fandom, be made actual?
A book no longer has to be printed and mass-produced, incurring up-front costs that must be recouped through sales. Now that e-books can simply be downloaded on demand, the initial capital outlay is no longer required, transforming self-publishing from an imagined possibility into an actuality. But capital doesn’t pay only for production and distribution; it also pays for selection, editing, hype. And economies of scale come into play – it’s more efficient to move scores of books systematically through the pipeline than to walk them along one at a time. Capital outlay pays for the organization that makes economies of scale possible. Publishers consolidate the individual writers into a cheap contract labor force and their books into portfolios, maximizing aggregate return while minimizing risk and volatility.
Self-published authors already do their own editing and marketing. What keeps them from organizing themselves together, systematizing the workflow, achieving economies of scale, maximizing collective return while reducing individual risk? It’s not the need for capital investment, since the writers are already doing all of the up-front work without up-front compensation. Is it that writers, accustomed to seeing themselves as solo practitioners, can’t imagine affiliating with one another in an organized way? I don’t think that’s it. University creative writing programs and local writers’ groups rely on collaboration, with participants critiquing and editing one another’s texts – skills that would translate well into a writer-run publishing company. Both of these very popular collective writing formats aim primarily at equipping the individual participants for achieving success in the traditional publishing industry. It would seem a small step for members to extend their existing collaborative arrangements into writer-operated e-publishing syndicates.
The biggest obstacles standing in the way of writer-run publishing houses might be the imaginary residuals associated with the commercial publishing industry. First is the prestige, the fetish value, the sense that one isn’t a real novelist until one has a novel published by a real publishing company. Second is the hope of making serious money by getting published. I wonder which exerts the stronger emotional force: the envy of the unpublished for the published, or the disappointment of the published when the reality doesn’t approach the imaginary. But hey, that’s just me being a Negative Ned. In all likelihood the impetus pushing writers into collective publishing syndicates will be the benefits they anticipate gaining over the status quo rather than their resigned sense of having nothing to lose. Individual self-publishing offers the freedom and sense of control held dear by libertarian anarchists. If syndicated collective publishing can generate inspirational momentum and solidarity without getting bogged down in nitpicking and competition, then it just might take off.
Readers. Negative Ned laments fandom’s fawning over celebrities, be they actors or writers or fictional characters. He bemoans fandom’s shallow immersions in fictional realities – the costumery, the stereotyped gestures of alien greeting, the theme parks, the shipping. But moving toward a more active reading collective is not going to be driven by an elitist putsch of fandom culture. A more likely possibility is that fandom will imagine an expansion and intensification of the successes they’ve already experienced.
Celebrity. It’s a fictional aura attached to real people, sometimes even to unreal people. To a significant degree it’s a product of the commercial hype apparatus. But celebrity is also a consequence of talent and presence and accomplishment: admirable features of the creator and of the creation. Celebrity is produced by audience response – to the hype, to the talent, to the infectious energy and critical mass generated by collective fandom. Is it possible to retain celebrity while jettisoning the commercial motivation, or at least dialing it way back? Commercial interests identify the talent, rev up the hype machinery, organize the fan events. Can’t the fans themselves take on these roles? Surely they can, because to a considerable extent they already do. While the industry has a pervasive presence at fiction conventions, and while these events cost significant money to put on and to attend, the conventions have traditionally been organized by the fans themselves. Fandom websites and discussion boards too are run by the fans, for free. Fan input, be it organized or spontaneous, shapes the trajectories of comic books and movie franchises and television series, sometimes even bringing them back from the dead. And of course, while each fan buys one book or ticket at a time, it’s fandom in the aggregate that creates the bestselling novel and hit TV show and the blockbuster movie, which are the vehicles of celebrity.
Immersion. It takes knowledge and effort, ingenuity and commitment to suit up and act out the roles in cosplay. The same goes for fan fiction and meta writing, for convention workshops and presentations. These manifestations of fan culture are extensively interactive and intensively immersive, dissolving the barriers between local and global, between writer and reader and theorist. Participating in these social manifestations of fiction requires deep familiarity with the source materials – the novels and television programs and movies to which fandoms offer collective homage. Cosplay manifests in physical and social form the fans’ imaginary immersions into textual and cinematic fictions. Delving into fanfic demands the longer and deeper voyage undertaken by fiction writers. Workshops and meta explorations pull back from immersion into more distant engagements of the imagination, enabling fans to hone their abstract and critical abilities. Oscillating between immersion and withdrawal, between individual and collective engagements, fandom acquires height and depth, focus and breadth.
Reading a novel is a private individual affair. You read the words, the words get into your head, your imagination is activated, perhaps changing you in some way, from the inside out. But the imaginary world depicted in a novel isn’t a description of the inside of the reader’s head. It’s a world filled with settings and situations, physical objects and people, conversations and events, trajectories and transitions. It’s an imaginary world to be sure, but it is a world. It isn’t contained inside of heads; it contains.
Each time a novel is read by a new reader, the fictional world depicted in that novel is extended into another mind. Collectively, the readers constitute a vast and potentially boundless imaginary expansion of a fictional reality, an expansion that is enacted socially and physically in fandom venues. Crucially, fandom’s immersive experiences aren’t mere reenactments and replicas – lockstep imitations of the original sources. Immersion enables participants to expand the fictional realms they occupy. Creative immersion in imaginary realities both intensifies and expands those fictional worlds.
If you are a writer of fiction, you immerse yourself inside the imaginary world you’re creating, intermittently withdrawing to gain perspective on what’s taking shape before delving back in again. That fictional world expands around you as you add detail, introduce characters, construct situations, set events in motion. There’s something uncanny about the result. Words are meaningless in and of themselves. Words refer, pointing beyond themselves to the things and situations and actions that the words describe. Enough words, enough descriptions, and after a while an understanding begins to form in the reader’s mind – an understanding of those aspects of the world, be it real or imaginary, to which the stream of words refers. But that word-crafted understanding remains an imaginary construct, no matter how closely its parameters align with those of some actual material world. Does the world taking shape in the reader’s imagination correspond to the world you imagined as the writer? Does the same world take shape in the imagination of every reader of the book you wrote? No doubt questions like these are debated in literary theory circles. Similar questions face psychologists and neuroscientists: how closely does the world as simulated in the human brain correspond to the material world on which it’s modeled, and to the worlds simulated in other human brains?
At least there actually is a real material world out there (isn’t there?). But what about a simulation of that real world constructed in a human brain: is it real, or imaginary? If, in reading about the real world, the reader’s brain generates a simulation of the world based on the text, does that simulated textual world become real? If an imaginary world is constructed from words printed on an actual page or displayed on an actual computer screen, does that make it real? If an imaginary textual world is assembled by the biochemical activity of actual material neurons, is it real?
And so on, meandering down the corridor of mirrors. For our purposes it’s not necessary to question the actuality of the material world in which we’re immersed, independent of how we imagine it to be in our heads. Nor is it necessary to speculate that fictional worlds actually exist in some alternate immaterial realm, to which writers and readers can be transported through the imaginative engagement of texts. What is worth considering is the possibility that, in engaging the world imaginatively, realities emerge that are hybrids of the material and the imaginary, of the factual and the fictional.
Cosplay is one step further removed from the imaginary fictional world that precedes it and that it attempts to simulate. But cosplay also gives material shape to an immaterial fiction. Does that actualization make cosplay more real than the fiction on which it is predicated? An architect designs a new house on paper, and a physical house is constructed according to the blueprint. Which is more real, the blueprint or the house? The house, obviously. But the blueprint came first, serving as the model for the house, maybe for a thousand houses just like it. Can’t the house and the blueprint both be real? A 2-D drawing rolled up inside a cardboard tube and placed on a tabletop placed inside of a 3-D structure weighing a hundred tons: their material actualities may be radically different from one another, yet they correspond to one another in multiple precise ways.
A novel is like a blueprint: it functions as a template for building a fictional world. But the novel doesn’t just describe an assemblage of static objects; it sets those objects in motion. A fictional narrative is a simulation not just of static objects but also of processes: of building the house and the neighborhood it occupies, of the young couple moving in and the children they raise, of the joys and traumas they face together and apart, of the plots they hatch and the intrigues that ensnare them, of the rot that begins to spread undetected beneath the eaves… Instead of occupying coordinates in physical space, the world modeled on the fictional text is assembled and activated in the reader’s head. The textual simulation resides on paper or electronic screen; the reader runs the simulation in neural networks and biochemical reactions. Yet despite their radical material differences, the textual simulation and its mental analog correspond to one another in multiple ways. The same blueprint can be used to build many houses; so too can the same fictional text serve as template for building and running imaginary realities in many readers’ heads. The mental replications won’t correspond perfectly with the textual template, in part because the text offers only a partial description of the fictional world it simulates, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps, and because narrative language isn’t as precise as the geometric language of lines and angles and curves used in scale-model schematic drawings. Still, the same fictional text can serve as catalyst for constructing a multitude of imaginary realities scattered across the collective cognitive landscape, all of those realities modeled on the textual specs, all of them bearing very strong similarities both to the text and to each other.
For authors and readers, a real book might be a physical object, with an illustrated cover and pages inked and bound to the spine, the pages to be turned one at a time from beginning to end. The greater the number of physical copies of the book that exist in the world, the more real the book becomes. For the industry, a real book might be a commodity sold in the marketplace. The more copies of the book that get bought and paid for, the more real the book becomes. Both of those realities fail to account for what’s in the book, what’s on the pages, what the words on those pages are about. Even more importantly, both realities fail to recognize what the book can create and what it can contain.
The e-book virtually eliminates the novel’s physicality. The zero-cost duplication and distribution of the e-book calls into question its economic status as a commodity. Are novels becoming less real? No. A real novel simulates a fictional reality, serving as a catalyst for replicating variations of itself in readers’ imaginations. If anything, the book’s migration from paper to electrons enhances its ability to self-replicate.
A reality has expanse and extent; it is an ecosystem. Does the fictional reality of a novel contain the writer? If we take writers’ self-reports seriously, then they do become immersed in the imaginary worlds they’re building, seeing and creating those worlds from the inside out. What about readers: they build simulations of fictional worlds inside their heads, but do they also find themselves contained inside of those fictional worlds? Again, readers do report being immersed in narratives. And since novelists fabricate their fictions from a point of view inside the imaginary world, it becomes nearly inevitable that the reader too would occupy this same internal viewpoint, observing or even vicariously participating in events from inside the fantasy. When together a reader and a book construct a simulation of a fiction in the head, that fiction immerses the reader’s imagination in itself. The more heads in which a book’s fictional reality is catalyzed, the vaster the imaginary territory the fictional reality occupies.
Fandom has exposed the communal aspects of fictional realities. Writers spend so much time immersed in the hermetically isolated fictional worlds they’re chronicling that it might be hard for them to imagine those imaginary worlds being occupied by real readers. The book becomes an end in itself. Transforming the book into a physical commodity fetishizes it, enshrines it as a holy object, separate and distinct – which in a sense is how the writer already regards it, expecting readers to bear homage one at a time, leaving their offerings in the till. Formatting a book as a physical fetish object limits the extension of its fictional reality; formatting it as a freely replicable e-book accelerates the extension. Shatter the fetish; free the substance and the spirit held captive in the form.
Fandom tends to gravitate toward sprawling, vibrant, alien fictional worlds. Serialized works are well suited to fandom, expanding into large casts of characters who act on multiple stages. Right now I’m reading Old Filth, a 2004 novel by Jane Gardam. I for one do find the narrative engaging, immersive. The characters, few in number, play their cards close to the vest and, although the story sprawls across three continents and two oceans, the scenes are claustrophobic, insular, subdued. The original novel has been extended into a trilogy; even so, I doubt that the expanded Old Filth world will attract many fanfic writers or cosplayers. It’s not necessary to insist that Gardam’s fiction is deeper, more artistic, more internal than the shallow, hyperactive, extroverted entertainments that attract fandom. The contrast might well be accurate, but that’s no justification for writers and readers of so-called literary fiction to dismiss fandom as trashy pop culture. Likewise, there’s no reason for fandom enthusiasts to reject quieter and smaller fictions as archaic elitism. What’s needed is an acknowledgment that fandom has continuity with traditional ways for readers to immerse themselves collectively inside of fictional worlds.
Shakespeare wrote plays to be staged before live audiences. Readers of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther would commit suicide in what amounted to a shared vicarious solidarity with the tragically romantic main character. How many Hemingway and Fitzgerald enthusiasts have undertaken the Lost Generation pilgrimage to France and Spain? Lit majors and book group members discuss fictions together. The literary canon may be assailed and fragmented, but the canonical works did serve as a unifying cultural ecology that readers scattered across the globe could occupy, participating individually in a collective sensibility. This is fandom. Contemporary pop fandom understands the idea of canon and embraces it, albeit in altered form. Fandom undertakes pilgrimage and other forms of vicarious identification with fictional characters and their creators. Fandom discusses works of fiction together. Fan fiction writers often explore the non-canonical inner fictional spaces, delving deeper into characters’ psyches than did the original authors. Fan meta writers add nuance and intricacy to the sketchy architecture on which the fictional worlds are suspended.
Fandom thrives on a collective anarchy, eliding distinctions between readers and writers, creating unauthorized variations on themes anchored within published texts, extending and intensifying fictional worlds in which readers immerse themselves. Self-publishing thrives on an anarchy of individual writers and readers, dismantling the structural barriers that keep them apart by circumventing the bottleneck imposed by agents and publishing companies, rebelling against the control that the commercial industry wields in selecting and hyping and fetishizing texts. From the intersection of these two contemporary anarchistic trajectories some different publishing reality will emerge. Maybe it will look something like the scheme outlined in these pamphlets:
Writers join forces to edit, format, publish, analyze, and promote one another’s books. The books published by writer-owned syndicates are decommodified, with electronic copies made freely and immediately available to readers on demand. Books are acquired by and distributed to readers through a widely distributed network of duplicating libraries organized and run by readers. The libraries’ acquisition standards and decisions are based neither on the book’s potential financial return nor necessarily on its likely popularity to individual readers but on its value as a cultural resource. Writers are compensated at levels comparable to that offered through traditional commercial publishing, but their books and the worlds those books describe permeate society more rapidly and more expansively than ever before.
It’s a fiction, this scheme – a possible future that, like all futures, isn’t here yet and might never show up. Fictional too was the scheme of printing multiple copies of books on a machine, shipping them to shops, and selling them one copy at a time to readers. Then the possible future became the actual present and fiction became fact; the imaginary scheme was welded to the material actualities of printing presses and ink and paper, of commercial carriers and warehouses and bookstores, of labor and money and investment and profit. Is it ironic or is it paradoxical, this becoming-real of a once-imaginary industry specializing in imaginary realities? The situation isn’t as unique as it might seem. Human language is a kind of fiction, a system of symbols that by mutual agreement stands in for corresponding entities and forces in the actual material world. Money is a fiction, an accounting system that by mutual agreement stands in for material wealth. Political power is a fiction. National identity. Laws and crimes and courts. College degrees. The future.
Writers and readers of fiction could be at a distinct advantage when attempting to make an imaginary scheme real. Real human schemes, including those that have been made actual, are inextricably woven through with fiction. Fiction specialists should be better able than most to pull the threads of the imaginary apart from their material substrate, unraveling what current consensus deems real. Fictionalists are also adept at manipulating imaginary analogs to material things, exploring the potentials and the hazards of alternative fabrications without actually having to stitch them together. They should also be better equipped to weave new threads in with the old, interlinking them into different patterns, different realities.
Still, there is that historical fork in the road to be reckoned with, the one that sent the inventors of real things down one trajectory while the inventors of imaginary things veered off on a separate course. The inventors of real things supposedly walk a straight road, from immaterial to material, from idea to design to simulation to prototype to production. This linear progression is itself fictional – like writers of fiction, inventors of material things oscillate between what they imagine and the tools and materials they use in realizing what they imagine, immersing themselves in a reality that already is but that also is not yet, a reality in which the imagined and the actual increasingly overlap. But the supposed linear trajectory of material invention does present a compelling narrative, one that has held the meandering inventors of imaginary things in thrall for centuries. A fictional text is but an imaginary thing, the writer concedes, whereas printing and binding and mass-producing that text turns it into a real thing.Somebody once said that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Nuclear war, global warming, super-resistant bacteria, rogue AIs: we have met the agents of our possible future apocalypses, and those agents are us, not on purpose but through side effects, collateral damage, the unintended consequences of acts intended to make human life safer, healthier, easier. Popular imaginings about the end of capitalism tend to run along the same lines: intentional efforts to make life more equitable leads to disastrous side effects: suppression of personal liberties, totalitarianism, economic collapse, abject poverty for all. Our imagined anarcho-socialist fictional publishing scheme is a lot more modest in scope than the end of capitalism, but as a writer of fictions I confess that it would be more fun to imagine the scheme’s apocalyptic side effects and to write them up in a fictional narrative than it would be to join forces with other readers and writers in an attempt to transform the imagined reality into an actuality.
Alternatively, I could continue to imagine the beneficial outcomes of the scheme, then write up those more optimistic speculations as a text – pretty much what I’m doing right now. I would take on the mantle of think-tank futurist visionary, the architect drawing up the blueprints. Let other, more practical people do the heavy lifting. I’m an imagineer, not a construction worker. Problem is, all of the other writers and readers of fiction are liable to see themselves as imagineers too. Who are the doers; to whom do we hand off the specs? The marketers, the managers, the middlemen, the investors…
Imagining a better future for yourself and others, committing yourself to actualizing that imagined future, then declaring your commitment publicly: isn’t that an impetus for making it happen? Not necessarily. The declaration can become an end in itself, solidifying your public reputation as a worthy individual without your even having to do the concomitant worthy actions. Your image, your fictional persona, the fake news you broadcast about yourself, can trump what you actually do. In a 2009 research article “When Intentions Go Public: Does Social Reality Widen the Intention Behavior Gap?” NYU psychology professor Peter Gollwitzer and associates present empirical evidence demonstrating that one’s stated intention and the social recognition it engenders can serve as an “identity symbol” of being a good person, short-circuiting actual attempts to achieve the intent – attempts that might entail a lot of effort and that might fail. The authors conclude:
When other people take notice of one’s identity-relevant behavioral intentions, one’s performance of the intended behaviors is compromised… Other people’s taking notice of one’s identity-relevant intentions apparently engenders a premature sense of completeness regarding the identity goal.
Suppose the inventors of imaginary things were to resist the pull toward materiality. A fictional text is a simulation that points not to its material manifestation but to the immaterial world that the text describes. Instead of calculating a fictional text’s impact in terms of units sold and aggregate revenue generated, its impact is intangible – the extent to which the immaterial world simulated in the text permeates and immerses the imaginations of readers, individually and collectively. Fictional adepts, both writers and readers, are already good at doing that – at simultaneously absorbing and being absorbed into fictional worlds. That might be one way for imagineers to make an alternative anarchistic publishing scheme real – by putting it inside of our imaginations, and by putting our imaginations inside of it. Not by declaring our good intentions but by stepping inside of it even before it exists and letting it take shape around us.