Grave Digging: Resurrecting the Author in Fandom Paratexts

The premise of this essay began in a somewhat unusual way. While browsing the numerous posts on my Tumblr dashboard, I stumbled across a fan-created artwork (figure 1), illustrating an iconic moment between the fictional characters of Jace Wayland and Clary Fray from Cassandra Claire’s The Mortal Instruments series. Inspired by the film adaptation of the first novel City of Bones, the paratext recaptures the climatic kissing scene (figure 2) between the narrative’s star-crossed lovers, featuring Jamie Campbell Bower as Jace and Lily Collins as Clary.

Being an active member of the Mortal Instruments fandom, at least where the books are concerned, I immediately clicked my mouse on the “reblog” icon, but I hit a snag when I attempted to credit the image’s source in my post description. Who, or should I say, what is the source of this image? Does the image belong to the fan who created the artwork, the director of the film of which the art is based upon, or the author of the novel series from which the film is adapted? Though the answer to this question is not simple, it strikes at the heart of fandom practices and digital paratexts.

Through much deliberation, I have concluded that in the very limited case of the Mortal Instruments fandom, and any fandom whose source text is composed of a fantasy nature, authorship lies with the original creator, the intermediate party (be it a film or television production), and the fandom community. Utilizing Roland Barthes’ conception of the reader as the site where text and meaning converge, I submit that the author is not dead, as Barthes contends, but rather that the role of the author is simply minimalized. In creating a text whose language or imagery that has little to no basis in mainstream society, the author’s presence always lingers—even if that presence is limited by social media and distorted by fan-interpretation.

Before I attempt to revive the author from the grave in which Barthes has dug for him [or her], I must first provide an, admittedly, truncated history of digital fan-culture. Fan-culture, a subject initially ignored by academics due to the once prevalent belief that fans only constituted a crazed few of the general viewing audience, is both a personal and social phenomenon (Tushnet 60). Fans form intimate relationships with the characters, incorporating elements such as character speech and fashion into their own identity, while also engaging in social activities such as group viewing, where fans “find support and form interpersonal bonds” (Tushnet 61) with other fans.

In the internet age, online fan sites and forums have become the most prominent method of fan communication where fans negotiate and recreate meanings within the source text (Tushnet 63). These fan sites allow for a wide variety of fandom representation and provide a sense of validation for fans, proving that their interests are normal, healthy expressions of identity and pleasure (Tushnet, 63).

Fans gather at the keyboards to create and share paratexts such as fan fiction, digital fan art, and fan videos, seeking to prolong the pleasure derived from the initial moment of captivation (Tushnet 63). In general, fans are not concerned with authorship (Tushnet 64); fans create and consume texts within a given community, seeking only to add clarity to what is “vague in the source text” (Tushnet 64) or to add a different perspective on an aspect of the source text. For example, fans might give a character a different backstory or engage in the “what if” questions concerning a non-canonical relationship pairing.

Or, perhaps fans, like myself, just wish to share their adoration of the source text. Fans are also, typically, not concerned with copyright infringements as the texts that fans create are for pleasure, not profit (Tushnet 66). Though, it should be stated that Amazon’s new practice of publishing fan-fiction for the price of a dollar per story has the potential to cause great controversy in fan-culture (Tushnet 66); however, this is not the essay to address that issue. Fans do not claim ownership of their creation, other than what twists they have added to the story, due to the recognized fact that a paratext cannot by its definition stand-alone; it is nothing more than variation, or extension, of another text made available to all interested parties through the internet (Tushnet 61-64).

My own practices on Tumblr exemplifies this very type of fan-text-media interaction where questions of authorship are rarely raised. Even if a fan were to question the authorship of a particular paratext, often times the medium, in this case, Tumblr, in which the paratext is shared acts as a barrier – preventing the fan from finding the creator of the paratext. Consider my blogging example at the beginning of this essay. Typically, the act of re-blogging on Tumblr entails labeling or, as the users refer to it, tagging a post with a description that allows other users to find the post, and other related posts, on the Tumblr search engine; for instance, this particular text might be tagged with phrases such as The Mortal Instruments, Jace and Clary, Clace (fandom name for the Jace and Clary relationship), the kiss scene, Cassandra Clare (the author of the series) and so forth.

Tagging a post also allows the user to give credit where credit is due; in order to avoid the assumption of other users that this work is my own creation, I should credit the fan-artist– therein lies my dilemma. There is no means to determine where the digital artwork originated. There exists neither a signature on the text nor proof that the art was initially posted on Tumblr and not merely linked to a user’s account via another venue of social media.  Yes, I can see the user who posted the image on my dashboard but one click on the blog activity of this text reveals that the user before me, DementorSlave87, is just the latest, beyond myself of course, in a list of 136 posts connected to the text (DementorSlave87).

Though the assumption could be made that user who originated the post is the artist, this was not confirmed in the commentary of the post itself (DementorSlave87). No blogger made any claim on the fan-art as demonstrated by their comments. The fans failed to question the authorship of text; the text is simply considered to be a portrait of Jace and Clary (DementorSlave87). Thus, the text is considered, by some fans in the blog’s commentary (DementorSlave87), the property of the Mortal Instruments Fandom in its entirety as it only fans who ascribe the text with significant value.

The idea that fans determine the meaning and significance of fandom paratexts echoes the criticism of authorial intent of Roland Barthes who dismisses the issue of authorship altogether. In his essay, “Death of the Author,” Barthes rejects the seemingly natural alignment between author and text; suggesting that the true author’s accomplishment is not the creation of meaning, where there was none before, but rather the stringing together of cultural signs, images, and language that the modern reader can interpret (98-99).

Under Barthes theory, the reader is the nexus where text and meaning converge, and the meaning of any given text is never fixed but is instead an open space to be negotiated (99-100). The application of this theory is evident in the very nature of paratexts; fans use paratexts to re-interpret and alter the original source text (Tushnet 65). Fans can create a romantic pairing between two characters that do not exist in the source text; this pairing then becomes a fan-favorite troupe (Tushnet 65) to which fans create fan-art, fan-vids, or fan-fiction to support the troupe.

The creation of non-canonical romantic pairings may be the most prominent form of source text alteration (Tushnet 68) but it is certainly not the form of alteration available to fans; characters may die under different circumstances; new characters from the fan author can be created to elaborate on certain parts of the narrative and so forth. Thus, Barthes’s claim that the meaning within a text is not fixed is true regarding fan practices (Barthes 99).

Without the reader, a text holds no significance and remains empty, nothing but words on a page or an image on the screen. However, Barthes’s claim that the author is irrelevant and must be removed, as the author’s intent cannot be superimposed upon a text for any given reader, is a bit extreme. In an effort to contradict Barthes and resurrect the author, I return to the subject of my blog, The Mortal Instruments fan-art and its comparison to a screen-cap image in the film.

First, it must be noted that the romantic pairing of Jace and Clary is canonical to the narrative; thus, the author’s intent, in the context of this particular paratext, is preserved. Second, the physical bodies of Jace and Clary in the paratext are modeled after the stars in the film, and the subjects of the art positioned in the exact same way; the boy is on the left and the girl is on the right with her hands wrapped around his neck. The clothes and hairstyles of the two subjects within both the fan-art and the screen-cap also match. Clearly, the images reflect one another, demonstrating that the fan’s interpretation is, in some way, influenced by the film adaptation.

However, the fan-art in question is a fan’s representation of both the film and the novel rather than a pure reproduction of a given moment in cinema. There are, of course, discrepancies between the two images; the garden setting of the film has been removed in favor of a more abstract background while the symbol for love, at least within the mythos of the novels, has been inserted. The presence of the symbol reveals the author’s, Cassandra Clare, fingerprints. If according to Barthes, the author is irrelevant because the author does not actually create meaning (Barthes 98), then this symbol is puzzling as it is not based on knowledge available to the mainstream public.

Within the narrative of the novels, Jace Wayland is a shadow-hunter, meaning his character is half-human and half angel; the shadow-hunters have their own written language composed of symbols called angelic runes. The symbol in the upper left corner of the paratext is the symbol of love, and, though this clearly indicated in the paratext itself, only a fan of the novels would be aware of the runic language. The film does not explore the runic language and the reader of the novels could not make sense of the runic language without the author’s direction.

Indeed, the only reason I know of the language is that I am a fan of the series, and while a fan could alter the text to create their own runes, the author’s design, concerning runes, would have to serve as a guideline. Any paratext which veers too far away from the source text runs the risk of being rejected by the fandom because fans police themselves. Thus, the presence of the original author always lingers within any fandom paratext.

According to Roland Barthes, the creation of meaning rests with the reader, and while I agree with the idea that no text contains a fixed meaning, I have trouble burying the author six feet deep. Authors who create an entire mythos within their text, often create and use language in such ways that culture alone cannot aid the reader in constructing meaning.

I do not include fandoms based around television series’ or single films in this re-working of Barthes because pin-pointing a single too difficult a task in such collaborative works.  For instance, the term Horcrux meant nothing to mainstream society before J. K. Rowling came along, and I would be hard-pressed to find a reader who could define the term jabberwocky without referencing Lewis Carroll. Within a fandom based on a literary fantasy, the author will always have a seat at the table, albeit the seat may be small and far-removed from the rest of the table; authorial intent may find itself the target of fan-manipulation and the text may be altered for purpose of fandom pleasure, but that is the nature of the beast.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. “Death of the Author.” Auteurs and Authorship: A Film Reader. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008. Print.
DementorSlave87. “Shadowhunters: Jace and Clary.” Viewer Discretion Is Advised. Tumblr, 13 Apr. 2014. Web. 11 Nov. 2014. Blog.
Tushnet, Rebecca. “Copyright Laws, Fan Practices, and the Rights of the Author.” Fandom Identities and Communities in a Mediated World. Ed. Jonathan Grey, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington. New York: New York University Press, 2007. Print.

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