Toward Pop Literature

Due to copyright laws that prevent its monetization (and in contrast to the careerism unsubtly promoted by MFA programs), fanfiction cannot technically be other than a labor of love—though Y/N demonstrates how easily legible thinly-veiled references to sufficiently famous celebrities can be. The real problem with fanfiction, from a mainstream literary perspective, is precisely that its authors not only love reading (movies, music, other books) too much, they also love writing too much. And it shows!

A polemic

Jamian Juliano-Villani, Historical Editing, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.

Beauty, Elaine Scarry writes, is what incites a copy of itself. Beauty “makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people. Sometimes it gives rise to exact replication and other times to resemblances and still other times to things whose connection to the original site of inspiration is unrecognizable.” I like this definition, which Scarry takes from Wittgenstein, because it also implicitly defines the impulse behind human creativity. As such, throughout On Beauty and Being Just, Scarry privileges examples of beauty drawn not only from nature, or real life, but from other works of art. Thus Leonardo, she says, began by copying faces drawn by Verrocchio. He was making fan art.

And he would continue to do so even as an accomplished painter. The Virgin of the Rocks, The Last Supper, and Leda and the Swan are all—like Warhol’s Marilyn or most things on deviantart—interpretations of prefab narratives. And more: from pre-Classical through medieval Christian art to Renaissance painting (fan art of Classical sculpture) to Mannerism (fan art of Renaissance masters), one finds throughout Western art history a continuous recycling of visual themes shared by the public in a kind of iconographic commons. It is understood that an artwork is enriched by the allusions, inversions, and contextual revisions made possible by its reinterpretation of style and subject matter. Eastern art is, historically, even more radical in this respect: in China, which today boasts a delightfully imaginative shanzhai or knockoff culture, a truly great copy of a painting might be valued more highly than the original. Masterpieces are not only continually revised, but elaborated upon by writers, such that the most famous paintings also bear lines of calligraphy, becoming a kind of multimedia work in which an image appears literally within the same frame as the art criticism and poetry inspired by it. Korea, meanwhile, has mastered the highest form of contemporary collective artwork—pop music—with a bevy of hyper-successful bands whose talents have been industrially engineered by scores of coaches, choreographers, branding strategists, elite training schools, music video directors, and product partners.

It is no coincidence, therefore, that Esther Yi’s debut—the K-pop fanfic Y/N—is the rare work of contemporary fiction that not only thematizes but derives from the urge Scarry describes: to make art from art, rather than from life. The novel follows an unnamed woman who falls in love with an “idol” (as stars are called in K-pop-speak), Moon. His fictional boy band is modeled after BTS, the real-life blockbuster pop phenomenon. Increasingly obsessed, our narrator begins writing fanfiction about him: a romance starring a woman whose name is “Y/N”— an abbreviation of “Your Name” used by fanfic writers to allow readers to more easily imagine themselves as characters in the story. Her prose is uncannily similar to Yi’s own; throughout the novel, we encounter this embedded story only via a subtle shift from first to third person.

In her real life, our narrator is constantly frustrated by the shortcomings of language and of other people. Words fail her, as does her non-pop-star boyfriend. But in her fanfic, she—or rather, her avatar, Y/N —experiences a pure fantasy of love, and of language: “It is possible, she realizes for the first time ever, to open her mouth and say exactly what she’s thinking.” Unfortunately, Y/N, like her author, quickly grows dissatisfied with her own boyfriend (who is, within the fanfic, not a K-pop star but a philosopher). In an inversion of the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea—one that recognizes that no lover actually wants their statue to come alive—she decides that Moon must become a celebrity so that she can “encounter him through the gigantic dimensions of collective adoration. Only then will her love be properly sized.” So she sends him away to train at an entertainment company, and her wish is fulfilled.

It’s a magically recursive work of fiction: Yi’s narrator authors herself as the author of the object of her obsession, becoming the maker of a pop star, and at the same time writes into existence a whole narrative form to house this structurally asymmetrical form of love. Her desire for intimacy at a distance is also a desire for an equally paradoxical form of language: one in which words are simultaneously perfectly opaque and perfectly transparent to its speakers, and meaning cannot be signified, only intuited. When Y/N reads the philosophy books Moon has written, she finds them completely “unrelatable,” for which she is thankful; at the same time, she “understands everything without knowing what it is she is understanding.” Y/N and Moon exchange their cell phones, so all they have to do to call each other is call themselves. The couple speaks in Korean, which is neither of their mother tongue, so that they will be “equally at a loss.” This is language as idiosyncratic, secret, beyond paraphrase or translation: the dialect of lovers who do not need to communicate in order to understand. Y/N takes its subject—the syntax of fantasy—as form. Often, throughout the novel, the relationship between a name or sign and what it expresses is almost hieroglyphic: there’s a side character, O, whose name is “a pictorial expression of her hope to expand from all side into infinity”—and, of course, the literally divided anti-name of Y/N herself, who is also me, Olivia, and (should you choose to read the book) you.

Today’s literary market emphasizes “character-driven” work above stylish or language-driven writing—a priority easily observed by skimming any major publication’s fiction reviews, which reliably take pages describing personality traits, before, in the penultimate paragraph, setting down two matter-of-fact sentences on prose style, as though noting the color of the cover. Y/N, however, is the opposite of a character. Merely “empty spaces gathered into the shape of a human body,” she is a vector for every character. These infinite possibilities are what allow for art. As the boy band’s manager tells her, it is “the dissolution of the self” that “produces moments of astonishing self-expression.” This self-effacement is key to the kind of love practiced by our narrator, who not only grows to physically resemble her crush, but is also basically interchangeable with his other fans. Moon isn’t really a character either; he is just a “theme, a universal constant”—his theme being something like impossibility itself. The Moon who exists within the fanfic shares many characteristics with his author’s real-life boyfriend, including a bookshelf and a birthmark. In fact, the only thing that makes him not her boyfriend is his name, Moon, and the way he dances. His dance, we are frequently told, “defies description.” We can’t perform it; we can’t even imagine it. “Only Moon possesses the bodily dialectics to know how to stand up and lie down at the same time.” The dance, a phenomenon beyond words, is Yi’s replacement for the psychological realism that is so radically absent from her characters.

In other words, Yi’s characters are not primarily—as the memeified word for the preferred mode of aesthetic judgment of our times has it—“relatable.” Her story is not only about alienation: it produces it. The irony of the name “Y/N” is that, rather than allowing for the reader’s identification with the story, it precludes it; the glyph is too strange, too obviously a device of fiction. When Moon finally reads his fan’s writing, he can’t even pronounce the word (is it yin? Yes-no?). This is the opposite of “Own Voices” identity fiction (a label recently entered into the official list of categories of literature); it is a novel concerned with humans as Other, of love as distance, of language as foreign, and of beauty as reproduction.

In 2011, a Twilight fanfic, Fifty Shades of Grey, was perhaps the first of its kind to make it offline and onto bestseller lists. Upstream, within the market of literary fiction, there’s only a couple of fanfiction-ish books in print, mostly novellas published by small presses: Tao Lin’s Richard Yates is autofiction par excellence, only the main characters are “Haley Joel Osment” and “Elle Fanning.” Charlie Markbreiter’s Gossip Girl Fanfiction Novella combines Gossip Girl fanfic and theory-inflected personal essays on transness to make a point similar to Yi’s: that the genre is a rich medium for evoking experiences of disidentification. I recently received, per mail, a self-published novel, Novel, that turned out to be not only a blueprint for a fashion collection but a fanfiction of both Moby-Dick and the art world classic Reena Spaulings, itself a collectively authored novel—of which I, too, happen to have written fanfic (an Emily in Paris x Amélie crossover), in this case for the magazine of a downtown modeling agency with a run of exactly 100. This is the way most fanfiction circulates, whether virtually or physically: in niche communities either extremely versed in the original text or open enough to aesthetic experimentation to enjoy the bizarre configurations of styles and subject matter to which its authors seem invariably prone (more on this later).

It’s much rarer to find fanfiction in formal publishing economies, with book tours and publicists, bucket hats and coffee carts: fanfiction might be sub-, but it isn’t countercultural (it’s very, very pro-). A lot of literary fiction, conversely, might be called a-cultural. It’s not only that litfic writers don’t build on the work of other artists, even their characters barely respond to culture at all. Unlike a Flaubert (Emma Bovary is a kind of proto-Y/N) or a Proust, few contemporary, mainstream Anglophone novelists treat cultural or intellectual experiences as compelling sources of emotional complexity, despite the uptick in “writing-on-writing” occasioned by some autofiction (Timothy Bewes’s Free Indirect: The Novel in the Post-Fictional Age explores the implications of these metafictional moments). Litfic’s beautiful world is populated by normal people having conversations with their friends about the safely, universally “relatable,” obviously “natural” experiences of dating, divorcing, and maybe parenting.

The industry’s preference for realism in subject matter tends to find expression in prose that is equally “naturalistic.” The self-consciously stylized novels of a Pynchon, a David Foster Wallace, or a Zadie Smith have dwindled. In today’s Anglophone literature, there are few fancy sentences, little that is “difficult,” nothing to prevent the reader from mind-merging with the narrator, rather than appreciating literature as the product of a foreign human consciousness mediated through an alien technology (writing). Novelists learn to write sentences that seem boring but are actually legible to editors as products of an MFA, like how old-money elites love to buy sweaters that look boring but secretly signal wealth to their peers.

This trend toward organic literature might have surprised Wallace, who, writing in 1997, lamented the rise of what he called “image-fiction”—slick stories by Pynchon wannabes that compulsively reference mass culture, consumerism, and entertainment media: “A. M. Homes’s 1990 The Safety of Objects features a stormy love affair between a boy and a Barbie doll. Vollmann’s 1989 The Rainbow Stories has Sonys as characters in Heideggerian parables. Michael Martone’s 1990 Fort Wayne Is Seventh on Hitler’s List is a tight cycle of stories about the Midwest’s pop-culture giants, James Dean, Colonel Sanders, Dillinger. . . .” DFW’s essay, “E Unibus Pluram,” argued that television had taken up a posture of strategic self-distance that deflects any social or political criticism against it by ironically incorporating it in advance. Starting in the ’80s, TV’s M.O. had been to manipulate you into drinking soda, buying cars, or watching more TV by showing you how it’s manipulating you. For DFW, that was why these “image-fiction” writers, whose own ironic attachment to their subjects is merely a manifestation of that mass medium’s sensibility, were ineffective as critics of contemporary culture—and also, it’s implied, just not very good novelists.

A mere twenty-five years later, we have, at best, a couple of horror-fics involving Amazon Alexa, and they are not very Heideggerian. In place of the Brat Pack tendency to, as DFW recounts, describe characters by way of their T-shirts, references to, say, Tinder, Adderall, or matcha lattés course through today’s conventional literary fiction, providing bland realist texture to bland realist work. The Adderall-taking characters in a big-five novel might look at Kim Kardashian on Instagram or listen to Caroline Polachek on Spotify, but neither artist, nor social media, nor streaming platform, seem to serve as genuine sources for inspiration or intellectual engagement for either author or character.

Sally Rooney’s most recent romance, which I think is a reasonable stand-in for the state of literature right now, is an almost-exception that proves the rule. Beautiful World, Where Are You? is a citation from a Schiller poem mourning the lost beauty of nature and the ugliness of artifice (Schiller: “Where once the warm and living shapes were rife, / Shadows alone are left!”). Her characters are scornful of mass culture and have a conservative, un-Marxist-seeming understanding of aesthetics: “plastic” is hideous; Italy might be the last place where “the instinct for beauty lives on”—though Rooney is unwilling, unlike Yi or Proust or Ben Lerner, to spend much time describing this Beauty as such: her list (Laocoon, “little white cups of coffee”) is pretty short, and ends in an exhausted, evasive ellipsis.

Like Yi’s novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You? encompasses texts from two distinct voices: the novel alternates between emails written from one character to another and chapters composed in a purely descriptive third-person that refuses any access to its characters’ interiority. Rooney is wonderful in this latter mode, which can push her famous terseness into a kind of hyperexternality reminiscent of the television shows in which her books inevitably find their final form: “She did not move her eyes at first, but kept staring intently at her glass for a few seconds before looking directly up at him.” These cinematic zooms can read as strangely surreal, almost multimedia. But her emails! In the early books they were taken for evidence of radical Zeitgeistiness, read like a bad pastiche of a 19th-century epistolary novel. In fact, Rooney mainly spends these emails making her Rooney-like characters complain about the state of contemporary literature and the shittiness of being a writer. Like Y/N, BWWAY is obsessed with the fact of its having-been-written. Unlike Y/N, it appears to hate writing. Yes, Rooney intimates, I know this novel is ever so frivolous compared to climate change, but perhaps . . . we deserve to enjoy a nice little bourgeois marriage plot all the same? Beautiful World, Where Are You?, in other words, performs the same defensive, ironic gesture as the ’80s TV Wallace describes. Perhaps this is why it was similarly commercially successful, similarly unequipped to meaningfully criticize contemporary reality, similarly pleasurable. Rooney is a wonderful realist in that that’s what life really is like: sometimes happy; sometimes sad; a little pointless. But art should be different!

David Foster Wallace’s polemic ends with a discussion of a promising new technology. The “telecomputer,” he worries, will allow viewers unfettered access to images, images that will be even more numerous, and more hypnotizing, because they will be personalized to our desires. What DFW didn’t predict was the computer’s potential for users to disseminate their own interpretations of the narratives to which they were formerly passive recipients. Fanfiction is an effect of the Internet’s fractalline tendency towards ever-more-subatomically-sized subcultural configurations, a symptom of the increasing mediatization of our reality, and a way to subvert its power.1 It doesn’t necessarily entail an uncritical love of mass culture or consumerism, but it embraces these forms—and art, and writing itself—as vital parts of human and therefore literary experience. The form is ironic in that it hinges on creating a difference internal to its subject, on alienating us from familiar names and images. But it’s never defensively, sarcastically “ironic” in the mode of DFW’s image-fictionists or Rooney’s emails. Fanfiction’s irony, rather, is an aesthetic of love.

In fact, due to copyright laws that prevent its monetization (and in contrast to the careerism unsubtly promoted by MFA programs), fanfiction cannot technically be other than a labor of love—though Y/N demonstrates how easily legible thinly-veiled references to sufficiently famous celebrities can be. The real problem with fanfiction, from a mainstream literary perspective, is precisely that its authors not only love reading (movies, music, other books) too much, they also love writing too much. And it shows! Fanfiction tends towards an enthusiasm for language beaten out of classier literature: showy alliteration, unnecessary adverbs, elaborate metaphors, “long run-on sentences with too many dependent clauses, sometimes connected with breathless semicolons”—which sounds a lot like DFW’s own style, and which is also how Rooney describes Normal People’s protagonist’s misguided attempts to write about—what else?—his crush. (This effusiveness is bad and embarrassing, we are to understand; Connell immediately “turns a new page in the notebook so he doesn’t have to look at what he’s done.” Eventually, his prose cools off and he gets into an MFA program.)

Y/N’s metatextual conceit is actually pretty tame compared to the Carollian inter- and intratextual games played out in many fanfictions, which frequently involve characters falling into or out of the books that constitute their “canon”—and sometimes even into other books or movies entirely (this is a “crossover”: Boo Radley marries Snape, for example). Fanfic writers like to augment their stories with even more citations, usually lyrics or quotes (attributed to people like Winston Churchill or “Anonymous”) that are interspersed with the primary fiction as emphatically heterogenous text elements. To take a semi-random sample: the first sentence of what is at the time of writing the most recently updated Naruto story on fanfiction.net, “Cerise 櫻桃” is prefaced by a dictionary definition—“Cerise (sərēs′ or sərēz′) is a deep to vivid reddish pink”—followed by an italicized, centered epigram—“Life is like cherries, sometimes sour, sometimes sweet”—followed by a haiku: “memories of leaves, / stare at the empty cup of / fragrant matcha tea.” The story proper begins with another definition, drenched in the pathos characteristic of the genre—“They named her Hisa. Ever-lasting. Ironic, she thinks, since she is destined to die at such a young age, surrounded by suffering and sorrow”—followed by some Japanese stock images: “A sakura blossom floats in the air, propelled by the oncoming gust of wind, which she catches in her palm, entranced.”

As in Esther Yi’s novel, this frenzy of linguistic forms insist on the sensuous specificity of the word, its name-like quality. Author MintRaspberryLemonade’s heterogeneous mixing of styles and studious copying of clichés combine to give the impression of a real passion, not only for Naruto, but for language: for words but also tropes more generally, those tired turns of phrase and plot drawn from the common well of symbols in which we share. Hisa “usually spends nights in meditation, but she doubts her parents would understand.” The appeal of fanfiction is that it speaks both of and with the stuff too common and therefore too dumb to say out loud: melancholy and misunderstood-ness, fantasies of marrying rock stars.

Amateur writing tends to combine such clichés with their opposite—jarringly idiosyncratic narratives and images—to produce a mix of alienation and recognition that expresses stylistically the tension between individual and collective imagination from which fanfiction’s entire form springs. Y/N activates these contrasting effects with brilliant precision. If Yi’s narrator is prone to clichés—“I feel like I’ve known Moon my whole life!”—she also likes to bemoan them as such, and then try, instead, for humorously outlandish metaphors embedded in delightfully overwritten passages. Yi seems in love with the ways in which language can be contorted to describe emotions that might or might not be relatable. Here’s the crucial moment in which her narrator falls for Moon, when she sees him dancing at a concert:

His chin went first and his arms followed, then his torso, which, dense with organs, forced his other leg into swinging accompaniment. I finally understood that his shirt was the pink of a newborn’s tongue. He was tasting the air with his body.

The description is awkward, unfluid in its peculiarity—the opposite of concert choreography. That disjuncture, the double-image of a spectacle and of the subjectivity experiencing it, is not only informative (a sign that this narrator might be somewhat strange), but allows me to appreciate Yi’s craft. Because I am a fan of books, I like being reminded of writing having happened. And because I am human, I also like to witness and share in another person’s fandom or love. Love, like beauty, should be contagious!

As DFW writes, “fiction’s big job used to be to afford easements across borders, to help readers leap over the walls of self and locale and show us unseen or dreamed-of people and cultures and ways to be.” Few things today are stranger than fanfiction. And that is what art should be: alien, and moving nevertheless. “I’m tired of experiencing reality as that which happens strictly to me,” Yi’s narrator tells her therapist. “My small life can’t possibly encompass all of human experience.”

For Scarry, beauty creates a “criss-crossing of the senses.” A beautiful skin sensation, for example, “may reproduce itself as an abstract idea, the way whenever Augustine touches something smooth, he begins to think of music and of God.” Fanfiction’s use of citation and college, as Yi’s concert-choreo passage demonstrates, can therefore give rise to a kind of synesthesia of reading. We live in a more diversely mediated world than ever—where are our multimedia novels? Will Sebald’s photo inserts have the last word?

Yi’s implicitly synaesthetic collage of language, image, and music is far more reminiscent of techniques used by, say, pop artists and their contemporary inheritors than anything in literature. Jamian Juliano-Villani’s Historical Editing (2022), for example, the image with which this essay began, is really a kind of poly-iconographic, transmedia crossover fan art. It’s really weird; at the same time, its components are perfectly familiar. There is George Washington at a window and Drake in a car, under a table, in the dark, and then George Washington again, on VCR. One landscape through the window; one landscape painting on the wall. And then a slogan hovering over it all, written in the font used by early Macintosh ads: three words that seem plausibly like Apple ad copy . . . or maybe a kind of anti-Darwinian commentary on major paradigm shifts in history, culture, and tech? The phrase begs interpretation but resists it. This is fanfiction’s dual potential: to act both as a quasi-critical aesthetic device, a “revolutionary” treatment of received images, and as a personal fantasy that exceeds sense-making. Literature today is stuck. It should be the writer’s job to remind us of the strangeness of language, to take the technology we use daily and force it into revolutions—unexpected twists and turns.

  1. An excellent example: the most highly-reviewed of the 835k Harry Potter stories on fanfiction.net is Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, a 122-chapter epic that not only has 36,872 reviews, but has itself spawned dozens of spinoff fan fictions, art, and poetry. Author “Less Wrong” begins, as Rowling does, with the arrival of Harry’s Hogwarts letter (“Chapter 1: A Day of Very Low Probability”)—which is received with high skepticism. Rationalist Harry—who will have to reconcile his love of logic with his wizardly destiny—is a perfect analogue for the fanfiction writer: the reader-as-interpreter, struggling to write simultaneously against and within the framework constructed by the original author. 

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