Thursday, June 30th, 2011

Tina Brown, Fanfiction And Princess Diana: Nine Observations

1. Before we proceed, we might all need to take a moment to acknowledge that we've reached the point in our culture where former editors of the New Yorker are writing fanfiction. Publicly, I mean; who knows what William Shawn scribbled in his most private notebooks, and in some sense who wouldn’t want to know, how many miles to Babylon, etc. But still. Fanfiction, in a “news magazine.”

2. Obviously there’s nothing wrong with fanfiction qua fanfiction. I’m not into it myself, but I read serial killer profiles at 3 a.m. when I can’t sleep, so no judgment. But the communications scholar Henry Jenkins has an awfully neat way of looking at it: “Fan fiction is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of by the folk.” I’m skeptical of the “free culture” ethos that informs this kind of argument, mostly because I have absolutely no idea who this “folk” is or, concurrently, in what other time “myths” were “owned” by said population.¹ And I’m also (and probably more importantly) unclear on the precise causal connection between folk-ownership and the production of really good art. Whatever, it’s good that people are writing; it’s good that people are reading. And it’s certainly plausible that a hundred thousand people typing away on the Internet will eventually produce a better "Supernatural" story arc than the writers are capable of doing.

3. But try to apply Jenkins’ quote to what Tina Brown’s been up to. I’ll wait.

4. The difference between acceptable fanfiction and terrible, horrible, no good, very bad stuff like “Diana at 50” is simple. Fanfiction, in my limited understanding, is about elaborating on the lives of fake people. It’s a whole other ballgame when we’re talking about real ones. Especially ones who are, themselves, something of a very weak center in the storms they provoked.

5. Oh, of course Diana had—and, bizarrely, often seemed to want—the kind of celebrity that splits a person in two, such that only one half is flesh and the other all narrative and fantasy. The weekend she died I was at a friend’s cottage in the Gatineau Hills. It was a characteristically Canadian summer home: charming, rickety and governed by the ethos that electricity and indoor plumbing are for suckers. We would spend our time at this place reading the stacks of tabloids lining the cottage's shelves—not just the Enquirer, but straight-up News of the World, alien-baby stuff, which were, I was told, collected from the owner’s neighbors, who were apparently aficionados. (The reason the cottage owners kept them was, ostensibly, for fires, which seems less plausible to me each new time I consider it.) After a weekend of trading these around, competing to find the most silly, outrageous story, and having items about Diana favoured to win that competition more than once, I think we could be forgiven for completely disbelieving the younger brother who gave us the news of her death when we got home. He ran out to the car, excited to break the news. Because he knew about the tabloids at the cottage, we assumed he was shining us on. But then we should have known better than to expect Diana to live out her days in a manner appropriate to your ordinary, everyday, average person living out the general banality that is human existence. Honestly, an end like that was a better fit for the script we’d spent the weekend poring over.

6. There’s been a lot of handwringing over the Newsweek cover's use of the words “dignity” and “respect,” but it's hard to believe someone like Diana would have been insulted by this kind of thing. My best guess is that Brown meant this all as a compliment. I can't have been the first to notice that the photoshopped version of Diana bears not a small amount of resemblance to Brown herself. And that the world Brown envisions for Diana seems more or less her own: a world in which one can straight-facedly refer to “old Gorby” and claim to have a “global girlfriend set,” where wearing a “galleon-size Lady Bracknell hat” is obviously a mortal sin,² and where references to “BFFs” and “Twitter” and “Facebook” are meant to signal that even the most exalted member of the “London über-swirl of fashion and society and media”³ is totally down with the habits of we people on the pavement. You could chalk this up to some special kind of egotism on Brown’s part but of course she’s probably at least half-right; this is what happens when you’re part of that class of people who unironically believe themselves entitled to waves of glitter, a Soho loft and Ibiza sunshine, who don’t find their self-celebration unseemly even during one of the worst world economic crises in decades. In other words, the people who live in Fantasyland. And often do so by choice.

7. Oh, shut up, Americans. I agree that the monarchy is an irrational and silly institution. But, speaking from the outside, the holy-text status you all assign to your “Founding Fathers” and your Constitution is just as confusing. Ditto the rallies and the crying over the flag and the inexplicable devotion to unearthing photos of your President holding babies. (And don’t tell me that doesn’t cost you a thing. Tea Party types, who feed on this crap, are a far greater threat to progressive politics than Kate Middleton.) National myths are, after all, something like old fixtures in the run-down Victorian you’ve just bought because you loved the gabled roof. The wall sconces are ornate in a way that obviates their value for you, they certainly aren’t up to your modern tastes, but if you want to take them out you’re going to have to gut the entire interior of the house. And at some point that gets too expensive, either materially or psychologically.

8. Sure, making up crap can be a fun activity for a lazy afternoon, on the order of doodling hearts all over one’s Trapper Keeper. Here are some of my stabs at Diana’s opinions about Important Contemporary Issues: I think Diana would have hated David Foster Wallace’s fiction. I think she would have thought, frankly, that "Mad Men" was only medium-good, that really "Nurse Jackie" was the best show on television. I think she would have found Momofuku overrated. But then it’s one thing to attribute my own pop culture preferences to Diana, and another to assert, as Brown does, that Diana would have known the “right” way to have handled 9/11 or Katrina, even if she would, indeed, have arrived “first at the scene in a hard hat with a camera crew.” (Just ask Sean Penn about how well that goes over.) Diana never had much on an instinct for politics. She always struck me as a woman who was most firmly against the stomping of puppies and the maiming of children, which is, of course, an admirable set of opinions, albeit one that allows you to campaign vociferously against landmines and AIDS without having to stop spending untold amounts of money on your wardrobe.

9. And if you think I make these observations because I hated Diana, or even because I hate the “cult” of Diana, think again. I was raised by a member. My mother has read nearly every book that’s come out about Diana; I know because I usually gave them to her at Christmas or for her birthday. (Oddly, I never gave her Brown’s The Diana Chronicles, not by design, just never got around to it.) I’ve heard people complain that the elevation of Diana is nothing more than a British/Canadian/American culture’s over-valuation of very silly women and their equally frivolous activities. My experience with my mother, who is a very practically minded and pessimistic sort, suggests otherwise; her sympathy always seemed less about Diana’s looks and clothes than founded in the idea that Diana was the victim of circumstances beyond her control, and who never seemed quite able to find her way out. I told her I was writing a thing about Diana and despite all that reading, despite years of our discussing, between us, the particular calibrations of the Royal message throughout the annus horribilis of 1992, the intractability of that terrible marriage, the likelihood that her children could grow up normal, despite all of it, here is what my mother said: “Well, I didn’t really know the woman.” Which sums up the real tragedy of the matter. Diana never seemed to know herself either, and strangely, most of the time, didn’t even seem to want to.

¹ I suppose I could check it, but I didn’t actually buy the book or anything like that, I got the quote from the “folk” on Tumblr.

² Lady Bracknell is fucking awesome and I’ll hear no bad words spoken of her. (Maybe I should try fanfic.)

³ I like how the phrase "über-swirl" indicates that the primary attribute of a milieu that sounds like total hell is that it is really very swirly.

Michelle Dean's writing has appeared, among other places, at Bitch, The American Prospect and The Rumpus. She sometimes blogs here.

16 Comments / Post A Comment

conklin (#364)

The difference between acceptable fanfiction and terrible, horrible, no good, very bad stuff like “Diana at 50” is simple. Fanfiction, in my limited understanding, is about elaborating on the lives of fake people.

But isn't that Tina Brown's real gift to us? She's created the fictional Diana so very necessary to all our future fan fictions. I'm working on some Diana/Christopher Reeve slash right now.

HiredGoons (#603)

'Cornflakes: A Great and Terrible Saga' by William Shawn.

zidaane (#373)

What if Diana were still alive and began using Cra-Pas for makeup.

LondonLee (#922)

Did Tina Brown do the Photoshopping for the cover too, because it's bloody awful — unless the Fanfiction is about a Zombie Diana.

David (#192)

@LondonLee illustration by R. Mutt Studios for Newsweek from a photo by Tim Graham / Getty Images … and no doubt the editor approved the changes. "Mirror Mirror on the Wall …

bennimaddi (#314)

4. The difference between acceptable fanfiction and terrible, horrible, no good, very bad stuff like “Diana at 50” is simple. Fanfiction, in my limited understanding, is about elaborating on the lives of fake people. It’s a whole other ballgame when we’re talking about real ones. Especially ones who are, themselves, something of a very weak center in the storms they provoked.

I really enjoyed the Emma Watson fanfic posted on this site a couple of weeks ago! I'm not sure what bearing, if any, that has on the rest of this though.

@bennimaddi Yeah, I think, among others, 4. is a really flawed premise seeing as we have this genre called historical fiction which does exactly this ("elaborating on the lives of" real people in a fictional context) and which is really quite popular and respected and has been going on at full steam, for, I don't know, like 35 years, since Ragtime, and winning lots of awards and attention recently (maybe Princess Diana wouldn't like David Foster Wallace, but she probably would have read (or at least pretended to read) Wolf Hall after it won the Booker!) and has existed without that particular name for actually much longer than that (Shakespeare wrote some totes great fic about kings named Henry!). I mean, I don't even really like historical fiction for a whole lot of reasons and this argument is not even considering the contemporary post-whatever stuff I do like, which plays with the lives of living people (like that fun Emma Watson thing from the other week or Donald Barthelme's "Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning" or that DFW story about Jeopardy or any number of things), but, yes, it is a really a pretty big part of literature as we know it and I don't get how Michelle can make this statement about whole other ballgames as if it's some kind of obvious truism? Because it's not true; this is, if I haven't beaten the dead horse of this point enough, really common and accepted: note the recent Times review of the new Monica Ali book, which basically does what Tina Brown is doing here but maybe in a slightly better or more interesting way and like 200 pages longer. The book isn't criticized in the review on the premise that this is the wrong thing to do, it's criticized on the premise that it's a poorly thought out, badly written book. I mean, maybe someone could make some sort of quality distinction between what august and respectable Literature does with real people and what weird and poorly written fan fiction does (I might actually make this argument but I have to polish my monocle) but then that would invalidate this particular case since Tina Brown is totally a member of the literary establishment (I mean, besides editing the New Yorker, anybody who fucks Martin Amis is an automatic lifer, right?). SOMEONE IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET etc. etc. etc. blah blah.

@devaluingmyfame (I should never leave blog comments because it makes me insane (I mean, I'm replying to myself), but I just wanted to make clear that that joke about fucking Martin Amis was definitely definitely not meant to imply that Tina Brown's literary worth and reputation is in any way because of who she had sex because that is obviously a totally abhorrent view of the world and also is like just patently untrue. I guess I just find it weird that anybody would have ever wanted to have sex with Martin Amis and feel the need to mention it for whatever reason okay the end.)

MichelleDean (#7,041)

@bennimaddi You make an interesting point but I do think there's a pretty obvious difference between writing historical fiction and writing counterfactuals, which is more or less what Ali and Brown are both doing on the most generous possible terms. And I would go on at length about why I think counterfactuals are definitionally less rigorous, more frivolous, and therefore less defensible, but it would involve traumatic memories from my undergraduate history degree and Niall Ferguson and I need desperately to get away from those.

SeanP (#4,058)

@devaluingmyfame The issue for me is less "fanfic is bad" and more "this is supposed to be a news magazine, not a mediocre slash site". Not to mention the fact that I don't think what the world needs right now is yet another reason to go into paroxysms of grief over someone that they didn't even know. I find the whole Di-worship phenomenon to be almost indescribably creepy.

ep (#8,509)

Tina Brown is a risk-taker who shakes things up, challenges people's comfortable assumptions, pushes herself and others to greater heights. And so of course people are going to criticize every tasteless mortifying showboating thing she does. She can't win!

MaryHaines (#3,666)

I for one can't wait for next week's Newsweek cover story: "Princess Kate: How She Might Die."

edbassx0x0 (#14,640)

- this is really entertaining and full of information regarding the Princess..

Vulpes (#946)

I mean, I know Newsweek has a cover every other week about "The Real Jesus," but even by those standards this whole thing just seems so… un-newsy! It really seems more like an expression of Tina Brown's creepy Diana fixation given a new platform since she bought Newsweek rather than anything anyone really wants. Plus, of course, it's a blatant grab for pageviews/newsstand buyers, because one thing magazine buyers love it's royals, especially Diana.

raincoaster (#628)

I don't buy the distinction: there is a LOT of fanfic about real people. They are both fanfic. And neither is journalism.

angelasagun (#14,722)

They are both fanfic

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