On the Cult of Originality: What Byzantine Literary Culture Can Tell Us About Fanfiction

What are we going to do with the cult of originality? The set of pernicious beliefs that say: oh, all romances are the same, there’s always a happy ending, that can’t be real literature? Or, this book is full of tropes, it must be too commercial to be good? Or even: if you can’t write something entirely new, you aren’t writing real literature … and if you’re writing fanfiction, you must be ‘practicing’ until you’re ready to be original! I’m entirely sure most of you readers have heard—or even subscribe to—one or more of these beliefs about originality being a sign of artistic achievement. It’s an idea that’s baked into modern Western cultural criticism, particularly literary criticism.

And yet: we are surrounded by literature which is not original and which is successful, enjoyed, and persistent.

This literature is described as flawed, insufficient, not morally improving nor useful to the scholar; self-indulgent, archaizing, written by un-scholarly or un-imaginative persons, or worse yet, by members of marginalized groups; literature which is full of tropes, of expected emotional beats, of Happy-For-Ever endings; literature written using someone else’s characters, for no monetary gain, merely social pleasure and social currency. Literature which insists on being unavoidably present: produced by both the most-educated and the least-privileged—and unequivocally enjoyed (and reproduced, traded, invoked) by both these groups?

You think I’m talking about transformative fanwork here. And I am. But I’m also talking about Byzantine literature from the 9th-12th centuries. What’s interesting is how similar the problems are in evaluating whether some piece of writing is good if we use the criteria of originality to make that determination … both for Byzantine literature and for modern transformative works.

I’ll show my hand. I’m trained as a Byzantinist. And being a Byzantinist made be a better fanfic writer. And being a fanfic writer and a Byzantinist has made be a better fiction writer in general.

As Byzantinists, we are forced by longstanding pressures inside our own field to deal with much of Byzantine literary production primarily through the prism of thinking about originality, because so much of Byzantine writing is full of assembled, quoted, referential material from older and more archaic texts. One of the most influential Byzantinists of the last century, Cyril Mango, called Byzantine literature ‘a distorting mirror’: where the habit of self-reference, repetition, and re-use is seen as a distorted reflection of reality, with allusion and reference used to such a degree that the historian cannot trust the descriptions contained in any particular work to have true reference to the time period or events it refers to. Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether it should be a historian’s judgment on the uses of literature which defines its merits (I myself am a historian by training and thus may be irretrievably biased)—literary scholars have also traditionally despaired of the lack of creativity in Byzantine literature. At best, some scholars write that Byzantium can be saved from “the stigma of absolute mimesis” —by pointing out where Byzantine literary culture is indeed innovative and thereby justifying that it has merit. There is indeed a stigma attached to mimesis. To imitation. That’s the cult of originality: saying that non-referential production is what is intrinsically valuable about literature.

I don’t want to draw an absolute equivalence between transformative works and Byzantine literature here: what Byzantine people are doing when they perform assemblage and referential citation is not the same, and does not derive from the same social pressures, as what is happening when 20th and 21st-century people write fanfiction, produce remixed video, or create visual art based on media properties. However, looking at the social and emotional processes which underlie the success and persistence of both Byzantine “compilation literature” and the production of transformative works shows us how valuable tropes are to us—how valuable familiarity is. It shows us the power of recognition.

Compilation literature—I’m using a term invented by the Byzantinist Catherine Holmes here—is produced by copying, summarizing, reordering, updating, and excerpting pre-existing material, and shaping these materials to fit the author-compiler’s current situation or eventual goal. Byzantine compilation literature spans genres: military handbooks, agriculture, hagiography, medicine, law, moralizing literature, and dream interpretation are all locations where we can see Byzantine authors employing these methods. The sheer predominance of compilation literature suggests that it was highly efficacious for Byzantine persons—that producing texts in this way was productive, solved problems, was useful and effective.

But why was it useful? I think that the usefulness of compilation literature for Byzantine people was a combination of first, an appeal to authority, produced by the exemplary employment of a set of shared aesthetic values between the author-compiler and their audience, and second, a kind of pleasure of recognition. And these are the same modes of efficacy which we can use to talk about transformative works. Both Byzantine compilation literature and transformative work depend on an awareness possessed by both author and audience of a shared connotative world for effectiveness (think back to our storyworld encyclopedias from the last time I was here chatting to you all about narrative), and this shared connotative world gives both authority to the text and pleasure to the audience interacting with it.

Here’s a Byzantine example as a demonstration. The Byzantine provincial governor of Antioch, Nikephoros Ouranos, wrote a military manual in the tenth century called the Taktika. This book has four main sections—and three of them are reprisals or derivations of famous earlier military treatises, which Ouranos summarizes. In his fourth section, he takes a very popular military text of the day, the Praecepta militaria written by the Emperor Nikephoros Phokas, and adds his own sections to it, based on his personal experiences of Antioch: one section siege warfare and one section describing the variable allegiances of the local populations of Northern Syria.

Ouranos is doing two things here: he is translating his personal experience into a practical handbook, for didactic purposes, but he is also demonstrating his ability to command the history of warfare practice and his access to texts concerning how to conduct warfare, especially in the East. It is through this second practice that he renders himself an authority. The sections of the Taktika which are taken from Classical military manuals are not haphazardly selected, but instead demonstrate Ouranos’s profound engagement with Byzantine citation culture, and thus with the habits of intellectual life in the Byzantine state. His selection of the compiled texts shows both his access to rare preserved manuscripts and his knowledge of the ultimate provenance of his citations: The title of the Taktika as given in the Codex Constantinopolitanus Graecae 36 is given as “The Taktika or Strategika of Arrian, Aelian, Pelops, Polyainos, Onasander, Alkibiades, Artaxerces, Syrianos, Annibas, Plutarch, Alexander, Diodoros, Polybios, Herakleitos, Muarice, Nikephoros, and certain others, collected by Nikephoros magistros Ouranos from many historical [texts], as was said, with much care.” Ouranos’s command of the historical record makes him a more authoritative military commander, and makes his additions of contemporary practices, like the analysis of the allegiances of the North Syrian local population, legitimate.

Ouranos’s audience—the in-group with which he shares a connotative set of references, a storyworld—is that of the Byzantine aristocratic literati. For Byzantines, rhetoric, tropes, and citations were fundamentally creative because they showed both the writer’s skill in composing aesthetically impressive pieces, and required him to have the ability to distill the depths of Byzantine classicizing culture to pick out the correct reference which would have his desired effect on his audience. The author-compiler selects from a multitude of possible realities the one which he believes will best make his point and achieve his aims. This form of creativity is unfamiliar to us, because it is not about the construction of originality, but instead about the use and employment of the familiar. It is nevertheless a form of creativity, and one which is functionally similar to the production of transformative works. The employment of correct reference is a use of the ‘system of shared significants’ —the connotative world shared by author and audience—to produce a particular effect.

Transformative works are exclusively created by people who know and love the original source text, and its audience is also this group—essentially, transformative works are by fans and for fans, the way that Byzantine compilation literature was by ‘fans’ of classical literature and for ‘fans’ of classical literature. In great part, transformative work has also been created by groups which, unlike the Byzantine literati of Constantinople, are not part of the dominant or centered population. Fanfiction, especially, has been primarily written by women and LGBTQ people, and often centers LGBTQ versions of extant narratives. Decentered engagement with the source text is a vital component of transformative work, and is part of why transformative work is so often accused of being a less-worthy form of creative production. Not only is it unoriginal, it is produced by persons who are members of marginalized groups! But the sociocultural aspects of transformative work are incredibly complicated, interesting, and powerful, and I’m going to skip right over them to concentrate on the process by which a transformative work is successful.

In creating a transformative work, the author is engaged in a dialogue with the source text. They reproduce the source text in ways which are identifiable to their audience, while making changes which either continue or adapt that source text to the author’s own purposes (which may be analytic, commentative, critical, pleasurable, or even sexual). The creator of a transformative work relies on the audience’s shared knowledge of the source text, and it is through the signaling of that shared knowledge that the transformative work gains authority to make commentary, engage in critique, or inspire pleasure. This assemblage is a process of creating familiarity: of evoking moments of aesthetic recognition in the audience. Good fanfiction feels right—we recognize the aesthetics of the ‘canon’ even when we’re really embedded in ‘fanon’.

In this sense, the production of transformative work can be understood as participating in a “shared cultural tradition”, as the fanwork scholar Henry Jenkins has described it—a shared tradition along the lines of the retelling of mythology and folklore. Such retellings “improve the fit between story and culture, making these stories central to the way a people thought of themselves.” The process of retelling a culturally-central story reaffirms both the story and the culture, as well as marking the teller of that story as an exemplary member of that culture. Fundamentally, it is the audience’s perception of the familiarity of the retelling which creates the moment of aesthetic recognition, which then affirms both the audience’s and the teller’s position as mutually conversant in their culture.

The pleasure of the familiar—the pleasure of recognizing a shared referent—comes at least in part from the reassurance it brings: the audience, in their moment of recognition, feels themselves and the author to be common members of the same community. This, as Byzantines like Ouranos show us, certainly works to shore up the authority of the author-compiler—but we must not discount what the example of transformative work also tells us, which is that there is an affective component to assemblage: the pleasure of aesthetic recognition. Freud knew about this—in his The Pleasure Mechanism and the Psychogenesis of Wit, he wrote “If the act of recognition is so pleasureful, we may expect that man merges into the habit of practicing this activity for its own sake, that is, he experiments playfully with it.” Like Freud, Byzantinists should recall that recognition is not only authoritative but pleasurable. And like Byzantinists, writers, readers, and critics of fanfiction and other transformative works—as well as writers of quote-unquote original work—can think about pleasure as a way of escaping the cult of originality.

Arkady Martine writes speculative fiction when she isn’t writing Byzantine history. She is overly fond of borders, rhetoric, and liminal spaces. Her novel A Memory Called Empire publishes March 26th with Tor Books. Find her on Twitter as @ArkadyMartine.

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