Rachel Cobleigh (reveilles) wrote,
Rachel Cobleigh

On Themes In Fanfiction

I've been having a lot of fun writing an epic Downton Abbey novel trilogy, Trust and Providence, and I look forward to continuing with it for some time yet. A big part of my enjoyment has been the privilege of interacting with the wonderful community of Downton Abbey fans. You all have welcomed me in, a relative latecomer to the fandom, and all your feedback has been very much appreciated...yes, even those of you who have criticized T&P. :-D

I want to open up a more general conversation about themes in fanfiction, using the main critiques of T&P as a launching-pad, so I hope you'll join in. I'd love to hear differing perspectives!

So far, the majority of the critiques of T&P can be grouped into three categories:

  1. Too much God

  2. Too much sex

  3. Too much canon

Let's take a brief look at each of these...

Too Much God
This is a valid criticism: in general, fanfiction is regarded as a safe place to just go and have a bit of fun. Nobody wants to start reading a story and end up getting preached at. That's no fun at all. But even if the story isn't preachy, sometimes encountering real-life faith experiences translated into a fantasy universe can still be jarring, in part because it's not commonly done. Popular entertainment, in general, doesn't address this topic in much depth, unless a story is billed as "religious" at the outset, and then it's understood that religious themes will probably dominate the work, often at the expense of good storytelling, unfortunately.

I don't plan to change how I approach this theme in T&P, but I knew going in that it's not everyone's cup of tea, which is why I put the "frank discussions of faith and philosophy" warning in the story summary from day one, so nobody would feel like it was a bait-and-switch.

I hope my treatment of this theme is inviting and honest, but everyone's comfort level and history with this topic is intensely personal, so no matter what the response is, I regard it as a valid one.

Too Much Sex
Ironically, the people who are often the most comfortable with the "God" theme are the most uncomfortable with talking about sex in any realistic detail. I've had people ask me why I put in so much sex (e.g., "there's too much; it's overdone"), or why I describe it in graphic terms at all.

Others who welcome graphic sex scenes in their fanfic have asked why those scenes in T&P take so long (e.g., "it's like wading through treacle" :), or have so much verbal conversation running through them, which kills the pacing when the scene is read in purely physical terms.

Again, both of these perspectives are valid criticisms. Sex is another one of those intensely personal, individual things.

My answer to the "Why include graphic depictions of sex?" question is this: because sex is just as much a part of the human experience as every other topic is, and I'm going to treat it with equal care. I write graphic depictions of everything the characters do in all their scenes. If it furthers the character, plot, or thematic development of the story, it belongs in the story. If it doesn't do those things, I won't include it merely for its own sake.

Similarly, my response to "Why doesn't the sex just rush smoothly towards a satisfying conclusion?" is that my goal isn't to titillate my readers, but to tell a story. If a smooth rush into an orgasm is what will further the story, then that's the scene I write. If there's more going on between the characters, then that's what gets depicted. One of my aims with T&P is to explore a marriage relationship developing over time, and sometimes the circumstances lead to easy sex, and sometimes the circumstances lead to more challenging sex. But the goal is not really to depict sex per se, but rather to depict intimacy. The physical communication is just a part of that.

But there are other approaches to writing sex and they're valid, too.

Too Much Canon
Again, another valid criticism. The fanfic reader who is just looking for a novelization of canon is a rare bird indeed. Most of us go to fanfic to experience the things that canon doesn't show us. So why do I reuse Downton Abbey canon so heavily in T&P? It's because of the premise I chose. The main rule I've established for myself in writing this story is: if the change flows logically from the AU conceit (i.e., that Mary accepts Matthew's first proposal and tells him that night about Pamuk), then it can happen in T&P. Otherwise, canon holds.

Thus, from the very first line of dialogue in T&P, canon is in the foreground, and although I can diverge in some places, we find the characters reliving pretty much all of the WWI plotlines, because the fact that Mary and Matthew are married would have no effect whatsoever on the progression of the war and its immediate aftermath. It's a fixed-point situation. But the moment the war releases everyone from its constraints, T&P will spin off in wildly different directions from canon (although still running closely alongside the canon plotlines that, again, would not have been affected by their earlier marriage).

This kind of extremely-close-to-canon parallel universe is not what floats everyone's boat, but thankfully there are a lot of excellent AU Mary/Matthew fanfic novels that have been written, so there's probably something for everyone by now. :)

For those who are on board with this closely-parallel AU premise, and who still object to how much canon I'm reusing in T&P, consider this: I'm writing for three audiences simultaneously. I'm writing for:

  • Diehard fans who have memorized canon and analyzed it incessantly.

  • More casual fans, many of whom have either forgotten some of the finer points of canon, or who might never have seen canon in its entirety to begin with, because they only saw an edited-down American-release version, for example. (I've had people praise me for writing scenes that Fellowes wrote 95% of, LOL—I made sure to set the record straight, there!)

  • People who have never seen Downton Abbey at all. Before you laugh, I have such readers. One of my main betas is in this category, actually, and her feedback is sometimes mindblowing and hugely insightful, because she can point out where T&P isn't holding together as a cohesive story in its own right because I'm taking canon knowledge for granted.

I've appreciated the critiques, first, because this kind of feedback indicates that people are thinking carefully about what they're reading and that's the best kind of reader, and second, because criticism makes me think carefully about what I'm doing to make sure that I'm doing my absolute best.


Tags: analysis, canon, critique, downton abbey, fan fiction, fanfic, fanfiction, god, meta, sex, themes

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