I am a writer.
Obviously, here I am writing to you. But as a writer, I’ve always had a soft spot for other writers, and when angry “fans” online start to trash-talk their fandoms’ creators because those creators had the nerve to make the story go in a way they disagreed with, I’ve always taken the writers’ sides. You may not like what they write, but you can’t tell them they’re wrong. It’s their story! They would know their own story better than you!
But for a couple of weeks, starting a few days after I saw Avengers: Endgame, I’d had a pot of irrational rage simmering in my stomach.
Now, this article is not about Endgame, it’s about the feeling of being an angry fan, so I’m going to be speaking in generalities here, doing my hearty best to avoid outright spoilers. Those of you who’ve seen Endgame may know exactly what I’m talking about, but those of you who haven’t should still be able to follow along with my emotional roller-coaster without me giving away too much.
You see, I went into Endgame with one major “they better not do what I think they might” concern. I left it, luckily, feeling relatively satisfied with how that concern was handled (that link explains it AND is flat out spoilery, for the warning).
The way I interpreted it, they’d reached a decent compromise between what I wanted and what I feared.
Naively, I didn’t realize it could be interpreted a different way until I joined in on the online discussions and saw other theories (which, incidentally, embraced the explanation I did NOT like). I should mention that what people wanted did not seem to be coloring their interpretations: some people who wanted what I did were upset about it because they interpreted what happened the other way; some people who interpreted it like I did didn’t care one way or another.
No, I said, that’s not what happened, and I have a whole list of reasons why!
I ended up writing my reasonings out into what became a series of vignettes illustrating exactly why what I thought had happened could be the only possible explanation, and I posted it on AO3 so I could link to it easily. Before I knew it, people were leaving me comments like, “I will now only accept YOUR version of these events!”
Well, thank you, I guess, but you do know this isn’t really my version. This isn’t fix-it fic. This is what really must have happened (or must not have happened) offscreen following the logic of what happened ONscreen.
But, out there on the interview circuit, the creators had started talking, darnit. The funny thing is, nobody seems to agree on what actually happened. The directors, as it turns out, agree with me about it, and that should make me happy. But the actual writers of the movie have a different interpretation. The very interpretation I was afraid of. And they keep doubling down on it, with glee. And when it comes from the writers, it feels more like the Word of God.
Maybe I shared the directors’ explanation, but it’s the writers’ explanation that seems to be gaining the most traction.
I sat scrolling through Twitter, fuming at the writers’ stupid theory that didn’t even make sense according to the rules and characters THEY HAD WRITTEN, fuming that so many people online were starting to accept it as fact. I scrolled past tweets discussing terrible injustices in society, political scandals and human tragedies, with indifference. How could I care about that when PEOPLE WERE WRONG ABOUT A STORY I LOVED?
Whose Story Is It?
I guess I’ve either always been lucky or am just good at reading an author’s intentions, that I’ve never felt utterly betrayed by a turn taken by one of my favorite stories.* I haven’t developed expectations too far out to be accomplished by the actual writer. I tend to just roll with stories, letting the author steer.
If I’m going to ship any characters, they’ve always been ones it’s pretty clear the authors intended me to ship (and if I don’t like the pairing the writer clearly wants me to care for, which certainly happens, I don’t ship anyone at all). If I’m going to write fanfic, it tends to be a scene that would fit in the established canon—a childhood incident that in all likelihood surely happened to the Loudermilk twins, or exactly how Zoe Alleyne fell in love with Hoban “Wash” Washburne**—something that must have happened behind the scenes of the main story, not changing the main story at all.
That’s what I did with that Endgame “explanation” fic. It’s not fix-it fic, I said, it’s truly what would happen in the MCU as I understand it. But many fans do use fanfic as a way to tell the story they wanted to hear instead of the story that was actually told. There is probably a fanfic out there for not just every possibility, but every impossibility, for whatever story you choose!
Which is why the common retort made to disappointed fans, “If you don’t like it, write your own story,” isn’t quite fair. Fans do write their own stories. But maybe the angry fan was really hoping to see certain actors perform their version, or a much cleverer writer than themselves manage the scene. Truly, the reason I don’t want the Endgame writers’ theory to be considered canon is because their theory cancels out (or at very best would require the premature death or complete out-of-character characterization of a character I’ve always staunchly defended) a branch of the MCU I’d really hoped to see onscreen again.
No amount of my own fic can make that happen.
Of course, Endgame is an odd case when it comes to trusting in the authors’ version of the story. This isn’t just one or two people’s story, even if you don’t count the decades of comics the MCU was based on. If the same writers had written every single movie and TV show in the MCU, or had written and directed, or had spelled out exactly what was up to everyone involved, there would be much less room for interpretation in what is or is not the “correct” story choice.
But no, many people had a hand in bringing this world to life, and I’m fairly certain at least one other group of MCU writers had a completely different idea of where certain characters’ stories were going. So technically, by staunchly sticking to the end theory that the directors and I espouse, I am still taking the writers’ side—just, a different group of writers. Our theory allows all the writers’ ideas to work.
I never watched Game of Thrones, but I can hardly stay unaware of all the angry fans in that fandom lately. But that’s an even stranger case: the anger is directed at the adapters of a series of novels that hasn’t even been completed by the original author.
What is canon? If the books’ ending turns out completely different from the TV show’s, does it even matter what paths the show took in the last season? Well, sure, if you really wanted to see this cast perform the proper ending, but who knows when the books’ ending will be out, and how can anyone expect the adapters of the story to come up with a better ending than the one they did pull together, anyway?
Still, a surprisingly large contingent of angry fans signed a petition to have the whole last season scrapped and remade. Can they even do that? Well, they can complain all they want, but they can’t get their way. Maybe there will be a completely new adaptation someday when all the books have been completed. Until then, what’s out there is what there is.
Though at least I’m not going to send them nasty tweets or death threats over it, so I guess I have that going for me.
— Amy W (@rockinlibrarian) May 14, 2019
Death of the Author and Hype of the Media
I saw someone invoke the concept of “Death of the Author,” which, no, is not the same as “Death TO the Author.” It’s the idea that once a piece of work is out in the world, it doesn’t matter what the author says about what it means. The work itself will have whatever meaning the observer takes from it. What the author says after the fact is not canon. If everyone could simply embrace their own interpretation without being told what interpretation was the right one, there’d be a lot less angry fans.
Still, people want to know what the author was thinking, especially when the work is ambiguous. I don’t blame them. As, again, another writer, I like to hear other writers’ thought processes, too. And the juiciest-yet-most-on-topic question an interviewer can ask is, “What’s the truth about this thing that none of your fans agree on?” And when a work is popular, the media, particularly online media, treats everything the author says about it as NEWS.
I’ve always felt particularly bad for J.K. Rowling: she can’t so much as tweet a joke without entertainment blogs and social media blowing up. “J.K. Rowling reveals the TRUTH about Harry!” the headlines read. “Why does she keep announcing these things? She does it just to shock people when she hasn’t been getting as much attention!” people complain.
And most of the time she was just answering an interview question. The whole infamous “Dumbledore is gay!” “announcement” had really just been an honest reply to somebody who wanted to know if Dumbledore and McGonnagle were dating.
Remember when she tried to become an under-the-radar mystery writer using a pen name, so she could just write without everyone making a big deal out of it, but somebody at the publisher leaked it? People accused her of “making announcements just to get attention” even then!
I’ve even seen more than one media outlet refer to recent interviews with the Endgame creators (both writers and directors) as them “pulling a J.K. Rowling,” when they’d merely been answering questions about where they stood on fan theories!
It’s funny that some people refer to writers’ outside-of-the-work statements as “the word of God,” when oftentimes interviews reveal the all-too-human floundering of the writers instead. DVD special features have informed me that the only reason Marty McFly didn’t go to a nuclear testing facility to power the DeLorean, and Sauron didn’t appear in person to battle Aragorn’s army, was budgetary concerns, and not that these were simply terrible ideas that would have weakened Back to the Future and Return of the King in their final movie forms.
Thank goodness for budget constraints! They end up making screenwriters look cleverer than they are!
There’s a magic in art, something about the collective unconscious and the eye of the beholder, that occasionally lets creators do deep and brilliant things in their works by accident. Noah Hawley’s miniseries Fargo (at least the first two seasons, the third was meh***) and Legion are masterpieces of metaphor and interconnectedness, and I know he does put a lot of effort into all those details.
But occasionally, in interviews, I’ve heard him poorly explain seemingly perfect scenes, or get wrong exactly what it was that made another scene work. It’s slightly disillusioning to see that he doesn’t really have everything in as complete control as you first thought, but then you realize that, if you’d never heard anything, good or bad, from the creator, you would have simply enjoyed the scene for the perfectly crafted work of art it first appeared to be, none the wiser.
Back when I was failing as an English major in college, Death of the Author was one of the problems I had with Literary Analysis. When someone approached a work from a specific analytical lens and came up with an explanation that seemed completely off-the-wall unrelated to what actually appeared in the text, I’d say, “But how can you say that? The author said in the introduction it was merely about this!” And my professors or classmates would say, “DEATH OF THE AUTHOR! ONLY THE WORK MATTERS!” And I’d pout because I thought that was awfully rude toward the author.
But sometimes Death of the Author is much kinder. It allows everyone to experience the work on their own terms. I can identify with Luna Lovegood’s neurodivergency whether or not Rowling ever gave her a specific label. I can firmly believe Sherlock Holmes is asexual even if some of his adapters don’t understand it. And we can all accept whatever explanation we want to accept about the end of Endgame, whether we agree with the writers or the directors or neither.
I just hope the executives at Disney get that memo, and don’t write off the chance of the thing I want to see appearing on Disney+ in the future just because of an explanation two of their writers gave in an interview!
Hope and the Trouble With Dashing It
So, what have I learned from this experience of being an angry fangirl?
You can’t blame fans for having strong feelings, even negative feelings, about their favorite things. A person can’t help getting their hopes up in anticipation of a favorite series, and it always hurts to get ones hopes crushed, even if it’s over something trivial like a work of fiction.
But equally, you can’t blame creators for shaping their stories to their own taste, no matter what the fans think. It’s impossible to satisfy everyone with a piece of art, anyway. It’s the creators’ story, in the end.
So really, the only guilty parties are:
- Fans who directly threaten creators or other fans who disagree
- Creators who belittle fans (but this happens much less frequently)
- and the media people who make a BIG DEAL out of everything creators say, stoking flame wars and presenting supposition as fact. I would never have gotten so angry if I didn’t have to keep seeing Hot Takes and articles claiming that what the writers say goes.
That’s the trouble: when you come out of a media experience wanting to immerse yourself in the company of others talking about the same thing, you’re inevitably going to run into fans who disagree with you and creators who disappoint you. But if you avoid the chatter entirely, you’ll miss out on squeeing with fans who do agree with you, and viewpoints that help you see things in a whole new way.
In the end, all that really matters is your gut experience with the story. Nothing anyone says—whether hater, fan, or creator—can take that experience from you.
Just as long as Disney doesn’t make the out-of-movie opinions of the Endgame writers official canon, I’ll be okay.
*Except maybe Heroes, but that was less a feeling of betrayal as much as “I suspect the writers have no clue what they’re doing anymore, so I’m bored, never mind.” I did hang in there with that one longer than a lot of people did, though.
OH, OH, WAIT, I thought of another: The Amber Spyglass. But that was before I spent much time online so I didn’t really have anyone to rant with. But I can’t deny I still complain about Philip Pullman on a semi-regular basis.
But that’s it. I can’t think of any more.
**That one isn’t online for me to link to yet. I started it years ago, but can’t work out just one little scene to finish it. Really kind of frustrating!
***Does this count as feeling betrayed by the creators of a favorite story, too? Technically? Except since Fargo was an anthology show, I wasn’t particularly super-excited to find out what happened next or anything, and at that point I really cared less about Fargo and more about Hawley getting on with making more Legion, which is everything I love in one television show (superpowers! psychology and philosophy and ethics! psychedelic rock! interesting side characters I’m compelled to write childhood-set fanfiction about, see above!). Which also got a little bit lost in its second season, but there was enough good stuff there that I’m hopeful season three coming up next month will pull it all back together satisfactorily. Maybe? I hope? Must temper expectations so as not to become an angry fangirl again…