Sarah Hughes’s article in yesterday’s The Guardian, “From Peaky Blinders to Taboo, How TV’s History Man Is Shaking Up Period Drama,” helped me focus a question I’d been trying to frame for awhile. In the article, Hughes explores Steven Knight’s writing of historical drama, getting him to discuss his philosophy of writing and history. The entire piece is worth reading, but here’s the passage that struck me:
So would it be fair to describe Knight’s television dramas as a form of alternative history, dealing with those stories that can’t be contained or easily explained away?
He nods. “Yes, exactly. Historians like to find patterns because that’s their job, they want a pattern that can be referred back to, or to view an event as part of a bigger pattern, but for people living their lives during that time it’s not like that.
“[A] form of alternative history.” That’s the idea I want to work with, and it brings me, strangely enough, to fanfiction and the question I’d like to ask Steven Knight:
How do you feel about fans writing their own fics,
“a form of alternative history,” using Peaky Blinders?
First, a confession. I’m not a fanfic reader. That’s not a commentary on the genre itself. Rather, I’ve tried, and it just doesn’t work for me. One of the things I like about watching the TV show is that the characters’ thoughts and motives aren’t always made clear. I puzzle through those gaps myself, and it’s part of the pleasure of watching. Fanfic, however, tends to make those motivations very clear, and as a consumer, I find that frustrating. Let me be clear: That’s my hangup as a reader and viewer. What fanfic means I find fascinating.
If you’re interested, there are plenty of Peaky Blinders fanfic sites. Here are a few:
To visit these sites is to find an alternative Peaky Blinders universe where Grace lives, new characters exist, and unexpected relationships and histories emerge. And NomDeGuerre’s Tumblr shows the appetite for this kind of storytelling.
The academic writing on fanfic is extensive — let me make a few recommendations:
- Anne Jamison and Lev Grossman’s Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World
- Katherine Larsen and Lynn S. Zubernis’s Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls
- Henry Jenkins’s Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture
- Karen Kellekson and Kristina Russe’s The Fan Fiction Studies Reader
As Larsen and Zubernis write about the critical consensus:
[F]anfiction constitutes a site of resistance, a chance for fans to take control of characters and in some cases to fix what’s “wrong” (at least as they see it) with their favorite shows, filling in gaps in the source text, providing backstory where none existed, fleshing out or inserting characters as needed in order to create a text that fits the needs of the reader.”
Perhaps no one has put it as well as Lesley Goodman in “Disappointing Fans: Fandom, Fictional Theory, And The Death Of The Author” (Journal Of Popular Culture 48.4 : 662-676):
The rule-breaking aspects of fandom have thus often been at the center of academic fan studies: indifference to copyright laws and capitalist models of artistic labor, the insistence on representing what the mainstream media refuses to represent (particularly feminine or queer forms of desire), the rejection of the distinction between author and reader . . . .
Goodman then gets to the point:
Fans, then, feel free to disregard the authority of the author. The fannish tendency is not so much to ignore as it is to correct, to chastise. The author is not only alive and well but a disappointment. [emphasis added]
The history of fanfic, which is mostly written by women, is fascinating, but the impulse for women to write comes from largely being ignored in terms of the story itself as well as being excluded from predominately male fandoms. Grossman points out that this really begins, at least in terms of television, in 1966 with the beginnings of Star Trek. In terms of fanfic, he writes, “It’s about doing things with those existing characters and worlds that their creators couldn’t or wouldn’t do.”
In other words, fanfic is deeply subversive because it undercuts the authority of the author.
Back to My Question
Knight has revealed himself to be a fairly traditional creator.
Here’s what he told Neil Landau in TV Outside the Box: Trailblazing in the Digital Revolution. Landau asks if Knight has a “typical writers’ room,” to which he answers, “No, it’s just me” [Laughs]. He goes on to elaborate:
I think that the problem of any meeting of people is, the conclusion will always be a compromise because people are quite nice, or afraid, or dominant, or whatever, and the conclusion will reflect the room. Maybe the person who is is dominant isn’t the smartest person. But will get their way, maybe, and therefore the story that comes out of it won’t be so good. The real reason for me is I can’t do it any other way. You’ve got to do it yourself — I can’t delegate things that are so personal.
But because of the internet and because of the Peaky Blinders fandom, Knight does, in fact, have a writers room. It’s unofficial, and to the best of my knowledge, he has never interacted with with, but it exists: fans who have questioned his authority of the Peaky Blinders world he has created.
Last summer, I wrote “Steven Knight Gets to Do What He Wants (Even if I Don’t Like It.)” I did that because as a student of literature, that’s largely what I’ve been taught: The text is authoritative. But I’ve been rethinking that post in light of fandom. In his interview with Hughes, Knight says of Taboo, “I hope it will have the sort of loyalty that Peaky does.” I do, too, but that “loyalty” now doesn’t mean what it once did. Rather than fans just accepting what TPTB tell them, they recraft texts.
Steven Knight’s creation Peaky Blinders has taken on a life of its own in the hands of fans, especially female fans. And as a writer, I’d like to know his thoughts on that. I am particularly interested in Knight’s thoughts on Peaky Blinders fanfic as a response to “errors in the text.” What does he think? I’ll never get to ask that question, but I hope someone does.
On a separate note, I’m going to use this Hughes article about Steven Knight and writing to jump into my Taboo blog, which I hope you’ll give a try.
Here’s to a good 2017.
Publication date: 1 January 2017
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