Art is, at least partly, a dialogue between the artist and the audience. But how the conversation takes place is a matter that’s much disputed. Among those who ascribe to “the author is dead” theories, once the art is created and out there, the artist’s contribution is done. Any intent or further elaboration they might want to express is irrelevant, and all interpretations are valid as long as they can be supported by the work of art itself. On the opposite end of the spectrum, audience response is irrelevant (and often sneered at). Only the artist’s intent has any validity. As usual, I find both extremes rather ineffective in picking apart all the intricacies of artistic dialogue. I like to think that a work of art has meaning, or at least the most meaning, when it becomes an encounter between the creator and the observer, both taking part in the process. Of course the artist tends to play a more active role in that process, but art is most meaningful when the individual observer also engages in some form of creative thought. In that sense, even if the artist has long been dead, they are still interacting in a metaphorical form with countless new observers. And that’s pretty awesome.
But this does lead to some problematic situations. If someone engages intensely with a work of art, they tend to feel a sort of ownership of it. Which can lead to an alarming sort of fanaticism. Sometimes they view the artist with near-worship, but all too often they go the other route and start spouting nonsense about how this author owes them the next book in the series, or how dare that filmmaker go a different direction with a certain character or plot line, and so on and so on until they’re holding people hostage or chopping legs. All right, it doesn’t usually get that extreme, but does being a loyal fan really entitle someone to having a say in the artist’s creative process? If nothing else, I’ve seen examples of art that tries to cater directly to its fanbase, and it’s usually straight-up garbage. I really think that artists have every right to ignore everything but their own muse. That might make them less successful, or more, but either way artistic integrity is crucial.
But that’s looking at the artist’s side. I’m an amateur writer as yet; I don’t have a fanbase beyond some highly biased family and friends. I’ve been much more on the fan side, and let me tell you – it’s a wild ride. I tend to fall very deeply, very fast, into a good book. I think about it for days, maybe weeks, after I’ve finished reading it. I even find myself reluctant to start out a new series that everyone’s raving about, and not because I doubt I’ll like it. Quite the contrary. I know I’ll become heavily invested in the characters and feel all the anguish and pain that they feel. It’s kind of scary.
Most of the time I do eventually pick up that new series. Because that hyper-sensitive response to an engaging story? I love it. I know people whose response to books tends to be much milder. They can read a good story, enjoy it, set it down and not have a second thought about it. I don’t envy them. If I couldn’t invest myself fully in a book, I certainly wouldn’t be able to invest myself in writing one. As long as I keep my reactions within reasonable parameters (no author stalking, etc.), I’m happy to be a fan.
One of the emotional roller coasters of fandom that particularly intrigues me is the adaptions of a beloved work. How many hours are spent on message boards, discussing and debating and worrying about how this or that book will be brought to the screen? And the intensity of the fans’ anger when something is altered! I’m not speaking as an outsider here. I could enumerate dozens of problems I had with the Harry Potter movies, much as I enjoyed them. I could rant for hours about why I refuse to accept the Star Trek reboot. And on and on. Rationally, I know that such reactions are not only over-the-top but rather pointless. An adaptation doesn’t change the original work. I can happily ignore a movie version; it shouldn’t affect my enjoyment of the original book. And yet…and yet….I care. Because I’ve engaged with the work; I’ve had a conversation with the artist, or at least their artistic avatar. And in that sense, I feel a sense of ownership. Not of the work itself, but of my own interpretation of it, my experience of it. How it affected me, how it changed me. And that’s what it means to be a fan, for worse or for better.