Badly Done, Caitlin

Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong in as Emma and Mr Knightly
Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong in as Emma and Mr Knightley

“It was badly done, indeed! You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honour, to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her–and before her niece, too–and before others, many of whom (certainly some,) would be entirely guided by your treatment of her.–This is not pleasant to you, Emma–and it is very far from pleasant to me; but I must, I will,–I will tell you truths while I can.”

Mr. Knightley chastising Emma for her ill treatment of Miss Bates
Emma, volume 3, chapter 7

I have never felt the desire to write Sherlock fan fiction. I did, however, write extensively in another fandom for several years. So I know how tender and sensitive the part of a writer’s psyche can be when dealing with the objects of their fantasy and – let’s be honest – lust. You seek out similar company because sometimes your response to characters you love, combined with the sense of helplessness when things on TV don’t work out for them, leaves you with an overflow of emotion that desperately needs sympathetic company.

To “out” yourself as a fan is more socially acceptable than it used to be and it would be disingenuous to claim that shows like Doctor Who and Sherlock aren’t in a continual, generally unacknowledged dialogue with their fan base. But it’s a sensitive area. Fanfic writers know that legally they are on shaky ground and that a certain amount of smoke and mirrors obscures the reality that, whatever they say in public, the creators of their loved shows have some awareness of their work, their sensibilities and their motivations. In the case of Doctor Who, at least, a whole generation of fans have grown up and become media professionals developing the franchise.

All this is a sensitive area, and there are things you just don’t do. Generally even hardened, publicity seeking media hacks play by the rules. And that’s why it feels so deeply wrong that last night, at a BFI screening of Sherlock, Caitlin Moran crossed a line by getting Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch to read out loud from someone’s mildly slashy fanfic. I probably don’t need to elaborate to the kind of people reading this why it was so out of order, but what the hell, it’s my blog and I’ll try if I want to:

  • First, she didn’t ask the writer. Okay, we all know that the legal validity of fanfic is sketchy at best. But CM is a writer herself, and she must know how it would make her feel if someone helped themselves, unacknowledged, to her creative work in public. A fanfic writer is vulnerable because they can’t demand any legal ownership of their work and its dissemination. To take advantage of that is unprofessional; the fanfic writer may be technically an amateur, but the increasing frequency of writers who began with fan works breaking through into  professional fiction, whether fan-based or general, shows that many of them are genuinely good writers and take their work very seriously indeed.
  • Second, what she did must have been excruciatingly embarrassing to at least four of the people on that panel beside her – Moffat, Gatiss and the two actors who had to read the stuff. It shows a staggering disregard for the social conventions of the occasion. It drags something extremely private into the harsh light of publicity, cheapening both the original show and the sincere intentions of the fic writer.
  • Many of us admire Caitlin Moran’s outspoken feminism. That’s why it’s all the sadder to see her make a mockery of something that, however inexplicably to others, is extremely meaningful to many women, most of whom can never aspire to the professional and public recognition she casually abuses. Did it occur to her, for example, that whoever wrote that story would probably have to face people at work the following morning? If it had happened to me I would have wanted to crawl into a dark hole and be left to die. Great, that’s really what you need with two little kids nine days before Christmas morning. And what about the writer’s marriage? She mentions on her blog that her partner was sympathetic and gave her flowers, which is nice. But not every man would react so generously to the public disclosure of his wife’s sexual fantasies.
  • After a long, tough battle, fan works (sometimes called transformative works) are on the verge of being acknowledged and accepted as a valuable contribution to popular culture. Far from being transgressive, the desire to develop and extend an existing fictional world is as old as storytelling itself. It is the modern era of corporate ownership of intellectual property by mass media that is atypical of human cultural history. If fan works are not treated with respect, professional writers and actors with the right to do so will distance themselves from fan fiction, fearing embarrassing exposure. Contracts will include gagging clauses that will set the fan fiction community back years and prevent mutually beneficial dialogue between entertainment professionals and their audiences.

So all things considered, nice one Caitlin. You crossed a line last night – you’ve become coarsened by too long spent in the crucible of public life and Twitter campaigning. You spoke out load and clear when a woman was threatened unacceptably a few months ago for wanting Jane Austen on a banknote. Maybe it’s time to pull Emma down from the shelf and reflect on what Mr Knightley would have thought about your behaviour last night.

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3 thoughts on “Badly Done, Caitlin

  1. Here from Neadods’ LJ

    Thanks for a very well-thought out summary of some other aspects of the wrongness of this; in particular, positioning it (via Emma) as a fundamental transgression of courtesy, whatever else it also was.

    I’ve written about it at my DW as well as contributing some ideas – mainly via Twitter – to this summary of why Moran was on shaky legal as well as ethical grounds: http://fyeahcopyright.tumblr.com/post/70195624481/fair-dealing-for-the-purposes-of-humiliation.

    One point which I’ve been interested in and surprised more people haven’t highlighted (Flavia Dzodan was right on it, here: http://www.redlightpolitics.info/post/70291024489/more-musings-on-consent-within-feminism) is how much Moran’s attitudes fed into tolerance and encouragement of workplace sexual harassment. After all, Freeman and Cumberbatch were there in their professional capacity and their responses were constrained by their obligations to the show, as well as the rabbit-in-headlights freeze response one always gets when someone does a public, blatant transgression of boundaries, which is what allows many sexual harassers to get away with things.

    Also, while you reference the story as “mildly slashy” – which is true of the extract actually read out – within less than a hundred words of the last words actually read (it’s unclear if the rest of the story was available on the actors’ printouts) it becomes very explicit, contrary to Moran’s earlier assurances to the actors. She tried to disguise that by referring to the “clumsy closing line” but that’s both adding further insult to the author (calling something a clumsy climax to a story which is a line taken at random 2/3 of the way through is profoundly unfair) and a blatant lie.

    It’s almost something I want to point to people who feel upset and guilty that their own responses to workplace harassment; if two major stars can be put into a situation like that, and be clearly uncomfortable with it but unable actually to refuse to play point blank because of the social and work pressures, that tells you lots about the nature of harassment.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful response. I was aware that the story did become a lot more explicit but I was anxious to avoid misrepresenting the event – however, it might have been better if I’d clarified that by pointing out that my remarks concerned the passage read, not the story as a whole. I apologise if what I said appears apologetic or dismissive to anyone. I never wrote sexually explicit fic myself because I don’t think I was very good at it, but I’ve absolutely no problem with other people wanting to do it.

      Your sexual harassment parallel is an interesting one. I followed CM’s Twitter feed for quite a while but became uncomfortable with the constant crudeness of it – and I’m not a narrow minded person. I think she has a tendency to shout words like “vagina” to show how open and down with the kids she is without it contributing anything to a reasonable debate. And over here in Blighty she’s ramping up the promotion of her first TV comedy series, which will apparently be another “Shameless” about her chaotic and impoverished childhood. Basically, she’s become the epitome of laddish feminism and the “any publicity is good” attitude. A pity, because she has a lot to offer public discourse if she could become a bit more sensitive to the subtleties of it.

  2. Actually, I’m also British, and I’m avoiding thinking about that bloody sitcom, though I wouldn’t be surprised if she wasn’t hoping to have publicity for it off the back of the Q and A, and she probably would have done if it hadn’t been such an awful debacle.

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