Fan entitlement has gotten completely out of hand. In one incident, when a creator killed off his most famous character, his publication was deluged with angry messages and even death threats. People wrote to their legislators demanding the return of their hero. Finally, after almost a decade of unremitting pressuree and abuse and pleas from strangers, dignitaries and even from his own mother, the creator relented. He brought back the hero. He wrote more stories, even though he didn’t want to.
Does this describe the latest internet outrage? Was this usurpation by fan mobocracy directed against some zombie-apocalypse showrunner? Was it leveled at the creative choices of Zack Snyder’s latest blockbuster? Nope; this eight-year purgatory at the hands of crazed fandom began in 1893, when Arthur Conan Doyle tossed Sherlock Holmes over a waterfall in a story aptly called “The Final Problem.”
According to Holmes scholar Pierre Bayard, the news of Holmes’ death actually “gave rise to scenes of collective hysteria in the streets.” People were seen “bursting out in tears in public,” and many wore black armbands. The pressure from fans, not to mention from Doyle’s publisher, went on until the author finally caved. Doyle wrote a pre-death Holmes novel, The Hounds of the Baskervilles, in 1901-02, and brought Holmes officially back to life in with The Return of Sherlock Holmes, serialized in 1903-1904.
These days, of course, IRL displays of fan anguish are unnecessary; we can just weep, or roar or threaten on the internet. When fans of video games became upset about what they perceived as media attacks on their favorite pastime, they wrote outraged blog posts and, in some cases, sent death threats to those they saw as offenders. Gamergate has forced event cancellations, and longtime targets like video-game designer Zoë Quinn and feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian still receive more or less constant harassment.
More recently, angry fans have gone online to denounce the all-female Ghostbusters reboot as a betrayal, and to argue that making Captain America an agent of the Nazi-esque Hydra is tantamount to spitting on the creators’ graves. Or treason.
All of this led Birth.Movies.Death’s Devin Faraci to denounce “the entitlement of modern fan culture.” Fans expressing outrage at plot twists or reboots, Faraci argues, “are treating stories like ordering at a restaurant—hold the pickles, please, and can I substitute kale for the lettuce? But that isn’t how art works, and that shouldn’t be how art lovers react to art.” He goes on to compare fan criticism to defacement. Fans, he insists, “shouldn’t be bringing a bucket of paint to the museum to take out some of the blue from those Picassos, you know?”
Faraci acknowledges that fan demands aren’t new; he even cites Doyle and Holmes. But he understates the logical next step: Fans, or, if you prefer, audiences, have always been central to art. The creative dynamic between artists and fans, when it’s free of harassment, is a good and necessary thing.
Was it fan entitlement corrupting the true creative process when Shakespeare threw in dick jokes for the groundlings? Was Dickens’ work irreparably marred when he made Great Expectations cheerier so that readers, in his words, “will not have to complain of the want of humour as in The Tale of Two Cities”? And what if Arthur Conan Doyle had never written The Hound of the Baskervilles? That would be a shame, because The Hound of the Baskervilles is great.
Creators are virtually always fans first. Stephen King may have imagined a prototypical evil mega-fan in Misery, but you could see his own work as one long exercise in Bradbury fan fiction. This is even more obviously the case when you’re looking at long-running franchises like the Marvel Universe. The entire existence of a Captain America comic is predicated on fan entitlement—if fan entitlement is defined as the belief that fans have the right to influence the stories of characters they haven’t created. There are no more Captain America stories by the original creators, because they’re dead. The the folks creating it now, Nick Spencer and Jesus Saiz, have the official imprimatur of a legal IP, but what makes their version legitimate is the work and genius they put into it. If some fan fiction creator told a better story, that story wouldn’t be any less worthwhile because it wasn’t endorsed by the company. Jack Kirby’s gone, true believers; what’s left is fandom all the way down.
Obviously, when fans send death threats to creators, that is not just another fan expression. It’s despicable, whether those fans are writing to Arthur Conan Doyle or to the folks working on a Captain America comic. When Ghostbusters fans advocate against female ghostbusters because female heroes make them sad? Those fans are sexist. Fans threatening murder or launching harassment campaigns are morally wrong. But the moral wrong is in the harassment, not in the fannishness. There’s no special shame in fans involving themselves in the creative process. And indeed, as The Hound of the Baskervilles shows, fan involvement in the creative process goes back some time, and can have wonderful results, as well as less wonderful ones.
Pierre Bayard, that Holmes scholar I mentioned earlier, is an enthusiastic proponent of fan contributions to art. In his own book, Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong, he argues that The Hound of the Baskervilles is incomplete, as indeed are all texts. No writer can detail every part of his or her world—not even Tolkien. We know some of what Frodo feels for Sam, but not all of it; we know some of Captain America’s adventures, but not every one. It’s up to the reader “to fill in, at least partially, the rifts in the text,” Bayard says—as the new Captain America creators have added in a pro-Hydra history for Cap. You have to extrapolate the details of Kirk and Spock’s friendship as it exists beyond the little bits we see on screen. You have to imagine what life is like for Darcy and Elizabeth after the story ends. All art is communicated, which means all art is collaborative.
The internet has made it easier for people to be abusive jerks to creators, fans and everyone else. That’s a bad thing. But creators have always created with one eye on the fans, and fans have never been shy about telling creators to give Lear a happy ending, or bring Holmes back to life, or get rid of Jar Jar for the love of the Force. Fans may not be entitled to throw paint on the Picasso, but they are free to tell the artist that he should paint different. (Some fans have gone so far as to paint a mustache on the Mona Lisa, or so I’m told.) And that’s a good thing, for artists and for art. They’re more than entitled; they’re required to do it. Artists need fans willing to look at art with passion, love and a critical eye—willing to enter into the art and use their imagination to make it their own. Without that fan commitment, all you’ve got is meaningless marks on paper, and characters dead on the page.