Many times in my excursions into fiction, I have found a work that I completely adore, except for the parts which I totally loathe. Buffy lost me with its weird season 7 obsession with grrrrrrrl power, and I have maintained for several years now that Harry Potter ends with a sandwich. I refuse to acknowledge that Hayden Christensen was ever in a Star Wars movie (though, oddly enough, I loved Ewan McGregor in those films), and, even though I haven’t quite given up on Community season 4, I basically have. I recently went through Battlestar Galactica, and the first two seasons are pretty much perfect television, but even as I was watching that final scene, I was already editing it out of the story.
There is, of course, a trope for that – it’s called Fanon Discontinuty, and believe me when I say that you do not want to click on that link unless you’re in the mood for a lot of Internet people having lots of feelings. But seriously, as a college junior studying literary theory, I have very little problem tossing the author out of a seventeen story Barthesian skyscraper, so I get where they’re coming from. Yet I have to wonder if sometimes, I don’t abuse this power, and if it ultimately keeps me from true engagement with the work.
Look at it this way: my absolute least favorite plot line is the body switching plot. If I had a button, and it gave me the choice of putting Stephanie Meyer in a room and forcing her to watch her movies on an endless loop, getting unlimited Hulu Plus without having to watch ads, or eradicating this plot from the face of the earth, I would pick option C before you even finished reading the first one. Like, I seriously hate this plot. I get why actors like it; it’s an opportunity for them to do impressions of one another. I get why writers like it; it’s easy filler that you don’t have to explain the machanations of to an audience. But it’s horribly, inevitably, utterly predictable, plodding along beats predetermined when theater was just a couple of guys in a cave grunting at one another. What’s happened to me? I have to get back! But first I must learn to survive in this other man’s life. I think I’ve grown as a person, oh look a deus ex machina. Ugga. More than that, characters rarely, if ever, do this on purpose, and so we’re treated to an episode of characters being passive, which is the worst thing to do to a character, especially since it always turns out to be for no good reason, since, like I just said, it’s not like the plot ever goes anywhere interesting. And, fine, on a completely anti-intellectual, totally unsophisticated level, I get really, viscerally freaked out by the idea of being trapped in someone else’s body with no escape. For some people it’s spiders; for me, it’s Freaky Friday.
Now, pretty much any supernatural show reduces itself to this plot at some point or another. Buffy did it, Angel did it, Supernatural did it, Doctor Who did it, Smallville did it, Charmed did it – hell, even Glee did it, though since I’m not entirely sure what Glee is anymore, I can’t be certain about whether or not it fits this pattern. But every time I get to this inevitable episode (generally occurring during the “Uninspired” point in the show’s run, right after the “Oh crap we’re renewed?” period and right before the “Wait, people hate us now?” phase), I skip it, and then pretend it doesn’t exist.
I am perfectly within my rights as a viewer of television to do this, but I’m also a little concerned that my readiness to do so might be a little problematic. Because while in this instance, I’m giving a tired and overused idiot plot what it deserves, I can also abuse my powers of discontinuty to completely miss the point of the work.
Take, for example, the novel Great Expectations. Great Expectations actually has two endings, one in which Estella and Pip’s relationship is ambiguous, and one in which they clearly end up together (which Dickens wrote after negative reception of the first ending). When I first read this book back in ninth grade, I preferred the unambiguously happy ending. I’ve always been a sucker for a happy ending, and even though I’ve progressed to wanting an ending that fits with the rest of the story (so I’m not satisfied with just sticking a band-aid on the actual suckiness of the situation cough cough BSG cough), I still like it when things go well for my characters. Sad endings are hard, challenging you and making you feel things once they’re over, and ambiguous endings are even worse. So while I get on an intellectual level why the book works better with the original ending, I can also understand the sentiment that just wants to give those crazy kids a break.
The problem, though, with giving these characters a break is that it defangs the whole work, pretty much completely missing the point. Consider also Angel‘s ending. I adore the final scene of that show, and in my head, they’re perpetually standing in that alley, the armies of hell forever nearly but not quite about to strike. The whole point of the show is that work is never done, that fighting might be pointless, but it’s all we can do and so it’s what we must do. And yet, I know some people who hated the ending, who wanted a tidy moment of triumph like Buffy or at least to see the battle. (Heck, Joss Whedon was unsatisfied with the ending, as evidenced by the existence of the comic continuation.) And I suppose they’re just as much allowed to do that as I am allowed to ignore the episode where Angel and the old man switched bodies, but I can’t help but feel that, at some point, you have to listen to what the work is trying to tell you.
I guess we’ve all become post-modernists, more interested in telling the work what it’s trying to say than in listening to it. And that’s fine, since, as evidenced by all those things I mentioned earlier, sometimes authors don’t deserve custody of their work. But I think that, before dismissing something out of hand, we should at least try to see what function it might serve in the story. Because, sure, sometimes it’s just George Lucas being a greedy, megalomaniacal nutjob, but sometime’s it’s Joss Whedon’s balls-to-the-walls, shout-from-the-rooftops expression of the feminist ideology he’s sick of having just whispered for six seasons. And I’m not saying that everything the author does is right (because, let’s be real, I would have to trash about sixty percent of the papers I write for school), but I am saying that we shouldn’t dismiss something out of hand because it makes us feel uncomfortable. I think fanon discontinuity is a big pot, and sometimes the actually bad stuff gets mixed in with the “this gives me feelings and I don’t like that” stuff. And for the sake of all fiction, I don’t want to see the second group get dumped out with the first.
I don’t mean to get all preachy here, and I get pretty angry when people start telling me how I should engage with fiction, so I totally understand any angry comments you think it necessary to leave. Honestly, I think fanon discontinuity is an extremely useful way of not letting a few rotten spots ruin your enjoyment of an entire work. But I do think that we should be careful that the parts we cut out actually are rotten, and aren’t just artistically sour. Because the truth is, it’s fine not to like a story, but it’s pretty freaking awful to pretend to like a story that you’ve forced into being something it’s not.