Cartographers of (Fictional) Worlds, Unite!

J. K. Rowling’s appearance in a Manhattan courtroom this week to defend the fantasy backdrop of her Harry Potter novels is interesting to me for several reasons. It dovetails with a conversation I’ve been having in the Fan Culture class I’m teaching this semester, about the vast world-models that subtend many franchise fictions (e.g. the “future history” of Star Trek, the Middle-Earth setting of Lord of the Rings, the Expanded Universe of Star Wars, and so on). In his writing on subcreation, J. R. R. Tolkien calls these systematic networks of invented facts, events, characters, and languages “secondary worlds,” but more recently the phenomenon has been given other labels by media theorists: master text, hyperdiegesis. Henry Jenkins has put forth the most influential formulation with his concept of transmedia storytelling, which recasts franchise fictions like The Matrix as a kind of generative space — a langue capable of ceaseless acts of fictional parole — which can be accessed through any number of its “extensions” in disparate media.

One might say, in an excess of meta-thinking, that the notion of the storyworld itself floats suspended among these various theoretical invocations: a distributed ghost of a concept that feels increasingly “real.” As our media multiply, overlap, and converge in a spectacular mass ornament like a Busby Berkeley musical number, we witness a contrasting, even paradoxical, tendency toward stabilization, concreteness, and order in our fictional universes.

A key agency in this stabilization is the cataloging and indexing efforts of fans who keep track of sprawling storylines and giant mobs of dramatis personae, cross-referencing and codifying the rules of seriality’s endless play of meaning. Most recently, these labors have coalesced in communally-maintained databases like Lostpedia, the Battlestar Wiki, and — yes — the Harry Potter Lexicon at the heart of the injunction that Rowling is seeking. The conflict is over a proposed book project based on the online Lexicon, a fan-crafted archive of facts and lore, characters and events, that make up the Harry Potter universe. Although Rowling has been sanguine about the Lexicon till now (even admitting that she draws upon it to keep her own facts straight), the crystallization of this database into a for-profit publication has her claiming territorial privilege. Harry, Hermione, and Ron — as well as Quidditch, Dementors, and Blast-Ended Skrewts — are emphatically Rowling’s world, and we’re not quite as welcome to it as we might have thought.

At issue is whether such indexing activities are protected by the concept of transformative value: an emerging legal consensus that upholds fan-produced texts as valid and original so long as they add something new — an interpretive twist, a fresh insight — to the materials they are reworking. (For more on this movement, check out the Organization for Transformative Works.) Rowling asserts that the Harry Potter Lexicon brings nothing to her fiction that wasn’t there already; it “merely” catalogs in astonishing detail the contents of the world as she has doled them out over the course of seven novels. And on the surface, her claim would seem to be true: after all, the Lexicon is not itself a work of fiction, a new story giving a new slant on Harry and his adventures. It is, in a sense, the opposite of fiction: a documentary concordance of a made-up world that treats invention as fact. Ideologically, it inverts the very logic of make-believe, but in a different way from behind-the-scenes paratexts like author interviews or making-of featurettes on DVDs. We might call what the Lexicon and other fan archives do tertiary creation — the extraction of a firm, navigable framework from a secondary, subcreated world.

But is Rowling’s case really so straightforward? It seems to me that what’s happening is a turf battle that may be rare now, but will become increasingly common as transmedia fictions proliferate. The Lexicon, whether in print or cybertext, does compete with Rowling’s work — if we take that “work” as being primarily about building a compelling, consistent world. The Lexicon marks itself as a functionally distinct entity by disarticulating the conventional narrative pleasures offered by Rowling’s primary text: what’s stripped away is her voice, the pacing and structure of her storytelling. By the same token, however, the Lexicon produces Rowling’s world as something separate from Rowling. And for those readers for whom that world was always more compelling than the specific trajectories with which Rowling took them through it (think of the concept of the rail shooter in videogames), the Lexicon might indeed seem like a direct competitor — especially now that it has migrated into a medium, print, that was formerly Rowling’s own.

The question is: what happens to secondary worlds once they have been created? What new forms of authority and legitimacy constellate around them? It may well be the case that the singular author who “births” a world must necessarily cede ownership to the specialized masses who then come to populate it, whether by writing fanfic, building model kits and action figures, cosplaying, roleplaying, or — in the Lexicon’s case — acting as archivists and cartographers.

Before the Internet, such maps were made on paper, sold and circulated among fans. One of my areas of interest is the “blueprint culture” that arose around Star Trek and other science-fiction franchises in the 1960s and 1970s. I’ll be speaking about this topic at the Console-ing Passions conference in Santa Barbara at the end of April, but Rowling’s lawsuit provides an interesting vantage point from which to blend contemporary and historical media processes.

5 thoughts on “Cartographers of (Fictional) Worlds, Unite!

  1. I haven’t gone beyond the headlines much here, so for all I know there’s more than meets the eye, but my reaction is, “F*** Rowling.” The same obsessive interest that made her a multi-millionairess is what’s driving the creation of this work. Is this guy riding her coattails? Yes, but he’s not taking away one cent from her and not limiting her creative control of her story in any way that matters. And there is value-added in the Lexicon, even if it’s not creative in nature; putting that thing together took work, and JKR shouldn’t begrudge that guy getting paid. Her antics in court with the tears and such disgust me. She got rich off of her fans; why shouldn’t they make a few bucks off of her? She needs to get some perspective and count her blessings.

    Incidentally, the company that wants to publish the Lexicon is based right here in Muskegon.

    Intellectual property is theft!

  2. I’m in an interesting position to look at both sides of the issue, since I both write fiction, and am the project leader of the aforementioned Battlestar Wiki.

    J.K. Rowling’s lawsuit is very founded, given that Vander Ark is trying to profit from her property and her creation without permission. She did create the universe Vander Ark and his people have been documenting, after all. It’s hers. It’s legally Warner Brothers as well.

    Initially, the Lexicon was merely free for all to use, since it’s all online. Like most, Rowling didn’t have a problem with that. And I think it’s wonderful that she used it herself when she found herself needing to refresh her memory.

    And that’s because it’s *free*. No one was making money off of it, or trying to make money from it at the time.

    However, once you start making money off something, particularly off of trademarks that are not owned by you, then expect to be in a world of hurt. That’s the way it has always been.

    People like Mike have been attempting to make Rowling out as if she were the bad guy. That’s not the case. She’s merely protecting her work, her creation, and she damned well should. She created that universe, not the fans.

    As for the Lexicon itself, it doesn’t seek to analyze the work at all, and is merely just a compilation of facts and figures. There’s some minor analysis here and there, from what I’ve read. (I’m not a fan of Rowlings or her books; I personally thing both are overrated, and needlessly verbose.)

    Now chronicling a series you love is not a bad thing, since fans have been doing this in fan clubs, fanzines, and, now, the Internet. Hell I and others do it via Battlestar Wiki, but would I try to make money by selling a rehash of copyrighted material I don’t own?


    That’s called “derivative work”. And it is not covered under fair use law.

    Now if the book were “Analysis of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Saga” focusing more on analysis than the encyclopedic rehashing of Rowling’s saga, then I would also join the minor cacophony and say “frak Rowling”. Since critical analysis is covered under the fair use provisions of copyright law.

    But that’s not the case here, so Rowling is right. And it is an ethical and legal imperative that she fights against those who wish to profit from her universe without her both her permission and her blessing.

  3. well “fan encyclopedias” are basically “Freelance Fact-checkers”. Anne Coffell Saunders, who wrote the critically acclaimed “Pegasus” episode of “Battlestar Galactica”, started out as a “fact checker” secretary for the TV series “24”. She then handed in a fanscript to “24”, and become a writer, eventually moving to BSG.

    Some shows simply cannot afford to hire “Fact checkers” or simply don’t have the time: fans are essentially doing a FREE service for the staff when they do this. Granted, Rowling’s works are essentially finished, but say for Star Trek, Battlestar, Lost, HeroesWiki, etc….they frequently serve as living updated guides to the TV shows, pointing out things even the writers might not know. This goes back to the “Lurker’s Guide to Babylon 5” and how it influenced JMS in the show. Of course, the HP Lexicon is trying to make a FOR PROFIT book, without consent. I think the most fans can do is ASK to be able to print something: i.e. with Lord of the Rings, created many articles analyzing Middle-earth, then when the trilogy ended, printed them as a book called “The People’s Guide to Middle-earth”. This is as you say “Transformative” and not simply regurgitating material. I utterly disagree with the Lexicon’s attempt to make a book FOR PROFIT WITHOUT the consent of the author (it’s okay to write a book for profit *if you get the consent of the author*, as is the case with many “guide to Star Trek” books, etc.)

    So basically…fans are doing a FREE SERVICE for these guys. If they wanted to make THEIR OWN encyclopedia…here’s an idea: the fans are doing it for free and would be happy to help; ask the fans to DONATE theirs, then just edit it to bring it up to your own higher standards. The fans would be happy to just help.

    But the thing a lot of people don’t seem to realize is: it is better to work WITH these people instead of against them: getting into a legal battle with Rowling herself doesn’t help at all.

  4. I hear you, Mike. And I agree with what you’re saying. The irony and hard truth here, it seems to me, is that the Lexicon’s activity was fine with Rowling as long as it was confined to the ephemeral internet. Now that’s it’s threatening to “materialize” in print (and for profit), it’s perceived as a competitor that must be silenced. If JKR had objected from the start, her position would be at least emotionally defensible as the privilege of a creator to control expressions of her work. But she’s clearly profited off the huge investment of fan energy and creativity, and for her to turn on a dime now seems supremely hypocritical.

  5. Joe and V: to reiterate my comments on the Battlestar Wiki blog, I apologize for missing your comments during my first pass through the moderation cue. You raise great points, and I largely agree.

    My own post was an experimental foray into the issues raised by the Rowling / Vander Ark fight, and I readily admit that my position is still evolving (helped along, I should add, by a parallel debate taking place in my Fan Culture class).

    To refine my first comments: I think what’s intriguing about this dispute — leaving aside the transformative/derivative dialectic on which the conversation seems to be getting hung up — is that the HP Lexicon *is* in competition with Rowling’s works, just not in the way she’s claiming. Sure, money’s involved, and that raises the stakes. But more significantly for theorists of media evolution, the competition really boils down to two different presentations of a storyworld, one (Rowling’s) structured as a narrative, the other (Vander Ark’s) structured as, well, a Lexicon — or, to ape Lacan, a language.

    We can debate whether or not the activity of paraphrase, summary, selection, and reordering can ever amount to truly transformative labor, with value added thereby. (As one complicating example, I’d draw attention to The Phantom Edit and other fan edits of Lucas’s prequel trilogy, which did nothing but excise material, but arguably resulted in new and original interpretations of the Star Wars texts.)

    But if we adhere to the logic of the transmedia argument, all texts and artifacts are equally valid in their function as entry points to a fictional world that is larger than any one text can possibly contain. The Lexicon “gives us” Harry Potter’s world, just as Rowling’s books do. That they do so in different ways, with different effects, and different levels and types of “profit” seems more a matter of aesthetics (and now litigation) than some absolute (and in Derridian terms, metaphysical) distinction between a genuinely authored artwork and an unimaginative catalog.

    I’d rather read Rowling’s books than browse through the Lexicon — if I had to choose. But I don’t, and the fact that the two texts complement and deepen each other suggests to me that each should be considered creative labor, providing something the other doesn’t. And is it so hard to imagine some future gamer or roleplayer or, I don’t know, someone who just hates reading stories, for whom the Lexicon will be a more entertaining and informative means of access to the HP universe than Rowling’s books? I never read all the way through the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but the movies, videogames, and Wiki entries have served quite well in conveying me to Middle Earth!

    I think the rules of fiction are changing, and this case is a bellwether.

Comments are closed.