Fan Space at the End of Books

This post was inspired by a conversation that I had with Gary K Wolfe and M John Harrison while I was in London earlier in the week. It revolves around the concept of “Fan Space”, and I’d better start by remind you what that is.

Fan Space is the space in a work of fiction into which fans find it easy to imagine their own stories. A tightly-plotted, stand-alone novel such as Guy Gavriel Kay’s Ysabel has very little Fan Space in it, but a rambling fantasy series such as George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire has lots of it. Generally speaking, if you can set a role-playing game, or write lots of fanfic, in a world based on a book, then that book contains lots of Fan Space.

So, Gary and I were talking to Mike about his plans for a new novel. Mike mentioned that it would probably have a fairly ambiguous ending, because he liked reading books where he was given leeway to imagine for himself what happens at the end. Two things occurred to me.

Firstly, I could see the angry reviews from the more fannish side of the Internet. Many readers get really upset when a book doesn’t have a “proper ending,” by which they generally mean a neat (and often happy) conclusion to the plot.

But secondly I realized that what Mike was talking about was Fan Space at the end of the book.

And that’s interesting, because the people who generally complain about ambiguous endings are generally the same people who relish exploiting Fan Space when it occurs anywhere else in a book except at the end. Equally, the sort of folks who like ambiguous endings are generally the sot of people who prefer a self-contained novel to a long, rambling series.

This has left me wondering why this should be so. I can understand a dichotomy between just wanting to be told a complete story and wanting room to add to it yourself; but a dichotomy between wanting to be able to make up stories in the world, and being able to make up the ending of the source work, well, that’s harder to rationalize.

Thoughts, anyone?

6 thoughts on “Fan Space at the End of Books

  1. Hi Cheryl. You wrote:

    “Mike mentioned that it would probably have a fairly ambiguous ending, because he liked reading books where he was given leeway to imagine for himself what happens at the end.”

    I wouldn’t put it quite like that. The term “fan space” wouldn’t be a term I’d choose. I prefer an ending without closure, or–even better–an ending in which closure occurs at some other level than the obvious narrative one. But I enjoy that because it prompts me to think about the book’s meanings, not because it allows me space to “imagine for myself”. I’m not interested in acting out. I’m not interested in extending the lives of subsidiary characters in someone else’s book; or producing an ending which better suits me to someone else’s book; or expanding or replicating someone else’s “world”. All those elements seem to me to be subsidiary to the real effort of an author, which is to get me to think and feel about things.

    So If I said that enjoyed the apparent “incompleteness” of Jayne Anne Phillips’ short story “Rayme”, for instance, that would be because of the epiphany it gave me, the gasp of astonishment caused by the fact that this tiny fragment said so much, the sudden sense of the life & times of Rayme & her friends, not because I felt JAP had left me room to expand or continue her story, or develop her characters in some direction I preferred.

    There’s more, of course–I don’t see “stories” in the world around me, for instance, except the faked-up stories of the media & the politicians & the admen–all I see is a roil of human events, unformed by any standards, let alone the pat standards of narrative fiction. But maybe that’s for some other discussion.

  2. Thanks Mike, that makes it a lot clearer. And who knows, we might get to have some discussion on this stuff in Finland, depending on what the final program looks like.

    But I think maybe you’ve addressed only half the issue. I now understand where you are coming from, but why would someone who loves doing all this story extension stuff get so upset if the main plot is incomplete?

    What I’m trying to do is understand better how and why people read, because I think that it is important that reviewers should do that.

  3. I don’t know. Perhaps because completion is so rare in nature ? Each fake completion of a narrative continues to confirm our need for completion ? I know that sounds a bit circular, but think about it. Maybe traditionally-narrative fiction is a constant rehearsal of a yearning we have for there to be a shape in events. It doesn’t so much comfort or console but confirm our need for comfort & consolation.

    Then, once the shape is made, you’re free to go looking for spare imaginative space in which to fine-tune the story to your very individual needs ? Without that shape, which confirms the possibility of shaping, how could you be authorised (pun intended) to re-shape ?

    Let’s talk more in Finland.

  4. I think closure had a lot to do with it, but I’m hoping that some people who actually write fanfic might chime in.

    Finland definitely.

  5. I’ve spent the past few months defending the end of the Coens’ No Country for Old Men against “terrible ending” complaints. A dismally predictable reaction seeing as they followed the book so closely.

    These complaints aren’t limited to the genre world. I recall John Fowles writing about the reader complaints he received for the ending of The Magus. In the final scene a couple meet and the last lines are (IIRC) “He waited. She waited.” People wanted to know whether the couple got back together or not; depending on the tone of the query, Fowles would either write “Yes, they married and lived happily ever after” or “No, they parted and never saw each other again.” The French Lieutenant’s Woman took that further with its multiple endings.

  6. I don’t write fanfic, so I can’t claim any particular expertise in that area. However, it seems to me that an important quality of fanfic in particular is that it be closely identified with the parent work. As an example, a piece of Trek fanfic must contain sufficient elements to definitely place it in the Trek universe, and not just in ‘a generic science-fictional future containing technological means of teleportation’.

    So, for a story which is ‘open ended’, since the bounds are poorly defined, it makes it harder to definitively judge whether a particular piece is ‘within’ or ‘without’ the ‘boundary’. (I.e., Is or is not the fanfic ‘canon’?)

    With a ‘closed’ story, the bounds of “fan space” are well defined (in every ‘direction’), so adjudging the ‘canonical-ness’ (‘canonicity’?) of a work is much easier.

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