Cory Doctorow: In Praise of Fanfic
from Locus Magazine, May 2007
I wrote my first story when I was six. It was 1977, and I had just had my mind blown clean out of my skull by a new movie called Star Wars (the golden age of science fiction is 12; the golden age of cinematic science fiction is six). I rushed home and stapled a bunch of paper together, trimmed the sides down so that it approximated the size and shape of a mass-market paperback, and set to work. I wrote an elaborate, incoherent ramble about Star Wars, in which the events of the film replayed themselves, tweaked to suit my tastes.
I wrote a lot of Star Wars fanfic that year. By the age of 12, I'd graduated to Conan. By the age of 18, it was Harlan Ellison. By the age of 26, it was Bradbury, by way of Gibson. Today, I hope I write more or less like myself.
Walk the streets of Florence and you'll find a copy of the David on practically every corner. For centuries, the way to become a Florentine sculptor has been to copy Michelangelo, to learn from the master. Not just the great Florentine sculptors, either great or terrible, they all start with the master; it can be the start of a lifelong passion, or a mere fling. The copy can be art, or it can be crap the best way to find out which kind you've got inside you is to try.
Science fiction has the incredible good fortune to have attracted huge, social groups of fan-fiction writers. Many pros got their start with fanfic (and many of them still work at it in secret), and many fan-fic writers are happy to scratch their itch by working only with others' universes, for the sheer joy of it. Some fanfic is great there's plenty of Buffy fanfic that trumps the official, licensed tie-in novels and some is purely dreadful.
Two things are sure about all fanfic, though: first, that people who write and read fanfic are already avid readers of writers whose work they're paying homage to; and second, that the people who write and read fanfic derive fantastic satisfaction from their labors. This is great news for writers.
Great because fans who are so bought into your fiction that they'll make it their own are fans forever, fans who'll evangelize your work to their friends, fans who'll seek out your work however you publish it.
Great because fans who use your work therapeutically, to work out their own creative urges, are fans who have a damned good reason to stick with the field, to keep on reading even as our numbers dwindle. Even when the fandom revolves around movies or TV shows, fanfic is itself a literary pursuit, something undertaken in the world of words. The fanfic habit is a literary habit.
In Japan, comic book fanfic writers publish fanfic manga called dojinshi some of these titles dwarf the circulation of the work they pay tribute to, and many of them are sold commercially. Japanese comic publishers know a good thing when they see it, and these fanficcers get left alone by the commercial giants they attach themselves to.
And yet for all this, there are many writers who hate fanfic. Some argue that fans have no business appropriating their characters and situations, that it's disrespectful to imagine your precious fictional people into sexual scenarios, or to retell their stories from a different point of view, or to snatch a victorious happy ending from the tragic defeat the writer ended her book with.
Other writers insist that fans who take without asking or against the writer's wishes are part of an "entitlement culture" that has decided that it has the moral right to lift scenarios and characters without permission, that this is part of our larger postmodern moral crisis that is making the world a worse place.
Some writers dismiss all fanfic as bad art and therefore unworthy of appropriation. Some call it copyright infringement or trademark infringement, and every now and again, some loony will actually threaten to sue his readers for having had the gall to tell his stories to each other.
I'm frankly flabbergasted by these attitudes. Culture is a lot older than art that is, we have had social storytelling for a lot longer than we've had a notional class of artistes whose creativity is privileged and elevated to the numinous, far above the everyday creativity of a kid who knows that she can paint and draw, tell a story and sing a song, sculpt and invent a game.
To call this a moral failing and a new moral failing at that! is to turn your back on millions of years of human history. It's no failing that we internalize the stories we love, that we rework them to suit our minds better. The Pygmalion story didn't start with Shaw or the Greeks, nor did it end with My Fair Lady. Pygmalion is at least thousands of years old think of Moses passing for the pharaoh's son! and has been reworked in a billion bedtime stories, novels, D&D games, movies, fanfic stories, songs, and legends.
Each person who retold Pygmalion did something both original no two tellings are just alike and derivative, for there are no new ideas under the sun. Ideas are easy. Execution is hard. That's why writers don't really get excited when they're approached by people with great ideas for novels. We've all got more ideas than we can use what we lack is the cohesive whole.
Much fanfic the stuff written for personal consumption or for a small social group isn't bad art. It's just not art. It's not written to make a contribution to the aesthetic development of humanity. It's created to satisfy the deeply human need to play with the stories that constitute our world. There's nothing trivial about telling stories with your friends even if the stories themselves are trivial. The act of telling stories to one another is practically sacred and it's unquestionably profound. What's more, lots of retellings are art: witness Pat Murphy's wonderful There and Back Again (Tolkien) and Geoff Ryman's brilliant World Fantasy Award-winning Was (L. Frank Baum).
The question of respect is, perhaps, a little thornier. The dominant mode of criticism in fanfic circles is to compare a work to the canon "Would Spock ever say that, in ‘real' life?" What's more, fanfic writers will sometimes apply this test to works that are of the canon, as in "Spock never would have said that, and Gene Roddenberry has no business telling me otherwise."
This is a curious mix of respect and disrespect. Respect because it's hard to imagine a more respectful stance than the one that says that your work is the yardstick against which all other work is to be measured what could be more respectful than having your work made into the gold standard? On the other hand, this business of telling writers that they've given their characters the wrong words and deeds can feel obnoxious or insulting.
Writers sometimes speak of their characters running away from them, taking on a life of their own. They say that these characters drawn from real people in our lives and mixed up with our own imagination are autonomous pieces of themselves. It's a short leap from there to mystical nonsense about protecting our notional, fictional children from grubby fans who'd set them to screwing each other or bowing and scraping before some thinly veiled version of the fanfic writer herself.
There's something to the idea of the autonomous character. Big chunks of our wetware are devoted to simulating other people, trying to figure out if we are likely to fight or fondle them. It's unsurprising that when you ask your brain to model some other person, it rises to the task. But that's exactly what happens to a reader when you hand your book over to him: he simulates your characters in his head, trying to interpret that character's actions through his own lens.
Writers can't ask readers not to interpret their work. You can't enjoy a novel that you haven't interpreted unless you model the author's characters in your head, you can't care about what they do and why they do it. And once readers model a character, it's only natural that readers will take pleasure in imagining what that character might do offstage, to noodle around with it. This isn't disrespect: it's active reading.
Our field is incredibly privileged to have such an active fanfic writing practice. Let's stop treating them like thieves and start treating them like honored guests at a table that we laid just for them.
Cory Doctorow's website is Craphound.com, and he is co-editor of Boing Boing: A Directory of Wonderful Things.
Cory Doctorow is one of a dozen Locus columnists and reviewers. Every issue, we review over 50 books and magazines, most before they appear in print. A subscription will get you all those as well as the rest of the magazine -- news, People & Publishing, commentary, reports on events, and a list of all books and magazines published that month.
Previous Cory Doctorow columns posted on Locus Online:
- You Do Like Reading Off a Computer
- Blogging Without the Blog
- The March of the Polygons: How High-Definition Is Bad News for SF Flicks
- How Copyright Broke
- Science Fiction is the Only Literature People Care Enough About to Steal on the Internet.
Comments are welcome, but are moderated. Anonymous comments will not be posted.
My daughter (17) has been writing and reading fanfic since the age of 9. Her first efforts were, well, not so good, but she has become an excellent writer, and I give fanfic.com the credit.
Truthfully, I have read fanfic that is far better than some of the stuff that is being published, and I just don't get it.
Fanfic is an excellent way for an ordinary person to gain excellent experience and to have a voice.
"Fanfic is an excellent way for an ordinary person to gain excellent experience and to have a voice."
Bask in the eloquence of those you have made yourself the cheerleader of, Cory. May they fanfic all your novels.
I'd like to see a collection of fanfic by pro. writers. Particularly with contrasting styles and contemporary writers taking on each others material. I'm sure it could be rationalised as 'homage' but we would know what it really was!
Bask in the eloquence of those you have made yourself the cheerleader of, Cory. May they fanfic all your novels.
Oh, hush. Someone whose kid posts to fanfiction.net (which I assume is what Anonymous was talking about) doesn't exactly speak for fandom.
There certainly is fanfic that surpasses its source material. For that matter, there's fanfic that's inexpressibly wonderful and transformative, but only works because it's got the source material held up next to it. There's even plenty of fanfic that could slip invisibly into its source.
And, of course, there's an ungodly amount of awful, awful writing. 90% of everything is crap, remember?
(Oh, and Damien, if you like Sherlock Holmes, Cthulhu, and pros writing fanfic, check out "Shadows Over Baker Street." It's good times.)
I've used fanfiction over the years to seriously hone my talents as a writer. The stories I write today are a hundred times better than they were ten years ago, and that's thanks not to the poor US education system teaching me my particles and predicates, but from my fanfiction readers and beta editors and friends, teaching me what works and what doesn't, what's grammatically correct and what's not. I am so much more a strong writer now than I would have been if I'd never shared my stories with an audience, and I would have gotten very little chance to share had I been writing original stories all these years.
Someday soon, I hope to use all this great knowledge and help I've recieved over the years from writing fanfic and apply it to writing an original novel--one that will be superior by far to any that I would have written had I not been writing fanfic.
So, thank you for your column and the opinion you have on the subject. It's much appreciated.
While some creations have been vigorously defended others have not, and these seem to have flourished and drawn in a variety of writers including many pros. Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Frankenstein, and the entirity of Lovecraft's writings have been subjected to pastiches, homages and fanfic for decades with varying quality. Some of the most notable writers of our genres have all taken the time to take another author's characters in new and interesting directions. A glance at my shelf notes works with borrowed characters by Niven, Alan Dean Foster, Lumley, Newman, Moore, Saberhagen, Blish, Clarke, Koontz, King, Gahan Wilson, F. Paul Wilson, Zelazny, the list goes on. The question arises, do these sort of open source works allow for revitilization of a subject, drawing readers back to the original source?
Thank you! I recently returned to a fandom and have picked up the hobby of fanfic writing. It's nice to have at least *one* viewpoint out there that recognizes the love, effort, and (sometimes) talent that goes into each and every story. Though most of the people in my life could really care less about my stories, the people I know in the fandom appreciate them. Thank you for this article.
I have never written fanfic, but I spent my early years (and still spend my leisure hours before sleeping) imagining anything and everything about characters from movies or comics or stories that appeal to me. Entire stories with intricate plots developed. Interest in those characters motivated me to use my imagination, and eventually, I began writing my own stuff. I have no disagreement with fanfic whatsoever. It truly is part of enjoying the world someone created.
The only point on which I really disagree with you is your definition of "art" -- which doesn't actually hold up even through your whole essay. I think fanfic writers, even Sturgeon-fodder ones, are doing something which is art anytime they try to do a good job. And some definitely rise to the level of *great* art.
One striking characteristic of fanfic you are overlooking -- because you don't know about it? because you don't think it's important? -- is that most of it is written by women (and teenage girls). How much of the hatred directed against fanfic is anger that a bunch of *girls* are daring to play with your toys?
In the SF&F community gender issues might not be all that significant -- a number of fanfic-loathers are women (e.g. Anne Rice, Robin Hobb, Chelsey Quinn Yarbro) while some fanfic-likers (e.g. Neil Gaiman) are men -- but I'm not at all sure that's the case for the "mainstream" literary world.
And, of course, a lot of it is porn. But that's a human being thing, at least as much part of our nature as story-telling itself.
As a fanficcer playing in the sandbox other authors created, I daresay you've become one of my heroes, sort of a Joan d'Arc. ^_^
I don't know what the creators of the fandoms I fic for would say about my fanfic. I don't think I'd want to find out they hate it and want me to cease and desist. I really really hope they stand, if not in your position, closer to it than some more vocal critics.
It gives me so much joy to play with those worlds and those characters, who I love so dearly. Never mind that they're fictional, and figments of someone's imagination. To me, my fellow ficcers, and our readers, they are real.
"Doctor Science" (how I love it when people use titles to give themselves authority!) asked:
"How much of the hatred directed against fanfic is anger that a bunch of *girls* are daring to play with your toys?"
NONE of it. As for the female fanfic writers, my feeling about them is intense disappointment. I expect better from them!
The "fanfic is female empowerment" argument is nothing more than an excuse for not trying harder.
I know women who went from writing fanfic to original fiction, and did well. But the point is: THEY took the next step. That makes all the difference.
Thank you for writing an essay on fanfic that doesn't condemn or patronize the fanfic writers. Writing fanfic has made me a much stronger writer in general and stronger writing teacher. I use writing challenges and beta techniques in my public school classroom, where a number of my students write fanfic themselves. Even Shakespeare used existing stories as the basis for his plays. If it was good enough for Shakespeare...
What an absolutely joyful read! You have summed up the core of fan fiction writing in a few simple paragraphs - truly an article that both fan fiction writers and "professional" writers should take to heart.
I've seen fan fiction writers go from very simplistic "Run Dick, Run!" pieces to eloquent, novel length mini epics that transcend inter-world generations. Stories that take background characters, both 'officially created' and author inspired and breathed 'life' into them, even to the point of inspiring other writers to take up the reins and become 'fannon' - i.e. characters/situations created by fans becoming acceptable as 'in universe fact'. There's room at the table for all of us...
Thanks for the empowerment! While the legal aspects are worrisome, the ancient demands to tell stories are undeniable.
And as a thank-you, I have subscribed. Take that, fan fiction detractors!
"Taking the step to original fiction" does NOT make all the difference. I write fanfic, and I write original (published) fiction. I still write fanfic because I still want to tell those stories with my friends. That's how I relate to fiction -- a big part of it -- and telling me to stop coming up with my own stories is the same as telling me to stop enjoying fiction. Well, to hell with you or anybody else who tells me that. I love fiction, the kind I create and the kind I consume, and I'm going to keep on loving it by purchasing and reading and watching and WRITING whatever I please.
Kudos to Cory Doctorow for one of the sanest, most intelligent takes on this yet.
If fanfic is so amazing, then why not create a "Best Fanfic" Hugo Award category, too?
Let's see what other writers think about that. I'm sure they'd greet the suggestion with open arms.
Why are you intensely [your emphasis] disappointed in women who write fanfic? What do you mean by "I expect better from them"?
What would count as "better"? Why is your disappointment *intense*?
Are you also disappointed with "pro fanfic" like There and Back Again?
I see you're a visual artist -- are you disappointed with yourself when you make a picture based on someone else's story? Do you feel disappointed by e.g. Delacroix's paintings based on scenes from Byron?
I'm not being sarcastic, I'm honestly curious because I don't think I've heard people who object to fanfic say they are *disappointed* before.
Like it or hate it, copyright laws exist in the US and most of the world that expressly protect the creator's rights against the distribution of unauthorized derivative works. If the fanfic "movement" is going to have any credibility, they're going to have to successfully lobby for those laws to change. Good luck storming the Magic Kingdom!
No, not really.
In the first place, the issue has never come to court.
In the second place, fanfic is transformative.
In the third place, it is (technically) parody (see: The Wind Done Gone).
In the fourth place, it does not decrease the value of the original; on the contrary, it *increases* it, because fanfic fans tend to buy more (DVDs, books, tie-ins) than other fans.
In the fifth place, it is not done for money, so cannot be construed as taking money out of the pockets of the copyright holders.
To summarize: No.
"Like it or hate it, copyright laws exist in the US and most of the world that expressly protect the creator's rights against the distribution of unauthorized derivative works."
Like it or hate it, sharia law exists in Saudi Arabia and most of the rest of the civilized world that forbids women from driving. If the "female liberation" movement is going to have any credibility, they're going to have to successfully lobby for those laws to change. Good luck storming the Kingdom!
And no, I'm not drawing a moral equivalency. I am pointing out a flaw in your argument: it is obvious that the law can be wrong and lack credibility itself.
Be completely frank now, people: Who here wants to end copyright altogether?
And a small request: could you please make a list of all the fanfics online -- including the real names of those who wrote them, unless they use pseudonyms -- and pass it on to the biggest author guilds in America?
And one final question: Is there a lawyer in the house?
As a professional writer, who also happens to adore fanfic, this is one of the most intelligent essays I've ever read on the subject.
Active reading is exactly what we desire, and it is an incredible thing to see.
It makes fans MORE - more interested, more likely to buy, more involved, more caring.
It's exactly what anyone doing anything creative wants, and we need to get off our freaking high horses and appreciate it for what it is.
Adoration and homage.
"NONE of it. As for the female fanfic writers, my feeling about them is intense disappointment. I expect better from them! "
I beg your pardon -- did anybody request your expectations? What, exactly, have these writers promised you that you are disappointed in them?
I do counted cross-stitch. I spend hours transferring little dots on paper to little dots on cloth. It's useless. I often don't bother to frame it. Other people build model railroads. When they die, the stock will be sold off. Other people do other things, equally "non-productive", because they are enjoyable ways to spend their leisure hours.
Fanfic writers aren't actually looking for anybody's approval. They know what they do and they know why they're doing it. Many of them, like Yahtzee, also publish commercial fiction; they write fanfic because they see it as a pleasure.
Mr. Doctorow, I loved your essay overall; you make your arguments forcefully and intelligently. I have a quibble: "The dominant mode of criticism in fanfic circles is to compare a work to the canon — "Would Spock ever say that, in ‘real' life?"'
In the circles I frequent, the dominant mode of criticism is "Was the language good? Did I believe the characterization? Was the plot well-crafted?" If you screw up canon badly, it may be commented on, but it's not the first question people ask.
Okay, I oversimplified.
In the circles I frequent, the dominant m. of c. is "Damn, that was hot!"
Followed by the other criteria I mentioned.
How delightful to read an intelligent article on fan fiction written by someone who really 'gets it.' Thank you. 8-)
I started out writing original fiction, including a 120,000 word novel, and took up writing fan fiction much later. I do it because it's fun, and because it's great to share. 8-)
The two writing styles require entirely different disciplines - discipline being the operative word. With fan fiction, one is using ready-made characters and this requires the added discipline of keeping them true to the originals.
With original fiction, one is free to take one's characters where one wills, with the proviso that one presents their existence as "recognisable realities," vide Preface to the original edition of 'The Woman in White' by Wilkie Collins.
It is also worth asking, where the line between fan fiction and original fiction falls? Jean Rhys' much acclaimed novel, 'Wide Sargasso Sea,' is essentially fan fiction - a 'prequel' written about the first Mrs. Rochester in 'Jane Eyre,' yet it can also be read as a 'standalone' story.
Regarding the legal aspect, I think most corporate execs. are canny enough to realize that fan fiction is the cement that holds their fandom together. Most of them appreciate that persecuting - sorry, prosecuting - fans who write stories based on their shows *for free,* is likely to garner a shed-load of bad publicity. It's only where fans write to make a profit that there's likely to be a serious threat of legal action.
Mr Doctorow, thank you so much for your voherent, level-headed essay. I have read a few such articles by fanfic writers, but never until seen a pro-fanfic essay from a professional's point of view.
I am a student myself, definitely not a published author, but I have had a handful of poems and short stories published in magazines, and I would just like to add that I would feel incredibly honoured, not insulted, if anyone wrote fanfic using my characters. Certainly, I would not feel as though anyone were 'stealing' from me, or somehow perverting my creations.
I also happen to write fanfiction in my spare time, and I sincerely believe my original work would not have attained the necessary quality for publication had I not had the opportunity to polish my skill and gain experience from writing fanfiction and recieving comments from my readers.
How is it that most established writers find it so difficult to accept fanfiction for what it is--an expression of admiration for and homage to the artist's original creations?
And one final question: Is there a lawyer in the house?
Actually, a couple of my favourite fanfic authors are lawyers. For them, as for me, fanfic is something they do because it's fun. For closed-canon fandoms, it's a way to go on enjoying and playing with the worlds in question long after the official output has ended. My impression, at least in my own fandom, is that the ongoing fannish interest has contributed to the revenue being made by the copyright holders, in that it's maintained active interest in something that might otherwise have died out. People are still (to my surprise) discovering the fandom, then going out and buying the source material (and various spin-offs, clothing etc.)
As for the "disappointment" issue - I suppose it depends what your goals are. If you have an agenda that says more women ought to be "real" writers (of original material), then yes, it must be disappointing to watch some with substantial talent puddle about in the fanfiction world without taking that "next step." Me? I do it as a hobby, because I get a lot of joy out of crafting new stories in this universe with these characters I love - which someone else has given to me, for which I'm very grateful - and I have no interest in making the move to professional writing. I've got an excellent job that I love but that takes up most of my time, and I choose to write/read fanfic in my occasional spare time because I find it substantially more fulfilling and fun than watching reality TV.
Thanks, Mr Doctorow, for presenting such a positive and well-argued take on fanfic.
Thank you. I stayed home from work with a headache and spent a good deal of time posting thank you comments to various postings, like this one, which made me feel enormously better. That alone is reason enough for fans to thank fanfic writers who give good story, make us think, and even teach us things about the impact of great scenes with powerful characters.
Thank you for appreciating that body of much unsung work and creative effort.
I would also suggest that many times fanfics are very short pieces with a sharp focus in mind, and that there aren't many short fiction markets out there these days, with plenty of pros jostling for limited space. Some of the commenters may have forgotten it's always a learning curve, and a snapshot now does not show what somebody may do in future. Folks who write fanfic may go on to do pro work at some point in future, some day when they have more time, or are struck by ideas that need more space. I can think, offhand, of four fan writers gone pro in the last few years, with a few more itching to make that big jump. In the curent climate, they often go silent in the fan community, which is a loss and a shame.
Just this morning I saw a related issue in scotty's comments on queer publishing,
I fail to see where it does any of us a good turn to put down folks working actively and supporting creators by buying books in the community.
Why is the put-down rewarded?
1-Given that fanfic isn't done for remuneration and that it in no truly identifiable way undermines the saleability of the originals, it really isn't much of a legal issue.
2-As Mr. Doctorow pointed out, the autonomy of characters is actually an argument for fanfic. Perhaps Tara Maclay has spoken things to those of us who are Kittens that she has never sent across the dimensions to Dr. Joss Whedon and His Bunche, even tho he was the first to hear her.
3-I do wish the Internet had existed in the 60s and 70s. I've always wanted to write but could never get inspired to practice, so ehre I am 51 and still unable to plot effectively. Perhaps ahd I begun with Wild Wild West and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea fics then moved onto the Polesotechnic League and the Terran Empire, my teeth would be cut.
4-Another paragraph just because it's my favorite number.
Here's a question for Mr Yngve: do you honestly believe that there's the slightest danger that some reader will ever be so taken with your unregarded, ill-starred, irrelevant self-published novels as to write fanfic about them?
Any opinions you have about the evils of having your work turned into fanfic appear to be purely theoretical.
Possibly even aspirational.
Thank you for the lovely, coherent essay. :)
I got the fanfic itch about a decade ago, and have moved through several fandoms since then. I admit that I easily read in more fandoms than I write in. It's also true that there are absolutely breathtaking stories out there--like the Talking Stick/Circle cycle in Star Trek: Voyager--that are simply the way things could have and should have been. There are also stories, like Zoomway's "The Persistence of Memory" in Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman that complete serieses that were canceled on cliffhangers.
I've also learned a lot about writing original stories from writing fanfiction. Fanfiction provides a safe haven to "play" and find out what works and what doesn't. I learned how to write real, human characters from writing in various fandoms. And I have to tell you, when I decided to major in creative writing, I was a heck of a lot more prepared than the other students. The fact that I turned in clean copy while the others were turning in ill-written, badly spelled junk was very much a plus in my favor.
I'm not saying that fanfic is all wonderful. If I did, I'd be lying. I see, "It's just fanfic," used as an excuse to justify a multitude of writing sins. It's the good, fanfiction, though, that makes the difference.
Folks, I beg of you not to take Mr. Yngve to heart. His attitude towards fans speaks volumes:
For someone who has such contempt for those who celebrate writing and writers, it should come as no surprise that he is so absurdly angry over the concept of fanfic.
As a published author who has often engaged in fanfic, I can say without reservation that the day I discover someone has written slash about my characters, I will know I have arrived.
Ficcers: whether you are a hobbyist, an aspiring pro, or a pro in disguise: write on. No effort to create, no matter how small or simplistic or derivative, is ever truly wasted.
Thank you for this essay. It's rare to see professional praise for fanfiction that doesn't stop at "It's good practice." It is fine practice, just as all writing is practice for itself, but so many people seem to think that fanfiction only has any value at all when it's serving other causes. Here's someone who actually gets it!
My father asked me, for years, when I would stop writing fan fiction and start writing for pay. I never could convince him that I wrote for the fun of it, and if I wrote for money, I'd have to satisfy someone else (editor, readers, whomever) not myself -- then they wouldn't be my stories anymore, albeit set in other people's universes. I thank you for your entry; we're not all Homer, retelling the stories around us (with a bit more bloodshed, or sex, or angst, or silliness), but we all have the joy of trying, and it's good to see a pro who agrees. Thank you!
I always try to start an argument these days by agreeing with my opponent. So, let's do that.
Let's take this premise as fact: Writing isn't real writing unless it's your own original, made-up story, in your own original, made-up world, with your own original, made-up characters. People who don't do that aren't real writers. People who don't do that have no talent.
My husband, who by this criteria is a real writer -- an award-winning real writer -- has it straight from novelist Lenore Hart that her next book will feature the Mark Twain character Becky Sharp. Huck Finn from a woman's point of view. Huck Finn fan fiction, dignified by the fact that Huck Finn is no longer under copyright.
Does that mean that Lenore Hart is now taking a step down?
Did Sena Jeter Naslund, who has an MFA and three other books on the shelf -- one novel about Marie Antoinette and the other about Dr. Watson of Sherlock Holmes fame -- step down when she wrote _Ahab's Wife?_ And two of her other books besides?
For that matter, did Marion Zimmer Bradley step down when she wrote _The Mists of Avalon?_ Was _The Once and Future King_ , perhaps, a step down for T. H. White?
Oh, and we *know* _Yesterday's Son_ was a big dip down for A. C. Crispin. It was the first ever Star Trek bestseller, and it started out life as ... you guessed it ... a piece of Star Trek fan fiction. Without it, she wouldn't have had a professional writing career.
So let's amend this premise by A. R. Yngve as follows:
1.) Thirty years ago, when Ann Crispin wrote _Yesterday's Son_, fan fiction *was* real writing, because, when you submitted it, real publishers would read it. Now, they won't, so it isn't real writing any more.
2.) Fan fiction writers have no talent, unless their fan fiction revolves around a work that is no longer protected by copyright. If it's in the public domain and you craft your own story around it, you can properly be said to have talent. If it's protected by copyright, you can't possibly be any good.
3.) All of this is null and void, and you can properly be said to be a real writer, if you get your own stories published first and *then* a licensor hires you to, essentially, craft a work of fan fiction for them. This makes Terry Brooks and Timothy Zahn real writers, but A. C. Crispin ... is still a real writer. (See #1.)
I am having a small problem with this right now.
You see, two years ago, I had a major flash of inspiration and began writing something based off of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. I had ideas and information I needed to share, ideas about why evil people do what they do and what the best response usually is. I couldn't stop writing. It was one of those times when you write til three am, then get up at six and start again.
Nine months later, I wrote "The End," and began to think I might really have something.
It turns out that one company who sponsors writing contests accepts fan fiction. Out of the three contests J. M. Northern Media runs, their Hollywood Book Festival and DIY's (for "Do-It-Yourself," awards for small publishing and self-published books) each have a category for fan fiction. Having reviewed fan fiction for the juried archive on TheForce.net for several years, I knew I had a good shot. I did win my category in 2006's HBF. However, when the contest is mainly for published books and there's a thousand dollar grand prize and a free trip, it's not likely they're going to award that to a fan fiction over a published book.
I didn't feel _bad_, but I did feel sort of let down. I believed in my work, and I wanted it to be judged against "regular" writing on the same merits as anyone else.
My then-fiance came to the rescue with a copy of _Writer's Market._ "Take a look. Maybe there is another contest you can enter."
The information on the web for the PeaceWriting International Writing Awards reads: "PeaceWriting seeks to encourage writing about nonviolent peacemaking and peacemakers. PeaceWriting seeks book manuscripts about the causes, consequences, experiences, and solutions to violence and war, and about ideas and practices of nonviolent peacemaking and the lives of peacemakers. The manuscripts must not have have been published nor be contracted for publication." It described what I'd done to a T. Last November, I ran off a copy of my novel and sent it off.
Yesterday, I received this in my inbox:
To encourage writing and publishing against war and violence and for nonviolent, activist peacemaking and peacemakers. Sponsored by the Peace and Justice Studies Association and the OMNI Center for Peace, Justice, and Ecology.
Dear Ms. Linda Lyons:,(sic)
Thank you for submitting your book, “ Revenge of the Sith ,” to the 2007 PeaceWriting awards. That you were not selected to receive an award this year should not be interpreted necessarily as a judgment of the literary or scholarly quality of your book.
The evaluation criteria were chiefly twofold: meritorious writing and full relevance to the contest topic of war and nonviolence. Of the books submitted, all possessed literary or scholarly merit and some of them to a high degree, while several of the books did not seem adequately focused on PeaceWriting’s theme. In the case of your book, that it cannot be published was the decisive factor. The book itself is a remarkable achivement. (sic)
We appreciate the years of work that can go into the writing of a book, and we value the time and effort it took to submit your book for the awards. We hope you will continue to write for peace and against wars, you will seek publication, and you will send us another book when ready.
James R. Bennett, Director
2582 Jimmie Ave., Fayetteville, AR 72703-3420
(479) 442-4600; firstname.lastname@example.org"
Let's look at these lines again: "In the case of your book, that it cannot be published was the decisive factor. The book itself is a remarkable achievement."
Does anybody else read that to mean that if Bantam were contractually allowed to read Star Wars fiction submitted by anyone, I would have woken up this morning a 2007 PeaceWriting Award recipient? For a Star Wars novel??
I wonder. Kind of sounds like it to me.
So, I see the problem like this: George Lucas has said in the past that he wished the deeper philosophical issues in his Star Wars series received more attention. Lucas never won a Best Picture; he hasn't been able to win a Best Original Screenplay. Out of all the Star Wars novels published by Del-Ray and Bantam, there isn't one that was ever submitted for an award that I know about, or in my opinion, would make a real contender for one. Yet I had a real contender for a PeaceWriting award, and, because LFL won't consider you if you only write fan fiction, I couldn't win it ... and that may have been the ONLY reason I couldn't win it. If LFL would consider fan fiction authors for publication, they could have published a PeaceWriting award winner!
Today I feel like Julia Roberts in the movie "Erin Brockovich;" I guess I'm just not the right kind of girl to be invited to lunch. If my name were Terry Brooks, or Timothy Zahn, or Ann Crispin -- someone LFL will actually *talk* to -- I could have written the same novel and it would be considered publishable, and it might have won. In effect, Lucas might like to see a serious, worthy treatment of his movies in print ... if it's done by the right person, and only if it's done by the right person. No matter how good you are or how fine a job you can do, it's who you are that really counts. Even when you demonstrate potential to do something no one else has ever done.
My question is this: If you can write a Star Wars novel good enough to win a mainstream writing award, should it really matter who you are or what else you have out?
So I take exception with Yngve's comments up there. Yeah, there's some slash out there. But fan fiction writers by and large aren't trash, and we respect the people who create the stories we love. We don't want to destroy their right to make money. We don't want to destroy anything. Do I have the capacity to contribute award-caliber work to the LFL backlist? I think this proves I do. Will I or anyone else like me ever be allowed to? No.
Perhaps we could all think again about what constitutes quality, and the limits we place on our access to quality.
I've been writing fanfic for, I think, almost six years now. When I started at fourteen I was completely dreadful. And then only last month someone left a review saying that I am by far her favorite writer on and off the net. Which, understandably, completely blew me away for about two days. That would have never ever ever happened if I hadn't found such a great forum in the fanfic community to help me learn and develop my own style, or hell, speak English properly as it's not my first language.
I think what makes fanfiction so great is that you get almost instant responses. If I don't like a book I put it down and forget about it, but if I don't like a fic I review and suggest a way to make it better. The writing itself is more of a fun process instead of a means to an end (i.e. the finished novel etc.)
I think it's also unfair to judge a fanfic writer based on the category he or she chooses to write for.
I choose to write slash fics. Or rather, what is known are known as "femslash" fics, featuring relationships between two women. But do I simply throw out bits of trash and call them a story? Not at all. Everything is planned out. Even stories that start from a simple question like, "what would happen if these two got together?" gradually amass character development and a fixed outline of events.
Among the critics of fanfics, I've noticed that many tend to pick on slash fics. Why? Is it so disturbing in our age that people might be interested in reading about something besides the usual male/female pairing?
I have seen some beautiful slash fics, just as I have seen some terrible ones too. The same applies to stories of a heterosexual nature. This has led me to conclude that the pairing isn't nearly as important as the author behind it.
My focus as a writer is spent primarily on Silent Hill fanfics. As its fans can proudly boast, Silent Hill is a video game series that takes great care to offer serious, competently written horror stories in its games.
However, a side effect of the series' structure is that we may see characters who are profondly fascinating, yet are never explored again after their respective game. Not only that, but because it is a game series, it takes a long time for the next entry in the series to arrive. What's a fan to do in the mean time besides play the games repeatedly?
Fanfics answer that question. You can write scenarios based off those wonderful stories without worrying about adhering to publishers' standards or any of the issues that plague professional authors. More to the point, it lets the fans play in a familiar environment that they have come to adore. We don't seek to replace the canon, or supplant it. We merely want to enjoy more stories in the "Silent Hill" style - stories that for various reasons, the developers don't have time to provide us with. At best, they can give us one new game every couple years. They don't have time to be exploring existing characters any further, though I'm sure several of them would like to. It's just not an option for them.
Because of its mature nature, Silent Hill often inspires stories of a decidedly adult nature. I've written several myself. However, we don't do it to be disrespectful of the creators' intents. Speaking personally, I do it because I love to see the characters portrayed as
real human beings. And part of being a human being is having sex.
There's nothing dirty or shameful about it.
In Silent Hill's case, the characters are already portrayed as complex characters in the games (with one or two exceptions; see Silent Hill 4 & Henry Townshend). Making the leap to sexual situations isn't as big an issue because the creators have already made it clear these are regular people just like us. And indeed, a lot of the subtext in the games is of a decidedly sexual nature. It's not explicitly stated, for obvious reasons, but it doesn't take much to read between the lines. In the games, Silent Hill preys on a person's inner fears and torments, and what can inspire that in people more than sex?
I'll be the first to admit, there are some disturbing fics out there. Again, I've written some of them. But here's where critics should take something into consideration: real life is often disturbing. There are a lot of nasty things out there. Why should we be afraid to tackle those things with our fiction, especially when the original material prides itself on doing so?
As far as same-sex pairings, I'll say this. Human sexuality is far more complicated than most give it credit for. In Silent Hill at least, very few of the characters have a defined sexuality. It's interesting how the writers pull that off, having sexual connotations while keeping us in the dark about their characters' orientations (again, with a few exceptions). But however they do it, it works, and it easily lends itself to slash and femslash fics.
Should anyone be offended by these pairings? No, I don't think so.
Remember that just because you may only like heterosexual pairings doesn't mean it's the only "right" thing to write. The rest of us are people too, and we have as much right to develop stories about pairings that interest us as you do to criticize us for those pairings. I'm not even talking about fanfics specifically, so much as the stigma demanding that writers adhere to the traditional male/female romance seen in so many stories. Could the interest in slash be an indicator that many of us are tired of those stories and want something different? I'm a straight 21 year old male, yet that doesn't mean I only want to read about straight pairings. In my case, I find something beautiful about female/female pairings - beautiful enough to write serious fics about it.
I would be very offended if somebody dismissed my stories as crap simply because they involve a female/female pairing. It's one thing to say you're not interested and pass on it. It's another to attack the story personally, and that's the kind of thing that makes me wonder about the people such critics are, and whether they're intolerant with regards to real life as well.
I read books for fun but I run out of books fast. Authors just can't keep up with my "speed readin' skillz" and I don't like spending money on unknown authors that I might not like. The local Library is v.v.v. small (tiny-town USA here).
Fanfiction keeps me interested in the series I'm reading and help me find new books and authors because If I find several fics that I like in the same fandom, chances are I'm going to like the original work.
Plus, it's fun and doesn't break any laws. Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery.
"Let's take this premise as fact: Writing isn't real writing unless it's your own original, made-up story, in your own original, made-up world, with your own original, made-up characters. People who don't do that aren't real writers. People who don't do that have no talent."
By this definition, the number of "real writers" among human beings is reduced to zero. All worlds are drawn from this world or some fictional world, all characters are drawn from people (although of course not from a specific person).
Great article! Fan fiction is a legitimate form of storytelling and a lot of writers start this way in one form or another as the article points out. I read a piece of "Bubblegum Crisis" fan-fiction a number of years ago that simply blew me away. Unfortunately, the end of the story wasn't there. I was really bummed out, but the experience gave me a profound new respect for the potential for fan-fiction.
In any form of art, the DiY community has always helped push the boundries of said art.
you only have to look at music for examples of that. look at the early start of what would turn into Warner Bros.; or look at the underground dance and rave community, who pushed the limits of acceptability (and lost) but left their mark on pop culture, graphic design, programming, high fashion, commercials, and music of other genres (techniques employed by techno/house producers are often co-opted into rock and, especially, hip-hop.
and raves started as the ultimate DiY -- one kid said "let's throw a party"... and they did.
why would any artist of any type and style have anything but high regards towards the DiY nature of fanfic?
I can name three reasons:
and yes, greed
Ann Rice? She must be mad that she found fanfic that was written far better than her own canon. And yes, it was out there.
JKRowling? Perfect example of an author having a great attitude towards the proliferation of ideas, knowledge, and skills that her world has helped foster in others. Brava, to her!
And when I think about what www.fanlib.com seems to be wanting to do to fanfic, I shudder.
As a response to Linda Lyons-Bailey, when she commented:
So I take exception with Yngve's comments up there. Yeah, there's some slash out there. But fan fiction writers by and large aren't trash, and we respect the people who create the stories we love.
I've never agreed with such a wonderfully written comment before in my life, only to have it crash and burn with the quoted part of your comment.
This comment reinforces the notion that slash = trash. I've read a lot of slash that isn't smut AND i've ready some that were smut AND were excellent stories.
Certainly, there are PWP (plot? what plot) but there are plenty of het fics devoted just to smut and sex. Even so, not all slash means smut, and not all slash that HAS smut in it are poorly-written/executed.
just to clarify.
if that's not the meaning of your comment, then i certainly apologize for misconstruing it.
Thank you for writing an article that recognizes fanfic writers as 'storytellers' and not just delusional lunatics.
I just wanted to say thank you for writing such an open-minded, cogent piece. Lots of professional writers don't seem to feel this way, and it's always encouraging to find one who does. I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment, particularly this:
"...fans who are so bought into your fiction that they'll make it their own are fans forever, fans who'll evangelize your work to their friends, fans who'll seek out your work however you publish it."
So very true. In some cases, fanfiction actually helps sustain interest and even cultivates new readers for the original work. When there is a lengthy gap between books in a series or books by a specific author, this can be a big help.
In my case, I write for a fandom that is over twenty years old. If it weren't for people like fanfic writers who keep "telling stories" and keeping that interest alive, the copyright holders would likely not be able to market all the re-releases and related merchandise they're doing now.
I began writing fanfic long before I knew others did, in the quietness of my grandmother's house, on her ancient 1920 manual typewriter. Upon reaching junior high, I discovered others who did the same. I have had a love/hate relationship with fanfic, but I have never considered it to be anything but an act of love.
My fandom of choice is usually based on TV, but I have dipped into film and the written word.
As with everything, there is good and bad in fandom, from no talent to writers that literally take your breath away with their talents.
I admire and respect those "professionals" who not only understand fanfic, but embrace it. This appears most often in the SF universe, but is not limited there.
Some fanfic has been professionally published, most particularly Star Trek fanfic which was collected in a series of paperbacks not that very long ago.
I say thank you for your respectful tone, a rarity even among those professionals who secretly write fanfiction themselves.
If I wrote a work of literature and thousands of young people decided it was inspiring enough to fanfic it ... I would burst buttons of happiness. I think all children fanfic in their play, art, and writing. Adults do it, too. It is valuable to our culture and has definite historical foundations.
Authors who hate fanfic? *laugh* I think they've got a bit too much self-value and too little imagination. ;)
As a fanfiction writer who is currently working on her first original book...I have to add that my fanfic has got people screaming (in a good way) at me to get my original work out so they can read it.
So many fans of mine have offered me support, critiques, and encouragement. I wrote a fanfic that was over 156,000 words, and the response to it was incredible.
It is so refreshing to see a professional writer be open minded about fanfic, and recognize it for the compliment that it is.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
I found this really interesting and have linked it in my blog (http://cyberlens.wordpress.com/2009/05/26/fandom/).
Hope you don't mind :)
We share concepts; ideas easy - execution hard. In whole I agree with your stance, but I would add two ideas.
1) If you are looking for a relationship with a publisher, they want to know about your platform. Fanfic writers represent a large part of your platform.
2) Readers will imagine all sorts of scenarios for your characters, if you are lucky. Fanfic serves an existing and unserved audience, it doesn't create one.
I've just written an online novel, Complicit Simplicity. I've made the back story and canon open content, to be used any way wished. My fondest hope is that the Complicity Universe will be exploited.
As a Lord Of The Rings/Star Wars fanfic writer, I can say only two words for this essay:
Imitation is the greatest form of flattery.
I was lucky enough to have experienced this in about third grade, when I drew a picture book called "Spike the Scorpion", and one day I found two boys from class in the library, drawing Spike.
My reaction then? I called them copiers and ran off in a huff. Just because he was MY character and they WEREN'T DRAWING HIM WELL ENOUGH.
Now, during a huge creative slump, I look back and realize I had no idea what a treasure I once had.
Exactly so! I've been reading fan fiction for about three or four years now, and I'm hooked! I'll print out a couple chapters and carry them around school with me. People sometimes ask WHY I don't read 'regular' books, like Twilight or something, and I tell them what I'm reading is most DEFIANTLY better that Twilight. In some of the sections of ff.net that I started with, though, I'm seeing a real increase of the crap, and a whole lot less of what I came for.
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