I had the good fortune of meeting a fellow fan fiction enthusiast through fanfiction.net recently. She pointed me in the direction of a website that she co-founded with a group of like-minded women. The site is structured around topical discussions on culture, pop-culture, gender politics, regular politics and other trending social issues. I highly recommend checking it out and if you’re so inclined, submit an article of your own.
They recently published a thoughtful discussion piece on fan fiction, tackling topics such as perceptions of fan fiction, why the contemporary fan fiction movement has come into being, what it means for those who engage with it, and what void it seemingly fills in the minds of readers who want to know the and then what happened or what would happen if – type questions.
These are the very questions that have launched a thousand fan fics!
I think that sometimes, people outside of fan fiction have a tendency towards almost wilful myopia regarding it. It’s seen as lame, as low-hanging fruit. It’s either that, or detractors suffer from a lack of imagination (if so, they really should have a go at writing some fan fic – it’s a low pressure approach to dabbling in creative writing).
And I think that a lot of the time, fan fiction enthusiasts just go along with this view. We join in the eye-rolling to avoid being singled out as that ‘middle-aged mom who reads Twilight fan fic’. This is a generalisation, of course, and negatively connotated. People of all ages read and write fan fiction. And as far as I know, it’s harmless, so long as it doesn’t involve the work of Anne Rice, Diana Gabaldon, Laura K Hamilton, and other authors who have put the kibosh on fan fiction based off their original work.
A moment of further consideration might lead people to realise that so many of the stories we enjoy are essentially fan fiction. Fan fiction is nothing new. It’s been around for years.
Virgil’s Aeneid is a cracking fan fic that today might be repackaged as, ‘The Untold Story of Aeneas: a politically well-timed Greco-Roman response to the Illiad’. Skip ahead almost two millennia to the 1920s and we have Sherlock Holmes fanzine subscribers asking those tantalising ‘what if’ questions that are the precursor to taking pen to paper, and telling those untold stories ourselves.
A more recent example is the new generation of film/TV series re-boots that we’ve had over the last decade and a half. If Stan Lee himself is not writing the latest Marvel movie, then you know what? It probably qualifies as fan fiction. Oversight and continuing endorsement by the original creator is not even required for fan fiction to be recognised as original fiction. Star Trek novels have been written since 1968, thanks to Gene Roddenberry licensing the story to writers who want to boldly go where no one has gone before without fear of a DMCA take-down notice.
Also, if we’re going to talk about misnomers, it’s a popular misconception that all or most fan fiction is bad writing and even worse erotica. There’s poor writing and cringe-inducing sex scenes aplenty to be found in original fiction that’s not written by fourteen-year olds who are only just exploring the concept. The only difference is the latter stuff actually survived professional editing. I’m sure there’s scholarly work out there that critically examines how intimacy and sex is handled in fan fiction (if there is, feel free to link me to it). I wish I had more time to explore this really interesting tangent in fan fiction, because I want to come better armed to discussions, when I say I disagree with generalisations like the following:
There is a dark sexual undercurrent to the majority of fanfic, as if on a subconscious level the fan actually resents the control that their idol or idealised character has over their life. Through the act of writing fanfic, and subjecting characters to compulsive or vengeful love, sex, S&M or rape, the fan then regains control.
Putting aside my unease that a ‘sexual undercurrent’ in fan fiction (if indeed it exists) is made to sound slightly seedy, is fan fiction really about regaining control?
Did we ever have control to be able to lose it in the first place?
I think taking control is a more apt description when applied to fan fiction, particularly if you perceive a story as a ride we are taken on by the author or film-maker, etc. They are essentially our tour guides. At the end of the ride/tour, we may go back and revisit those scenes or locations of interest and explore at our leisure. You see a similar sentiment expressed in many of the ‘hand-written’ disclaimers preceding some fan works:
“…please don’t sue me, I’m just playing in [insert original creator’s name]’s sandbox.”
“These are [insert original creator’s name]’s crayons, I’m just using them to make a new picture.”
And so on. As Henry Jenkins says:
Fan stories are in no simple sense just “extensions” or “continuations” or “extra episodes” of the original series. Unlike the model critical essays discussed by the various university writing centers, the insights about the work get expressed not through nonfictional argumentation but rather through the construction of new stories. Just as a literary essay uses text to respond to text, fan fiction uses fiction to respond to fiction.
A large chunk of my own research on academic cheating centers on plagiarism and authorship in the digital age. The concepts of remixing, adapting and of transformative work come into a play quite a bit in the scholarly literature I look at, and some argue that the internet has blurred boundaries around the prohibitive use of intellectual property.
I’ve learnt over the years is that there’s no neat divide between “proper” author and fan writer. Everyone’s writing and trying to get better by learning from others. I appreciate the manga culture in Japan where they’re open about the fact that established authors started out as fan writers. It recognizes that creativity’s an open process, not a black box inside some genius’ head.
Many of us fan fiction writers who are more than passingly interested in the legal implications are aware that fan fiction resides in this murky, grey, copyright area. The notion of ‘fair use’ helps us breathe a little easier, as does the fact that many creators think fan fiction is a force for good, and actually helps market their work.
The legal technicalities relating to copyright are complicated and that’s why there are experts who are paid to advise us about the law and our rights therein. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with an IP lawyer at an academic conference in Australia this year. She outlined the differences between US and Australian copyright laws and explained that copyright can pretty much cover anything tangible and fixed – this includes fan fiction. This was news to me.
There is even precedent for fan fiction authors taking published authors to court. As it turns out, that Tom Riddle/Hermione Granger story you painstakingly churned out while you should have been studying for finals may just have a tangible value beyond what it means to you and your readers. I often speculate as to what publishers think of the fan fiction movement. Do they see former fan fiction authors like EL James and Cassandra Clare as nothing more than lucky aberrations who have made the leap into original fiction? Do they see us as this vast, untapped pool of potential best-sellers? Sure, there’s a lot of mediocrity, but there are also many spellbindingly brilliant story-tellers.
All that talent, all those wonderful ideas, given to fandom communities. Gratis. Imagine that.
I’m a big fan of the Force for Good/Does No Harm arguments. Here are some of the more obvious benefits of fan fiction that come to mind:
- Encourages reading and writing, i.e., promotes literacy (anecdotal side-note: A young woman from Japan once wrote to me to tell me she had topped her class in her English exam, after a year of dogged determination to read Harry Potter fan fiction written in English).
- Encourages creativity (aided by low-pressure entry into creative writing, within a ‘sandbox’ of ready-made characters and worlds)
- Facilitates engagement with literature and critical reflection of literary themes, ideas and conventions (for a good run-down, see Henry Jenkins’ article, Fan Fiction as Critical Commentary)
- Provides opportunities for social interaction, i.e., connecting the otherwise disconnected, creating cross-cultural communities
- Provides a training ground for budding writers
Are there other benefits? Can you think of any harm it might cause? What has been your experience of engaging with fan fiction?