On Fanfiction

The phrase Words Have Power  on a Blackboard

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.

In the beginning, there was fan fiction: from the four gospels to Fifty Shades

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.

– Fan Fiction: Imagination, Power and Deviant Sex, 11&More

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?

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10 thoughts on “On Fanfiction

  1. Hi, just wanted to say I love your writing please keep it up! I don’t have a blog account so can you let me how to keep updated about your original story

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    1. Hey there! Thanks for that 🙂 Glad you like it. I’m not really working on anything original right this minute, but when I do, it’s likely I’ll post a notice here on the blog!

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  2. Your fanfiction net link is broken, fyi. Are you taking your dramione off fanfiction net and putting it here? Its hard to write comments here without a blogging account.
    Zephyr

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    1. Hi there. That page is still under construction. I’m not taking my fics off ffnet at any point. At the moment, there is no reason to move them.

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  3. I would have to say that my major reasons for being into fan fiction are two fold: One, I’ve met some wonderful people who have never once made me feel less than anyone else. And two, it’s a creative outlet. The first one is simple. I live in Alabama in the U.S. To say Bama is backwards in some of it’s thinking is an understatement. I mean, you can’t even go into a store in Alabama and buy a sex toy because it’s illegal (internet has somewhat changed things). But I remember being younger and having all these what if scenarios running around in my head and I wrote them down, posted them online, and over the 14 years I’ve been in the HP fandom (14 freaking years!) I’ve made some wonderful friends. Especially Kim. And I’m only telling this to explain how fan fiction made me closer to a person I knew.

    We knew one another in college. I hung around some of the same people she did, but I wouldn’t say we were in the same social circle because I always perceived her to be better than me. And it was never anything Kim did. She was always pleasant and sweet. She was pretty, extremely talented (acting and singing) and she was in the sorority that I would have loved to have been in (but I didn’t have money to be in a sorority). So, I remember when HP 4 came out in the theaters. I managed to actually get a copy and saw the movie two days before it came out. I even mentioned in passing to her that I loved Draco Malfoy to which she SCOFFED! SHE SCOFFED! I never said anything else about it. And years after this, I was still using LJ as my blog and posted my five favorite smutty fics for Dramione. And who should still be my friend but Kim. And she read one. And she was hooked. To the point that she sent me an email to tell me how she had stumbled into this new world and was a goner. She started to not only read, but write. And now, she sends me her Original stuff to read. It’s awesome. And I feel like of all the people I know, she’s one of three that I can actually be myself around and not be embarrassed about this part of my life.

    But I find it embarrassing, and I blame my family on that part a little bit. When I was 16, I was heavily involved with Dawson’s Creek fan fiction. I actually let my mom read one of my stories and instead of telling me it was good or whatever, she looked at me and told me she was worried that I was too occupied with fictional stuff. I was gutted. I don’t tell anyone in my life that I write fan fiction because I’m always afraid that they will reject me like she did. She doesn’t even know or remember that she did that, but I do, and I can’t forget how horrible it felt to be so judged. And I kind of feel like the outside world looked at us that way…

    Until Stephenie Meyer. Anyone who has ever talked to me knows that I hate Twilight. I think it’s garbage. But I also recognize that the source material was Buffy/Angel fan fiction. She’s cited that as well, but she pulled back on it I think because of her publishing company. It kind of changed the game. Twilight invested older women, who probably used to read fan fiction for other things, out into the lime light. Did some of them make us look crazy? Yes. But it sort of felt like a validation. Then E.L. James and “Fifty Shades” hit. I won’t go into how crappy I think all of that writing is, but it opened up a conversation. JKR even said she doesn’t mind most fan fiction, it’s the erotic stuff that makes her uncomfortable as well as everyone’s love for Draco. Now, there are exceptions to the rule, those that make us look bad, I feel. Like, I hate how much attention Cassandra Clare gets for her stuff. Every time I see a commercial for the show based off her books I tell my mom that it’s glorified Draco/Ginny fan fiction. And it is.

    So, in closing cause I’m not sure how much of that made sense, I love fan fiction. I don’t know where I would be without it. I don’t really ever intend to publish anything original (I’m not as good at original stuff as Kim), but I’m content to play in other people’s worlds. It’s part of my creative process and how I deal with certain parts of me. If it wasn’t for fan fiction, never would have met you, and at this point, I think its safe to say that if you ever needed to hide somewhere internationally, nowhere is better than small town Alabama!

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  4. Ashley, what a personal and moving comment you’ve left me. I didn’t know all these details about how you and Kim were bonded over fan fic! 😀 I assumed you guys were two peas in a pod all through school! *big hugs* Thank you for sharing this with me here. I’m DYING to read Kim’s book. I’m going to make a post about the writing process, and will link to her youtube videos. She’s just so engaging in front of the camera.

    Wait, you can’t buy a sex toy in Alabama?! Does that mean there are no adult book stores? What about porn? A physical location for a sex store is kinda redundant these days, I guess. As you say, we gots the internet 🙂 I think really most of us got into fan fiction for the same reason – those pesky ‘what if’ questions. What an amazing outlet fan fiction is, to be able to answer those questions yourself through writing. And as a reader, to be able to join a community where you can look up ready made ‘what if’ stories. The first thing I ever looked up was Star Wars fan fic.

    Why do you need money to be in a sorority? Is there a fee involved?

    I’d be gutted too, if my mom (or anyone I cared about/respected) said that about my stuff 😐 But I reckon your mom (who is lovely) just doesn’t…you know, *get it*. Was it the fact that it was fan fiction that got her concerned, or was in fiction in general? I think she may have felt differently had it been original fiction you were writing. Or not?

    I also agree that that E L James and Cassandra Clare changed the game. They showed that fan fiction can be a legitimate source of creative talent. They brought it into the mainstream, shone a spotlight on it, made it acceptable to be acceptable. People make fun of James all the time, but at the end of the day, she’s been open about her origins and she’s successful doing something she loves. There are some who say the books are not exactly recommended reading for young women, but that’s another argument and blog post. As for Clare, well. She was part way through her Draco Trilogy when I first started writing and I remember the drama even then. Her followers were sycophantic. And this was BEFORE laptop-gate and the plagiarism allegations.

    I think your final paragraph underscores one of the most powerful things about fan fiction. It’s not just the tangible benefits relating to literacy and practicing creative writing – it’s the many, many heartfelt connections we’ve made with people from all walks of life, all over the world. Yes, I would never have met you without fan fiction and I would been poorer off for it.

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    1. Ashley, what a personal and moving comment you’ve left me. I didn’t know all these details about how you and Kim were bonded over fan fic! 😀 I assumed you guys were two peas in a pod all through school! *big hugs* Thank you for sharing this with me here. I’m DYING to read Kim’s book. I’m going to make a post about the writing process, and will link to her youtube videos. She’s just so engaging in front of the camera.

      Yes, Kim and I truly bonded over fan fiction. And as for her book, it’s soooooo good. And her videos are totally her. It’s just how she is and why people like her.

      Wait, you can’t buy a sex toy in Alabama?! Does that mean there are no adult book stores? What about porn? A physical location for a sex store is kinda redundant these days, I guess. As you say, we gots the internet

      Here’s what I know about this. As of now, sex toy shops are “illegal” but they exist on the fact that they sell other things. There is actually a case with the U.S. Supreme Court to dictate as to whether or not those things can be purchased in store. If they can’t then internet business is where it will stay. But there are book stores and video stores. So, a man can fetch his pleasure with his hand, but a woman can’t have anything to…fill the void! Archaic.

      Why do you need money to be in a sorority? Is there a fee involved?
      Yes, you have to have money to be in a sorority. There was a monthly fee, at the time it was like $150, but I didn’t work while I was in college and so I didn’t do that. I hung out with awesome people anyway, and they never acted like it was a divider (at least not at Montevallo because the school was rather small) but I saw a social one, if that makes sense.

      I’d be gutted too, if my mom (or anyone I cared about/respected) said that about my stuff 😐 But I reckon your mom (who is lovely) just doesn’t…you know, *get it*. Was it the fact that it was fan fiction that got her concerned, or was in fiction in general? I think she may have felt differently had it been original fiction you were writing. Or not?
      I think the concern was that I was more invested in fictional characters than people I really knew. And there’s some argument that could be made for that. I’ve always been large and so I was kind of teased about it, but in retaliation for being teased I was also a bitch. I kept people away from me that would hurt me. I could be friendly with anyone, but if you pissed me off..God help you. We also lived with my grandmother who was dying of emphysema. She couldn’t be left alone so someone always had to be with her. Since my brothers all played sports and my parents worked, my nights were spent at home with her. I got really engrossed in Dawson’s Creek (watching teenagers live lives of teenagers instead of what I was doing). And so when I presented it to her, it wasn’t like I knew I was handing over Pride and Prejudice. She asked me what I had been doing and so I let her read it. I wasn’t as nervous as I thought I would be. I wasn’t as private about all of it until she said that I was too “invested” and she sort of thought that it was a waste of time. But really, what else did I have to do?

      I think your final paragraph underscores one of the most powerful things about fan fiction. It’s not just the tangible benefits relating to literacy and practicing creative writing – it’s the many, many heartfelt connections we’ve made with people from all walks of life, all over the world. Yes, I would never have met you without fan fiction and I would been poorer off for it.
      I feel the same way about you and even by extension, Willa. I saw a picture of her the other day and went, HOLY CRAP she’s so big! I remember when she was just a baby! Having known you as long as I have, I know what kind of journey you’ve had to get where you are now. It’s amazing to watch! It’s actually something that I wish a lot of people could see, that bullies are not to be feared, but challenged. Nothing you went through was easy. None of it. But I’m so relieved and happy to see that it’s seemingly worked out for the best. I’m so happy to know you. I feel like it’s made me a better person in the long run. Before you, I really thought all Australians did was hang out, drink beer, and eat Vegemite. 😉

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      1. Thanks for explaining about the sex shops and sororities in Alabama! (not that they are related!) LOL.
        When is Kim publishing her book? Does she have publishing contract yet or is she self-publishing? I realise these are questions I should probably just ask her directly!
        In relation to how your mum handled your ‘outing’ your writing to her, it was not a waste of time by any stretch of the imagination. Writing shouldn’t be treated any differently from knitting or drawing or reading or binge-watching a TV show or playing Fallout 4 for 200 hours. You can obsess about anything. Some people have hobbies that take over their lives, while others are able to achieve balance. Just because fan fiction is about someone else’s characters doesn’t make it any more or less obsessive than someone who is is head over heels over their own original characters. Writers get sucked into their stories all the time. In any case, it’s becoming a more mainstream activity, aided by the strong social aspect inherent to fandom. We are creators and consumers. It sounds like it’s made you happy, and that’s all that matters.
        Yes, Dubs is frigging huge now. I remember when I posted her birth announcement on LJ, almost 9 years ago!! She can’t even sit on my lap any more – circulation in my legs gets cut off! And Australians do indeed hang out, eat vegemite (and all the things) and drink beer. Sometimes all at the same time (yum). When I eventually visit you, we can do all of that, except maybe the vegemite. I would so stuff my face with all your family’s amazing barbecue and Lebanese food.

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