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Fan the Flames
modern lit
So folks have been talking about fan fiction again.

It seems like every few years a big name author will holler something about how evil, heinous, and morally wrong fan fiction and fan fiction writers are, and then the internet gets all upset and shocked, and then the author is shocked that people could get so upset. After all, all they did was massively insult a large portion of their most loyal fanbase. Why should anyone make a thing about it?

And I think: how many times are we going to go through this? Because the last time I posted about my stance on fan fiction, it was during another one of these pistols-at-dawn internet brawls. Of course, then I'd barely started publishing, so it's probably time for an update anyway.

This round of nonsense is mostly up to Diana Gabaldon and George R.R. Martin posting about how they don't understand the impulse to write fan fiction and think it's dirty and wrong in many legal and moral ways, and also fanficcers killed Lovecraft and made him cry. (nihilistic_kid  took care of that ridiculous claim already.) Now, those are gigantic authors, and on account of that are getting a lot of politeness from folks without doling much of it out themselves, especially Gabaldon. (Certainly there have been angry comments, but I pretty much thing that's what you're signing up for when you insult people wholesale.) The hyperbole and misinformation involving fan fiction in the recent post is pretty amazing, and I commend any fan fiction writer who responded to it with manners--and even by pledging not to write fan fiction in those universes, which should tell you a lot about how generous and good-natured most fan fiction writers are. But the egregious issues of defending copyright and the different between copyright and trademark and Lovecraft and possibly how fan fiction is not actually like raping babies at all have been dealt with elsewhere and handily.

What gets me in this conversation is the privilege involved. You're talking about hugely successful writers who are so successful that they do not have to be concerned with offending their most loyal and invested fans--and make no mistake, kids. The people who write fanfic in your worlds are among your biggest fans. They have assistants to sort through their blog comments so that they don't have to deal with the fallout of what they say, and shut down comments after 400 because it's not a constructive conversation (which--when is it ever, on a blog, but rarely? And if you're a bestselling writer you have to know people want to talk in your space) anymore. They had to have it pointed out to them that people might write fan fiction out of love. They go on and on about how they would never write fan fic, but waste no space on empathy for others who might. These are writers who are really probably never going to be hurt by fanfiction, who can't even be hurt by kissing off a nice slice of their paying audience. That's even if you make the argument that fan fiction can hurt people, that fanfic writers are just waiting to pounce on their favorite author and sue them to bits. And before you trot out the Marion Zimmer Bradley case, one of the things I've learned in this fight is that that case is far more complex than it's legended about to be. I really feel it's been used to scare authors into hating fanfic, when the story appears to be otherwise.

That said, y'all, don't prove me wrong on this score. I'm very touchy feely with my fandom, in part because they've never done me wrong or hurt me in any way. This is an awesome balance. I hope it stays that way forever.

For most of us, fanfiction is a non-issue. Even for midlist writers. We will never be popular enough for people to play in our worlds with any frequency. The problem for us is getting people to read and care about our books that much in the first place. I have never heard a midlist or small press writer shriek about fanfic the way bestsellers do. So much ire spent over something that ultimately helps books, keeps the conversation going past the long tail of marketing, keeps them alive and loved--I've never understood it. Quashing fan activity is not only self-sabotaging, but unkind. I have always been delighted when told there was a piece of fanfic inspired by a book of mine floating about. I don't read it for legal reasons, but I'm thrilled to know it's there. Someone cared. Someone loved it enough to spend their free time writing about it for free. My rule has always been: don't make money off it and we're cool. Writers require fans in order to keep living and working--it behooves us not to call them names or accuse them of incredibly awful crimes that are not remotely comparable to writing a little story about Buffy and Spike. (I do think this is partly a sex issue--authors seem to get most upset when they discover slash fic, to which I say: welcome to the internet. How did you avoid it so far?)

Is it a legal grey area? There has never been a test case. Of course it is. But look. It would be a bit shit of me to holler about fan fiction being evil when I've made a name for myself at least in part by retelling fairy tales. Of course, that hasn't stopped Jasper Fforde from saying idiotic things like: "My thoughts on Fan Fiction are pretty much this: That it seems strange to want to copy or 'augment' someone else's work when you could expend just as much energy and have a lot more fun making up your own." And then writing books which do nothing but copy and augment other people's characters and making money from it--arguably Jasper Fforde is the most successful fanfic writer around. God, I knew I was right to loathe those books. Anyway, the point is, I learned to write short fiction partly by wearing the narrative bones of fairy tales and then re-breaking them in interesting ways. And I can't say I got mine, now no touching.

It is part of the human activity of storytelling to retell, misremember, breakup and tell backwards, peek into the crannies and tell the other stories (thank you Euripides), wonder what might have been, what could be, and tell the same stories over and over, but tell them slant. I feel that trying to destroy that impulse is not only hopeless but cruel. I love my characters and worlds no less than any other writer. They are, as has been said over and over, my children. But with every child there comes a time when they are grown and out in the world, free to smoke in alleys and consort with boys of poor reputation, get in trouble on their own and probably screw around a lot. And you have to let them go. My characters and worlds are not wholly mine in the spiritual sense, even if they are in a legal sense. Reading is an active sport, and we create books together, in the space between my words and your heart. I put those people into the world, into the sphere of collective imagination. How can I possibly begrduge others playing with them? The whole point of publishing them was for others to love them.

I believe in planet remix. In culture as a vibrant and changing thing. I do not believe fanfic violates that, but encourages it. Yes, much fanfic is bad. I've got news for you. Most published fiction is bad, too. Life goes on.

In the end, I have an important secret to tell you. Huddle up.

This argument is already over. It is a generational one. You've got a whole host of authors coming into their own who grew up with fanfic as a fact of life, or even committed it themselves. Who have been messing about with creative commons since forever. A whole generation who sees fanfic as, not a nuisance, but a mark of success, a benchmark--if someone wrote fanfic about my book, then I've really made it. A certain generation of authors will always hate and fear fanfic, and every once in awhile the internet will get its hackles up and have a conversation about it. But that will happen less and less as years go by. You can't stop this beat, my friends. It's too old, and too basic.

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Yeah, with all the retellings I've written, and the secret history series (read: historical fanfic, especially Midnight Hever Come, which has almost no invented mortal characters in it), I'd be a hell of a hypocrite if I spat on fanfic.

Doesn't stop some! Fforde boggles me, but apparently Gabaldon has made no secret of her Outlander series being inspired by Doctor Who.

Which she would undoubtedly say is an example of what she suggested: take the part of the idea that interests you and do your own thing with it, rather than "trespassing" in the author's own sandbox. And she has a point about the difference, I'd say; where she goes wrong is in thinking the difference is one of kind, rather than degree.

As a midway point to demonstrate the spectrum, I point to Colleen Gleason's Regency vampire hunter romances. I read one and put it down, because it felt so very obviously like she made up a Regency-era Buffy fanfic, then filed off the serial numbers. (When your Regency miss is calling someone "Sir Stakes-a-lot, it kind of gives the game away.)

The thing is, so many people just want to have fun, not do all the heavy lifting of creating their own universe and publishing. They just want to play in a sandbox, and that seems alien to some writers.

I don't disagree with you. That's one of the obvious places Gabaldon went wrong -- assuming that everybody should be just as happy, if not moreso, doing original fiction. They scratch related but not identical impulses.

Well, it's *my* sandbox, and nobody asked permission first :P. I get that visceral dislike of fanfic. I did all the heavy lifting and arranged things just as I like, and *now you're messing it up!* That can be very compelling emotional logic, for sure. But for Gods' sakes, don't rationalize that into an argument against fanfic's very existence. If it makes your skin crawl, turn away and don't read it. Pretend it doesn't exist, and recognize your limits in terms of controlling other people's behavior.

"Your" being the generic 'your,' of course. (Guess who's been writing a lot of newsletter articles lately? Style guide says, "write in the second person voice, it's more compelling." Sigh.)

Yeah, that's the thing. You don't have to read it. It's not messing up the sand or the box, which are created by you, the writer, and no one argues you have the right to run it as you please, even to say no one can play there. It's a game people play, that's all.

the problem is that by the time you realize you shouldn't be reading it, your brain already requires bleach and even that doesn't always do the trick. i'm not even a writer and i have had beloved characters ruined for me. the alternative version of the character still pops up in my mind no matter how i try to ignore it. i can only imagine how the authors feel.

I really feel an author has to go out of their way to read fanfic. It's always, always clearly labeled, with ratings and everything.

I want to poke at this analogy a bit more, though... (Not meant to argue with you, because I think in the end, we are saying much the same thing, perhaps.)

The author sets up her sandbox, and arranges it just as she likes, and puts what toys in it she wants. And she doesn't necessarily invite everyone to jump into it with her -- most of the time, she absolutely doesn't (there are some shared-world exceptions). And I really do respect that.

But that's actually not quite what really happens. What happens, upon publication of the "sandbox" (let's pretend a sandbox could be published), is that when I read it, an identical sandbox is created in my own yard. It has everything -- it's arranged generally the same way, it contains generally the same toys, although, they are not exactly the same toys because the toys are created between the author's description and my own imagination. But they're toys bearing the same labels, okay, fine. And the arrangement is probably just about the same.

It's a facsimile of the author's own sandbox in her own yard, for sure. Isn't that what she was trying to do? Describe her sandbox so that I, separated by miles and years, could picture it exactly? And in the act of picturing it, I create my facsimile of her sandbox in my yard. I can't help but do that. The acts (reading/picturing/creating) are inseparable.

I would guess that most of the time and for most people, most of those facsimile sandboxes never get used. They get created and left alone. But of course, when fanfic happens, I go into my version of the sandbox and I start playing there with my just-slightly-unique versions of the things that are in there.

I'm NOT in the author's sandbox. I can't be. That is way over there. I'm over here, in my own. The sand, if you will, is mine. The action figures, if you will, were the ones I bought at the (book)store, and perhaps repainted or customized or created new clothes for -- they aren't her original, official maquettes. Her sandbox is of a certain size -- if I like it enough, I might have built extensions on mine, brought in more sand, made it bigger, deeper, even imported more toys.

Nothing I can ever do will change her sandbox. It's separated from me by miles and years. She can't really look out her window and see mine, either. (I am, like others here, of the opinion that it just is not possible for a published author to "inadvertantly" read fanfiction of her works, let alone, be "forced" to read any.) Really, the only thing she can do is be aware that somewhere, across town, or across the country or the world, there's somebody playing in a sandbox that is more or less a facsimile of hers.

I will certainly make promises, such as, I will never charge anyone to look at what I've done with my facsimile-sandbox. I'm not going to send the author home-movies of myself playing there, either. Beyond that... I don't understand why the mere fact that I'm playing in it, out of her sight and hearing, causes her pain.

Hear, hear!

"Sandbox love never dies."

--Jennifer's Body

I totally understand your analogy, but I don't think that's what it feels like to some authors at all. And that's my point -- well, that and the fact that even if that's what it feels like, that's not an argument against fanfic's mere existence, as you outline.

Basically, I really don't want the argument for fanfic to have to hinge on the original author's feelings *about* fanfic, i.e. "author, you shouldn't be bothered by it on any level whatsoever! You should be flattered and proud! Don't you see? If you only understood how gloriously affirming fanfic really is you wouldn't mind at all!" I don't believe that. I believe fanfic should be allowed space anyway.

*nods* Yes. I do agree with you.

You're right that how you described it is how some authors FEEL it, and their reactions are proceeding from that. So, sure, we can understand authors' reactions that way.

I think what I was trying to feel my way around wasn't so much a defense of fanfic, as trying to come up with a different way to explain the "why it's happening" part. Because in this latest kerfuffle, it seems like that's part of the problem. Gabaldon and GRRM don't even seem to understand why it's happening... and if the model in their head is the sandbox model you articulated, well then, they won't ever get it.

I don't think that their getting it would necessarily make them embrace it as a wonderful thing. I don't think that's a reason for trying to make them get it, really. I think it's fine if they don't like it, whatever their reasons. Just, please don't tell me (authoritatively!) that I'm doing something that I'm not actually doing. If nothing else, I'd like to be able to figure out how to get through to them that the model in their head for what's happening isn't really reflective of what's happening.

I guess what bugs me the most in this iteration is -- okay, authors, you don't like fanfic, fine. Stop there. Stop playing Internet Psychologist in your attempt to explain why this thing exists... and why it, natch, shouldn't. I can spend plenty of time trying to understand why an author doesn't like fanfic... I see relatively little consideration on the part of those authors for trying to understand why it exists. The street doesn't go both ways, which is irksome. (Not that I think that my coming up with an analogy that I like in the comments of a post I'm agreeing with is going to do anything to reach those authors who aren't getting it.)

Apart from that, though, I'm with you -- I think fanfic should be allowed its space, and I don't see the value in trying to argue that it should because of this or that supposedly beneficial side-effect (it's flattering! it's great practice for becoming published! etc.).

Not all fanfic is flattering, anyway. Some is confrontational. Some really DOES proceed from a fan's conviction (or simply, decision) that what she can write is "better" (for her; maybe for other readers as well) than what the writer is still producing. (And sometimes, that seems mock-worthy, such as when speaking of HP fans who "know" that Snape is the real hero of the series no matter what JKR says; but I can't throw any stones, when I have been writing Pern fanfiction since '81 and yet have not actually read a Pern book since '95, because oh my god, my eyes.)

As a fan of analogies, I think you are made of win and awesome.

Thank you for crafting such a creative view of what the fic world is all about.

Buffy fanfic, then filed off the serial numbers

Brilliant phrasing. To judge from an unscientific study of my local bookstores, that seems to be half(*) of what's on the genre shelves nowadays -- kick-ass women, usually with (according to the covers) "tramp stamp" tattoos, who slay monsters and have a demon lover of some sort.

On the subject of more honest and unabashed fanfiction, I just don't read it much, and suggest that sensitive writers have the same option.

(*)(The other half, present company excepted, still mostly sounds like Tolkien, except for the ones with titles ending in "-ist" and Harry Turtledove's latest version of some total war or other.)

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