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Fan the Flames
modern lit
catvalente
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.


I try not to throw stones from my ivory tower onto the people chanting "I love you" at the gates.

And I really hope there's never a time that I open my inbox and read a note of praise with anything other than humble gratitude.


Thank you for putting into coherant words what I've been thinking about this!

I hope someday my as-yet-unfinished novel gets published, and inspires someone to want to do fanfic. Seriously. This would be the ultimate compliment that someone cared enough about my work to want to make their own off of it.


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.

Sometimes you're so smart and compassionate and awesome I just want to hug you a lot.

This, yes.

It was this debate that finally made me put my finger on what one particular argument reminds me of.

Whenever the fight comes 'round, after all the legal stuff and whatnot, there's always somebody going "Fan fic is a horrible waste of your time, it's literary masturbation, it's stunting you as an author, you should be using your own world always and you'll never grow any if you write fan fic and also you should totally be ashamed."

I finally realized--it's exactly the same as the people saying "Nobody should play Guitar Hero, it's horrible, it's not real music, get a real guitar and learn to play real music and start your own band."

Or, as XKCD put it--"Stop having fun!"

After a zillion reiterations, I just want to roll my eyes and go "God forbid we occasionally amuse ourselves with stuff that we can't send a publisher!"

Yeah. I mean god, didn't any of these people own action figures?

I've always been a bit doubtful of the whole training in fanfic to be a real writer thing--fairy tales are narratives so strong they've withstood millenia. Twilight not so much. I think it encourages a lot of bad habits, imitation and derivative stories. I like it much better when people are just having fun.

So you're happy with fan fic in your world, that's good. Others aren't happy, isn't that their prerogative too? I think Gabaldon could have been less confrontational but isn't she entitled to say 'Hi guys, I'd rather you didn't do that.' And have that request respected?

The thing is, her request was respected. There is very little fanfic out there in her world and will be even less now. There was no reason for her to call fan ficcers pedophiles, which is what she did. Bestsellers often write with the expectation of respect--and she will get what she wants out of it. I also have the right to point out that the behavior on her part is pretty shabby toward her biggest fans, and that maybe her arguments are not so great, since she had to be told that people do it for love, it had never occurred to her that it might be so.

Gregory Maguire, I think, has to be the most successful fan-fic'er.

Well, but Fforde has written more books, and not all of GM's books are fanfic if you allow as how fairy tale retellings are not. Also, I've heard GM is also against fanfic of his work but couldn't find corroboration so didn't post it.

How does one learn to cook? By trying out other people's recipes on your own. How do you learn to play a musical instrument? By practicing tunes others have written.

It also doesn't mean everyone who makes a birthday cake for a friend wants to be a Professional Pastry Chef with all the sacrifice and effort that entails.

Yeah...I have to disagree. Fanfic is not necessarily just training wheels for pro writing; many fan authors are just as good or better than pro authors, and for many fan authors fanfic is an end in and of itself, and a perfectly legitimate one. To use your musical analogy, the most brilliant instrumentalists rarely become composers, but that does not make them any less respectable or worthy as artists.

I have always felt it was disingenuous of authors to expect their fans to invest financially and intellectually in their universe and characters without also investing creatively.

And also I feel completely comfortable in stating without qualifier, that every writer has done it -- if nothing else, the first stories we learn to tell as children are little more than remixing our favorite movies, books, fairy tales, and sometimes Sesame Street episodes.

Another thing I notice about this revolving, zombified fanfic kerfuffle; that the writers who get up in arms about it only object to the fiction. They've nothing to say about the fan art, or the filksongs, or the cosplayers who create transformative works around their original -- and why is that? I suspect that is because they, the Canon Author, cannot paint, sing, write music, sew their costumes, or pretend to be their own characters in public. But because they CAN write, then it's around that, particularly, that they piss their circle of ownership.

Well, to be fair, part of the issue is that no one can confuse something created in a different medium with the original. There is no issue of canon. There is no issue of someone else possibly making money off of something in the same medium. I understand the difference, even if I am sometimes amazed at how authors will feel complimented by one and betrayed by the other.

I am a fan of your books who has been lurking in your journal for awhile now. I am also a fanfic writer, and I really want to thank you for this thoughtful post. I, too, have a hard time understanding why an author would vigorously insult their fandom, but I think you hit it on the head: it's about privilege, about knowing that even if a thousand people swear never to buy their books again, it won't put a dent in their sales figures. (It probably doesn't hurt that these two particular authors are in the middle of series to whom their readers, myself included, are addicted -- I could claim that I'm never darkening their doors again, but when those next books came out, I know I'd cave immediately, so I'm not going to bother.) One of the things I enjoy about following midlist authors -- and most producers of genre TV shows, as well -- is how very much they appreciate their fans, both individually and in aggregate.

I have also never understood how anyone can draw a line of morality or quality between derivative work that's licensed and/or based on public domain sources and derivative work that isn't. On some level, almost *all* fiction is derivative of something, and I wish more professional authors were willing to recognize that.

Again, thank you, and I hope you don't mind if I link this post all over the Internets. It needs to be read.

Not at all!

The difference they're pointing out is all about money. If it's licensed, someone somewhere is at least trying to be fair to creators. If it's not, there's this terror that someone is going to make money off of it without sharing. But artistically the difference is kind of nil. There's an expectation of a level of quality with licensed derivative work, that's all.

The fans trying to monetize fanfic thing (except for auctions which is charity) doesn't happen very often, but the fear is what drives authors condemnations--I'd hazard to say especially authors with unfinished series that they cannot possibly finish faster than their audience's can consume it and get bored waiting for more.

with all the mash-ups and reboots of classic books and supernaturals, it gets kinda dicey. I know several folks who do fanfic, for fun not profit. If there is a copyright/trademark issue that crosses some pretty big boundaries and then the person is selling it for money, its a no no.

There has been many a book I have read that my mind has told me "jeez that part was lame, X should have done this instead, why did the author do that?" FacFic writers do just that, for their own edification and personal use.

Some authors in series cant read fanfic because of legal issues of plagarism can come up.

I know that authors don't often read fanfic because of legal issues--though that MZB case is the only actual case I have ever heard of--but also because we have our own ideas and aren't farming for other people's. That's just yucky.

The remixes are all of public domain works, to be fair and all. But they are still fanfic.

Ooh, where did C. S. Lewis talk about this -- ie authors reworking older authors' stuff instead of making up something all new? He was talking about somewhere Middle Ageish iirc.

And then he did fanfic himself in TILL WE HAVE FACES (reslanting Ovid).


Right, in the middle ages this was normal. Translatio. Reworking old stories for a new audience, taking things apart, putting them back together. They didn't have the same fetish for originality we do. That said, I do like originality.

Oh, gods, yes! I've read a fair bit about this topic, some by ficcers who never care to be more than that (but who are good at what they do anyway), some by the likes of the Nilsen-Haydens... and I think this is the best summary of the bunch by far. The last four grafs (and the final two sentences immediately preceding) in particular.

But, yes. We are the *second generation* of ficcers. We do not know what life was like without it.

Can't stop the signal.

(here via vixyish...)

Actually, I thought the tone on Martin's list, including his presentation of his own ideas, was very civil. It felt like having a conversation with a group of people with different ideas who wanted, at the end of the day, to still be able to have a beer together--not pandering. And cutting comments off at 400 or so, when nothing new was being added, was just "changing the topic," which happens in conversation all the time. Do I agree with his take on FF. Not really, but as long as he's willing to explain his reasons with a civil tone, I'm willing to listen.

Just my opinion. Your mileage may vary.

It was a lot better on tone than Gabaldon's, but given the amount of totally incorrect information he gave out and did not retract and his inability to understand why people write fanfic while going on and on about why he personally would never do such a thing (unless he was paid) felt really tone deaf to me.