On the Term “Fan Fiction” …

I don’t like it.

It’s inaccurate. It should be just “fiction.” The addition of the word fan is not a comment on the writing but a comment on the writer that is being used to project judgment on the writing and set it inherently lower than “non-fan fiction.” This is an unfair, spurious judgment, and we should be less complacent in accepting it.

To begin explaining why, I think we need to start at literature’s roots, before it was literature or even writing. I do believe that our use of language and, most importantly, use of language to tell stories–whether of a successful hunt earlier that day, an ancestor’s triumphs in battle, or a completely made-up account of a colony on Mars–is one of the most important traits that defines us as human apart from our brethren in the Animal Kingdom. Prehistoric evidence shows that, as far as you want to go back, if there were people, then they were telling stories.

All over the world, for example, we see a rich tradition of oral storytelling among preliterate peoples. Because these societies did not yet have writing, then all of their stories were a form of what we now call fan fiction: If I am a storyteller, and I hear something that I like, then I retell that later. Only, because it was not written down, then I am less concerned with fidelity to the original and invent where I might have forgotten exactly how it goes or reinvent when I think that I like a different idea better. Or I reframe an old story so that it is more relevant to the present day: think of all the Christian elements in Beowulf, a poem about a pre-Christian Pagan civilization.

Nor am I the first to make this argument; Natasha Walter gave fandom its favorite quote to validate its existence when she said that “when it comes to fan fiction, the internet is giving us back something like an oral society, in which people can retell the stories that are most important to them and, in so doing, change them.” The SWG uses that quote on its LiveJournal community, and I see it resurface occasionally in an email sig line of some fan defending her dirty habit against the scorn of the literati. Fans are, I have found, really proud to “return to their roots,” so to speak, in engaging in collective and revisionist storytelling as old as the species. But there is actually a return to nothing. Writing based on the words of those to come before us never stopped. We are upholding a tradition of storytelling as old as the species, defending it against commercial interests.

It is hard to find a medieval fictional writing that does not have a source. Religious and Biblical stories, myths and legends, historical accounts, and the work of other writers formed the basis of much of medieval literature. If you look at Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for example, it is a poem made up of two plots, each coming from a different Celtic legend. Even in combining them, scholars can’t agree as to whether this was done first by a French author, and the anonymous Gawain poet was just copying what he’d read elsewhere, or if he’d originated the concept of putting two familiar stories together into one. Or, to put it into “fan fiction” terms: did the the Gawain poet invent the crossover?

That medieval literature largely derived from existing sources makes sense since much of medieval literature began as oral storytelling: Building upon, expanding on, and reinventing favorite stories was how literature was done. Nor was there copyright to complicate things. A story was “owned” by anyone who heard or read it.

But derivative and transformative fiction–fan fiction–did not end in the Middle Ages. The American author Washington Irving is credited with writing the first short story: “Rip Van Winkle.” “Rip Van Winkle,” however, was not Washington Irving’s story. It was a rewriting of the German story “Peter Klaus the Goatherd” by J.C.C. Nachtigal, which Nachtigal had transcribed from a folk tale. Irving liked it, so he retooled it a bit and wrote it in English. Yes, a fan fiction writer invented one of the most prolific genres in literature today: the short story!

Of course, conditions for writers were not ideal in the 19th century. There was no such thing as international copyright, so an author could publish a story in the United States and discover it reprinted and selling like proverbial hotcakes in England (or vice versa), without ever having given his permission–much less earning payment–for the sale. This is clearly not ideal if we want to encourage a system where writers can make a living on their work (which, of course, allows them to produce more of the work that we love). So maybe one could argue that making copyright stricter in order to protect writers is what made certain kinds of fiction into fan fiction, a genre inferior to its brethren where the connection between it and the sources that inspired it are less apparent.

But fan fiction is not only being written but being published even today.

Neil Gaiman is regarded as one of the most imaginative authors in speculative fiction today. In his last short story collection, Fragile Things, he included a story, “The Problem of Susan,” that dealt with questions raised by C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories. “The Problem of Susan” supposes a basic familiarity with Lewis’s writings (even though, like most good fan fiction, it can be read and enjoyed without it) and even uses Lewis’s characters. Gaiman could never understand why Susan, of all the Pevensie children, had to remain behind and never return to Narnia:

I read the Narnia books to myself hundreds of times as a boy, and then aloud as an adult, twice, to my children. There is so much in the books that I love, but each time I found the disposal of Susan to be intensely problematic and deeply irritating. I suppose I wanted to write a story that would be equally problematic, and just as much of an irritant, if from a different direction ….
Fragile Things, Introduction.

He writes about Susan’s life, long after Narnia, to address the questions the book raised for him.

This should sound familiar to fan fiction authors. The curtains close on a part of a literary history, only questions, even dissatisfaction, still linger in our minds. So what do we do? We write as though that curtain never dropped and consider the continuation of the story that the author never embarked upon. We use that author’s ideas to make sense of the story’s outcome, or not. My story Rekindling does this: Tolkien never described the ending and remaking of the world into Arda Unmarred. Using some of his early ideas, I consider one possibility. Keiliss’s beautiful and haunting Star’s End is another such story that looks at Arwen’s death and Maglor’s fate. MithLuin’s intriguing novella Lessons from the Mountain takes Maedhros’s story beyond where Tolkien left us at his death and tells of his rehabilitation in the halls of Mandos. Stories that consider Elladan and Elrohir’s choice between mortality and immortality fit as well, as do Legolas and Gimli’s Fourth Age adventures. Maglor in history and Frodo sailing to Tol Eressëa are common enough that they are practically their own genres.

So what is the difference between what these authors are doing and what Gaiman has done? Many of the authors of Tolkien stories like those described above treat the texts on which they are based just as thoughtfully–even more so–than Gaiman’s treatment of Lewis’s works “The Problem of Susan.”

Responding to a story by answering it with stories of our own is a human trait. We have been doing this since we have been. In every literary epoch, even as it dwindles as copyright tightens and “originality” becomes increasingly valued, we see writers engaging stories in this way. It is neither new nor primitive: It is simply human.

This is the first reason why I detest the term “fan fiction.” Until recently, fan fiction has simply been fiction. Creatively engaging another author’s story was no different than creatively engaging a philosophical idea, a scientific concept, or a historical event. That Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” was a rewrite of an existing German story didn’t make it subpar; it was simply a fact about its creation that didn’t impede enjoyment of the story any more than knowing that Ayn Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged about a free-market economy or that Michael Crichton wrote Jurassic Park about dinosaurs and DNA impeded enjoyment of those: These authors are all engaging aspects of their world and doing so creatively. Why is literature–ironically, of all subjects!–roped off from such inquiry?

I believe that the term “fan fiction” has nothing to do with the fiction and everything to do with the fan. In other words, it is not derogatory because of the kinds of stories it produces; I hope that I have adequately shown that these sorts of stories were and continue to be natural displays of human creativity. It is derogatory because of who the writer is perceived to be, and that is why we should be insulted by it.

What is a fan? It derives from the term fanatic: someone who is passionate to the point of irrationality about something. Think packs of men breaking off the necks of bottles to glass the opposing team’s fans after a sporting match. Think animal liberationists who throw fake blood on families visiting the zoo. Think religious zealots who leave tracts as tips as restaurants because they honestly believe that the words and hazy illustrations will benefit their underpaid server more than money to feed her family. These are not people who deal thoughtfully and rationally with anything where their subject of interest is concerned.

Fan derives from that. It has, of course, earned a milder meaning over time. I can say that I am a fan of the actor Ioan Gruffudd without worrying that I might be misconstrued as a stalker who is–as I type this essay on fan fiction–sitting outside of his house, waiting for him to emerge so that I can kidnap him a la Stephen King’s novel Misery. Or I can be a fan of country music, Japanese motorcycles, wine bars, or Marvel comics.

Our fannish interests as humans are unlimited, but they are invariably regarded as frivolous. Once I get into a certain realm of “serious” subjects, I am not longer a fan but maybe a student or a scholar. I don’t say, for example, that I am a fan of medieval literature. In that I enjoy it, in that I spend a lot of time and thought on it, it is much like the fannish interests I just listed. But to say, “I am a real fan of Piers Plowman!” sounds almost as ridiculous as saying, “I spend my weekends reading, fishing, and performing neurosurgery!” I think it is generally assumed that certain subjects eclipse fannishness and become matters of serious study.

So why am I a student of medieval literature but a fan of Tolkien’s stories? Actually, Tolkien’s works are a perfectly valid subject of study, and there are people who consider themselves not fans but students of his work. Why am I any different? Because, of course, one of my primary ways of dealing with the texts to this point has been through exploring them creatively: in pondering what Pengolodh’s authorship of The Silmarillion means for that text, I wrote a story about it; in trying to explain the story of Lúthien in mythological and historiographical terms, I wrote a story about that too. Who can take that seriously?

I remember that I once got a comment on a story on FanFiction.net from a reviewer who identified herself or himself as a “Tolkien scholar.” I remember nothing else about the comment except for that (and the fact that s/he misspelled the word gonorrhea). I remember, at the time, finding the comment hugely funny. What sort of “scholar” would come up with such wonky views about Tolkien and what sort of scholar would misspell gonorrhea? And, most importantly, what sort of scholar would waste her or his time debating with a fan-fiction writer? The idea of “scholar” and “FanFiction.net” could not be reconciled in my mind; it was contradictory, along the lines of “fighting for peace” or bombing clinics for “pro-life” causes.

When I think of myself as a fan-fiction writer, I can’t possibly take myself seriously. I see a parody of myself: a squealing little girl leaping up and down and clapping her hands until she faints for a lack of oxygen. That high-pitched squeal is all that I have to contribute to the discussion of his works; I am a fan and lack rationality and the perspective that comes with it. But I know that the study I’ve made of Tolkien’s works has been serious. There has been very little leaping up and down and no fainting. My study and writing about Tolkien has been largely grounded in rationality, in a desire to better understand something that I enjoy. Coupled with the human drive to express myself as a storyteller, my ideas take shape as fan fiction.

So what makes me a fan-fiction writer and Neil Gaiman simply a writer? Well, of course, he had proven himself as a writer long before writing “The Problem of Susan”: He had work published, he won awards, he sold lots of books. He’s earned his credibility in expressing ideas creatively, even ideas about works of literature that would ordinarily be corralled as “fan fiction.” With the few publications to my name all in journals or anthologies no one has ever heard of, I don’t carry that credibility. When I interact creatively with a text, it becomes a frivolity, even a perversion. It becomes something to be ashamed of and treated as subpar to so-called “original fiction” or to the derivative/transformative/(fan) fiction of proven writers like Neil Gaiman.

Even look at how we talk about ourselves. Of course, there is fan fiction and fandom and fannish, all words derived from that word fanatic, with all the implications of hysteria and irrationality intact. Then we are “playing in So-and-So’s sandbox.” We are not engaging the texts as fellow readers, writers, and critics. We are children, making silly artifacts that are easily stomped into nothingness. We are “fangirls” and “fanboys” (except for Juno Magic’s reimagined “fancrones,” which I love): again, children. Again, tiny, insignificant voices piping well below the range of adult hearing, sequestered away at a kids’ table where we need not bother the grown-ups with our nattering. We talk about ourselves as frivolous and in need of growing up but, no, I don’t believe that this is always true. I don’t believe that we have nothing to offer, either in analyzing the stories we write about or as writers of fiction independent of those stories.

I see the so-called “real” world of writing fiction as one where there is a lot of scrambling going on to assert the value of one’s work by devaluing the work of others, often without ever having read it. Genre fiction gets trod upon by the literary genre, and sub-genres get stomped by their mainstream counterparts. (Has anyone else ever heard the sneer in the voice of journals that, for example, accept fantasy and horror but “nothing with vampires or werewolves”?) I see the label of “fan fiction” as another way of devaluing a genre of writing. Except that “fan fiction” is perhaps the oldest genre of writing around; I think it deserves better than this.

And I think that we deserve better than this. The Internet is transforming how we write. No longer do we have to be “good enough” (read: unoffensive enough, mainstream enough, know enough of the right people) to be read. More people have probably read my novel Another Man’s Cage than have read all of my published writings combined. It must be scary, for an industry accustomed to acting as arbiters of quality and taste, to consider us. In reading arguments against fan fiction, it is inevitably mentioned that fan fiction has the potential to take a paying audience from a writer. We are cast as thieves. Implied in that fear is that fan fiction about a story may be better than the original. That as a series creaks on indefinitely, fans dissatisfied with the plummetting quality might get their “fix” of characters and a world that they enjoy through fan fiction, not through purchasing the original author’s books. Whenever I see literary snobbery in action, I hear a note of fear underlying it: that someone who we thought took writing less seriously than we did somehow managed, despite that, to produce a better story. What’s left after that but to discredit the story’s very existence, to claim it as inherently inferior?

“Fan fiction” is not inferior. It is a continuing form of storytelling that is older than writing itself; it is the way that humans always have and always will engage the stories that interest and inspire them. It is a way that authors celebrate not only their love for those stories but analyze, discuss, and otherwise make sense of those stories. What we do is not inferior or even immoral; this–not the idea of derivative or transformative storytelling–is the novel attitude, and it serves the commercial interest of those who would compartmentalize stories as saleable entities. We should be less complacent in accepting this, beginning by not willfully labeling our work as inferior.

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17 Responses to “On the Term “Fan Fiction” …”

  1. Oshun says:

    Want to be a tiny bit of a devil’s advocate here–not entirely–because I do agree with a lot of your points.

    To raise another issue in the judgment or characterization of fanfiction vs. fiction, the question of quality is often an issue.

    I personally know a number of fanfiction writers, who come to writing from backgrounds which require a high level of literacy, who have written professionally in one form or another most of their working lives, and who write highly professional, intensely creative, mature and complicated fanfiction. I know others, who never wrote before and taught themselves to write excellent fiction through writing fanfiction alone. A large number of these types of writers exist within the fanfiction community. I just participated in Yuletide rare fandom challenge. I would say it is nearly the antithesis of ff net, for example. A randomly picked story is much more likely than not to be well-executed and have literary merit. Yuletide can really broaden one’s horizon, because it pulls together extremely talented writers from a myriad of fandoms into one place and makes them visible to people like me who are often stuck in their own little corner of this world.

    But to get back to my main point, quality is definitely an issue. The vast majority of fanfiction is nearly unreadable (rife with grammatical errors, typos, clichés, etc.) or becomes unreadable through familiarity (competently executed but is comprised of the same old tired themes and stories over and over again). But, guess what? It is read, largely, I think because of the “fan” element in fanfiction. Most of us admit to having read somewhat indiscriminately in our first flush of enthusiasm when we first came to fanfiction and only later narrowed our reading to the best of it. We came because we wanted to read more of our favorite stories, characters, settings, etc.

    I am one of those who have compared fanfiction to the stories told by traveling bards or minstrels in the middle ages. But if the Bard were as poor of a storyteller as many who are writing fanfiction, he would starve if he didn’t find himself a day-job of cleaning stables. We would not find him romantically singing or telling his tales at the table of a king.

    Another aspect is originality. The published writer and the fanfic writer do differ on this question. The writer of original fiction still today has he did historically bases his work upon shared cultural heritages, old stories, tropes and adds to it his particular world view, knowledge of psychology and the human condition and spins it all in a new and original way. He reflects those aspects in characters and a universe he or she has created, or uniquely developed beyond that of the original. As a fanfiction writer, I borrow these building blocks from another writer, rather than invent my own. True, I try to take them farther in one direction or another. But I am still relying heavily on someone else’s creativity.

    I don’t tend to overestimate or glorify what I do in writing fanfiction. Quite the contrary, my amount of self-deprecation is based upon my own background and experience. The written word has been my living for the larger part of 30 years. Like the old joke that every waiter/waitress in Hollywood wants to be an actor, nearly every journalist, proofreader, copy checker, or translator dreams of writing a novel. I’m not special. I would have to do something very unique to separate myself out of the herd and it’s not likely to be my next fanfic novel. That is just a fact.

    I love fanfiction. I love its writers and their creativity. I adore sharing the different worlds that have inspired us. I agree it is a highly legitimate form of self-expression and the best of it is stunningly beautiful. Doing it at the highest level requires enormous skill, but different perhaps from that used in writing original fiction.

  2. Oshun says:

    More people have probably read my novel Another Man’s Cage than have read all of my published writings combined.

    There is an enormous audience for fanfiction.

    On numbers of readers: there are big fandoms and tiny fandoms also. The page clicks on fanfiction sites for “big” fandoms are phenomenal compared to those of the smaller ones also. I could compare my Lord of the Rings novel, The Princess and the Horse Lord, across various sites to my Silmarillion novella A New Day. The difference is astronomical. The LotR novel has had something like nearly 100X the number of page clicks. But compare the readership of my most read Tolkien story to a popular Harry Potter story and it is nothing. It is not a question of quality but of exposure and potential readership.

  3. Rhapsody says:

    I do agree with Oshun, her point on storytellers/bards/minstrels in the past earning their keep is one I do take into consideration. Unless you’re a big bestseller writing novelist, you cannot exist from writing your books. I do keep track of authors and know a few who debuted this past year and they simply laugh about what it actually generates. One has to be an idealist to pursue this. Even with the copyright laws supporting them. I sometimes think that law is more there to protect the consumer (to guarantee they don’t end up with a fake production), than the artist themselves. Sometimes I think it’s also about money. *sighs*

    There however another view I have on this, fan fiction is fiction to me, it’s just a subclass (thinking with a librarian’s mind) of a bigger one. To me there is no devaluation and knowing that fanfiction has been around for so long (what to think of fan fiction magazines?) it says something how people do view it opposed to those pessimistic folks. Is it fear, disdain that rules their hearts and minds? Thinking of Robin Hobb I do think she has serious issues with her self-esteem. I’ve brought up the Terry Pratchett case with you before where a fan accused Pratchett of stealing from the fan (which was not the case). Then there are so many established writers who will help fannish writers or those inspired by their works to get them going, work together (Marion Zimmer Bradley, George Lucas, and the Star Trek franchise/Majel Roddenberry). So yeah there are elitist out there, mocking the quality of ff as opposed to their achievements. They do have a point sometimes, but for me. I am like you; I don’t find myself that handclapping fangirl squeeing or fainting at perhaps meeting Tolkien’s son. I have read, studied, contemplated his works, so I’d probably fit better in the scholar department, but I don’t see the fan component to fiction as negative. I see so many bearing and calling themselves fan (fiction writer) so proudly that I know that the positive attitude will always be more prominent than the negative one.

  4. Dawn says:

    Oshun: Devil’s advocate is fun. I’ll play. 😉

    I think the issue of quality is a sticky one. I’ve heard it used before to set one type of (original) fiction as inherently superior to another type of (original) fiction. For example, in my writing classes, there was no question that literary fiction was superior to speculative fiction. Speculative fiction was low-quality, formulaic crap, whereas literary was high-minded and original. Bullshit.

    I think the proliferation of low-quality fanfic has a lot to do with how fan- and o-fic are “published”: I don’t see a huge number of self-publishing o-fic archives like there are for fanfic. There is Fiction Press, and I know that Mike from TFF has a small archive for o-fic. I can’t speak to the quality on either, as I’ve never read on either. But most o-fic authors I know don’t want to publish in such a venue. They want “real” publication, and in the writers’ group I’m on, I know some of them send a story out for years to hundreds of markets before getting it accepted somewhere; it’s a very different attitude from fanfic, where self-publishing is the first choice rather than the rock-bottom, dead-last, I’d-rather-be-eaten-alive-by-army-ants last alternative. O-fic authors, I think, would rather be published than be read; fanfic authors would rather be read than be published, so that keeps a lot of original crap off of the Internet. (Having edited for two journals now aimed at new writers, I can say we got our share of illegible crap. That a number of journals, in their submission guidelines, recommend that authors run a spellcheck before submitting their work suggests that we are not alone in that.)

    My point in all of this is that I think that there is a share of crap in every genre. Is there more in fanfic? I’d be pretty confident in saying yes. But I hesitate to use the average quality of a genre to dismiss the entire genre as inferior. Yes, most fanfic writers would starve if required to make their livings as bards. But so would most o-fic authors.

    On originality, I don’t think the line is so easily drawn between fanfic and o-fic. We have, for example, stories like Pandemonium’s that rely primarily on characters and events barely described in the books, or named but never described, or never named but implied, or never named or implied but wholly possible. I’ve heard said about some stories (and I think Pandemonium’s are probably some of the best examples) that if the names of characters and places were changed, it could be sold as original fiction.

    Then we have “original” stories that are based on myths or public-domain stories where the author is basically retelling another person’s story … but because of how we draw the line of copyright, they get treated as original. I think they are, in fact, far less original than “fanfics” like Pandemonium’s. (I.e., I could sell my story based on Gawain and the Green Knight, even though it is far less original than some of my fanfic.) Or we have “original” stories that are based on the same tired themes and cliches, much as the fanfic you mention. When I took Intro to Fiction Writing in university, I thought I might leap off a tall building if I had to read one more teen-angst “original” story about friends committing suicide or getting addicted to drugs or parents getting divorced. I would have loved a fanfic with some original ideas!

    On readership, yes, I’ll confess that it was frustrating when I wrote a short story about Legolas for a friend, and suddenly people who never glanced at me in two years were interested in my writing! :)

    But, again, “It is not a question of quality but of exposure and potential readership”: I think this applies to fiction in general, not just fanfic. We published some amazing stories for Anti-Com. But Anti-Com was a tiny Internet publication; a “name” that published in a major market would have gotten far more readers than this unknown author whose work might have been just as good.

    Rhapsody: I do think it is about the money. It’s attempting to stick one’s banner into a creative entity that is built on the work of others (because, to a degree, all fiction is, no matter how “original”) and sequester off that story as the “property” of a select few people, most of whom had no part in creating it in the first place (i.e., a publisher usually has the right to authorize a movie based on a novel, whether the author wants it or not. But “fanfic” is not allowed?). I’m sorry, human imagination doesn’t work that way. The rants of Robin Hobb and her ilk are amusing simply because it’s like watching a bunch of people peeing into the wind and hoping to come away smelling like roses (to borrow a line from an Incubus song): Things just don’t work like that. All the wishful thinking in the world won’t make that pee blow against the wind, and all the wishful thinking in the world won’t make it so that human minds don’t respond creatively to the creative works of others just because a few crabby authors think they could make a little more money if things did work that way.

    I find myself, day by day, increasingly jaded by the publishing world. (Yes, already, at the tender age of 27! :) ) I think the only reason I would sell a novel under the conditions most publishers require is because I decide that the laurels are more important than anything else related to my creative work. I suspect I’ll never have a novel published traditionally, not because I’m not good enough (I don’t know if I am) but because I can’t stomach the thought of others making money on my creativity while telling me what I can do with it. No thanks.

    I do take your point on embracing the positive associations those of us in the fan community have with the label “fan fiction.” I think even I could embrace it myself if I didn’t wonder to what extent it is put upon us by those whose interest in creative works rarely extends beyond their ability to make money on them. But I certainly respect your viewpoint on this.

  5. Michelle says:

    I’m finding myself jaded by the publishing world as well. And unlike you, I even have to deal with all the crap that gets translated from English and I’m asking myself: Who decided to publish that in the first place? Who was so stupid to buy the rights for the German market? Who invested the money to get this translated and put in print? And why even make an audiobook out of it? Especially when I know so many talented German authors who would deserve to get there book out there to be read. It’s frustrating and it makes me angry on their account.

    But I digress. As much as your essay fascinates me, I’d like to see a bit on authors’ views as well. It’s just a thought, but maybe fandom as a whole has an inferiority complex because there are authors like Anne Rice or George R.R. Martin who damn fanfiction in the first place, suggesting writers should come up with their own characters. This implies that they think fanfiction is an inferior genre to begin with – fanfiction writers just aren’t original or inventive enough. They’re not playing in the same league.

    (An assumption, which is of course limping since, as you so well described – a fair number of published authors dabble in what we would call fanfiction.)

  6. Oshun says:

    You are actually kicking in an open door on some of these questions.

    Over the past period I have encountered a number of published writers who like fanfiction and encourage and/or happily accept that their work draws it. Just to mention a few: science fiction/fantasy writer Storm Constantine (with her Wraeththu series, who, in fact, although she is published and sells well in the real world (with re-prints and translations, etc.) has set up her own publishing company so that, among other reasons, she can publish fanfic of her work (and she goes as far as to declare what she publishes to be part of the “official canon”). Ellen Kushner is welcoming and sympathetic of fanfiction of her work (whose Swordspoint series has produced some interesting fanfic, largely of high quality), meanwhile her books also have won awards in fantasy/sci-fi circles, been re-printed multiple times, translated, widely reviewed, etc.

    There is a substantial, outspoken group of published writers (foremost among them Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman) along with other artists, whose work touches upon fantasy/sci-fi world, who strongly enough agree with your disgruntlement with the categorization and declaring second-class status to those genres that they are actively trying to do something about it. Check out this website of the “Interstitial Arts Foundation” (http://www.interstitialarts.org/why/theIAF_an_intro1.html#)

    Ellen Kushner on the dilemna:

    We’re in my living room, fellow-novelists Delia Sherman, Terri Windling, and I, drinking something or other, munching biscuits and gently moaning about how hard it is to reach our audience. When our work is published in genre, it finds a faithful audience — except for those who are utterly baffled by the fact that it fails to follow the rhetoric of strict genre fantasy, and complain bitterly. When we submit it out of genre, we’re told it contains too many non-realistic elements — code for “it has Fantasy Cooties.” We also wax indignant on behalf of our favorite science fiction writers whose quirky, brilliant short stories fly under the radar of literary critics, and, more importantly, of the reading public. . . .

    ” This is too much, we said. We’re living in an age of category, of ghettoization — the Balkanization of Art! We should do something.

    Interestingly enough, I have had interesting exchanges with another published writer, Josh Lanyon, who writes gay mystery novels (to commit the above-mentioned crime of categorization). He published in the mainstream and garnered a following and then, having trouble getting his older work re-printed, turned to what he has fondly called lunatic-fringe publishers to meet the demands of his fans. (Now he uses all of those forms and e-book publishers as well.) Anyway, my point is not his method of dealing with keeping his works in circulation, but with his opinion on fanfiction. See the following exchange in a discussion thread on my LJ. (http://heartofoshun.livejournal.com/95787.html).

    Just a teaser from Josh Lanyon:

    I believe it to be its own art form — and I’m sorry it is generally dismissed (or worse) by mainstream writing. I think it is the literary equivalent of folk music.

    Interestingly, I first met Josh on a Mary Renault fanfic site, but the above discussion thread is on a comment he made on an Ellen Kushner Swordspoint fic I had written.

    I guess what I am saying is it is not all hopeless. Everybody isn’t as narrow-minded Robin Hobb, or college professors who don’t have the ability to see beyond the end of their noses and actually watch what is going on in the world of writing.

    Nor is the discussion in its broadest strokes entirely new. Mary Renault’s work, for example, took years to be acknowledged as great literature, because it was considered “historical fiction,” a poor stepchild. And, the Classicists did not want to touch it because it was not purely dry history/non-fiction and the literature professors were afraid of it because they were not experts in Classical Greece.

  7. Oshun says:

    Then we have “original” stories that are based on myths or public-domain stories where the author is basically retelling another person’s story … but because of how we draw the line of copyright, they get treated as original.

    I don’t like to take positions on legal issues, for various reasons. But taking the work of a living author and publishing a re0write of it and profiting from it seems an entirely separate question from fanfiction to me. That writing is still writing, still trying, often with some difficulty to make a living on that work. I see a subtle moral question here that does not exist in taking Jane Austin and writing a film script about a silly girl in L.A. Knock yourself out. But if I were to write a sequel to your first published novel and have it printed, where does that leave the one on the harddrive of your computer?

  8. Dawn says:

    Michelle: Yes, some of the tripe that sees publication is appalling. I’m not sure how to explain it: either some authors getting published just know the right people, or publishers really don’t want to take the chance on anything that assumes their readers possess basic intelligence. Then again, when I see some of the books that make the NYT Bestsellers list, for example, I’m not sure that readers are giving them reason to think differently. :(

    All the same, the more time that passes, the less I believe that I will ever see one of my longer stories published through traditional means. Assuming I am good enough to start with, I’m just not sure I want my work to ever be a part of that.

    Taking on authors like Rice and Hobb (Martin is new to me as a fanfic opponent, and I have one of his books on my bookshelf right now, boooooo) is a bucket of worms that often tempts me. 😉 However, I’m not sure that it would ever reach an audience where it would do any good since my humble ol’ Heretic Loremaster blog never attracts the likes of those authors. Aimed at fellow fans, it would be preaching to the choir.

    Oshun: I had no delusions of originality on this point, but I’m glad that you’ve pointed me in the direction of authors who are publishing o-fic and also speaking out against shoehorning fiction with the intention of using the categories into which it is forced to pre-judge it. I am definitely interested in checking out their work, and I thank you for the links! :)

    On the second point, I want to be clear that I am not talking about drawing a line between “original” and “derivative” with the intention of profiting from anything that falls close enough to “original.” My point concerns more the subject judgment of various types of fiction using “originality” as a litmus test, as though it is a matter of is or is not. I don’t think it’s that simple. But a lot of fanfic naysayers will disparage the genre because it’s “not original,” ignoring the fact that plenty of award-winning books are actually less original than many fanfics. So putting fiction on a hierarchy based on its originality makes no sense.

    As far as publishing/profiting goes, I’m a staunch defender of an artist’s right to make money on her or his work, enough that some of my opinions on using an artist’s work put me at odds with fandom and Internet users in general.

  9. Oshun says:

    fanfic naysayers will disparage the genre because it’s “not original,”

    I missed that because I actually never saw that on the list of things that are wrong with fanfiction–other than stealing someone else’s World and characters because they can’t or won’t invent their own.

    The first people I told I was writing fanfiction in my circle of close friends and family simply suggested I chose something that wasn’t under copyright, then it could be published (there, the implied criticism I took from that was: publishable = OK; not = publishable = not serious). Their attitude meant to me: you are far too old to do this as a hobby.

    I recall when The Mists of Avalon first came out that it was touted in publishing and literary circles as Marion Zimmer Bradley’s big play for legitimacy after writing sci-fi/fantasy all those years. (I actually never cared for the Avalon series, but I did love her sci-fi/fantasy world of Darkover.) So the implication in that case was original sci-fi = trashy books; derivative of a long literary tradition = classy stuff. Actually, the first series was groundbreaking on the woman question, sex and gender, and highly original and the second was, to me, and I know some people love them (apologies to them for being critical here), overly didactic (sort of preachy feminism) and unoriginal. So in that case, her invented world was far better than her fanfic of the Arthurian legends.

    Pet peeve! On definiing copyright! Fanfic writers who put a disclaimer on historical fiction relinquishing their rights to publish it to someone who made a film in the last few years. (Oliver Stone does not own Alexander the Great; not even Mary Renault does!) I am also pretty sure that our bios of the Silmarillion characters are also copyright free.

    Technical question: is there anyway you know of that I can make the print on this website bigger on my screen? It is about tiny type on my screen and I already have my computer setting about as high as they will go and still be able to comfortably use most sties.

  10. MithLuin says:

    I write fanfiction because I am not original enough to come up with my own characters 😛

    Okay, so other fanfic writers *are* original – I am only talking about myself, not implying anything about other authors.

    My sister was always a very creative storyteller (from the age of 3 on). Even her dreams were involved sagas. Me? Not so much.

    My father told us stories in which he allowed us to request one character and one plot point, and then he put them all together into a wacky story with some hippy moral of ‘they all became friends and lived happily ever after.’ So, inventing characters for those stories was my first attempt at originality, but saying ‘a bunny who is afraid of carrots’ was sufficient.

    My sister and I told each other tag-team bedtime stories when we were older, in which we adapted a story (okay, I’ll admit – it was Power Rangers…we had little brothers, okay?) and came up with our own plots and took turns speaking for the different characters. We never plotted them out in advance, so if we were trying to take the story in different directions, it resulted in lengthy in-character debates. I guess this was a form of role-play, though we had never heard of that. We invented our own villain (creatively named the Super Bad Guy) and also added a female character named Arda (gee, I wonder whose fault that was?) Eventually, we decided to turn this into an original story, and we started fresh with our own original characters. That didn’t really go anywhere, though I did finally write down a few pages of it at this point.

    Fastforward 10 years and I make an attempt at writing my first story. Yes, of any sort. I never had to write stories for school after freshmen year of high school (and that was only a 2 page creation myth). It was fanfiction: http://www.storiesofarda.com/chapterview.asp?sid=4609&cid=18383

    The story has a bit of a theme, but no real plot. It’s more like: ‘oh look, hobbits, yay!’ So, even a derogatory meaning of fanatic applies 😉 I had to invent very little – characters, setting, major events…all already written by Tolkien.

    I went on to write about Snape’s backstory for Harry Potter. http://occlumency.sycophanthex.com/viewstory.php?sid=4839 Again, this brilliantly complex double-triple-agent-to-the-nth-degree was already written for me, as was the love triangle he was part of and the politics of the world he was growing up in. Names, events, timelines, motives – all predetermined by the ‘real’ author. All I had to do was flesh it out in a story, and try to keep him in-character.

    When I moved on to the Silmarillion, I had to do a bit more work; the characters are not already fleshed out, and the settings do not have detailed descriptions or floorplans already in place. But again, here, the rich history of the world is just *there* waiting for me. I might invent a few rules of my own, but the rules of Middle Earth are already written.

    Maybe someday, I’ll write original fiction. But I doubt it will be any time soon. I can write a story within proscribed boundaries much more successfully than I can invent my own. And here in fandom, I have a ready-made audience, people who are interested in my stories because of who they are about. I like it that way.

  11. Dawn says:

    Oshun: Well, I’d say that writing fanfic because one can’t invent one’s own world or characters is pretty on par with what I meant when I spoke of disparaging it for its lack of originality: It declares fanfic authors as inferior in terms of imagination and creativity, which I don’t think is true.

    The argument that fanfic is inferior because it is not publishable or that women (who are the primary writers and readers of fanfic) are doing themselves a disservice by choosing a creative medium that can’t be published makes me want to scream. I started writing fanfic in a large part because it couldn’t be published, because I felt that I had to worry less about changing my stories to fit what I felt publishers wanted of me. I suppose my distrust and distaste for the publishing world is nothing new. :) Probably because I recognize my own desire, as a writer, for recognition being strong enough to warp my creative efforts. But that is a ramble for another time! 😉

    That is a really interesting point about Marion Zimmer Bradley. I am, unfortunately, not familiar with her work at all. She’s on my reading list. I’ve seen the Mists of Avalon miniseries; that’s about as far as I’ve gone.

    On copyright and non-fiction, I think you’re right on that. It’s more along the lines of scholarly research, even though I’ve heard that publishers have started cracking down even on quotes and recaps of popular media that fall within the bounds of fair use because they’re so bloody afraid of being sued.

    On font sizes, I will change the font size in the style sheet later to make it bigger, unless WP has a font-size widget (along the lines of the font-size button on eFiction sites), in which case, I will look into adding it to the site. (And, before you say that you don’t want me to go through the trouble, if the font is too small for you, then it is probably too small for most everyone else, they just aren’t saying anything about it. 😉 )

    MithLuin: I had to smile at your remembrances of making up stories with your sister because my sister and I used to do pretty much the exact same thing. We used to take books or TV shows we liked–I particularly remember the show Hey Dude that used to come on Nickelodeon–and pretend that we were the characters and make up stories about them. As we got older, we started inventing our own characters, although they were often inspired by or adapted from books/shows or history. I channeled one of the officers on the Titanic for a while, put him in the modern world kind of like an AU. 😉 Even now (at the risk of publicly declaring just how weird I am!), my fictional characters are a part of my life, and people who are close enough to me associate with them as well as me. I did this for years before learning that other people did much the same and called it “role play” and were thought of as extremely nerdy (versus just strange!) for doing so. It’s always been a part of my life; I can’t imagine–and don’t want to imagine–living differently.

    In getting involved in the fanfic community, it awakened me to the realization that many, even most, writers report similar experiences, kind of like how I could relate so easily to your post here. I remember talking with a fellow Silmfic-writing friend once, and she said she couldn’t imagine how so-called “normal” people got by in life without a regular store of entertainment and friends to keep them company on lonely bus rides and such. As I like to say, muses are just imaginary friends for grown-ups!

    Anyway, all that aside, I think you make a good point in how Silmfic–unlike much other fanfic–is not really fleshed out. To me, it is only a hop, skip, and a jump from original fiction in terms of how it is created (as I noted above, I am not trying to argue for the write to publish and be paid for my Silmfic) in that we do have a good amount of characterization and world-building to do, even if the building blocks are already in place. But, as was evidenced by the discussion on my post about whether Maedhros would threaten to kill Elrond and Elros, even those building blocks are set on shaky ground. The characters are so skeletal that I think you can flesh them out in many different ways and be perfectly justified in doing so.

    So, personally, I’m not ready to declare you as unoriginal. 😉 In fact, something I’ve always wondered, is why fanfic writers are disparaged for unoriginality because they use the world or building blocks of a world (in the case of Silmfic) created by another author … but those who write fiction set in our own world are not similarly condemned. Why is this, I wonder? It seems to me that nothing could be less original than setting a story in our own world, where we’ve figured out much more than even the best-realized fictional world and one doesn’t have to work to create believable cultures or religions or worry about how changing one detail of nature as we know it will screw up the whole world. Even characters, in literary fiction, are often transported from people we know in life; I used to do it all the time, and I know I wasn’t the only one who did. So I think “originality” is very much a gray term, depending on how you define it, and I think it’s possible to argue that a story like “Lessons from the Mountain” is far more original than most of the literary stuff I’ve read (and also important in terms of what it says about life, before someone makes that argument.)

  12. Oshun says:

    Mithluin: Re: But I doubt it will be any time soon. I can write a story within proscribed boundaries much more successfully than I can invent my own.

    How about historical fiction? I’ve thought about that as perhaps a less intimidating point of transition than to simply create a whole new world.

    Dawn: I’d say that writing fanfic because one can’t invent one’s own world or characters is pretty on par with what I meant when I spoke of disparaging it for its lack of originality

    Actually, personally, I find fanfiction challenging because it takes a lot of imagination to use the canon and still tell a story that is different and original. On one level it appeals to my nerdy appetites to not simply let loose and ignore the canon, but to try to make a story fit into it, in many ways more difficult. (One of the reasons I found people wanting to call my stories AU so annoying.)

    The flip side with fanfiction is that it was the canon characters and events that inspired me and set my imagination churning.

  13. Arandil says:

    “There has been very little leaping up and down and no fainting.”

    Mmm hmm. Yeah, right. Not even when Maedhros was involved?

    I agree. Fanfiction is looked down on, which is a shame because in order to write in “someone else’s world” you have to study that world very carefully. You have a set of constraints to live within. And you still have to be creative within those constraints.

    Boo to all the naysayers.

  14. Dawn says:

    Oshun: I definitely agree with your point about the difficulty of fitting a story within a prescribed framework. And, in a fandom like Tolkien (especially Silmarillion), I sometimes suspect that I’ve spent as much time reading, researching, and studying the original texts than I’ve spent writing stories based on them. It’s always annoyed me how certain genres that are very research-intensive (fanfic, historical fic) often get tossed aside as trash while so much literary fiction requires nothing of the sort; that’s not to say that intense research makes these genres better than literary. But it takes different talents for each genre, and I think it’s fair to be proud of taking on the level of research we do and still turning out the same quality fiction as people who simply “write what they know.”

    Arandil: Notice the careful use of “very little” with regards to leaping about. 😉

    I pretty much addressed your point in my comment to Oshun above, so I’ll just raise my glass to you and say, “Me too!” 😀

  15. marta says:

    Interesting points here. I won’t answer them one by one because I’m pretty worn out tonight; but in general I found that I agree with you.

    I can’t get my brain to express it as neatly as I’d like, but I *think* I see a different between (say) a gapfiller that explains a certain passage of the Silm on the one hand, and a more general story that incorporates canonical factoids but doesn’t try to expand the canon story per se on the other hand. I think the difference in my mind has to do with how well defined the source work was (does it tell the complete story or just outline events); whether there is one version of the work; and to what degree the derivative work branches off from the source.

    I’d say Gaiman’s short story falls in the first grouping. Another Man’s Cage would fall in the second grouping; IIRC you’re using Tolkien’s characters but telling a story he more or less left untold. Pande’s Apprentice definitely falls in this second category. I’d also say my Boromir/Theodred stories inhabit this same domain – using Tolkien’s societal mores and some basic biographical info to tell a totally new story arc.

    This distinction affects a lot of things, but story quality isn’t necessarily one of them. Neither is originality. A gapfiller may write a close space, canonically, but I’ve found that there’s still room for originality. (Have you read Thundera Tiger’s While the Ring Went South? Prime example.)

    What I’m trying to say is, while I see a distinction between what might be called fan fic (stories engaging directly with an already-told tale) and quasi-fanfic (stories telling a whole new story using the basic facts established by the author), I do agree that fanfic isn’t the best word. Because even if you’re trying to expand Tolkien’s story rather than tell your own, the need for quality is still crucial.

    Very interesting points all around.

  16. Dawn says:

    Thanks for the thoughts, Marta, despite being worn out. :) AMC is definitely the sort of story you describe. Actually, not a single thing in AMC actually happens in the canon. It’s all made up, conjecture based on what we know of JRRT’s characters. The only “canon” mention of the childhoods of the sons of Feanor at all, iRrc, is in Shibboleth, when JRRT notes that Feanor would have had to explain to his children why he uses the thorn in place of the S for his mother’s name. A linguistic reference! Typical! 😉

    (And, ironically, I’ve yet to have Feanor explain to any of his children about why they use the thorn! I have one textual fact about my favorite time in the lives of my favorite characters, and I can’t bring myself to use it!)

    I suppose that, in part, explains my irritation with the disparagement of “fanfic” compared to “o-fic.” I know from personal experience how much time, effort, and thought goes into a story like AMC. Readers have told me that, if I changed the characters’ names, I could publish it as an original work because it required characterization and world-building well beyond the building blocks that JRRT gave us. I know that I am not alone in that; other authors have put the same thought and effort into their “verses,” only to have those stories inherently inferior to formulaic and poorly written–but original–crap that finds its way onto the shelves at B&N.

    The more I study literature, the less and less I want to draw genre lines based on how derivative a particular work is. Which is why I agree most strongly with you that what matters in the end is the quality of the story (quality, of course, being each person’s subjective judgment). I’ve read published, bestselling fantasy novels that would be blown out of the water by the stories written by many Tolkienfic authors that I have the luck and pleasure of knowing.

  17. […] is becoming a perennial thing here on the Heretic Loremaster to declare that fan fiction is fiction. As in the fact that fan […]

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