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.