There were a pair of posts this week on the FanHistory blog (here and here) about how to become a successful fan writer. The title of the first post is pretty much its thesis: “Fan fiction, social media & chasing the numbers with quality content (Hint: Doesn’t matter).” The basic premise is this: If you write fan fiction and you want to be successful at it, and you define “success” entirely in numeric terms–by page clicks or comment counts–then screw writing quality work: It doesn’t matter; you need to “follow all the cool kids” and be where it’s at
with two turn-tables and a microphone, even if that’s not where you want to be.
And, yes, this is true. If you aim for one thousand comments on your novel, you’re probably not going to get them writing Silmarillion. (Another Man’s Cage currently has 185 comments on ff.net.) You’re much better off in Twilight or Harry Potter, even The Lord of the Rings. (My friend JunoMagic’s LotR-based novel Lothíriel has 995 reviews on the same site.)
My contention is not with whether or not this is reality. It’s pretty in-your-face obvious, if you ask me. My contention lies with the very notion of recognizing rewards for our writing in such terms.
Because the fact of the matter is that people who post their fiction publicly are looking for something for doing so. Oh, I’ve heard the wide-eyed assertions of people who claim, “I only post for myself!” I call bullshit. You may write for yourself–I hope that you do!–but if you’re taking the time to join groups/archives and format stories for uploading and to actually upload them and write summaries and debate the rating and so on, you’re doing so with hopes of getting something from someone else. That might be simply getting read; it might be in-depth concrit; it might be the adulation of masses claiming that Shakespeare is currently licking the taste of your road dust from his lips. So there is some hope for reward, maybe not even anything particularly tangible, but something. Write for myself, post for others: that is my motto, and I fail to see how there is any shame in standing on a stage and hoping for an audience.
And, of course–idealist though I may be–I can also see things in realistic terms, and I know that nothing I say will change the fact that there will be people for whom the sole measure of success is reaching a certain number of comments or page clicks. I count these people alongside those who take 80-hour-a-week jobs for the six-figure salaries and the ability to accrue shinies like a million-dollar home that might as well be a million-dollar motel room for all that they’re in it, complete with a professional-grade kitchen that never gets used because their dinners are slurped out of Chinese takeout boxes, and a vacation home in Bethany Beach that never gets used because they’re working eighty hours a week, every week. But the collection of such shinies is their mark of success; intangibles like contentment or personal enrichment are of little to no matter.
But, of course, there’s no meaning in such an existence, just as there is no meaning in fiction that is penned solely to entice the greatest number of eyeballs to look at it. Traffic accidents earn that much.
This concept is nothing new. In professional fiction, the term for it has been sanitized and euphemized as “writing for the market.” Those with blunter tongues call it “selling out.” Last year, horribly enough, I had to write an essay on Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara for a course called Modern Epic Fantasy, and while looking for information on the book, I found an interview with the author during which he was asked how he handles critical reactions to his work. “I write first for myself and for what I perceive to be the market” was part of his answer. Having read no further than Sword of Shannara (because, as I often admonish fandom trolls, if organisms lacking a central nervous system nonetheless possess the capability to learn a basic avoidance response, then what does it say of human beings who cannot do the same?), I can say that it is painfully obvious that Brooks writes foremost for a market. “Writing for the market” necessarily means that there must be a perceptible market in the first place, which means that there must be a body of books that is being overwhelmingly purchased (and, thus, published) over another body of books, which means walking in the ditches created by the passage of all those authors’ feet before yours, which means stale ideas and writing that lacks anything close to daring.
However, I am not so naïve not to understand that professional writers are just that: They are professionals, and so they need to make money on their work. So they must remain at least cognizant of the market for that work. I know firsthand the allure of that “market,” of leaving an idea about which I was passionate for another because I thought that the latter had a better chance of “selling.” It made me a miserable writer and drove me to give up writing for two years. I suppose it’s the same as the caveman’s urge to hoard more deer legs in one’s cave than one can possibly eat because that stack of rotting meat in the corner represents success and, ultimately, survival. Never mind that it reeks.
But this is professional writing. After my failed stint as a writer of literary fiction, it was “fan fiction” that brought me back to writing, and it brought me back in part because it was something that could not be sold. It kept me honest much in the way that a job at Denny’s and not Applebee’s keeps a recovering alcoholic honest by not even providing a whiff of temptation into the old habits. There was very little “market” for Silmfic beyond a slightly bigger audience for some characters and pairings over others; it was the closest I’d ever seen in a fiction-writing community to the ideal of 1) writing only what one’s heart and mind cries must be written and 2) having one’s work judged foremost in terms of how well it worked for its audience. This is not to say that the Silmarillion community was (and is) without any favoritism paid to some works, genres, and authors over others. But that an unknown author could march into the room with her big, hulking novel that never once touches on an event mentioned in the texts and still find readers and get comments on her work is, I think, a testament to the difference between fanfic and o-fic. Let me try the same thing with an original novel and see how far I get.
So I find this notion of recognizing and writing for a fanfic market to be dismaying. What the FanHistory posts encourage (especially the first) is abandoning one’s own passions as a writer in favor of writing to fit a perceived market. Fuck quality. My heart and mind pull me to contemplate the early lives of the Fëanorians, the quality of my writing (I hope) reflects my passion and interest in this topic, but as my “mere” 185 reviews on ff.net reveal, this isn’t enough. Never mind that I’ve never read Twilight and strongly suspect that I would object to some of the books’ basic premises, but this is where it’s at. I can surely scratch together a story about Bella and Edward (see, I know the main characters’ names at least!) that will probably get more comments in a week than AMC has gotten in three years.
I don’t object to the reality of this claim but whether this is a measure that we should be putting upon fanworks in the first place. It’s bad enough that, in order to make a living off of their art, writers must mash and corset their creative passions to suit the “market.” What is to be gained by placing the same impositions upon fan-writing? It takes fan-writing from something that is driven by creativity and the community that forms around sharing that creativity and turns it into a capitalist enterprise, only instead of success being measured in dollars or euros or pounds or kroner or pesos or yen, now we’re measuring in page clicks or comment counts and shifting our creativity and our communities to accrue those meaningless little tick marks. We can’t even feed our families off hits on ff.net. In such a system, tiny fandoms–like Silmarillion, where the stories being written are overwhelmingly of high quality and the communities are extremely dedicated, passionate, and close-knit–must necessarily lose out in favor of–what exactly? Stacking our archives with the same pulp that I saw when, two Christmases ago, I wanted to buy my husband a book by Ursula K. LeGuin (any book by Ursula K. LeGuin) and, in the local B&N fantasy/sci-fi section with its bright-colored covers featuring shovel-jawed, sword-wielding heroes and dew-eyed, diadem-wearing princesses, I found one copy of The Left Hand of Darkness? Terry Brooks, on the other hand, probably had a shelf unto himself.
The difference between piling rotting deer carcasses in the corner of your cave if you’re writing professional fiction versus fan fiction is that, in fanfic, those carcasses are never a matter of survival. They just stink.