Thoughts on fanfiction

There’s been a featured post on the Livejournal homepage recently talking about the opinions of various well-known authors on fan fiction. It prompts me to consider more deeply what I think about it, now that I’m trying to start a Proper Author Blog  and considering the world of professional ficiton writing seriously.

There are various quotes in the post from everyone from George R R Martin (who objects to other people muscling in on his sadistic fun) to Charlie Stross (do what you like as long as I still get paid). It calls in at various barmy stops along the way – including Anne Rice’s hilarious comment “It is absolutely essential that you respect my wishes.”

The reason I find Anne Rice’s attitude funny is that fanfic is out there. It exists. It is part of Internet culture. Sticking your fingers in your ears and telling the horrible nasty fangirls to go away is just daft. Genies don’t go back into bottles. So if you’re a writer in a world where fanfic exists, how do you cope with it?

Now I’ll admit, in the interests of full disclosure, that I’ve written fanfic myself. No, I’m not telling you what fandoms or where you can read it, because I was having a crap time in my life back then and it’s all a little too obviously written as part of me processing my Issues. All of my writing is fundamentally about me reflecting on my inner life, but some parts of it are a little less embarrassingly transparent than others!

I came to fan fiction in my mid-to-late twenties, long after I started writing original fiction, and I’d call myself a dabbler – I never really became embedded in online fandom, just had fun for a while and then moved on when my inner conflicts were a little more settled and my neophilic fascination waned. But one thing I do know is that I wrote fanfic exactly the same way I write original fiction – as an exploration of myself, my life and my attitudes and ideas. I write to process the cultural world around me, and I do that whether the characters I’m using are mine or not.

And in fact, I think that’s what a lot of the best fan fiction is. During my time in fandom I saw, broadly speaking, two schools of fannish creativity. One was fanfic as a social hobby; these are authors who write mainly for their circle of friends. They may write scorching erotica, lingering romances or gloriously insane crackfic (and there are some exceptionally talented writers out there doing all of these), but they do it purely as something they can share and enjoy with the people they care about. I’ve always been very refreshed by the average fangirl’s acceptance of her own sexuality, too – there’s plenty of smut in fan fiction and most of it is created by women for women, but the nice thing is that as a rule the women doing the creating accept that their sexuality is a valid part of them. Even if, like most men, they still feel a little dirty for enjoying it at times. Equality can be a fascinating thing.

The second school of writers are very bright and deep-thinking people who write to examine, whether consciously or unconsciously, big personal and social issues. They’re just doing it through someone else’s characters. In some cases I think it’s because they’re either not people with a gift for original world creation, or they simply haven’t had enough practise to be good at it yet. Being a good writer is not easy and takes both ability and work. In others, however, I think it’s because that particular fandom, that particular world, speaks to that person about a given set of issues and makes them think. One such writer I knew in fandom was an academic who used fan fiction as a way of getting a different angle on questions she also considered in her professional work. Immoral? Invalid? Socially retrogressive? You decide. It’s this second school of fandom that’s closest to my own heart, but it’s clear as day to me that even for those in the first school, the practise of writing fan fiction is just another way in which to put in some of those legendary ten thousand hours.

Now, on the subject of plagiarism I’m firmly with Charlie Stross: you leave my (putative) money alone. If you’re writing in fandom I think it’s vital to have a clear sense of boundaries: to understand that your fannish adoration doesn’t confer any kind of ownership of the original work, or any right to expect rewards other than the social reward that comes from participating in fandom. Some people are self-centred and venal and are never going to accept that, so in a world where copyright means profit, creators are always  going to have to keep their own sense of boundaries tight and hold the big stick in reserve for those who don’t play by the rules. Passionate fans who know how to do fanfic right can be a huge help in policing that kind of miscreant. A lot of fan writers are young teens who simply haven’t developed a full sense of boundaries and personal responsibility yet, which is a different issue and best addressed by promoting a culture of responsibility within fandom. But – the reason I can’t quite agree with the “I do not permit fan fiction” attitude is that fan community makes such a huge difference to the profile and indeed profitability of a work that I would be mad to tell my future fans not to interact in the way fans like to do. Hell – if my work engages people enough that they want to write fanfic about it, then it has reached them. It has touched them. It’s become part of their inner life – part of culture. And isn’t that what we all, as writers, ultimately try to do?

But I’ll tell you one thing, future fans of my as yet unwritten work. Write, draw or edit up your fic; absolutely. Share it with your friends, go ahead. Love my work and enjoy your fan time; I made it for you to enjoy. I don’t need to know what you get up to in your private moments, so I don’t really need you to show it to me… but don’t imagine for a second that I don’t know the game. I’ll be watching, waiting, googling your fics once in a while – and meditating on whether to Joss the whole lot of you within an inch of your lives 😉

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One thought on “Thoughts on fanfiction

  1. Booky Pony says:

    Lots and lots of good points. As a fanficcer for a decade, I think you’re absolutely right about both benefits and boundaries. I’d also like to point out that writing fanfiction works as excellent practice in keeping your characters in check and the world under your control. When there is a huge amount of other fans, reading your work with a critical eye, there’s a certain pressure of doing things right. The writer has to know the fandom and its limits and rules.
    I think most of the younger authors know how futile it is to forbid fanfiction, but if an author I love does not want to see his/her characters, setting etc. used, I believe fans will want to respect that. At its best it is, as you said, a tribute, a show of devotion and admiration and love.

    Lev Grossman has a nice quote on the subject:
    “Fanfiction is what literature might look like if it were reinvented from scratch after a nuclear apocalypse by a band of brilliant pop-culture junkies trapped in a sealed bunker. They don’t do it for money. That’s not what it’s about. The writers write it and put it online just for the satisfaction. They’re fans, but they’re not silent, couchbound consumers of media. The culture talks to them, and they talk back to the culture in its own language.”

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