Fan-Fiction and Moral Conundrums

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Commentary
Title: Fan-Fiction and Moral Conundrums
Commentator: Diana Gabaldon
Date(s): posted in four pieces May 3-8, 2010, deleted May 9, 2010
Medium:
Fandom: panfandom
External Links:
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Fan-Fiction and Moral Conundrums was a blog post by Diana Gabaldon first published on May 3, 2010. Gabaldon added three related posts, one on May 4, 2010, one on May 7, 2010, and an addendum on May 8, 2010.

The posts addressed her views on fanfiction. It opened with: "OK, my position on fan-fic is pretty clear: I think it’s immoral, I _know_ it’s illegal, and it makes me want to barf whenever I’ve inadvertently encountered some of it involving my characters."

All fanfic-related posts were deleted May 9, 2010.

The Posts

One of her posts at Compuserv: "I really do think that it wouldn't be helpful to _anybody_ for me to say more than I have. Do bear in mind that I _could_ have deleted any of those comments. I didn't, feeling that if people did have an issue with what I said, they deserved a chance to make their feelings and reasons known. My words are there, and so are theirs; anyone with an interest can see exactly what I said--and what people made of it--and decide for themselves what they think." [1]

Despite her statement regarding comment deletion, all three fanfic-related posts were deleted, on May 9, 2010. Screencaps have been posted elsewhere. See Index of /gabaldon_posts; WebCite. [2]

Post Screencaps

Policy Statement

The fourth post included her policy on fanfiction:
FAN-FICTION POLICY You know, I'm very flattered that some of you enjoy the books so much that you feel inspired to engage with the writing in a more personal way than most readers do. Both for legal and personal reasons, though, I'm not comfortable with fan-fiction based on any of my work, and request that you do not write it, do not send it to me, and do not publish it, whether in print or on the web. Thank you very much for your courtesy and consideration.

The Original Post

OK, my position on fan-fic is pretty clear: I think it’s immoral, I _know_ it’s illegal, and it makes me want to barf whenever I’ve inadvertently encountered some of it involving my characters.
the opening paragraphs

Now, if I understand the arguments presented in favor of it, they run like this:

1) But I/we aren’t trying to make any money out of it!

Well, see, this is where “illegal” comes in. You can’t break into somebody’s house, even if you don’t mean to steal anything. You can’t camp in someone’s backyard without permission, even if you aren’t raising a marijuana crop back there. And you can’t use someone’s copyrighted characters for your own purposes, no matter what those purposes are. Really. I’m not making it up; this is International Copyright Law.

2) I want to write, but I don’t know how to make up characters, and it seems less scary to use some that already exist, and just make up stories for them. You know…it’s practice!

I have a lot of sympathy for people who want to write. I used to want to write, and I had no idea how to develop characters. Oddly enough, the notion of using someone else’s characters never occurred to me. I just tried to do it on my own. Surprise! It worked.

Suck it up, guys. If you want to write, write—and write your own stuff. It _does_ take courage, but that’s the only way to learn how, believe me.

(Now, if you truly think you can’t write something without using someone else’s characters as a crutch…well, OK. But if that’s really your motive, then you should keep the results to yourself. Not post them on websites as “your” work.)

3) But I enjoy the feedback I get—and lots of people say they enjoy what I write!

Of course you enjoy positive feedback; so does anyone who writes anything. The question is—are you getting positive feedback because you’re a really good writer…or are you getting positive feedback because some fans are so hooked on the characters that they’ll read anything involving those names (whether the writing accurately reflects those characters or not)?

One real easy way to find out. Write anything you want, using Jamie Fraser, Edward Cullen, Harry Potter _and_ Dr. Who [4] [5] [6] ….and then change the characters’ names before you post it. Simple. Find All: “Jamie Fraser”. Replace with: “Joe Kerastopolous”. No problemo, all your own work, and any praise you get is duly earned.

4) But nobody would read stuff I wrote if it wasn’t about characters they already like!

Possibly true, possibly not. Depends on how good a writer you are, and how you go about displaying your work once you’ve written it. But—allowing for the moment that this argument holds water—what you’re saying is that a) you deserve an audience, no matter what, and b) you’d prefer to exploit someone else’s talent and hard work, rather than go to the trouble of making your own way.

Now, it’s possible to do this without being illegal, if you feel you just can’t get noticed on your own merits (and that being noticed is worth whatever it takes): you just do it with characters that are no longer under copyright. I.e., characters whose author is dead, and has been dead for…it was 75 years, last time I looked (copyright exists for the author’s life plus 75 years). So if the author of your characters died before 1935, you’re home free!

And some writers do this to good—or at least profitable—effect. Note PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES, for instance, or the many (many, many, many) imitators of Sherlock Holmes.

Some of these writers are great, and they produce really good stories. Some of them….oh, well. SCARLETT, anyone?

I actually have some empathy in this regard, because I once wrote comic scripts for Walt Disney —using, of course, the Disney characters. I wrote for Donald Duck, Uncle Scrooge, Mickey Mouse, and the others. I know what it is to use an existing character that you didn’t create, but use them creatively within the parameters already laid down for them. It’s fun. [g]

The difference is—it’s not illegal, and you aren’t abusing or offending the original author. Carl Barks (may his name be engraved in gold) created Donald, Uncle Scrooge, and the nephews; Walt Disney created Mickey—I didn’t. BUT the Walt Disney Corporation owned the copyright to those characters (still does, for that matter), and therefore had a perfect right to hire me to write stories for them—and I had a perfect right to write those stories _and_ make money from them (seventeen dollars a page was the going rate back then).

Likewise, if you want to write stories for the Silver Surfer or Superman, go talk to Marvel or DC, and see if they’re taking new submissions or would let you write a sample script. People write new TV scripts for Dr. Who and the Start Trek variants all the time—they have to. If you want to rewrite JANE EYRE as explicit Victorian erotica (and I read a very imaginative book of pornography that did _just_ that: AN ENGLISH EDUCATION, it was called)—more power to you.

But writing stories about characters whose creators are not only alive and kicking, but actively writing about those characters _themselves_...sorry, guys, it’s just not on.

5) I like the social aspects of being in a group of fan-fic readers and writers.

Well, again—who _doesn’t_ like being in a group of people with common tastes, interests, and ambitions? But so far as I know, almost all popular authors have groups of online readers who like to discuss their books, characters, etc.—and I don’t know any author who doesn’t value and encourage such groups.

If you want to talk about Jamie, Claire, etc., I can direct you to a number of long-established, long-running, _very_ friendly Outlander discussion groups who will be thrilled to welcome you…in multiple languages. [g]

Likewise, there are a lot of writers groups, all over the web. I only know one, personally, to recommend, but that’s because I don’t personally belong to any—the one I know is the Writers Workshop, in the Compuserve Books and Writers community. [10] I’ve not been a member of this workshop myself, but it’s been running for many years and I _do_ know a lot of the people who run and participate in it, and have heard nothing but good stuff about it.

6) But I just looove your characters! And isn’t imitation the sincerest form of flattery?

Weeeelll…let us just say that there’s a difference between someone dating red-haired men, and the same someone trying to seduce my husband.

7) But you write so slowly! We get impatient for new stuff!

Guilty as charged. [g] BUT….

A) If I whipped books out once a year, they wouldn’t be the _same_ books. It takes time, effort, and thought to tell stories and develop characters the way I do. (This is, btw, one reason why fan-fic versions of popular characters so often seem superficial; they lack the depth that the Real Thing has—the writer has merely grabbed at the broadest impression of the character, not built them in complex layers.)

B) Still, I understand the urge to take a story that’s fired your imagination and carry it on or explore other avenues that it might have taken. _Everybody_ does this, when they’ve seen a movie or read a book that captured their imagination—I mean, who _didn’t_ take a moment to contemplate what it would have been like if Elizabeth Swann had kissed Jack Sparrow instead of staying with Orlando Bloom [7]? Giving people intriguing possibilities is one of the hallmarks of good fiction. But what you do in the privacy of your own imagination is a matter of total freedom; what you do in public is not.

C) Besides, that’s one of the reasons (aside from just liking to spread the word about great books that I personally like) I keep The Methadone List. I mean, it’s not like you don’t have anything else to read, while you wait. [g]

OK, those are—I think—the principal arguments usually put forward in favor of fan-fic. Beyond the specific arguments against the concept remains the unfortunate fact that a terrible lot of fan-fic is outright cringe-worthy and ought to be suppressed on purely aesthetic grounds.

Now, I don’t go looking for fan-fiction written about my characters; in fact, I try _not¬_ to see it. But now and then someone sends me a link to a site displaying it, and because of the danger of precedent and implied consent (see below), I (or my agent) has to go ask the site-owner to kindly remove pieces dealing with my characters. So I’ve seen a certain amount.

Some of it’s just lame: poorly written pages of adjectival description, or a rambling attempt at historical fiction using people who just happen to be called Jamie Fraser and Claire Randall, but otherwise bear no particular resemblance to my people—or a try at taking an existing situation from one of my novels and either re-writing it or expanding on it. This is usually the result of well-meaning people who really _are_ learning to write, and using my characters as exercise. It’s still not legal, and I don’t like it, but it isn’t nearly as skin-crawling as the ones who equate fan-fic with personal porn.

About that “privacy of your own imagination” thing….[cough] While not all fan-fic is pornographic by any means, enough of it _is_ that it constitutes an aesthetic argument against the whole notion.

As I say, I’ve unwillingly read a certain amount of fan-fic involving my characters, and about three-quarters of it is graphic, badly-written (of the “his searing touch blazed its way up the silken skin of her thigh to the secret depths of her ecstasy” type)

Now, look. Human beings are hardwired to be interested in sex. We just _are_. Any kind of sex, performed by anyone, anytime, anywhere. Bad sex, good sex, poorly depicted sex, elegantly drawn sex…it doesn’t matter. We have a genetic compulsion to _look_. We’ll look at _anything_ having sex, human or not.

Ergo, including sex is by far the easiest way to get someone to look at something. I assume that that’s one of the reasons fan-fic authors so frequently write sex scenes or slash stories. (The other reasons are their own business, and I’m not going there.)

But…imagine opening your daily mail and finding a letter detailing an explicit sexual encounter between, say, your twenty-one-year-old daughter and your forty-eight-year-old male neighbor---written by the neighbor. At the bottom it says, “Fiction! Just my imagination. All cool, right?” This would perhaps prevent your calling the police, but I repeat…ick.

I wouldn’t like people writing sex fantasies for public consumption about me or members of my family—why would I be all right with them doing it to the intimate creations of my imagination and personality?

Right. Moving right along here, let’s close with a footnote regarding the legal considerations. If I learn about fan-fic and _don’t_ make any protest, I might at some point lose all control of what’s done with and to my characters. Practitioners could point to the fact that I knew about this stuff and didn’t object over a long period of time, ergo, I must think it’s OK, and so they’re doing nothing wrong, having my implied consent. That’s a specious legal argument, but I’ve seen it made—and the last thing I ever want to do is have to defend my right to my own characters in court. I'd do it, but I sure wouldn't like it.

I mentioned moral conundrums above. Here’s one for you: Recently, a couple of people have drawn my attention to a person who’s been posting on various boards about fund-raising for an uninsured friend named Stacie who has breast cancer. Her (the poster’s) idea for fund-raising is to auction off a custom-written piece of fan-fic, involving Jamie Fraser and Emmett someone (who I _think_ is from Twilight; I sort of hope it’s not the willowy young “bottom” from the TV show “Queer as Folk”…). She hastens to note that it won’t be slash, but will otherwise take the bidder’s tastes into account—and of course, all proceeds will go to Stacie’s hospital expense fund.

She did not, naturally, ask _me_ about this. What would I have to say about it?

Well, the question here, of course, is—what _do_ I say about it? Do I write to this person and tell her to cease and desist, and too bad about Stacie, thus seeming heartless? Do I give this manipulative project my blessing, thus opening the door to an endless parade of piously disguised fan-fic “charity”? Make it clear that I disapprove of what she’s doing, but stop short of forbidding her to do it, and turn a blind eye if she does?

I’m not exactly asking for a vote here [g], because it’s my concern, and I’ll do what I think is right in the circumstances—but I’d be interested to know what y’all think.

Reactions and Reviews

What's so wearying about these discussions is that every time some author who discovers it comes up with a whole idea of what fanfic is and what it's for and why people do it that has nothing to do with reality--even if they have a number of fans who will then show up to agree with them. You might as well write blog posts about how fiction is immoral because you know, none of that stuff actually happened and that's lying. The only people who would do that would be people too lazy to report on real events. Or whatever. Gah! Whether or not you actually write or enjoy fanfiction it's a totally normal, expected human reaction to stories. Sorry if the internet has revealed this fact to authors, but it's always happened. And those responses she gives to her alleged fanfic arguments are so beside the point as well. No, people who give fanficcers good reviewers are actually not only praising them for things they didn't do, and no, nobody's telling you to write your books faster. It's not about you. Really.[8]
Whenever various authors of the week have taken to their podiums to RANT ABOUT FANFICTION, I've always taken at a sign that they are really, REALLY underinformed about literary history and theory. Not that one needs to be so to be a good writer, but I find it very telling that I have never, *ever* come across an actual expert in the field of literary studies who would make the arguments these Authors of the Week make. Perhaps because they're all aware of things like intertextuality, and authors like Joyce, Stoppard, and Carter; they're also aware of how recent the primacy of the ~author~ as Original Artiste is, and of many of the vagaries of copyright law. Seriously, this really is a case of The More You Know, the Fewer Stupid Arguments You Make.[8]
In the U.S., fanfic and parody are protected under the same copyright clause, which says that works that "comment" on existing works, or quote it for educational purposes, are "fair use" of the original work.

Fan fiction has never been tried in a court of law so no judge has ever had to decide whether it's legal, but since under the 9th amendment all rights not explicitly granted are still rights of the people, the right to write it exists.

If someone *did* attempt to publish (non-franchise) fanfic of another work and profit off of it, that attempt would also ostensibly be covered under the Fair Use clause *unless* a judge explicitly defined the law to cover or not cover fanfic.

As far as I can tell, the only real grey area that exists for fanfic (and it's really crazy how simple this is to me but how confusing it seems to other people) is the grey area that exists over the possibility of fanfic being published for a profit. Fanfic that isn't for profit is completely and fully legal until it becomes illegal. Like any other right that exists. Period.[8]
It's impossible to exist as a writer in an insular manner and it's equally impossible to stop yourself from being influenced by everything you read and see around you.

I think the best bit of your response to misguided authors is the statement that "it's not about you". These are clearly writers who have a hard time letting go of their story once it's published and out there in the wide world. Once someone else reads your story, it becomes theirs. The characters won't look anything like they do in your own head, neither will the setting and they probably won't agree that killing off a particular character was the best thing for the plot. And that's the absolute best thing about writing: it's shared.

Fanfic most definitely isn't about stealing; it's all about giving back.[9]
Her post made me sad, Diana Gabaldon is one of my favorite authors and I was horrified after reading it .[10]
I'd have thought that by now, authors would know better than to make public asses of themselves on the Internet. But, apparently, it is always September somewhere.[11]
I love Diana Gabaldon as a story-teller, and as a wannabe author, I sort of understand where she's coming from...sort of. And she's PARTIALLY right...she can hire assistants to find all the fanfic out there of her own characters and get lawyers to sic a "cease and desist" order on anyone who dare goes against her wishes, and she can also forbid sites like fanfiction.net from hosting her fanfic. That's a perfectly valid way to approach the issue if she does in fact have a problem with fanfic.

But I have to say, if I ever get published and become as big as Diana Gabaldon is, I would be ALL ABOUT the fanfic. Just because to me, as a participant in fandom for many many years, fanfic does in fact equal love, and if I've created characters that touch people to the point where they've sparked someone else's imagination, I'd be lying if I wasn't flattered as hell. It's also a public-relations issue. Let the fans do what they want. Support them in their creativity. Stop it if anyone tries to make a buck off of it...but otherwise, let people have their obsession.

I still don't think she's quite getting it if she's equating napster and file sharing to fanfic...since as a fan, I spend more money on fandommy things than I would if I weren't into fandom at all. Nobody's making money off of fanfic. Nobody's taking anyone's property with fanfic, since authors acknowledge, often regrettably, that the worlds they like to play in aren't their own.

I just find it hilarious that she objects to other people writing kinky sex when she herself has written male/male non-con, male/female non-con (where both Jaimie and Claire had been subjected to non-consensual sex at various times). Hell, Jaimie and Claire's entire relationship is BASED on non-con.

And the fact that she's claiming property rights on James II and The Sun King is just...absurd.[12]
Well said.

Though I can see how knowing random people are out there making up things about characters/worlds you created could feel weird and vaguely dismaying and maybe even a bit skeevy (most fanfic is harmless, but there's no denying there is some seriously disturbing stuff out there), I think the implied compliment would far outweigh any distress it might give me.

I don't think there can be much higher praise, frankly, than to know that people like/love/were affected by/or even hate your creation so much that it inspired them to create in response to it. I've always believed that the purpose of art is to provoke a reaction; to provoke reactions that involve such levels of time and effort as fanfic means to me that the work has succeeded on every level in that regard.

I don't know that I would read fanfic of my own stuff (assuming I ever have "my own stuff"), but I think I would appreciate that it exists. Or at least appreciate that it'll exist whether I want it to or not, and that I should therefore just relax and enjoy the compliment.[13]
I’m disappointed in Diana Gabaldon, she’s one of my mother’s favorite writers.

I prefer the attitude of the late, great Marion Zimmer Bradley. She not only encouraged fanfic, she actively supported new writers with her collections of short stories they submitted to her, including editing and guidance.[14] It’s how Mercedes Lackey, Jennifer Roberson, and many more got their start.

Perhaps Diana Gabaldon needs to remember that those writing fanfic are her CUSTOMERS and it never pays to alienate them.[15]
“Alas, Zimmer Bradley got stung in the end by it when one of those fan writers (allegedly) threatened to sue over a Darkover story concept similar to his own.”

This abridged version of the story, often repeated by nervous authors and agents and editors, fails to note the complexity – and the conflicting accounts – of the case. See this [16] and this,[17] and there’s a long discussion about it in the comments of the Making Light thread you linked to. In Ms. Bradley’s account of the case, a fan threatened lawsuit after Ms. Bradley’s story idea just happened to coincide with the fan’s. The fan had a different take on what happened. Whichever account is right, everyone is in agreement that the problem arose, not because fan fiction was written, but because Marion Zimmer Bradley read the fan fiction.

I too am very disappointed by Ms. Gabaldon’s nastily worded post (I say as someone who owns every book she has ever written). She expressed surprise in her second, more gracious post at learning that some fan fiction writers are motivated by love of the author’s works. This suggests that her original research of the topic was very shallow. It’s dangerous to post rants when you’ve done little research on your topic.[18]
Seems to me the answer is fairly obvious. Where writers and publishers give permission, fan fiction is fine. Where they don’t, it isn’t. If it’s helpful to our careers, we’ll give permission. Where we see it as destructive, we won’t. My wife, Karen, had one of her Harlequin Romances word-for-word converted into a General Hospital story (with the character names converted to names from the soap opera). The converter thought it was a flattering fan fiction. She thought it was theft. As lines are hard to draw, it seems easiest to go with a simple permission rule. If anyone wants to fanfic my science fiction or fantasy, I’ll be happy to grant permission.[18]
Can you please spare us the completely bullshit copyleftist talking point that Copyright Is So Recent We Really Shouldn’t Be Using It as a Limit on Human Creativity? The Statute of Anne wasn’t written last night over cocktails, and the point is irrelevant because we live in the here and now and we do have copyright.[18]
Writing is hard work. It takes time and effort to craft even a mediocre work. Time spent on derivative work is time the writer never gets back yet yields little value to them or society. Piggybacking on somebody else’s characters or millieau is either laziness or lack of respect.

Fanfic writers are at best mislead by their enthuasiam for a particular work and at worst deluded. Either way, they should be encouraged to shift their attentions to trying to create their own characters, their own millieues, their own plots. Better to fail on your own than to “succeed” and achieve nothing of value.

Now, the Bradley “fan-fics” are in a special category because it was a different era; the stuff wasn’t showing up all over the place but rather submitted to the creator herself. And, as she accepted and anthologized the stuff, it made Darkover something of a shared-universe project. (Rather like Eric Flint’s ongoing GRANTVILE project.) Which pretty much made the stuff authorized derivatives instead of fanfic. Do note that Lackey and Roberson may have gotten their start in the Darkover Anthologies but they promptly trasitioned into their own realms which are distinct and personal. They didn’t spent year upon year cranking out dozens of volumes of stories based on somebody else’s vision.

Writing is personal. It *should* be personal to be distinctive and “good”. Fanfic can be personal, but the moment it gets out into the public arena it stops being personal and (unless explicitly authorized) it becomes trespassing. Well-intentioned or not.

Publiicly-distributed fanfic?

Overall, it is simply a bad idea.[18]
It seems to me that there are two kinds of writers: those who believe that it’s only “real” writing if you get paid for it, and those who understand the concept of writing for love. I honestly pity the first lot, because best-sellers go out of print, and royalty checks go away, and if that’s the only sense of worth they get from their works, they’re in real trouble once their popularity wanes. More so if they help it along by spewing hatred at the very people who buy their stuff in the first place.[18]

See also

Further Reading/Meta

References

  1. posted by a fan at Fandom Wank, May 10, 2010
  2. Diana Gabaldon & fanfic followup, Archived version, May 10, 2010 livejournal post by kate_nepveu. Accessed May 13, 2010
  3. It is also posted here at Diana Gabaldon & fanfic followup, Archived version
  4. Ironically... or not, many fans, and Gabalodon, herself believe Outlander to have been heavily inspired by a Doctor Who character. -- Which Doctor Who episode inspired Outlander? Doctor Who War Games gave Diana Gabaldon the idea, Archived version
  5. "Well, I happened to see a “Dr. Who” rerun in a weak-minded moment, and was taken by a minor character—a young Scotsman from 1745, who appeared in his kilt.* “Well, that’s fetching,” I said. “Yeah, why not? Scotland, eighteenth century.” So that’s where I began, knowing nothing about Scotland or the eighteenth century, with no plot, no outline, no characters—nothing but the rather vague images conjured up by a man in a kilt (which is, of course, a very powerful and compelling image)." -- DianaGabaldon.com, Archived version
  6. "Enter another accident. I rarely watch TV, but at the time I was in the habit of viewing weekly PBS reruns of Doctor Who (a British science-fiction serial), because it gave me just enough time to do my nails. So, while pondering the setting for my hypothetical historical novel, I happened to see one very old episode of Doctor Who featuring a "companion" of the Doctor's-a young Scottish lad named Jamie MacCrimmon, whom the Doctor had picked up in 1745. This character wore a kilt, which I thought rather fetching, and demonstrated-in this particular episode-a form of pigheaded male gallantry that I've always found endearing: the strong urge on the part of a man to protect a woman, even though he may realize that she's plainly capable of looking after herself." -- Prologue from The Outlandish Companion, p. xvii-xxix Copyright © 1999 Diana Gabaldon, The Outlandish Companion., Archived version
  7. Orlando Bloom is the actor, Will Turner is the character; perhaps Gabaldon was referencing RPF!
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 I'm done explaining why fanfic is okay., page 1 of 14, Archived version, May 2010
  9. Shakespeare, himself the source of many of the above derivatives, stole almost everything he ever wrote from another source. All the histories are RPF via Holinshed and Geoffrey of Monmouth and Plutarch, Romeo and Juliet came from an Italian tale called Romeus and Juliet, The Winter's Tale came from Pandosto, various subplots for various comedies came out of various Roman farces and from the Decameron and from Ovid's Metamorphoses... and so on, and so on, and so on. Originality is actually a very new concept in the realm of writing. Used to be no one cared who came up with the story; what mattered was who told it best. I'm done explaining why fanfic is okay., page 1 of 14, Archived version, May 2010
  10. WebCite, page 2 of 14; May 2010
  11. page 1 of comments regarding, Archived version, An open letter to professionally-published authors who despise fanfic of their own works
  12. page 2 of comments regarding, Archived version, An open letter to professionally-published authors who despise fanfic of their own works
  13. page 2 of comments regarding, An open letter to professionally-published authors who despise fanfic of their own works
  14. Well, sort of: see Marion Zimmer Bradley Fanfiction Controversy
  15. Novelist Diana Gabaldon causes fanfic furor, Archived version, May 2010
  16. Fan Works Inc.
  17. Darkover, at Fanlore
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 18.3 18.4 Novelist Diana Gabaldon causes fanfic furor, May 2010