How I Came to Appreciate Fan Fiction

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Title: How I Came to Appreciate Fan Fiction
Creator: Sunita
Date(s): Mar 14, 2012
Medium: online
Fandom:
Topic:
External Links: How I Came to Appreciate Fan Fiction - Dear Author, Archived version
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How I Came to Appreciate Fan Fiction is an essay by Sunita at Dear Author.

Excerpts

I’ve been reading genre fiction (romance, mystery, SFF) for a very long time, but I didn’t become aware of fan fiction as a category of writing, much less its role in creating community, until I found internet blogs about fiction writing. Back when I was reading mystery blogs regularly, I ran across a ranting post on the illegitimacy of writing stories using other authors’ characters and worlds. Many commenters in the very long thread attempted to explain what attracted them, and to a person they argued (believably to me) that they were doing it for the love of the characters, not money or fame. But the original poster was obdurate. He refused to concede that there was anything legitimate, much less beneficial, about fan fiction.

I didn’t participate, because I could barely figure out what everyone was talking about. But I was initially sympathetic to the anti-fan-fiction argument, probably because I’ve never wanted to do anything that resembles it. Of course I’ve hated certain books’ endings, I’ve wished for sequels, and I’ve thought about the off-page lives of favorite characters. But I’ve never written to authors to ask them to keep writing about a particularly loved protagonist. And I’ve never wanted to write my own versions of books. Not because I thought doing so would be wrong, but because it just never occurred to me.

Then I started reading m/m romance and discovered there was not only fan fiction about the Potterverse, Buffy, and Tolkien, but also slash. And I found that many authors whose published fiction I enjoyed had written fan fic earlier in their writing careers, and some continued to write in both worlds. I learned derogatory phrases like “filing off the serial numbers” and “pulled to publish,” but I also discovered that quite a few well-loved books might have begun their lives as Brokeback Mountain fanfics or Kirk/Spock fanfics. The relationship between fan and original fiction was so commonplace that even books that didn’t begin as fan fiction were sometimes thought to have originated there.
From my perspective, the emphasis on characterization and the interactive relationship of writers and readers are two of the distinguishing characteristics of fan fiction, which set it apart from other types of adaptions, interpretations, and retellings of earlier cultural products. Even in Alternate Universe fan fiction, characterizations can remain quite faithful to the canonical descriptions. Whether the changes authors introduce to these characters are sufficient to make the jump from derivative to transformative is not something we can usually predict in advance, but I think it’s important to have a conversation about what such a transformation entails and think about conditions in which authors might succeed or fall short.

Comments

[SonomaGal]:
Thanks for taking up this conversation. While I’m not much of a reader, and not at all a writer, of fan fiction, I know a number of writers who have honed their craft this way. I know writers who have allowed, even encouraged, others to “play in their world.” With some publishers obviously willing to profit from publishing works that began as fan fiction, I think it behooves us to look at the relationship of fan fiction to both its source canon and to the idea of original fiction. Fascinating.
[Dani Alexander]:
Let me just say that without fanfic (specifically queer as folk ff and harry potter slash), the m/m industry as we know it today- the acceptance of gay romances on a large scale by the hetero community/publishers-would not exist. It would still be pushed off into the corner, hidden away.

While I’ve had a lot of trouble with DSP and I’ve been fairly outspoken about how they came about, I want to say categorically that I enjoy fan fiction and I think you can file off the serial numbers and create an original story that doesn’t need to announce its origins.

I came into m/m romance long after I had been reading Original Slash. The only slash and fan fiction I wrote, or read, was for a video game, but slash led me to original slash (there is a rec community for ORIGINAL slash fiction (which is basically gay romance or m/m or f/f etc) here: http://the-slash-pile.livejournal.com.) I will be forever grateful to fan fiction slash writers for leading me back into reading and to writing.

If anyone would like, I can point to a multitude of fan fiction in which you’d be hard pressed to recognize any of the characters, the settings, the plot line or anything else about the original.

I used to read gay fiction constantly. Having been in the questioning phase of my trans/GQ identity, it was both heartening and a disappointment to read stories like Brokeback Mountain. Apparently, every author of queer fiction and queer TV, queer movies felt the need to kill off one of their main characters. Imagine questioning your sexuality and finding every story ending in death? Great right?
[Anne Jamison]:
One of the things that inspired me to teach Twilight All-Human fan fiction initially was how different it was from traditional fan fiction. It ended up feeling more like a romance writing community and less like a fandom focused on a canon world. The most popular stories had only a tenuous relationship to the original–and often a critical one. The stories sometimes offered correctives–not only, as in traditional fic, a better ending or a different perspective on a scene, but a “better” or different character. For much of the Twilight fandom, “OOC” (out-of-character”) is not an insult but a genre marker.
[ReadingPenguin]:
Wonderful post. You can’t underestimate the power of writing and reading about characters that you love deeply. I look back on my days of reading and writing Harry Potter fan fiction very fondly, and I could easily see myself getting back into that habit if I entered another huge fandom. That being said, I don’t know how I feel about people publishing their fan fiction professionally. I’m all for using it as a learning experience or jumping off point. But I can’t see any honor in directly borrowing characters, settings, and ideas, changing the names, and profiting. Then again, there are only so many original character archetypes out there, and we are mostly just writing different versions of them over and over. I guess it’s a fine line.
[~L]:
OTW smacks a little too much of entitled justification, wanting their odd little habit to be perfectly acceptable, and a little too much entitlement–we have every right to do whatever we want with this! It’s Transformative! Nanananana! I agree with the concepts, I just tend to flinch back at how far they go at times in justification they have every right even if the creators of source material say no fanworks through legalities of transformative works....

Fandom–sometimes specific, sometimes massive effort from one end of the net to the other–will hold auctions for charities and disasters, even political causes (Cali’s prop 8 was one). One particular fandom has ran an auction for a wildlife preserve/rescue park for well over a decade now. Even with all the snark, shipwars, and at times rabid batshittery (yes, there is. but hey, go look at the romance boards on amazon, rabid batshittery is everywhere in spots not just fandom). Fandom has a lot of passion and generosity and a *lot* of rapid organization when a cause gets stirred up.

The suggestion of licensing or sampling fanfic makes me *cringe*, fandom has been a playground anyone could participate in, even if only by hitting a coffee shop with wi-fi or a library. Monetizing any section of fandom will pull it out of reach even from just the lurkers who only want something to read, from the casual fan who reads once in a blue moon. There is a *lot* more to fandom and creation of fanfic than just the writing.
[DS]:
I was going to say that I never read fan fiction– it was mainly an off-shoot of media fandoms which of course was held in disdain by fandoms based on the printed word– but that wouldn’t be true.

August Derleth and a host of others had lightly renamed Sherlock Holmes and sent him off after new deductions. Books were published that had new characters or set new adventures in familiar universes like Robert E. Howard’s various series. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon and Elder Gods made many appearances in stories he never wrote.

The difference was that these books were published by ordinary presses under some guise of right. But I think nearly every author who wrote this type of fiction was also a fan of the author or series. I don’t know if fanfiction had been as easily available then (pre-internet) as now if I would have become involved.

I do have to say I once ran into a couple of HeyerVenetia and These Old Shades fanfics on the internet that make me shudder every time I think of them.
[Heather]:
I initially discovered fanfic when I heard that there were stories available online in which Mulder and Scully finally! hooked up. I checked them out and lost way too many hours reading story after story.

I kind of forgot about fanfiction until the show Roswell appeared and I became a rabid fan and shipper. (Oh, those were the days.) I found reference to the Polar Novel by White Otter, a brilliant piece that turned the canon upside down and re-interpreted the subtext of an entire season. A quick challenge to write a Polar story launched my Roswell fanfic “career” — about 20 stories exploring all sorts of aspects of the show.

Like many others, I agree that fanfic made me a better writer, particularly when it comes to making sure characters act in according with already established personalities.

I never delved deep enough into the fanfiction world to learn about pulled to publish and all that. Since Roswell, I’ve only dabbled in reading Buffy and HP fics. I’m still waiting for the TV show/book/something that grabs me so hard and makes me want to read (or even write) more about that world and those characters.
[Bethaboo]:
Without the relative freedom of fanfiction, I never could have made the jump to writing fiction. I’d all but convinced myself it was impossible and that I could never do it. Fanfiction proved to me that I could, and while of course, there are crazies (as there are in any community, online or otherwise) I met a wonderfully supportive group of readers and writers who helped me hone my craft.

Would I ever P2P? No. It’s something I briefly considered, but once I started re-reading through the specific story I realized it would require an entire rewrite, and if I was going to do that, I was going to write it the way I could now, not the way I had written it two years ago. It turned into a completely different novel. Now, it bears no resemblance to its original form.

I understand what Carolyn is saying about drafts–to an extent, fanfiction can be those first handful of novels that authors need to write to get better and to learn their craft. But essentially, they are still drafts because with fanfiction, you don’t have to build your characters from the ground up. Even in the most AU of fics, you are still borrowing the flavor of the original characters, and you are relying on the readers to “recognize” them, so you don’t necessarily have to character-build from the ground up.

Maybe this is what bothers me about MotU/50 Shades. She built her foundation on Stephanie Meyers’. Also, a lot of her behavior regarding fandom offends me deeply, and though it may sound petty, it bothers me a lot that she used a fandom she has admitted to not caring about at all to springboard into national success. She used her fans, she used Stephanie Meyer, she used everyone around her to become what she is now, and yet she is trying to deny the very origins of her success. That bothers me and I won’t apologize for it. The story itself is not my cup of tea, and I am genuinely surprised that something with as many inherent flaws and grammatical issues has been bought by a trad publisher, but I’m hoping that at least they will require a firm edit of the material before publishing.
[Grace Draven]:
I started out writing fan fiction (Harry Potter, LotR, Labyrinth, Stargate Atlantis) and still write it when I can carve out the time. Without it, I would have never ventured into writing and publishing original fiction or made contact and friends with some truly exceptional writers. Fandom can be batshit crazy at times, but it can also be a tight-knit, supportive community. It’s passionate about its stories, which I think inspires writers to remain passionate about their love of storytelling.
[D]:
Fandom can be batshit crazy at times, but it can also be a tight-knit, supportive community. I phrase it as ‘fandom is loving and supportive, when we’re not busy eating our own young’.
[Christine M]:
All of my favourite stories from my days in fandoms are backed up 3, 4 times on various drives and CDs. Some of my favourite writers from back then had incredible, breathtaking storytelling habililties. Totally out there. I still shiver just thinking about those stories, and I haven’t read them in *years*. I think of fanfic and fandoms very fondly. I made dear friends on boards, yahoo groups and LJ coms, met half a dozen through the years (considering most of them live in Europe and I’m in Canada, it’s a nice number) and I’m still very close to them, ten years later. And some of my fellow writers from the fandoms have persevered and turned into brilliant published writers of original fiction.
[Tessa Dare]:
Writing and reading Jane Austen fanfiction is how I started writing historical romance.

I particularly enjoyed writing “missing scenes” — filling in the blanks Jane Austen (or, uh, various filmmakers) left. I wrote a whole series of vignettes where Elizabeth Bennet (fond of walking!) was just tromping around the environs of Netherfield, Rosings, Pemberley, musing and watching birds and butterflies. Guess what I learned – scenes of someone walking and musing are boring! My scenes with Lizzy and Darcy kissing were soooo much more popular! Romance Writer’s Lesson #1, right there. :D There’s a good reason some scenes are “missing.”

The Austen fandom is an interesting case — since all the books are in the public domain, there aren’t the same issues of copyright that you find with more contemporary fandoms. This is why I have trouble following the “fanfic is always unethical, regardless of copyright” argument. To me, there’s no great ethical distinction between the fanfic stories I wrote/enjoyed and Bridget Jones’ Diary, or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or Clueless. Several popular (and very talented) JA fanfic writers did pull their stories and get publishing contracts for them. If PD James can publish Death at Pemberley…. why shouldn’t they publish their stories, just because they first appeared online?...

Some fictional characters, worlds, and stories have just grown beyond their original creator, to the point where they exist in the public’s collective imagination. If you somehow wiped every physical and electronic copy of JK Rowling’s books from the earth, Harry Potter would continue to be a cultural reference point for an entire generation. It’s natural for people to tell stories, draw pictures, write songs, etc. that reference their shared culture. It’s what humans do. I can understand why it might be infringement to profit from it during the copyright term, but I don’t understand why an author would fight that phenomenon in general — to me, that’s like the Holy Grail of fiction writing.
[~L]:
James screwed the Twilight fandom by using them, is further screwing them (even if no more than unwanted-to-negative attention) with this. And if/when Meyers finally speaks out after she has her lawyers all in order, there is possibility (remote, yes, but possible) that she puts a foot down, sends her lawyers after archives and communities with C&D letters and grind the fandom to a halt.

Shoot even the impact of former slash fandom writers going pro. And the point & sneer of “They used to write fanfic!” even if their pro-pubbed work has no connection to their fanfic other than the fact it’s the same author.

Would definitely love to see the impact of that lessened. Fanfic writing is an entire different kettle of fish than orig-writing, but the lessons learned in fanfic can certainly do wonders for original writing if you apply them. RPG type back-and-forth headhopping might fly with fanfic, especially when it was obviously written mostly that way, doesn’t with pro and I’ve seen that. Too quick to make the jump and not slow down to shift gears doesn’t help impressions of fanfic.

It’s the idea of pay to play archives/licensing that bothers me–a lot. And that is what I’ve seen brought up before and in conjunction with licensing/sampling type monetization. Something like that makes me shudder. It’s as much controlling the negative effects of the horses that have already got out of the barn as keeping the horses remaining in the barn where they’re at I think.
[P.Kirby]:
... I stumbled onto the controversy, specifically one author who loathed fan fiction in a manner that frankly, struck me as a tad… uh, deranged. I can see some of the problematic legal ramifications, especially if fan ficcers are actively trying to make money from their work. But even now, as a published author, I see most fan fiction as a normal function of fandom. I mean, technically, people have been writing (or telling, or singing) fan fiction as long as there has been fiction.
[Rosy]:
I used to write fanfiction – some of the best stories I’ve ever read were fanfiction, too! It’s cool that it’s starting to be recognized as a legitimate form of entertainment. I’m very tired of people who look down on it.
[B]:
I think the biggest worry for writers whose works are being played with, particularly BNA who are writing unfinished series, is that a fanfic writer will sue them if the canon story resembles a fanfic story at all. It seems far fetched, and is silly, but it has (allegedly) happened. http://fanlore.org/wiki/Marion_Zimmer_Bradley_Fanfiction_Controversy I think that fanfic is wonderful, and should be encouraged, particularly as a learning tool for new writers. But there is fear there, whether or not it’s legitimate.
[Tessa Dare]:
Not to be flip. But when a group of people engage in an activity for fun, and suddenly money enters the picture, things are bound to get awkward. It could be fanfic, music, sports, blogging, or cupcakes–wouldn’t matter. I’m pretty sure the JA fandom had its rumblings and shiftings when some authors got publishing contracts and pulled their stories. I wasn’t very active by that time, but I noticed some boards shut down and others sprung up. Money changes things. It just does, no matter how we wish it didn’t.
[Hell Cat]:
The fact that is fan fiction communities build readerships. Look at Cassandra Clare, aka Cassie Claire in HP fandom. She had a website built for her own fan fiction after the fanfiction.net debacle, that turned into an amazing archive (of which some of my stuff still stands), and transformed into a dedicated printed readership. Me? I’m not a fan of her, but I can see usefulness of having a known circle that will transition. And she’s not alone. Naomi Novik wrote some of the most celebrated fan fiction in quite a few genres. Other lesser known authors have gained e-publisher book deals due to the fan fiction community. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have people willing to help you better a craft. And then some well-known writers have founded some amazing websites that celebrate the fan community (dreamwidth.org, for example).
[Sunshinyness]:
Am I alone in NOT being irritated by authors that do not like fanfiction? This has cropped up with a lot of my favorite writers and I can’t for the life of me understand supposed fans of these authors being up in arms because they were asked not to generate fanfic. Aren’t you supposed to be their fans afterall? What’s so awful about abiding their wishes? When Robin McKinley and Ann Rice asked their fans to not do such work I was a little bummed b/c I was young and an amateur writer and this was the avenue I chose to express my fannish wants and creativity. BUT I was totally cool with it regardless. (Though I would hear a LOT of grumblings that these authors were vane not wanting anyone else to touch their work or just plain mean) I didn’t even mind that McKinley and Rice took the step extra and strong armed fanfiction.net to disallow their fiction on their site. (The full list from fanfiction.net: Anne Rice, Archie comics, Dennis L. McKiernan, Irene Radford, J.R. Ward, Laurell K. Hamilton, Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb, P.N. Elrod, Raymond Feist, Robin Hobb, Robin McKinley, Terry Goodkind) And what a lot of these writers have in common? A lot of them are older and probably remember the scare back in the day of having a fan sue you if they felt their fanfic was “stolen” by you. A lot of people forget that years ago the worst thing that could happen to your career was someone whispering around the community that you- an established respectable author- ripped off an unsolicited story sent to you by a fan. So I don’t blame them in the least. I’m also never surprised when it’s an author that might have spent some time in the academic community where similar plagiarism scares exist.