The Fan Fiction Rant

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Commentary
Title: The Fan Fiction Rant
Commentator: Robin Hobb
Date(s): 2005
Medium: online essay
Fandom: pan-fandom, Fanfiction, Pornophobia, anti-fanfic
External Links: The Fanfiction Rant via Wayback Machine and as a WebCite
Click here for related articles on Fanlore.

Contents

The Fan Fiction Rant is an essay written by science-fiction author Robin Hobb and posted on her own website (since removed)[1]. The title, "The Fan Fiction Rant," is her own.

Robin Hobb, author of Farseer, Liveship Traders, and Tawny Man trilogies, is outspoken in her dislike and disapproval of fanfiction. In her essay, she explores why, pointing out what she's been told in favor of fanfic, and what she finds wrong with each of those points. She defines fanfiction as "fiction written by a ‘fan’ or reader, without the consent of the original author, yet using that author’s characters and world," and:

  • claims it is identity theft
  • says, "the original author really screwed up the story, so I’m going to fix it"[2]
  • fanfiction is to writing what a cake mix is to gourmet cooking
  • is infringing on copyright
  • and "At the extreme low end of the spectrum, fan fiction becomes personal masturbation fantasy in which the fan reader is interacting with the writer's character. That isn't healthy for anyone."
  • and ultimately: "When I write, I want to tell my story directly to you. I want you to read it exactly as I wrote it."

The Rant

I am not rational on the topic of fan fiction. Well, actually, I can be, and in this essay, I will endeavor to be. But people who know me well also know that this is one topic that can make my eyes spin round like pinwheels and steam come out of my ears. In fact, I would venture to say that knowing this brings them great delight in provoking such a show several times a year when the topic comes up at a convention or in a discussion group.

So, rather than continue to publicly rant, unreeling endlessly my venomous diatribe against fan fiction, I thought I’d gather my bile and spill it all here, in a logical and organized flow. Hereafter, I shall simply refer those who query to the infamous red shoe gripped by the mad woman in the attic.

To start my rant, I will first define exactly what fan fiction is, to me. Others may have a wider or narrower definition, but when I am speaking of the stuff I dislike, this is what I mean. Fan fiction is fiction written by a ‘fan’ or reader, without the consent of the original author, yet using that author’s characters and world.

A few specific notes about this definition.

‘Without the consent of the original author’ This means it doesn’t include someone writing a Darkover story, with Marion Zimmer Bradley’s permission. It does include someone writing a Darkover story without Marion Zimmer Bradley’s permission, even if MZB had allowed others to use her world. It does not include professional authors writing Star Trek or X-Files or Buffy the Vampire Slayer stories. All those stories are written and then published with the consent of the copyright owner. Media tie-in novels are not what I’m talking about here. Those stories are not, by my definition, fan fiction.

Now that I’ve defined it, why do I dislike it so much? What, I am often asked, is the harm in fan fiction? I am told that I should be flattered that readers like my stories enough to want to continue them. Another justification is that writing fan fiction is a good way for people to learn to be writers. A fourth point that is often made is that fan fiction doesn’t attempt to make money off the stories, so it doesn’t really violate anyone’s copyright. And finally, I am usually chastised for trying to suppress people’s creativity, or suppressing free speech.

So let me take each of those points one at a time.

“What is the harm in it?” I might counter by demanding to know ‘What is the good of it?’ I’ll resist that temptation.

Fan fiction is like any other form of identity theft. It injures the name of the party whose identity is stolen. When it’s financial identity theft, the thief can ruin your credit rating. When it’s creative identity theft, fan fiction can sully your credit with your readers. Anyone who read fan fiction about Harry Potter, for instance, would have an entirely different idea of what those stories are about than if he had simply read J.K. Rowling’s books. In this way, the reader’s impression of the writer’s work and creativity is changed. My name is irrevocably attached to my stories and characters. Writers who post a story at Fanfiction.net or anywhere else and identify it as a Robin Hobb fan fiction or a Farseer fan fiction are claiming my groundwork as their own. That is just not right.

“I should be flattered that readers like my stories enough to want to continue them.” That’s not flattering. That’s insulting. Every fan fiction I’ve read to date, based on my world or any other writer’s world, had focused on changing the writer’s careful work to suit the foible of the fan writer. Romances are invented, gender identities changed, fetishes indulged and endings are altered. It’s not flattery. To me, it is the fan fiction writer saying, “Look, the original author really screwed up the story, so I’m going to fix it. Here is how it should have gone.” At the extreme low end of the spectrum, fan fiction becomes personal masturbation fantasy in which the fan reader is interacting with the writer’s character. That isn’t healthy for anyone.

At the less extreme end, the fan writer simply changes something in the writer’s world. The tragic ending is re-written, or a dead character is brought back to life, for example. The intent of the author is ignored. A writer puts a great deal of thought into what goes into the story and what doesn’t. If a particular scene doesn’t happen ‘on stage’ before the reader’s eyes, there is probably a reason for it. If something is left nebulous, it is because the author intends for it to be nebulous. To use an analogy, we look at the Mona Lisa and wonder. Each of us draws his own conclusions about her elusive smile. We don’t draw eyebrows on her to make her look surprised, or put a balloon caption over her head. Yet much fan fiction does just that. Fan fiction closes up the space that I have engineered into the story, and the reader is told what he must think rather than being allowed to observe the characters and draw his own conclusions.

When I write, I want to tell my story directly to you. I want you to read it exactly as I wrote it. I labor long and hard to pick the exact words I want to use, and to present my story from the angles I choose. I want it to speak to you as an individual. It’s horribly frustrating to see all that work ignored and undone by someone else ‘fixing’ it. If you don’t like the stories as they stand, I can accept that. But please don’t tinker with them.

The extreme analogy: You send me a photograph of your family reunion, titled ‘The Herkimer’s Get Together’. I think it looks dull. So I Photo-Shop it to put your friends and relations into compromising positions in various stages of undress. Then I post it on the Internet, under the title ‘The Herkimers Get Together’, and add a note that it was sent to me from Pete Herkimer of Missoula, Montana. Suddenly there is your face and name, and the faces of the people you care about, doing things that you would never do. Are you flattered that I thought your photograph was interesting enough to use? Or are you insulted and horrified? Are you alarmed that I so clearly connected work that is not yours to your good name?

“Fan fiction is a good way for people to learn to be writers.” No. It isn’t. If this is true, then karaoke is the path to become a singer, coloring books produce great artists, and all great chefs have a shelf of cake mixes. Fan fiction is a good way to avoid learning how to be a writer. Fan fiction allows the writer to pretend to be creating a story, while using someone else’s world, characters, and plot. Coloring Barbie’s hair green in a coloring book is not a great act of creativity. Neither is putting lipstick on Ken. Fan fiction does exactly those kinds of things.

The first step to becoming a writer is to have your own idea. Not to take someone else’s idea, put a dent in it, and claim it as your own. You will learn more from writing one story of your own, no matter how bad it is, than the most polished Inuyasha fan fiction that you write. Taking that first wavering step out into the unknown territory of your own imagination is what it is all about. When you can write well enough to carry a friend along, then you’ve really got something. But you aren’t going to get anywhere clinging to the comfort of saying, “If I write a Harry Potter story, everyone will like it because they already like Harry Potter. I don’t have to describe Hogwarts because everyone saw the movie, and I don’t have to tell Harry’s back story because that’s all done for me.”

Fan fiction is to writing what a cake mix is to gourmet cooking. Fan fiction is an Elvis impersonator who thinks he is original. Fan fiction is Paint-By-Number art.

Fan fiction doesn’t attempt to make money off the stories, so it doesn’t really violate anyone’s copyright.

I beg your pardon?

Where did you get the idea that copyright is all about money? Copyright is about the right of the author to control his own creation. That includes making money off it. But it also includes refusing to sell movie rights, or deciding that you’re not really proud of your first novel and you don’t wish to see it republished. It’s about choosing how your work is presented. Under copyright, those rights belong to the creator of the work.

I’ve seen all those little disclaimers on stories at fanfiction.net and elsewhere. Legally and morally, they don’t mean a thing to anyone. “I don’t make any claims to these characters.” “I don’t want to make any money off this story.” That isn’t what it is about, and yes, you are still infringing on copyright even if you make those statements. Yes, the author can still sue you, even if you put up those statements.

If you don’t believe me, please go to http://www.chillingeffects.org/fanfic/faq and read what is there. They are pointing out to you that fan fiction can infringe copyright.

“You’re trying to suppress people’s creativity.” No. I’m doing the opposite. I’m trying to encourage young writers (or writers of any age) to be truly creative. Elvis impersonators are fun for an occasional night out, but surely you don’t want to spend your life being a Rowling or Hobb or Brooks impersonator, do you? What is wrong with telling your own stories? Put in the work, take the chance, and if you do it right, stand in your own spotlight.

“I have a free speech right to put my fan fiction on the Internet.” Do I have a free speech right to write pornography and post it under your name? Do I have a free speech right to put a very poor quality product in the public eye, and connect it to a work that belongs to you? Please try to think of this in terms of your own life and career. It doesn’t matter if you are a writer or a plumber or an aerospace engineer. You have the right to receive credit for the work you do. No one should take that credit from you. No one should be able to connect your good name to work you did not create yourself.

You certainly have a free speech write to post your own fiction on the Internet or anywhere else, and I heartily encourage you to do so.

If you’re really tempted to write fan fiction, do this instead.

List all the traits of the book or character that you liked.

List all the parts that you didn’t like.

List the changes you would make to improve the story.

List all changes necessary so that the changes you want don’t contradict the world, culture, morality or plot of the original story.

Change the proper nouns involved.

Change the setting to one of your own.

Write your story. Write the paragraphs that describe the world. Write the ones that introduce the characters. Write the dialogue that moves your plot along. Write down every detail that you want your reader to know. Then publish it however you like.

Know that if it’s a bad story, it would still be a bad story even if you had kept the original names and settings. But at least what you now have is your bad story, not your bad imitation of someone else’s story. And it years to come, you don’t have to be ashamed of it anymore than I’m ashamed of my early efforts.

I will close this rant with a simple admonition.

Fan fiction is unworthy of you.

Don’t do it. [3]

Fan Reactions

If Hobb doesn't want my "impression" to be changed, she should ban reviews. Hell, she should even ban me from blogging my impressions and interpretations, because *gasp* they might affect the ideas of others! ...there's nothing really wrong with writing masturbation fantasies, being an Elvis impersonator, or making things out of cake mix. [4]
I don't think it's at all unreasonable to assume that a reader can simultaneously value the original story and wish to indulge in "what-if" games with it. Fanfic writers who have the Fellowship pause for a brief man-on-elf orgy before setting out from Rivendell aren't insisting that Tolkien fucked up his own work by not including such a scene-- they're just mixing the mental flavors of two things that appeal to them. Buying into Hobb's presumption here strikes me as akin to saying that writers of alternate history are dishonoring real historical events with their conjectures.... [5]
Oh, and let me say that yes, writing fanfiction *can* be used as a way to improve one's fiction writing abilities. It's all to do with how you take advantages of the particular challenges and opportunities it provides, in addition to other ways of practicing writing. The statement that "You will learn more from writing one story of your own, no matter how bad it is, than the most polished Inuyasha fan fiction that you write" is very, very false." [6]
There's a very capitalist, very Protestant mindset behind this: even if they're not making money off 'my' characters, they shouldn't be able to have that much fun with them, dammit! They're MINE! [7]
Curiosity is human nature, making new discoveries is a joy. One should judge a fanfic upon its own artistic merits, by completely twisting and turning its original source material can be considered creativity and innovation, is that not? You condemned fanfiction for their lack of originality, and thus being nothing more than 'watered down' versions of the originals. [8]
And why is it only fanfic that corrupts the "pure" experience intended by the author, while discussion with friends, reading reviews, thinking about what I've read, or even just reading the blurb on the back of the book (which is generally outside the author's control) doesn't? Or would Robin prefer that I never even think about anything of hers that I read? That my experience of the book begins and ends with the words on the page? That the book means so little to me that it never impinges on the rest of my life? [9]
In the fanfic realm that I frequent (I won't say which), I lately find myself sympathizing with her position more than I do with the insistence that she is somehow full of herself and arrogant and angry. Why should an author, who spent long hours creating a world and characters out of her own imagination, be thrilled and flattered when other fanfic writers come along and take characters he/she loves and drag them in the dirt? Why should this writer, who made certain characters his/her main protagonists and clearly made them the hero and heroine of their book or show, be happy when another fanfic writer decides that, in *their* work, they are going to turn one or more of these characters into monsters, making them the villains of their piece? What is so wonderful about that? [10]
I find quite a bit of Hobb's little rant ridiculous, but above all this thought: She's never wondered "and then what happened?" after her favorite book/movie/whatever ended? Or she just has no imaginative curiosity? And if so, how did she wind up writing fantasy fiction? Or writing at all? [11]
So I'm afraid that, contrary to her own claim, she is attempting to stifle people's creativity by denying them a harmless outlet. Fanfic isn't a free speech issue, or a copyright issue. It's about the innate need of people to tell each other stories. When our culture has replaced its own huge variety of stories with one official version owned by one person, that leaves the rest of us very little recourse but to re-appropriate what would have been common property in an earlier day and age and put our own spin on it. In the Information Age, this has become blessedly easy once again. Stories, like information, want to be free. Fortunately, authors can still make money on their versions while the rest of us sit around our electronic hearth and share ours for nothing. [12]
Totally understand and agree with your sentiments. Like taking a child and giving him/her plastic surgery here, nips and tucks there, until he/she looks nothing like the child. Might want to have the "rant" edited to remove the typos, though. [13]
For many aspiring authors, writing fanfic is an excellent exercise in examining plot and character and all the elements needed. One can opt to dissect that which came before to see how writing successful stories is done. It also allows writers to explore concepts and ideas that they can't get out of themselves in other "original" ways. Then, hopefully, they'll someday take off the training wheels and manage to write original work that does get noticed. Although, the odds of being heard in the maelstrom of today's literary industry, with corporate interests controlling mass publication, is very slim.

That's what makes the Internet so powerful, while simultaneously further diluting one's chance to find an audience. It's not as easy as Robin Hobb tries to make it. She just dismisses all of it. Fanfic has a powerful place in the furtherance of storytelling for mankind's future.

One could argue that the tv series Xena was fanfic honoring greek mythology. The fact that greek mythology has never been 'protected' by copyright shouldn't dismiss this travesty of justice. [14]
Okay, I know I'm going to be in the minority here, but based on all the fanfic that I've read, most of it is pure rubbish although I'll have to admit some of it actually rises to the level of mediocrity. Having said that, Robin Hobb is just bonkers! I think that fanfic is really just a way for us to share our story-inspired daydreams with others. It says much more about the writer than it does the world they've usurped. I think fanfic is (for the most part) a good thing. I hope that Ms. Lindholm will eventually change her mind about fanfic. [15]
What a load of crap. She seriously needs to get over herself. I don't read fanfic and I don't write it. But for those people who like doing both, I say enjoy the hell out of it. Her analogies are off too. Fanfic is not like walking up to the Mona Lisa and drawing eyebrows or word balloons on it. It's like going home and painting your own version of the Mona Lisa with eyebrows and word balloons on it. And if it were ever framed and put in a museum, I doubt anyone would say: "Hey, I didn't know DaVinci did this other version of the Mona Lisa. It's not as good." Besides if you did your own version of the Mona Lisa with changed eyebrows and word balloons added, framed it, and hung it in a museum? It would be Dadaism. [16]
To an extent, I agree with her, but I wouldn't be so vitriolic about it. I simply ignore it, and would never confuse it with the work of the actual writers. Most fanfic is junk. Most of it is stuff that makes me embarrassed for the writers. It is kind of like public masturbation.

Still, I don't see it as an insult to the creators of the characters and the premises of their stories. As long as nobody else tries to claim the fanfic as warranting monetary compensation, it's little more than a variation on the tradition of the telling of folktales by a campfire. People do it to entertain themselves and their friends close to them . If it inspires them to create and write for their own characters, then maybe it does serve the purpose of practice writing. If all they ever do is write for themselves and the few people who read it, and never progress beyond that, nobody is getting hurt - not even the originator of the stories that inspire fanfic. The originators still remain alive. Fanfic doesn't deprive them of food or shelter. Fanfic doesn't make them into bad parents, cause people to go on killing sprees, start wars, or invoke the wrath of God or nature.

The woman has lost perspective. Yes, her books are a result of a lot of painstaking planning and hard work, as are anyone's written works; but nobody is going to confuse fanfic with her own work. [17]
I found this in Ms. Hobb's FAQ section:

I've created artwork based on your characters or world. Can I display it on my website? Yes.

So... creating artwork based on another person's world and situations is fine, but basing stories around said characters and situations is a form of identity theft? What? Reading through this, it seems the only difference between legitimate work and fan fiction to Ms. Hobb is a commission paycheck. Your generic Buffy book on the newstands is more legitimate than the 1000-page opus a fan spent two years on because the book has a publisher's label on the spine?

[18]
IIRC, Robin Hobb's main personal experience of fanfic is of a number of people strongly disliking the way she ended her "Farseer" trilogy and cooking up their own versions, which I suspect has coloured her view on the subject. [19]
Y'know, each time I read an author's diatribe on fanfiction, I cringe. When I was a kid I cut my eye teeth on original fiction *and* fan fiction. I knew I wanted to be a full-time writer someday, and I wrote fanfiction as well as my own stuff. I used fanfiction to explore the human condition and to explore the different ways (ready-made) characters could respond to difficult situations. So what happened? Well, now I write adaptions and I write my own original pieces. Plus, I get paid for it. Sometimes I write fanfiction under another name, too. Sure, writers have the right to protect their own work, and if they're uncomfortable with junior writers or amateurs using their material they should say so and amateurs should respect those wishes. On the other hand, those writers really have no right to tell others that their way is "the only way" to write. That's not possible - we're all individuals. We all write differently. And if someone writes well and gets paid for it, who are we to tell them that their way isn't working? 'Sides, some of those tv tie-in writers were fans first. [20]
This subject has always interested me, and I have to wonder what some of the published Buffy tie-in writers think about this. I'm pretty sure some of them were writing fanfic before their work got picked up. I mean, I'm a writer by trade, just not in fiction. I've dabbled in fanfic. Some of it (my work that is) just plain sucked. Others, I was kinda proud of. I would imagine that she doesn't have a problem with the fanfic that sits in people's diaries. It's the stuff that's "self-published" on the Web. That's where the copyright issue comes, I think.

She, of course, has the right to exercise control over her creations. I often think, however, that stifling fan-based activity is short-sighted. (I'm remembering all the -- was it XFiles, Star Trek? -- fan sites that were closed down in the early days of the Web. It was done in the name of copyright, but I think it was shortsighted.)

I think part of the issue here is the slippery-ness of the Web.Is it published if it's on the Web? It's not the same as something that sits in your diary at home, but it's also not the same as something that gets printed at the publisher. It's even less than a vanity press might be.

So where's the line? [21]
I'm a huge fan of Robin Hobb's, but I think she's wrong in this case.

I think one thing to keep in mind is that many of the great works of literature were re-tellings or expansions of older stories. Some of the people who frequently did stuff like this were... oh I don't know... Shakespeare and Goethe. I wonder where they'd be with today's copyright laws.

I freely admit that most fan fiction isn't very good, but some is and fan fiction does motivate people to start writing when they otherwise wouldn't. [22]
Truly, both Robin Hobb (Meghan Lindholm) and Yvonne Navarro (author of another narcissistic rant about her belief that the only people who had the right to gve her books poor reviews were people who could have written better books themselves!) need to get over themselves. That's all - neither are giving the world books that will change the face of literature nor initiate a new genre of writing style - the rare few who do that are the only truly "original" writers. Everybody else is derivative to some extent or other. [23]
Anyone who read fan fiction about Harry Potter, for instance, would have an entirely different idea of what those stories are about than if he had simply read J.K. Rowling’s books. In this way, the reader’s impression of the writer’s work and creativity is changed. I'd actually have to agree with her on this, at least when it comes to the Harry Potter fandom. I can't even count the number of people who think Draco Malfoy is sexy and/or a good person, but just misunderstood (think Spike or VMars's Logan Echolls). This is entirely because of fanfic. Jo Rowling has actually commented on it, amazed that so many fans see the little jerk that way. And then there's the Harry/Hermione relationship -- the two have never even been hinted at as more than good friends in the books (and Rowling has again expressed surprise that people can't tell Hermione likes Ron, not Harry), but tons and tons of fans are convinced they're going to end up together in the end (partly because of fanfic and partly because of the movies, which really give off that vibe). I haven't seen anything like this happening in other fandoms; maybe it's just that many HP fans are young and impressionable or something, but fanfic definitely does seem to have colored how many of them see Rowling's characters and world. [24]
I want to start by saying that I am not a fan of fan-fic. I don't have any issues with it, but I just haven't been interested in reading it. What Robin Hobb (Meghan Lindholm) doesn't understand is that fan fic, fan art and fan vids tend to bring an added level of energy to a given fandom. Instead of fans talking about an author only when a new book comes out or an author makes an appearance, they have something they can discuss more often. [25]

Similar Controversies

Further Reading

References

  1. The Fan Fiction Rant on archive.org, accessed 2010-5-17
  2. Some fans (ie, me, Betty) speculate Hobbs' aversion to fanfiction may stem partly from critical fan reaction to the ending of her Tawney Man series.
  3. The Fan Fiction Rant; WebCite
  4. Robin Hobb on Fanfiction by worldserpent, journal purged and deleted
  5. On Fanfic and the Ownership of Imaginary Experience; WebCite by scott_lynch
  6. Robin Hobb;WebCite by sigelphoenix
  7. In Defense of Fanfiction by Guestblogger Justin; WebCite, 2005
  8. In Defense of Fanfiction by Guestblogger Justin, comment by The Great Swiftly, 2005
  9. In Defense of Fanfiction by Guestblogger Justin, comment by rmsgrey, 2005
  10. In Defense of Fanfiction by Guestblogger Justin, comment by Anonymous, 2005
  11. In Defense of Fanfiction by Guestblogger Justin, comment by Meri, 2005
  12. Blogorrhea, Lee Kottner, General Mischief Branch, In Defense of Fanfic/WebCite, posted March 20, 2006, accessed July 1, 2013
  13. NO FAN FIC (or suggestions) PLEASE by Robin Hobb RoseMary Bellamy, posted May 4, 2009
  14. Fan fiction is unworthy of you. Don't do it.; WebCite, comment at Whedonesque, March 2006
  15. Fan fiction is unworthy of you. Don't do it., comment at Whedonesque, March 2006
  16. Fan fiction is unworthy of you. Don't do it., comment at Whedonesque, March 2006
  17. Fan fiction is unworthy of you. Don't do it., comment at Whedonesque, March 2006
  18. Fan fiction is unworthy of you. Don't do it., comment at Whedonesque, March 2006
  19. Fan fiction is unworthy of you. Don't do it., comment at Whedonesque, March 2006
  20. Fan fiction is unworthy of you. Don't do it., comment at Whedonesque, March 2006
  21. Fan fiction is unworthy of you. Don't do it., comment at Whedonesque, March 2006
  22. Fan fiction is unworthy of you. Don't do it., comment at Whedonesque, March 2006
  23. Fan fiction is unworthy of you. Don't do it., comment at Whedonesque, March 2006
  24. Fan fiction is unworthy of you. Don't do it., comment at Whedonesque, March 2006
  25. Fan fiction is unworthy of you. Don't do it., comment at Whedonesque, March 2006
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