What is RPF Anyway?

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Title: What is RPF Anyway?
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Date(s): August 28, 2008
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What is RPF Anyway? is a 2008 essay by yourlibrarian.

Excerpts

I think everyone agrees that RPF/RPS is a form of fanfic, though why this agreement exists seems less clear. I would guess that it's because (1) It's usually written by fans, who are often writing other kinds of fanfic (2) It's non-commercial (in many respects) and (3) It follows various fanfic conventions that we see in FPF whether that's format, archiving, tropes, and so on. So it kind of looks and quacks and waddles similarly even if many circles consider it an uglier form of duckling.

But is it really? Fans who write fanfic may write original fic as well, it doesn't turn everything they write into fanfic. If characters who are written about aren't celebrities but are real people, it's still RPF but certainly not fanfic. RPS may be distributed non-commercially, but it actually has more legal standing than FPF. After all, a lot of gossip and rumor gets spread about people all the time and is actually more damaging since many people suppose it to be true, not to mention fictional biographies and fiction with thinly disguised (or actual) people in it. And the average person would probably "get" an RPF story more easily than a fanfic one.

But then there are also disagreements about what makes fanfic, fanfic. Some people distinguish fanfic from tie-in novels, for example, on the basis of the former being written for free by people who have a commitment to the source text and a lack of concern for publishing standards. So people distinguish Brust's unpublished (and now freely available) Firefly tie-in as simply an unpublished tie-in from something which, from the get-go, was intended as fanfic. I would agree with this distinction because I think intention is an important factor. He may have written the novel because he was as serious a fan as any other. The fact that he finished it before being paid kind of attests to that in my opinion, even if I haven't read the novel yet. But he did write it with the plan to sell it, and thus make it accessible to not only a wide audience but, more importantly, to the people who would pay him to do so. This automatically limits the subject matter and approach considerably, whether a book is a tie-in or an "original" concept. All you have to do is look around fandom and see how many conversations pop up about "having an idea about such-and-such but no one would read that" to see how many stories, even free ones, are stillborn due to a perceived lack of audience.

While I'm not going to claim to have the ur-definition of fanfic here, for the purposes of this discussion I am going to claim that fanfic is distinguished as fanfic by at least three things: (1) Audience (2) Intention and (3) Knowledge of the source.

I'm thinking that most of the real RPF fanfic is drawerfic. It may be getting written but it's not being posted. Especially in SPN, I think that RPF is pretty popular because it's preferable to reading Wincest. I think a lot of its writers are fans of the show and want to write romantic stories but it's pretty hard to do that given both the setting of the show and the relationship of the characters. It's all designed to be very unromantic, even if the relationship is emotionally compelling. So the audience seems to be show fans who need only a minimal knowledge of the actors. The other reason I think there's a lot of it is because the actors have provided public characters that are eminently slashable. I mean, really, a lot of it just writes itself so you can slap a familiar framework on top of the characters and very little is needed in terms of motivational exploration to sell the concept.

Having read a good bit of RPF early in my fanfic reading years, you wouldn't think I'd find it squicky, but within Whedonverse fandom I rather did. I tried reading some of it and did like the occasional story, but as a whole I avoided it. For me, the squick was that it was just so off. I could not see the people in question behaving anything like most of their depictions. The pairings just seemed random and forced, and I could understand why there seemed to be a general distaste for the genre. I hadn't planned to read any in SPN fandom either (if only because my plate was already so full). But it was actually fairly easy to read a lot of it since you had -- at least for the public view -- a pair of actors who not only got along, but did so swimmingly and with a lot of humor. Sure, I couldn't see many stories taking place the way they did, but I also didn't have a hard time believing that, were a few elements nudged to the left a bit, they could be emotionally true. That's also what I bring to most any FPS story, a suspension of disbelief that what I see on screen could be seen differently with a little tweaking. In essence you had a fandom where the actors had built and presented RPS characters, even if that hadn't been their intention. (And, from what little I've seen, we now have music fandoms where the musicians are intentionally building those characters for use as a form of marketing.)

So the intent of the set fic seems to be mostly avoidance-related, directed at show fans who find the off-camera characters more appealing than the on-camera ones. I'd argue the intention of the AU stuff is farther afield. To read the AUs you really need no knowledge of the show or actors: in fact it may make things less confusing when off-camera and on-camera characters get mixed and matched (such as Samantha Ferris and Jo Harvelle appearing in the same fic). A lot of the characterization is pretty tenuous and pretty dissimilar from one fic to the next. I saw someone arguing that it's essentially original fic that uses the characters in order to find an audience. I think that's kind of true in the sense that the names could be changed to two other actors and marketed to a different fandom with no real difficulty.

In a way the discussions about RPF (squicky or not-squicky) remind me of discussions of photo manips. Some people say that manips squick them, but this is kind of a nonsensical thing to say, because all sorts of wallpapers, banners and icons use some kind of manipulation and adjustments that move together, layer, or otherwise change the original images. Official promos do it too (and sometimes not as well as fan artists). What those statements mean, I think, is that the execution of people's heads stuck on other bodies, and sometimes in uncomfortable settings, weirds them out. It's a bad fit, and it makes one uncomfortable to look at it. I think that they have this same reaction to RPF. When the layering is badly done and seems completely improbable there's a negative reaction to it.

At the same time, I suspect that this kind of fic would actually be the easiest kind for the celebrity in question to read (should they happen across it) because it really says nothing about them at all. And it can be very entertaining for its silly factor (though I just have to interrupt myself to say that John Barrowman's quote about thinking it's a blast that people write all sorts of sex fantasies starring him –- being improbably virile no doubt -– is likely hilariously true of a lot of people.) Speculative fic, on the other hand, could be very disconcerting exactly because it's not "out there" and in some cases could be rather close to the mark. And I suspect that this is exactly why it's not seen, because nowadays it is rather easy for people to go online and bump into that whereas before you had to be looking for it.

So is RPF actually fanfic? I'd say some is, yeah, but chances are you're not reading it.