How Fanfiction Makes Us Poor

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Title: How Fanfiction Makes Us Poor
Creator: cupidsbow
Date(s): April 26, 2007
Medium: online
External Links: page one; Archive for page one, page two; Archive for page two, page three, Archive for page three, page four, Archive for page four

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How Fanfiction Makes Us Poor is a 2007 post by cupidsbow

Topics Discussed

Some Context

Other major discussions and proposals regarding fannish control over fanworks took place during that spring. Some examples:

Introduction from the Post

"How fanfiction makes us poor" is a provocative title, isn't it? You might well be feeling a knee-jerk frisson of anger in response, which is pretty much the effect I was aiming for. Not because I want to start some huge wank-war about the commercialization of fanfiction, but because I've recently been reading a lot of feminist theory, and frankly it's felt kind of like being kicked in the head. Hard. As I want to discuss some of those reactions--why I had them, how they apply to me as a fan-writer and as a woman, how they might apply in a larger sense to the fanfiction community--I thought sharing something of that unsettling knee-jerk feeling would be a good place to start.


If you remember, right back at the start of this essay, I posed a couple of questions: is the non-capitalist aspect of fanfiction actually a method of silencing the artistic voices of women? And does it take away what should be legitimate opportunities for us to earn an income from what we create?

I hope you are starting to see why I think these questions seem worth asking. There is no doubt in my mind that fanfiction offers an amazing network for women writers, and given the advantages of the internet, it would be almost impossible to make this writing disappear en masse as has so often happened to women's writing in the past.

That said, it's easy for people outside of fanfiction fandom to dismiss the whole thing on a number of grounds, most of them described by Russ: yes, she wrote it, but we don't really know who "she" is; yes, she wrote it, but she totally shouldn't have (only perverts/stalkers/sluts/thieves write it); yes, she wrote it, but it's not important (because it's not about high culture ideas, it's unpaid, it's vernacular, it's just porn, it's derivative, it's bad); yes, she wrote it and it's actually good, but it's a one-off fluke and it's not really fanfiction anyway (it's a homage, a pastiche, a post-modern experiment, it won the Pulitzer); yes, she went on to write successful original novels in spite of her fanfiction beginnings (but she's not like all the others who do it, and let's not talk about it anyway, because it opens us up to copyright violation lawsuits).

Depressing, isn't it? In real life I've heard variations on all of those, and they are very hard to combat, as people are sure these biases are "common sense".

Now that I'm really thinking about the issue of women's writing, I'm wondering if the ease with which people can dismiss fanfiction as "wrong" is something we should be considering. Do we really want to be part of a culture that endorses a silencing of women by keeping us in our places in the ghetto? Or is this beyond the purview of something we do for fun, as a hobby?

It seems to me that part of why fanfiction can so easily be written off is because we so carefully police it, keeping our work in the unpaid ghetto along with other women's crafts. Up until now, I've had no problems with the not-for-profit aspect, but in light of Russ's argument, I find I'm having to rethink that too. Not just because of the "silencing" issue, but because of the female poverty issue. A friend of mine who works in the publishing industry has two major objections to fanfiction: it's derivative and it keeps women poor. I think the "derivative" argument has been well answered within the fanfic community, so I won't rehash it here. But the "keeps women poor" comment made me pause. I didn't want to think it was a valid criticism... but the more I think about it, the more I suspect there might be something in it. Not a lot, mind you, because my friend also said there's no money in commercial publishing (except for the very few writers who have both talent and the luck to hit the zeitgeist at just the right moment). Then again, fanfiction's market isn't the commercial publishing market--fanfiction is part of the long-tail economy of the internet, so the same rules don't apply. And as we live in an age where women tend to earn less than men, and experience poverty more often than men in old age, this idea of doing work-for-free is not an irrelevant one.

So where does that leave me? I'm really not sure. I still think that the fanfiction community is the most amazing women's art culture I've ever experienced, and quite possibly the most amazing there has ever been, just in terms of sheer numbers and output. And perhaps that is enough; perhaps one of the foundation-stones of the fanfiction community is that it doesn't have to engage directly with capitalist imperatives, and messing with that ethos might unbalance everything. After all, can we really be expected to fight every feminist battle all at once: building an artistic community, and filling the female silences in canon as best we can (including related issues of gender/sexuality/race/class/health etc), and adding our writing to the record, and fighting for financial equality for our artistic work? It seems a lot to me; perhaps fighting on one or two fronts at a time is reasonable, and the next generation can worry about fighting for what's left over.

I do feel angry, though, that this amazing outpouring of female talent is written off as nothing but derivative porn written by a bunch of crackpots. It makes me want to punch things and scream at the world, "Are you all asleep, or just deliberately stupid?"

And I still pretty much feel like I've been kicked in the head.

Posted Responses

See How Fanfiction Makes Us Poor: Posted Responses

Excerpts from the 417 Comments to the Post Itself

I don't think it's about being paid for our work, it's about making our voices heard without going through editors and 'what will sell' it's not about what is viable in the commercial marketplace. My main goal in writing and making art is reaching the widest audience possible, and I reach far more through the internet than I might circulating an english-language book, even from a large press. When people find out I am an artist, they rarely ask me what media I do, or what type of subjects I draw, they ask me how much I make, as if only this is the criteria of good or bad art, it's really missing the point.
I'm not actually saying we should commercialize our fanfiction, I'm saying that it's easy to undervalue it, even when we're an active part of the community, because we've been subtly trained to think that unpaid work is valueless work. Commercialization is not necessarily the answer to that problem--maybe there's another way to value what we do more, a way which doesn't require negotiation with the existing patriarchal expectations. Or maybe commercialization is the answer. I don't know, but I think it's worth discussing.
What is authorized is not some kind of mystical definition from on high; it is determined by what those setting the rules choose to allow. For instance -- why does copyright protect derivative works? That's a choice, clearly. The base of copyright is protection of the work, the actual words that the author wrote. Derivative works protection is an extension to that. Why *can't* you take the characters and use them in a new work, with your own words, giving due credit to the original? These are rhetorical questions -- there are of course various reasons why. But the people who benefit financially from the choice being made to do it this way, to disallow derivative works, are primarily male, and the people who would benefit from the choice being made in reverse are primarily female. It is not coincidental that women want to tell the kinds of stories that are not allowed to make money more than men do. On top of that -- what kinds of derivative works get authorized to be done as pro fanfic is ALSO not without gender implications. I mean, if you look at who writes fanfic, it is probably 95% women. Look at who's writing tie-in novels, it's probably at least 50% men. Why? For a while at the start of the Star Trek books, they were pretty much mining the group of female fanfic writers, some of whom went on to write original fiction. But they were adding too much of the fanfic qualities. Too much "fanon", too much speculation and wandering afield, too much sexiness, too much slightly embarrassing squidgy love. So the books got censored (really), and sanitized and boxed in, and professional writers who do five a year in different sources got hired to push them out to order. There are, of course, good reasons why what you want, as an editor, is a professional writer who will finish on time rather than someone who just loves the source to pieces. But again, it is not a coincidence that the kind of stuff fanfic readers -- who you would think should be the core market for tie-in novels! -- want to read, that women want to read and write, is shoved under the table and not published. When George Lucas authorizes and approves fan films that take his settings and put new characters in, the kind of story geeky boy fans love to tell, filming themselves holding lightsabers and wearing masks, and rejects and disallows fanvids that women like to make, which take the original source and cut it up to tell a subtextual story -- which are a lot cheaper to make and don't involve you going outside in a lightsaber or mask that is not made proportional to your size -- that is not an uncomplicated choice.
Here's my deal with fanfiction and capitalism: fanfiction made me, well, not rich but able to support my whole family on my income alone. More than ten years ago I wanted to go in a slightly different (and also more well-paid) direction at work. I wanted to be an editor and I didn't have any experience doing it. So I started to be a beta reader. It gave me tons of valuable editing experience. To this day I use techniques I developed while beta reading fanfiction. Granted, I had to move out of the world of fanfiction to make the money but I see fanfiction as being directly responsible for my level of wealth today.
I'm not sure I agree with you on the capitalist issue. I mean, there's a part of me that has seriously been thinking about the fact that I tend to value my own monetary worth quite low (I had to set a price for translating some documents and seriously was unable to do so), b/c every job I've ever done (grad student, adjunct, mom, wife, academic, fan,...) has been completely un(der)paid. Otoh, if we actually try to think outside the capitalist box, I'm always quite enamored with the very fact that we *are* creating an alternative economic model that is much more based on need and community than on financial gains. So, I'm not sure that we *aren't* fighting a feminist battle in exhibiting a culture that functions amazingly well not in spite of but because of its anti-capitalist imperative!
Keep in mind that an awful lot of what has become classic in our canon was written by Dead White Males who were very poorly paid, sometimes not paid at all, or had to have a rich patron to support them, or go out and raise financial support for their projects by subscription. Getting paid suck-all has always been the the norm for talented writers of either gender, if you look at history.
I think a whole lot of what you're saying here is valid, bringing up important points, with the codicil that it clearly isn't fan fiction making us poor. It is the pervasive economic influence of institutional, society-wide sexism doing that.
I was talking to my honey about fanfic recently and his first assumption (as an outsider) was that it was just wannabe writers. I (as an informed outsider) suggested that a more accurate way of looking at it was as a form of roleplaying rather than writing - ie the end result is to participate in a social activity rather than just to create stories. People who take part in roleplaying campaigns often invest huge amounts of intellectual and creative time and energies into it, and also get nothing tangible from the process, but lots of delicious intangibles. (given that men are more likely to have experience with RPGs than fanfic, this turns out to be a useful metaphor!) This is not to say that fanfic isn't about good writing and storytelling - but the process of publishing and sharing it is in itself fascinating to me, and a separate thing from the works themselves. I love the female spaceness of the fanfic world, as a reader. It would be fascinating to see some of those networks and experimental methods used for a kind of fiction/product that was commercially viable.
Wow, what a hell of a good essay. I almost wish the "keeps us poor" part had been split off into a separate post, because it looks like a lot of people are reacting to that to the exclusion of all the other good points. But the issues are really all of a piece. Economics matter. If How to Suppress Women's Writing made you feel "kicked in the head," spare a thought for tnh and me--we typed it for Joanna Russ, from her handwritten manuscript pages. This was in the years when she'd injured her back and couldn't sit at a keyboard; if I recall correctly, she wrote standing at a lectern. Anyway, reading that particular book at the speed of typing was an eye-opening experience. We left Seattle in 1983 and haven't seen Joanna Russ since, but we miss her. I'm pretty sure she would agree with the way you apply her schema to the methods people use to dismiss fanfic. As it happens, in the same period during which she was writing HTSWW, she was also discovering the then-new field of K/S fiction, reading tons of it, and making trenchant observations about it. She was the first person of her literary and intellectual stature I ever heard taking fanfic seriously as real art.
js cavalcante:
Many K/Sers have a special place in their hearts for Joanna, whose brilliant observations on slash fic helped to make sense of it, even back in the days when we didn't really understand what we were doing with it or why it appealed so much.
... I'm not sure why straight women would be enamoured of two men together, particularly, and that does show up a lot in slash fan-fic. One theory I have heard for that is that deep down many straight women still are not cool with their own sexual feelings so they project them onto male characters. I really don't think that's the explanation (or at least not the major one), but I'm not sure I understand what exactly is behind it. I just don't believe that most slash writers are all hung up sexually in some way. I think people who are uncomfortable with their own sexuality wouldn't write anything sexy in the first place, lol.
LOL! Oh, man, now, that's one I hadn't heard before. No, I think it's far more simple than that. Slash provides something straight women love: two (or more) hot men, with a hot man 'on screen' no matter whose POV you're in. Speaking for myself (and having discussed this with others for many years, I'm don't seem to be very far out of the mid-range), I don't need a woman to identify with in a story. If that is due to having grown up reading books without an XX in sight, I don't know. But reading about a woman in a sex scene is frankly dull to me (I don't care much for romance novels, as a rule). Been there, done that, probably done it better. I *know* what it's like to be a woman in a sexual situation. One of the most fun things about fiction is 'seeing' things that aren't familiar. It's why I love genre fiction so much (and why I write it). There's also tends to be less of a power imbalance portrayed in m/m romances than in f/m romances. I greatly prefer the idea of equality in a relationship, and I'm just not seeing it in most fictional romances, *except* in the ones I find in slash fic (some slash fic - I can't bear the "negative feminization" that too often goes on). So, no, no sexual dysfunction going on, at least not in general. Just an exuberant love of men. ;-)
I've run across a lot of nutcases then. Robin Hobb is a lovely writer who objects to people publishing fan fiction based on her work. This is a really nice, respectful woman, and fan fiction writers would go to her newsgroup and just rip on her and call names. It was really icky. She really did not deserve such treatment just for asking people politely not to publish fan fiction using her characters. Even worse are some of the fan fic forums I have run across. I'm guessing there were a lot of kids posting there, but still, they were a nasty lot who felt entitled to do anything they want to with the work of other writers and publish it or make money from it. Anyone who disagreed with their views became a target for all sorts of nastiness. I am absolutely sure that many fan fiction writers are smart, classy people who would never behave in such ways. But those smart classy people are the ones I wish were writing their own unique work with their own characters, lol! We NEED more original work by women for women that is good!
Yeah, community is the real issue for me. Setting aside all the copyright issues, if fanfic became something that readers had to pay for, it would create an enormous power differential between authors and readers, and existing BNF tensions would go through the roof. I went to WisCon (a feminist sci-fi convention) for the first time last year, and was surprised to find it to be the *most* stratified conference/convention I had ever been to. All my previous experience was with academic conferences (where all participants are academics) or fan-run conventions like VividCon (all participants are fans), and the free give-and-take in discussions was always wonderful. WisCon was my first experience with a con where some people were viewed as professionals (the editors and writers) and others as "mere fans", and I was really surprised at the way so many of the panels were set up in the format of the professionals talking to each other for most of the session, and then taking a few questions (*questions*, not even comments or arguments) from the audience at the end. I would never have expected that kind of privileging of paid status from a feminist space, and it's certainly not something I want to experience in an activity that I do for the sheer joy of it.
Thanks for the post, and I love How to Suppress Women's Writing and found it immensely helpful. BUT, I'm a professional writer. I get paid to write nonfiction books. I don't bother writing original fiction for a lot of reasons. I'd rather write fanfiction where *I* can call the shots, and I'd rather not get paid than get paid a pittance, get no advertising or distribution, and then be told that it's my fault that the book didn't sell. Furthermore, I write short stories--a form for which there is virtually no professional market. If I write fanfiction, I have an audience (sometimes obstreperously so), whereas professional publication means little or no contact with readers. I also enjoy writing about series characters, which I would only be able to do for money with the approval of TPTB, with all that entails.
I think you have some good points about fanfic. Ultimately, though, it does feel to me as though the existence of that free open community is more important than the potential financial issues - fanfic is not the same as original writing, it feeds different needs (although clearly there is a lot of overlap), and I do think it's genuinely its own thing. And the two aren't mutually exclusive - there are fan-writers that we know who also get paid for their writing work, fiction and otherwise; I think it's also probably true that living in the fanfiction world encourages a lot of women to consider the possibility of original fic, and it certainly helps to give them the tools they need to write. I don't know how familiar you are with the open-source community; while the domain (software) differs from that of fandom, it's another gift culture, one that has to deal with issues of legitimacy and so on. The difference is that, as far as I can see, it's heavily male-dominated. I think the Internet really helps facilitate these kinds of societies, and it's something I do value very highly. I think you're right that it's a dilemma, but I think we have something worth protecting here, even if it never makes us money.
ellen fremedon:
Fantastic essay. I read HTSWW almost ten years ago, and it was a kick in the head for me, too. And I'm thinking now about fanfic's status as primitive art and folk art, and a problem I'd been considering mostly in terms of cultural capital but which is also economic-- how one way for primitive art, or outsider art, or folk art, to gain cultural legitimacy and currency is for it to shed its authorship, and how that makes it impossible to apply the critical standards and critical processes that characterize 'great' or even mainstream art. So, in an art museum, everything is labelled with the artists' names, with details of where they studied and with whom and who their patrons and influences and communities were. If the artist's name isn't known, it'll still be labelled with some pretty shrewd guesses-- the studio of X, the school of Y. And pretty much all the names are of men trained in a Western, prestigious, tradition. Next door in the history museum, or in the natural history museum, you'll find a lot of art by everyone else- decorative art, folk art, non-Western art, women's art. What you won't find (often, at least; this is changing) are names. You might find a time and place, a tribal affiliation, but you won't find any record of the influence of individuals on other individuals. Within the community-- as defined from outside-- things are treated as interchangeable. Art from outside the academy gains entrance to the outermost circle of relevance and worth by becoming representative of its entire tradition, by becoming a cultural artifact, not the work of a single artist working in a community of other artists. And those folk traditions are assumed to be dead, and ongoing work in them is viewed as some kind of historical reenactment or ritual. You won't find a lot of art from those schools down the street in the art gallery, with a price tag on it. And when you do, the artist will be catching a lot of flak from insiders and outsiders for selling out the traditional art of the tribe/culture/community, in the case of non-Western art; or in the case of traditional women's art forms, for her presumption in trying to sell a craft that anyone could learn to do for that kind of money. Like I said, this is changing, in the visual arts at least. Comparatively few museums these days would exhibit the work of a living artist with just a decade and an ethnicity on the signage. But I see exactly the same thing happening in so much mainstream discussion of fanfic, and it infuriates me. And I have more thoughts on this, but I think they're getting too long for a comment.
If fanfic readers wanted to read about original characters and original universes, they'd go read original fiction. However, part of what draws people (readers/writers) to fanfiction is the opportunity to revisit old favourites. As an analogy, if I hire a band to play at a wedding, prom, a bar- or bat mitzvah, etc. I'm paying them to cover my favourites, (in fact, I'll probably give them a list of songs to play) not to play their own original songs. If I pay money to go see the band in concert, that's when I want to hear the band's own compositions. Different venues have different expectations; it has nothing to do with the band's innate artistic courage, or their capabilities as musicians, or their desire or need to take extra artistic leaps or whatever. That you feel frustrated by the boundaries that canon imposes on fanfiction writers is entirely understandable; you seem to prefer to read original fiction. However, fanfic writers don't perceive canon as a ball-and-chain that they have to drag around or a prison wall that blocks them off from expressing their innate creative impulses. Canon is merely a medium that fanfic writers must manipulate in order to express their ideas. Much like choosing a clarinet or a violin or a piano imposes certain kinds of a priori restrictions on the sorts of music a musician can produce. Fanfic writers are good with those restrictions; the pay off for adhering to those restrictions is more than sufficient to keep them writing it.
First off, I think it is important to remind ourselves that non-commercial unauthorized fanfic is LEGAL. There *has never been* a case deciding in favor of a copyright holder over someone publishing derivative work in their universe for free. Significantly transformative COMMERCIAL works of fanfiction (eg The Wind Done Gone) have been explicitly protected by the courts. Authors/actors may not like it; that doesn't make it illegal. You may not be able to publish it for money; that doesn't make it illegal. That said, I absolutely *don't* want to see fanfic get commercialized. If it does, it'll very quickly come under the umbrella of giant corporations who own lots of media properties, who will make large authorized archives (with content restrictions) and start hunting down competition with C&D orders, and basically destroy what is I think truly feminist about the fanfic community. Fanfic does not have to be paid to not make us poor. I find (and love) that fanfic is turning into the basis for a giant sprawling feminist community that acts as an "old girls network" kind of like men's clubs and golfing -- things that men *pay* to do, as in fact many of us pay (ISPs, website providers, software/hardware manufacturers) to do fanfic. If fanfic and our connections through it can serve us as a kind of connective supporting tissue where we can teach one another useful skills (writing, editing, web skills, programming, video editing, etc) and even give a helping hand now and then, as many commenters have described, that is helping to make us rich, without commercialization.
highway west:
People have been creating this sort of fiction since the dawn of time. That’s how mythologies got started; storytellers creating new and interesting stories from beloved characters. I think the recent ambivalence over fan fiction comes over legal issues. Authors and Publishers are afraid of losing their rights or their characters being devalued. In some cases, I think they have a solid point. With current technologies, the small press can effectively complete, on-line at least, against the larger companies. I think the Lori Jareo case scared the bejesus out of the publishing world. This writer wrote a Star Wars fan fiction novel showing a what-if reality. He published it on and then paid to have it upgraded to China has a huge professional Harry Potter fanfiction industry. Of course, a lot of those claim to be from Rowling. That said, I think fan fiction ultimately puts more money into the writer’s pocket. How much did Rowling make off of people introduced to her world by fan fiction? How much money has Star Trek made off of people buying their overpriced DVDs and scripts to use for fan fiction? Television shows have unofficially started scanning fan sites and looking for ideas. It certainly feels like writers of the television show Jericho started lifting whole concepts from the forums. And here, I suspect, lies the problem for most of the people working in the fan fiction community. Fan Fiction writers are now a commodity. Dedicated fans now generate hard cash. Publishers and companies see the revenue that Harry Potter generates and they see dollar signs.
Thoughtful thoughts. Like you, I feel that the fanfiction community is the most amazing women's art culture I've ever experienced, and quite possibly the most amazing there has ever been, just in terms of sheer numbers and output. I see it as part of a long history of women's "secret" art -- quilts, pies and hats being some of the others. Remember how quilts were suddenly elevated to the status of Art? I suppose it was an outgrowth of feminism and the civil rights movement. I wonder if fanfiction will get there someday, too. I've often thought that, just as women supported, competed with, and communicated with each other in the venue of the 4-H tent and the quilting frame, they are creating art together in the fanfiction realm. It certainly seems to be a characteristically female way of art-making -- intimately, dialogically and communally.
I know many fanfic writers who have no great ambition to be professional writers making money. Recent looks at wage differences between men and women seem to indicate that women are more willing to settle for a given salary versus fight for a larger one because settling is something that culture teaches women to do. So then, are women fanfic writers settling for interaction in the fanfic community where they can get more direct enjoyment for their writing instead of reaching for publishing which would pay them for their work? My guess is many fanfic writers don't think this way, because they consider their writing a hobby and are middle class and make a living elsewhere. But I can see how that logic would leave one in publishing thinking not about the talent fanfic is taking (because I've heard that one before) but about the fact fanfic writers tend to be women who aren't making money at something they sometimes do very well.
I don't think there is a problem with the fanfiction community as it stands. Obviously, due to copyright, we can't make money from fanfiction. And any argument that we should stop writing fanfiction because we're not getting paid misses the whole point. Fanfiction is something we do because we enjoy it, it's fun, it gives us community and allows us a freedom of expression that is truly rare in the mainstream culture. It also helps us to become empowered as writers, as creative beings, as women comfortable with sexuality. These are not bad things. I don't ever intend to make my living from writing. I have other things that I do for money, and I'm proud of them. But being able to create and write in this community of women gives me something else to feel good about. I think that our fiction accomplishes something profound in the minds and hearts of all the girls and women who come into contact with it. Maybe it is for the next generation to make it mainstream. I'm happy that it exists right now.

Meta/Further Reading


  1. "For record keeping, the straw that broke the camel's back was fanlib, if you see the post dates and the incorporation dates, that's the very basic cause/effect. Very. Basic.") (January 4, 2008)
  2. "On the other hand, now that the pitchfork and torch waving mobs have gone after Six Apart, the "really cool" guys at FanLib must be breathing a sigh of relief. It's been a shitty couple of weeks for fandom.") -- May 30, 2007 comment at Metafilter: livejournal suspends hundreds of accounts; Archive