In Praise of Fanfic

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Title: In Praise of Fanfic
Creator: Cory Doctorow
Date(s): May 2007
Medium: print, online
Fandom:
Topic:
External Links: In Praise of Fanfic; WebCite
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In Praise of Fanfic is a 2007 essay by Cory Doctorow published in "Locus Magazine."

Some Topics Discussed

  • fanfic writers are readers, and will promote your professional works to friends; good for business
  • fanfic is a literary habit
  • mention of doujinshi
  • many pro writers go their start in fanfic, and some still write it in secret
  • some authors criticize fanfic as stealing, as part of the entitlement culture, bad art, a moral failing, a waste of time
  • discussion about the culture and timelessness of storytelling
  • authorial intent, would characters say that "in real life?"
  • active reading, passive reading

Excerpts

I wrote my first story when I was six. It was 1977, and I had just had my mind blown clean out of my skull by a new movie called Star Wars (the golden age of science fiction is 12; the golden age of cinematic science fiction is six). I rushed home and stapled a bunch of paper together, trimmed the sides down so that it approximated the size and shape of a mass-market paperback, and set to work. I wrote an elaborate, incoherent ramble about Star Wars, in which the events of the film replayed themselves, tweaked to suit my tastes.

I wrote a lot of Star Wars fanfic that year. By the age of 12, I'd graduated to Conan. By the age of 18, it was Harlan Ellison. By the age of 26, it was Bradbury, by way of Gibson. Today, I hope I write more or less like myself.
Science fiction has the incredible good fortune to have attracted huge, social groups of fan-fiction writers. Many pros got their start with fanfic (and many of them still work at it in secret), and many fan-fic writers are happy to scratch their itch by working only with others' universes, for the sheer joy of it. Some fanfic is great — there's plenty of Buffy fanfic that trumps the official, licensed tie-in novels — and some is purely dreadful.

To call this a moral failing — and a new moral failing at that! — is to turn your back on millions of years of human history. It's no failing that we internalize the stories we love, that we rework them to suit our minds better. The Pygmalion story didn't start with Shaw or the Greeks, nor did it end with My Fair Lady. Pygmalion is at least thousands of years old — think of Moses passing for the pharaoh's son! — and has been reworked in a billion bedtime stories, novels, D&D games, movies, fanfic stories, songs, and legends.

Each person who retold Pygmalion did something both original — no two tellings are just alike — and derivative, for there are no new ideas under the sun. Ideas are easy. Execution is hard. That's why writers don't really get excited when they're approached by people with great ideas for novels. We've all got more ideas than we can use — what we lack is the cohesive whole.
Our field is incredibly privileged to have such an active fanfic writing practice. Let's stop treating them like thieves and start treating them like honored guests at a table that we laid just for them.

Comments

[Anonymous]: Thank you! I recently returned to a fandom and have picked up the hobby of fanfic writing. It's nice to have at least *one* viewpoint out there that recognizes the love, effort, and (sometimes) talent that goes into each and every story. Though most of the people in my life could really care less about my stories, the people I know in the fandom appreciate them. Thank you for this article.
[kmfrontain]: I have never written fanfic, but I spent my early years (and still spend my leisure hours before sleeping) imagining anything and everything about characters from movies or comics or stories that appeal to me. Entire stories with intricate plots developed. Interest in those characters motivated me to use my imagination, and eventually, I began writing my own stuff. I have no disagreement with fanfic whatsoever. It truly is part of enjoying the world someone created.
[Doctor Science]: The only point on which I really disagree with you is your definition of "art" -- which doesn't actually hold up even through your whole essay. I think fanfic writers, even Sturgeon-fodder ones, are doing something which is art anytime they try to do a good job. And some definitely rise to the level of *great* art.

One striking characteristic of fanfic you are overlooking -- because you don't know about it? because you don't think it's important? -- is that most of it is written by women (and teenage girls). How much of the hatred directed against fanfic is anger that a bunch of *girls* are daring to play with your toys?

In the SF&F community gender issues might not be all that significant -- a number of fanfic-loathers are women (e.g. Anne Rice, Robin Hobb, Chelsey Quinn Yarbro) while some fanfic-likers (e.g. Neil Gaiman) are men -- but I'm not at all sure that's the case for the "mainstream" literary world.

And, of course, a lot of it is porn. But that's a human being thing, at least as much part of our nature as story-telling itself.
[A.R. Yngve addressing Doctor Science]:"Doctor Science" (how I love it when people use titles to give themselves authority!) asked:

"How much of the hatred directed against fanfic is anger that a bunch of *girls* are daring to play with your toys?"

NONE of it. As for the female fanfic writers, my feeling about them is intense disappointment. I expect better from them!

The "fanfic is female empowerment" argument is nothing more than an excuse for not trying harder.

I know women who went from writing fanfic to original fiction, and did well. But the point is: THEY took the next step. That makes all the difference.
[ChuckEye]: Like it or hate it, copyright laws exist in the US and most of the world that expressly protect the creator's rights against the distribution of unauthorized derivative works. If the fanfic "movement" is going to have any credibility, they're going to have to successfully lobby for those laws to change. Good luck storming the Magic Kingdom!
[A.R. Yngve]:

Be completely frank now, people: Who here wants to end copyright altogether?

And a small request: could you please make a list of all the fanfics online -- including the real names of those who wrote them, unless they use pseudonyms -- and pass it on to the biggest author guilds in America?

And one final question: Is there a lawyer in the house?
[Paulie]:

What an absolutely joyful read! You have summed up the core of fan fiction writing in a few simple paragraphs - truly an article that both fan fiction writers and "professional" writers should take to heart.

I've seen fan fiction writers go from very simplistic "Run Dick, Run!" pieces to eloquent, novel length mini epics that transcend inter-world generations. Stories that take background characters, both 'officially created' and author inspired and breathed 'life' into them, even to the point of inspiring other writers to take up the reins and become 'fannon' - i.e. characters/situations created by fans becoming acceptable as 'in universe fact'. There's room at the table for all of us...

Thank you!
[Yahtzee]: "Taking the step to original fiction" does NOT make all the difference. I write fanfic, and I write original (published) fiction. I still write fanfic because I still want to tell those stories with my friends. That's how I relate to fiction -- a big part of it -- and telling me to stop coming up with my own stories is the same as telling me to stop enjoying fiction. Well, to hell with you or anybody else who tells me that. I love fiction, the kind I create and the kind I consume, and I'm going to keep on loving it by purchasing and reading and watching and WRITING whatever I please.
[Anonymous]: As a published author who has often engaged in fanfic, I can say without reservation that the day I discover someone has written slash about my characters, I will know I have arrived. Ficcers: whether you are a hobbyist, an aspiring pro, or a pro in disguise: write on. No effort to create, no matter how small or simplistic or derivative, is ever truly wasted.
[Anonymous]: Thank you for the lovely, coherent essay. :)

I got the fanfic itch about a decade ago, and have moved through several fandoms since then. I admit that I easily read in more fandoms than I write in. It's also true that there are absolutely breathtaking stories out there--like the Talking Stick/Circle cycle in Star Trek: Voyager--that are simply the way things could have and should have been. There are also stories, like Zoomway's "The Persistence of Memory" in Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman that complete serieses that were canceled on cliffhangers.

I've also learned a lot about writing original stories from writing fanfiction. Fanfiction provides a safe haven to "play" and find out what works and what doesn't. I learned how to write real, human characters from writing in various fandoms. And I have to tell you, when I decided to major in creative writing, I was a heck of a lot more prepared than the other students. The fact that I turned in clean copy while the others were turning in ill-written, badly spelled junk was very much a plus in my favor.

I'm not saying that fanfic is all wonderful. If I did, I'd be lying. I see, "It's just fanfic," used as an excuse to justify a multitude of writing sins. It's the good, fanfiction, though, that makes the difference.
[Sue Mitchell]:

How delightful to read an intelligent article on fan fiction written by someone who really 'gets it.' Thank you. 8-)

I started out writing original fiction, including a 120,000 word novel, and took up writing fan fiction much later. I do it because it's fun, and because it's great to share. 8-)

The two writing styles require entirely different disciplines - discipline being the operative word. With fan fiction, one is using ready-made characters and this requires the added discipline of keeping them true to the originals.

With original fiction, one is free to take one's characters where one wills, with the proviso that one presents their existence as "recognisable realities," vide Preface to the original edition of 'The Woman in White' by Wilkie Collins.

It is also worth asking, where the line between fan fiction and original fiction falls? Jean Rhys' much acclaimed novel, 'Wide Sargasso Sea,' is essentially fan fiction - a 'prequel' written about the first Mrs. Rochester in 'Jane Eyre,' yet it can also be read as a 'standalone' story.

Regarding the legal aspect, I think most corporate execs. are canny enough to realize that fan fiction is the cement that holds their fandom together. Most of them appreciate that persecuting - sorry, prosecuting - fans who write stories based on their shows *for free,* is likely to garner a shed-load of bad publicity. It's only where fans write to make a profit that there's likely to be a serious threat of legal action.
[WPAdmirer]:

As a professional writer, who also happens to adore fanfic, this is one of the most intelligent essays I've ever read on the subject.

Active reading is exactly what we desire, and it is an incredible thing to see.

It makes fans MORE - more interested, more likely to buy, more involved, more caring.

It's exactly what anyone doing anything creative wants, and we need to get off our freaking high horses and appreciate it for what it is.

Adoration and homage.
[bren antrim]: My father asked me, for years, when I would stop writing fan fiction and start writing for pay. I never could convince him that I wrote for the fun of it, and if I wrote for money, I'd have to satisfy someone else (editor, readers, whomever) not myself -- then they wouldn't be my stories anymore, albeit set in other people's universes. I thank you for your entry; we're not all Homer, retelling the stories around us (with a bit more bloodshed, or sex, or angst, or silliness), but we all have the joy of trying, and it's good to see a pro who agrees. Thank you!
[Anonymous]:Thank you for this essay. It's rare to see professional praise for fanfiction that doesn't stop at "It's good practice." It is fine practice, just as all writing is practice for itself, but so many people seem to think that fanfiction only has any value at all when it's serving other causes. Here's someone who actually gets it!
[Anonymous]:

I think it's also unfair to judge a fanfic writer based on the category he or she chooses to write for.

I choose to write slash fics. Or rather, what is known are known as "femslash" fics, featuring relationships between two women. But do I simply throw out bits of trash and call them a story? Not at all. Everything is planned out. Even stories that start from a simple question like, "what would happen if these two got together?" gradually amass character development and a fixed outline of events.

Among the critics of fanfics, I've noticed that many tend to pick on slash fics. Why? Is it so disturbing in our age that people might be interested in reading about something besides the usual male/female pairing?

I have seen some beautiful slash fics, just as I have seen some terrible ones too. The same applies to stories of a heterosexual nature. This has led me to conclude that the pairing isn't nearly as important as the author behind it.

My focus as a writer is spent primarily on Silent Hill fanfics. As its fans can proudly boast, Silent Hill is a video game series that takes great care to offer serious, competently written horror stories in its games.

However, a side effect of the series' structure is that we may see characters who are profondly fascinating, yet are never explored again after their respective game. Not only that, but because it is a game series, it takes a long time for the next entry in the series to arrive. What's a fan to do in the mean time besides play the games repeatedly?

Fanfics answer that question. You can write scenarios based off those wonderful stories without worrying about adhering to publishers' standards or any of the issues that plague professional authors. More to the point, it lets the fans play in a familiar environment that they have come to adore. We don't seek to replace the canon, or supplant it. We merely want to enjoy more stories in the "Silent Hill" style - stories that for various reasons, the developers don't have time to provide us with. At best, they can give us one new game every couple years. They don't have time to be exploring existing characters any further, though I'm sure several of them would like to. It's just not an option for them.
[Brandon]:

So I take exception with Yngve's comments up there. Yeah, there's some slash out there. But fan fiction writers by and large aren't trash, and we respect the people who create the stories we love.

I've never agreed with such a wonderfully written comment before in my life, only to have it crash and burn with the quoted part of your comment.

This comment reinforces the notion that slash = trash. I've read a lot of slash that isn't smut AND i've ready some that were smut AND were excellent stories.

Certainly, there are PWP (plot? what plot) but there are plenty of het fics devoted just to smut and sex. Even so, not all slash means smut, and not all slash that HAS smut in it are poorly-written/executed.
[Harry Potter fanficcer]:Thank you for writing an article that recognizes fanfic writers as 'storytellers' and not just delusional lunatics.