on fanfic

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Title: on fanfic
Creator: Salieri
Date(s): July 6, 2005
External Links: on fanfic; archive link
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on fanfic is a 2005 essay by Salieri. It was one of the posts written, in part, in response to then-recent comments by Lee Goldberg, which in turn were likely comments regarding topics raised by Robin Hobb in her Fan Fiction Rant.


I'm not going to write a profound defense of fanfic, either legal or moral. For one thing, I don't have the training to comment on the legal issues -- and I'm not sure which country's laws would apply, anyway. As far as the moral issues? Well, it's late, and I've seen it discussed better than I could do so by people on my flist.

I guess my issue is mostly one of...surprise. Mostly surprise at myself, that I seem to be lacking a part of my moral makeup. I'd like to think that I'm a fairly decent person. I feel guilty about breaking any of the standards of what we'd call basic human morality. And yet I feel a complete and utter lack of guilt about fanfic.

I was first exposed to fanfic when I was in college, while I was a lurker in The X-Files fandom. I was on some mailing lists and whatnot (back in the good old days of usenet), and that's how I first caught the fanfic bug. I fell in love with the whole concept that someone could take the characters I loved and tell new stories about them (or canon continuations, or fill-in-the-blanks, or what have you). X-Files seemed to lend itself particularly well to this format; the canon was so intricate and entangled, and the characters were so emotionally rich, that it was possible for fic authors to go in a hundred different directions with the story that had been shown on screen.

I read tons of the stuff. I read adventures about aliens, I read post-apocalyptic dramas, I read Mulder/Scully romances, and I read straight-up porn. (And this was my first extended exposure to erotic literature. I probably don't need to say that I reveled in it. And dear God, there's some of it I wish I could un-read. I remember coming across a Mulder/Scully/CancerMan threesome that left me with images I can't erase.) I had a list of favorite authors, and others whose work I avoided. I've even printed out hard copies of some of the larger epics. After I got off the mailing lists and onto the internet proper, I looked forward to the days when Gossamer would update. And at no point in all of this did it ever occur to me that I should feel guilty for reading this stuff.
Some of the complaints I've read seem to be obsessed with what I consider to be a fairly minor part of fanfic, and that's the sex. And I do think it's minor, even though there's plenty of porn (most of it bad, some of it good) out there. If you stick to certain sites or journals, you can get the impression that all BtVS fic is Spike/Xander, or all HP fic is Harry/Draco, or what have you. And I think the pairing issue tends to squick a lot of people -- not just the slash (although that can be part of it), but by the idea that non-canonical pairings pervert the vision and negate the hard work of the author. And again, it's certainly possible to get the impression that all fanfic is pairing-related wish-fulfillment. And maybe most of it is these days. But when I think of fanfic, I think of those sprawling epics I fell in love with back in my X-Files days. So when I hear a complaint that centers around porn/pairings/slash? I tend to tune it out, because I think it's missing the meat of the issue.
And so the question becomes whether the viewer (or reader) has the right to put their interpretations to paper in a public forum in fictional form. I'm honestly not sure how BtVS fanfic, for example, injures Joss Whedon or any of the other official writers of the show. It's clearly not a money issue, and I can't say that it really dilutes his intellectual property either. But it seems kind of cheap to argue morality based on whether it materially harms someone, and I don't think that's the best way to go about it. For some people, it seems to be a clear-cut moral issue: the author has control over the vision that's created, and anyone who alters that vision without permission is guilty of anything from rank ingratitude to outright theft. Some authors seem to be very offended that they can put their time and energy into choosing the perfect words, only to see an unauthorized person mess around in their sandbox. Well, to be blunt, that's kind of too bad. Once the story or show is out there, there's no way an author can force his or her vision onto the audience. I've only been writing fanfic for about a year now, but I guess you could say that my first fanfics were the pathetic, self-insert, Mary Sue daydreams I had about Star Wars or Star Trek. (Thank God those never existed outside my own brain.) I guess I just don't see the critical difference between imagining that story and writing it down. Either way, I'm trampling all over the intellectual property of the author. And again? I'm paralyzed with not caring.

One other amusing little thing I've noticed: the complaint that fanfic writers are, by definition, second-rate hacks who can't write "real" fiction. Well, I can't speak for myself. I've never written any original fic, and I have no plans to. But it seems to me that this is as stupid as arguing that, say, sci-fi or fantasy authors aren't real writers. I think it's a matter of genre. If you define good writing only as creating original characters? Well, then I guess fanfic writers are second-rate. But I don't think that world-building (or character-creating) is the only thing that determines a "real" writer. (Take George Lucas as an example of someone who has superior world-building skills but only has middling success at actually translating his vision to the viewer.) Anyway, there exists the absurd idea that using someone else's characters automatically means inferior writing. But I think it's just a matter of exercising different skills. In order to be a good fanfic author, you have to be able to tell a new story while remaining faithful to a whole body of work that already exists. That takes talent, and it's a hell of a lot of work. In fact, I'd argue that in some ways it's harder than writing an original character.

The interesting thing is that the complaints always draw the line at "official" fanfic -- i.e., if you have been officially commissioned to write a tie-in novel, for example, then you are free and clear. But why? Either using someone else's characters means you suck, or it doesn't. Getting the official permission of the original author doesn't give you ownership of the characters, and it doesn't give you the magical ability to write them well. If unauthorized fanfic is, by definition, second-rate, then official fanfic is second-rate as well. Either way, you're still playing in someone else's sandbox.

Some Comments


If a writer creates a novel based on an urban legend, is it fanfic? S/he didn't create the story, after all - just fleshed it out, added exposition and theory, etc.

I don't think so.

IMO between the urban legend and the novel, there's a big gap that is the difference between stories and literature.

It isn't a question of using characters that had a name, a story, physical features even prior to the novel. It's about creating a whole artistic world.

Now having said that I think that some fanfictions are sometimes better written than original novels. There are very talented authors in the fandom. I don't equate using the characters and the world of someone else with lower quality! I even think it's very difficult. Not only the fanfic writers (well the good ones) manage to get the voices but also they come up with very interesting plots and beautiful scenes. Wow!

The ancient legends are based on real people and [somewhat] real events. I don't much differentiate between the Bible and the ancient legends of gods and goddesses. The only difference, to me, is that one group of believers are still in power and the other group isn't.

Methink it's another matter but there's something quite interesting about your conclusion. Actually, being a historian I would be very careful about what you called real events... For me there are Mythologies that is stories told either orally (legends) or written words(literature), usually about the beginnings of something (could be the creation of the world, or the beginning of a new age) and involving irrational (Gods, superbeings). Religions have been/are often based on those Mythologies, and when there are no believers left, or not enough to carry on a faith, the Mytholgies are all that remain.

The Bible belongs to Mythology. It's nothing but literature. Now can we say that The Da Vinci Code is fanfic? No because its main characters are people who weren't in The Bible, and the plot takes place nowadays and is about an organization that was made up by people in the 20th. Now maybe it could qualify as fanfiction if we think of the previous book written in the 80's about Le Prieuré de Sion. I don't recall the name of that book but I mentioned it on my LJ in an entry devoted to DVC. Anyway it's bad fanfiction...
[Salieri]:I really do love that Joss is so fan-friendly with regard to fic. I think it's because he (and the other writers) seem to have a sense of humor and perspective about the creative process. I can't tell you how many times I've listened to the DVD commentaries and heard one of them say, "Oh, this part is a homage to such-and-such. Which pretty much means that we've blatantly ripped it off."
[Spikewriter]: Okay, here's my take -- because I've been seeing a number of these as I dip my toe back into toes back into the larger writing community.

Back in the sixteenth century, a novel was written to entertain court ladies entitled "Orlando in Love." It enjoyed some success and a different author decided to write a sequel entitled "Orlando Furioso" and thus fan fic was born. It really is that old.

A large part of what we have here is some writers who feel the need to slam other writers in order to show how superior they are -- I've seen statements that claim anyone who has ever written fic will never be a "real" writer because they are some tainted because they ::gasp:: didn't use original characters. I'm not impressed; I write romance and I've heard a lot of crap about how people who write romance aren't "real" writers and they should consider themselves lucky they even know where to put periods and commas. I've gotten into numerous arguments with authors in other genres because they take delight in trashing what I do in order to puff themselves up.

If Joss changed his mind and said he didn't want fic, if Fox said cease and desist, my fic would come down. I wouldn't necessarily stop writing it, but it'd come down. If someone I've never heard of who has no connection to the show puffs up their chest to show how important they are by claiming I'm just "masturbating" by writing fic, screw them. They don't actually have a say in the matter, especially given the way they say it.

Would people writing fan fic about my original creations bother me? I don't know; I like to think I'd be thrilled that I'd inspired someone to pick up the pen.

And as for a certain writer who writes tie-in novels but also basks in the glow of people who applaud him for "standing up against fan fic", he's still playing in someone else's sandbox.
[molly may]: [Goldberg] is, and his statements sound even more ridiculous because the creator of that particular sandbox has given his blessing to fanfic writers. Personally, I think he's jealous that so many people think that the quality of writing and characterization in fanfic is higher than that of the tie-in novels.
[swsa]: Hey, look! [Goldberg] helpfully tagged all his entries on fanfic for us. What a dick. And it's not that I don't see part of his issue...namely that it's insulting for fanfic writers to want to "fix" canon and for them to feel they know the characters better than the creators. You know those statements put me on edge. But I don't see that those attitudes are true of most authors. Maybe it's because the only fanfic I'm familiar with is TV fanfic, but I don't really think of it as a substitute or improvement...it's not really better or worse, just different. It *is* a way to fill in the blanks that a 42-minute TV show can't cover. Really, I think the smartest comment there was from someone who just said, "They are fanfic writers though, right? Why should an author be so insistent on kicking someone who supports them in the face?" Seriously.
[Salieri]:You know, this same sense of superiority is found in just about every endeavour. Original fic writers feel superior to fanfic writers. Novelists feel superior to those who write fantasy or romances. Heck, in my own field, you have the professional astronomers who turn up their noses at the amateurs (never mind that the astronomy is one of the few fields wherein amateurs still produce good and useful work). The "masturbatory" comment confuses me, because when it comes right down to it, any form of art is masturbatory.
[molly may]: I was writing fanfic when I was in elementary school, making up new adventures for Remington Steele and Laura Holt or Indiana Jones, so when I got older and discovered that this was something other people did, people who could write much better than me, I was overjoyed. It never occurred to me to question the morality of it, because wanting to know more about my favorite characters was as natural as breathing to me. That said, I know there are legal issues surrounding copyright and so forth, but as others who have commented here have pointed out, the practice of taking other people's characters and putting them in new situations or relationships is a very old one, and I think it's kind of intrinsic to human nature.
[withafirinside]: The interesting thing is that the complaints always draw the line at "official" fanfic -- i.e., if you have been officially commissioned to write a tie-in novel, for example, then you are free and clear. But why? Either using someone else's characters means you suck, or it doesn't.

Exactly. For centuries, writers have been borrowing characters, stories, and ideas from mythology, history, and other sources. There are tons of (often pointless) remakes of old movies and tv shows. There are adaptations of comic books into movies. In fact, BtVS is the kind of story that translates well into other media like comics, novels, video games, etc. I don't understand why fanfiction can't be considered the same thing.

I'm a major canon whore. The source material is very important to me, but I enjoy fanfic that expands on the fictional world. Plus, the fact that we're still hungry for more stories involving these characters and worlds can only be a good thing for the author. It means that they've created something that is going to last a long, long time.

Bottom line for me is, the fans aren't making any money off fanfic. If they were, I might see the legal issue. But as it is, I think most authors understand that fans write because the characters are important to them and they want to keep them alive. Joss has openly encouraged the fans to write fanfic, and has stated many times that he created BtVS to be the kind of show that people interact with, not just watch.
[euro fics]:

I'm right there with you on all of the above. I was a bit embarrassed at first years ago to admit I wrote fanfic to 'real life' people, but I soon got over it. Most people have heard of fanfiction today. Including the creators of the original material. What fanfiction allows is a forum for everyone to create, read, and get published. It's a beautiful thing that only honors the original material in that it sparked so much interest in the first place.

I've never written an original character. If I did, how would I feel about someone else using him/her in their own fics?

I wrote in the X-Files fandom as Terma99 for three years. Near the end I wrote a novel-length slash thriller for Mulder and a male OC [1]. Because the piece was so long I spent a great deal of time creating this character. A couple of my readers fell so madly in love my OC that they asked my permission to write their own Mulder/OC stories using him. I said, WOW! COOL! Yeah! The stories were mediocre at best, but ultimately flattering. I was done with the character, why not let someone else play with him for a while? It was a hoot! If I was a published novelist I can't imagine feeling any differently. It's flattering to know something I created made such an impression.


  1. This fic is Cadenza.