Shakespeare, Fanfic, and Creativity

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Title: Shakespeare, Fanfic, and Creativity
Creator: Lucy Gillam
Date(s): August 21, 1999
Medium: online
Topic: fiction writing, Citizens Against Bad Slash
External Links: essay at ffsymposium
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Shakespeare, Fanfic, and Creativity is an essay by Lucy Gillam.

It is part of the Fanfic Symposium series.

The essay contains an undated update: "Update: Well, whaddya know! Sometimes feedback really does work. "Jane" and "Virginia" have majorly revised their site, including taking down most of what I was reacting to here. Gotta love the Internet!"


It was inevitable, I suppose: the Fanfic Hall of Shame has been dead for over a year, so it was probably time for something to rise to fill the gap. In this case, it’s "Citizens Against Bad Slash."

A laudable cause, you’d think. I’m pretty opposed to bad fanfic myself. Yes, I believe that some stories are "bad," that characterization counts, that spellcheckers and beta readers are Our Friends, etc, etc, etc.

OTOH, I also think there’s such a thing as good fanfic, and this seems to be where I depart from "Jane" and "Virginia," the maintainers of the site.
Anyone with even a passing knowledge of literature knows that "great" writers borrowed, adapted, adopted, and just plain wrote about "other people’s" characters all the time. Shakespeare, anyone? Almost every play the man wrote was based on something else, be it a poem, a legend, another play, or even history (albeit loosely). Homer, anyone? All "non-original" characters. Vergil? Likewise. For heaven’s sake, ladies, pick up a Norton Anthology, read the notes!

We won’t even get into the fact that CABS have instantly labeled every television and movie writer who works on series and movies not of their own making as less "real." Comic writers who take up established series? Script doctors? You see where I’m going with this?

CABS is also inherently privileging one part of the writing process: character creation. They recommend Poppy Z. Brite, whom I also like a great deal, but even Poppy wrote a Crow novel.
Well, we could get into a nifty argument about "quality" as a constructed, contested notion, but just for the sake of argument, I’ll cop to it. An unfortunate side-effect of the myth of the author is that if writers can work exclusively in "original" fic, they usually do. Thus, Trek novels, etc, usually become either starting points for up-and-coming authors or money-makers for writers who can’t quite pay the rent on their "real" work. Combined with the publisher’s awareness that just about anything with Trek on it will make a profit… you see the result.

But, you know, it doesn’t have to be like that. We all like reading about familiar characters: the success of never-ending series in every genre from swords-and-sorcery to romance to tech thrillers points to that. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were more Peter Davids out there, talented writers who enjoyed working with "other people’s characters?" Wouldn’t it be great if something like Neil Gaiman writing an episode of Babylon 5, or Stephen King and William Gibson writing episodes of The X-Files, was commonplace instead of almost unheard of? Wouldn’t you like to see what King could do with an episode of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer? What Harry Turtledove could have done with Sliders? Wouldn't you like to read Trek or X-Files Buffy novels by these folks?

Which brings us full circle: there’s nothing wrong with having high standards for fanfic. But to claim the genre is somehow inherently inferior is strikingly naïve, especially from aspiring "professionals."