The Advantages of Fan Fiction as an Art Form

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Title: The Advantages of Fan Fiction as an Art Form
Creator: Jane Mortimer
Date(s): September 20, 1997
Medium: online
External Links: The Advantages of Fan Fiction, Archived version
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The Advantages of Fan Fiction as an Art Form is 1997 essay by Jane Mortimer. It has the subtitle "A Shameless Essay."

It is a companion piece to The Advantages of Erotic Fan Fiction as an Art Form.

Some Topics Discussed

  • why write fanfiction
  • this brave new world called "online"
  • fandom and profit
  • fanfiction as storytelling
  • storytelling in a series

Opening Paragraph

This essay will address the question from the point of view of the artist: why should a writer create a fan fiction piece, rather than one of the many other paying venues he or she might turn to? The simple, and wrong, answer would be: because they're not good enough to write pro work. But since I know quite a number of professional authors -- people who write novels, short stories, and scripts for a living -- who also write occasional fan fiction for the sheer joy of it, and would write more if they had time, this argument doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Most of these professional authors are a bit quiet about what they do for love; in the world as we know it, one of the most dangerous things a person can do is admit to taking great pains over something not done for money. For writers especially, the spectre of Samuel Johnson's adage still haunts and stings; and the argument of the first psychoanalysts still holds true: if we don't charge you a fee, you won't value what we do.

From the Essay

If a writer is brazen enough to choose a form of expression ungated by editors or producers, one that is essentially self-publishing, it is a bold step. What would prompt someone to take it? Because this art form, at least on the Net, is ungated, it takes on a new and refreshing democracy; unfortunately, it also results in a tsunami of stories, the majority of which are not up to professional standards. But quality usually shines through on the Net, perhaps more consistently than in professional publishing, where a good book may languish unregarded and die without ever making a ripple. There is a real Darwinian process at work in this new Net folk art -- you don't have to schmooze with a producer or get an editor's attention; all you have to do is put a story in an archive. It will be read, and word of mouth is the only advertising the Net has. If you have reached your audience in terms of story, you will reach them in terms of being pointed out and read. There is an upper one percent of fan fiction that easily matches genre fiction in terms of quality, and the discerning reader knows where to find it.

Still, it is a brave move, to self-publish; and not for money, either. So why?

The series, as an art form, has certain advantages. (I must interject here that I'm not saying the series form is better than any other. Experience tells me that this is the point where critics leap in and try to explain to me why it's not better, and I'd like to save them the trouble.) A film has narrative advantage over a book in that a cut to one image may convey two pages of descriptive information; a book has narrative advantage over a film in that it grounds the reader deep in point-of-view, allowing you right inside a character's head. Neither is "better," in my opinion.

The advantages of the series form are several, but chief among them are baseline and character, two related values.

Characters that have come to life for people, who are recognized on an intimate level, are quite often series products: Sherlock Holmes, Parker's Spenser, Kinsey Milhone, Lord Peter Wimsey, Miles Vorkosigan. I'm talking about a recognition factor that goes beyond the usual: if you tried to make Holmes a suave playboy, for instance, the average guy on the street would say, "But Sherlock Holmes would never do that," as certain that he knows Holmes as that he knows his pals at work. There is a power of image and an intimacy of knowledge that comes with the top rung of series characters. People know Holmes's London flat better than the apartment they lived in 12 years ago: and I certainly remember 221B Baker Street better than the three-digit street number of my dwelling in the last city I lived in....

Bujold readers will gossip about what nice girls Lady Vorkosigan might set up Miles with, as though he were someone they knew in high school. Sayers fans have opinions on Charles' marriage to Peter's sister, on the young Gerald, on whether Harriet made Peter wait too long. And here, you see, is the key; people don't discuss characters like this as though they were literary creations. They discuss them as though they were real, as though they had independent existence in some alternate reality. Their adventures, in some cases, may be larger than life; but they have achieved a certain autonomy in the mind. It is a glowing tribute to the author that quite often their name isn't even mentioned when news breaks of a "new Miles Vorkosigan book," a "Sherlock Holmes story," a "Lord Peter Wimsey novel." (After all, why should the author's name be mentioned? They have achieved godhood -- their character lives and breathes.)

There is a familiarity, an intimacy of knowledge, an affection, that seeps into the bones of the readers over time, like a silent radiation. This is not an intellectual knowledge. It cannot be matched by giving them a quick rundown of some new character's life, then throwing them into the middle of it and expecting them to be affected in the same way.

Television was made for small-scale characterization. There's a saying in film, that first you have to spend ten minutes showing the villain kicking a dog and the good guy helping a cat out of a tree. No need for the upfront investment of time in television; the character is already known, and therefore, this week, we will shine one sharp beam of light on this aspect of his mind and heart. Perhaps we'll twist that baseline around a bit on you; perhaps we'll build it up even more. The form was designed for subtlety, for the momentary focus of intensity on two square inches. (Its capabilities often remain unexploited, but when they are taken advantage of, the results are memorable.)

And an intensity can be built along with the intimacy. For example, one of my favorite American scriptwriters, David Burke, wrote many of the great moments during the unparalleled first season of Wiseguy. Here was a story about a young Fed sent out to become friends with a Mafia businessman, and then betray him. For nine hours we watched as the characters' intimacy with each other, and with us, increased; we watched as morality became more and more muddled and identity more and more fluid. We were taken by the hand, gradually, until by the time the Mafia character viciously executed one of his rivals in the next-to-final episode, we were still on his side.

When, at the end of the arc, the hero stands above the dead body of his target, lost, and looks in the eyes of his bureau supervisor, he says simply, "I wish it was you."

I can't tell you the impact that sentence had at that moment. And every writer I've ever spoken to about it agrees -- that impact would not have been the same at the end of a two-hour movie. Oh, we would have been slightly shocked. We would felt for him. But that sense of having one's feet swept out from under would not have been there; because the intensity had been growing, without our even being aware of it, for nine hours. The sense of gathering lightening finally released was overwhelming.

Because a professional hack turning out measured cups of sawdust -- well-structured, highly professional sawdust -- is at least in it for the money. He's respectable in a way that someone who writes for love is not. The incredibly mild enthusiasm of the readers seems to be irrelevant here; they will buy the book anyway, and if they don't enjoy it, the dollars have already been paid.)

But to return to our central thesis... Well, Jane, one may say, this is all very well; you're telling us the reasons a series form might appeal to a writer. But why fan fiction? Shouldn't everyone who's interested in writing series fiction (and not just as an exercise, but the very best writing of which they're capable) be packing up, heading out to Hollywood, and seeking work in television? Or staying home and starting their own string of detective novels?

First, bear this in mind with fan fiction: No one ever said you had to choose.

Even if you took six months out of your life to write this as a novel, in order to get exactly that power-effect of emotional knowledge -- to let the reader walk in the character's shoes, to grasp the process they've gone through -- you'd want to spend a goodly portion of time establishing the baseline you're longing to violate. (The audience's hearts and their expectations must be one; hence both their sense of shock, when intimate knowledge is finally contradicted, and their deeper understanding, if you can pull off what you're doing in character.) And after writing the part that doesn't interest you for 300 pages, you can tack on the portion at the end that does, thereby creating -- well, a pretty unwieldy structure for a novel.

In short, this particular experiment is well-served by precisely the fan fiction form. And then, within the course of the same month, you could do a short romantic comedy, an erotic piece, a brief story told entirely in dialogue, and any number of other games -- all without the need for set-up. You merely swoop down, like a programmer grabbing pre-existing code and then creating precisely the spin they want.

The learning period for all these things is incredibly telescoped, and you can return to your pro fiction with some wicked ideas. (I leave out the professional writers I know who've cut and stitched their experiments into money-making novels, filing off the serial numbers and smiling cryptically when asked where they get their ideas.)
And it is fascinating to watch: on one level, a return to widespread storytelling, an old-fashioned art; on another level, something quite new and different. Interactive fiction has to a preliminary extent opened up straight narrative to a branching story, but nothing like this. In the center we have the river of canon, aka "the show," a broad Mississippi rolling inexorably onward, pushed by money and Hollywood expertise. Off of it, we have a thousand tributaries, a thousand "what ifs," many of them branching off into yet further refinements of alternate reality as each writer examines what's gone before and spins off it. And no matter what violations of convention take place -- our heroes die, our heroes sleep together, our heroes go through irrevocable changes -- none of it affects the central river, which rolls on throwing out branches further downstream. Unlike the single-narrative circuit that runs through the alternatives of interactive fiction, all these possibilities are true. Finally narrative has its cake and eats it too. The talent and ability of the writers may vary wildly, but the shape of the overall creation is an amazing thing to watch evolve.

It's an exciting time to be on the Net. Art has never been more fluid or more disrespectful, or labored harder over by joyfully unpaid multitudes. It's reminiscent of a John Varley short story in which thousands of ordinary people in space try, on an individual basis, to paint Saturn's rings.

But where the participatory nature of the Net most surpasses interactive fiction, for me personally, is that it retains the "storytelling" nature of the exchange between author and audience. Because the audience participates here, yes, but the reader does not direct the flow of the story they are reading at that moment. As a matter of personal taste, I was never drawn to interactive fiction because I felt that losing that "found object" sense of a story was a lack. A story should be given to you, whole and unencumbered; a little bit of someone else's personal vision. My own vision, I already know about. (No slur is intended here against a form many people like; as I said, this is personal taste.)

Again, fan fiction gets to have it both ways. A traditional exchange, author-to-audience, and a larger participatory tapestry in which one is expected to lay one's own contribution, affected often by the stories around it.

Well, but Jane, professional work pays. That's why they call it, you know, professional. And these people might reach an audience beyond the inbred world they're working in now.

Unfortunately, a lot of these top fan writers are pretty savvy about just what the pro market does pay, thank you very much. They've heard their pro friends beside them moan and bitch about a four thousand dollar advance on a novel that after expenses is closer to two thousand; about a market in which sales of three and four thousand copies is not unusual. Their fan Web pages are already showing up with hits in the thousands, and they're getting scores of pieces of fan mail -- from librarians, teachers, college professors, all of whom have paid close attention to the original source material, to other fan works, and to this fan work that they're writing about. These letter-writers are ready to show you that they did recognize the subtlety of what you were doing on page 22; to discuss your alternate interpretation of a character; to be, in short, the best, most responsive, most specific and most intelligent audience I've ever found in my life.

All this is seductive, and hard to turn away from for a few pieces of tossed silver and maybe five letters from strangers. Besides, these writers are drawn to what they're doing; why should they change to satisfy your notions of literary propriety? Life is short, and time is limited.

There was a time when "amateur" was a compliment. Pursuing something for love was admired, while doing it for filthy lucre was despised. We live in a harsher age, when values have turned around, and if there's no immediate money from a project, writers are urged to abandon it. I find it reassuring to know the artistic impulse remains this strong, that people will still invest in something for sheer pleasure in its creation, and the hell with what the rest of the world may say.

Reactions and Reviews

There are more and more explanations of Slash on the net: some well written, some less so. But I have found very few explanations of the more basic question 'why fan fiction'. I.e., why write for free; why write with someone else's characters.

Jane Mortimer (famous for writing two of the three good M/K stories on the net) has a *marvelous* essay on why a good writer would want to play in our small pool.

I think you'd all enjoy reading it. [1]


  1. comment by Sandy Hereld, at Virgule Mailing List, September 30, 1997, used with Sandy's permission