The never-ending story

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News Media Commentary
Title: The never-ending story
Commentator: Olivia Kember
Date(s): October 2003
Venue: online
Fandom: meta
External Links: archived here
Click here for related articles on Fanlore.

The never-ending story is a 2003 article about fan fiction written by Olivia Kember and published online in the New Zealand Listener. It is subtitled "Inside the weird and possibly sad world of fan fiction."

Like many articles written by outsiders, the author offers a highly negative and dismissive attitude towards fan fiction and is an example of fansplaining.

It was cited in Jae's essay Young, Female, Single…? A Study of Demographics and Writing-/Reading-Habits of Fanfiction Writers and Readers.

The Essay

The end. Turn the last page, roll credits, the story is over. Characters have been paired up, subplots sorted out, just deserts allocated. But after the book is closed or the final episode screened – what happens next?

On the Internet, the saga is just beginning. Those obsessed with our current cultural canon – not just Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Matrix but also The Mighty Ducks, Friends and even Sonic the Hedgehog – are refusing to accept the constraints of someone else's creation. Instead, they're carrying the stories on, frequently in ways the original author might never have imagined and probably wouldn't appreciate.

It's called fan fiction – "fan fic" to its practitioners. Although historic examples abound – from John Lydgate's The Siege of Thebes, written in the 1400s as a sequel to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, to Jean Rhy's Wide Sargasso Sea, the 1966 prequel to Jane Eyre – the scene has recently exploded, thanks to the Net. Games and TV shows, as well as books and movies, all have cyberspace "fandoms", where fics find an immediate and global audience.

No subject is exempt. "Ficcers" have overhauled Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four, answering questions you never asked – how was Julia's childhood? What does Winston's blubbery neighbour Parsons dream about? Dedicated fans of Xena: Warrior Princess have created the Xenaverse, where "bards" compete for fan fiction awards. Even the mundane Aussie soap Home and Away has inspired tales that prolong the original thrill: "Kirsty is still depressed about Kane but is back at school and trying to focus on her schoolwork!!" (punctuation marks ficcer's own).

"Please read and review," writers suggest, or more imperiously: "R&R." With exceptions, story content tends to range from innocuous drivel to bizarre pornographic escapades. The most self-serving fics are known as "Mary Sues", where the author is also the star character.

Sarah, a 27-year-old Kiwi lawyer living in London, writes West Wing fan fiction under the pseudonym "International Princess". She estimates that 95 percent of fan fic is rubbish. "Bad grammar, bad spelling, utterly unrealistic stories. But now and again you stumble on something that's just brilliantly done." It's a way to develop writing skills, she says. "It's this intelligent drama with these really complex characters. It seemed like an easy way to practise – the universe is already established, the characters are already there, you don't have to do any of the legwork." This year she is on the judging committee for the Jeds, the annual West Wing fan fiction awards.

Down the other end of the spectrum, however, things get distinctly seedy. Lawyers for J K Rowling and Warner Bros have ordered several websites featuring Harry Potter characters in pornographic fic to be shut down.

Somewhere in the middle lies most of the adult fiction, a homosexual sub-genre known variously as "slash" or "alt". Laura Manushkin in Las Vegas runs a site containing "romantic erotic fan fiction" based on characters played by Kevin Smith. "Here you will find stories of an adult nature," warns the site, "so if you're under 18, this offends you, or it is illegal where you live, GO SOMEWHERE ELSE."

Manushkin accepts stories containing graphic sex and violence, but she draws the line at slash. "I like to think I treat those characters with respect and that whatever sex is in the stories is appropriate for the character and situation," she says. She obviously saw something extra in Scotty, Smith's character from the obscure TV comedy Flatmates, who transforms over a series of fics into a sex-crazed vampire.

Manushkin introduces each story with a rating and a disclaimer. It's common practice for fics to acknowledge the original creator of the work. But David Harvey, district court judge and lecturer in information technology and the law at the University of Auckland, says these disclaimers are meaningless. "Saying, 'I'm using your character, but I don't intend to breach copyright' is a load of rubbish."

Fan fiction, Harvey says, falls into the legal blur between fair use, which allows people to use another's work for criticism, academic and parodic purposes, and the author's moral right to have their creation used

in a way consistent with their creative intent. Further complicating the issue is the territorial nature of copyright law versus the anarchic ubiquity of cyberspace. Concepts in New Zealand copyright law are not recognised in the United States, and vice versa.

Michaela Ecks, who runs an Internet guide to fan fiction called Writers University, says bluntly that fic is illegal – but you can usually get away with it. Genuine authors may even benefit from it. "Fan fiction may actually increase the amount of money that a company makes by inspiring goodwill in a fandom and helping draw in a new audience."

And Harvey sees no real harm in reworking original ideas – within reason. "People have developed Tolkien's Middle Earth," he points out. "They've written stories, even published books speculating on various gaps in Tolkien's work. That's perfectly permissible. However, Tolkien's executors could very well be upset that their moral rights were being infringed if you made the elves out to be wanton nymphomaniacs."

References