What Do We Think of Fanfic Now?: A conversation between Dal Maclean and Nicole Kimberling

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Interviews by Fans
Title: What Do We Think of Fanfic Now?: A conversation between Dal Maclean and Nicole Kimberling
Interviewer:
Interviewee: Dal Maclean and Nicole Kimberling
Date(s): March 20, 2020
Medium: online
Fandom(s): m/m romance, young adult fiction
External Links: What Do We Think of Fanfic Now?: A conversation between Dal Maclean and Nicole Kimberling; Wayback link; archive link
Click here for related articles on Fanlore.

What Do We Think of Fanfic Now?: A conversation between Dal Maclean and Nicole Kimberling is a 2020 interview on Josh Lanyon's blog. Lanyon was a Professionals and a Mary Renault fan.

Dal Maclean (a former fellow Professionals fan) and Nicole Kimberling (a former K/S fan who edited for the zine First Time) are now commercial M/M writers.

Some Topics Discussed

  • Lanyon first "met" Maclean in The Professionals fandom
  • fanfiction was used to be déclassé, and something to be hidden
  • fanfiction has its own style and aesthetics
  • writing fanfiction as a freeing and educational experience
  • upping the ante for your readers is a fanfic dynamic
  • comments about Archive of Our Own winning a Hugo Award
  • both authors' thoughts about fans writing fiction on their own books
  • why people like to write fanfic, why it is so satisfying
  • why some big-name authors get upset about fanfc

Excerpts

NK: So, DM, when I was in the process of acquiring your first novel, Bitter Legacy, we exchanged several letters about your style, inspirations and approach to fiction writing in general. One thing you mentioned at that time was that you were drawing your inspiration from a “fanfiction tradition.” I thought it was fascinating that you had identified fanfic as having its own style and specific goals so that even when a person was writing original material, such as your novels for Blind Eye Books, it could be said to be derived from the aesthetic of fanfic. This was in 2015, when participation in the fanfic community was still considered déclassé and I found it refreshing that you’d represent for that writing community so boldly. So for the benefit of Josh’s followers can you run down your basic concept of the fanfic aesthetic?

DM: Well… I’m a big admirer of fanfic, and it’s where I started out. As you say it’s always been looked down on a bit and mocked, maybe because it’s such a female space, maybe because it’s by definition ‘amateur’, maybe it’s the ‘fan’ bit. But I suppose I think of it as almost pure in its ethos of creativity for the sake of it - and actually I suppose, a bit culturally subversive in the way it takes an official, sanitized narrative and makes it what it wants. It can definitely be invasive, it can cross too many lines, but I think my basic concept of the fanfic aesthetic is freedom. It’s kind of red in tooth and claw, often reeking with angst, untrammeled by rules or ‘thou shalt nots’. Like a literary wild west with vanishingly few sheriffs.

It used to be that ‘kink shaming’ was one of the worst things anyone could be accused of in fanfic and as a result fanfic erotica went to some incredible places. As I understand it, commercial M/M was sort of the love child of slash fanfic and conventional MF romance and maybe that fanfic legacy explains the popularity of shifter and MPreg in M/M? In fanfic that was everyday stuff for a long time. This all sounds very idealized and we all know there is some truly, truly terrible fanfic. But some is glorious, and all produced from and for love.

DM: I think the marriage of slash fanfic with MF romance though probably brought the Romance Rules to ‘slash’ and with that, several lines that can’t be crossed by writers. I’m definitely in tune with some of that -- for example I love HEAs because I personally really disagree with the idea that good writing somehow requires unhappy endings). But I also adore the fanfic attitude to angst and emotional/romantic challenge and redemption. Characters in fanfic are allowed to have genuine flaws and behave badly (in and out of their relationships) for whatever reason, and still remain heroes who can be redeemed. I think the fanfic audience tends to factor real and flawed heroes into the equation from the start, perhaps because the original characters showed flaws.

Anyway, that–recognizable coherent character imperfections, and genuine mistakes which have to be overcome to reach the HEA, have always been, I admit, catnip to me as a reader and then as a writer. Angst and genuine redemption and none of the ‘but darling she’s my sister’ (full credit to Josh Lanyon for that perfect encapsulation of what fanfic would see as copping out on dramatic conflict). I think the love of a genuinely hard road for characters created partly by their own mistakes and natures, not just external obstacles or ‘misunderstandings,’ comes from the fanfic aesthetic.
NK: Sure—I mean it’s a dynamic of good storytelling in general. In fanfic though you’re allowed to jump the shark in spectacular ways that—even when kinda dumb—can be really enjoyable on a, “woah, you really went there . . . bold move, my friend!” level.
DM: Of course with fanfic you’re playing with other people’s toys in a ready created universe which your audience already knows and loves which is a different starting point to original fiction. But I think that – writing fanfic - does give you the drive to know your characters inside out, and that moves on to the ones you subsequently create. In fanfic you’re using characters you already know inside out – other people did the work on that - so you have a fair idea what they’d do in any situation. Maybe that helps drill fanfic writers to prioritize character integrity over plot because a fanfic audience will always know what each character would do in a given situation? Or maybe I’m romanticizing it? I think its good training anyway.

NK: I think the main thing I see is the urge among fanfic writers to humanize flat, one-dimensional or perfunctory characters, especially characters who are presented as villains. That’s come through very strongly into M/M where we see characters who are much more morally ambiguous than we’d normally see in mainstream romance.

DM: I mean I think [ Archive of Our Own winning a Hugo Award is] a brilliant achievement . And its mainstream recognition for the power and reach of fanfic, but maybe that’s not what fanfic’s about. I think what MM has shown is that the mainstream embrace *can* overwhelm what fanfic is, rather than the other way round.
NK: Well, the Hugo is awarded by a popular vote so what it shows is that fanfic participation has grown to actually BE mainstream—at least in the speculative fiction community. We all have either written fanfic or had a dozen friends who did.
DM: I honestly can’t think of anything more flattering as an author than creating characters or a universe that readers love and are inspired by sufficiently to want to write about them or draw them. I don’t think there can be a greater complement than that as a writer. It's certainly what spurred me to write fanfic – and write creatively for the first time – falling in love with certain characters and universes, and becoming frustrated by having their story limited to what was handed down by the writers and actors.

NK: I think probably [some big-name authors get upset by fanfic] because there are fan writers who overstep or even reverse the intention of a story. And because there is a tendency among fanfic writers to equate fanfic that is based on a television show which has several writers, in addition to producers etc., and is therefore already a shared-universe kind of model, with stories written by a single author for a single intent.

After bearing the burden of single-handedly creating those hundred thousand words or so, it can be insulting to have somebody show up and essentially say, “your version of your story was okay but look! I made it better by undoing what you did!” (Especially if the fanficcer is particularly tacky or lacks social skills in the first place.)

[...]

But I think that most fanfic is written from a place of admiration and a desire to participate in an author’s world. So, if an author cringes at the notion of another person impuring their undiluted concepts and vision with fan stories, fan art, video homages, mood boards, character alignment charts and the like, then that author must ask themselves whether they are ready to participate in public storytelling. Because if you have success, you will have all these things in addition to reviews, criticism and even . . . the dreaded specter of editorial input.

Fan Comments: At the Blog Site

[Marilyn]:

I really enjoyed reading this. I read fanfic for many years. I don't read so much now, because there's just not enough time in the day. There was such a sense of community and I remember getting a canon book and being so excited about the fanfic that was to come.

[Nikki, one of the interviewees]:
I honestly never read too much fanfic--I wasn't really online until much later than my peers, I think--but I do find that I really enjoy fan art--like to a ridiculous degree. :)
[Dal, of the the interviewees]:
That is exactly it! The last book I felt like that about was probably Captive Prince. Though that began as an original fanfic ironically.

[Binkabunny]:

I enjoyed that! It's always cool tho get insight into authors' inner workings and thoughts on writing in general. I had a couple of fanfic universes I was obsessed with for a long time until life just got too busy to keep up with, and getting new chapters (or whatever) was unpredictable. It did lead me to M/M fiction and I haven't read much else since. I especially love the continuing romance/mystery series. I feel invested and it's a wonderful escape from Real Life.
[Zell]:

Good fanfic is good, but it's also rare. And maybe it's because my tastes changed, but I feel as though there was a "golden age" around 2005-2010 and since then fanfic has trended slowly worse and worse. Though to be fair, one of my main complaints is the ludicrous, ubiquitous "Omegaverse" genre which seems to have bled over into actual published fiction.

Another complaint I have, as a gay man who reads a lot of m/m fiction, is that the writers of fanfic--usually younger women--have no idea how gay men's minds work, or men in general really. It's not that women can't write good male characters--the three of you all being great examples (by the way Ms. MacLean I absolutely ADORED Bitter Legacy)--but there's something noticeably "off" about the way a lot of fanfic writers portray dudes in general and gay dudes in particular. This problem compounds itself when they attempt to write male characters from a generation older than their own, because we're left with ostensibly tough guy hockey players or professors or police officers with the mentality of high school age girls.

Of course, half the time the characters in an m/m romance in fanfiction aren't gay at all, or even bisexual. They're "gay for you," which means that they're straight and have never thought about a guy like that before but suddenly they're super attracted to the soft spoken nerd tutoring them in Defense of the Dark Arts or whatever. Or they "don't want to put a label on" what they're feeling (a nice sentiment, but it doesn't really work like that, sorry). I think this is because fanfic authors don't really have any interest in gay characters or issues, they simply want Harry Potter and Edward Cullen to bang each other.

And there's nothing wrong with that, of course. I don't begrudge any fanfiction author (or published author, for that matter) the desire to write anything they want, for whatever audience they want. But the gay men I know aren't typically interested in reading fiction written from that perspective.

I don't want to paint all fanfiction authors with the same brush, either--there are many who write wonderfully, sometimes better than a good many published authors. I've read novel-length fanfiction that was beautiful, and, even more often, is a lot of fun. It's just that more and more, I think of these well-written stories as oases and the desert between them is becoming more and more vast.
[Calathea]:

Thanks, Nicole and Dal! I loved reading your thoughts about fanfic! I've been reading fanfic for ages and am now at a point where the number of words that I read fic exceeds the number of words I read in "real" (meaning: published) books. There is excellence to be found in fanfic writing just as in published books, as well as mediocre writing. I find that I have favourite authors in fanfic now and that I follow them from fandom to fandom, going as far as reading fic first and watching/reading the original source after the fact. :-D

I enjoy the boldness and imaginativeness of fanfic, "going where no man has gone before" and miss that in books sometimes when you encounter the same old, same old (as it happens sometimes).

I agree with your point of character coming first in fanfic and plot second. Either the fanfic-writers study the source within an inch of its life to not misrepresent the heroes or to be able to fill them with character in a believable way when the source left them flat as a paper cutout.

Anyways... fanfic, yes.
[Audra]:

This was great! I read quite a lot of Torchwood fanfic in the day. There were indeed multiple MPreg stories maybe because it was set in the science fiction genre. Fascinating though -to me- the best fanfic I ever read was in a Panic! At The Disco forum. I was policing what my then middle schooler was up to and stumbled upon this fantastical behemoth. It was amazing. I like to think that person indeed up in the literary world somewhere.