seawasp (seawasp) wrote,

The Yearly Fan-Fiction (and related material) Lecture

This year's lecture and musings on fanfiction was triggered by a couple of things. One was a discussion on rec.arts.sf.written on the impending publication of Pride and Prejudice With Zombies.; this thread drew my particular attention because it was titled "Terminators of Endearment ripoff" -- said "Terminators of Endearment" being a cooperative fanfic/homage by Brenda Clough and myself derived from a remark by Eric Flint.

The second was a discovery (by random search and link following) that to my surprise author Lee Goldberg has continued his periodic war against fanfiction. As I hadn't heard anything about him lately, I'd made the assumption that he'd dropped the issue after his first few articles. I was (as you can see from the link) quite mistaken. He's also apparently still blithely oblivious, or in serious denial, over the titanic irony of a man who writes media tie-in novels (translated: paid fanfic) railing against fanfic.

So, once more, I will take on this giant, or windmill as the case may be.

For those who may have come to my blog from other directions, I have credentials to talk on both sides of this debate, as I am a published SF author -- three books currently, three more under contract -- who is also a fairly well-known and regarded writer of fanfic/gamefic.

My published novels (by Baen Books) are Digital Knight, the short novel Diamonds Are Forever in the collection Mountain Magic, and Boundary, co-written with Eric Flint. Forthcoming books are Threshold and Portal(tentative title), sequels to Boundary, and Grand Central Arena, a space opera with a likely publication date of Spring 2010.

My best-known fanfics include the Saint Seiya fics "Resurrection" (in five parts -- Requiem, Rebirth, Ghosts, Awakening, and Meteor), "Wild Card", and "Snow Queen", the LotR/Gamefic "An American Gamer in Gondor", and the aforementioned "Terminators of Endearment, OR Pride and Extreme Prejudice". I have written parts of, or edited, numerous other fanfiction works.

As this will likely be quite a long article (and, depending on how loquacious I become, may even overflow the post limits), I have provided a

There are a lot of issues around the production of fanfiction, ranging from the "why?" question to the practical business question of "will you be sued, and SHOULD you be sued"?

My basic position is that fanfic is, put bluntly, one of the best compliments an author can be paid, even if the CONTENT of the fic is not what the author would like. The latter is interesting because it's CLOSELY related to one of the fundamental principles of standard literary criticism -- that the author does not in fact have complete control over, or knowledge of, his or her work. The work, in this school of thought, is not truly complete until it is read, and a reader's experience of and perception of the work has a validity equal to that of the author's own perceptions of his work. (I don't necessarily subscribe to this worldview, but I find it interesting that many opponents of fanfic are often also rather literarily inclined). The existence of fanfic about your creations is a statement that your work has struck a chord in the reader SO POWERFUL that they feel driven to write more in that world. They may wish to realize simple fantasies, or change events that bothered them so much that they can't stand to leave them that way, or may simply wish to extend the experience they had in your world, but the simple fact is that you have HAD AN EFFECT, a huge effect, on the writer of the fanfic.

You don't get to control whether you find that particular effect and reaction POSITIVE. As an author, you'd better already have a very, very thick skin, because you'll find that the reviewers aren't all on your side -- and who are they, but a particular segment of readers? The readers will see stuff you don't think you put there. Some of them will think you suck. Some will like parts of what you write, but not other parts. And some of them will actually be engaged enough to put forth personal effort and write their own "takes" on your material. Some of it will undoubtedly be offensive, and most of it will suck.

"But it's MY STUFF!"

Well... yes and no. I want any author out there who truly believes they've written a wholly original book, story, etc., to stand up. Go ahead. You got the guts? I will guarantee that I can show you that it's ALL been done before. Probably BETTER.

We all are using Someone Else's Stuff. It's just how well we're hiding it or building on it that changes. Much of what we use is what's called "public domain" material -- such as Shakespeare's works. I can write "Robo and Julie" with a robot-human romance following similar lines as "Romeo and Juliet" and it's perfectly okay. I can also write a version in which the two lovers are stopped from their STUPID suicide in time. And so on.

So what's magically different about doing it with something published 10 years ago, or using characters or plotlines shown on TV?

Legally, there is a difference; this is unquestionable. But that legal difference is purely an arbitrary one -- and one that has become increasingly noisome and questionable over the last several decades (I'll return to that momentarily). And the objections that most of the anti-fic crowd raise are generally framed, not in the purely practical LEGAL sense (although they urge the use of as much legal muscle as possible to put a stop to it) but in the right and wrong MORAL sense. And here is where they try to palm the ace, so to speak; they state how pathetic, immoral, etc., it is, but they actually don't try to show WHY this is the case. It certainly can't be just the fact that these people are Breaking The Law, unless all the anti-fic crowd are driving at 55mph on the highway (with everyone else roaring past them at 65), never downloading a song or viewing a video to which they don't have a license, using software that they didn't pay for (or, more often, using software they did pay for... once... but using it on multiple computers), never copying a picture from the Web without obtaining permission, etc. And while one or two of them might be such anal-retentive paragons of legality, I rather doubt it is the case for most of them.

Is it the use of characters or settings in the way that the author wouldn't have approved? Then I sure hope all of them have avoided purchasing or reading, for example, Maguire's Wicked, which is an abomination in terms of what it does to Oz and its characters. Yet this is a critically acclaimed work, a highly successful novel which has spawned two sequels, a play, etc. So if this is the crime of fanfic, it seems to be a crime that can be sanctioned... you just have to make sure the guy who wrote it is dead first, or at least doesn't hear about it until you get that critical acclaim. There's a lot of similar examples -- how many Sherlock Holmes pastiches have been written? How many different ways has the story of Dracula been told, and how badly mangled have some of them been?

These are of course permitted legally -- and often become highly popular. Generally of course this is because we have a long-standing tradition of "public domain" works being able to be as derivative or as distorted as we like. This wouldn't be quite so much a stand-out issue if it weren't for the fact that "the public domain" itself has become a nearly dead body of work, due in great part to a number of companies (Disney perhaps the most well-known) working hard to continually extend copyright protections. Copyright originally was intended to last a relatively few years (specific numbers varied), just as patents do. By many of the older copyright standards, some of the most famous media works of the past century, such as Star Trek and Star Wars, would either be already IN the public domain, or about to enter it.

Yet they haven't, and it appears a fair possibility that NONE of these works ever WILL enter public domain. This is a perversion of the intent of copyright, which was to encourage the production of NEW works by allowing the inventor to benefit from them FOR A LIMITED TIME.

(then there is "trademark" which is if anything more noisome in its application to this particular field, because unlike copyright there is, in trademark law, a requirement that you ACTIVELY prosecute any violation you hear about or risk "dilution" of your protection. This is NOT the case for copyright; you can deliberately ignore violations which you consider irrelevant to your interests without necessarily diluting your rights)

So back to our core discussion of fanfic. We haven't even clearly defined it, let alone figured out what's morally wrong with it. Is it simply writing stuff involving characters/settings that you don't have the rights to use (i.e., someone other than you has the rights to publish it?) One could use that definition, but then that would mean that something could be fanfic today, and tomorrow, when the publisher decides to release the material to the public domain, it's suddenly NOT fanfic? This doesn't make much sense. Such a definition would also mean that the nastiest, most creepy slashfic, or most brilliant crossover, you could imagine using characters from Oz, Wonderland, or Jules Verne would NOT be fanfic. Or, conversely, that I could write a (for example) Buffy novel which was clearly fanfic (as I had neither asked for nor received permission from Joss Whedon or his assignees of the Buffy rights), but it would suddenly NOT be fanfic if Joss came across it, decided he liked it, and arranged for it to be published.

That would, of course, be utterly ludicrous... unless the anti-fanfic crowd simply wants to define "fanfic" as "stuff THAT I DON'T LIKE which uses characters or settings created by someone else". Of course, that would turn about half to three-quarters of the media tie-in novels to pure fanfic, becuase most of them range from sucky to barely passable when compared with what is POSSIBLE in those areas. Plenty of tie-in novels I've seen that suck as bad as much of the fanfic I've run into online.

Then there's the "well, it's okay for KIDS" approach, where the attitude is that if you're a talentless hack you might as well do fanfic, but if you had Real Writing Capability, you shouldn't be touching that icky stuff, along with a blanket denial that one could actually LEARN writing from doing fanfic.

This is just as elitist and silly as the more general "it's wrong!" approach. It's completely wrong, too. I learned a LOT from doing fanfic with my then-girlfriend, now wife. A great deal of my writing techniques were honed originally in that area. It's NOT always necessarily easier to write fanfic than original fiction; I suspect Mr. Goldberg, for example, would not look kindly on someone telling him that his tie-in novels are trivially easy to write. They aren't necessarily easy at all, and for the same reason that writing GOOD fanfic is not easy: that the world you're working with and the characters that exist carry with them some very strong restrictions that preclude you doing just anything you'd like to do. When you create the world and the characters, you get full freedom to take things in any direction you like; you don't have that freedom working with other people's characters.

"But most fanfic isn't like that! Most of it's terrible! Most of it's, like, wankfic, one-handed pr0n or power fantasies!"

That's because there IS one -- AND ONLY ONE -- simple, clear difference between fanfic and profic.

Fanfic doesn't go through the slushpile and editing process before being presented to the world.

That's it.

Anyone who's ever gone through a slushpile knows that "original fiction" writers perpetrate exactly the same sins, in exactly the same abysmal "quality", as any fanfic writer. It's just that the original fics mostly don't get PUT anywhere because there is no known AUDIENCE for them. The writer only has himself and maybe a couple friends who helped come up with it. With a fan-based story, you have (at least in your deluded head) an audience equal to the number of people who watched the show/read the book you're taking as inspiration. So more of the fanfic gets out there and gets looked at by fans looking for new stuff in their favorite world.

Is it FUN to see your own characters and world mangled by some little twit who thinks he knows better than you? No, I wouldn't think so. But here's the thing:


It's not going to affect your original work. It's not going to be seen by even the smallest fraction of your actual fans, in all likelihood, unless it really IS pretty damn good. But if it bothers you... don't read it. There's one author mentioned on Goldberg's page -- the author of Brokeback Mountain -- who complains about all the stuff sent to her on this. You know, it USED to be the case that people who became famous recognized that there would be a price in "pain in the ass" paid for that fame. And as "pain in the ass" goes, having overzealous fans write to you about their fanfic fantasies is Pretty Far Down There. You could always, if you have all those fans and, given the apparent success, I'd presume a fair amount of money, pay someone ELSE to go through it and send nice little contentless acknowlegements, or just burn them if it amuses you, and answer only the really worthwhile letters.

You know, there is no right to not be offended in this country. You'll be offended by a LOT of things. Being pissy about the fact that -- in essence -- people just aren't taking your stuff EXACTLY the way you want to is a prima-donna affectation. I've had people interpret all sorts of stuff into my novels; I've had them utterly miss things that were totally obvious to me. I've had them barbeque my novels for, in essence, not being a novel that THEY wanted but that I wasn't writing. I've had them assign marvelous subtleties to my writing that, alas, I had to deny, because I don't do subtlety.

Writers, publishers, makers of TV shows, and so on need to -- in the vernacular -- SUCK IT UP. Fanfic is a good measure of YOUR popularity. It's not ACTUALLY doing any harm. (No, shut up. It's not. The only harm is to your prissy too-delicate sensibilities, and once you throw your poor baby out into the world to be looked at, you'd better be ready to watch it get torn apart.) SOME publishers and so on actually DO "get it". The producers of the CSI shows recognized how very GOOD those fanfic fans were for their shows, and went so far as to encourage ficcage ON THEIR OFFICIAL SITES... by, among other things, PROVIDING EVIDENCE FOR EVERY POSSIBLE PAIRING OF CHARACTERS for the fic writers to use when they, for instance, wanted to write a Warrick-Grissom slashfic. The Japanese actually allow manga fanfic writers/artists ("Doujinshi" producers) to SELL a limited (and not all THAT limited) number of copies of their fan creations, some of which are about as nasty as you can imagine. And then they recruit the BEST Doujin writers to do "real" work for them.

In actuality, for most people fanfic is doing you GOOD. Yeah, hard though it may be to believe when you see your hero being slashed with Captain Kirk in a crossover. Because, you see, the REAL enemy of most authors (except POSSIBLY J.K. Rowling) is obscurity. Even someone like Stephen King has not actually reached all of the potential readers of his stuff. Someone can bump into a fanfic and say, "Hey... part of that sounded INTERESTING. I wonder what the original is like...", and bingo. You have a new reader. This is NOT THEORY. This is fact. I know multiple examples. This is why GIVING AWAY your books online is likely to result in HIGHER SALES (as Baen Books proved with their Baen Free Library). The more people who hear your name, see your characters, etc., in ANY form, the more likely it is that more people will pick up your actual work.

And -- as my wife points out -- the basic tradition of written and spoken civilization has been that we DO, in fact, take the stories we hear as children, and then retell them in our own ways. Grimms' Fairy Tales solidified one version of multiple tales... but many of those tales were then told differently, re-told in different settings, with different points, with new characters and morals, etc. We -- all authors -- are doing the same thing. We are taking what we know and telling our own version, showing our vision, built on all that we've seen and heard and known. Fanfic writers do the same thing. And most of us -- original or fan -- suck when we start. Some of us will get better. But there really isn't all that much difference.

I invite comments. But if you're going to argue the basic points, better come with lots of ammo, for I will crush my enemies, see them driven before me, and hear the lamination of their women!

And so I'm done. For now...
Tags: fanfic

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