My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Is Fanfic Legit? (Mailbox)

What are my thoughts on fanfic?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer a couple a week.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous. Feel free to turn my crank and aim me at the haters–I do that pretty well.]    

Arthur asks:

A friend and I started talking about the merits and shortcomings of fan-fiction. I think it's weird that people talk down on fanfic as an idea, because frankly I see nothing wrong with people taking an already established aspect of writing and utilizing it to flex their creative muscles. I do understand taking some issue with the quality of a piece of fanfic writing, but mostly in the sense of letting the writer know what and where they can improve on. That might be applicable only if the writer asks for that kind of feedback though.

It made me wonder what your thoughts on it are. Is fanfic a "good" thing, as long as the writer of it has a copyright disclaimer? Is it somehow selling oneself short by using another writer's characters/world rather than making one's own?

My reply:

This is my basic attitude when lit snobs or edgelords go after fanfic writers. (Copyright prevents me from embedding. You'll have to click the link.)

I'm really here for all the changes that the internet has brought to the world of writing (and not just because I'm a blogger who can (juuuuuuuuuust barely) afford to live in the Bay Area because of Patreon. For a long time the world of writing simply didn't have the strata of unpaid (or very low paid) artist in it. Your band could do do their gig for five bucks and free drinks or you could be a part of the local theater where maybe all the ticket sales could make for a cast party. You could do a community art show and maybe even sell a piece without a major deal. If you were a writer though, you could maybe show something to your friends, but that was about it until you cleared the threshold of profitability for a print run. Maybe you could get in on some tiny community newsletter type publications, but basically you were either "officially" published or no one had ever read you.

Then came tech. And tech has no time for your anachronistic culture based around yesteryear. You can print one book. Or just publish electronically. You can write for blogs or zines or just make your Facebook post public and hope it goes viral. And the role of the hobbyist writer to see their work in the world and even feedback has opened up and flourished.

And, of course, there's fanfic.

Lots and lots and lots and lots of fanfic.

Back when I was starting reading, a few authors *coughannricecough* would send really nasty with "Cease and Desist" notices to anyone fanficcing their work. Today, most of them seem to realize that's a pretty useless hill to die on *coughbutnotannricecough*, and they're just happy if no one is making money off of it or passing it off as official. Technically–legally–those copyright disclaimers don't mean jack shit unless the author has explicitly given their permission, and one of these days someone enjoying the spoils of a nice Patreon is going to get sued over intellectual property rights, but right now it's a pretty rare thing. Most content creators have come to realize that fanfic is basically free advertising for the source material and whether they are amused and encouraging or simply have an uneasy detente, they let it go on without blowing into the wind.

Are there shortcomings to fanfic? Sure! A lot of it's terribad all the way down to the punctuation and spelling. Characters becoming Mary and Gary Stus are ubiquitous. The disregard for the source material sometimes crosses into offensive disrespect. It's never going to make money for the writer who has done a shit ton of hard work making it. When people find their audience, they often stop publishing or go longer and longer between subsequent chapters.

And then there's the ships. Not that the ships are all bad, and don't think for a minute I'm too pure to slide into bed with a mobile device and the MCU Scarlet America ship with some Wanda threesome thrown in that I just happened to (quite unintentionally) run across earlier in the day. But...you definitely have to be ready to dig through some smut if that's not your jam.

But here's the thing and there's no getting around it.

(And if anybody asks you, this is why I'm really, really, really NOT here for that "Oh, now anyone can be a writer,"/"They'll just let anybody in the country club these days" bullshit that goes on down its nose at fanfiction. Or any claims that it isn't real writing. Or this convoluted idea that fanfiction is peeling away readers from "real" writing. Or that "real" writing–even occasionally the published kinds–don't ever have shitty writing or grammar errors.)

Fanfiction is done for the love of writing. It's done for the fun of creation. For the enjoyment of the craft and the characters and their journeys. It is done without regard for payment of any kind and often despite social censure from judgemental little snots who paint them all with the same brush and call them parasites, but who, in all likelihood, aren't doing half as much of their "real" fucking writing. It is done from the same impetus with which we've been reimagining and retelling stories since the beginning of our species–it is actually owning an "idea" and holding rights over it (particularly as a source of income) that is the fairly new development. Most people won't like it, some may be shitty about it, there will be no "tangible" rewards, and yet folks write it anyway–just to see it in the world. For me there could be few acts of writing done for purer artistic reasons.

And not that it HAS to be this, but in many cases it is the stepping stone to an author writing one's own worlds and characters (practice, so to speak), so people shitting in the fanfic sandcastle feel particularly to me like someone telling the junior high concert band to stop playing that Star Wars medley because they're not fucking brilliant at it yet and it isn't their own composition. Shit one of the best learning tools for new writers is to try to closely emulate the writers they love, so all this fanfic hate is really doing is saying "How DARE you show this to other people who like it! Crawl back into your cave!" Lots of starting writers make grammar mistakes and have clunky prose. That's not particular to fanfic, it's particular to starting writing, and counting only the worst of an offering is the same reason lit sommeliers are too fucking snobby to accept "genre" and "speculative fiction" (all while hailing a bunch of writers who have the same damned things in their fiction).

Plus, not to put too fine a point on it, but most of the shit we think of as brilliant masterpieces ARE fanfic. The Hours is just a retelling of Mrs. Dalloway. Hag Sea is The Tempest. Cinder is Cinderella. The Coming of the Dragon is Beowulf. Shakespeare actually wrote ONE play–the rest are his creative reimaginings of other source material. Many fan fic writers have changed a few names and gotten published–even mega-successfully so. And do you even know how many books are ancient myths and legends redone? This is one case where that high horse is actually a shetland pony with rickets.

Hating on fanfic is like so much elitist twaddle that betrays the fact that its own supercilious snobbery is unable to feel superior without tearing something else down. It's the same "I don't read that crap" all over again repeated (loudly and often) as a marker of class and sophistication by those who don't want to be seen enjoying something "beneath them." If anyone doesn't like fanfic, they can just have a coke, shut the fuck up, and scroll-wheel on by. And that's OKAY. We all have our tastes. (To be honest, I don't read much of it either.) But acting like fanfic is this blight that must not be suffered to let live is pretentious and shitty.


  1. Fanfic also has a long and gloried history from the days before copyright was a thing. For my Ancient Novel class in college we read what basically amounted to a Biblical fanfic about Joseph and his Egyptian wife. Modern retellings of stuff like Robin Hood are really just fanfiction as well. You like the characters and want to invent your own adventures with them. Oh and then of course there's the entire Star Wars extended universe. Mercedes Lackey's has published anthologies of short stories set in her world but not written by her. So what really sets "legitimate" fiction apart?

  2. Every Disney animated motion picture is fanfiction of the original story.

  3. Way back in the day, there was a group in Glasgow that got VHS tapes mailed to them which had latest episodes of TNG taped off tv sent to them, and they hired a room once every 6 weeks and charged entry to cover cost of that. Federation Agaisnt Copyright Theft got wind and were going to shut it down, but Paramount (this was a LONG time ago) basically said "are you kidding us? They watch them there and buy the videos they like the minute they hit the shelves. Leave our free advertising alone!"

  4. I wrote fanfic for years. Then I realized that I would never get anywhere writing fanfic because I couldn't publish it, so I finally stopped writing fanfic and got on with writing my own stuff.

    And that's my only real serious beef with fanfic. You're not working on *your* story. But hey, if you're happy, whatevs. :)

    1. It could be argued that *because* there is absolutely no chance of monetary reward, fanfic is the "purest" kind of writing ;)

  5. Thanks, Chris. Personally I don't want anything to do with fanfic. As a reader AND a writer. The intellectual property issues are reason enough for me to shun it. But wait, there's more.

    Please don't get mad at me, but most of today's popular culture isn't designed to move the reader, viewer, listener, whatever. It's not supposed to engage their emotions and enable their imaginations. In short, it doesn't even try to do what I believe true art should do. And what I look for in the works I read and watch.

    Instead, pop cult is power fantasy. It gives its consumers the thrill of accomplishing that which they can't in real life. Of gaining control over anyone and anything.

    And, of course, it preaches to the choir. It "proves" what they already believe is "true". Even though it's just fiction, or a highly slanted version of reality. And therefore proves nothing.

    So why would I want to write in such a universe? I don't. There just isn't anything there that excites me as a creative artist. Or even an imaginative reader.

    The kinds of works that DO inspire me mostly date from before popular culture. Myths, legends, classic literature. And of course, reality, both past---history---and present---current events. And my own experiences.

    If I can't find this creative stimulation in today's pop culture, I certainly won't find it in its parasite culture, fanfic. So I'll give it a pass. And if millions of readers and writers are into it, I certainly won't be missed.

    1. It's almost like you've never actually read fanfiction. Way to go shitting on something that you LITERALLY have no clue about. Bravo. I bet you feel awesome about yourself for it too.

  6. I agree with Mary Anne (Hi, Mary Anne!) It doesn't interest me as a writer. I always want to change things. A lot. Until the universe becomes so much my own I have to change everything, and then it isn't fanfic anymore. It doesn't interest me as a reader, because it's all too often just not very good, but even if it is.... I see entire series based on other people's work (Rex Stout's, Ian Fleming's) and they just don't measure up to the originals. I want Archie to be the Archie I know, Nero to be Nero the way I remember him, James to be James, Ian Fleming's James, M to be...Judi Dench (well, I really like her characterization of M). When someone else writes in that universe it changes things I LIKE about the original universe. And not, I'm afraid, for the better. Not for me, anyway.

  7. I’ve seen some really good fanfic, and lots of reeeeally bad fanfic. But you know what? Many of them are young writers needing practice on both their skills and their confidence, so why not try the easy, prebuilt world with a built-in following first? You wouldn’t expect a guy, first day in flight school, to fly a 747. It’s spending time somewhere that makes you happy after a crap day. It’s wish fulfillment. It’s discipline to get in the seat and make words. And it is the will to write something, anything, and it’s literacy (many people can’t read at all). All of that, if the writer works at it, can turn into an author who evolves into a published one. Who are we to hate on someone else’s happy place and/or learning curve? Published authors all started by writing bad work. Yes, copyright is a thing, but IMO, unless you are passing off the original work as yours and you’re clear on that disclaimer, I’m ok with it. You don’t have to like a thing to let it live. And so much the better if the original author is ok with it! Either way, I don’t think fic will ever die.

  8. Wanted to leave this here because I can not even.

    Imagine believing that myths and legends aren't fanfiction (how many people do you think wrote those? do you honestly think they weren't listening to each other and picking what they liked and what they wanted to change as they wrote their versions?). Imagine believing classic literature and history based stories aren't fanfiction (ever heard about Dante? Virgil? Everyone that ever wrote anything about King Arthur? You *do* know it is fanfic even if the source material is old, real o a religious text, right?). Imagine living in a world so detached of reality that you believe fanfiction == pop culture...

    Some people are clearly too fragile to accept that all the books they workship are fanfiction, testaments to the love and hate these authors had for the original canon, and that everybook they will ever write will be fanfiction, a tried and used trope, inpired by someone else's work, in a setting isn't exactly the same but is similar enough to what we recognize as familiar to be understandable. As long as there's a canon, an initial idea used as base, it is fanfiction. Even if you change the names, even if you tweek it a little bit, even if you want to be original. Do you have a medieval fantasy setting? Does this story uses common tropes? Is it based on someone's experience?

    Fanfiction. All of it, fanfiction.

    In all honestly, I feel sorry for all the anti-fanfic writers out there. I can not imagine what it must be like to have been touched by someone's writing to the point you want to make something like it, something more, something that is theirs and much as it is yours, where the emotions that weren't named are acknowledged and the options that were forgotten are explored, where the things that made you love and hate and cry and dream can be revived once again, different yet the same... and then refuse to accept that pure, irreplaceable feeling because "fanfic icky"

    Don't be scared of fanfiction. Embrace the reality of writing and, in the process, embrace the you that is an excited, honest to a fault, starry-eyed fan.