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March 2017

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bear by san

For some unknown reason, tafkar asked me about my opinions on fanfic. Her comment is here: my answer got too long for the comments section.

(Oddly enough, I've been reading the debate on the sfwa forum on this topic with some interest and amusement. It must be railroading time.)

Now, it's no secret to me that a lot of people on my flist or in various fan communities I'm a part of write and consume vast quantities of fanfiction, and I know there are pro writers who write fanfiction under pseudonyms, and so forth. I'm pretty much clarified my feelings on the topic of fanfiction in other forums before, but we'll call this the definitive answer, since I can't seem to answer it at short length.

What I have to say on the subject will probably make me unpopular in certain quarters, but what the hell. Here we go.

Actually, I think debates about fanfiction are boring. And pointless. And such a waste of perfectly good time when people could be telling stories.

Everybody's entitled to their own opinion. *g* That said, here's mine:

I write pastiche. I write historical fantasy. I write homage. I write professional stories about Dick Feynman and Tycho Brahe and Elvis Presley and Irene Adler and characters who, if you squint at them not too closely, are obvious parodies of pop culture figures with the serial numbers filed about halfway off. I have a book that's a Tam Lin retelling and one that's a Thomas the Rhymer retelling and one that's heavily plotted around Shakespeare's sonnets.

Textual poaching is textual poaching, and it's a powerful tool in the right hands, (Shakespeare's? Marlowe's? Kelly Link's? Ben Rosenbaum's? Gregory Maguire's? Peg Kerr's? Pamela Dean's? I could go on and on and on.) and the difference between me writing a multi-volume fantasy series based on the Eddas and Cassie Clare's VSD is (1) I can sell mine for money (2) I have an ambition to sell mine for money (3) hers is a hell of a lot funnier.

There's also the issue of the modern obsession with 'originality,' and single-creators, which is, dude, like so 20th century. Shakespeare would have looked at you like you were nuts if you told him he should come up with his own characters and plots. But that's besides the point.

Actually, come to think of it, the Very Secret Diaries is probably protected as parody. But that's also besides the point. There's no *creative* difference in the process of Marlowe adapting Hero & Leander, Shakespeare adapting Romeo & Juliet, and a fanfiction writer adapting Harry Potter. It's the same process by which kids want to play make-believe in the universe of their favorite television shows and books, and by which blues musicians keep tacking on verses to "The House of the Rising Sun," and by which Tam Lin has grown to the absolute monster of variant versions it is today.

We don't like the way it is, so we tinker with it and claim it. It's called the folk process, and it exists in SF as the quote-unquote genre conversation. You can't have Bill the Galactic Hero until there's a Starship Troopers that somebody wants to shout I Refute Thee! at. You can't have The 7% Solution until somebody latches on to the fact that it's never addressed by Conan Doyle that Sherlock Holmes is a cocaine addict. And I realize I'm making enemies by saying that, but I see no difference in that process and in my process in writing a short story like "Old Leatherwings," which is essentially fanfiction based on the fairy tale "The Wild Swans" and the legend of the Old Leatherman.

Since my publications include riffs on historical personages, well known literary canon, and parodies of famous poets, I figure I don't have a leg to stand on, and it would be hypocritical of me to claim that fan fiction is somehow inferior to my riffing the hell out of Randall Garrett in my Abby Irene stories.

Especially when Cassie Clare is so goddamned much more funny than I will ever be. The difference between what she's doing and what Gregory Maguire is doing and what Robert Jordan is doing (because the Wheel of Time, let's be honest, is the unholy collision of Arthuriana with Tolkein... which is what Guy Kay did in his Fionavar books too, but Fionavar's so very, very much more to my taste)--well, I don't think there is a creative difference. At all. It's all textual poaching.

It's just we pros poach stuff that's in public domain, or we file the serial numbers off in such a way that what we do is legal.

Whether there's a moral difference, I leave as an exercise to the reader. It's a question which bores me, and I have no interest in getting involved in that debate. (My answer tends to be, if the owner of the property is fanfiction-friendly (like MZB, or J.K. Rowling, or whatever) then I don't see *any* moral issues with fanfiction. If the owner is opposed, it's impolite in the extreme to work in their universe.)

I just don't have those kind of control issues; it seems to me that people know the difference between a real honest to god canon Harry Potter novel, and whatever slash coupling is popular this week, and I don't see that the fanfiction hurts Rowling's bottom line any. And it makes her fans happy.

And how is that fanfiction any different than me going to Ambercon and playing in RPGs based on Zelazny's work?

Well, to my mind, it's not, you see. RP is fanfiction too; it's just ephemeral fanfic.

I'm also hip to the idea that some people want to write stuff because, you know, it's fun. Writing is fun! Big secret! I love my job! God is writing fun!

And writing fanfic is a way to find an audience for your writing, and have it read, and still treat that writing as a pleasurable hobby rather than the consuming vocation it has to be if you're going to be serious about publishing. I know whereof I speak: It's taken me seventeen years of working my butt off to get where I am in terms of publication. If you just like to write because you like to write and you want to be read, dude. It's nuts to do that kind of work.

Fanfic, if it's decent, will find an audience.

Actually, I suspect the fact that the approval is easier for fanfic writers to find is one of the reasons that some pro and neopro and wannabe pro writers hate it so damned much. How dare they have an easier time of it than we do?

Well, the answer is, their goals are different. So who cares if they have it easier? They're doing something different. And having fun! How dare they! While I Suffer For My Art!

As for people writing fanfiction based on any of my work? Well, I won't read it, so don't ask me to. I can't, because of the risk of problems like the ones MZB ran into (rumor has it that she died with a novel unpublished, because a fan whose fanfiction she read had treated the same period of Darkover history, and sued her, more or less.) But if anybody loves my work so much they want to play in that sandbox, so be it. I'm flattered that I've affected them on that level, and the best I can promise is an amused pretense at complete ignorance that any such thing even goes on around here.

If they're making any money on it, I want them to either file off the serial numbers enough so that I don't actually have to sue them, though. Or I want my cut. One of the two.



I think that's only fair.

Comments

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"And how is that fanfiction any different than me going to Ambercon and playing in RPGs based on Zelazny's work?

Well, to my mind, it's not, you see. RP is fanfiction too; it's just ephemeral fanfic."

It amazes me that there are people who don't see this. Particularly those who do PBeM as well as playing FTF.

And you're dead-on about my motives for doing PBeM instead of getting into pro/semipro fiction writing. All the fun and none of the rejection slips!
I think I love you.
Why, thank you.
The Forever War was probably not primarily written as an attack on Starship Troopers, and Heinlein appears to have liked it. Both were defenses of the foot soldiers who did the actual fighting.
Shh. Quit pokin' holes in my rhetoric.

Or, actually go ahead and poke holes in my rhetoric. I deserve it.

You're quite right, of course, and I was resorting to hyperbole to make my point.

There is a genre conversation about foot soldiers in war, and it's a good one, too, and it's still going on.
RP is fanfiction too; it's just ephemeral fanfic.
I agree. What's more, I see a direct line from kids creating new storylines while playing with their Star Wars action figures TO RPGs TO fanfic. Is anybody arguing that children have to be totally original in their playthings?

So who cares if they have it easier?
The thing is, I don't think fanfic is necessarily easier than original. It's a different set of problems, perhaps, but no less difficult. Research. Authenticity to canon.
If I'm writing in the Harry Potter universe, and find I have trouble with Hagrid's accent -- tough beans, I can't suddenly make him Cockney or a NooYawker, something I could do with original characters.
Oh, and if I remember from Reinventing Shakespeare, the originality fetish only really came in around the time of British copyright law in the 1700s. Around that time, Shakespeare was elevated in stature over Jonson, because Jonson was clearly a plagiarist, while Shakespeare's sources were unknown enough to make him appear to be original.

Envy perhaps?

I followed your link to the other LJ and my reaction to that writer's "honesty" is, quite simply, that it's a load of bs. Sorry, but she does not understand that of which she speaks.

In Hollywood, not every writer creates his or her own series. Most Hollywood writers write *other* peoples' characters. The ones who do it well earn a nice living. When they join the Writers' Guild, no one asks whether or not the characters in the script they just sold were 'original.'

I agree it can be very dicey to borrow a print writer's characters and to write fanfic. It's much too close to the arena of the original work. Better to avoid it.

But TV shows? Movies? Different arena; even without "permission," they're fair game. I mean really, good fanfic can only help a series or movie grow an audience and most savvy producers recognize this.

And as far as wasting time on derivative characters, hey, nothing's been original since the Greeks.

So, I agree with your observations above.

Fanfic ranges in quality; so does pro fic. I've read some really bad SF novels in my time and wondered how the heck they ever got published. I've read fanfic (I prefer the term, fanlit) that was as good as pro fic, if not better. It wasn't pro published because there was no market or the market was too small ---pure and simple.

That might bother someone who wants to earn money through their writing (And God bless those who can) but for a writer, money isn't always the goal. Art works that way some time.

Some fanfic writers have a better, larger, and more responsive audience than a lot of pro writers. So maybe you're right: it's envy.

PS: And just for the record, in MFU, Norman Felton is well aware of fan fic. He even wrote an intro to an issue of Kuryakin File. He recognized the existence of fanfic in a speech at a 1995 Spycon (I was there) and he was supportive.

Re: Envy perhaps?

I also tend to put media and print in slightly different moral categories; media is collaborative to begin with, for one thing, and print is very obviously the work of an individual, with secondary/tertiary input from others.

I think it's a little more complex than just envy. I think there's also a perfectly justifiable protectiveness of something one's invested a huge amount of time and love into, and feels proprietary toward--a certain oh-god-what-if-they-want-to-slash-my-characters thing. But that's the price a writer pays for release.

When it's done, in my mind, we're giving it to the readers, and they're paying us to engage our fantasy. So there's the text and there's the response, and sometimes the fact that the response can't be controlled really rattles writers. And I understand that.

I personally find the response to be the best part. "Oh! I never saw that in there! That's cool!" And it's the whole reason I write.... well, that and because the voices in my head should bother as many people as possible.

*g*
Cassie Clare is so goddamned much more funny
Oh, one more thing.
At Boskone, I heard Teresa Nielsen Hayden squeeing over having met the author of the VSDs. She said this while moderating a panel in one of the larger rooms, mostly-full. The entire audience oohed. And I'd say TNH is somebody who can recognize quality fiction, original or no.
Not just Cassandra Claire; tnh has plugged ajhalluk's Lust over Pendle and its sequel as well, in the "Namarie Sue" entry. They're the links in the sentence, "If that surprises you, recollect that the primary characteristic of fanfic isn’t that it’s amateurish or derivative; it’s that it’s legally unpublishable."

Also, word. People who complain about the derivative nature of contemporary Arthurian fantasy irk me greatly. They can see a couple proximate nodes--MZB and White, say--but either forget or don't know about all the chain-links that preceded Malory.... (Sorry, well-worn soapbox.) 90% of the earlier stories are ...of questionable merit too; one just doesn't seem them anymore because earlier generations have winnowed out what *they* thought was the good stuff.
What I have to say on the subject will probably make me unpopular in certain quarters, but what the hell.

And such is why people who read your books can not only enjoy them, but also can hold a lot of respect for their author. Bravi for speaking your mind, and bravi for being so openminded about fan fiction. You rock.
You're absolutely right that on the writing side, there isn't any difference between writing a modern version of Tam Lin/i> and writing "Star Trek" fan fiction. I've done both. (Writing a Trek novel that you can get published by Pocket is a completely different thing; I tried to do that and I never could get it right. But those constraints are exterior to the basic process.)

I'm very flattered by the company you put me in, but I'd agree with you even if you hadn't.

Pame
*nod* I know my Tam Lin novel--Blood & Iron, not yet sold--is poaching. And moreover, I'm not just poaching Tam Lin--I'm poaching you, on some level, and I'm poaching every other modern fantasy author who's written a Tam Lin novel that I've read. Even if, or maybe especially if, I make the conscious decision to do something differently than you did.

We all know what's going on. And it would be, you know, disingenuous to pretend it wasn't.
Faboo response.

The thing that gets me the most in these arguments against fan fiction is the sense that a fan does not have a right to reinterpret someone's work, or engage with it in a way the creator might not have intended. I mean, if I spend time and effort (and, for that matter, money) to engage with a work, be it a book or a movie or a tv show, I think I have some right to interpret that work within my personal frame of reference. I don't watch or read just to be fed a story. I want to *interact* with that story, not just sit back and be led along by the nose. The best works are those that engage me on multiple levels, not just expect me to take the creator's views at face value.

And I don't just see this in the context of fan fiction (though it's where it is most obvious). I've talked to more than one writer who cannot abide by the notion that the reader will take anything from the story other than what the writer put into it. It seems silly to me. Sure, I may miss a writer's point, but that's the risk a writer takes when they cut the apron strings and send their story out into the world.

Now I agree that if a writer is against having their work reinterpreted in fan fiction and posted in a fanzine or online, then yes, it's rude to do so (and that's the reason I stick to media fandom). But at the same time, if that person is expecting that no one will be reinterpreting their work in some way shape or form, I think they're sorely mistaken.
That's what we call subtext, or, more plainly, "the reader's fifty percent."

That fifty percent is what makes me as a reader fall in love with a story.

Twenty years since I read "The Silken Swift," and all my unicorns are still Ted Sturgeon unicorns. Rather than Peter Beagle unicorns, for all The Last Unicorn is my favorite book in the whole wide world.
I love you. :)

One thing you didn't touch on was the concept of 'value.' To many people, if something is free, it is worthless. Therefore, since fanfic neither earns the maker money nor costs the user anything, it has no inherent value.

That is, of course, a load of bull-crap but it's a deeply-ingrained attitude in our society.
I figure if the writer loves writing it, it has value.
Great post, and I wholeheartedly agree with most of it. I think there is a slight difference in co-opting material that's been incorporated into myth over the centuries and borrowing a character someone created last week. It may be the time factor, or maybe it's just whether or not the originator is still alive.

I do, however, miss the days when fanfic was confined to fanzines. You know, when there were editors who actually filtered the stuff, and artists who enhanced it, and all the work was a labor of love on typewriters or carbon copy machines. When finding fanfic was a little harder, and required some effort on the reader's part. When fandoms were smaller. The proliferation of the net and archives/lists/sites pretty much guarantees any crapola in the world gets put out there--and is often encouraged--and sometimes gives fanfic a black eye.

On the other hand, it's thanks to the net that fanfic is more easily available, in such a wide variety, and even if the signal to noise ratio is exceedingly high, there's a lot of good stuff out there too. It makes me happy when I read it, even if I rarely write it anymore.
I think there is a slight difference in co-opting material that's been incorporated into myth over the centuries and borrowing a character someone created last week.

*g* Did I mention that I'm also against extending copyright past creator's-lifetime-plus-75-years? Heck, I think 50 is enough for most purposes. My heirs and assigns can go out and work for a living after that.

I can do the work I do because there's a rich cultural soup to work from. Who am I to deny that to the generation after mine?
::hugs::

Thank you for that. After you said your opinions might make you unpopular, I was a little scared to click the link, but I'm glad I did. I'm glad that there are "real authors" that aren't anti-fanfiction. I write it for fun. I'm not out of adulation, or publication, or any of that. I'm just having a good time. Same reason I roleplay.

I will not, however, put anything out on the web based on the world of an author who has asked for people not to. Hasn't said that people can't play in her sandbox, only that she doesn't want it out there on the web. And I can respect that. So my stories in her sandbox will remain in my computer, and nowhere else.
"Gambling! I'm shocked to discover there is gambling going on around here!"

*g*
Though I probably can't add much that hasn't been said, I wanted to say thank you for your post, from my perspective as a writer of both fanfic and original fiction. The idea--even among someof those who write fanfiction--that there's a hierarchy or a progression from pretend to real writer--is, quite frankly, tiresome.

I particularly like this:
It's just we pros poach stuff that's in public domain, or we file the serial numbers off in such a way that what we do is legal.

This kind of thing is why I love Shakespeare, and folklore, and myth-soup-based fiction, and fantasy, and the whole, lovely, interconnected, inherently diverse mess. In the moment of reading, or listening, or looking at, a story, it doesn't so much matter which parts came from where. What matters to me is whether or not they're put together in a way that makes me forget myself, and yet reminds me of what it means to be human. Peg Kerr's The Wild Swans springs to mind as a perefect example of this, but there are dozens--if not hundreds--more staring out at me just from my own bookshelf.
You will love cpolk's post on intertextuality.

And I say that not just because she plugs me. *g*
Coming late to an interesting conversation. I didn't know the subject was debated on sfwa boards. I wrote fanfic for several years and still like some of the stories that I produced. You're right that fanfic is very fun, but so is my original fic.

The person who made that controversial post responded, in part to tafkar's comment by saying:" Writing fan fiction doesn't teach you how to write. You don't have to build a setting or learn to evoke it. You don't have to learn how to do rich characterization--merely mentioning the character's name does all the work for you. You don't have to worry about how to integrate back-story into the story proper: it's already there in your reader's head."

I disagree vehemently with this. If you are serious about improving your writing, the genre (if fanfic can be labelled as such) is unimportant. In fanfic, I strove to be true to character (something that can actually be harder when readers have all these preconceived notions) and to develop character (they grew, they changed), I strove to create settings that felt real. And I think/hope I wove back-story and canon into my stories to make them as plausable as possible.

What fanfic can be, is a safe place to learn to fly. And for some, it's fun place to return to -- a relatively hassle-free place. I've chosen to set fanfic aside, but just by the fact that my LJ's listed web site is my old fanfic site (it's the only non-work site I have), you have to know I still love it.
I asked because the original poster seemed to be writing based on her "I am a REAL SCIENCE FICTION AUTHOR" credentials, so I thought I'd ask another Real Science Fiction Author what they thought of it.
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