Tuesday, October 03, 2006

In Defense of Fanfic, part 1

Yup, more repostings, in one convenient post.
Fan fic happens. It's been happening for a very long time. It will continue to happen whether Robin Hobb or anyone else likes it or not. It's done for fun. It's done because folks want more adventures than the original creator is giving them. It's done because folks are inspired by the original and because they're curious and creative.

Fan fic used to be mostly underground. The internet has merely provided a more public delivery system than zines did.

Some writers understand this. Some writers used to write fan fic, big name SF and fantasy writers like Melanie Rawn and Susan Matthews and Jean Lorrah among others. I know because I read their fan fic.

Some authors understand that once their stories make it into print, once their characters hit the printed page, they no longer belong solely to their creators. They get reinterpreted by the readers. I almost never envision characters as described. I form an image in my mind from the first time a character appears and am then surprised when the character is described because I just about never get anything "right." I'll read things into a story that others won't and the writer never intended and other readers will read other things into it the author never intended. T'is the nature of the beast.

Some authors understand this and some understand the human impulse to discuss these contrary ideas of a book or movie or tv show and to take the next step to imagine a further adventure. When I was a kid, I acted them out with friends. When I got a bit older, I wrote them down.

Whether Robin Hobb likes it or not, people will write fan fic, maybe about her characters, definitely about other writers' characters. Ranting about it won't change it. Nor would a lawsuit, especially when no profit is made from the fan fic and there's no way to prove her books sell less well because of it. If anything, they might be selling more as more folks become aware of her work thru fan fic.

She can rant all she likes. It's her right. But I would think more of her if she'd be a mensch about it and take it with humor and grace because the folks she's putting down might be sitting next to her at a SF con panel someday.
Thanks to someone posting the link on rasfc, I offer this article on The Wall Street Journal Online: Rewriting the Rules of Fiction. I'm not sure that fiction's being rewritten so much as the way fiction is published, reaches its audience, etc. But when The Wall Street Journal notices fanfic and writes about it, I think it's safe to say it's no longer a secret. ;)
I had a lightbulb moment as I got into bed last night about my love/hate relationship with slash fic. And it was so simple, I'm not sure why it had eluded me for so long. The key is whether or not I can believe in the slash as an AU.

I've recently become addicted to comic book slash set in the DCU (DC Comics's superhero universe, known as the DC Universe). This AU assumes bisexuality for many characters and specifically for Roy Harper and Dick Grayson. And my first reaction, of course, was "ick." Because I've been reading about these characters for 47 or so years out of my current total of 53 years of life and that's pretty much nearly all my reading years so far. I think there was a year or two before I "graduated" to superheros after the Walt Disney and related children's titles. I was, of course, concurrently reading Classics Illustrated, Archies, some Romance titles, and such fare as Millie the Model and Linda Carter, Student Nurse, as well as some other titles that have faded from memory, thankfully. But superhero comics were my main comics love and remain so today.

I first encountered fanfic well before I heard of it, when I wrote it during the late-'60s and early-'70s as a way to keep having adventures of my favorite, cancelled TV shows. Then schoolwork took up my time and I didn't write fanfic again til 1980 when a friend and fellow Man From UNCLE lover said she'd read some MFU stories if I wrote them. So I wrote them. They were mostly spy stories, just like the TV show had been. Eventually, I discovered zines, got more into character development, and found slash.

I read some wonderful slash. A lot of early K/S was great. Well written stories with lots of emotion and story wrapped around the sex. And I discovered some laughable slash. To wit, the Hawaii Five-O story with McGarrett and Dan-o sending out for pizza after. But mostly, I had to tell myself it was all AU (alternate reality, for the uninitiated) or I would never be able to buy it. I grew up seeing these characters as straight and while I've known openly gay people since college in the early'70s, I never picked up on any suppressed sexual tension between characters of the same sex. Starsky and Hutch were just buddies in the feel-good manner of their time.

I couldn't write slash because I couldn't believe it. I had to create my own gay and bi characters so I could write that aspect of sexuality. And I enjoy doing so, even as I lost interest in reading slash because I've lost interest in reading most fanfic. I do have a couple of dozen zines to read, slash and straight, so there is still fanfic in my future.

I discovered comics fanfic much more recently, thanks to the internet and looking at fan sites for my favorite characters. Some were straight only, but some had slash. Roy and Dick? Nah, can't believe it. But I'm a curious sort and had to know what these folks were doing with the characters. So I read a bit and got hooked. Now I'm like a junkie who needs her nightly fix.

So, what happened? I couldn't figure it out, until last night. AU, of course, but in comics, AU is the norm despite DC's frequent reboots and attempts to end the parallel Earths it created over the years. The best part of the DCU when I was growing up was the multiverse. It was wonderful seeing all the versions of Superman and Batman. So why not gay versions?

Stargate's universe has established that alternate universes exist, so the right setup there can make slash rather plausible. Different versions of the guys, no problem. And once you buy into the concept, any show would work. All that would then be required is good writing, good plotting, good and believable characterization. Make me believe it.

The comics realm has a leg up, however, because in the DCU, at least, the multiverse is there, even when it's not, when everyone thinks it's gone. Because it can always start up again. And as we learned in the recent Crisis, after the previous Crisis destroyed the multiverse, it had come back.

One theory is that every decision point can have more than one choice. And each choice made can spawn another universe. What if I do X, what if I do Y? X leads to one universe, Y leads to another. But you need that starting point, the first two universes where the chioces are made, setting things moving forward and ever splintering. Is this possible? Who knows? But thanks to DC's multiverse, it's been in my reading mindset in comics since I was 12 or 13 and read the first or one of the first JLA/JSA crossovers. That's when I knew, in fiction, anything is possible.
Been reading and seeing a lot about mashups, that webcentric mixing of different things to make something new, in both blogs and the mainstream media. Most folks online with a minimum of geekness know about the music hybrids (Beatles and Beastie Boys, for ex) and now the vids (Brokeback Mountain spoofs that include the Brokeback to the Future or whatever that clever "movie trailer" was called) which can be found on YouTube among other sites. Even the hilarioius politic spoofs from JibJab, which have used actual songs with animated silliness of political figures, is a mashup of a sort. Actually, it's just like songvids and filk, which I'll get to in a minute.

There are web app mashups, too, of course, probably hundreds now that use Google Maps to locate such diverse subjects as hair salons and crime scenes. And thousands of others that use other apps.

The key, of course, is to combine what exists to make something new that can be educational, informative, or just plain fun. And it seems to be a natural human impulse. There are people who will create from scratch, taking raw materials and making art or music, literature or film. The raw materials are paint, clay, found objects, practically anything for the artist, musical notes for the composer, words for the writer, and film, words, performers for the filmmaker. There are others who work with materials not so raw. They start with someone else's music, someone else's pictures, someone else's words. Some people work in both ways.

I first encountered songvids and filk in the mid-'80s when I attended my first fan (science fiction, fantasy, tv and film media fans) con. Songvids took advantage of the relatively new tech of video recorders to use an existing music track, usually a popular song, played over a mix of scenes recut from movies or tv shows to reflect the chosen song. Filkers usually take existing music (from public domain to more recent works) and write their own lyrics. Not unlike what Allan Sherman did and Weird Al Yankovic does. Filk at its most serious is a form of folk music; at its funniest, it's parody.

Even fan fiction, taking existing characters and writing new stories with them is a form of mashup when one considers the core concept behind mashups. All that has changed is that technology has made it easier to do more with the concept. That some web companies use open source and encourage mashups simply shows that today, the idea of this is more understood and accepted, but then again, a lot depends on whether or not people are making money off their mashups, I suppose.

I can't explain the impulse to create using someone else's work as the core of your own, but as someone who wrote fanfic at one time and who appreciates a good song parody, as well as the tech mashups that make information more accessible, I can see how someone can be inspired by what exists. Sometimes, that inspiration leads us to try something similar in a new context. Sometimes, we simply want to take what exists to a new level or to explore some aspect of it.

In fanfic, I asked myself what-if questions about the characters someone else lovingly created and brought to life. Those characters were real to me and I wanted more with them. More stories. More adventures. More delving into what made them tick.

I'm no poet or lyricist, but I can imagine hearing a tune and other words popping into my head. When I was a senior in high school, my English teacher assigned us to write song parodies for Thomas Hardy's Return of the Native. Not being composers, we were expected to use existing songs and write our own lyrics. I don't remember enjoying another English assignment more.

I understand and sympathize with the creators who see their works getting away from them, financially and creatively. But mashups in one form or another are part of the fabric of our lives, online and off, and they've been with us for a very long time. They enrich our lives, and if well done, reflect well on the originator of whatever formed the basis for the mashup in the first place. Think about your online experiences and consider how many sites and services you use that are a form of mashup. They are truly wondrous. But at their heart, they're nothing new. Humans have been mashing things up probably for as long as there have been things to mash.
If you have any interest in the fanfic debate, you should read this entry in Making Light as mentioned in my previous post. I just read through it and Teresa Nielsen Hayden said it so well.

A couple of quotes...
"Storytelling is basic to our species. It’s one of the ways we parse our experience of the universe. Whatever moves us or matters to us will show up in the stories we tell, whether or not we have a socially approved outlet for those stories."
"Of course, it would have to be a modern definition. In a purely literary sense, fanfic doesn’t exist. There is only fiction. Fanfic is a legal category created by the modern system of trademarks and copyrights. Putting that label on a work of fiction says nothing about its quality, its creativity, or the intent of the writer who created it."
She makes mention of Geraldine Brooks' March, a pro riff on the father of the young women of Little Women. Sure, there are no copyright issues there, and the book is pro published. Which leads to a few thoughts.

Brooks doesn't have to fear being sued for copyright or trademark infringement. Fanfic writers, be they amateur or pro, also have no such fear if they write using characters also out of copyright. And plenty of fanfic has made it into pro print, including retellings, ie "West Side Story" from "Romeo & Juliet" which are often taught together and even have appeared in a paperback together. Because, in essence, that's what such writings are. They eminate from "what if...?" questions, and those questions can stem from the given characters, situations in the original story (the fanfic writer feels not all of the story was told or a plot hole needs fixing, etc), or the urge for more adventures similar to the one told. And probably dozens of other reasons because each fanfic writer will bring his or her own experience and interests to the project.

When people denigrate amateur fanfic, they might simply have issues with people using their published characters or that of other living writers or the heirs of writers whose work is still in copyright. But if no profit is made, if the stories are merely being shared (even with a price tag if it's used to pay the printing and shipping of zines) out of love for the "borrowed" universe and a love for writing and playing "what if...?" games, the problem is a legal one and an iffy one at best, especially if the stories are being shared for free online.

But too often, denigrating fanfic is done to cast aspersions on the quality of the writing. Hell, we folks who have written and read and those who continue to write and read it, know it's amateur time. We know some are wonderfully written (and many of those writers are now pros) and some are drek, but if our favorite character is being tortured, then comforted by his partner, we don't give a rat's ass about the quality because we're getting something out of the thing that makes it worth our time. And yes, sometimes we're disappointed and sometimes we don't get our desired satisfaction. But the same can be said about pro novels that failed to live up to expectations, which are higher because a pro publishing house is behind them. be they original universes or stories, shared universes, or media tie-ins. And it's pretty clear that pro novels vary widely in quality and bestsellers aren't necessarily the best written books.

The quality of fanfic and the legality of fanfic are two different issues and should be discussed as such. My feelings on the legality are clear. Don't make a profit from it. And if it's your characters showing up in fanfic, be happy you've created characters people care so much about. You've affected readers in a way only a minority of writers manage to do. Be proud. No one stole something if you've released it into the world. As soon as I read your book, it and its characters are mine as well as yours. And that's a good thing, provided I like them.
Yep, Lee Goldberg is at it again. Poor guy has become a lightning rod for anti-anti-fan fic folks. And I can't feel sorry for him. He certainly deserves it. Of course, he's hearing from folks who agree with him, too. And everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. But to belittle fan fic writers for enjoying a hobby is as wrongheaded as saying people who can't do become teachers. Teaching something is often much harder than doing that something. Not only do you need to be able to do it or at least know or understand it, you then need to convey it in a way that allows someone else to learn it.

Fan fic writers are having fun. Since when is that something to sneer at? They're really not hurting anyone. Sure, there are writers who don't like seeing anyone else writing their creations. I get that. I'd probably feel the same way should someone write something using my characters. But it is not akin, as Dawn Rivers Baker said, to being raped. I'm sorry, but these writers whose works are being used/borrowed are not victims. Fan fic is not preventing them from earning a living and it damn well shouldn't make them afraid to leave their home, or even to write anything ever again. Rape of the mind? Sheesh. She makes it seem like those of us who wrote or are writing fan fic are psychically invading writers's minds and sucking out their creative energy or some such. And in using such an analogy, it weakens the horror of rape, not dissimilar to the politician who recently got into hot water for comparing US treatment of terror suspects in Gitmo and elsewhere with the Nazis and their concentration camps. And again, confusion over copyright vs trademark comes up. The content of the fan fic stories belong to the fan folk who wrote them. Only the borrowing of the characters is in question, maybe some very specific fictional place names or character/background details. Change those names and some relevant details and you have an original story.

And there are plenty of pro writers out there who I'm sure understand perfectly well what fan fic is. They wrote it. If any of them oppose fan fic now, they would be hypocrites. And more and more, pro writers will come out of the fan fic ranks. I don't usually name the ones I know, but here are a few: Jean Lorrah, Susan Matthews, Melanie Rawn.

Same as dress designers can't stop cheaper clothing lines from mimicking their styles (not to be confused with knockoffs that pass themselves off for the originals, albeit at lower prices) for lower income consumers, neither can writers really do anything about fan fic. It's been around for decades. It's just more visible now, thanks to the internet and desktop publishing. And the sooner folks realize and accept this, the easier it will be for them to ignore the stuff and move on.

Some fan fic freaks me out. MPreg for example. (If you have to ask what that is, you probably don't want to know) But if that's what some people want to write and read, that's their business. I don't have to read it. Hell, I don't even have to look at it.

But at its heart, fan fic keeps interest in a show or movie or book series or even a show (ie, "Phantom of the Opera") alive. It helps keep fans interested, fans who will buy any sequel the original creator cares to give them. Fans are hungry for more adventures of beloved characters and theyoften use this form of writing to hone their craft and as a springboard to write original fiction. Why does this have to be so difficult for some folks to understand or accept?

Here's someone who gets it. This post on Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Novels goes after another stupid comment in the "discussion," that of a commenter on Goldberg's blog who compared fan fic with masturbation (like that was a bad thing).

Other issues brought up have to do with treating stories and characters as children, that fan fic undermines how you raise those children and gives them values you never intended. The counter to that was that essentially, children grow up and leave and become individuals with their own values. This also ignores the fact that readers interpret writing. Every reader will see the work through his or her eyes, through their personal biases. A number of writers have expressed, on message boards and in interviews, how people tell them or write reviews claiming their books are about X when they were supposed to be about Y, or even nothing in particular. Once the writing leaves the nest, it's up for interpretation. It no longer belongs wholly to the writer, except in the legal sense of copyright which covers the actual words. Any writer who doesn't want to lose total control over their creations shouldn't seek publication, IMO.

And of course, no one seems to mind the official tie-ins. Those legal usages of other people's characters is still fan fic; it's just sanctioned and the copyright holder no doubt gets a cut of the action, along with the trademark holder and so on. Payment makes such "mind rape" go down easier, I suppose. And suddenly, "fan fic" becomes "real writing."

I could go on, but perhaps, I already went on too long. I just get so steamed by this guy and this attitude. Just because I'm ready (more than ready) to move from fan fic to pro (I hope) fic, doesn't mean I don't appreciate fan fic, what it meant to me and continues to mean to everyone involved with it.


Hobb helpfully defined fan fic for us, so we're all clear on how she's using it: "Fan fiction is fiction written by a ‘fan’ or reader, without the consent of the original author, yet using that author’s characters and world." Well, duh. I'd define it that way, too. When there's consent, it's called tie-ins. Or the shared universe permutation. She then felt the need to explain what "without consent" means. Really, Ms. Hobb. It's not a lack of understanding here; it's a lack of caring on the part of the fan fic writers, at least most of the ones I've known. A few were genuinely ignorant of the concept or that it would even be an issue.

She then goes on to say, "Fan fiction is like any other form of identity theft. It injures the name of the party whose identity is stolen. When it’s financial identity theft, the thief can ruin your credit rating. When it’s creative identity theft, fan fiction can sully your credit with your readers."

Except that unlike financial or other identity theft (and it's often more than financial; some folks have had trouble proving they really are who they are after their identity has been stolen), where there is never any good done, and there's never even a neutral zone, fan fic can enhance the worth of the writer by increasing his or her popularity. It kept Star Trek going. It's kept The Sentinel a popular property, and it's kept Man From UNCLE popular enough that a new movie is under consideration (a long, painful process not worth discussing here). In fact, if the UNCLE co-owners, aka Warner Bros, would take advantage of the situation and release the show, all the episodes, in DVD, they'd sell like hotcakes. And the other half owner has no problem with fan fic, nor did the man she inherited it from, Norman Felton, one of UNCLE's creators.

Hobb continues with, "Anyone who read fan fiction about Harry Potter, for instance, would have an entirely different idea of what those stories are about than if he had simply read J.K. Rowling’s books."

Except that Rowling has no problem with fan fic, just with fan fic that goes against her principles. If kids can be prevented from reading such stories online, ie with password protection, she's been okay about it, or so I've been told by people doing HP zines. It was the print ones that couldn't be kept out of children's hands that she's against. She's never had problems with the gen HP zines.

Every reader will bring something different to a written or filmed work. They're gonna talk about it amongst themselves and even game it whether the author knows or not. Fan fic has been around for decades; it's not going away. it simply came out of the tunnels and crawlways. The internet brought it out into the sunshine and now everyone seems to know about it. If not for the outing of fan fic, Ms. Hobb and all the others who are acting so outraged and violated might not ever have known about it, same as the UNCLE owners were oblivious to my best friend and I playing UNCLE after school back in the late-'60s. We made up our own stories. We had fun. Same as I did many years later when I wrote up stories and shared them with some people. Okay, over a hundred when print zines were all there were and a good Star Trek zine could sell into 4 figures if it stayed in print long enough. I never wrote or published Star Trek. But I was writing fan fic long before I knew it had a name or that anyone else was doing it.

There's a lot more, but this got my blood boiling and I stopped reading after it: "'Fan fiction is a good way for people to learn to be writers.'
"No. It isn’t. If this is true, then karaoke is the path to become a singer, coloring books produce great artists, and all great chefs have a shelf of cake mixes. Fan fiction is a good way to avoid learning how to be a writer. "

Well, thanks for nothing, Ms. Hobb. I've tried reading your books (well, one of them) years ago and couldn't get into it. I didn't think it was all that good, to be polite. But I've watched a lot of fan fic writers develop their skills over time. Unlike singing, where you're stuck with your voice and in my case, a tin ear, writing is a skill that can improve with practice, and fan fic is a comfy environment to get that practice. You don't have to deal with rejection, since you can always find a zine to print your story. Then you get edited, by someone who knows what they're doing if you get lucky. You get comments aka feedback on your story when the zine gets into print, sometimes, even useful feedback. And as in my case, you get to work on story elements one at a time. I started working on plotting since most of the characters were already there for me. Later, I worked on the "guest stars," and got experience building and developing characters of my own.

Even with art, you can improve by doing, even by coloring in coloring books or tracing cartoons (I did that). They help train your eye and your eye/hand coordination. Not everyone will improve, but then, not everyone improves with years of art school, either. It still takes some talent and a lot of hard work, and not every method will work for every writer or artist or singer. Ms. Hobb comes across as a snob and I have no respect for her. She's entitled to her opinions, but when they denigrate people out of ignorance, then I get hot and bothered.

Writers write. Whether they're at Ms. Hobbs' level or not, they're still writers. Whether they're pros, aspiring pros, or hobbyists, they're still writers. And they can improve by writing anything they work at.

She makes some good points in her essay, but as with Lee Goldberg, they get lost in the inaccuracies. When you don't know what you're talking about or at least, don't know enough about it, it really hurts your arguments for or against something. In this case, she lost all credibility with me with the above quoted bits. And with this one, at the end:

"I will close this rant with a simple admonition.
Fan fiction is unworthy of you.
Don't do it."

As if her admonition would hold any weight with me, if I still were writing fan fic, or with anyone currently writing it. As if she's a fair judge of worthiness. I don't regret one day of the 15 years I wrote fan fic. And I'm sure the pro authors who wrote fan fic and now write their own novels and those who are writing tie-ins professionally thought it was worthy of them to write fan fic. Jean Lorrah for one. I can name a few others, mostly in the SFF field. And when the only difference between fan fic and tie-ins is the consent, well, that negates pretty much most of Robb's other points. It is real writing when printed in a fanzine or posted online if it's real writing when a publisher pays money for it and sticks it in Barnes & Noble. Same as writing spec scripts for TV shows to get a job writing a TV show is being a pro by playing with someone else's creations.


  1. Dear authors:

    Have you noticed that readers only write fanfic about stories they love?

    Think about it.

  2. I agree totally with your points and I have had similar battles with pro writers many of whom write fan fiction, they just get paid a lot of money from the franchiser to do so.

    I HATE when pro writers say something along the lines of yeah: yeah confort zones and practice but write your own stuff, like its SOOOO easy. If you're transitioning from FF to the "real" thing, sometimes it can be so hard to get the templated characters, ships, technology out of your head. Its called INSPIRATION I think. But sometimes you look at an original piece and you say "man I gotta stop watching trek, I got phaser rifles, transporters and a dilithium crystals" but its just the way your mind works, after all a lot of the time we associate new things with someone we already know.

    So, I agree with your blog/post page rant thing. I think a lot of ficcers do. I think that what we need is some of the pro writers to get off their high horse and stop acting like they came up with something from no inspiration. and for more companies to accept fan-fiction and see the potential of some of these writers!!!

  3. Thanks for those comments, Anon. When even pro writers don't agree about fan fic, then maybe there's something good about it. I can name at least one pro science fiction writer of original and Trek fiction who continued to write fan fic after going pro (initials JL) because, I suppose, she enjoyed it and didn't see anything wrong with doing a zine when she had novels in bookstores.