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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

In Defense of Fanfiction: Guestblogger Justin Goes Robin Hobbnobbing

If you had of asked me on a given day whether I'd one day end up passionately defending fanfiction, I would have given you a strange look. I don't read any of the stuff anymore, and my own endeavors in the field ceased long ago. And yet, I found myself reading Robin Hobb's rant (Swifty: The rant was taken down sometime after this entry was posted) with growing outrage, not just because I disagreed with Hobb's sentiments, but because I COULDN'T BELIEVE that a published author of some repute could hold opinions so closed-minded, reactionary, and ridiculous. The outrage, though, stemmed not so much from this as from the idea that Hobb's opinions, through her position as an eminent fantasy author, could actually discourage young writers from practicing fanfiction, and thus, exercising their creativity. Therefore, SOMETHING MUST BE DONE. THIS SHIT CANNOT STAND.

My text in bold.

I am not rational on the topic of fan fiction.

That's putting it mildly.

Well, actually, I can be, and in this essay, I will endeavor to be. But people who know me well also know that this is one topic that can make my eyes spin round like pinwheels and steam come out of my ears. In fact, I would venture to say that knowing this brings them great delight in provoking such a show several times a year when the topic comes up at a convention or in a discussion group.
So, rather than continue to publicly rant, unreeling endlessly my venomous diatribe against fan fiction, I thought I'd gather my bile and spill it all here, in a logical and organized flow. Hereafter, I shall simply refer those who query to the infamous red shoe gripped by the mad woman in the attic.
To start my rant, I will first define exactly what fan fiction is, to me. Others may have a wider or narrower definition, but when I am speaking of the stuff I dislike, this is what I mean. 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.
A few specific notes about this definition.
'Without the consent of the original author' This means it doesn't include someone writing a Darkover story, with Marion Zimmer Bradley's permission. It does include someone writing a Darkover story without Marion Zimmer Bradley's permission, even if MZB had allowed others to use her world. It does not include professional authors writing Star Trek or X-Files or Buffy the Vampire Slayer stories. All those stories are written and then published with the consent of the copyright owner. Media tie-in novels are not what I'm talking about here. Those stories are not, by my definition, fan fiction.

Implicit in this is the assumption that an author somehow owns their 'characters and world' to the extent that no one else is allowed to play with them. But why? Once you publish work, it enters into the public arena. People begin to engage with it. It becomes the property of the readers.

And what constitutes a 'professional' author? Does corporate sponsorship somehow legitimize someone's creativity? How are 'media tie-in' novels, often leagues worse than Hobb's derided 'fan-fiction' somehow more acceptable? Hobb would answer that 'the consent of the copyright owner' makes the difference, but what about popular figures and archetypical characters? It's the same principle by which children's artwork on school walls depicting Disney characters gets taken down because the children didn't get the permission of Disney executives before putting their stuff up in a public place. What it comes down to is: money. There's a very capitalist, very Protestant mindset behind this: even if they're not making money off 'my' characters, they shouldn't be able to have that much fun with them, dammit! They're MINE! for definitions, to what extent is Paradise Lost a fanfiction of the Bible? To what extent is Tennyson's 'Ulysses' a fanfiction of the Oddyssey? For much of human history, the concept of creative ownership Hobb seems to be using was thoroughly different: characters could be reused and rewritten as seen fit. Even given the capitalist 'ownership' argument, which I personally find distasteful, narrow-minded, and restrictive, once again, the fanfiction under discussion is NON-COMMERCIAL. Trying to suppress fanfiction is like trying to sue those children for drawing pictures of Disney characters. It's not just ridiculous, it's offensive.

Now that I've defined it, why do I dislike it so much? What, I am often asked, is the harm in fan fiction? I am told that I should be flattered that readers like my stories enough to want to continue them. Another justification is that writing fan fiction is a good way for people to learn to be writers. A fourth point that is often made is that fan fiction doesn't attempt to make money off the stories, so it doesn't really violate anyone's copyright. And finally, I am usually chastised for trying to suppress people's creativity, or suppressing free speech.
So let me take each of those points one at a time.
"What is the harm in it?"
I might counter by demanding to know 'What is the good of it?' I'll resist that temptation.

*coughs* Allows chance for creative expression, deepens the fan community, creates bonds, broadens the fanbase of the original work *cough*

Fan fiction is like any other form of identity theft. It injures the name of the party whose identity is stolen.

Your literary creations are not your identity; or at least, they shouldn't be, lest you have some kind of eggshell psyche. One wonders what Hobb makes of literary criticism in general; certainly if she sees fanfiction as being equivalent to identity theft, it seems likely she'd see any form of criticism as a personal affront.

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.

Or broaden the reader base by merit of its quality, drawing new readers who've been enchanted by the high quality of the fanfiction. Accentuate the positive, Robin!

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.

Well, in that the majority of readers of Harry Potter fanfiction ARE PEOPLE WHO'VE ALREADY READ ROWLING'S BOOKS, OTHERWISE WHY WOULD THEY BE INTERESTED, no.

In this way, the reader's impression of the writer's work and creativity is changed. My name is irrevocably attached to my stories and characters. Writers who post a story at or anywhere else and identify it as a Robin Hobb fan fiction or a Farseer fan fiction are claiming my groundwork as their own. That is just not right.

So Hobb seems to think that an audience is completely detached from its chosen text, total passive consumers. In a way, it's a model that fits her classical-capitalism model of creative ownership: I am the literary god and you are the groveling readers poring over my sacred utterances, each word infallible. In reality, of course, that model is absurd. The relationship isn't that one-sided: it's the readership that ultimately decides whether you'll become a Name or an obscurity, and the readership that determines what history will think of your works. Otherwise, you might as well take the reputed late-Salinger approach and drop each manuscript into the vault after it's finished, showing no one.

Like it or not, the very act of reading itself is a two way process. That's what makes reading so exciting and potentially dangerous: multiple interpretations of a text. The kind of intentionalist approach Hobb seems to implicitly endorse is that what she intends her texts to mean is exactly what the readership will pull from it: her texts are perfectly sealed envelopes with legible letters inside. In reality, texts are more like graffiti scrawled on a streetside seen from a distance. Each reader's disposition and preconceptions will determine how they read a certain text. For example, abstain from physically describing a character and the reader will fill in their own description based on what occurs to them. Even if you take the time to describe a character in-depth this often still takes place. Reactions to scenes, passages of dialague, and thematic content are the same. Reading is anything but the kind of clean and objective transmission Hobb takes it for. What a dismal world it would be if she were right!

Even if J.K. Rowling were to despise the writers creating Harry Potter fanfiction, what right would she have to do so? Their appropriation of her text shows only that it struck a deep enough chord within them for them to want to elaborate, emend, and further engage with it. Far from the kind of disrespect Hobb seems to think this constitutes, it is in fact the ultimate tribute: I cared enough to work in your world! The relationship Hobb seems to prefer, with books standing on distant, untouchable pedestals, seems to me to be far more joyless and devoid of true respect.
Nor can it be said that any author can really CHOOSE their readership. Once a text is out there, it's up for grabs. Texts can end up being appropriated by groups wildly divergent from the ones the author assumed they would be: did Herman Hesse, for example, ever envisage that 1960's beatniks would embrace Steppenwolf? Could he even have predicted the existence of beatniks? Or, to keep things fantasy, in keeping with Hobb's genre of choice, did Tolkien aim The Lord of the Rings at the American students who ended up cementing its status as a classic? Texts aren't straight-slung arrows that authors fire into the bullseye of a target audience; they're more like shotgun pellets, dispersing in all directions.

"I should be flattered that readers like my stories enough to want to continue them."
That's not flattering. That's insulting. Every fan fiction I've read to date, based on my world or any other writer's world, had focused on changing the writer's careful work to suit the foible of the fan writer. Romances are invented, gender identities changed, fetishes indulged and endings are altered. It's not flattery. To me, it is the fan fiction writer saying, "Look, the original author really screwed up the story, so I'm going to fix it. Here is how it should have gone." At the extreme low end of the spectrum, fan fiction becomes personal masturbation fantasy in which the fan reader is interacting with the writer's character. That isn't healthy for anyone.

Again, this petulant insistence on a one, true, infallible interpretation. Hobb's reasoning, that the author's intention is some kind of objective guiding light and anything which deviates from it is insulting vandalism, seems to preclude not only fanfiction, but the act of reading itself!

Listen to the words she uses: "screw up," "fix," "masturbation," "indulgence," - ignoring concepts of play, enjoyment, and immersion that accompany, indeed, even constitute, the very pleasure of reading. And what is her idea of writing that is somehow free of indulgence? The very act of writing itself is the supreme indulgence!

The idea of a tribute, or of a work touching a writer so deeply that they feel compelled to continue it in their own way isn't the kind of defacing Hobb thinks it is; rather, it's the continuation of ANY 'successful' reading of a text, success being defined as the reader becoming deeply absorbed in the work, and seeing its characters as real people rather than textual constructions. Who hasn't, for example, fallen in love with a literary character and imagined what it would be like to meet them? Even if one doesn't actually write these thoughts down, THE PROCESS IS FUNDAMENTALLY THE SAME. The reader is completing a mental tangent that the text's author couldn't have thought of, and has no real right, or indeed, freedom, to restrict once the text has been distributed. And yet, Hobb seems to think of this as unhealthy, hypocritically ignoring that she seems to be dangerously in love with her creations, and holds them a bit too close to her identity than is really healthy: see her following family-photo analogy for more on this.

At the less extreme end, the fan writer simply changes something in the writer's world. The tragic ending is re-written, or a dead character is brought back to life, for example. The intent of the author is ignored. A writer puts a great deal of thought into what goes into the story and what doesn't. If a particular scene doesn't happen 'on stage' before the reader's eyes, there is probably a reason for it. If something is left nebulous, it is because the author intends for it to be nebulous. To use an analogy, we look at the Mona Lisa and wonder. Each of us draws his own conclusions about her elusive smile. We don't draw eyebrows on her to make her look surprised, or put a balloon caption over her head. Yet much fan fiction does just that. Fan fiction closes up the space that I have engineered into the story, and the reader is told what he must think rather than being allowed to observe the characters and draw his own conclusions.

Here, again, is the crux of the matter: 'the intent of the author is ignored.' 'Fan fiction closes up the space that I have engineered into the story.' What a depth of fear seems to underly these words: that is, the fear that, far from "closing up" the "space in the story," the fanfiction might OPEN it up into something brilliant that Hobb couldn't have imagined. The last line is particularly irrational, 'the reader is told what he must think rather than being allowed to observe the characters and draw his own conclusions' describing perfectly Hobb's OWN stance throughout the rant.

When I write, I want to tell my story directly to you. I want you to read it exactly as I wrote it. I labor long and hard to pick the exact words I want to use, and to present my story from the angles I choose. I want it to speak to you as an individual. It's horribly frustrating to see all that work ignored and undone by someone else 'fixing' it. If you don't like the stories as they stand, I can accept that. But please don't tinker with them.

Once again: 'right' and 'wrong', 'fixed' and 'broken' paradigm.

The extreme analogy: You send me a photograph of your family reunion, titled 'The Herkimer's Get Together'. I think it looks dull. So I Photo-Shop it to put your friends and relations into compromising positions in various stages of undress. Then I post it on the Internet, under the title 'The Herkimers Get Together', and add a note that it was sent to me from Pete Herkimer of Missoula, Montana. Suddenly there is your face and name, and the faces of the people you care about, doing things that you would never do. Are you flattered that I thought your photograph was interesting enough to use? Or are you insulted and horrified? Are you alarmed that I so clearly connected work that is not yours to your good name?

If, however, someone used my family reunion as the basis of a legitimate artwork, cutting it up and photoshopping it to make something truly distinctive and striking, then I'd be overjoyed! Here, Hobb exposes the bias inherent in her thinking: no appropriative works can ever be art. Which, again, is absurd. Using the lowest common denominator as the standard is bias, pure and simple.

"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.

While most of Hobb's arguments are specious, the passage above is simply LUDICROUS. OF COURSE karaoke is the path to becoming a singer and OF COURSE fanfiction can be the path to becoming a writer! How else is one supposed to gain an individual perspective when they haven't sufficiently digested any influences? Hobb seems to think that writers spring full-formed from the womb, literary Athenas who can suddenly produce a fresh perspective and style without any practice or study of past masters. WRONG!
By singing other people's songs, a singer learns the possibilities inherent in them, learns to modulate their voice, approximate phrasings, and recombine elements, in much the same way a writer of fanfiction, by learning from their influences, can learn, in time, to write with a distinctive voice. Even someone like Hunter S. Thompson recounted simply typing passages direct from The Great Gatsby because he just wanted to feel what it was like to physically write words that great. Of all the absurdities Hobb perpetrates in her farrago of a rant, this has to be the most fallacious, ignorant, and thoroughly HARMFUL thing said.

Fan fiction is a good way to avoid learning how to be a writer. Fan fiction allows the writer to pretend to be creating a story, while using someone else's world, characters, and plot. Coloring Barbie's hair green in a coloring book is not a great act of creativity. Neither is putting lipstick on Ken. Fan fiction does exactly those kinds of things.

So I guess we're to assume all found art, graffiti, and sampling isn't creative. Max Ernst's collage work - might as well throw that in the trash. Toss out Duchamps and Basquiat as well. As for sampling in music - gotta be sure to send Public Enemy, DJ Shadow, and Negativland to jail. Appropriation and recontextualization? Forget it. Why not dismiss all parody and satire as well? This says nothing about fanfiction and everything about Hobb's complete ignorance of any major artistic developments from the end of the 19th century onwards.

The first step to becoming a writer is to have your own idea. Not to take someone else's idea, put a dent in it, and claim it as your own. You will learn more from writing one story of your own, no matter how bad it is, than the most polished Inuyasha fan fiction that you write. Taking that first wavering step out into the unknown territory of your own imagination is what it is all about. When you can write well enough to carry a friend along, then you've really got something. But you aren't going to get anywhere clinging to the comfort of saying, "If I write a Harry Potter story, everyone will like it because they already like Harry Potter. I don't have to describe Hogwarts because everyone saw the movie, and I don't have to tell Harry's back story because that's all done for me."

Again that defensive possessiveness: 'your' idea. As if anyone can somehow own ideas. Nabokov said something along the lines of "style and craft is everything, 'great ideas' are rubbish." One wonders if Hobb thinks that Shakespeare invented all his plots. On the same note, is a work like Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, one of the most acclaimed pieces of 20th century post-colonial fiction, to be viewed dismissively as Jane Eyre fanfiction? Using Hobb's logic, such works shouldn't rightly exist. If Hobb's version of 'originality' were insisted on, contemporary (or indeed, any kind of) literature wouldn't simply be different, IT WOULDN'T EXIST.

Fan fiction is to writing what a cake mix is to gourmet cooking. Fan fiction is an Elvis impersonator who thinks he is original. Fan fiction is Paint-By-Number art.

Yes Robin, and by the same logic your ENTIRE GENRE is WATERED-DOWN TOLKIEN-LITE. Gross generalizations are fun, aren't they?

Fan fiction doesn't attempt to make money off the stories, so it doesn't really violate anyone's copyright.
I beg your pardon?
Where did you get the idea that copyright is all about money? Copyright is about the right of the author to control his own creation. That includes making money off it. But it also includes refusing to sell movie rights, or deciding that you're not really proud of your first novel and you don't wish to see it republished. It's about choosing how your work is presented. Under copyright, those rights belong to the creator of the work.
I've seen all those little disclaimers on stories at and elsewhere. Legally and morally, they don't mean a thing to anyone. "I don't make any claims to these characters." "I don't want to make any money off this story." That isn't what it is about, and yes, you are still infringing on copyright even if you make those statements. Yes, the author can still sue you, even if you put up those statements.
If you don't believe me, please go to and read what is there. They are pointing out to you that fan fiction can infringe copyright.
"You're trying to suppress people's creativity."
No. I'm doing the opposite. I'm trying to encourage young writers (or writers of any age) to be truly creative. Elvis impersonators are fun for an occasional night out, but surely you don't want to spend your life being a Rowling or Hobb or Brooks impersonator, do you? What is wrong with telling your own stories? Put in the work, take the chance, and if you do it right, stand in your own spotlight.
"I have a free speech right to put my fan fiction on the Internet."
Do I have a free speech right to write pornography and post it under your name? Do I have a free speech right to put a very poor quality product in the public eye, and connect it to a work that belongs to you? Please try to think of this in terms of your own life and career. It doesn't matter if you are a writer or a plumber or an aerospace engineer. You have the right to receive credit for the work you do. No one should take that credit from you. No one should be able to connect your good name to work you did not create yourself.
You certainly have a free speech write to post your own fiction on the Internet or anywhere else, and I heartily encourage you to do so.
If you're really tempted to write fan fiction, do this instead.
List all the traits of the book or character that you liked.
List all the parts that you didn't like.
List the changes you would make to improve the story.
List all changes necessary so that the changes you want don't contradict the world, culture, morality or plot of the original story.
Change the proper nouns involved.
Change the setting to one of your own.
Write your story. Write the paragraphs that describe the world. Write the ones that introduce the characters. Write the dialogue that moves your plot along. Write down every detail that you want your reader to know.
Then publish it however you like.
Know that if it's a bad story, it would still be a bad story even if you had kept the original names and settings. But at least what you now have is your bad story, not your bad imitation of someone else's story. And it years to come, you don't have to be ashamed of it anymore than I'm ashamed of my early efforts.

Here Hobb admits her fundamental inability to conceive that a work of fanfiction might somehow have intrinsic artistic merit - for her, it's a foregone conclusion that all fanfiction is peurile, juvenile, and subliterary, a kind of hoax perpetrated by writers trying to besmirch the good name of her writings. "Know that if it's a bad story, it would still be a bad story even if you had kept the original names and settings." The possibility that a fanfiction writer might equal, or even, yes, SURPASS the 'original' work seems far from her mind. Perhaps swayed by the stereotypes of fanfiction writers as ignorant teenagers aping authors with no regard for depth or craft, Hobb brushes over the numerous talented teenagers, as well as adults, working in the fanfiction field. There are writers out there who write only fanfiction whose work, when viewed critically, easily holds up to the original work and, in some cases, does it one better. Fanfiction writers, indeed, are one of the most marginalized literary groups ever.

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

Postscript: I wish to be absolutely clear that the opinion above is entirely my own. Although I use Harry Potter fan fiction as an example, and reference Marion Zimmer Bradley, the X-Files, etc, I do not speak for those writers or copyright owners, or indeed any other writer, nor do I claim that they share my opinions on fan fiction.

The views expressed in Hobb's rant are not just reactionary, they seem positively Victorian; and there's a disturbing undercurrent of puritannical restriction: you can read my books, yes, but don't get too CLOSE to them, and don't you DARE think of changing or imagining anything different!

More than anything, I pity Hobb. It seems she's never known the pleasure of reading a fanfiction where the writer either takes something that was only hinted at in the original work and brings it to perfection, opening up aspects inherent in the original text but never fully brought to light; or else alters the original text so drastically that the characters and settings become wildly original - the familiar faces are seen through a shattered mirror, and become all the more gripping for it. From reading her rant, one gets the impression that Hobb can't even conceive of possibilities like this, and, trapped in a closed mindset, will never be able to experience them. I'm really sorry, Robin. Truly, it's your loss.


The Fanfiction Debate
(Feb 2006)

Defending Fanfiction. Was It Worth It? (April 2007)

(UPDATED 16th of Aug, 2011): Since this was written by Guestblogger Justin nearly 5 years ago, there had been countless blog posts, articles and the like devoted to defending fanfiction, too many to keep up.

However, I cannot help but notice this rebuttal against author Diana Galbadon's anti-fanfic blog post (which has since been removed, so I didn't actually read it). It's definitely worth a read, and does bring back memories.

In Japan, the doujinshi subculture (a combination of American subcultures like underground comics, sci-fi fanzines and fanfiction) features many manga-format fan fiction that are actually sold in legal comic shops, even though such works aren't strictly legal. Mostly because many fanfiction over there is regarded as free advertising and breeding grounds for new talent. Yes, some of the legendary animators and manga artists of today started with fan fiction. Unbelievable huh, Hobb?

Having participated in fanfiction-writing myself during my teens, I grew increasingly jaded with the sometimes overzealous behaviour of the fan community (which isn't limited only in fanfiction circles, obviously) and retired from it. I embarked upon a filmmaking career, was fortunate to have the films I'm involved in being selected at some of the most important film festivals around the world.

Some of my better-known works are loose adaptations of novels or short stories I've read, I claimed these to be sources of my inspiration, yet in a way I think that I wouldn't be capable of transmutations and remixing of this sort if it's not for my previous experiences in writing fanfics. So yes, if people actually bothered to do fanfiction of my films, I'll actually be a happy guy.

Besides, being accepting of fanfiction can bring you entertaining videos like these:

As for Guestblogger Justin. Earlier this year, he had published his book of short stories called I WONDER WHAT HUMAN FLESH TASTES LIKE, it's definitely worth a read.

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