The Fanfiction Debate

In many ways, this is a continuation of Guestblogger Justin's rebuttal against Robin Hobb regarding the merits of fanfiction and Mike Peterson's entry about Copyleft. Although I have retired from fanfiction, and there are many things about fanficdom that annoys me (check out my rant here, here, and here), I don't really condemn the mere action of writing fanfiction, and I think I will be pretty flattered if people do write fanfiction based on my creative works instead of screaming bloody murder like Robin Hobb did. Sure, if people tries to make money via this fanfiction, then it might be some sort of copyright infringement (but you can most probably get away with it if you were Neil Gaimnan), but otherwise, I think it works well from a marketing point of view, and from a creative standpoint.

Anyway, for years, I've been a member of this fantasy writers mailing list (join by sending blank email to fantasy-writers-subscribe@topica.com) and I recently got into this interesting discussion about fanfiction with numerous of its members. Will use different colours so that it'll be easier for y'all to differentiate us.


Tina Morgan: I wrote lots of fanfic in my head when I was a preteen and up into my early 20's, though it was slowly being replaced by my own stories and characters. I simply didn't have the time to write fanfic, I was too busy creating my own stories.

I would find fanfic of my work to be flattering as well, but I would prefer that it remain in the fan's head or private journal and not in print or on a website. Call it selfish, but the characters I create are mine. I've worked hard to learn how to tell their stories in a way that will touch readers.

There has to be some sort of legal protection for a writer's ideas, they're all he/she has to market so I understand why some authors are so adamant about protecting them. I think we're all familiar with the term "branding" by now. The name of a series, a character can become an author's "brand" long before anyone knows the author's name...if they ever do know the author's name. I'd wager that more people are familiar with Sherlock Holmes than they are Sr. Arthur Conan Doyle, but Sherlock Holmes wouldn't exist without Sr. Doyle.

The ease of posting fanfic to the web makes it very difficult to control or protect an author's work. How do you stop it without alienating the very people who support your work?

And no matter how talented a fanfic writer is, how can he/she truly know what the author intended for that character or setting? My characters and world are just that, mine. I want to be the one who writes more adventures with them and more stories in that setting. As I said, call it selfish, but I do understand why some pro writers feel the same.

Me: I don't know, you can always register your stuff under Creative Commons, I guess. And yeah, I guess I'm less selfish, of course in theory I should know my own characters better than the others, they are my sweat and blood, my imagination, my creation, thus I am confident enough NOT to view all those fanfics as canon.

If someone can use my characters to touch their readers in their fanfics, I don't think it's going to take away anything from me. In the hands of those fanfic writers, my characters are not my characters anymore, they are just characters who share the name of my characters, perhaps similar traits. Once again, I believe more that the line between producers and consumers has blurred, we are now both producers and consumers, prosumers. Why choose to have a 'I am the writer, hence i am god, and thus my readers must accept my works for what they are and just shut the hell up'? When it's so much funner to see how people are inspired by my works to come up with all kinds of creative works? It's like, I am working with a whole bunch of people to create something special, and that something does not consist only my works, my works serve only as a motivation, ultimately, the end product is the entire body of work done by the tons and tons of fanficcers out there.

(It works from a marketing point of view too. It's free publicity. No fanfic reader will be so insane that they choose NOT to read the original work if they like a particular fanfic, no matter what, it'll generate some curiosity)

I mean, let's look at the evolution of the Internet (that they call Web 2.0). I'll take Flickr.com as an example. A site for people to upload and store their photos. Would it have worked better if the creators of Flickr choose to keep that site for themselves, and that the only ones uploading and storing the photos are themselves and not the public?

That's what I feel about creative works too. I don't see why I want to hoard my works to myself. As much as I love it, and know that it's good, I think I'll still feel interested to see what the general public will do with my characters. Sure, seeing a fanfic that's better than the original work can be kinda depressing for the original creator, but hey, that should be able to serve as a great motivation to become better.

Donna Royston: This doesn't fly with me. I don't see a blurry line at all. I know very well that I haven't produced Terry Pratchett's Discworld. I am a consumer of his work, and even if I wrote fanfic about it I would not consider it original. HE did the work on it, not me.

It's possible to both produce and consume -- eat fruit from your garden; read your own fiction. But don't try to convince me that the world of art has undergone some strange transformation where someone who had no part in creating a work can somehow become a co-producer by writing fanfic on someone else's creation. Taking someone else's characters and world to write about is like playing with paper dolls. Moving things around a little and changing their clothes is not an act of creation.

"Produce" is an apt word for what you're talking about, though. It hails from the factory, not from the imagination.

Me: I refuse to believe that there is no creativity behind fanfics. Right, yeah, so the characters aren't created by the fanficcers, big deal, what about how the expanded on these characters, and how the plan their plots and storylines? Are these not works of creativity too?

Tina: Works of creativity but not originality. My problem with fanfic lies in the legal aspect. The right of a writer to protect the only thing they have to sell...their original characters and stories. There are no original stories, they've all been told before so if you want to take the argument back to the bare bones basics, everything written for the past several centuries are fanfic in one form or another. Read the bible and you'll find just about every story of love, hate, betrayal, murder, theft, compassion (etc.) ever written and whether you believe the Bible is gospel or not, most people don't dispute it's age. (just how accurately it's been translated over the years).

Me: People tend to condemn fanfic writers as talentless hacks taking the works of other people and then writing smut crap about it, well, being an avid fanfic reader back in the days, I have to admit that I have seen fanfic works that actually transcend the original. So, one can say, 'how the hell can one transcend the original when the fanficcer didn't even create the characters themselves?', there are works of fanfiction where the authors explore certain themes of the story not touched upon by the original character, infusing upon certain pre-created characters some depth that were previously not seen in the original. Is that the work of talentless hacks? People too stupid and pathetic to come up with stories of their own and that all they can do is just 'steal' the ideas of another to 'express' what they want in their stories? Are they not using their imagination for these works?

Tina: No one here even came close to implying that. Yes, there is smut crap fanfic out there. Just as there is smut crap original work out there. I know. I've been sent a lot of stories by writers asking me to help them get published (I'm still working on getting MY work published!). Some of the stuff I've been sent is pure garbage, some is fanfic, or very thinly disguised fanfic, but most is original work that needs lots of help.

Donna: Yes, I understand that you are passionately an advocate of fanfic. Just stating my disagreement. I haven't seen any fanfic that transcended the original, and in fact I doubt that it is germane to the question -- it only casts doubt on the quality of the original work. I never called fanfic writers talentless hacks; no one here did. I don't really want to characterize fanfic writers, but if I had to say something, I would only say that they are wasting their time and effort if they want to be writers; if they don't, they are engaged in a pastime.

Me: Evaluating creative works is a subjective thing to do, I can put up a link to many fanfic works that many believe to be better than the original, for example, Cassandra Claire's much beloved epic-length fanfic featuring Draco Malfoy as a misunderstood antihero-type who is deeper than his one-dimensional counterpart in the original Rowling books, or fanfiction of the video game Final Fantasy where the author inserts himself in the video game's world and settings, yet written in such a realistic and gritty manner that it could've qualified as a literary work? Fanfics aren't all shitty, sometimes, they transcend the original not in terms of quality, but also work around the limitations imposed upon the original because of the medium they are in. I can try to list out all kinds of fanfictional works that are considered good by many of their readers, but can this achieve anything if one has long decided that there are no redeeming value in fanfiction and that it seems impossible for a good fanfiction to exist?

And why do you think these fanfiction writers are wasting their time? Many fanficcers aren't people who go 'YAY! I WANNA BE A PUBLISHED WRITER, BUT I WILL NOW STEAL STUFF FROM OTHER PEOPLE TO WRITE ABOUT BECAUSE I'M LAZY TO COME UP WITH MY OWN STUFF!', perhaps I'm naive, but there are people who write just for the sake of writing, you know, and that they treat writing fanfiction as a way to practice, or to interact with people who share their passion for the source material.

To think that fanfic writers are wasting their time just because they write fanfics is like saying that an aspiring singer is wasting his or her time because she does covers of other songs instead of being a super genius who can write her own songs. Are we supposed to condemn the mere action of writing fanfiction like this? I can't see writing fanfiction being any different from playing tabletop RPG. Or perhaps Tolkien would've turned in his grave if he knows that people are injecting their own imagination and creativity on creating adventures for themselves on his precious Middle-Earth.

On the other hand, in Japan, there are many comic artists ('mangakas') who started their own careers by drawing 'fanarts' of other comics, does that make them lesser? Just because what they drew happened NOT to be of their own creation? And that they were so pathetic that they 'had to draw fanarts' to develop their own styles?

Yeah, there is indeed some changes in the world of art. Subtle it may be, but people are already doing 'mash up' works of videos and films (the most recent one where a guy combined footages of Brokeback Mountain and Back To The Future 3 to create a trailer of sorts) There are changes, that's why so many works are released under the Creative Commons logo. I doubt I'm entirely babbling or being delusional to make this suggestions when I have been witnessing this happening on the Internet almost daily.


What is Neil Gaiman doing when he's writing his 'fanfics' of Narnia, and Snow White? Should he be villified for winning a 'World Fantasy Award' for that 'Midsummer Night's Dream' Sandman story when he actually did something even worse, and that's writing a 'author fic' (fanfics that feature authors of the original work... that Midsummer Night's Dream Neil did has Billy the Bard in it, and speaking of Billy the Bard, it's even arguable that Shakespeare himself is writing fanfics of old Roman literature, the relationship between Ovid's Metamorphoses and Titus Andronicus come to my mind)

Donna: Now I would also say that you underestimate what makes up an original work of art. There is no sharp dividing line, I'll go along with that. If you want to write a Sherlock Holmes story, ok, we can give that a few points on creativity, but it's way low on the scale. If you write "A Study in Emerald" you go further up the creativity scale, because it's not really a Sherlock Holmes story by then. An original work of art is not just the characters; it is not just the setting or the world; it is not any single element that you can name. It is an entire vision and part of that vision is the mind of the creator behind it all, and the choice of what story these characters are part of. I guess I do consider this to be a big deal.

But you keep conflating original works that use some elements from other works with fanfic. If you want to define fanfic as any work that uses pre-existing elements, that would be almost all of literature. It's not what fanfic is, though. Gaiman's Midsummer Night's Dream is about Shakespeare's company giving a performance for the fairy folk, who take a shine to W.S.'s young son and later, presumably, steal him away. It's not fanfic; it's an original story that creates Shakespeare as a man totally preoccupied with his art.

Me: From what I've read thus far, Gaiman has written a Snow White, Sherlock Holmes (yes, we have a term to describe those, they are called 'Alternative Universe' fanfiction), and Narnia fanfiction. To me, Neil Gaiman is one of the world's biggest fanficcers. But then, I'm sure we aren't allowed to call him a fanfic writer since he's 1) a big-name author 2) displays creativity in his 'fanfics' 3) the 'fanfics' gets to be published!

Or are we supposed to categorize 'all good works that borrow various elements from another work' as literature and great works of creativity whilst 'anything else that borrow elements from another creative work that happens to suck' will bear the 'fanfiction' label? Pretty unfair to fanfiction in general.

Yeah, the distinction is NOT clear, I never said it does, (I'm also replying to Tina's post too) that's why I'm queasy with the fact that we should so easily condemn the mere action of writing fanfiction, and then blindly proclaiming that anything that gets published should be leagues and leagues beyond these fanfictional works.


And since the distinction isn't supposed to be clear, I can pretty much say that some works of fanfiction are 'original stories' where they create (pre-existing) characters as if I want to. Yay, Milton's Paradise Lost is a fanfiction of the Bible. Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a fanfiction of Hamlet. Or once again, are we supposed to label all 'crap works that use elements from other works' as fanfics? Whilst all 'works that use elements from other works that do not suck' as original fiction (and they get to escape the 'fanfiction' tag, joyous joy!)? To me, Fanfiction is just a label given by certain people to certain works just to simplify things. If only things are THAT simple.

My entire post before was simple. When I said prosumer, I didn't of course mean that the fanficcers are going to steal away the credit of being the 'creators' of the original works, I'm just saying that they are involved in the process of production, and the end product is NOT just the original work churned out by the original author, but a huge body of creative work, with the original author's work as its core, then surrounded by layers and layers of fanfictional works by different people inspired by this particular original work. The act of prosuming is more evident on the internet.

Take this mailing list for example, you and I are both prosumers, we both create content for the mailing list while trying to communicate, and others will be reading our entries, so while we are producers, the others are consumers, but when they are 'producing' their entries, we, who are reading the posts, are serving as the 'consumers'. It's a two-sided relationship.

It's something like the Wikipedia, Flickr.com (a photo-storing site), Digg.com (where everyone submits interesting news on the site, and have others vote it based on its importance and usefulness so that it can appear on front page), blogs (where the interaction between the blogger and the readers can affect what the blogger wants to write in the future) where its content is not created by just one company, but by anybody who is involved. I like it more this way, this frenzy of creativity where any Tom Dick and Harry can get involved in producing (if what they do does not deserve the word 'creating') something.

Donna: This is nothing new. People have always produced some things, and consumed things that others have produced. This is the normal give and take of society. "Prosuming" is meaningless to me. If you mean it as "a group effort", well then, I doubt that a writer would consider her novels as part of a group effort with fanfic writers. She knows better.

Jasmine Brennan: I wonder, too, about this new "collaborative" environment that the web has spawned.? (yes, I realize that "spawned" is an overly dramatic, conflagrant word) Way back during the dawn of civilization when I was a youngster, I wrote pages upon pages of "stuff" that was very, very thinly veiled attempts at rewriting LOTR, but at least, I made an attempt to change the names of the characters(I seem to remember adding a TON more of long-haired, groovy man-elves, though...errr, just to have more to kill off during my fighting scenes...)and change the location from Middle Earth to a place called "Earth" (see, I was an Urban Fantasy Writer way back then!).? I remember trying to write in that "absolutely NO adverbs" high falutin' style of Tolkien and having it sound RI-DIC-U-LOus. Back then we called it "finding your voice" but it was more about "finding what really connects with your writing soul."? As it turned out, I just couldn't write about gorgeous, long haired men in tights with any conviction.

In the way artists did painstakingly reproduce "The Masters" over and over in order to learn technique our earliest efforts in writing are almost always about mimicry. I think it's a mistake to view these "reproductions" as part of a collaborative process one would feel one had with the original author--because collaboration requires input and ex(?)put from BOTH sides, but I think it's a normal one when you are looking at them from inside the process. To this I would like to (tongue in cheekily) add: In the Gnostic Mythos, the Demiurge was hidden by his mother, wisdom, in a cloud where he could not see her, nor the father from which he hid.? In time, he came to believe himself a creator god and went out and created a reality that--because he himself is flawed with blindness--is flawed because it does not contain the spark of creation that only Sophia (wisdom) could give.

OK, that's my lesson for the day:? St. Jasmine, god of small animals, is stepping down from her soapbox for the day.

Me: Prosuming is not entirely something that happens according to one's will. Each person is selfish, and it's all about fulfilling what they want to do. How many people actually go 'yay, i'm working with everybody to put up articles on wikipedia.com", or 'yay, i'm posting pictures on flickr.com so that other people can post more pictures and we can share them together!'. It's an unconscious thing, everything begins with the person wanting to do something that benefits him or herself, it's just that what she does happens to be a contribution to something big, and that benefits everyone involved. Prosuming is not by choice. It's just something that happens naturally.

Well, I'll keep y'all updated if this continues, other than that, I'm looking forward to your feedback on this whole issue. What do you think about fanfiction? About mash-ups? Is the relationship between art and audience changing? Is the line blurring?

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