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Friday, April 13, 2007

Defending Fanfiction. Was It Worth It?

More than a year ago, I posted an entry called 'In Defense of Fanfiction'. Earlier on the day it was written, Swifty sent me a link to an article by fantasy writer Robin Hobb - someone I knew of but had never read, my interest in American fantasy-genre fiction being comparatively low. The Hobb essay, which attacked fanfiction and its writers on principle, seemed distinctly petty, childish, and reactionary - in need of a good thrashing, in other words. Although I didn't hold any particular interest in fanfiction at the time, neither reading nor writing it, the Hobb essay seemed to be opposed to not only fanfiction but, more broadly, creativity in general. So without even really thinking I tore through a rebuttal, easily demolishing the numerous straw-men and outright fallacies Hobb had put forth. I posted it and then proceeded to think nothing more of it: seeing as it was written in less than fifteen minutes and our readership at the time was probably less than a hundred people, I expected it to be quickly forgotten.

Over a year later, though, that entry, now largely drawing traffic from Wikipedia, has become this site's biggest draw. The response has been surprising and, to put it bluntly, overwhelming: I'm continually amazed by how many readers continue to post comments at it. The total is up to something like fifty now, and the most incredible thing is that each new comment usually rivals the length of the original essay. I feel as if this entry alone has created a community larger than the one that regularly reads this blog.

Reading these comments over, I'm fascinated at the passion contained within them - much more passion than really existed in me when writing the original entry, in fact. Not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of the comments agree with my stance - but more than that, I feel as if their agreement is almost more valid than my original points, which, it has to be said, were fairly academic: issues of copyright and creative use, influence and pastiche. But the commenters reveal the human reality behind fanfiction, rebutting Hobb in a way far more convincing than my argument: these are people who care deeply about writing, and not in an abstract way, either: the issue of ownership or creative control is completely moot, because to these writers there are just books, characters, and worlds they care about - and want to participate in. Hearing people unfold their lives in a completely unrestrained fashion, describing how they came to fanfiction writing through school, friends, or the internet, the ways in which they use community and criticism to build up fictional worlds, is more interesting to me than any kind of argument or debate could ever be. In fact, I have to say that I'm more interested in these commenters' responses and emotions while participating in fanfiction than I am in actual fanfiction itself.

Every time I find new comments on the entry, I expect them to be simple 'Right on, rock the fanfic' or 'robin hobb is god fuck you' one-liners - but they're invariably long, thoughtful, and usually autobiographical reflections on the personal meaning of fanfiction, the role it's played in either preparing the commenter for entirely original writing or allowing them to connect with new, like-minded friends. In a recent comment, someone named Svan wrote:

"But once again, I want to insist on what writing fanfics gave me. It taught me to cling to an idea and finish to write a story I started ; it gave my writing a rythm ; it allowed me to see the same characters through different points of view, thus better fathoming the depth of their personnalities, and being less manichean. So I won't give up on this anytime soon."

Later, a Jamie (sympathetic to fanfiction, but joking about some of the lesser works) writes:

They'll cross it over with other stories, many of which it won't make much sense to cross it over with. They'll pair up characters that would NEVER get along together, they'll insert themselves or Mary Sues based loosely on thesemvles into the story to talk down to your female lead and improbably steal the male lead's heart, or else they'll create a dashing young Gary Stu to steal her heart away while he gets portrayed as a whiny, petty nincompoop. They'll turn it into a soap opera, they'll randomly set it at the local shopping mall, they'll make characters sing popular songs as a testament of love to each other at a Battle of the Bands or karaoke bar, they'll do any number of hideous, stupid things to it. They'll have your female characters get raped and fall in love with their rapist, they'll have the gentle, caring male lead do the raping half the time, or they'll turn your straight characters gay (or vice versa). Cultural differences - including those you took pains to create or remark upon in the original - will be removed or ignored. The characters will be stuffed into an American high school, or outfit themselves in Hot Topic clothes and accessories while still in Europe, or they'll randomly become a werewolf or vampire. They'll have children that will turn out to be Mary Sues; they'll be turned into Mary Sues themselves. All manner of horrible things will happen.
Even though the examples are risible, their accuracy suggests a kind of loving familiarity with them that I share. But what's more important to me now is the ethos of fanfiction; that is, the idea that writing can be a collaboration, that two writers can write together just as seamlessly as the dual guitars fall into place in a Hum song; that a writer can pick up another writer's characters and world and play upon them like a ragtime piano on a staid set of well-known notes.

Justin's part of this entry above was actually written quite a while ago, but I never really had a chance to write my own side of things until now. So, there you go.

I think Justin's Defense of Fanfiction post shows one of the greatest strengths of this blog, the fact that our content is mostly timeless. And even though that entry was posted back in November 2005, it's still getting daily visitors, new comments, linkbacks and such until this very day. Creative ownership, collaborative creation and identity theft, topics that were discussed in that entry remain as relevant to us now as it was when Justin posted the entry nearly a year and a half ago.

It's undeniable that posting time-sensitive articles, e.g. a rant against the latest political and social issues, will most likely generate higher traffic and attention, I don't think they will last long. It's also the same reason why I refuse to whore myself out by attempting to become a 'blogebrity' with pitifully laughable attempts in toilet humour, posting photos of myself looking as silly as possible, or well, regurgitating everything everyone else had been talking about.

I write film reviews because I like to share my views on a particular film with other people, what's the point of forgetting about a film I've just spent money on watching? The best creative works should live forever, unravaged by time. I post videoblog entries because I don't want my editing (and filmmaking) skills to become rusty, it also makes me feel reassured that certain moments of my own life that I've recorded with my camcorder can be preserved.

Art (be it drawing, writing, filmmaking etc.) is one of the only ways for one to attain immortality.

The realization that the timelessness of a fanfiction piece is based entirely on the 'shelve life' of its source material was very depressing for me back then, not long after I retired from writing fanfiction in 2005. I was bitter, so I ended up posting three blog entries on why I thought writing fanfiction sucked. The first was on those authors of shitty yaoi/slash fics who pose as gay activists, viewing all criticism of their work as acts of homophobia. The second was on Mary Sueism (I was beating a dead horse, yeah, but I was really pissed off with their delusional authors, who, like their Yaoi fanfic counterparts, are incapable of accepting criticism). And the last was on what I discussed above, that a work of fanfiction, unlike most other works of art, cannot live forever based solely on artistic merits, and that it is really at the mercy of its source material.

Funny that just a few months after posting those, I would quickly reverse my stance and defend fanfiction instead. Perhaps it really wasn't the existence of fanfiction themselves that irked me, nor the act of writing fanfic, what I disliked about fanficdom was the behaviour of irrational hardcore fans (a subject of our ire that had been discussed numerous times here in the past), who are so delusional that they just can't seem to open their minds to accept other things. Anyone heard the news of Andy Lau's crazy fan lately?

Ultimately, fanfic writing, just like blogging, and all things Web 2.0, is a part of our ever-increasing 'Open Source' culture, where the one-sided relationship between producer and consumer is obsolete and that everyone has to adopt both the role of producer and consumer, where everyone's sharing and creating something together. Similar to when I had a pretty fiery debate with a couple of published authors on a mailing list about the merits of fanfiction last February, I still can't see what's so bad about this. After all, collaborative creation isn't exactly plagiarism, perhaps if fanfic writers are starting to make money off their fanfics, the original authors can have much to complain about, hey, if someone makes a spin-off of my short film, GIRL DISCONNECTED (haha) and starts making millions off it, I'll be pissed too. But condemning the mere action of writing fanfiction is, to put it bluntly, pretty stupid.

Since when does one has the right to stifle creativity?

(And this question isn't directed only towards fanfic-hating authors.)