In defense of fan fiction

15 Aug

Earlier this week, I sent my website designer the content for my new author website. It contained a lot of things about me: my published novel, my current writing projects, my past projects. One of the things it contained was a blurb about and link to my fan fiction story, The Destroyer. I figured, why not, I worked hard on that story and readers liked it. It is an example of my SFF writing and series writing skills.

I think I forgot how few people out in the webosphere really understand what fan fiction is and why it can be a legitimate art form–an engagement with and reinterpretation of an existing text that can entertain us by continuing its story (or expanding the existing story), or shed critical light on aspects of that story the author might not have realized were in it.

Too many people still assume fan fiction is all sixth graders with no imagination wishing themselves into someone else’s fictional universe, or the scrawls of those with no talent and imagination of their own (which means such writing is therefore somehow d00med to show all the elements of bad fiction):

http://www. thepassivevoice. com/08/2012/ewan-morrision-strikes-fan-fiction-down/

(link broken so I don’t generate a pingback).

I realize the issue in the linked article, and in the discussion on the blog, is how a novel (50 Shades of Grey) started out as fan fiction and now the author’s making money off it. It is not so much that she is making money off “fan fiction” because that is not literally true (and would be a copyright violation if it were), but that the novel was marketed as “this novel started out as Twilight fan fiction,” which apparently gets a lot of pundit’s panties in a bunch because they consider both Shades and the Twilight series to be mediocre writing.

These points aren’t what bothered me. What bugged was how quickly the discussion devolved into “all fan fiction is bad writing, therefore, fan fiction (not bad writing) is the enemy that threatens the future of good commercial story-telling.” Few seemed to grasp that:

(1) most fan fiction is not-for-profit and frankly, done for the FUN of it; and

(2) “formerly fan fiction” as a selling point in and of itself tells you nothing about the quality of a story, because:

(3) not all fan fiction is bad writing by amateurs who “can’t come up with stories of their own,” – some of it is quite good writing, and/or its authors also do original fiction; and

(4) commercialized fan fiction has been around forever. Two examples I can see on my own bookshelf at this moment: Wicked by Gregory McGuire (fandom: The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, and McGuire wrote many more in this ‘verse), and the Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley (fandom: the legend of King Arthur).

Other prominent examples:

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard (fandom: William Shakespeare’s Hamlet)

March by Geraldine Brooks (fandom: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women)

The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (original title: O Evangelho Segundo Jesus Cristo) by José Saramago, which won the Nobel Prize for literature (fandom: The Bible)

Death Comes to Pemberly by P.D. James (fandom: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice)

The Jane Austen Mysteries by Stephanie Barron (fandom: Jane Austen novels)

Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund (fandom: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick)

Dozens of Sherlock Holmes universe books writing by authors who are not Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-canonical_Sherlock_Holmes_works)

The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (fandom: Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre)

Not to mention the hundreds of licensed tie-in novels written each year that help market and maintain enthusiasm for existing story universes depicted in television and film (http://www.iamtw.org/), not all of which are strictly done out of financial need or contractual obligation by their authors, but out of love for the story universe.

Shakespeare, The Bible, and the Arthurian Legends are some of the most widely “fan-ficed” (stories based on characters and events in these classic tales) story universes out there. Other authors who are widely “fan-ficed” include Homer (and dozens of other poets of the classical age) and Virgil. In short: revisiting and re-imagining other people’s texts is a practice as old as story-telling itself.

I would never claim The Destroyer is great literature, or even a “great television script.” But its mere existence tells you nothing about me as a writer.

Thanks to my friends CL and LD for their additional examples of professional fan fiction.

2 Responses to “In defense of fan fiction”

  1. Gretchen August 20, 2012 at 10:06 pm #

    I like your list.

    One thing people who are not directly involved often miss is that while some fan fiction is pure wish fulfillment fantasy, a lot of it is a way of engaging critically with the original canon and addressing issues that are left unresolved, or which are are only shown from one point of view.

    Which is something that a lot of the books you list also do.

    • neshaffer August 21, 2012 at 9:28 am #

      They miss a lot, unfortunately, which leaves me to make a decision–shy away from posting links to my fan fiction in a “professional author”‘s website, or go ahead and post them and include a defense of its artistic merit? I really couldn’t see myself doing the former. Well, actually, I can see myself doing it, and it just felt all kinds of wrong. I’m not a big fan fiction writer, nor a reader, but I’ve been immersed in the meta of fan fiction writers and their motives and battles for far too long.

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