In Praise of Fanfic
I wrote my first story when I was six. It was 1977, and I had just had my mind blown clean out of my skull by a new movie called Star Wars (the golden age of science fiction is twelve; the golden age of cinematic science fiction is six). I rushed home and stapled a bunch of paper together, trimmed the sides down so that it approximated the size and shape of a mass-market paperback, and set to work. I wrote an elaborate, incoherent ramble about Star Wars, in which the events of the film replayed themselves, tweaked to suit my tastes.
I wrote a lot of Star Wars fanfic that year. By the age of twelve, I’d graduated to Conan. By the age of eighteen, it was Harlan Ellison. By the age of twenty-six, it was Bradbury, by way of Gibson.
Today, I hope I write more or less like myself. Walk the streets of Florence and you’ll find a copy of the David on practically every corner. For centuries, the way to become a Florentine sculptor has been to copy Michelangelo, to learn from the master. Not just the great Florentine sculptors, either — great or terrible, they all start with the master; it can be the start of a lifelong passion, or a mere fling. The copy can be art, or it can be crap — the best way to find out which kind you’ve got inside you is to try.
Science fiction has the incredible good fortune to have attracted huge, social groups of fan-fiction writers. Many pros got their start with fanfic (and many of them still work at it in secret), and many fanfic writers are happy to scratch their itch by working
only with others’ universes, for the sheer joy of it. Some fanfic is great — there’s plenty of Buffy fanfic that trumps the official, licensed tie-in novels — and some is purely dreadful. Two things are sure about all fanfic, though: first, that people who write and read fanfic are already avid readers of writers whose work they’re paying homage to; and second, that the people who write and read fanfic derive fantastic satisfaction from their labors. This is great news for writers.
Great because fans who are so bought into your fiction that they’ll make it their own are fans forever, fans who’ll evangelize your work to their friends, fans who’ll seek out your work however you publish it. Great because fans who use your work therapeutically, to work out their own creative urges, are fans who have a damned good reason to stick with the field, to keep on reading even as our numbers dwindle. Even when the fandom revolves around movies or TV shows, fanfic is itself a literary pursuit, something undertaken in the world of words. The fanfic habit is a literary habit. In Japan, comic book fanfic writers publish fanfic manga called Dōjinshi — some of these titles dwarf the circulation of the work they pay tribute to, and many of them are sold commercially. Japanese comic publishers know a good thing when they see it, and these fanficcers get left alone by the commercial giants they attach themselves to.
And yet for all this, there are many writers who hate fanfic. Some argue that fans have no business appropriating their characters and situations, that it’s disrespectful to imagine your precious fictional people in sexual scenarios, or to retell their stories from a different point of view, or to snatch a victorious happy ending from the tragic defeat the writer ended her book with. Other writers insist that fans who take without asking — or against the writer’s wishes — are part of an “entitlement culture” that has decided that it has the moral right to lift scenarios and characters without permission, that this is part of our larger postmodern moral crisis that is making the world a worse place.
Some writers dismiss all fanfic as bad art and therefore unworthy of appropriation. Some call it copyright infringement or trademark infringement, and every now and again, some loony will actually threaten to sue his readers for having had the gall to tell his stories to each other. I’m frankly flabbergasted by these attitudes. Culture is a lot older than art — that is, we have had social storytelling for a lot longer than we’ve had a notional class of artistes whose creativity is privileged and elevated to the numinous, far above the everyday creativity of a kid who knows that she can paint and draw, tell a story and sing a song, sculpt and invent a game. To call this a moral failing — and a new moral failing at that! — is to turn your back on millions of years of human history. It’s no failing that we internalize the stories we love, that we rework them to suit our minds better. The Pygmalion story didn’t start with Shaw or the Greeks, nor did it end with My Fair Lady. Pygmalion is at least thousands of years old — think of Moses passing for the Pharaoh’s son! — and has been reworked in a billion bedtime stories, novels, D&D games, movies, fanfic stories, songs, and legends.
Each person who retold Pygmalion did something both original — no two tellings are just alike — and derivative, for there are no new ideas under the sun. Ideas are easy. Execution is hard. That’s why writers don’t really get excited when they’re approached by people with great ideas for novels. We’ve all got more ideas than we can use — what we lack is the cohesive whole. Much fanfic — the stuff written for personal consumption or for a small social group — isn’t bad art. It’s just not art. It’s not written to make a contribution to the aesthetic development of humanity. It’s created to satisfy the deeply human need to play with the stories that constitute our world. There’s nothing trivial about telling stories with your friends — even if the stories themselves are trivial. The act of telling stories to one another is practically sacred — and it’s unquestionably profound. What’s more, lots of retellings are art: witness Pat Murphy’s wonderful There and Back Again (Tolkien) and Geoff Ryman’s brilliant World Fantasy Award-winning Was (L. Frank Baum).
The question of respect is, perhaps, a little thornier. The dominant mode of criticism in fanfic circles is to compare a work to the canon — “Would Spock ever say that, in ‘real’ life?” What’s more, fanfic writers will sometimes apply this test to works that are of the canon, as in “Spock never would have said that, and Gene Roddenberry has no business telling me otherwise.” This is a curious mix of respect and disrespect. Respect because it’s hard to imagine a more respectful stance than the one that says that your work is the yardstick against which all other work is to be measured — what could be more respectful than having your work made into the gold standard? On the other hand, this business of telling writers that they’ve given their characters the wrong words and deeds can feel obnoxious or insulting. Writers sometimes speak of their characters running away from them, taking on a life of their own. They say that these characters — drawn from real people in our lives and mixed up with our own imagination — are autonomous pieces of themselves. It’s a short leap from there to mystical nonsense about protecting our notional, fictional children from grubby fans who’d set them to screwing each other or bowing and scraping before some thinly veiled version of the fanfic writer herself.
There’s something to the idea of the autonomous character. Big chunks of our wetware are devoted to simulating other people, trying to figure out if we are likely to fight or fondle them. It’s unsurprising that when you ask your brain to model some other person, it rises to the task. But that’s exactly what happens to a reader when you hand your book over to him: he simulates your characters in his head, trying to interpret that character’s actions through his own lens.
Writers can’t ask readers not to interpret their work. You can’t enjoy a novel that you haven’t interpreted — unless you model the author’s characters in your head, you can’t care about what they do and why they do it. And once readers model a character, it’s only natural that readers will take pleasure in imagining what that character might do offstage, to noodle around with it. This isn’t disrespect: it’s active reading.
Our field is incredibly privileged to have such an active fanfic writing practice. Let’s stop treating them like thieves and start treating them like honored guests at a table that we laid just for them.
Originally published in Locus, May 2007. Included in Cory Doctorov’s collection Content, published under a creative commons license.