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Fan Fiction: A Personal Perspective

Sunita talked a bit about why some people write fan fiction. I’d like to talk a bit about my perspective.

A little background: I’ve been a reader in many fandoms for about ten years, but I primarily write in one. I also run a fandom community. Legality of fan fics doesn’t really come into it for my fandom. It’s manga-based, and manga creators and their publishers know that a large excited fan base sells books.  They go out of their way to include characters that will draw the attention of those who like to create fan works. In the fandom for which I write, the author was herself a fan who did the same thing before she went pro.


To me the important thing about fan fic is that while a few people may write it in a solitary environment, from my experience it’s really a community-based activity. That’s both a good and bad thing, centered around the fact that fandom communities can be very insular.

It’s bad because it makes people lose perspective. There’s a balance that has to be reached within a community when it comes to fan fic.  Some people are practicing writing and want constructive criticism, emphasis on the constructive. Many get it through beta writers; some want it from readers.  They want to do it better.  Other fans don’t care about improving. They’re only writing to share things with other fans, their love of the original work and characters, their take on aspects of the original work, and sometimes more personal things. They don’t plan on writing outside of a fandom.

The balance is how much criticism do you allow in the community and how?  It can stifle fan participation until there’s next to none, and no one posts anything for the joy of it. On the other hand, without it, there’s a loss of a real sense of quality of work.  Personally, I don’t allow it on the groups I moderate unless writers are OK with it. It’s part of their fic header. That way, those who just want to have fun and throw out an idea can do so without worrying about people jumping down their throats, and those who want to improve can do so. I think fans feeling fun and safe is more important.

That can lead to a skewed perspective though. In fan fic stories tend to be graded on a scale, which means a lauded story in fandom could be great, but there’s no guarantee. And when they’re hit with a lot of praise, writers can forget that just because a fic is considered better doesn’t mean it’s good.

I think that’s responsible for situations like some we’ve seen recently where less-than-spectacular fan fic has the serial numbers filed off and is published simply because it had fan support. There’s a huge difference between fandom-ready and publication-ready, and that seems to be getting lost.

A loss of perspective can also be a problem when misinformation is perpetuated.  In m/m fandoms a lot of that centers around gay sex. We have some gay members, and fans are happy to ask questions, but the few guys just want to read fic and have fun, not necessarily be everyone’s Wiki.  BDSM is another problem area.  But I think that’s a problem whenever any small group of fans gets together. Not everyone is represented there, and not everyone is an expert. There are always Cliff Clavins.  But the fact that people are talking to begin with can also spread good information. I’ve had fans from isolated parts of the world post to talk about AIDS for example, and everyone learned something from that discussion.

And that leads to some of the best things about being in a fandom and writing fic.  The fact that the communities are insular tends to make them safe places to discuss a lot of topics, and fiction is a safe way for the members to express themselves on these topics without even really mentioning them if the aren’t able to.

Fan fic is certainly done solely out of love and fun for a number of fans. But for many others, the themes within reflect questions and issues within themselves, and they write to communicate these things and try to understand them.  Gender, sexuality, abuse are just a few among the topics explored in fan fic.  Some writers  take familiar characters and change their sex and try to figure out what that would mean to his character and relationship, or they make him pregnant while he’s still male (I think these fics are partly revenge-based).  Or maybe they subject him to rape, or uncertainty about his sexuality.

Other fans are incredibly supportive when discussions of these issues come up. Sexuality and experimentation are played with within fics and that’s celebrated.  95% of the members of one community I’m in are female, but over a third have said they don’t feel that way. Sexuality is represented in its many permutations. All of it is accepted. Abuse and negative situations are discussed and if people ‘testify’ they are supported.

Now I have to get a little personal. I’m a rape victim. It happened long ago, but for a long time it was something I had trouble addressing, at least up until I entered a particular BL manga fandom (I won’t talk about the differences between BL and Western m/m, which could fill a book; as Alton Brown says, that’s for another post). This particular manga contains rape and non-con situations between several men. Two of the men end up in a romantic relationship. It’s drawn in a beautiful style, aesthetically pleasing. It was something even I could look at, even though I didn’t understand why I would want to.

BL manga expects its readers to understand the rape tropes used within it.  Because of that, the manga for the most part doesn’t explore this. But fic writers do. It led me to start writing about the couple myself, the first writing I’d ever done in my life, exploring their dynamics, getting into their heads, and letting me explore my past and my feelings in a safe way.  These men were not me. They were not even female.  I could start there.

But even more important, I started noticing similarities in other stories, women exploring similar themes, and they reached out to me and I them, and we found ways to talk about what had happened to us using these characters. Readers began opening up to me because of what I was writing, some of them telling me I was the first person they’d ever told about their rapes. One friend actually took the manga and her fics into her therapy sessions and began discussing it for the first time ever.  And I began to talk about it openly.

Even though the characters and world used are someone else’s to start with, during the writing process it still becomes deeply personal to the one doing the writing.  These characters become a way to easily express joy, laughter, pain and any number of things that the writer could not express any other way.  I love the lighter side of fan fiction, but authors, if your characters have led to the easing of pain of others, isn’t that something to celebrate?

I’ve experienced this first hand in my favorite fandom. It is something I see in every fandom I read in: people with something awful happening in their lives or past, trying to talk about it through the fics they write. They go into a fandom because they love the original work. Most, including me, will never write well enough to publish anything and we don’t really want to. So we borrow the characters and places we love to help us say something important to us, in a place where we feel safe saying it.  Many writers never even notice that they’re doing it.

At first I was sad that so many people in fandom are injured in some way. But then I realized of course that these are the people who are now able to express it. And that’s a very good thing.

This isn’t how it is for all fic writers. Some do just have fun. Some just want to explore what’s not been explored to their satisfaction. Others want to work on their writing. It’s all good, so long as they remind themselves to keep some perspective.  But when you think about why fic writers write, remember that for some it’s not really what they keep the same as the original that’s interesting. It’s what they change. Because that’s where their story is, one they wouldn’t have been able to tell without fandoms and fan fiction.

reads any genre as long as the books aren't depressing. Her preferred reads these days are in manga format and come from all manga genres, but she especially likes romance, doubly so when there are beautiful men involved. With each other. Her favorites among currently-running English-translated manga series include NANA, Ze, Ouran High School Host Club, Junjou Romantica, Blood Alone, Vampire Knight, Skip Beat, Silver Diamond and anything by the holy triumvirate of BL: Ayano Yamane, Kazuma Kodaka and Youka Nitta, including any scribbles they might do on the backs of napkins.

40 Comments

  1. Karenna Colcroft
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 06:31:17

    Jan, thank you for sharing this. You’re very courageous to talk about your experiences in public.

    I’m also a survivor of rape, as well as multiple molestations as a child. I don’t read or write fanfic (I have nothing against it; it just isn’t my thing), but I write M/M romance and have found that my M/M stories seem richer than my hetero, for much the same reason as you mention; they’re both men, so I can distance myself from what I’m writing. Even with completely consensual sex, it’s difficult to write if I relate to one of the characters.

    I’m glad fanfic has helped you and some of the women you know. Anything that helps is good as far as I’m concerned.

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  2. dri
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 07:02:44

    What a truly excellent post. So much of this had me nodding, very quietly pleased to see so much of what I’ve thought about fan fic on the screen.

    Just a quick question: what’s BL? *puzzled*

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  3. Karenna Colcroft
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 07:11:17

    I think “BL” is “boy love” in reference to manga/anime, but I could be wrong.

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  4. Jan
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 07:24:59

    @dri Yes, BL is Boys Love. It’s how the Japanese designate m/m novels, manga, anime. They don’t use yaoi over there so much because to them it’s derogatory.

    @Karenna *hugs* I just have never seen people talk about this aspect of fan fiction. Maybe I don’t get out of the community enough LOL. But it always seems to be missing from any discussion, and it’s just so important I wanted to make sure people were aware of it.

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  5. Patricia Eimer
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 07:37:33

    Jan,
    I agree with you. I started in FanFic and I found it a wonderful and supportive place to learn and grow as a writer and a person. I always jokingly tell people that the Whovians offer a free, online MFA in Creative Writing if you take the time to learn from them and some of the people I’ve met in FF communities are closer to me in RL than anyone else I know.

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  6. Ruthie
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 07:44:30

    Fascinating and touching post. Thanks for sharing.

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  7. Carin
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 07:51:16

    Jan, thank you so much for writing this! I didn’t know much about fan fiction before is week and I’m learning a lot, especially from your post. Thanks for sharing your pov!

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  8. Mohini
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 08:26:55

    I’m very sorry for what you had to face and I’m glad you found a support system and a way of dealing with it. I feel like offering to help but I don’t suppose there is anything I can do. I’m happy that some people find the strength to speak up about it and help themselves.

    On fanwork- I got into fanfiction very young (I was 10 maybe?) so I’ve never thought of fanworks as anything except a valid art-form and I entirely agree about it being of use in helping people work through their problems. Part of it is- like you pointed out, that there is a community, and knowing that ‘I am not alone’ goes a good way towards making people more open.

    Also, and this is completely besides the point but the reason I stayed in fandom (reading, writing, beta-ing) is because it’s really easy to find stellar writing there on topics of your choice and really quite difficult in published stuff (especially m/m) and you don’t have to pay for it. My opinion only. YMMV.

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  9. Jayne
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 09:19:34

    Hi Jan!! Good to hear from you again.

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  10. Karenna Colcroft
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 09:43:08

    Jan, *hugs*. I wasn’t aware of this aspect of fanfic, so I’m very glad you shared that it can be so helpful to people. I actually started writing erotic romance (heterosexual, at the time) when a friend who was aware of my history and the effects it was having on my present relationships challenged me to write something showing “sex in a positive light,” so I can definitely agree that writing romance, whether fanfic or original and whether homosexual or heterosexual relationships, can be therapeutic.

    About the “BL” designation, I think I remember reading somewhere that there are different types of anime and manga that concern romantic/sexual relationships between men, and that “boys love” is only one of them. Is that inaccurate? I really like anime and manga, and have a novella coming out this summer about a man who falls in lust with the main character of a yaoi manga and wakes up one morning to find the character in bed with him, so this is something I want to make sure I understand. I don’t mean to detract from the purpose of the post, so feel free to tell me to hush. :)

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  11. Jill Sorenson
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 09:49:51

    Thanks Jan. Lovely post.

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  12. Maya
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 09:53:40

    Thank you for sharing this post and your story with us. I feel like fan fiction is often treated like the gorilla in the room of the Internet that sometimes the non-fandom people discover and give the side-eye. But I’ve read some stories that easily rival my favorite published book for creativity, skill and style. Plus, the community aspect of the whole experience is really the heart of the genre- people getting together to celebrate and share their love of characters.

    Plus, the fact that Jasper Fforde included a BookWorld section for FanFiction in his latest Thursday Next book made me HOWL with laughter.

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  13. Jia
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 09:54:53

    @Karenna Colcroft: BL’s become the umbrella term, for the most part. Like Jan said, yaoi is a deprecated term and you only ever really see it in English-language circles. Back in the day, shounen ai was a common term too but it’s become obsolete. It’s also generally frowned upon because in Japan, it refers to pedophilia (e.g. liking young boys).

    Bara is another m/m genre but whereas BL is predominantly created by women for women, bara is created by gay men for gay men. You can usually tell by the artwork — the style is a little different but I admit it’s something that becomes easier to see with time.

    (Hi Jan!)

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  14. Jan
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 09:57:47

    @Mohini I agree. My favorite m/m works are all from within fandoms.

    @Jayne Thanks! Thanks to all of you for inviting me to do this.

    @Karenna It depends who you’re talking to. In Japan, BL is an umbrella term for the m/m created by women. There is actual gay manga, but none of that has been translated to English to my knowledge. There is bara manga, which contains very beefy men, which leans towards gay manga but which is becoming popular among female fans, so some is BL.

    In the US, fans use a variety of terms to describe BL. Originally, publishers found the name “Boys Love” to be problematic, so they took the term yaoi to be their umbrella term. The problem with that is that yaoi in Japan goes back to the old days of the genre, meaning a purely sex-oriented story with little to no redeeming value. And many fans use it to mean hardcore sex. So when people who don’t know much about BL see yaoi, they assume that hardcore manga is all that’s being published under that banner over here.

    There’s also a term used called shounen ai, which is an old Japanese term going back to stories about schoolboys falling in love with a pure love, not the least sexual in some cases. It’s no longer used in Japan in modern context, but some US fans use it to describe BL with little to no sex in it.

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  15. Ros
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 10:10:14

    @Maya: There is a Thursday Next/Harry Potter crossover that makes me weep with laughter. Poor old Snape has to put up with so many indignities in fandom that he threatens to go AWOL from the book and it’s left to Thursday to sort him out.

    Oddly, I think Fforde is quite strongly anti-fanfic, which seems somewhat hypocritical to me, given the nature of his books.

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  16. Jan
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 10:16:18

    Fforde writes what I’d call self-insertion multi-fandom cross-over crack fic, with some original characters.

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  17. CK
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 10:18:15

    Terrific post, Jan. Thanks for sharing.

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  18. Karenna Colcroft
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 10:20:39

    @Jia @Jan- thanks for the explanations :)

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  19. Bree/Moira Rogers
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 10:40:10

    I agree with this post 100%. While I’m not quite courageous enough to share the particulars of my own personal demons, my experience with the exorcising power of fanfic parallels yours. I formed some of the most defining friendships in my life through fandom. I wrote dark, twisty fanfic and bled through these characters. It was cathartic and therapeutic and while every fandom has its melodrama and wank, when the community is good, it can be very good.

    I left fanfic behind many years before I drifted into writing original work, but I still think I learned some of my most important lessons there. Especially lessons on dealing with criticism, navigating the internet and being part of a larger online community. (Okay, I don’t ALWAYS follow those lessons–but at least I know when I’m getting myself into trouble. :D)

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  20. Ros
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 10:40:16

    @Jan: Agreed. I love it, but I think his stance on fanfic is bizarrely unselfaware.

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  21. Maya S.
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 11:11:43

    @Ros: I find it entirely bizarre that he would be anti-fanfic. What I love so much about his books is that it basically IS fanfic. Highly creative and totally original, possibly, but fanfic just the same.

    I will admit to having written a TN/Harry Potter fanfic, but PLEASE link me to the Snape one. MUST READ ASAP.

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  22. Janine
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 12:14:30

    Jan, I just want to say again that I loved this post — though I’ve never participated in a fanfic community, I got teary eyed reading it in the DA back end last night. And also, what a thrill it is to have you here again.

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  23. Estara
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 13:24:53

    Fanfiction is valid in and off itself – and I like quite a few of the authors that have written ff – Sarah Rees Brennan and Meljean Brook to name but two. I have read some amazing fanfics for the Yuletide occasion, some even lauded by the authors of the original work – there is a fanfic in Sherwood Smith’s Wren universe which a friend of hers linked her to, because she couldn’t believe that Smith hadn’t written it herself – she agreed that the tone and the grasp of the characters was spot on, even as this prospective future wasn’t what was actually going to happen (she has since published the fourth Wren novel via Book View Cafe, so that fanfic isn’t on canon anyway).

    I can totally see a problem with Fifty Shades of Grey originally being released as fanfiction with the disclaimer of not wanting to make money of the characters and scenarios that Stephenie Meyer had invented – and now mostly having beem search-and-replaced (with some tightening up of the edit, from what I saw in Jane’s comparison post) and published for money twice – as independent ebook and then via a traditional publisher.

    @Jan: I’m glad to see you give a life sign here (I miss your romance manga reviews), even as it saddens me to read that one cause of your involvement in fanfiction.

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  24. Robin/Janet
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 15:34:33

    What a beautiful post. And a poignant articulation of one of the IMO biggest dilemmas around fan fiction, namely, to what extent are the communities and the fictional works separable/inseparable. And what are the implications for the community upon the commercial sale of fan fiction and vice versa. For me, at least, most of the ethical issues reside at those points of connection.

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  25. Kris
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 16:55:06

    Jan, thank you so much for sharing your knowledge about fan fiction as well as your own personal experiences. I have not had much contact with fan fiction so your article has given me huge insight into these communities. Very thought-provoking and extremely moving. Thank you again.

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  26. Sunita
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 17:34:06

    Jan, thanks so much for this post. I tend to forget how therapeutic different forms of creative expression can be, even though I’ve had that experience in other creative media in the past. And the community is an integral part of that. The dangers created by the commercialization of fanfiction for these communities in particular is something that really worries me.

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  27. DS
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 17:36:56

    Thank you. This helps me understand some of the discussions I have seen on the net about trigger warnings and safe places. I read about fandom rather than in fandom, and some of the passion about these issues looked a little overblown from the outside. However, your experience and the experience of others explains a lot and connects with some of the things I have read about the older media fandoms– 70′s and 80′s.

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  28. Jan
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 18:25:37

    @sunita It would be daunting if people knew there were scouts going through communities looking for people to publish. It would detrimentally change the tone of communities, and make them less welcoming.

    And yes, the community is an integral part of any therapy that comes from the writing. People could always write something original, but in a fandom you have a ready audience of like-minded people whom you know will welcome what you have to say, and having that is key.

    Thank you, everyone, for your kind responses. I’d hesitated over posting about this outside a known community, but I’m glad now that I did.

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  29. Lori Green
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 18:30:53

    Jan, thank you for articulating so well one of the best things about fanfic: the presence of a community that can nurture not just writers but also people.

    I came to fanfic late through a much smaller community of RPF. I met my best friend through fan fic and she and I are both now published with original work, we still love fan fic and the community of women we discovered there. And I agree about meeting our demons through the safe haven of writing within a community of people who welcome it.

    Thank you for such a wonderful post sharing your thoughts and feelings.

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  30. Fairyblood’s Fantasies Celebrates 2 Years of Love for Fanfiction « Fairyblood's Happy Place
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 18:59:13

    [...] Fan Fiction: A Personal Perspective [...]

  31. Has
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 19:12:21

    Fantastic post! *HUGS* Some of the best dark fiction I’ve read has been from fanfiction.

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  32. Hell Cat
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 19:19:49

    One thing that fan fiction allows that a lot of published fiction doesn’t give you access to outside of reviews is the warning system. I typically hang out around Livejournal/Dreamwidth, where the headers will tell you either the possibly triggers/personally questionable content. That allows a reader to make a more decisive assumption, either never reading or putting it aside until in the mood. I think that’s really important, too. As a community, there is a larger awareness of human experiences. Sometimes there is no warning, and often those fiction pieces are called out. And other warning comments say “no warnings listed, beware” because it’s a personal philosophy. It’s a nice system and a non-gamble.

    I don’t read incest (Wincest, Twincest/Weasleycest, Jonas brothers, etc) and having a warning is a very good thing. I also avoid the more erotica explorations. And those warnings over me the chance to not feel like I wasted my time. Same for rape fic, actually. I’ve watched the evolution of fan fiction on LJ since 2001, and it’s amazing to see how wide the fandom circles connect. And you can watch authors first fics versus now and see so much growth through those big and middle name fans.

    What I love the most about fan fiction are the character studies. Good and bad alike, there’s a look at a character and you can see the author’s reasons, whether agreed or not. I personally like the stories where you get to look a character this is referenced and even important but underdeveloped and see how the character grows into the person known – outside of romance, typically, which is called gen (general). Or team activities and dynamics (Stargate SG-1, for example). When a world is wide and varied, oftentimes little things get left out. Those little things are the best reads in my opinion.

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  33. Merrian
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 20:51:34

    I love fan fiction because it comes from communities where people share themselves. The writing/reading is a vehicle for this and an outcome of this original intention to connect with others. I don’t see ff writers and readers as consuming the original work and commodifying it but as people who find something in a shared response to the original work that opens up their worlds to new possibilities. This is why when I read some of the comments on Sunita’s post yesterday intended for Prof Tushnet I felt disturbed because it seems to me that people outside or inexperienced with fan fiction assume that ff writers and readers are engaged in commodity-making and that is the only lens through which fan fiction can be read/understood. If this is where the Fifty situation has taken us I am saddened and think there is a lot at risk.

    I also want to say thanks to Jan for such a lovely, open and thoughtful piece on being a fan fic reader and writer and about why the communities of fan fictions can’t be and shouldn’t be elided from the consideration of fan fiction writing.

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  34. Jenn
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 21:26:45

    @Ros: Can you tell me where to find the Harry Potter/Thursday Next crossover? That sounds hysterical!

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  35. Sunita
    Mar 15, 2012 @ 22:10:46

    @Merrian: I just finished putting the comments together in a file, so I was thinking about this too. I don’t think it’s so much that people are assuming commercialization as it is that we are concerned by it. What Jan said about scouts showing up in communities is very worrying. But if it happens, then it’s important to have thought about what can be done to protect the members and try to maintain the community. Commodification is always a danger when the payoffs are potentially so high.

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  36. Chris
    Mar 16, 2012 @ 00:13:09

    While people are throwing out names, did you know that Deidre Knight’s Midnight Warriors series was originally a fanfic series she wrote in the Roswell fandom? She changed it around, and made it her own, and did very well with it. I have the original stories printed out (though she decided to publish before she finished the fanfic series), and I bought the books. She did a wonderful job of making the story and the world her own.

    It can be done, and people shouldn’t be trashed because their work started out as a fanfic.

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  37. Robin/Janet
    Mar 16, 2012 @ 12:10:50

    @Sunita: I don’t seen commercialization as a danger, per se (and I tend to think most things are commodified in some respect, but that could be my cynicism talking), because I don’t think every talented writer is actively seeking publication, and as a reader I am always excited for a great book from a new voice.

    But I do think the impact of commercialization on these communities needs to be more closely considered, not only for the sake of the community, but also in terms of how the writer whose work moves into the stream of commerce has had his or her voice and work shaped by community input. How much of these works that are going commercial has been collaboratively written, for example? And will the nature of how the fan fiction communities work be changed by even the knowledge that a work could go commercial and mainstream?

    It may be that some changes will be inevitable, simply because of the nature of public discourse and writing, but some might not. Although not all change is necessarily negative, the whole issue seems almost overwhelming to consider, even though I think that the semi-protected sphere within which fan fiction communities have functioned may be harder and harder to maintain, as more attention is drawn to them via commercial success of fan fic works.

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  38. Sunita
    Mar 16, 2012 @ 13:34:32

    @Robin/Janet: Commercialization per se may not necessarily be a problem. But this is not just about some writers actively seeking publication. Instead, outfits like Writer’s and Omnilit seem to be going in to the communities and soliciting work from authors who may or may not have had that goal on their own.

    If, as Jan said upthread, you start getting “scouts,” that potentially changes the dynamic of the group, because you don’t know who you can trust. In the Claire example, she went outside the group to publish. Here, the group is being mined from within. I’m not sure the distinction makes sense the way I’m putting it, but it seems to me there is one.

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  39. Fan Fiction, Slash, and M/M Romance
    Mar 19, 2012 @ 04:02:07

    [...] fiction. I know that it can be a wonderful thing for writers and readers and fan communities, as Jan and Has so brilliantly attested. I certainly don’t think other people shouldn’t read it. It’s [...]

  40. Melinda Beasi
    Mar 22, 2012 @ 14:50:15

    Jan, I just wanted to take a moment to let you know how much I loved this post. I think you illustrate beautifully one of the ways in which fanfiction is transformative outside of the legal definition of the word. My own life has been deeply influenced by my fandom experiences, including writing and sharing fanfiction as part of an ongoing dialogue between like-minded women, and I’m grateful for it. Thank you for sharing your own experiences here. I found it incredibly moving and very insightful.

    ReplyReply

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