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Fan Fiction, Slash, and M/M Romance

Sarah: My experience with fanfiction comes from two different directions: as a Jane Austen scholar and as a reader of m/m romance.

I have to say from the start that I don’t willingly read fan 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 just not for me. RPS creeps me out and I’m uninterested in reading alternate or continuing storylines from fictional worlds and characters that I enjoy, whether TV, book, or film.

For me, it comes down to voice. I read primarily for voice and, in my opinion, it is incredibly difficult to replicate another author’s voice. I mean, yes, I read romance for the happy ending and the depth of characterization. But I read specific authors for their voice. I fall in love with characters because of the voice in which they are written. So I’m uninterested in Further Fan Fiction Adventures of favorite characters, because they will by definition be written in a different voice.

Sunita: As I said in my earlier post, I came to fan fiction through m/m romance. I didn’t know much about either when I started reading m/m, but as I read more and more, it became clear to me that there were certain characterization, setting, and relationship tropes that recurred far more often in the novels than they ever showed up in real life. Retrospectively that seems unsurprising: after all, romance is populated by billionaires and dukes, as well as feisty, beautiful heroines who want to save their families, and I don’t bat an eye. But I think that subconsciously I was expecting m/m to be more realistic. When I discovered its roots in slash, those tropes made much more sense.

While I notice and appreciate voice, especially that of favorite authors, it’s not the primary reason I read genre fiction. I pay more attention to characters and setting. So I’m not opposed to works that port characters to a different world, or new characters in the same setting. I read a lot of series and linked books, for that very reason.

Sarah: The first direction from which I encountered fan fiction was Jane Austen. I am an Austen scholar during my day job. Jane Austen’s books, of course, are out of copyright, so Austen fan fiction does not run into the issues that Fifty Shades of Grey does with appropriating someone else’s copyrighted characters. There is a LOT of Jane Austen-inspired fiction out there. (Twilight, of course, is famously one of them, ironically enough.) Since 1993, there have been about 100 books inspired by or continuing Pride and Prejudice alone, let alone Austen’s five and a half other books (Lady Susan being the half) and two unfinished novels. And of course, Austen herself has become a character in a lot of these modern books.

I’ll admit, I read and enjoyed Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary, a modern-day retelling of Pride and Prejudice and I enjoyed Ann Herendeen’s slashy Pride/Prejudice for the intellectual exercise of the thing. And I adore the films (Pride and Prejudice: A Latter Day Comedy and Bride and Prejudice are my favorites). But in general, I find it VERY difficult to read any of the books that purport to continue Elizabeth and Darcy’s story or that tell the stories of other characters (Mary Bennet, Georgiana Darcy, etc.) because no matter how hard an author tries, she cannot replicate Austen’s voice and because she’s necessarily influenced by twenty-first century priorities, rather than those of the early nineteenth century. And, honestly, I enjoy leaving characters with their HEAs; I’m not interested in their Further Adventures. I like narrative closure and I prefer to leave it closed. YMMV.

Sunita: I have no interest whatsoever in Austen fanfics or retellings as novels. For one thing, they’re written in a modern voice, by modern writers. Austen isn’t historical fiction or historical romance; she was writing about her contemporary world. By definition, any work that continues those characters’ stories is going to be doing so through a modern lens. That’s a distortion I’m not interested in.

Sarah: This is precisely why I love Bridget Jones, both book and film, and P+P: A Latter Day Comedy and Clueless. (And the fabulous Easy A, a retelling of The Scarlet Letter)! They are modern, taking the plot and themes and having them comment on modern characters and settings.

Sunita: Out of that group, I really only like Clueless, but I agree with you that the modern retellings are more enjoyable. I tend to treat movies as a different kind of aesthetic and cultural experience. They’re showing me something (literally, since it’s a visual medium) that is not there in Austen but could be. Of course, they’re modern too (even the period, “authentic” ones), but somehow it doesn’t bother me as much. I guess I expect movies by definition to be different.

Sarah: And this is why I can enjoy the Keira Knightley/Matthew McFadyen P+P (with bonus Wuthering Heights ending), or the completely fictional “biography” of Austen, Becoming Jane: because I treat them solely as a movie with its own narrative and visual conventions.

Getting back to fan fiction: Almost all Austen fan- or repurposed- or real-person fiction makes a point of mentioning the Austen connection if it’s not obvious, precisely because of the cultural cachet it garners. This is precisely the opposite of most m/m romance that’s repurposed slash or fan fiction, which tries to hide its origins. And it’s that intellectual dishonesty and its repercussions for me as a reader that is the reason I try my hardest to avoid P2P books.

I have reviewed (and reviewed very well) a lot of m/m romance that I discovered later is fan fiction with the serial numbers filed off: Zero at the Bone (Brokeback Mountain), Shades of Gray (also Brokeback Mountain), and All’s Fair in Love and Advertising (some scifi show I know nothing about), at the very least (there was also intense speculation about I Just Play One on TV -– probably RPS). I’m sure people with more knowledge could find more among the books I review (part of my problem with fanfic is that I don’t watch TV and I don’t read fanfic, so I rarely know what to look for, or even THAT I should be looking).

As an aside: Alternate Universe (AU) fanfic seems to be the easiest to repurpose (like 50 Shades): the author has already created a different world, so all she needs to do is change the characters just slightly enough (names and looks), and it can look like original fic and people defend you by saying things like, “Twilight was about vampires, 50 Shades isn’t paranormal,” so obviously, they’re not the same at all.

Sunita: I see two ways in which fan fiction has influenced m/m. The first is this reworking — sometimes extensive, sometimes … not — of stories that had been previously published and disseminated on line for free. And m/m publishers have, to different degrees, been complicit in this process. Most of the well-known m/m publishers have published books that are lightly or heavily transformed fan fiction. If you look at a list of favorite m/m romances at GoodReads, Jessewave’s site, or our own yearly Best Of lists, you’ll see books that started as fan fiction. The main difference I see between the presses is that some of the older ones wanted fan fiction that was substantially reworked. Some of the newer ones seem to accept more work that comes close to the file-off-the-serial-numbers approach.

Unlike the current brouhaha around 50 Shades of Grey, many fans who were aware that published m/m novels had been reworked from fan fiction did not reveal the origins. I can understand why readers were quite annoyed to discover that the books they thought were original were not. Some are like you and don’t want to read repurposed fan fiction at all, no matter how different the new product is. Other readers don’t care. I have mixed feelings. But I think that disclosing provenance is important. Attribution to a previous source matters to me. At the same time, I’ve read and enjoyed books that turned out to have begun as fan fiction, and I’m glad I read them.

Sarah: I would not willingly have read these books, and certainly would not have reviewed them, if I’d known ahead of time that they were fan fiction. I personally feel that it’s intellectual theft and it’s lazy. Don’t get me wrong: when it’s written as fanfic, to be distributed for free, I think it’s a wonderful thing. But if an author pulls to publish, I think she’s disrespecting her readers, specifically the readers who don’t know that it’s formerly fan fiction.

Jami Gold said it the best for me in her post on “What Makes a Character Unique“:

Characters—good characters—go much deeper than their job, their human/non-human status, their name, number of siblings, where they live, etc. Real characters are born out of their history, family background, worldview, religious beliefs, moral code, self-image, self-delusions, strengths, flaws, goals, etc. They aren’t puppets fulfilling our goals for a plot.

Most fanfic stories—no matter how out-of-character the characters might act—still intend for their characters to evoke those of the original author. While superficial details might be different (especially if it’s an “alternate universe” fanfic story), most of those things I listed above would be similar to the original. In other words, not a unique character.

Someone wrote out an extensive list as a comment in another of Gold’s posts of the connections between Twilight and 50SoG. Ana is clumsy because Bella is clumsy, for example, not because E.L. James decided Ana is clumsy for reasons of her own. Or, in the case of Zero at the Bone, I commented in my original review (before I knew the book was BbM fanfic):

“D’s “dialect” is…slightly annoying. [...] It’s part of him. It’s perfectly sustained throughout the book. But it’s never explained by where he came from (either geography or class). And it slowed down my reading sometimes enough to be mildly irritating.

I didn’t know at the time, but D’s dialect comes from the fact that he’s actually Ennis Delmar from Brokeback Mountain and that’s how Ennis speaks. When ZatB was fan fiction, that doesn’t need to be explained. But in original fiction, the way a character speaks has to come from somewhere and the P2P author was, in this case, too close to her source to know to explain that when she was publishing it as original fiction.

The issue for me comes down to this: I believe that P2P disrespects its non-fanfic readers. This is the distinction for me between Austen fanfic and P2P fanfic that purports to be original. The fact that it’s Austen fanfic is the point and one is expected to read it, whether it’s canon-set or AU, with the knowledge that it’s Austen-based. It’s meant to be read as Austen-inspired and that fact is meant to heighten the reader’s pleasure in reading it. This is precisely the point of fanfic, no matter the provenance (out of copyright or not).

P2P fanfic that purports to be original is disavowing that layer of pleasure, claiming, in fact, that it doesn’t exist, but then still fails to explain vital character traits or plot points for the unsuspecting reader, because they didn’t need to be explained when the story was fanfic.

It’s that intellectual dishonesty towards the non-fanfic reader that makes me SO mad when I discover that a book I’ve enjoyed is P2P fanfic. I feel like the author’s pulling one over on me and it retroactively destroys all the pleasure I felt in the book when I read it.

Sunita: For me, the second way that fan fiction affects m/m as a genre is less ethically problematic but perhaps just as important in the growth and maturation of the genre. I’m talking about the adoption and immense popularity of certain types of stories, such as hurt/comfort, Gay4U, Out4U. Fan fiction writing experience is very helpful in developing certain aspects of a writer’s craft. Writers are often very good at character interaction. Good m/m romances have interesting characters, and the romantic relationships are carefully and compellingly written. But not all authors are as good at other components of a story that are necessary when moving into the world of original fiction.

Violetta Vane has an excellent post on the issues authors confront in moving between fan fiction and original fiction. She notes a number of weaknesses fan fiction writers have to overcome:

Setting detail. Most settings are already given to us by canon. They’re taken for granted. Describing setting takes time away from the stuff everyone wants to read: the characters interacting and having a rich inner life.

Character description. We know how the characters look already in canon. There’s no need to describe them all over again.

Original characters. There’s a frequent prejudice against original characters, especially female ones.

Plot. The major plot points are already given to us in canon.

Conflict and suspense. It’s very hard to introduce this in fanfic, because conflict and suspense rely on CHANGE, and fanfic writers 1) often don’t want to truly change the characters they love 2) even if they do, their audience may not accept the change.

Some authors are very good at these aspects, but many otherwise good writers struggle with some of them (and have remarked on it). And if publishers are not doing a lot of developmental and content editing, then those weaknesses aren’t going to be addressed in the book production process.

So for me, the relationship of fan fiction to the m/m genre is a mixed bag. It has given us many talented authors and wonderful books. But as long as the genre isn’t open and up-front about that relationship, the disadvantages that closeness brings are not likely to be addressed.

Sarah F. is a literary critic, a college professor, and an avid reader of romance -- and is thrilled that these are no longer mutually exclusive. Her academic specialization is Romantic-era British women novelists, especially Jane Austen, but she is contributing to the exciting re-visioning of academic criticism of popular romance fiction. Sarah is a contributor to the academic blog about romance, Teach Me Tonight, the winner of the 2008-2009 RWA Academic Research Grant, and the founder and President of the International Association of the Study of Popular Romance (IASPR). Sarah mainly reviews BDSM romance and gay male romance and hopes to be able to beat her TBR pile into submission when she has time to think. Sarah teaches at Fayetteville State University, NC.

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