Fanfiction: A Tale of Fandom and Morality
I always describe myself as a geek at heart because I’m such a huge fan of cult shows such as Farscape, The X-Files, and Firefly. I’m no stranger to fanfiction and I have read the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s been a fun ride because fanfiction can fill in the missing bits or expand the universe of a television show, book or movie. It also helps to form a community and define it. I have been involved in the fandoms I mentioned above, and I loved the community aspect of it. It can be engaging and inventive, as well as hilariously intentionally and unintentionally bad. Fanfiction is a way where fans can invest and add to an established world that they love and it brings about many discussions. It can also bring on the fanwankery, which at times can be quite funny and entertaining.
In the past few years, fanfiction has also become a launching pad for authors – partly because of the followings they have gained and the popularity of the fandom they belong to. This development has the potential to change fanfiction and its fandoms, and not necessarily in good ways.
I never thought that fanfiction would actually become commercialised or widely practiced for profitable gain. Fanfiction is a great medium where fans can enrich and be a part of the world that they love. It has always been a great thing that fandom can revitalise and bring back shows or even books from an early – or abrupt – demise. Recently both “Firefly” and “Farscape” were able to get resolutions due to the influence of their fanbases.
Fanfiction can be a fantastic medium to keep fandom alive or even to help it grow. In the 50s/60s, the Lord of the Rings novels gained huge popularity due to science fiction and fantasy fan groups, who embraced Tolkien and the world he created by keeping it alive. They wrote fanfic in fanzines and attended conventions that helped spread the word about the books. Due to this ACE released unsanctioned bootlegged paperback copies which reached a wider audience, after claiming that the US copyright was void because the original US publisher, Houghton Mifflin failed to protect the rights to the series. However, Tolkien appealed to his fans, who then helped to campaign against this edition. This caused ACE to relent their claim to the rights and paid back royalties and letting the book go out of print. Nonetheless, the success of the series and the grassroots campaign, led to another publisher, Ballantine, to later release an official revised version. Since then, Lord of the Rings has inspired countless authors and made an impact in the genre of fantasy and science fiction.
Star Trek is another major fandom that helped to expand the sub-culture of fanfiction and its fandoms. It showed how influential a collective group of fans can be, by turning a dead show into the pop cultural phenomenon that Star Trek is today. Star Trek fanfiction was influential in helping to create well-known terms, such as the MarySue character (which stemmed from a fanfic story in a fanzine that had a perfect heroine with no flaws and is loved by all). The term is now widely used to describe this trope in fiction and shows how fandom and fanfiction influences have spread to other mediums, especially the wider mainstream, which has picked upon its popularity and phrases.
The growth of fandom and its ability to create influence through word of mouth recommendations is a factor which studios and publishers are keen to tap into. They can take advantage of stories that are popular among fanfiction readers and writers because there is an established fanbase and it’s an attractive and profitable audience to target. The popularity of Star Trek and Lord of the Rings shows how it can catch the attention of publishers or studios and help reignite a text or a show out of obscurity.
Historically, however, fandom has not been about making money, and any attempts to do so by fans were frowned upon. I never suspected that being part of a fandom was about making money or even to nurture a personal following for personal gain. The goal was to be part of a community where people could partake in and celebrate their fandoms and immerse themselves in that fandom’s universe. I felt really proud and happy to be a part of Farscape’s fandom. We were instrumental in bringing the show back from cancellation and we helped to bring about a resolution, in the form of a mini-series, which concluded the series perfectly. My experience in that fandom was that it was about forming a sense of community and belonging, and the idea of fans profiting from this was an anathema.
This notion of not profiting seems to be changing for some fans and fandom, especially recently with Twilight, especially when you have publishers like Omnific and The Writer’s Coffee Shop repackaging and publishing Twilight fanfiction into books. There has been fan uproar associated withCassandra Clare (The Mortal Instruments) andE.L James (Fifty Shades trilogy), who have used fandom and the fan following linked to it to gain big publishing deals because of the hype and buzz linked to the fandom they wrote for.
I never really gave much thought to this new development in fanfiction-turned-published-books because in the past it was never really an issue. I was aware of a few authors who had used elements of their fanfic in their books or started out writing it, but they have only published original works. But the idea of writing a full fanfic and gaining a following, particularly if it is an enthusiastic and active one like Twilight or Harry Potter, in my opinion, is definitely venturing into a ethically grey area.
Some fanfiction isn’t close to the base material because it’s either set in an alternative universe from the original text, or has all-new characters (OOC) inhabiting the world that the original author has created. But it does borrow heavily and use elements which the fanfiction writerimplements into the story, and despite differences from the original text, it is still set in that universe and aimed at the fanbase’s readers. Overall with fanfiction and all the different varieties it has, such as alternative universe (AU) or same sex pairings (Slash), there is an understanding that fanfic writers are not to profit despite any differentiations. The fact that there are now publishers who are dedicated to turning fanfiction into published books with the potential for profit is not a good. It changes that key tenet of fandom, of commercialising a text for which they don’t have the copyright or full ownership.
I can see the appeal of the retellings of public domain books such as the recent literary mashups of paranormal and classic literature, or Jane Austen inspired fiction (which is a sub-genre in itself) or even parodies that are legally fine. Some may argue that the notion of originality and the moral use is in question. Those books are in the public sphere and there is no legal restraint, so I can also understand and see the appeal of turning a popular fanfic story into something more commercial. I have read and enjoyed books that were partly and fully based on fanfiction. In some cases I was not aware of the connection until I read the books, but in the past few months I’ve come to believe that if a story was originally based as a fanfic it doesn’t matter how many rewrites or editing takes place, that original intention and story was aimed at and belongs to that fandom.
The more I think about this issue the more strongly I feel that taking an entire fanfiction story and turning that into a published book is ethically wrong. It’s an easy way to cash in because there’s already a built-in fanbase that is able to market the book via word of mouth. It’s a disservice to the original text and its author, and essentially they aren’t producing an original piece of text — even if they have edited and reworked the fanfiction to avoid copyright infringement over characters or setting. The original root of that story is based on another author’s fictional playground.
Yet contrast this with original fiction that has been self published or even posted freely on fiction sites which can also garner a huge following like authors such as: Amanda Hocking, S.C. Stephens or Susan Ee. The rise of self publishing/epublishing has grown tremendously over the past few years, and I feel that there is no good reason why an author would follow the route other fanfic turned published writers have previously done unless they don’t fully believe in their writing could stand out because of competition. Another factor is that they are using fandom as a cynical ploy to market their books due to the support of a vocal and popular fanbase, which can be a fantastic marketing tool. Those writers who have done so have downplayed their fanfiction origins because it lessens the idea that this is not a fully original story to a wider audience they hope to reach, especially if it concerns hitting mainstream success. However, the thought that the author does not believe what they wrote is strong enough to stand on its own merits but decided to publish it so they could profit by exploiting their fanbase is disappointing. Although not all fanfiction writers turned authors have followed suit. For some, their time with fandom and writing fanfic has helped to hone their writing skills and has been a fun and enjoyable experience.
I personally feel that in the long run fanfiction and its future is not going to be as expressive or free because of the fears that aspiring authors will be using fanfiction as a springboard for launching their own books. The recent cases of authors who have pulled their fanfic for publications have split their fandoms and have become pretty acrimonious – with supporters for those writers, who don’t see any problems with commercialisation of fanfiction and for those who fear about the ramifications and increasing popularity of using a community for profitable gain.
There is evidence to suggest this is the case, especially with the recent success of the Fifty Shades trilogy and Gabriel’s Inferno (which also originated as Twilight fanfiction). And what happens if fans of these books are inspired to write their own fanfiction and then decide to publish it? I could envision a book based on the Fifty Shades trilogy with Ana and Christian as paranormal beings, perhaps as vampires, and it could be set in the far future to differentiate it from the original text. Because this series has a huge following which stems from Twilight and it has captured that zeitgeist right now.
I really get a headache thinking about this because it might start off an ever-crazier circle of fanfiction based on fanfiction. And because of this, I can see more authors and studios joining George Lucas, Anne Rice, Robin Hobb and GRR Martin, who have actively sent out cease and desist letters to fanfiction sites because of copyright issues. It is different from borrowing ideas or tropes, because not one book or story is truly original, and authors have written similar plots and character archetypes as other authors. But the main aspect of fanfiction is that it started off based on another writer’s universe. Therefore it is not an original premise even if the fanfiction author has written a different approach or direction. It’s aimed at readers who love and enjoyed the original text universe, and I can see authors being more proactive in protecting their books from fanfiction if this trend continues to be more widespread.
I think this issue is going to be very detrimental to fandom and fanfiction because the element of commercialization has always been in the hands of the copyright owner and not the fan. I am seeing this distinction merging…and I think this is a very slippery slope. Fans do feel some sort of ownership towards their chosen text or show because they spend time and energy by supporting and expanding it — via fan-art, fanfiction and discourse — either online or at cons where textual meaning is produced and celebrated. This is a factor that creators and owners of a text appreciate because it helps to foster a community and a captive audience. With the increasing popularity of fanfiction being turned into published works, this relationship is going to be fraught and complicated. I don’t want this to happen because this might mean another potential Lord of the Rings or a Star Trek or even a Twilight might not take off because fandom is going to be stifled. And that would be a real loss.