I’ve been reading genre fiction (romance, mystery, SFF) for a very long time, but I didn’t become aware of fan fiction as a category of writing, much less its role in creating community, until I found internet blogs about fiction writing. Back when I was reading mystery blogs regularly, I ran across a ranting post on the illegitimacy of writing stories using other authors’ characters and worlds. Many commenters in the very long thread attempted to explain what attracted them, and to a person they argued (believably to me) that they were doing it for the love of the characters, not money or fame. But the original poster was obdurate. He refused to concede that there was anything legitimate, much less beneficial, about fan fiction.
I didn’t participate, because I could barely figure out what everyone was talking about. But I was initially sympathetic to the anti-fan-fiction argument, probably because I’ve never wanted to do anything that resembles it. Of course I’ve hated certain books’ endings, I’ve wished for sequels, and I’ve thought about the off-page lives of favorite characters. But I’ve never written to authors to ask them to keep writing about a particularly loved protagonist. And I’ve never wanted to write my own versions of books. Not because I thought doing so would be wrong, but because it just never occurred to me.
Then I started reading m/m romance and discovered there was not only fan fiction about the Potterverse, Buffy, and Tolkien, but also slash. And I found that many authors whose published fiction I enjoyed had written fan fic earlier in their writing careers, and some continued to write in both worlds. I learned derogatory phrases like “filing off the serial numbers” and “pulled to publish,” but I also discovered that quite a few well-loved books might have begun their lives as Brokeback Mountain fanfics or Kirk/Spock fanfics. The relationship between fan and original fiction was so commonplace that even books that didn’t begin as fan fiction were sometimes thought to have originated there.
I decided that if I wanted to understand the genre I was reading, I needed to understand fan fiction. But I was stymied by my inherent inability to understand the motivation. As you may have gathered by now, I am a terrible storyteller. I do not have the gift. But recently, when I was idly perusing a chat board, I came across an example using some of my favorite m/m characters. The commenter was explaining the drive to rewrite Brokeback Mountain with a happy ending by using the fourth book of the Adrien English series:
Imagine that Adrien went on that boat with Paul Kane and Jake did nothing because he was so fearful of exposing himself. Even worse, that Adrien didn’t even bother to tell Jake what he was going to do because he’d given up on him. Imagine that Adrien died at Paul’s hands and Jake spent the rest of his life eaten up with regret — and still in the closet. Then you can understand why so many people turned to fanfic for relief …
And suddenly it clicked for me. When I was reading Death of a Pirate King, I knew that somehow Adrien would wind up with Jake. Because it’s a romance. But what if the fictional romance that really grabs you occurs in a non-romance, and they don’t wind up together? Or they don’t/can’t wind up together in the canonical version of the fictional world (Kirk and Spock again)? You can shrug your shoulders and move on to another book. Or, if you’re a writer, you can sit down and make it happen. And there are readers who will love you for it.
This path isn’t just about creating new romantic relationships or changing unhappy endings to happy ones. What if you think the most interesting character in the Harry Potter novels is Luna Lovegood and you want to read more about her? J.K. Rowling isn’t going to oblige, but someone else can, and Luna is a pretty interesting character on the page, so there’s a lot to work with there. She’s not your character, but you can develop her in ways that Rowling may or may not have thought of but hasn’t written down. Even if you adhere strictly to canon, there’s plenty of scope for your imagination, and there will always be someone who is interesting in reading it.
Before the internet, writers passed around their work by hand, mail, or other slow and small-scale methods. Once communities could develop online, though, the relationship between writers and readers became far more immediate and interactive. Beta readers are a key aspect of fan fiction writing, just as critique partners are commonplace for authors of original fiction. Prompts offer suggestions for new work, and the norm of issuing the story serially in the form of weekly or monthly installments has meant that it can be shaped by reader feedback as it is written.
Non-writing readers have always underestimated the extent to which books are the outcome of a collaborative process, and this underestimation is even greater for fan fiction. The community is frequently essential to the process. It provides support, feedback, editing, and encouragement. Big Name Authors in fan fiction can have hundreds or even thousands of readers, and these readers can be more vigilant than the BNA herself in defending the product and the author.
From my perspective, the emphasis on characterization and the interactive relationship of writers and readers are two of the distinguishing characteristics of fan fiction, which set it apart from other types of adaptions, interpretations, and retellings of earlier cultural products. Even in Alternate Universe fan fiction, characterizations can remain quite faithful to the canonical descriptions. Whether the changes authors introduce to these characters are sufficient to make the jump from derivative to transformative is not something we can usually predict in advance, but I think it’s important to have a conversation about what such a transformation entails and think about conditions in which authors might succeed or fall short.
As part of that conversation, we’ve scheduled the following posts:
(2) Four authors who have been active as readers and writers in fan fiction communities will participate in a roundtable post in which they talk about how they started writing, how they separate fan fiction from their original fiction, the role of fandoms and communities, and what they see as the most important issues for the genre.
(3) Jayne will have a special fanfic-related movie review on Friday.
(4) Jane will talk about plagiarism, copyright, and other legal aspects of the fan v. original fiction debate.
(5) Sarah Frantz and I will have a conversation about the special relationship of fan fiction and m/m romance.
And finally, we are very, very fortunate to have Rebecca Tushnet as a guest to answer questions about legal and ethical issues in writing and disseminating fan fiction. Professor Tushnet is professor of law at Georgetown University as well as a writer of fan fiction. She is a founding member of the Organization for Transformative Works, an organization designed to support fans and fan fiction, and which argues that fan works are legitimate and transformative forms of creative expression. She has agreed to take questions from Dear Author’s readers and answer as many as she can in a Q&A post. Please post your questions in the comments. We will send them on to her and then post her answers in the final article of the series.