With my recent return to fanfiction (and a migraine attack over the weekend) I’ve been pondering exactly what fanfiction is/does and why we read/write it. There’s a long thread on my fav writing board, Absolute Write, that goes into pages and pages discussing why people write fanfiction and if it’s harmful to original fiction. Not to mention disrespectful to the author who put out the original story in the first place. But I think it misses some of the pertinent points so now it’s my time to ramble, based on my own experience.
First, a short bio for those who don’t know my past – I’ve been writing fanfiction since 1993, this being my 15th year of putting out everything from drabbles to novellas in fanfic form. I’ve written across the spectrum, from CSI to X-Files (my first love) to Kim Possible and most recently Speed Racer. And, of course, I met my husband 15 years ago through fanfiction – he sent me a fan letter and you can fill in the rest.
I started writing and flogging original fiction in 2000 and have managed to sell quite a few short stories and one novel to date – not exactly hitting the NYT bestseller list but pretty darned good to these old eyes. So when people say that fanfiction is disrespectful to the authors I can see where they’re coming from – I’ve had the strange experience of someone taking an original character of my own creation and seeing her put into a rather abnormal situation. Didn’t care for it, btw. So been there, done that. And yes, I still write fanfiction despite/because of it.
I think that many people who peer down their noses at fanfic writers forget one basic truth – many of these writers have *no* intention of becoming “professional” authors. They’re not practicing to move onto original fiction; they’re men and women of all ages who just want to express themselves and their love of the characters through words. If I sat down with a set of paints and attempted to paint my version of “The Last Supper” I wouldn’t be scoffed at and derided for doing it – I’d probably be told that I had little talent by those who were honest and fed platitudes by friends who want to encourage me and applaud my efforts. Doesn’t mean I want to try and get a showing in the Louvre – maybe all I want is something for the basement wall. Or to inflict on friends.
“Professional” authors (for lack of another word) grind out original fiction. While there are a lot of fanfiction authors who have made the jump to the next level there are a lot more who have no ambition to see their name on a bookshelf or even use their real name; choosing to live under an alias for their fanfic career. They don’t want to deal with publishing houses or cranky editors or book tours or Amazon.com reviews; they write from their hearts and see it as a great hobby as much as those who run marathons or paint flowers or play ice hockey.
Of course, anyone who’s spent more than a minute at www.fanfiction.net can attest to the fact that there’s a lot more BAD fanfic out there than good; and it’s hard to find the diamond among the boulders of coal that roll downwards every time you trip onto a fanfiction page. And that’s changed substantially from a decade ago.
When I started writing in 1993 you had a limited amount of options for your fanfiction. If you were lucky you could have it published in paper format for ‘zines that were flogged by hand and at conventions at tables stacked with amateur artwork (some of it quite professional-looking!!!) and sold by word-of-mouth more than by web page. If you couldn’t/weren’t chosen to go the ‘zine route you could post to Usenet newsgroups and fight your way through the confusion of having to deal with chapters being transmitted out of order; cranky downfeeds and limitations of all sorts. Not to mention tossing yourself open to anyone who could access the newsgroups for criticism. There were mailing lists as well, but these tended to literally clog your mailbox with huge digests of fiction that may or may not be what you were looking for.
It’s hard to imagine how fanfiction survived before the internet but I do believe that we can all agree that with the proliferation of everyone and their brother having online access that the number of authors and stories and fans has grown to a point that those original authors bashing out Star Trek fanfic on a Selectric typewriter could never have imagined.
Not everyone had a webpage. And if you did it was likely you’d have serious restrictions on what you could put up and definitely nothing sexual or even hinting at slash. (Go look it up if you don’t know; I’m not even going there.) Then someone started an archive and it snowballed into the multi-tentacles of today’s system with links on thousands of webpages leading to archives of anything and everything you could think of.
And, of course, Fanfiction.net. I remember when it first started that there was a bit of an uproar for the owners daring to accept advertising to cover the cost of running the site. Now it’s a huge database that covers every show, every movie and every manga you could possibly think of. Or not. I do know that I’ve got one of the oldest stories on there, having tossed up most of my fanfiction as soon as I could, wanting wider exposure.
History lesson over.
I guess my point is that if fanfiction were another type of art, maybe painting or flower arranging or sculpture that there wouldn’t be as many people denouncing it. Fan artists, to my knowledge, hardly ever get comments along the lines of “grow up and do your own stuff!” when they produce some magnificent fan art that may match or surpass that of “professionals”. But we still look down on fanfiction as somehow the bastard child of people with too much free time on their hands.
And that’s just… wrong.
People write fanfiction because they love something so much; love a setting or a person or storyline so much that they have to express their adoration and love for it in written form. And while there’s plenty of bad fanfiction it all comes from the heart where someone’s trying to express themselves using words – and those of us who work on original works can tell you that it’s hard as all get-out at times to make those words work.
You don’t write fanfiction to be famous or to get a job working for 20th Century Fox or to be called up into the big leagues and offered a contract by one of the major publishing houses. You write fanfiction because you have to; you love something about the show or the characters or the book or the movie that you just have to get out of your system. And whether it slides into obscurity with only a few readers or hits the “big leagues” of fanfiction with fan awards and plenty of readings doesn’t matter – you’ve done it.
Which is why I often head back to fanfiction between working on original stuff. It’s like settling back into that old chair that you know you should throw out but just can’t; it’s too comfortable. You sit down and it’s soft in all the right places and just the right shape. Sure, it’s not pretty or trendy or even something anyone else would want to sit in but it’s your comfort zone and you enjoy it.
Is it disrespectful to the authors who created the original world? Depends on how you look at it – I’d like to think that if you read a fanfic based on an original work I’ve written that you’d be more likely to go BACK to the real thing, so to speak, to be fully entertained. And that results in more money for me, the original author. Sure, I may or may not agree with the interpretation of the characters or the storyline or whatever, but I’ve released these creations of my mind into the world and once they’re out… they’re out. All I ask is that you respect them and just consider others when you leap forth with your fanfiction. As I do with my own fanfics; I can truthfully say that I have written nothing that I am embarrassed to have my full name on or that I wouldn’t defend to the original creators.
Except for the songfic. But let’s not go there.
So I guess my point is that when you read fanfiction or write it or whatever, just enjoy it. Relish the good stories, ignore the bad and realize that, in the end, it’s all a hobby. A fun, entertaining and addictive hobby that no one gets rich from and that brings joy to thousands of people around the world. But also embrace the creativity of thousands of writers out there who leap, headfirst, into expressing their deepest desires and dreams; their nightmares and horrors, without thought of compensation beyond getting a fan letter or maybe mention on a website somewhere.
My ramblings endeth.