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The (reconstructed) vaguely philosophical post about fanfic 
5th-May-2008 09:46 pm
Misc - sun in branch
Earlier today, I started a post about something that turned into musings about fan fiction and its validity and purpose. (I have a degree in popular culture. It's hard for me not to come up with essays of this type.) The post ended up being eaten as I was finishing it.   Here's my attempt to re-create and expand on it.  My question: is fan fiction really of lesser worth than "original" fiction?  (This is not a defense of porn, it's actual questions.)


So. Suppose a friend tells you that he's decided that, as a "creative writing" exercise, he wants to try writing a movie script, just to see if he can do it. OK, fine. Then he says that what he's decided to write is a sequel to The Last Starfighter. If you're not familiar with the movie, it's about a trailer park dwellin' gamer geek who beats an arcade game, and discovers that the game was actually an approximation of an actual alien war, and due to his skill, he's been chosen to help lead the fight. (If this reminds you of "Ender's Game" or the South Park episode "Best Friends Forever", well, it's probably one of the inspirations for those.) (It's also the old, old story of the hero's quest and/or the fairy tale trope of the child who rises from obscurity to become a saviour...but I digress.)

Most of our mutual friends just want to make fun of him. I would like to back him into a corner and get him to talk about this philosophically. After all, what, exactly, is the difference between what he wants to do, and outright fan fiction? He wants to write something that is set in a fictional s.f. universe that was created by someone else and portrayed in a popular medium, and he's doing so for his own and possibly other fans' enjoyment, rather than because he's been officially contracted to do so. Does writing it in a script format somehow make it more "valid" and "serious"? I suspect he would argue it does. I would argue that no matter what format one uses for it, it's still fan fiction.

Here's the wider question, though.  Is fan fiction really automatically of lesser value than original writing?  My college major was originally creative writing. I've spent a lot of time in writing workshops.  This has led close friends to ask me to read their writing and give them opinions.  I have read a number of good friends' work over the years that just...sucked.  Seriously, SUCKED.  I cannot come up with a quick phrase to adequately describe the suckage: poorly-paced plots, "twist" endings that were obvious from the first page, one-dimensional characters that are completely predictable stereotypes, clunky ponderous dialogue that no real human being would actually say in real life...  

One measure commonly used to devalue fan fiction is the alleged lack of originality.  It's set in a universe created by someone else...therefore, it must automatically be of lesser value, right?  An original story set in a universe created by the author must automatically have more value, because it represents more effort on the part of the author, right?  

But...what good does it do to create an original universe if the people who experience the story can't think of anything more positive to say about it beyond, "Wow.  Um.  That was...interesting"?  Why should a poorly-executed original story automatically be accorded more worth and more respect than a well-written story set in someone else's universe?

Additionally, a fan fiction author might not be thinking up their own original universe.  But there are many fic authors out there who work hard to fit their fiction into canon.  They have the added work of trying to think up a plot that accords with said canon, and to have the already-established characters behave in ways that other viewers would say are realistic for that character, based on said canon.  These are restrictions that don't come into play with original fiction, and that require considerable effort on the part of a fan fiction author.

And in a more gray area...what about "original" fiction that is "inspired by" other authors' work?  I was guilty of this sort of thing myself when I was younger; I'm not attacking other people.  But suppose someone writes an "original" story about a female vampire hunter who falls in love with one of her prey, right after watching a Buffy the Vampire Slayer marathon.  Is that really original? It might not be set in the BtVS universe, but one can see the linkage between the two.  When an "original story" is that obviously prompted by someone else's work, just how different is it from "fan fiction"?  And does it really deserve more esteem than fan fiction, just because (to paraphrase Robert Heinlein) someone filed off the serial numbers and changed the names?

Another gray area...novelizations.  I've read some sucky Doctor Who novelizations, and horrific Star Trek novels.  Thefew  Heroes graphic novels I read managed to both bore me, and annoy me by feeling out-of-character.  I rarely attempt to read those sorts of things any more because in over 20 years of experiencing works of science fiction, I have yet to encounter an auxiliary work that I thought was anywhere near as exciting as the original show/movie.  So is it fair to say that an officially authorized work that is of poor to middling quality is really more culturally valid than unofficial fan fiction that is well-executed?

I've had other thoughts about the role of fan fiction that I keep threatening to write up, but I'll stop here, because they're different from the main point of this essay.  I don't have all the answers to the questions I've brought up.  As I've said many times, until a year ago, I had a very negative opinion of fan fiction writers because in my high school/college days, I knew some fic writers whose work was as atrocious as the original fiction writers I mentioned.  But meeting people who are good writers, and who choose to use their writing skills for fan fiction, has made me completely re-consider that opinion.  I have to ask: is it really fair to say that badly-written original fiction is something to be "prouder" of than well-written fan fiction?

Comments 
6th-May-2008 05:54 am (UTC)
Hmmm... I was right, I do find this interesting. =)

Allow me to preface this comment by saying that I don't mean for any of this to be antagonistic in the least. I think your essay is valid and well thought-out. This is just my perspective.

Your question about the value or worthiness of original fiction versus fanfiction is one I have long contemplated. This post presented the interesting idea that there is near-objective rubrick for judging fiction: mutli-dimensional characters, non-obvious plot, balanced plot pacing, etc. Obviously these things are subjectively measured, but even the fact that a list like this exists suggests that these things must at least be considered when evaluating fiction.

I'm hesitant to say I disagree, but I think there may be a causation/correlation error in there. Fiction that's "good" at those things often is such because the author is aware of those elements and their impact on the story. To me, it's not so much that certain elements have to be present or adequately executed in order for the fiction to be "good," it's that they have to be consciously chosen (or consciously unchosen, but I've never seen any really aleatoric fiction). It's not that the fiction is a certain way, it's that it's *intentionally* that way.

I agree that a lot of fiction sucks. There's bad original fiction and there's bad fanfiction. This may be a double standard, but I'm more willing to forgive bad fanfiction than bad original fiction because I understand why something was written more easily if it is within the context of fandom/fanon. Especially if I don't know the author, it's hard to contextualize original fiction to figure out why they wrote something. It may also be conceited to think that I understand some fanfiction better than the authors, but a lot of fanfiction authors are quite young and inexperienced, whereas I've been around a while.

A lot of fans aren't aware that fanon cliches can make for subpar fanfiction--they're following what they perceive to be convention, even though it's usually just a circle jerk. Also, a lot of original fiction writers don't realize that the fact that they came up with something doesn't mean it's not a cliche. If they stumble into a circle jerk with their cliches, they then think it's convention and carry on as they started.

I guess what I'm saying is that I advocate awareness and conscious choices over more specific criteria. It allows for innovation and convention to exist and co-exist in respectable ways. After that, it comes down to a matter of taste. Fanfiction and orignal fiction are very, very similar things from my point of view, and I believe they should be assessed in similar ways.

(Edited because I have a compulsive need to make sure I'm being clear.)

Edited at 2008-05-06 06:21 am (UTC)
6th-May-2008 06:45 pm (UTC)
Oh, I didn't find this antagonistic at all. My post was the result of me musing about my own changing views on fan fiction, first at work while part of my brain was occipied with other things, and then late at night after having a couple of glasses of wine, and wanting to attempt to arrange my thoughts in semi-coherent manner. So of course now I re-read it, and want to do a second post composed of all the additional things I wish I'd included.

In thinking about it after I've spent some time away from it, this post really is aimed at/should be read by people who are not on my flist. My flist is largely composed of people who are involved in fic, so obviously we're going to feel that fic has value and shouldn't be treated that differently, even if we aren't all comfortable telling the world that we write it. But I think the average person has a knee-jerk reaction that fic is automatically of lesser value and should be avoided, either because they've encountered the fanfic cliches or because they just have an inherent opinion that original is always better.

With fanfic, I now tend to judge it with pretty much the same criteria that I would original fiction, though with the added criterion of "are the characters in-character?" (Though there are circumstances where I'll let that one slide, if it's crack or there are other compelling reasons to do so...) It's like...for anything I read, I subconsciously decide what criteria to judge it by based on my personal preferences, the type of writing it is, and previous stories I've read that are of a similar type. Just like one can't judge the movies "Caddyshack" and "Saving Private Ryan" by the same criteria because they are such different types of movies that fill different needs, one can't judge motsureru's Mylar epic and barhaven's quick one-shot zombie-fighting Mohinder by the same criteria.

I realize now that really the audience I was addressing in my post is people like my real life friends. I let it slip that I read fic, and got looks that can only be described as "horrified". And these are people who play Magic and live for video games and dress up in costumes to attend movie premieres and Renaissance festivals. It would seem that they ought to be interested enough in fandom that they would be amenable to the idea of exploring plot possibilities through fic. But the comments they made to me add up to, "Why would you want to waste your time on that stuff?" and "So...your online friends....which characters do they have their Mary Sue have sex with?" And I strongly suspect that if I told my friend that his script idea sounded like fanfic, he would get outright angry with me for "insulting" him.

I'm not judging my friends - bad experiences and the truly unnerving people are always the ones that stick in your mind, and I know my old dislike for fic was rooted in just a handful of people who were slightly on the scary side. But the arguments in my post are more accurately aimed at them: is it really fair to have this opinion of fic? And even if one insists that it is, what about the other examples I cited - if one is going to draw a line based on originality, at what point does something become "unoriginal" enough to look down one's nose at? Why is reading a "Star Wars" novel about Leia and Han Solo's children OK, but reading someone's non-sexual fanfic about them is bad? I'm intellectually curious: if there is a continnuum that stretches from completely original fiction to fan fiction, how do people decide what part of the continnuum they are comfortable with? And what do they base that decision on? And, if people involved in fic pointed out different ways of considering fic, would more non-fic-readers follow the path I did of realizing that there actually are interesting and thought-provoking pieces out there?
6th-May-2008 08:39 pm (UTC)
So of course now I re-read it, and want to do a second post composed of all the additional things I wish I'd included.

Ditto with my comment. This issue has a lot of facets, and I often can't decide if I want to explore of them or if I should shut up already. ^_^

Why is reading a "Star Wars" novel about Leia and Han Solo's children OK, but reading someone's non-sexual fanfic about them is bad?

I think that the "official" stamp of approval matters a lot to some people. There are purists out there. However, with some things (Star Wars Christmas Special, anyone?) it's more like the Krusty Brand Seal of Approval. In fact, I rather like that name. It's Krusty Brand Fiction. ^_^

(Using this icon because I love it and I almost never get to use it. It's not serious--your stuff is great. =))
6th-May-2008 08:53 pm (UTC)
(Sorry for jumping into the discussion all over the place.)

I realize now that really the audience I was addressing in my post is people like my real life friends. I let it slip that I read fic, and got looks that can only be described as "horrified". And these are people who play Magic and live for video games and dress up in costumes to attend movie premieres and Renaissance festivals. It would seem that they ought to be interested enough in fandom that they would be amenable to the idea of exploring plot possibilities through fic. But the comments they made to me add up to, "Why would you want to waste your time on that stuff?" and "So...your online friends....which characters do they have their Mary Sue have sex with?" And I strongly suspect that if I told my friend that his script idea sounded like fanfic, he would get outright angry with me for "insulting" him.

Ohhhhh. Your post makes even more sense in this context. If your friends are talking about fanfiction again (or you see the opportunity for a good segue into the topic), you totally should bring up the points you made above. I mean, I don't think your friends would completely shun you if you just burst out of the closet on them, but I think it's more effective to soften them up with a reasonable argument first.

This epically long discussion is more about professional writers objecting to fanfic than random geek snobbery, but you might find some more talking points you can use (er, when you have more free time):

Making Light: “Fanfic”: force of nature
7th-May-2008 02:24 am (UTC)
Ooh, that's a really interesting read. While it would take me a while to go through all 902 comments, I did read some of them. The mention that fanfiction writers have sued the authors of the source material is worrisome. I'm not sure of the specifics, but it seems that the best possible scenario for that is that the author of the source material borrowed "original" elements (such as plot or OCs) from the fanfiction, and that's not a good scenario. It means that there's a remarkably antagonistic fan out there and a possibly dishonest author of source material (though claiming to have an original plot is ridiculous, as has been established). Legally, though, I believe it's a zero-sum game, since if the fanfiction author won their lawsuit, they'd then be profiting from work that used the source material (even though they won the suit because of their original material), and then the author of the source material would be able to sue all that money right back.

Legal issues are the only legitimate objection to fanfiction I can see. Complaining about these issues is pointless, though, because the people/companies who own the source material do have legal recourse if someone else is profitting from their ideas. So long as nobody's a douchebag who tries to do things like sell their fanfiction (*facepalm*), there can be a perfectly amicable relationship between the creators of source material and fanfiction writers. In fact, as I've said before, fanfiction is a kind of word-of-mouth advertising, and it would take something particularly objectionable, like a fanfiction author making money or slandering someone to get networks/publishers to try to stop it.

The validity of fanfiction as writing and creative expression seems to be remarkably well established according to most of the commentors on that blog, and that makes me happy.

Also:

NelC, not only have I thought, for some years, of the New Testament as Old Testament fanfic, but Jesus is pretty clearly a Mary Sue.

is one of the funniest things I have read in a long time. ^_^
6th-May-2008 03:09 pm (UTC)
Hmmm. Very interesting essay. I 100% agree that poorly-executed original/sequel/officially-sanctioned stories shouldn’t be automatically accorded more respect than good fanfic. Are they? If so, I don’t know why that is. I don’t know a lot about fanfic and haven’t thought too deeply about it, but I would think it has to do with slash/porn aspects of fanfic. Like those writers (hi) are the ones people think of when they think "fanfic". They’re not thinking of the amazing things I’ve read that explore characters in ways that the very show they’re based on do not. So it's got to be that the pr0n writers are the ones giving the good writers a bad name.

I also totally agree that good fanfic writers have to work harder than original writers in that they have to fit their characters and situations into an already-established universe.

This essay is really defensive. Is there really this huge stigma attached to fanfic? Like I said, I just haven’t thought of it that deeply to know if there is one or not. (And any stigma/embarrassment I face myself comes from the fact that I’m just writing porn.) But other than that if people like yourself are writing good stories with accurate characterizations, what’s the problem? Is there something wrong with being proud of that? Cuz I would be if I could do half of the good fanfic I've read.
6th-May-2008 03:49 pm (UTC)
Maybe another reason for the stigma is that weirdly enough, the fanfiction writers are all coming from different places, and therefore there are too many camps for anyone to get a coherent view. Some people do it to work up to writing original fiction; some people are actually not at all interested in ever writing original fiction and just want to write short oneshots for fun; and some actually don’t care that much about the act of writing itself---they just mostly just interested in the show/movie/whatever that they’re writing about (for example, in this ridiculously long hiatus, it’s so great to have lovely, plotty things to read that almost satisfy my missing fix of television). Then there are a few people who really just want some non-video porn. Perhaps that split in notivations is behind the perceived lesser importance of fanfiction. There are just too many camps and goald for any kind of solidified standard to emerge. But the people who say they're writing original fiction all have the same goal: to write creative stuff. Even if it ends up being bad, at least everyone they talk to knows exactly where they're coming from and what their aim is.

I think part of the reason a lot of people who wish they could start writing don’t is that it’s just so daunting to try to write original fiction off the bat. Fanfiction allows people to separate the tasks of writing into segments and work on each one individually. I used to translate obscure novels from French into English. Translation is great for getting a grasp of language and style, but there’s nothing imaginative about it. That was step one. I feel like fanfiction is a good step two. I take that practice with language and try to think of plots and dialogue of my own, even if the characters and universe are someone else’s. Step three would be my own thing. So maybe I guess I have been thinking it’s “lesser” than original fiction by definition, since I think of it as a step on a ladder working to an ultimate goal. But you bring up really good points. This was an interesting post.

I do agree with Widestance, though, that really bad PWP gives it a bad name. I've never discussed fanfiction with anyone in real life, and no one knows I read it, much less write it, but when I found out about it last year, my first impression upon looking at the fanfiction thread on TWoP and on my first visit to Mylar fic was that fanfic is all rape porn. It took clicking on links to crackfic to see how wide the range is and how much amazing stuff there is (better than the show sometimes)---and even to see that the NC-17 stuff can be phenomenally executed and meaningful. Another part of the porn stigma that might creep outsiders out is the slight RPS element. It's not like each individual reader has their own image in their head of the characters the way they do with original fiction. With fanfic, especially if the writer isn't doing a good job of keeping the characters at the forefront of the story (whether through lack of skill or lack of caring---again with the wide range of motivations), you know every single reader has vague images of Adrian and Milo having sex, rather than Nathan and Peter, if that makes any sense.
6th-May-2008 08:10 pm (UTC)
I think part of the reason a lot of people who wish they could start writing don’t is that it’s just so daunting to try to write original fiction off the bat. Fanfiction allows people to separate the tasks of writing into segments and work on each one individually.

Fanfiction is also a nice starting point because it's easy to find willing readers, and because fandom etiquette is such that you'll mostly receive encouragement or gently-phrased criticism. Of course, the downside to this is that you might be deluded into thinking that your writing is great because nobody ever says it's bad. But eh, if you ever try to move into more serious writing circles, you'll learn soon enough. (Er, obviously I mean a general "you"--I'm not saying that *your* writing sucks, aurilly. ^_^)

Another part of the porn stigma that might creep outsiders out is the slight RPS element. It's not like each individual reader has their own image in their head of the characters the way they do with original fiction. With fanfic, especially if the writer isn't doing a good job of keeping the characters at the forefront of the story (whether through lack of skill or lack of caring---again with the wide range of motivations), you know every single reader has vague images of Adrian and Milo having sex, rather than Nathan and Peter, if that makes any sense.

Hmm, I think I see what you're getting at, but I disagree with the way you seem to have qualified it.

I think that outsiders might be creeped out by the slight RPS element of *any* TV- or movie-based pornfic--they might think, "Ewww, the people who read this Petrellicest fic are picturing Milo and Adrian sodomizing each other!" And even within fandom, isn't that kind of the basis for the (I assume widely-held) mentality of "DON'T show the actors the pornfic"?

However, when a writer goes badly OOC, I think I'm more likely to start visualizing the characters as faceless blobs of clay than as "Adrian Pasdar and Milo Ventimiglia"--unless it's a fic in which, say, Nathan faces political strife because his wife insulted the president, and Peter worries about getting his suit ruined during sex. :)
6th-May-2008 08:59 pm (UTC)
I think that outsiders might be creeped out by the slight RPS element of *any* TV- or movie-based pornfic
That's true. Someone outside would never see past the initial concept of that to see that there are good ones and less good ones. I guess I mean that as someone inside the fandom, even I feel like there's a difference. When I read a really good NC-17 fic, yes, I do think of the way the people look (because it's in the descriptions), but it's really about the characters. When it's not as good, I get a stronger whiff of the actors. So maybe the awareness of these might be tainting the rep of fanfic in general. But you're right: when everyone is OOC, I just find myself imagining a lot of disjointed body parts. I wish I could do a better job of describing what I mean. Sigh. Which leads me to...

(Er, obviously I mean a general "you"--I'm not saying that *your* writing sucks, aurilly. ^_^)
Aww, you're sweet, but don't worry. I'm under no delusions. I tried doing a "serious writing circle" thing senior year college, and got ripped to shreds. The prof (CK Williams(!)) was distantly polite, but everyone else bluntly told me that they couldn't tell if I just bad at French or if I was just a bad writer (it was for the translating). I'm pretty sure my French was adequate... so... yeah. Serious circles can be scary and demoralizing for beginners. Which is another plus for fanfic that you brought up; it's nice to be encouraged at first, just as long as you don't let it go to your head. :-)
6th-May-2008 06:34 pm (UTC)
Unfortunately I have limited time since I'm at work but I wanted to jump in and say this is fascinating essay that raises some questions I've had regarding the world of fanfic.

My original impression of fanfic was not particularly positive. It wasn't the lack of "original material" however, it was the poorly constructed plots and character interactions with unclear motivations and rushed writing. My first experience with fanfic was, as with most other people, smut oriented...some was quite good, some was unappealing. But as I read more (out of curiosity) I started finding pieces that really worked for me: good plots, character interaction that felt possible.

What I realized was that there are really strong writers out there who, whether they are working with original material or borrowing from someone else, take the time and and effort to create something that feels fresh and exciting. For me it was those types of pieces that inspired me to attempt my hand at it. Writing fanfic no longer seemed so "lowly" because I was more aware of the depth of writing that actually exists out there...What I've come to find is that I appreciate a lot of different writing more than when I first started reading fanfic.

There's more I could say but I actually have to run...this essay has definitely given me food for thought.
6th-May-2008 07:02 pm (UTC)
My first reaction was "Ooh, hey, I remember The Last Starfighter"! :)

I really enjoyed reading this. You seem to be making the case that no, fan fiction is not necessarily of lesser value than original fiction, and I'd agree--I can't even play devil's advocate here. (Although my synapses are not firing as well as they should be at the moment.)

Also, acclaimed works like Wide Sargasso Sea and March (er, not that I've read either of them) show that "fan fiction" can be of significant literary merit.
6th-May-2008 07:19 pm (UTC)
You seem to be making the case that no, fan fiction is not necessarily of lesser value than original fiction

I'm too rushed to really reply to people at tje moment, but this is definitely what I'm trying to say, in a musing sort of way. It's essentially what I would say to people in real life if I had the nerve to come out of the fan fiction closet. Which, honestly, I'd kind of like to. I've written a few things that I'm quite proud of, and I've read other things that are either fascinating/thought-provoking or are good cracky fun that I'd like to share. But my hint that I'm involved with fic brought out a negative knee-jerk reaction, and when I re-consider this post in the light of day, I realize what I'm really doing is trying to construct an argument that might make them re-think their position on fic, so that even if they still don't want to read it, they at least wouldn't look at me in horror if I mentioned it.
6th-May-2008 08:26 pm (UTC)
It's 5AM, so my thoughts probably aren't coherent enough for a decent comment. But whatever.

Is fan fiction really automatically of lesser value than original writing?

I'd guess part of the problem is that there's at least some semblance of a filter on published work, while every bit of fanfiction - from the best of the good to the worst of the bad - is floating around equally. People tend to assume is that if something is published, it DESERVED to be published, meaning it automatically has some amount of inherent literary merit. Which is utter nonsense, considering dreck like Night Travels of the Elven Vampire could see publication. Let alone some of the awful "official" fanfiction out there for Star Trek/Doctor Who/Star Wars/etc (including HORRIBLE CROSSOVERS).

One measure commonly used to devalue fan fiction is the alleged lack of originality. It's set in a universe created by someone else...therefore, it must automatically be of lesser value, right? An original story set in a universe created by the author must automatically have more value, because it represents more effort on the part of the author, right?

It's interesting that fanfiction gets such a negative reaction from people. A lot of the reasons for having a negative opinion of it seem...shaky at best. Isn't "official fanfiction" pretty much what every Marvel and DC comic writer - not to mention people who write books for settings like Forgotten Realms, or write novelisations of movies or games - does for a living? The characters and universe they write about are generally set out, they just run with it and add their own interpretation. The difference is that they have to get every word approved by the Powers That Be, and they get paid for it in the end. Hell, you could even argue that anyone who writes Arthurian fantasy or Lovecraftian horror is just writing fanfiction, and are thus - by the same logic - being "unoriginal". (For the record, Neil Gaiman has done at least three of the above. I don't see anyone thinking less of him as a writer for playing around in other people's universes. Maybe you need street cred first.)

Edited at 2008-05-06 08:31 pm (UTC)
8th-May-2008 07:20 am (UTC) - well done
An Unevolved Lesser Being
nice work, brother
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