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
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?