Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Fanfiction as a Legitimate Literary Tool (Not an Instrument of Torture)

I admit it: I write fanfiction.

Not only fanfiction, not all the time, and certainly not always well. I've also read my fair share, and ogled more fan art than I dare to contemplate. I love it - it's fun, it's rewarding, and I usually manage to entertain at least one or two other people in the process. But when I tell people in person that I write fanfiction, I always end up tagging it on the end of a sentence or story like a footnote or the butt of a bad joke. It's not because I look down on fan-works or the people who create them - it's because I know there are so many other people who do.

But today I am going to do something different. Today, I'm going to defend fanfiction.

Fairy Gold: Why (Some) Fans Hate Fanfiction (and Why They Shouldn't)

A lot of people who have come across fanfiction on the internet will want to rant and rave and pull their hair out if you mention it to their faces. (Like the author of this blog post.)They will tell you that it is a waste of time, both to write and to read. They will complain about the arrogance of amateurs who claim to "fix" the ending of a story. They will groan over the innumerable sins fanfic authors have committed: two-dimensional characterizations, non-canon pairings, a deus ex machina swooping in at the last moment to magically prevent a canon death, and an overindulgence in sex, violence, and melodrama, to the point where even a soap opera writer would be rolling his/her eyes and snorting derisively. And the list goes on.

The sad thing is, they would be right. Some of the time.

I should know; I probably (definitely) wrote some pretty terrible fanfiction in my day. I've also read (and gagged over) a lot of fanfics by other people that manage, almost impressively, to live up to every single one of these accusations and then some - the wince-inducing sort that would probably fail The Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test, and make good additions to The Terrible Crossover Fanfiction Idea Generator.

But I think it's a mistake to dismiss fanfiction in general, and to make the generalization that most fanfic authors have their noses up in the air and their heads up their arses. Personally, I never pretended to be better than the original authors. I admit that in the past I have carelessly claimed I was going to "fix" canon events, and I apologize now for the heresy. But like me, I think most of the time when people say this it is more a failure in phrasing than an honest boast. What I really meant was: "This plot point upset me deeply enough that I felt like I needed to create an alternate universe." It was, like most fanfiction is, a labor of love. Trying to save canon characters (probably the most common "fix")  means that character pulled some serious heartstrings. This does not necessarily make for good writing, but it can be a valid form of venting frustration and grief... and hey, if someone else happens to enjoy reading it, bonus.

Furthermore, hating fanfiction because you were exposed to your worst literary nightmare is like hating music because you feel that if you hear Katy Perry's "Fireworks" on the radio one more time you might just blow a fuse. Not all fanfiction is literary gold – many are fairy gold, pure wish-fulfillment which at best leave readers wanting and, at worst, make them feel an urgent need to take a shower (or several). But there are just as many formally published authors whose works which have the same effect, yet they are rarely (and should never) be denied their right to write and share their stories. Just because it's out there doesn't mean you have to read it.

Invasion or Ovation?: Authors' Opinions

I can only imagine what it's like the first time you read a fanfic based on your work. It must be an odd moment, seeing your characters, your worlds, your stories pouring out of some stranger's fingertips onto their keyboards and, subsequently, onto the internet. If it happens to be of the "Worse than a B-Movie" variety, I can easily see revulsion (and possibly rage) as a first-instinct  response. (Orson Scott Card and Anne Rice, for example, violently oppose fanfiction.) While some authors just plain don't get it (how does fanfiction pose any threat whatsoever to one's livelihood?), I do understand some authors’ qualms. Yes, writing original works would be more productive, and I can easily imagine how frustrating (even creepy) it could be to watch strangers take your beloved, original characters and twist them into something you never intended. Ursula K. LeGuin (as quoted in this list of several authors' attitudes to fanfiction) once described it as "an invasion" of the worlds she has created. This isn't surprising; after all, the stories you write always contain bits and pieces of you, and to see those bits and pieces in someone else's (usually less capable) hands could be quite discomfiting.

But again, I have to emphasize that fanfiction (and any fan-labor) is largely a byproduct of the fans' sincere love. And the point of publishing is to share a story... so share it. Let the fans do what they will; after all, without them, an author would have no livelihood to be concerned about in the first place. As long as fanfiction remains nonprofit and informally published (except in the case of the original author’s sanction – or if it’s based on something so old both the copyright and the author are deceased), it does no harm, but a world of good... both for fans (letting off steam is a good thing, believe me) and authors. Fanfiction and fan art, especially the good kind, can be a fantastic form of viral marketing, if you simply sit back and let it work its magic.

But don't just take my word for it. Lev Grossman (best known for writing The Magicians) wrote this article about fanfiction for Time, in which he not only defends fanfiction but also touches on some interesting tidbits about the history and evolution of fan-works (they've been around longer than you probably think - Grossman mentions examples dating as far back as ancient Greece). He talks about the origins of the term "slash," the difference between fics that follow canon versus AU (Alternate Universe) fics, and the various (largely false) generalizations and stereotypes that have developed over time. Not all creators of fan-works, for example, are hyper-hormonal pre-teens with no talent: Grossman makes a nice point of mentioning that Darren Criss of Glee fame, for instance, got his first break in a fan-production called A Very Potter Musical. (If you're a Potter fan, by the way, you haven't lived until you've seen it.)

Grossman is not the only famous person who has come out in support of fanfiction. Neil Gaiman, Diana Wynne Jones, D.J. MacHale, Stephanie Meyer, Tamora Pierce, Terry Pratchett, and J.K. Rowling all give their fans the green light, and Anne McCaffrey has an entire page on her site listing the rather lengthy (but relatively fair) rules for creating fan-works based on her stories.

Joss Whedon, who has openly voiced his support on several occasions, puts it perfectly: "That's why I made these shows. I didn't make them so that people would enjoy them and forget them; I made them so they would never be able to shake them. It's the way I am as a fan. I create the shows that would make me do that."

Consider: A Final Note on the Subject (and Recommendations)

Not everyone loves, or even likes, fanfiction, and not everyone needs to. Even amongst the fans, there are always going to be differing opinions, and that's not a bad thing. But to dismiss fanfics entirely because of a few misinformed stereotypes and a handful of terrible examples is at best lazy, and at worst, ignorant and prejudiced - especially if you are a storyteller who is lucky enough to have fans that have been so moved by your work as to make something of their own from it. Also, while producing original work is, of course, preferable in the long run, fanfiction can be great practice, especially for beginning writers, and, occasionally, can even be inspiring in its own right.

My attitude is pretty much the same as Whedon's. If I ever do manage to finish and publish a story worthy of generating fanfiction, or any other kind of fan-work, I can guarantee that my first reaction will not be to dash to the phone for an immediate conference with my agent about the copyright implications. At first, I would be stunned: just the idea of it produces a slight nervy, tingly emotion in my stomach. But then I think I would pull a Cheshire Cat smile, and I would be thinking something along the lines of, "Best... day... ever." Consider: if I manage to write something interesting enough to incite a complete stranger to create their own interpretation... I've clearly done something right.

In the spirit of support, I shall finish this post off with a (relatively) brief list of a few of the best fan-works I have come across thus far, whilst gallivanting across the vast (and occasionally terrifying) landscape of the internet. (The Very Potter Musical is not included here only because I already linked to it.) Enjoy.

* * * * *

Amnesia, the dark descent - Fantastic fan art in which the protagonist of the PC game (of the same title) is imagined, rather well I think, as being played by Ben Barnes.

Bad Intentions, Reading Room, and Truce -  Three one-chapter fics which have nothing much to do with each other, but are all written by the same author. The first two are based on the show Lost; the first one is stronger, but "Reading Room" is one of the better examples I've read of meta-fanfiction. "Truce" is a great little fic about a Cat and a certain Parrot... the bird which belonged to Cotton in Pirates of the Caribbean.

Born of Hope - A brilliantly executed fan film about Aragorn's parents, and certain events which took place prior to the events of The Lord of the Rings.

Girls Next Door - An ongoing fan-comic, inspired by another fan-comic called Roommates, based mainly around the characters Jareth and Sarah (from the Jim Henson film Labyrinth), and Erik and Christine (from Phantom of the Opera). Crossovers and comedy are plentiful, and the art, though it started out a little rough, is pure pro at present.

Gone - A short fic about Severus Snape (from Harry Potter, of course) being offered a wish granted by fairies, in return for a favor he has done them. It's not perfect, but it's an interesting and beautiful idea.

Hands Off - One of my favorite satirical fanfics, this one takes a shot at all the fluffy romance fics about Rorschach that flooded the internet when the Watchmen movie was released. It's short but sweet, in a beautifully brutal sort of way.

Harley Quinn - Here's a lovely, creepy fan art for the Harley Quinn and the Joker fans. This artist does a LOT of fan art, but her original work is even more amazing. Make sure to check it out.

One Man Disney Movie - A Pixar animator named Nick Pitera, who has a voice like multiple angels, sings various Disney songs as heroes and heroines, villains, and supporting characters... all in one glorious video that is nearly as much fun to watch as it is to listen to.

Portrait of a Phantom - A stunning fan art of the Phantom of the Opera. Definitely be sure to check out her other artwork (which includes a lot of original work in addition to fan art) as well.

Sunny Disposish - An impressively well-written (and ongoing) fanfic somewhat inspired by another fan-comic, When Curiosity Met Insanity (also a great, fun read, though it suffers from long hiatuses on a fairly regular basis), which in turn was inspired by the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland. Since the copyright for the original Alice story is long dead, I'm hoping this one gets published once it's finished.

Technically Dead - A short and delightfully disturbing fic written from the point of view of the character Barry the Chopper, from the anime and manga, Fullmetal Alchemist.

There is so much more I have seen that was worth checking out... but if I listed it all, the internet would likely break. Also, please be aware that some of these fan-works I've listed may contain adult content and/or spoilers.