Subterranean Press Magazine: Summer 2007
Column: Bears Examining #4 by Elizabeth Bear
Every time somebody writes Spock/McCoy, God does not kill a puppy (or) Oh, god. Not this kerfuffle again.
This week, I thought I might dip a toe into the current debates over fanfic-for-profit (possibly a nice idea, but the execution seems, um, exploitative) and eternal copyright (obscene) that are sweeping the blogosphere. But then, I found something related but even more frivolous to talk about.
Recently, the estimable Cory Doctorow published an essay in Locus defending fanfiction. Cory is something of an Intellectual Property Rights Bad Boy, a freethinker, and opinions of him and his convictions vary.
Needless to say there was outcry.
Well, May is National Masturbation Month. I guess this is a suitable discussion to have now, on many metaphorical levels.
I’m on the record as approving of fanfic, and have been for a long while. In fact, when I started defending fanfiction, I hadn’t ever written any. I was not active in any fandoms, media or print.
I did not start writing fanfic, qua fanfic, until after I was a published—dare I say award-winning?—writer.
In other words, I came to fandom as a professional interested in the kinds of storytelling they were doing over there, rather than coming to prodom as a fanfiction writer with a past to justify.
I think that gives me a novel perspective on the genre.
If you will forgive me a small and terrible pun.
(I did write a certain amount of what I would now identify as fanfic in junior high, but it was in isolation, and I had no idea that anybody else did that sort of thing. I thought of it as practice, actually—I knew about spec scripts, and I knew about students repainting masters to learn technique. I guess Denis McGrath has never heard about that, or visited a major art museum and seen the baby artists with their easels pitched in front of an old master, copying, copying, copying.
(I think it was John Gardner who made his writing students type out James Joyce’s “The Dead” repeatedly as an exercise, but memory is fallible. In any case, I’m far from the only pro writer who writes fanfic, although as far as I know I’m the only one who does it openly.)
The interesting thing is that the reason I started writing fanfic was because there were properties that I wanted not to alter, but either to parody or to talk about on a thematic level, and it was much easier to show those things—to demonstrate them—than to talk about them. (I’ve been writing about fanfic for a while: a large part of what I wanted to do in One-Eyed Jack & the Suicide King is talk about narratives and how they build on older narratives—well, that’s the whole gist of the Promethean Age books, really: it’s all a snake eating its tail.)
We are pattern-finding and story-telling animals. It’s what we do. We take the real world and turn it into narratives and symbols so our brains can manipulate them more easily. And once we have those narrative symbols, if they suit our needs, we don’t stop manipulating them just because somebody says, “well, you shouldn’t do that because it’s nasty.”
Any more than, you know, the vast majority of people ever stopped wanking because somebody told them it would make them go blind.
Now, writers and creators are, indeed, possessive of their creations. Which is natural. But fans are also possessive of the stories that speak to them. And they don’t always have the same ideals or desires that the creators do.
I write stories to service my own narrative kinks. I am deeply aware of those narrative kinks. Among them are: death or glory stands, the cold realities of living with damage, people who are better than they have to (even at great cost to themselves), the mythologization or valorization of intellect, situations with no right answer—a comedy of ethics, as I’ve heard it called—and situations that are both over-fraught and under-sold.
This is stuff you will always find in my work. I can’t help it. It’s my myths.
And it’s the myths that show up in the work I love, as well. They’re what I react to.
It’s possible that if my hardcore narrative kink was gay porn, I would be doing nothing but writing slash.
The other thing I’m aware of in my own work is how highly reactive and responsive it is. For pretty much everything I’ve written, I can point you towards the ur-text that made me go, “No. That’s just not right.” The Jenny Casey novels are a reaction to a bunch of philosophical issues I had with the science fiction of the seventies and eighties. Carnival is what you get when you put a collection of unworkable Utopias in a box and make them fight (am I the only person who reads Utopias and thinks, “That sounds like hell?”), Blood & Iron is what happened when I read one too many urban fantasies in which the Us vs. Them was clearly divided, and clearly All Right-Thinking-People must agree with the Us… And let’s be honest, A Companion to Wolves is what happens when you start really thinking about the sexual and social dynamics in the Pern novels and their descendents, and decide to take it on the nose with regard to the inherent moral contradictions rather than brushing them under the fantasy wish-fulfillment.
You know, so it’s perfectly possible to do that, to take a thematic argument and show a fresh angle in a work that’s on some level derivative, but has had the serial numbers filed off enough for legal purposes.
So let’s be honest here. That’s all we’re doing in those cases. We’re filing off the serial numbers so we can go, “Hey! That’s wrong!”
And then somewhere the work takes on a life of its own and becomes about more than “Hey! That’s wrong!”
But that’s not fanfiction. So why would anybody write fanfiction?
I can offer a dirty secret. Or a series of dirty secrets.
Fanfiction is fun. It’s fun whether or not you’re writing publishable fanfic—by which I mean, fanfic that’s either about properties that are out of copyright (Hey, Blood & Iron is Tam Lin fanfic! Check it out! Ink & Pen is Christopher Marlowe slash!) or fanfic in which the serial numbers have been filed off far enough not to get your sorry rump sued—or you’re writing fanfic that’s identifiable and has an audience among other fans of the show.
It allows somebody who either isn’t yet skilled enough or who doesn’t want to be a pro writer to have an audience and express creativity. It’s the moral equivalent of sitting around a campfire with a bunch of friends noodling out “Eleanor Rigby” on the guitar—and maybe posting the video on Youtube. You are unlikely to be mistaken for Paul McCartney, even if you play guitar left-handed.
It’s easy. One of the most fun things about writing fanfic, for me, was that it brought back the joy of writing, the ease and fluidity that I used to have before I knew what I was doing. And that’s, honestly, because somebody else has already done the heavy lifting for me. Somebody has set up the backstory, laid out the characters, and placed their issues and trauma in a harsh light. The warp and weft are there: you’re not starting from scratch.
It’s what we do. From a very young age, we take existing symbols and turn them into stories. Cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, Batman and Robin.
Four hundred years ago, professional writers were ripping off Ovid, and so were schoolboys.
Is a lot of it bad? Well yeah, you betcha. A lot of original fiction is just as bad. You should see my slush pile.
Heck, you should see what I was writing for original fiction when I was eighteen. Trust me, there’s probably Sentinel/Enterprise crackfic out there that looks like award-winning literature next to my juvenile stuff.
The thing is, fanfiction is written for the writer, and other fans. It’s not written for the market. It’s written to service a kink, whatever that kink might be, and it’s totally unapologetic about that. On that level, it’s some of the most honest writing around, and one can learn an amazing amount about what fans want and how they read and view by studying it.
And frankly, it serves the property owners. It allows the fans to stay interested and engaged with the property during hiatus or in between books, to build community. It’s another avenue for discussion, connection, and celebration. It can bring in new viewers or readers.
Simply put, it increases demand.
I have sympathy for the writers who feel that something of theirs is cheapened when they are ficced. I understand that possessiveness of one’s own work, and it seems to me that a respectful fan (as opposed to a crazy stalker) will in those cases attempt to respect the wishes of the author.
Certainly, in the hands of some fan writers, fanfic becomes an arrogation—“Mine is better than theirs!”—and that can certainly chafe. But that’s not a social faux pas limited to fanfiction. A certain group of fans are possessive. They have always been, and they always will be possessive, and nothing is going to change that.
It doesn’t matter. They don’t own the property: the copyright holder does.
Fanfiction is by definition not canon.
That is, in fact, the point of it: there’s no profit to the fan writer in being mistaken for canon. It is a response. I have never read a piece of fanfiction that could be, or intended to be, mistaken for the canon material. There are close pastiches—as found in material derivative of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes—but the more-or-less unsuccessful attempt of a derivative writer to be mistaken for more of the original is limited to the pro-fiction arena. (How long have V.C. Andrews and Carolyn Keene been authoring through intermediaries, now?)
To misquote Anaïs Nin, my book is not made of soap. It will not wear out.