Derivative Works II: Fanfiction vs. Original Works

Did you know that the pieces of writing most aspiring TV scriptwriters use to secure jobs are close cousins to fanfiction?

The TV spec script is a script of a currently-running (or very recently cancelled) show, written by a writer unattached to the show to use as a calling card. This script is offered to literary agents and showrunners as proof that the writer can handle a certain tone, genre and structure. It’s conceived, outlined and written by (typically) a fan of the show, using characters and plots from the official show, typically written so as to slot effortlessly into the series.

In other words, it’s a very specific brand of fanfiction. While not open to public scrutiny, it’s considered a respectable kind of work, which industry professionals read on a regular basis. I’d like to explore a little what divides fanfiction from other ancillary works as well as original pieces, and get to the bottom of why it receives such wide criticism as an area of writing.

What is fanfiction?

It’s an unofficial work, created by a fan of the original, using elements of the original (characters, world, mythology) to create a work connected to that story. The most popular source for fanfiction (colloquially “fanfic”) is Fanfiction.net, though there are many public and private communities based around the writing and reading of it.  Fanfiction has a reputation for being, well, awful. Do you know anyone who will proudly exclaim, “Yeah, I read fanfiction!” over the age of 19? I certainly don’t make it a habit of mentioning to friends that I read the occasional fanfiction because it does have a reputation as ‘lesser’ literature.

I’d like to deconstruct some of the reasons, however, that a lot of criticism of fanfiction is bullshit. That is to say, a lot of the criticism aimed toward this particular section of fiction could easily be applied to literature itself. The most common arguments:

1) 90% of it is badly written and amateurish: The fact is, 90% of original work on the internet falls under this umbrella just as easily. A lot of people write without having the experience, talent or care to create something that speaks to others in a deeper way. Everything I wrote when I was young definitely fell under this umbrella, and I expect plenty of things I write now do as well. However, fanfiction gets a particularly bad rap for this because, unlike original fiction (which will only get the attention, likely, of those who personally know the author), its using characters and brands that make it much more likely to attract attention. The reality is, a derivative work is just as likely to be good or bad as an original one; its main sin is that its easily found and promoted.

2) It’s all sexual fantasies for fangirls: In 2008, romantic fiction generated $1.37 billion in sales in the United States, with 7,311 romance novels published and making up 13.5% of the fiction market. In 2009, those numbers held steady. Fanfiction includes a great amount of erotic fiction, but its hardly a genre unique to the fans, and it may be a sign of new dimensions in erotic fiction. (As an aside, if I were more versed in this subject, I’d love to write about how fanfiction performs very differently to conventional porn or erotic fiction.) Not only that, but fanfiction can very easily be powerful and strong without any focus on sex: see, for example, recrudescence‘s Cerebral. As a piece of literature, it’s a hard-hitting story about a girl whose life goes awry after a horrible accident, and a tough look at the pressures put on athletes to perform, particular in the face of charismatic leaders. As a reaction to its parent series, Glee, it’s a criticism of how the show tells stories and develops its characters, including small pieces of continuity that would appeal to Glee‘s fanbase. The only romantic pairing is confirmed canon within the show, and it is handled not as the key of the piece, but as yet another relationship through which to explore its main theme. It contains very specific stylistic elements, its own grasp of format, and very tight characterization. It’s short, but it stands up with any non-fanfiction short story.

3) It contains no originality: What do the TV series Dexter and the movies Fight Club and Gone With the Wind have in common? All relied, at their inception, upon another creative work and yet stand as critically-respective creative works in their own right. Dexter may include the cast and some rough story arcs of the original Darkly Dreaming Dexter series, but no-one would confuse the two as identical barring their difference in medium. Fight Club and Gone With the Wind are book-to-movie adaptations, but both are very respected as works of art in their own right, despite being adaptations of an original work.  So, if these works can gain critical respect despite their status as adaptations, why is fanfiction considered ‘less legitimate’ in terms of originality? One might say that the acceptance of the creator implies an approval of the work; however, how does this figure into cases where the derivative work is created due to the original falling into public doman, such as Gregory Maguire‘s Wicked, being allowed by the estate of a deceased creator, or when copyright is held by a corporation rather than a creator, such as with comic or television properties? Thus, creative respect comes not from any sense that the creator has assented to the creation, but the idea that the derivative has been published in an attempt to make money. The difference between Wicked and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz fanfiction, no matter how superlative the former is, is merely that Maguire got his published and distributed by Reganbooks.

4) It’s a waste of time for people looking to develop their skills: I’m going to tackle this one from a personal perspective, because the fact is, fanfiction is a modern phenomenon that matured with the proliferation of easy internet access, so finding many professional authors who got their start in fanfiction must be unlikely. Right?

Well, except for Aimee Carter, whose first steps in Harry Potter fanfiction led her to have her first book published at 17 years old. Or, as outlined in the Wall Street Journal:

There’s a librarian in Rathdrum, Idaho, who spent 10 years posting her writings about a character from Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” online; Simon & Schuster paid her a $150,000 advance to publish the works as a three-novel trilogy. In Brooklyn, N.Y., a free-lance copy editor has become one of the Web’s best-known “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter” fan-fiction writers, and has landed a three-book publishing deal for a young-adult fantasy series. When a comic-book store manager in New Jersey decided to take his first stab at fan fiction this year, entering a contest sponsored by Showtime’s “The L Word,” he got the attention of a literary agent, who signed him last month.

In fact, as the article notes, the famous young-adult writer Meg Cabot got her start in fanfiction – fanfiction based on the works of Anne McCaffrey, no less, who was for a long time one of a number of copyright holders who were explicitly uncomfortable with fanfiction being distributed based on their works. As Meredith Elliot says in the article: “There’s a sense of guilt. I always feel that I should not be using somebody else’s characters and should be doing my own writing. But then I remember I am doing my own writing.

As for the personal angle… When I was in elementary school, as an aspiring author with no real outlet or ability to have my work read, I myself did some work in fanfiction. Seeing a culture based on ‘pairings’, I noticed two characters who, though they interacted fairly rarely, would be really fun sharing scenes together. Those spun into a story that, having shone a light on that potential relationship, launched a number of other authors’ takes on that relationship. Thus, at a tender age, fanfiction allowed me to: analyse a market for writing, make judgements about what readers would be interested in, analyse a work for untapped potential, and build an admittedly uncritical fanbase. That all being subsidiary to the chance to practice writing and editing skills, as well as exploring ideas of themes, structure, style and most importantly characterization: in order to ‘sell’ these stories, the characters can’t be betrayed.

All of the things I had to do, in order to write good fanfiction, are exactly the advice given to those who pursue work in scripted television writing: be able to read a series and write in its style, genre, structure and tone, while perfecting the characters and the plots that it has developed. Fanfiction, in essence, was the perfect practice for what would eventually be my main career aspiration. Not to mention the above benefits of practice and, in addition, the chance of an ego boost; not an inconsiderable element to a younger writer.

5) Fanfiction doesn’t say anything that the original work couldn’t; can’t be well-written or thematically rich: Inaccurate. Take, for example, jockchic‘s Streetlight People. On one level, it contains marks of a ‘typical’ fanfiction: Its central couple are two young men who, in the original work, are more or less completely incompatible; it’s rated NC-17 (which means it includes erotic sections); and it tells a love story. However, beneath the surface, it’s also an extension of a lot of underlying themes within Glee that the show isn’t really capable of dealing with in any substantial way.

The show has always had themes that dealt with the fact that most people in small-town highschools won’t leave the state for college, and a bunch of them won’t even go. Certainly, the bulk of MicKinley High’s glee club wouldn’t find stardom. But Glee has a mandate to charm, to appeal to the masses, and to stay grounded in high school. Streetlight People takes the archetypes and histories set out in the first half of Glee‘s first season and uses them to look at what happens to these people ten years later: only one of them finds stardom, some of them fall into jobs that utilise their talents and interests in music without becoming ‘the next big thing’, and the bulk of them end up people in real, working-class jobs. Good-hearted Finn is neither a singing superstar nor a football wunderkind, but a police officer with a family; Artie has become a librarian at the very school they attended; while Puck, Santana and Kurt (the leads of the piece) have fallen into the darker side of small-town life. Each retains the character developed in the series, realistically aged by ten years. The show itself, however, couldn’t contain lines like: “You’re still present enough to care about escaping [Lima], which means that you haven’t been brainwashed like me yet. More power to you.“; things that develop the show’s initial themes that Glee isn’t about winning, but about helping us deal with the life we’ll be given. That even if they never achieve what they want, this club has given these people a support system, and the chance to dream bigger than they might have done otherwise. The show has progressed beyond the details in this still-in-progress piece, but the way it extends the show’s underlying themes makes it a keen reflection of things the parent show would never be able to properly explore. It looks at how people grow up, how dreams fall by the wayside, and how you can hold onto those memories and use them for strength long after their time has passed.

That’s a lot more than an excuse to get two of Glee‘s male castmembers naked.

6) It has no educational or cultural value: Again, patently untue. For an example of how fanfiction and fanfiction movements can be a force in how people view something like disability and accessibility, take note of Access Fandom’s Festibility, a ‘fan works’ festival centring on disabled characters and stories. This allows for the disabled community to see their stories acknowledged within fandom, something very rarely done in fandom or within the works themselves (as many works include are authored by the non-disabled and include troped or underutilised disabled characters); it also allows for the non-disabled an easy entry into stories about disability that are also subject to response and criticism from the disabled community, something that would be unlikely without the draw of familiar characters being involved. Thus, fanfiction (and not the original works themselves) offer the chance for a marginalised group to form communal bonds, as well as offering them a chance to be understood by those outside the community.

Fanfiction has spent a long time in the dark. Because of the work done by folks like The Organisation for Transformative Works (which has projects including legal aid for fair use’ battles and a peer-reviewed journal based around said transformative works), as well as the very fans penning and reading them, respect is building for derivative works. As for what this all means for copyright, I guess its up to the lawyers to sort all that out.

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2 responses to “Derivative Works II: Fanfiction vs. Original Works

  1. Pingback: Derivative Works IV: Taking Back the Culture | The Diversionist

  2. Pingback: SOCIAL MEDIA: What Do I Use, When and Why? | The Diversionist

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