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Honour among ‘thieves’ May 4, 2010

Posted by dolorosa12 in fandom, internet.
Tags: , , ,

Please note, the word ‘thieves’ is in quotation marks for a reason: it’s ironic. I certainly don’t view fanfic as theft – quite the opposite. Also note that this post contains spoilers for Gillian Rubinstein’s novel Terra-Farma.

Some of you may have noticed author Diana Gabaldon’s rant against fanfiction. As well as this highly condescending post, she goes on in her comments to compare fanfic writers to paedophiles, spouse-stealers, flower-thieves and lynch mobs. (Surely a Nazi comparison isn’t too far away.) I am not intending here to address her ‘points against fanfiction’; her commenters, many of whom are producers and consumers of fanworks themselves, have been doing so with great eloquence for a while now. What I intend to do here is comment more broadly on the kind of mindset that provokes opinions like Gabaldon’s.

Fanfic can seem alarming when you first discover it. I remember the first time I heard of fanfic. I was about 16, it was the early 2000s, and one of my school friends told me in hushed, horrified whispers that ‘people wrote stories about Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy. As a couple. ON THE INTERNET!‘ I was shocked and disturbed. I didn’t really understand why anyone would want to do such a thing, or how such people could see such a relationship in Rowling’s fiction. But I wasn’t involved in online fandom at all then (in fact, I detested the internet), and I promptly forgot about Harry/Draco slash.

When I got involved with online fandom (in 2007), fanfiction came back on my radar, and I was more equipped to think about it in a less sensationalist manner. What suddenly occurred to me was that, in my own way, I’d been writing fanfic my entire life.

As a small child, I’d been obsessed with a short story called ‘The Deep One’, where a prisoner named Sam is thrown into the eponymous dungeon, only to realise that he’s already dead and is haunting the gaol. I promptly began playing a game (which I would pick up on and off for years) where I was a female prisoner called Sam(antha) who lived in a modern-day gaol with the entrance to The Deep One being a trapdoor under her cell. A modern-day AU, with added gender-bending!

My sister and I spent ages writing picture books about dinosaurs who went to boarding school. We were writing crossover fic based on the boarding school novels we read, and a series of books where dinosaurs go to school in a modern USian setting!

As a teenager, I wrote a dreadful, novel-length story where Pagan Kidrouk from the Pagan Chronicles married a medieval Irish woman called Amber (Amber spelt R-O-N-N-I) and they had twins named Lyra and Pantalaimon. A crossover fic! With a self-insert Mary-Sue!

I also rewrote the ending of Gillian Rubinstein’s Terra-Farma book so that Allyman and Presh escaped, lived for a while in Coogee and then started working at Cirque du Soleil Alegría, being chased by Project Genesis Five the entire time. A fix-it fic!

What I was doing was a crude, less intelligent version of what most fanficcers do when they create a fanwork: engaging with elements of my favourite stories as a way of expressing my deep love of said stories. This is what Gabaldon, in her condemnation of ficcers as thieves and rapists, profoundly fails to grasp.

Some ficcers might be writing in order to get writing practice, or to reach an inbuilt audience, or to garner praise, or because they’re unable to create original characters of their own, but ultimately, what they are doing is expressing their love for a particular story, their love of writing, and their love of communicating with a group of like-minded people. The difference between the Naruto slashficcer on Fanfiction.net and my self-insert Pagan/His Dark Materials crossover, between the writer of that Merlin high school AU and the Emma high school AU that is Clueless is one of quality and degree, not in kind.

One thing I’ve discovered in the years I’ve been online is that most fans have a highly developed sense of morals about the works with which they’re engaging, and the creators of those works. No ficcer would dream of claiming ownership of their source material; most fics begin with disclaimers. Authors who are opposed to fanfic are generally well-known (I, for example, know that Anne Rice, Anne Bishop, Robin McKinley and Anne McCaffrey have requested that people do not create fic based on their stories) and their wishes are respected. None of the commenters on Gabaldon’s journal were suggesting that she was wrong to ask them not to write fic, and I daresay most of them will comply with her wishes. What they were objecting to was being told that they were an immoral bunch of thieves.

The whole debate reminds me of a spat I got involved with on Livejournal a while back. I followed the blog of Karen Miller, an Australian fantasy author who also writes Star Wars tie-in novels. She posted an angry rant about fans who perceived a gay subtext in her latest Star Wars book, and seemed unable to grasp that the fact that the fans were reading a gay subtext into the book did not take away her own interpretation of the book.

What I see happening is partly generational and partly related to the extent to which such authors engage with online fandom (since there is some overlap between age and lack-of-online-participation). I see a profound incomprehension of postmodern, remix culture. For authors such as Gabaldon, there is a book, and its meaning is limited to what the author intends it to mean, and readers interact with it passively.

But we live in a world where Danger Mouse makes a mashup of The White Album by The Beatles and The Black Album by Jay-Z and calls it The Grey Album. A world where people paste satirical subtitles on the bunker scene in Downfall and stick the heads of Batman and The Joker onto the figures in ‘Caramelldansen’. A world where Emma and The Taming of the Shrew can be transplanted to 90s American high schools and a bunch of university students in the US can make a musical of Harry Potter. And a world where, yes, I can imagine what would’ve happened if Buffy Summers had never come to Sunnydale or Castiel had been a demon instead of an angel or the vampires from Twilight had found themselves transported to ninth-century Ireland or, Goddammit, where Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter were doing it like they do on the Discovery Channel over the course of seven books – and write stories about all these ‘what ifs’ and share them with other people.

What Gabaldon doesn’t seem to understand is that none of this has any effect on the words that she has put on the page. Her book is still there. I’m reminded of what Philip Pullman said, when asked what he thought of the film adaptation of Northern Lights (called The Golden Compass) ruining his book. He went to the bookshelf, pulled a copy of Northern Lights from it and said, ‘Look. Here is my book. It’s not ruined. It’s right here, and that film, whatever its quality, doesn’t change that.’

Gabaldon is completely within her rights to request that no fanfic be written about her works, and I suspect if she’d done so, the reaction would’ve been very different. Where she falls down is where she suggests that fanfic writers are somehow lesser, bad fans. They are not. They are engaging with the objects of their fannish devotion in a way that is natural to them. They are participating in a multilayered, ongoing discussion of the source material among like-minded fans. They are not claiming to own the source material. What they own is their reaction to it, and calling them thieves and rapists does not take away the ownership of that reaction.

To conclude, I’d like to restate what I said in relation to the Karen Miller Star Wars debacle:

‘Your book is not my book. I may not see what you want me to see, but I’ll defend to the death your right to see it.’ And I’ll defend to the death the value of fanfic as a form of fannish engagement.



1. Katie - May 5, 2010

Your final point is the one we all keep coming back to: the minute someone else reads your story, it becomes theirs. The characters look different, the settings are influenced by their memories and it all takes on a flavour the writer never envisioned as they wrote. And that’s AMAZING. That’s what makes writing such an incredible experience.

It’s also something that causes problems for many writers, especially if those sections about “letting go” in writing manuals are anything to go by. Fanfiction was always happening, even if it were just in the privacy of our own imaginations. Now the internet allows it to happen where other people can read it and authors seem to respond in one of two ways: they accept it and (possibly) embrace it for the awesome compliment it is, or they condemn it because they’re afraid of it. That’s the main thing, isn’t it? Under the rage and resentment, it’s fear!

Maybe we need to assure these authors that we’re looking after their stories and characters, really we are. And they’re doing well out there in the real world – it’s time for their authors to let them stand on their own and make their mark.

(Eeep, sorry for the mini-essay. This topic just fascinates me endlessly.)

dolorosa12 - May 5, 2010

Oh yes, you’re absolutely right about the ‘fear’ thing. I think a lot of authors never get beyond the disturbed horror that I felt upon first hearing of Draco/Harry slash. Obviously it’s more difficult to get beyond this if it’s your own characters and you feel almost like their parent.

However, I think authors who are disgusted and disturbed about fanfic need to take a good long look at themselves, and in particular at their childhood. Most professional writers (as with non-professional writers and imaginative people in general) were compulsive storytellers as children, and I guarantee that half of them were writing fanfic-like stories in paper journals, dressing up as characters from their favourite books and acting out stories about them, or simply writing fiction inspired directly or indirectly by their favourite works (see: Christopher Paolini).

To deny this is to deny a fundamental impulse among imaginative, storytelling people.

2. Trin - May 5, 2010

Great post Ronni! I don’t have much else to add because I don’t read/write fan fic and don’t have a position on it (except I guess if people want to write fan fic then why not? I’m not a big believer in intellectual property rights except in that I think that everything belongs to everyone! Well probably with some caveats. I.e. don’t take my photo and pretend it’s you on FB – that’s just weird… and no that hasn’t happened thankfully!) but I thought this was really well written! :o)

dolorosa12 - May 5, 2010

Thanks for your comment! I didn’t used to read much fanfic myself, mainly because when I started out online I had no idea how to find the good stuff, and I kept reading poorly-written, out-of-character stuff.

The analogy you make (about deceiving people as to who is writing the fic) is a criticism that’s often levelled against it by people who don’t know very much about online fandom – they think that fanficcers are somehow deceiving their readers into thinking that they’re the author of the original material. A quick dip into any one of the main fanfic sites will show you this isn’t the case: fanficcers on the whole are deeply respectful of the authors of the original source material, and are very upfront about who invented the characters and worlds which they’re playing in.

3. Soapy - May 6, 2010

I have never read a fanfic where the writer pretended they owned the material.

And yeah, most fanfic is written by people who just LOVE the story. The only fanfic i have ever written is for TV programmes and I wrote them because I was bursting to fill the gaps.

dolorosa12 - May 10, 2010

Sorry it took so long for me to reply, Soaps. I had to hand in my first-year registration stuff for my PhD, and it ATE MY BRAIN!

Anyway, you’re entirely correct. Almost every fanfic I’ve seen begins with a disclaimer stating who created the characters that the ficcer is writing about. Fanficcers love the creators of their source material, since it is those original writers that give them the material with which to work.

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