The Sunday Salon: The Practice of Fanfiction

You may have heard of Fifty Shades of Grey, the first installment of an erotica trilogy that began life as the alternate universe Twilight fanfic Master of the Universe. For fans, it’s a story that’s both delightful in the sheer amount of drama involved and a bit troubling in how visible it’s making a piece of fanfiction, considering the possible legal repercussions. For non-fans, it’s a story of a fan turning pro. But there was one particular non-fan’s reaction that intrigued me. Over the last week, Jason Boog, the editor of GalleyCat, has covered the story for both GalleyCat and NPR. Both pretty much ask the same question—“Will the success of Fifty Shades of Grey inspire more fan fiction writers to convert their work into straight fiction?” (In fact, the NPR piece assumes that “James’ success will undoubtedly spawn a wave of repurposed fan-fiction erotica in the coming months”.)

Fanfic writers going pro is nothing new—it’s been happening since the beginning of the twentieth century. But this idea that fanfiction can be “converted” and “repurposed” into “straight fiction” (…somewhere in heaven, Diane Marchant is laughing her head off) makes my skin crawl, because it’s just the latest iteration of a common belief among non-fans—the idea that fanfiction is practice for original fiction.

Aja Romano’s “i’m done explaining why fanfiction is okay” combats this and other disparaging ideas about fanfiction by exploring great works of literature that are also great works of fanfiction (Paradise Lost, anyone?)—if you read nothing else I’ve linked, read that. The folks at Dear Author have used Fifty Shades of Grey as an excuse to cover both the value of fanfiction and the possible legal repercussions of its publication. There’s a lot of well-covered ground there for those new to the conversation, but I want to focus on the idea of fanfiction as practice and why that’s problematic for me.

In Diana Gabaldon’s hilariously misguided rant on fanfiction, the author offers up what she understands to be the main arguments for fanfiction in order to refute them. In one argument, the hypothetical fanfic writer claims, “I want to write, but I don’t know how to make up characters, and it seems less scary to use some that already exist, and just make up stories for them. You know…it’s practice!” After some sympathy and confusion at the concept of using someone else’s characters to get started, Gabaldon tells fanfic writers to “suck it up”. (Although Jamie Fraser was based on Jamie McCrimmon, a character from Doctor Who. I’m just going to leave this here…) To bring it back to the series that inspired Fifty Shades of Grey, Stephenie Meyer has much the same attitude, thinking that it’s fine “[as] long as the writers of it, move on from it”; she expresses frustration and sadness with the idea that people (whom she refers to as “kids”, because only young people are involved in fandom!) are writing fanfiction instead of original fiction.

writing in the journal

Look, there are people out there who do use fanfiction as practice towards writing original fiction—heck, I bet there are tons of kids whose first written work was a piece of fanfiction. But in my experience, they are a very slim minority. As for the rest of us? Well, in Boldly Writing, Joan Marie Verba talks about fan criticism in the 1970s:

Paula Smith’s letter sharply criticized a story in the previous issue of Warped Space because it was a Mary Sue story, which brings up the whole issue of fan criticism. Paula Smith (and I, plus other fans, mostly from the science fiction tradition), asserted that fan stories should be criticized by the literary standards applied to professional stories and novels. Other fans claimed that because fan fiction was an amateur effort, and “just for fun,” it should not be criticized at all. Clashes occurred when the “literary” fans wrote reviews of fanzines edited by the “no-criticism- is-acceptable” fans. (24)

To use Verba’s designations, while the “no-criticism-is-acceptable” crowd does subscribe to the idea that original fiction is professional and fanfiction amateur, their view on fanfiction makes it clear they don’t see the stuff as practice. And the “literary” fans believe that fanfiction is just as capable as original fiction of being true works of art.

Fanfiction is not about kids practicing for the big leagues by using someone else’s intellectual property. Fanfiction is about a fan’s response to a text. That response can be as blissfully simple as sending the Firefly crew out on the adventures cancellation kept them from having or as wonderfully complex as giving Susan Pevensie a way back to God after The Last Battle. Yeah, the quality and content can be variable, but Sturgeon’s Law, which came out of science fiction fandom, states that ninety percent of everything is crap. It’s the ten percent that’s worth fighting for. That ten percent can’t be “repurposed” or “converted” into original fiction, because that direct interaction with the text is the point! And the idea that the fics that have made me cry, made me question, and made me see the world differently can be divorced from the source material with no change at all in their quality or impact disgusts me.

This past week has been spring break for me; I’ve been at home, cooking, sleeping, reading, and running errands. I volunteered at my local library on Friday, which was a blast—I helped two patrons find books they couldn’t remember the title of and we got our first request for, interestingly enough, Fifty Shades of Grey (and this was actually after I started writing the above)! So I got to explain it to my librarians. I did manage to read A Feast for Crows and The Marriage Plot this week.

Red House Books is giving away your choice of one of Jaclyn Dolamore’s books until Tuesday. Malinda Lo is giving away an advanced reader copy of her new book, Adaptation, until Friday. Melissa at The Feminist Texan [Reads] is giving away a copy of F’em! until Friday. Tor/Forge is giving away a prize pack of eight of their spring releases until April 6; you have to sign up for their newsletter. The Baen Free Library is full of free downloads, including The Shadow of the Lion and On Basilisk Station. Night Shade Books is offering Butcher Bird and Grey as free downloads at the moment. Vertigo Comics is offering free downloads of the first issue of several series, including Fables, The Unwritten, and Y: The Last Man. (And you will go download The Unwritten.) Small Beer Press offers several of their books as free downloads, including Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners. If I’ve missed your giveaway or freebie, drop me a line!

What do you make of the idea that fanfiction is practice?

  • Verba, Joan Marie. Boldly Writing. Minnetoka: FTL Publications, 2003. Digital.

One thought on “The Sunday Salon: The Practice of Fanfiction

  1. So well said! My knowledge of fan fiction is limited, but the fact that the interaction with and response to the source material was the point always seemed so clear to me.

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