The Sunday Salon: Fanfiction is Literary Criticism

Back in the May of last year, Diana Gabaldon made a post on her blog decrying the evils of fanfiction, calling it immoral and illegal. (The post has since been removed, but it’s been archived.) While it’s every author’s right to ask their fandom not to write fanfiction, such a violent outcry seemed a bit odd, seeing as her male lead was inspired by a certain Jamie from Doctor Who. The best response to this kerfuffle was Aja Romano’s post, “I’m done explaining to people why fanfic is okay.” If you do nothing else today, read Romano’s post—it’s a brilliant and damning response, which I’ve taken to heart. In fact, I’m willing to take it one step further.

Fanfiction is, at its best, literary criticism.

Literary criticism is one of my favorite ways of interacting with a text; there’s nothing quite so terrifyingly satisfying as digging into something as deceptively fluffy as Twilight and discovering an entire fictional universe where the very concept of personal agency is roundly mocked by the powers that be. But while literary criticism can destroy, praise, deepen, or reveal aspects of a text, it can never add to or correct a particular text, which fanfiction can and does.

Yes, the common perception is that fanfiction is composed almost entirely of porn and wish fulfillment. And you know what? That’s true. That’s what you get with a particular form of writing that has little to no barriers on publishing—which is, incidentally, one of the reasons that it’s impossible to completely root out fanfiction; not even fandom knows where all of it is. Basically, it’s Sturgeon’s Revelation; ninety percent of everything is crud. We see it in full force with fanfiction because there’s no barrier between execution and publication.

But you know what the inverse of Sturgeon’s Revelation is? Ten percent of everything is spectacular. Romano’s list includes works of fiction that, in basing themselves off other works, create something even better. In “The Problem of Susan”, Neil Gaiman’s own work of fanfiction exploring the aftermath of The Last Battle, Gaiman has to subtly work around the fact that he’s writing Susan Pevensie—she uses her married name and one of her brothers is named Ed, but otherwise, it’s not explicit, because it can’t be, as a professional piece of work. Susan!fic, as it’s known, is a genre unto itself in The Chronicles of Narnia fandom; there are fics about Susan discovering a way to reconcile herself with her faith and fics about Susan rejecting her childhood faith. This is where the amateurs reign, able to, in fanfiction, explore and fill in the missing holes—I recall one piece of Star Trek fanfiction that explores race and privilege in the Academy in a simple conversation between two Indian cadets. It’s, quite frankly, a beautiful thing.

My first full week of school, work, and rehearsal has been… busy to say the least. (I really, really need to catch up on sleep today.) I have managed to get through Eragon on audiobook (and start on The Lord of the Rings) and I’m nearing the end of Russian Winter. I’m also getting through Outlander on my computer; it’s alright so far.

Kristen at Fantasy Cafe is giving away a copy of A Discovery of Witches until Tuesday, as is Janicu at Janicu’s Book Blog. Tor/Forge’s Blog is giving away a Halo book and audiobook bundle until February 15th. 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.) If I’ve missed your giveaway or freebie, drop me a line!

What are your thoughts on fanfiction?

24 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: Fanfiction is Literary Criticism

  1. I agree with you! I actually hated “The Problem of Susan”, but not for its fanfic nature. It made me angry all that business between Aslan and the White Witch. But the core story was really really good, and I was pleased Neil Gaiman wrote it.

  2. Hmm, well, while I don’t think I’d ever actually write fan-fiction (too many of my own stories, not enough hours in the day), I see no problem with it. Although, as per Romano’s post, anytime I want to incorporate old themes and tropes or stories with re-imagination, that’d be a fanfic. Dunno how i feel about that classification.

    Anywho, yeah, some of my earliest attempts at writing that will never see the light of day were more or less derivative (if not blatant rips) from Tolkien, Jordan, and Goodkind, so perhaps I can see the “training wheels” thing, but on the same token, I agree that fanfic isn’t just about people trying to write.

    I see it as being akin to role-play such as children are wont to do, and I see no problem with that (I actually, coincidentally enough, just wrote a longish blog about that over on Tor.com, http://www.tor.com/blogs/2011/01/spec-fic-parenting-playing-a-role) Fanfic lets a person explore the ideas of the characters and their conundrums. It can help expand our sense of empathy and more fully attempt to understand the themes. I cannot really understand while an author would be so hung up about someone “changing the story” when it is still, at the root, the author’s story and characters that has enraptured the fanfic writer to actually spend time on this exploration. Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery and all that.

    • We are always interacting with the texts we’ve read, and I think fanfiction is just much blunt (I think pure is the wrong word here) about it. You can call it a retelling or a reimagining, but it’s still rewriting a text—and that’s fanfiction. 🙂

  3. A time or two in my life I tried to read some fanfiction because I had that terrible feeling like an itch–I needed more more more of the characters, story, and world. but I’ve never liked what I found, granted, it was just online stuff. If you call any reimagining or retelling fanfiction my feelings change. 🙂

    I remember reading a book where Christine had true feelings for the Phantom once. I had thought all along this was what I wanted, but when I read the book (a published novel) it was utterly unsatisfying because it wasn’t the real story.

    I have no problem with people writing fanfiction, though, and I’ll continue using the vetting system of publishing to read the good stuff. I’ve enjoyed some Austen influenced stuff despite not being a huge Austen fan myself, and I’m sure there are others. Great post!

  4. I haven’t read much fanfiction but I don’t have a problem with it all. I agree with you that it has it’s merits and even though I don’t read it, I do think it has it’s place.

    I remember the Gabaldon rant (didn’t read it but remembered hearing about it in other places) and while it didn’t turn me off of her books, made me feel a little prickly about her.

  5. Fantastic topic. I have no problem with fanfiction–and I even read some when it’s recommended to me. The fact is, and I think Romano gets this perfectly, that texts are always in dialogue with other texts. Thanks for tackling this thorny topic. 😉

  6. Ooooh, what was the Star Trek fanfic?? That sounds wonderful!

    I have a soft spot for fanfiction because in rare cases it can improve upon the author’s original universe, or it can expand far beyond what one author can do in a lifetime. Certain authors like Tolkien create universes in their fiction that can support hundreds of other stories (and in Tolkien’s case, deliberately designed them with that in mind). The worth of those stories is relative; the fact is, writing them is an act of love, not of sabotage.

    My personal favorite is a Harry Potter fanfiction that expands Rowling’s idea of Harry’s destiny into something far greater and more connected to British mythology. It also delves deeply and seriously into magical culture and politics (for example, it answers the question of why wizards don’t use guns), treats magic in a realistic way (why *did* Harry have to wear glasses all those years? Surely there’s a spell for that?), and compassionately explores Harry’s need to be loved after so many years of abuse at the Dursleys’ hands (I’ve always wondered how Harry managed to be so healthy after a lifetime of aggressive neglect). It’s slash, yes – something Rowling avoided like the plague, I assume because she wanted her books actually published – but c’mon, Remus and Sirius are kinda perfect together! (The title of that fic is The Marriage Stone, if I managed to convince anyone. Unforunately unfinished. I read it at least once a year. ;D)

  7. This is only in hindsight, but when I was still an active LotR geek and fanfic-er (sigh), I realized that a lot of my fanfic revolved around the Haradrim, the people from the South allied with Mordor.

    Don’t get me wrong, I still love Tolkien, but subconsciously, even then, I was uncomfortable with the Eurocentricness of the fandom and fantasy in general. I think that’s the beauty of fanfic; you can challenge the prevailing norms of a fandom, a genre. That’s power, maybe one that a lot of people don’t do much with (hence the explosion of Mary Sues and PWPs), but one all the same.

  8. Pingback: Fanfiction « Narnian Caparison

  9. Hi, i happen to love fan fiction. Unfortunately, you have to read a lot of crap to get to the good stuff but that’s okay.
    I have been a journalist writing about energy for 13 years. Most of what I get paid to write is dry and political. So I read fiction that takes me away from all that. One day, I finished a book and hated the ending. I started thinking about what I would have done as the author. The next thing I knew I was writing those thoughts down. I started creating my own characters and began taking more fiction writing classes. It’s been a great outlet for me and might even make me a better writer.

    • It will definitely make you a better writer. Fanfiction is a wonderful thing, and interacting meaningfully with texts is one of the great joys of writing. Thank you so much for sharing your story here—it’s been a long day and it was very sweet to read.

  10. I will admit fanfiction can be utterly stupid, but with books like the Percy Jackson/ Heroes of Olympus series, where the author leaves time- sometimes even years- between books, or outcasts a certain character you won’t get to see the point of view of, fanfiction is a way to get what your looking for, the in-between, if you will. Those authors are practically inviting us to write fanfiction. It’s like the ‘how it should have ended’ which is just someone publicizing their opinions or ideas. Also, often times unexplained events are explained through fanfiction. It’s a way of giving people a common growing to publicize and expand their writings, and as I have discovered, it’s easy to slip into another author’s world when you just want to express yourself, or evade emotions.

    Yours truly,
    A young writer, who learned through fanfiction.

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