Every time I have read an article about fan fiction it has highlighted the fact that it is a vast factory of weird sex dreamed up by peculiar people. Somewhere, in a dark and dingy basement, a mysterious stranger is madly typing and posting the new gay adventures of Harry Potter. Equally depraved readers are gobbling the stuff up.
The fan fiction writer and reader is always this funny, weird “other” person. In reality the fan fiction writer and reader is probably just a regular Jane who loves Star Wars and writes stories about Leia. I say Jane because most people who read and write fan fiction are women. Mary Ellen Curtin, who has studied Star Trek fan fiction estimates 80 per cent of writers are female. My completely unscientific observations would support this figure, with slight variances depending on the sub-genre and fandom in question.
Which is precisely why I started paying attention to fan fiction a few years ago. I had heard about the disparate female and male submission numbers to speculative magazines. To make a long story short, there’s generally a higher number of men submitting stuff. Apparently, women don’t write as much speculative fiction as men.
But low and behold speculative fan fiction seemed the opposite: this was a country governed by women. So I decided to take a look around fan fiction land to see exactly what kind of stuff women were writing and why. Turns out they are writing all kinds of things, not just Harry Potter Does Hermione. Some of it is good, some of it is bad, but what struck me was that this seemed to dispel the old mantra I had been told dozens of times: women are just not good at fandom.
You see, some years ago I was doing a paper on the viability of a video game line marketed at women. I thought it was a good idea and I had the numbers to prove it could work but one of my friends told me my premise was flawed:
“Silvia, women just don’t play video games like men. They are not fans.”
Fans. He meant the comic book collectors and game junkies. Those were avid, rabid fans. They were devoted to their cause and women, well … women just didn’t cling to any movie, TV series or comic book that much.
This was before Twilight and Sex and the City. Had my friend seen the lobby of the Paramount he might have changed his tune. I was even scared of walking into the movie theater for fear of being trampled by an avalanche of women. People say guys dressed as Jedis waiting in line are eager, but they probably never had to deal with a horde of teenagers trying to go see a sparkling vampire.
Anyway, my friend was wrong. Women are fans. They are incredibly active ones too. They draw, write and make music videos about their favorite characters and discuss their shipping pairings in forums. They write all types of fan fiction, from short romances to long action-packed sagas to tiny one-sentence drabbles.
Still, some people make fun of them. Writing about Jack Sparrow may not be everyone’s idea of a good hobby, but my brother-in-law makes model airplanes and I haven’t seen anyone question the value of that. I’ve seen plenty of people question the value of fan fiction.
There’s generally three reasons to dismiss fan fiction: the writers are loosing precious time that they could be using to create original characters, copyright issues, and the inherent suckiness of the material.
Regarding the first one, there is some truth to this. If you are putting all your efforts in penning Darth Revan’s adventures you might not have time to write that space opera you’ve been dreaming about. However, lots of people writing fan fiction are not interested in a professional writing career the same way that my brother-in-law probably wouldn’t want to glue model airplanes all day long.
If a writer wants to publish professionally I would say writing fan fiction is not the path to literary stardom, even though a few writers have gone this route. But if a fan wants to share her stories through LiveJournal and never tries to become the next J.K.Rowling, so what? It is not a sign of a lack of imagination or laziness.
The second hurdle most people mention is the murky legality of it all. Will the copyright police come after your mother? Is it morally wrong to write fan fiction? Isn’t it like stealing?
As far as the copyright police, every country has different copyright laws. I am familiar with Canada’s laws so I can’t tell you if you are going to get a cease and desist order over in Perth. There are a number of authors such as Anne Rice who do not like to have their characters used in fan fiction and will make you pull off your stories. Some authors just don’t like a certain type of fan fiction. Rowling, for example, would prefer that X-rated Harry Potter stories stay off the net but she is fine with other types of fan fiction.
But it is stealing, you might say. Well, fan fiction authors are not selling their product and they are not taking away a share of the writer’s pie. In fact, they are helping the author by promoting and keeping a product in the limelight. Old movies like Labyrinth get to have a comic book sequel published by Tokyo Pop precisely because fans around the world keep writing fan fiction, posting comments, and painting Jareth pictures. There is a community that wants more Labyrinth and wants to buy dolls, plush toys and comic books on the subject. They are dedicated and they are not going to stop themselves from purchasing a new Labyrinth novel just because there are dozens of free fan fiction novels out there.
Don’t just take it from me. George Lucas has been fan fiction friendly for decades and, last I checked, he is still super rich. Anne McCaffrey has relaxed guidelines for fan fiction and she’s still got a truckload of Dragonrider books.
Frankly, I believe fan fiction celebrates authors. These are people who are truly engaged with a work of fiction. I’d think they are mana from heaven. In fact, I’ll consider it a mark of success if I write a novel and someone decides to make a lesbian pairing out of my characters.
Until that happy time comes, lets examine the final anti-fan fic stance: fan fic sucks. It is poorly written tripe. In a vast universe with lots of stories where everyone can post their work without editorial oversight it is true that you will find a lot of writing that is simply bad and several purple-eyed Mary Sues. However, the same is probably true of your local bookstore. Come on, is every new release the next Ullyses?
The rule of thumb seems to be that fan fiction about copyrighted characters is terrible. But stuff that is not copyrighted can be very good. Voila! We love Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys — Jane Eyre told from the mad wife’s point of view — or Lost Girls by Alan Moore — sexcapades of famous children’s book characters — which, by the way, is just as smutty as any Spock and Kirk romance.
Perhaps the only good stories are the ones authorized by the author’s estate? Well, I made the mistake of picking up Rhett Butler’s People and it was a bad, bad thing.
With this I’m not encouraging everyone to go out there and write more Mr.Spock stories or do Gone With the Wind in space. I simply don’t think fan fiction is evil by nature or that a writer using pre-established characters is a lousy hack. Otherwise, I would have never read Wide Sargasso Sea, bought those Star Wars tie-in novels, or checked the Battlestar Galactica fan archives like a madwoman while the show is on hiatus.
For many people making fun of fan fiction writers is cathartic. There they are, all those women making useless stories about Doctor Who. Cue in the laugh track.
I don’t want to laugh at them. I want to understand what makes these women tick, what inspires them to log in every day and post dozens of comments about a new flash piece. I figure if I understand the potential female audience out there I might be able to make stuff that sells well. Oh, and get that slash fan fiction base going one day.