From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

For the Love of Fan Fiction

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.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia writes and lives in beautiful British Columbia with her family and two cats. Her work has appeared in Fantasy Magazine, Futurismic, Shimmer and Zahir.

Tagged as:

11 Responses »

  1. I try to stay away from fan fiction because of number three. I really just don’t have the time to sift through the mounds and mounds of crap for one good story.

    Neat post.

  2. Excellent article! Thank you for your fair and balanced view.

    I have read a ton of awful fan fic (Mary Sues of every flavor, dialogue that looks like it was cobbled together from “Dick and Jane” and…well…”Dick Does Jane”…you get the idea). But I have also read some spectacular fan fic that makes me remember why I liked a particular character or show in the first place. Sometimes I’ve found myself disagreeing with a show’s writers and producers as to where a show “should” be going, and what the characters “should” be doing. (Granted, I don’t have to worry about pleasing the widest audience possible, I’m just worried about an audience of one…me.) In those cases, I have searched for and found some really wonderful fanfic where the author and I seem to share a common view and I can get into his or her version of a character or series. Some of the fanfic authors develop amazing character backgrounds and new scenarios that are more interesting to me than what the show or series is coming up with. I’ve also found that it’s a great way to connect with other people that are interested in the same fandoms. When I find a story I really like, I try to email the author to say thanks for posting, and we usually end up swapping messages back and forth. So it’s a great way to g33k out about a favorite fandom without facing complete ridicule by friends and family ;0)

    That all being said…there are still a lot of baaaaaaaad fanfics out there. Be careful where you step ;0)

  3. Hello. My name is LJG, and I write fanfic.

    I’ve guess I’ve been doing fic for thirty years now. My gateway fic was Star Trek, the original series. My friends and I would sit around the library pit at Graveraet Middle school and grow our own, passing it around with giggles, sighs and moans of despair. If they were really good, we’d act them out. I was always Kirk.

    When I got married, I kicked it for a while. Kids’ll do that to you sometimes. But we got our first home computer in 1993 and I started diddling with usenet. Around that time, I wrote a Quantum Leap novel and stuck it in a drawer.

    A few years later, and I was heavy into LiveJournal. Oh, I go for Facebook and MySpace, to to be with the in crowd, but LiveJournal is where I spend most of my time. One day, someone on my flist posted a link to a YouTube vid.

    It was a pirated scene from the new Doctor Who. I really dug it, I mean *really.* Kind of lost myself for a while in a frantic search for every bit of video I could find. Started dreaming about the Doctor and talking to him in my head. Became a shipper. Yeah. I’m telling you, it happens.

    Then, one fateful day, someone rec’d a really good Doctor Who fanfic.


    The word reverberated in my head. I was reading the google hits before I knew it and, still in a daze of remembered joy and passion, hope, excitement and realistic expectation of some dig-my-eyes-out-with-a-spoon badness, there I was at Teaspoon.

    I probably do about one or two hours of heavy fanfic reading every day. And, of course, there’s the writing. My escasy and agony.

    I knew I’d gone over the edge when I’d started rec’ing fic to my kids. I’m sick I tell you.

    But my husband and I are still together. He’s a good guy, listens to my snippets without rolling his eyes too much. Even does the Doctor when I batt my lashes at him (but lets not go there.)

    Yeah, I suppose I should get a life. You know, instead of a fantastic life.

  4. Thank you.

    I have used every one of your rebuttals in trying to defend my enjoyment of fanfic to doubting associates, and often the scathing disapproval of professionals in the field.

    I have only to walk through any Big Box Bookstore in the land, and I can come out with seventeen hundred published fanfiction books, many of which will be simply dreadful. There are entire shelving units devoted solely to fanfiction, and nobody’s calling those actors ‘talentless hacks’, although, as you’ve notes, with some of them it would be a warranted accusation.

    As you might have guessed, I write fanfiction. I also write other types of fiction, but there’s an element to #1 that I’d like to expound upon here; writing a good story is a very VERY different thing to getting that story published. Those two tasks require vastly different skill sets, and temperaments, and there are some excellent writers who just do not have the thickness of skin, or self-confidence to shove their way through the brutality of the publishing industry. Posting one’s fiction on LJ or any of its clones, and linking it to comms of like-minded readers, one may get the occasional flame, or disagreement over character dynamics or plot structure, but one doesn’t get a form letter dismissal. As a writer, you know how discouraging those can be, especially when half the time the rejection is not based on the merits of the story, but on whether the publisher’s marketing department knows what to do with it or not.

    Many times, good, talented fanfiction writers are just writers who don’t want to join the great rejection circus and have their hearts broken there.

    Anyway, thank you for this article. It’s been a long time coming, and I’m happy to see it in print after all these years of official scorn.

  5. Thank you for this. The thing I think people forget when mocking fanfiction writers is that most fans create fanfiction. It’s just that only a handful ever get around to writing it down. Anyone who’s ever “fixed” the ending of a book, movie, or TV show in their head, or imagined what happened after, or fantasized about getting dropped into their favorite story-universe has “written” fanfiction. For most of us, those behaviors stay in the realm of our imagination, something we ponder as we’re falling asleep. No one ever makes the connection between that and published fanfic explicit, though. It’s amazing to me how many people will rattle off a whole theory on something like how Anakin should have been turned, then turn around and mock fanfiction in the next breath.

    So thank you for this.

  6. I love fan fic. Reading it is almost a sisterhood on the group I read. Some of it is really good. The companies should listen more to the fan.

  7. Wide Sargasso Sea = pure and utter bliss

    Ulysses = pure and unadulterated crap

    The only reason Ulysses ever got ‘popular’ in terms of selling copies was because of the hype. Most people I know have not read their copy. Fanfic gets crap because of a bad reputation from people who don’t, generally, know anything about it. Ulysses *should* get a bad rap but no one is game enough to admit they couldn’t read more than 20 pages without going barking mad…

    And I don’t write fanfic!

  8. You SO win for writing this. Especially for this part:

    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.

    ABSOLUTELY. I’ve been writing fanfic for ten years, and I’ve been an aerospace engineering student for three; you haven’t seen scorn until you’ve seen an aerospace engineer’s reaction to a short story about Doctor Who. And yet somehow, calculating by hand the angular acceleration of an imaginary spinning top sitting on an imaginary wing is supposed to be some kind of great help to society. I just don’t buy the rationale behind the GIANT STIGMA that fan fiction has. Even many writers scorn it, as you pointed out!

    Anyway. As far as searching through loads of dreck to find gold (in case Aero Kitty comes back to check this post for hints), that’s why people have recommendation communities and awards sites. And it helps if you get into a fandom after its heyday but in time for everybody to remember the classics.

    But I guess in the end, one transcendental piece of fanfiction, for me, IS worth a few hours of dreck. That’s just a different price. And I pay for spec fic magazines in stores, but none of them have ever grabbed me — or taught me — the way a lot of fanfiction has.

  9. Полностью согласен!

    ласковые смс

  10. I am personally an FF lover! I wouldn’t spend all my time on it though. I agree that it you shouldn’t waste all day on it but yeah, it makes for an extremely entertaining hobby. I have an account and I love FF.


  1. Sunday Pleasures #74 « Shanna Germain

Leave a Response