Guest post: Fan fiction is more than smut

The internet is for porn.

We all know the song (from the Broadway musical Avenue Q), and it’s funny because, in a way, it is true.  And hose of us who have been around the internet for a while are familiar with the infamous Rule 34: if it exists, there’s porn of it.  It’s nothing incredibly shocking but, if you listen to the media hubbub surrounding the bestselling novel 50 Shades of Grey, you would think otherwise.

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Fifty Shades of WHAT? Bestselling ex-Twilight BDSM novel takes publishing world by storm

If you follow publishing news at all – or picked up last week’s Game of Thrones issue of Entertainment Weekly – you’ve probably heard about Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s a vanity-published erotic novel that’s sold more than 250,000 copies,and got author E L James a seven-figure book deal with Vintage, a division of Random House. It just became a a New York Times bestseller. So, yes, it’s incredibly popular.

It also started life as a Twilight alternate universe fanfic, something even major media have been picking up on.

Taking a fanfic and reworking it as an original piece is nothing new – I’m fairly sure one of my favorite space opera sagas started out as a Star Wars story way back in the day, for instance. Cassandra Clare and Naomi Novak may be the best known these days, but they were far from the first to cross over and go pro. It happens, and it’s been happening for a long time.

But it can strike an uncomfortable chord, particularly in cases such as this. Not because of the porn, per say, but because it skirts violating the most sacred – perhaps only – rule of fan fiction: Thou shall not make money off it. (Remember Lori Jareo?) And to boot, the incredible yet completely unsurprising success (yes, ladies do sometimes like porn, deal with it) of this particular case is shining a big, mainstream light on fan fiction in general… One I’m not sure the community wants or needs.

Given the deeply AU nature of her original fanfic, I think it’s unlikely we’ll be seeing James in court. But if the attention continues to spread to fan fiction and the community, if this just is the beginning of a trend, who knows what else will come to light? But only time will tell.

Time targets the wild world of fan fiction

Time has a lengthy article on fan fiction by Lev Grossman. The hook is Harry Potter, but it’s actually a pretty good overview of the phenomenon as a whole, from Muncle and Trek. I particularly like this bit:

Fan fiction is what literature might look like if it were reinvented from scratch after a nuclear apocalypse by a band of brilliant pop-culture junkies trapped in a sealed bunker. They don’t do it for money. That’s not what it’s about. The writers write it and put it up online just for the satisfaction. They’re fans, but they’re not silent, couchbound consumers of media. The culture talks to them, and they talk back to the culture in its own language.

I particularly love Grossman’s explanation of fanfic as a conversation, because it captures all the aspects. There’s doing it for the sheer love of the original work, but there’s also a great deal that comes from disappointment with what’s being offered by the creators (or, in our case, some of their hirelings.) Much of the fic in our own archive – they’re pretty much antiques at this point – came not only from love of Star Wars, but also frustration with what was being offered by the official sources – one author in particular, but if there’s one thing I won’t deny, it’s that the quality of the Expanded Universe, as it pertains to certain favorite characters, has always been a mixed bag. (And hell, I’d rather see someone put all their fannish angst into a fanfic than endlessly complaining about it on blogs and forums. At least it’s actually productive.)

Anyway, the article: Grossman even references sex pollen. Now that’s research.

Another round of pearl-clutching over fanfic

It’s getting kind of hard for me to get worked up over authors making sweeping ignorant statements about fanfic, but it’s also impossible to ignore. The latest culprits are big names: Time-travel romance author Diana Gabaldon and epic fantasy MVP George R.R. Martin.

And luckily, there are plenty of folks stepping up to the plate this round: I particularly appreciate Catherynne M. Valente’s take:

So much ire spent over something that ultimately helps books, keeps the conversation going past the long tail of marketing, keeps them alive and loved—I’ve never understood it. Quashing fan activity is not only self-sabotaging, but unkind. I have always been delighted when told there was a piece of fanfic inspired by a book of mine floating about. I don’t read it for legal reasons, but I’m thrilled to know it’s there. Someone cared. Someone loved it enough to spend their free time writing about it for free.

And with a more bare-bones look at things, Kate Nepveu:

People gossip about their favorite characters; become fascinated by unexplored characters, locations, histories, themes, implications; imagine what would happen next, or if, or instead; and critique every aspect of a work. Sometimes this takes the form of passing in-person conversations, sometimes of blog discussions, sometimes of scholarly works, and sometimes of stories. (Sometimes, even, of critically-acclaimed, award-winning, professionally-distributed stories.) I would be astonished to hear that your own writing never was influenced by this impulse—I say this not to suggest that you’ve been writing fanfic all along, but to point out the strength and universality of this impulse.

(What fan activity isn’t born of that impulse?)

Granted, for the most part, my personal experience with fanfic has been within Star Wars, and Lucasfilm has, for the last, oh, 20 years or so, pretty much turned a blind eye. (No, this wasn’t always the case.) But I’ve been in a few smaller author-based fandoms over the years where it was politely asked that fans not engage in fanfic of the books at hand, and people complied. (And not only that, they self-policed.) It’s not perfect, and may be hard to enforce with a larger fandom, but treating your fans with respect is never a bad move. Doing otherwise just makes one look like a bully – and a particularly petty one at that.