Confessions of a fan fiction fan
My husband and I had a disagreement the other day on a topic that surprised me. He made the comment that a particular story which won some awards a few years ago shouldn’t have, because it was, as far as he was concerned, a piece of fan fiction, rather than an original tale. I thought it was going to turn into a much more spirited debate, because I have rather strong feelings on the subject. But I barely got a few sentences of my first point out, when he smiled, shrugged, and said, “Okay, I see your point. But I still don’t think the story deserved an award.” And I laughed and replied, “Maybe it didn’t, but that’s a different point than saying it should never have been considered for one.” And he said, “Yeah, I guess.”
And that was it.
Which wasn’t much of a debate. And I have to admit, I was a little disappointed that we wrapped that topic up so quickly, because I think it’s one that deserves more consideration. Which means I’m going to blog about it. Lucky you!
Fan fiction, according to Professor Rebecca Black, “is writing in which fans use media narratives and pop cultural icons as inspiration for creating their own texts.” A lot of people look down on fan fiction, characterizing it as not real writing, often arguing that it is just retelling existing stories, rather than someone telling their own. My first disagreement on that is that all human story telling can be characterized as retelling of existing narratives. Humans have been telling each other stories for tens of thousands of years, and there is no such thing as a wholly original story idea, any longer…
Some critics of fan fiction get a bit more specific. They discourage people from writing fan fiction because it isn’t real writing, nor do they think it is a useful tool for learning to write. They characterize fanfic writing as a crutch, rather than a tool for serious story telling. The argument goes like this: because the fan fiction author is using characters, relationships, and a setting that has been invented by someone else, instead of building their own world and their own characters, it isn’t real writing. The reader is only engaged, they say, because the reader is already familiar with the characters and world because of the work of other writers. The usual counter argument is that fan fiction is a good way for people to learn important skills of writing. Plotting, dialog, and characterization can all be learned by writing, convincingly, in another person’s world.
I have a completely different set of counter arguments.
First, there is one specific professional writer I know who got his start in the profession as a junior screen writer for the Golden Girls television series. He was very young, just out of college, when he got hired for the last (or second to last, I forget which) season of the hit series. He was being paid as a writer full-time writer, not an intern. He came in day in and day out, wrote, pitched ideas, did re-writes of other scenes, and collaborated with the rest of the writing staff. And decades later, his resumé leads with that professional writing credit.
He has since had a few screenplays produced, has written for several other television series over the years, and has had several fiction books published. No one I know of disputes that he is a professional writer, and no one disputes that that year or two he spent working on the Golden Girls wasn’t a professional writing job.
However, I contend that what he was doing that year on the Golden Girls was no different than the denigrating way some people describe fan fiction. He was:
- …writing characters that someone else had already created
- …who were in relationships also created by other people
- …in a setting that was created by other writers
- …and the audience was able to be swept up in his stories because they were already familiar with the characters, setting, et cetera, through their experience of the previous seasons of the show.
By the usual definition of why fanfic writing isn’t “real” writing, nothing that writer did at his first professional writing job was real writing.
People will try to counter this argument by saying the difference is he was being paid. But that just means that he lucked out and had some connections that got him in the door. It has nothing to do the kinds of writing tasks he was doing. The same is true of any writer hired to create the novelization of a movie, or to write an installment of a franchise series, et cetera. If getting paid for the writing job makes some people a professional writer regardless of whether they did all their own world building or not, you can’t say that writing is someone else’s world is never “real” writing.
If your definition of fanfic is that someone is writing in a setting and with characters that someone else made, then a whole heck of a lot of western literature is fan fiction. The award-winning Broadway musical, West Side Story, is nothing more that fanfic of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. A whole lot Shakespeare was retelling of stores that had come before. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is fan fiction of Norse Mythology, just as Wagner’s Ring Cycle of operas is also fan fiction of Norse Mythology. The award-winning and internationally acclaimed BBC series, Sherlock, is quite literally Sherlock Holmes fan fiction. I could go on and on.
As I said before, there isn’t really any wholly original story. As humans, we tell stories using not just the language, but conventions and tropes of stories we have heard or read throughout our lifetimes. Sometimes an author choses to set a story explicitly in a setting of an existing tale, in order to give a story a new perspective, in order to tell an aspect of the tale the author thinks is being overlooked, or just to ask how things might have been different. That doesn’t make it any less “real” writing than any other kind of writing.
“What is significant about unofficial, extra-canonical fan fiction is that it often spins the kind of stories that showrunners wouldn’t think to tell, because fanficcers often come from a different demographic. The discomfort seems to be not that the shows are being reinterpreted by fans, but that they are being reinterpreted by the wrong sorts of fans – women, people of colour, queer kids, horny teenagers, people who are not professional writers, people who actually care about continuity (sorry). The proper way for cultural mythmaking to progress, it is implied, is for privileged men to recreate the works of privileged men from previous generations whilst everyone else listens quietly. That’s how it’s always been done.”
Just because a story retells another story from a new and different perspective doesn’t mean it isn’t a good tale on its own.