I hate it when my friends bait me.
Over the weekend, Jen sent me a link to a post on Joss Whedon's site, Whedonesque, about this anti-fanfic rant over at Robin Hobb's author site, knowing how ticked off I'd be after reading it. (A side note here: Jen has been ragging me for years about being a fangrrrrl fanfic writer and I now get to return the favor. I've only written a few amateur zines-worth of stories; Jen has written The Physics of the Buffyverse, which will be coming out in 2007 from no less than the very professional publishers, Penguin Books. She has an Angel puppet and a Spike action figure, and this note was appended to the above-mentioned baiting email: "I think you should write a rebuttal to Hobb... Note that MY fandom king, Joss the Great, actually encourages his fans to write fanfic...") Oh, I tried to be cool. I tried to shrug off the egregious lack of logic, her obvious insecurity as writer, her disrespect for her fans, her lack of understanding about the tropes of storytelling. I just couldn't do it; hence this post.
Before I launch into my own "rant" though, a little disclosure of my credentials: Yes, I write fanfic. I've written it for decades (eeep!) in various fandoms; it was among the first things I ever wrote when I started to write stories in junior high. I also write professionally (meaning I get paid for it) as a fiction writer, poet (well, everybody knows poets don't get paid, or not much), and marketing copywriter. I've even won a couple of (very) minor awards.
Let me also state that I've never previously heard of Ms. Hobb and have not read any of her books, and don't know what kind of SF or fantasy she writes, or whether I'd like it or not. There's nothing personal in this. She's just dead wrong about fanfic, and about stories.
Unlike Ms. Hobb, I'm going to assume y'all know what fanfic is already, and what it's not. None of us this deeply interested in the subject would confuse it with spin-offs or tie-ins. The term is self-explanatory. Like porn to a Supreme Court Justice, we know what it is when we see it.
The first mistake Ms. Hobb makes is to confuse fanfic with plagiarism and, oddly enough, with identity theft. She seems to feel that fanfic writers are attempting to pass her stories off as their own original creation: "Writers who post a story at Fanfiction.net or anywhere else and identify it as a Robin Hobb fan fiction or a Farseer fan fiction are claiming my groundwork as their own," i.e., people who read (and write) fanfic aren't giving her credit for her own work. Huh? That's just not true, at least in the literal sense. More on the metaphorical ownership of stories later.
In the meanwhile, by definition, fanfic is already based on someone else's work, and everyone who reads it knows this. No one reading a fanfic story is going to think that a story starring Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Luke Skywalker, or Harry Potter is completely original work. Fanfic comes with an implied (and sometimes literal) disclaimer "based on the work of [fill in the originator's name here]." In some ways, you could think of this as what scholars do: building on original work by one person by expanding and adding other original elements to it. In the same way that Shakespeare scholarship is all about Shakespeare, building on analyses that came before, fanfic is all about the original protagonists, building onto the original fictional universe. No fan (or scholar) attempts to pass off the exact phraseology of the original author as their own. Fans will sometimes plagiarize other fans, but not the original author, as bad scholars will sometimes plagiarize other scholars but not the object of their study. And that's considered taboo even in fan communities, where the offender is quickly hounded off the stage.
As for fanfic being identity theft, all I can say is, if Ms. Hobb is identifying that closely with her characters, they make good drugs for that kind of thing now. Last I looked, thinking you are one of your characters was called a delusion. "[F]an fiction" she claims, "is like any other form of identity theft. It injures the name of the party whose identity is stolen . . . [and] can sully your credit with your readers," by giving them "an entirely different idea of what those stories are about than if he had simply read [the original] books." This is a little like saying you'd blame Rolex for the faults of the cheap copy you bought on the street. I don't have any research or numbers to back this up, but I can say from personal reading that a great majority of fanfic stories stick fairly closely to the original author's canonical characters and situations, which they then build on and add to. There are some specific exceptions to this generalization, identified among fans as "alternate universes." The allure of fanfic is that it is a continuation of the original story along some kind of logical arc. It may not be the one the author intended or would have thought of, but it's generally recognizable. When the similarity blurs very drastically, fanfic can be almost indistinguishable from original fiction, even if the characters are called Harry, Hermione, and Ron.
A couple of nights ago I finished the last book in Jon Courtenay Grimwood's Arabesk trilogy, Felaheen. It was such a good story that I really didn't want it to end. The world he's created is fascinatingly complex and foreign and I'd grown to really care about the characters who inhabit it. Though the ending was happy, I wanted to know what came next, because there was sure no way this cast was going to stay out of trouble and there was an interesting twist at the end that could easily lead to complications down the road. These are the kinds of impulses that lead to fanfic. So when Ms. Hobb says that fanfic is not only not flattering, but insulting, it seems obvious she doesn't understand why people write it. They write it to keep the story going, not to ride the coattails of the original author into fame and fortune.
Some fanfic writers will, right up front, tell you they are "fixing" a story. One of the writers on a list I subscribe to has the tag, "There is no death; there is fanfic," on her posts. Is this tampering with the author's vision? Yes. Does it change the original story? No. The only person who can do that is the author, her agent, her editors, and their lawyers. And that's called a new edition. Yet Hobb likens fanfic to drawing on the Mona Lisa. "Fan fiction closes up the space that I have engineered into the story, and the reader is told what he must think rather than being allowed to observe the characters and draw his own conclusions," she insists.
Well, no, it doesn't. The original book (movie, TV series, whatever) in its original form continues to exist separate from whatever fanfic it engenders. Fanfic doesn't in any way alter or deligitimize what the author has already written or created. And I have a secret for Ms. Hobb: you can't tell readers/viewers what to think. Once your story is released into the wide world for the consumption by and enjoyment of others, they will bring to it their own ideas of how to pronounce the names, what the characters look like (if it's a book), what's happening off-screen and behind the scenes, and what's making those characters tick. You, as author, have no control over how the reader reads and/or viewer views your work. And if anything "closes up the space" an author has created, it's scholarship, not fanfic, by providing multiple views and interpretations of a story. I don't hear anybody complaining about being the subject of scholarly papers.
Robert Heinlein, in one of his later books, The Number of the Beast, took this idea literally, writing his own sort of ultimate fanfic. His protagonists travel among multiple universes (created from elemental particles of imagination that he calls "fictons") that are home to the characters and worlds of books and shows (Star Trek is mentioned) they had all read and enjoyed: Gulliver's Lilliput, L. Frank Baum's Oz, Doc Smith's Lensmen universe, Edgar Rice Burrough's Barsoom, and hilariously enough, some of his own Lazarus Long novels. Heinlein understood what Ms. Hobb does not: good stories have a life of their own. Her characters and worlds will exist independent of their creator in the minds of her readers, if she's a good enough writer. That people are fond enough of her characters to want their stories to continue proves she is. This is why fanfic is flattering. It's not an indication of a lack of storytelling ability; it's an acknowledgment of a successfully told story.
She then compares fanfic to Photoshopping a family picture, putting the people into "compromising positions in various stages of undress." Bad analogy! No biscuit! Just as you cannot libel the dead, you cannot insult a fictional character. Again, if Ms. Hobb is identifying that closely with her characters, I fear for her.
(Not to mention that I'm beginning to sense a theme here. Throughout Ms. Hobb's self-defined rant, there are mentions of "fetishes," "gender bending" [didn't Battlestar Galactica's new writers just do that with Starbuck?], and "personal masturbation fantasy," all of which make me think that (a) Ms. Hobb is a bit of a prude about the possibility of her characters being forced to have sex by evil fanfic writers and (b) what she really objects to is not just fanfic, but slash. But this is my personal interpretation of her essay, so maybe I'm "closing up the space" too much. Ooops.)
Ms. Hobb next disagrees vehemently that fanfic is a good way for people to learn to be writers. This I have less of a problem with than anything else in her essay because I'm a little ambivalent about it myself. It can be good way to experiment with fiction and learn what it's about, but it isn't always. But not all fans are interested in learning to be writers. For many it's a hobby, like needlepoint. Not all fandoms are interested in nurturing their writers. The one I'm currently writing in happens to be one of those which encourages high-quality writing and has some damn good critics and editors in it—as good as if not better than some of the graduate level writing workshops I've taken. While it's true that much of the work is done for you when you write fanfic (which is why I consider it my leisure writing), there is still plot to consider. And though the character's personalities are already sketched in, they're not set in concrete and can't be, if they're going to grow as they should in any good story. So it's still possible to learn about character development in writing fanfic. In some fandoms, you're not spared the agonies of world-building either, if you're working in something like one of the Star Trek spin-offs or Star Wars, where the characters travel to other cultures and worlds. In many ways, this isn't much different than writing for an on-going TV series as a professional writer, except that there's a regular paycheck involved in one of them. I hardly think it's reasonable to say that TV series writers aren't learning anything about writing while they concoct scripts for characters they didn't necessarily originate with backstories they didn't develop in a story arc they didn't outline.
Besides, everybody has to start somewhere. Most of us learn to write by imitation. We borrow and try on different styles, affectations, tools, rhythms. Everyone's writing is influenced by someone else's. (Spider Robinson, God love him as much as I do, borrows shamelessly from Robert Heinlein all the time—so much so that Heinlein's literary estate hired him to finish one of Heinlein's unfinished novels.) One of the authors I used to imitate when I was a kid was Alexandre Dumas. In the process, I discovered that dialect and historical fiction were hard. But it was a great exercise that helped me find my own voice. Fanfic can function the same way. One of the things I use my fanfic for, because it is far more forgiving than professional fiction, is getting all my tendency to purple prose out of my system before I sit down to write a professional piece. I learned a lot about writing concisely from the mistakes I made in fanfic.
Finally, as a former writing teacher, I would never discourage a would-be writer from writing anything, even fanfic. Write every day, write something, anything, no matter what it is: your journal, your blog, stream of consciousness blather, fanfic, porn, whatever. Just write, because it's all practice. I'm not the only one who thinks this. Neil Gaiman, in one of his own blog posts, responded to a similar question this way:
I think that all writing is useful for honing writing skills. I think you get better as a writer by writing, and whether that means that you're writing a singularly deep and moving novel about the pain or pleasure of modern existence or you're writing Smeagol-Gollum slash you're still putting one damn word after another and learning as a writer.
And it sometimes happens that a fanfic writer will make the leap from semi-pro to pro, as did Vonda McIntyre; or Kathleen O'Malley (who writes sometimes with A.C. Crispin), who I know from personal acquaintance has an alternate life as a Big Name Fan writer. I have another personal acquaintance who has written several professional romances when she's not writing fanfic. So to say that fanfic can't teach one how to write is clearly erroneous. I don't know how Ms. Hobb learned to write, but I'd bet it wasn't without a lot of practice—and imitation.
Finally, we get to the really sticky question: copyright. Before I plunge into this, keep in mind that copyright is a relatively new development in literary history. Prior to the invention of the printing press, most stories were disseminated orally by musicians, bards, wandering troupes of actors, acrobats, and players, the old guy in the village commons, or grandmothers on long winter nights. People knew a lot of the same stories and the characters were interchangeable and often renamed depending on the locale. Most of what we call legends now started as simple local stories, like the Robin Hood tales. There was no real sense of ownership of these stories because no one really knew who started them. Even in Shakespeare's day, there was no such animal as copyright, which is a darn good thing or he'd have clapped in irons multiple times for stealing plots all over the place (as Jen pointed out when she was further baiting me). When it was first formulated, copyright actually belonged to the printer or publisher, not to the author. A collection of sonnets, only some actually written by Shakespeare, were brought out under his name in 1599 and he had no legal method of stopping it. His printer owned the rights to whatever work he could get hold of, even if Shakespeare didn't give it to him.
It's only in the last approximately 300 years, roughly paralleling the development of the novel, that ownership of creative work became a common concept. Prior to the development of print, broadcast, and recording media, there were only stories, and everybody knew and had one, but they belonged specifically to no one. The invention of the printing press changed all this, and the invention of television and radio and movies, all of which allowed a wider dissemination of one version of one story than ever before, further shaped and codified our ideas about intellectual property.
On to Ms. Hobb's copyright objections, which she seems to think are not about money. She tries to pretend that her issue is control of her work, but the only reason control of her work is an issue is her right to be compensated for it. In a capitalist economy where writing is a product, control of a work is about nothing but money, even if it involves, as she says "how the work is presented" (something, by the way, most fiction authors don't have much control over, at least in regard to book design and cover art), because that presentation is part of the marketing. What's the marketing for? To sell books. Why sell books? To make money. She adds that part of the control issue might involve "deciding that you’re not really proud of your first novel and you don’t wish to see it republished," but this isn't even relevant to the fanfic issue. Nobody but a fan straight out of a Stephen King novel (ooops, am I allowed to mention him?) or a lawyer would attempt to force an author to publish something she didn't want published. So let's just call a spade a spade: copyright is all about money.
As a struggling pro writer myself, I'm certainly not against protecting authors' original work, or against them getting due compensation for it. I don't believe other writers should try to tell your character's story without your permission and get paid for it. But stories, in their most basic forms are tropes and archetypes that are given new names and clothes. They are fleshed-out ideas, and you can't copyright an idea (though the laws are becoming so restrictive now that that's probably not far behind). Fanfic is based on the ideas behind the fleshed-out story. It's those well-used archtypes and tropes that make the story memorable in the first place. Nothing prevents the author from taking that fleshed-out idea and negating all the fanfic by writing her own sequel, which then becomes canon. In the constantly expanding world of Extended Universe Star Wars, this happens all the time, with George Lucas's guidance and blessing, and professional authors paid to expand his idea. His fans do it for free and with a little more independence—but also without monetary compensation.
I confessed earlier to the crime of writing fanfic. Have I ever made any money from it? No. No fanwriter does. Having made both professional handmade artist's books and fanfic zines for several years now, I can tell you that zines actually lose money when you factor in the amount of time spent writing the stories, editing them, finding artists, laying them out, printing them, binding them, marketing them, and schlepping them to cons or to the post office. Zines are self-publishing at its hardest and least lucrative. Because they are generally small "print runs," the economics are such that you barely cover your costs, if that. It's a labor of love to produce zines. I charge for my time in making an edition of 25-100 handmade artist's books, and they will sell for several hundred dollars a pop. Approximately the same amount of time, sometimes more, goes into a zine edition of 50-150 that sells for $20 each. Nobody ever got rich off of fanfic. I'll go out on a limb here and claim that nobody has ever even made a living from it, unlike the authors and writers who've spawned it with their own original work. So are fanfic writers parasites, sucking the lifeblood from writers' livelihoods? You do the math.
As for disparaging the polite disclaimers fans regularly add to their work, Ms. Hobb seems to have missed the irony of citing the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Chilling Effects Clearinghouse website while she was wagging her finger at us. "Yes, the author can still sue you, even if you put up those statements. If you don’t believe me, please go to http://www.chillingeffects.org/fanfic/faq and read what is there. They are pointing out to you that fan fiction can infringe copyright." Meanwhile, she's missed their introduction, which states in part, "Anecdotal evidence suggests that some individuals and corporations are using intellectual property and other laws to silence other online users. Chilling Effects encourages respect for intellectual property law, while frowning on its misuse to 'chill' legitimate activity." The fact is, few authors ever sue fanfic writers unless there is money involved. Occasionally, there is a cease-and-desist letter from the lawyers, but rarely a court appearance. The fanfic writer can't afford to fight the colossus of publishing, or the juggernaut of someone like Lucasfilm or the Buffy franchise because they're not making money from the work. The irony is that fanfic is one of the things that helps popularize a writer or developer's work. It's like word of mouth advertising, and cease and desist letters piss fans off. They're bad public relations. And as Jen said, some authors, like Whedon encourage fanfic and even draw ideas from it. Ask him if they get paid for them.
Hobb claims she's encouraging writers to tell their own stories, rather than stifling their creativity, which is, in part, true, at least as far as she encourages them to tell their own stories. The fact she hasn't grasped is that not every, and probably very few, fanfic writers want to be professional writers. For most, this is a hobby. Why else would people labor over stories and then give them away for free on the Net? Face it: professional writing is a lot of hard work, as well as discouraging. Not everyone has the stomach for constant rejection. It's also not very lucrative, unless you're a blockbuster writer like Stephen King, which I suspect Ms. Hobb is not. Those of us who do want to be or are professional writers are fervent disciples of Samuel Johnson, who said, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money." Fanfic writers are innately blockheads, in this sense. Zines are becoming less and less popular, which would surely not be the case if they were fulfilling people's desire to make money from their writing (or the illusion of money, in this case) and be published. The Net does the latter, in spades, with a wider audience than any writer of mere professionally published books will ever reach, with the added bonus of feedback and praise. For free.
So I'm afraid that, contrary to her own claim, she is attempting to stifle people's creativity by denying them a harmless outlet. Fanfic isn't a free speech issue, or a copyright issue. It's about the innate need of people to tell each other stories. When our culture has replaced its own huge variety of stories with one official version owned by one person, that leaves the rest of us very little recourse but to re-appropriate what would have been common property in an earlier day and age and put our own spin on it. In the Information Age, this has become blessedly easy once again. Stories, like information, want to be free. Fortunately, authors can still make money on their versions while the rest of us sit around our electronic hearth and share ours for nothing.
[The background of the icon above was made by a fan on one of my lists, but I haven't been able to determine who, yet. All praise and credit to her unknown self.]