Derivative/Transformative Work(s)

Why Talk About Fan Fiction? (For Those Living Under a Rock; the Rest of You Can Skip Ahead)

Lately fan fiction and the issue of “pulling to publish” has been much discussed in my online circles. The most obvious inciting incident for this discussion is the popularity of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey (which according to an analysis by Dear Author is very similar to her Twilight fan fiction Master of the Universe) and the news that Vintage won a 7-figure bidding war for the Fifty Shades trilogy. More broadly, the discussions are prompted by the increasing commonness of published fan fiction “with the serial numbers filed off” in certain genres. The more I read and talk about these issues, the less certain I am of where I stand on the originality of fan fiction, the ethics and legality of publishing it, and just how to define fan fiction, anyway.

If you don’t read or write fan fiction, and don’t read in genres where P2P fan fiction seems to be appearing, why should you care about any of this? Well, for one thing, discussions of art have always reflected on the tension between art as original and art as imitation. The rise of P2P fan fiction–and the fact that major New York publishing houses engaged in a bidding war over one–along with such phenomena as sampling in music, suggests that we might be seeing the end of the Enlightenment/Romantic privileging of originality in art.

Some Background Reading

  • Dear Author‘s series on fan-fiction, beginning with Sunita’s March 14 post, and the comments on these posts
  • The comments on the 50 Shades/MoTU comparison post
  • University of Utah professor Anne Jamison’s blog on her 2010 Theories of Popular Culture course, which included a unit on Twilight fan fiction
  • Jami Gold’s post on the ethics of publishing fan fiction, and the long comment thread representing various points of view from Twilight and other fandoms

My Experience with Transformative/Derivative Works

This discussion moved onto my home ground when someone posted a link to this list (by bookshop) of critically acclaimed derivative works. According to the somewhat contradictory introduction,

 I am not making the claim that professional published works have the same goals and intentions as fanwork, or that they are exactly synonymous; rather . . . in every single instance below, the action occurring and the story produced are both identical to fans producing fanfic.

My first response to this list was “this is not fan fiction!” A Thousand Acres? Paradise Lost? Wide Sargasso Sea?

I still think that to cast Milton as a “fan” of the Bible is a reductive way to view religious faith and his project in writing Paradise Lost. I also think that there are some key differences between the texts on this list and fan fiction as it is commonly understood, primarily that these works did not come out of an on-line community and that the works they derive from are in the public domain.

But I’ve also learned that such works are more akin to fan fiction than I first thought, because my understanding of fan fiction–and perhaps of “fan”–was overly narrow. For instance, I saw fan fiction as purely homage, while a novel like Wide Sargasso Sea is a critical reinterpretation of Jane Eyre. Anne Jamison’s blog explains that fan fiction can be critical. (Why should this surprise me? I’ve long known that sports fans can have a highly critical, love/hate relationship with beloved teams.)

The list made me realize that I have professional experience relevant to these issues. Some years ago, I taught a first-year Major Themes in Literature class on “Transformations.” The texts we read were about transformations of one kind or another, and paired classic stories with modern “transformations,” re-tellings or re-imaginings. Reading lists included:

  • classic fairy tales (different variants, primarily those recorded by the Grimms and Perrault) and versions by writers including Anne Sexton, Angela Carter, and Tanith Lee, as well as Disney and other films
  • the story of Pygmalion from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Shaw’s play Pygmalion, and the film My Fair Lady
  • Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly (some students also watched film adaptations of one or both)
  • Austen’s Emma and Amy Heckerling’s Clueless
  • Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary

Many of my students have little knowledge of a literary tradition, Western or otherwise. For the most part, first year English is something they’re taking only because it’s required, though there are certainly exceptions. Comparing and contrasting works that are so obviously related created an instant literary-historical context that allowed us to talk about how and why writers would rework and respond to other writers, something all literature does to some extent. I found this produced more thoughtful analyses of the texts from students.

I was struck, then, by Anne Jamison’s comments about teaching fan fiction:

This relationship to other texts was, again, a big part of the teaching value of fan fiction. Literary scholars (and most writers) acknowledge that books always work like this to some extent. Texts (and writers) are always relying on one another, revising one another, interacting with one another on the page and in readers’ minds.

Part of the pedagogical value of Twilight fanfiction is that this relationship is very explicit, very directed. There’s no claim, initially, that any of this “stands on its own”—as there is the illusion with “original” writing (in scare quotes because no fiction is totally original.) What is always there implicitly is in fanfiction, overt, avowed, extensive, and intentional.

She points out, too, that fan fiction writers are thoughtful and attentive readers of canon works, one of the key skills we aim to teach English students. If I were to teach my class again, would I have students read fan fiction? Probably not, because it’s an introductory course, not an advanced theory course like Jamison’s. But I would definitely talk about it.

So, where am I now on all this? Some provisional conclusions:

  • I still think that to call the texts I assigned “fan fiction” is to broaden the definition of that term so much as to make it essentially meaningless and useless. But I see them as on a continuum with fan fiction, not as something radically different.
  • The fact that a work is in the public domain makes me feel (though I’m not sure I could justify this feeling) that there is an ethical, as well as a potential legal, difference in publishing and profiting from derivative works. I guess to me “public domain” has an extra-legal meaning. Many classics that are favorite sources for “fannish” or critical reworkings (Austen’s novels, Sherlock Holmes stories, Frankenstein, Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, for instance) have a life in the cultural consciousness well beyond the covers of the books, thanks to film adaptations and other reworkings, as well as to the more indirect ways that they’ve inspired writers in their genres. They aren’t folk literature, of course, as they have an identifiable creator, but there’s some sense in which they now seem to “belong” to everyone. Moreover, their creators are gone, while Stephenie Meyer or J. K. Rowling could write more books in their popular series. If the writer is no longer around to play in his/her sandbox, it seems more like fair game for others to profit from playing there.
  • What interests me most about derivative works are their differences from the original, the transformative elements. For me, that’s what makes them worth reading and talking about outside of the context of a fan community. I’ve read published derivative works that I found dull, unoriginal, and badly written, and many I’ve found provocative, original works of art that can stand alone even if they’re enriched by a reader’s knowledge of the source material. I am sure that there are examples of both in fan fiction, as well.
  • Hard lines between original/not, good/not, fan fiction/not seem impossible to draw, in part because some of those terms will be defined by each reader  for herself. I think there are some works most people would clearly agree are infringing or unoriginal, and some works most people would clearly agree are not; it’s the dividing line I think we can’t draw, though in some cases, it may end up being drawn in court.
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11 Responses to Derivative/Transformative Work(s)

  1. sonomalass says:

    Like you, I worry that the current discussion of derivative works that labels so much as fan fiction risks “broaden[ing] the definition of that term so much as to make it essentially meaningless and useless.” In my mind, fan fiction is written clearly BY and FOR fans of the original work; as a number of authors have stated in the Dear Author discussion, the success of fan fiction relies on the reader’s knowledge of the original work. I think that the fan fiction phenomenon, of writing works based on a work or series of works and sharing them in a fan community, is unique enough that it should retain its own classification, and tacking that label onto derivative or inspired works that were conceived for separate publication/production just muddies the waters for me.

    I very much feel that the public domain line is an ethical, as well as legal, one. I think that creating derivative works based on things in the public domain embodies the very spirit of the concept of “public domain.” These works belong to us now, not the author or her/his heirs, and so there should be greater freedom to use them as raw material for something different. Not all admirers of a particular public domain work will like the derivations, of course, but then not everyone likes everything. So whether it’s Laurie King’s Mary Russell novels, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, derivatives of works in the public domain become new entertainment that is overtly based on a particular inspiration, rather than (as most new works are) inspired to some degree by other another work or works, without explicit acknowledgment.

    As usual, your thoughtful post has my brain buzzing. Thanks!

    • lizmc2 says:

      There are definitely people who hate any kind of overtly derivative work (e.g. of Conan Doyle or Austen). I’ve read a fair bit of both of those. Some I’ve found wonderful, some I’ve though isn’t really worthy of publication. But I think it should all happen! Engaging with the tradition in that way illuminates our understanding of the original work. I think fanfiction can do that too, but things are more complicated when the original is not in the public domain.

      • lizmc2 says:

        Oh, and I meant to add, the overt acknowledgement of the source is important to me in fiction (maybe because I am an academic, but not only). If you call your novel “Ulysses” you are *inviting* readers to consider its relationship to the source. Deliberately obscuring that, as has happened in a number of cases, seems ethically problematic and suggests there is something to hide.

  2. mezzak says:

    I have to go and get dressed and do stuff but I want to come back to your thoughtful post. Thanks as ever for the opportunity to converse.

  3. mezzak says:

    Isn’t this really post-modernism in action – that we see the structure/connection of things? The line isn’t about good and bad but about what they each add to the original text. For example, reading the ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ does change my reading of ‘Jane Eyre’. As well as standing on its own as a novel, the ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ simultaneously relys on and responds to the problematic issue of Bertha in ‘Jane Eyre’ and the history of the way ‘Jane Eyre’ has been read by critics and the public. The Wide Sargasso Sea is not just derived from the text of ‘Jane Eyre’ but from all these other intangible inputs as well. I think it gets to do this safely not only because of who the author is but because ‘Jane Eyre’ is in the public domain. I think a lot of the tension about fanfic is not just that of copyright/P2P but because it can question and change the reading of original texts/canon.

    • lizmc2 says:

      It’s postmodern in a way, but also pre-modern. For instance, the discussion of how writers have used fanfic to hone their craft reminds me of Pope advising writers/critics to follow Homer in their ideas about what writing should be. The idea of writer as craftsperson rather than isolated genius is an old one. That’s a big part of why I find this so interesting. It’s like a pendulum swinging back after years of being on the “originality” side. At the same time, a glut of work that feels merely derivative, without any new perspective or expression to make it interesting/entertaining, is disappointing to me as a reader (of film or TV viewer or music listener). But that kind of sameness/derivativeness has always been around as part of the business of making art (if something sells once, it will sell again), whatever we say about valuing originality.

  4. Well, let’s go further back in time. Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) is pretty much a take on James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), hugely popular in Scotland, where Stevenson hailed from*, and it still leaves an impact on many Scots including myself. (Justified Sinner is crazy as feck, but I digress.)

    So when readers, scholars or such analyse Jekyll & Hyde, do they take Justified Sinner into account, let alone recognising and acknowledging Jekyll & Hyde as a (possible) derivative work? Is it ethical to try at least?

    (*The Hogg family – Hogg died in 1835 – tried to file a private suit against Stevenson and his publisher under the Copyright Act of 1842 (repealed in 1911), but it was thrown out of the court because while both feature many similarities, — this is where it gets messy as two judges gave different reasons behind their reasoning:
    a) Robert/Gil-Martin and Jekyll/Hyde are based on a real-life Scottish figure (Deacon Brodie), which made it a fair game, and that there’s a gap of 62 years between Jekyll/Hyde and Justified Sinner (the Act covered just 42 years), which also made it a fair game in Stevenson’s favour.
    b) Justified Sinner was published anonymously, even though Hogg’s publishers explained it was part of fiction to lend an air of mystery or ambiguousness to the story itself. Similar to a claim in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code that everything in the story was true.) To this, the judge decided that Justified Sinner is basically a satire while Jekyll/Hyde isn’t, which gave more weight to his first decision so the dismissal held up.
    The Hogg family apparently didn’t have the money to object to the dismissal, so they let it go. Apparently, because of this impolite fight, the public ignored Justified Sinner to the point where it was almost forgotten until the 1890s when some literary bigwigs praised the novel, and again during the 1930s(?) with a small number of well known European novelists including Andre Gide campaigning for the recognition of Justified Sinner’s literary worth, which prompted a few reissued editions of Justified Sinner.
    Er… I think this is more than you’d want to know. Sorry about that. :D)

    • lizmc2 says:

      No, it’s not more than I want to know! I am sure there is scholarly work on this, but the Jekyll and Hyde and Mary Reilly pairing is the one I know least about, because I only taught it once.

  5. Very thoughtful post! And really, there’s still a leap between fic and Ulysses. But Twilight “All Human”/”Alternate Universe” fan fiction is much more transformative than traditional fan fiction–characters human, not vampires, have different lives, settings, etc. There are two publishing houses that were formed for the express purpose of repackaging such popular Twilight fanficiton (Omnific and TWCS). There is much more range in fan writing than people are aware of–but Death Comes to Pemberley” could easily have been published on “” A lot of the writing there is not publishable quality–but some of it is (publishing writers even write it under pseudonyms!) I agree that in many cases, if the source text is copyrighted, it’s “fanfiction”–and that the questions of “how much transformative is enough transformative?” are sure to be contested now that a great deal of money is being made off these transformations.

    • lizmc2 says:

      Starting to read romance and now the recent discussions about fan fiction (which I think is basically where m/m romance has its roots) has really shifted a lot of my knee-jerk thinking about literary value and originality. I’ve appreciated that. I think the conversation has ramifications far beyond P2P or any specific book. And your blog and your students’ work is so interesting! I would have loved a class like that.

  6. Your class curriculum sounds wonderful. I would have loved to have taken a class like that.

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