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.