An Academic’s Defense of Fanfic

Hi!  No, I’m not Brian.  Or Nanci.  Or Shane.

My name’s Emily, and I’m Shane’s other half, among many other things.  Among those many other things, I’m a graduate student close to finishing my Ph.D. in English at a university which has a very open department that is well known for studying popular culture. I’m also a huge nerd, which one would have to be if one is to marry Shane.  I’m also a fan of fanfiction.

Let me preface this discussion with the following: I despise Twilight for many reasons, I’ve not really been keeping up too much with the E.L. James and Fifty Shades of Gray hullabaloo, as I’ve been studying for exams lately, but I’m still plugged in enough to hear about all of the incredible flak that’s been going around and aimed at the fanfiction community, primarily by the mainstream media.  I’m not going to get into the intellectual property issues here—I’m most assuredly not a lawyer.  I don’t even play one on TV.  What I want to talk about is the flak that’s attacking the fanfiction community as a group of deviants who are solely concerned with the erotic possibilities fanfiction offers.

But like so many other things, the mainstream media once again has it all wrong.  They’re only telling one side of the fanfiction story.  It’s time to shatter some of the preconceptions about fanfiction and start dealing in facts.  So, I present to you an academic’s defense of fanfiction in layman’s terms.

The origins of fanfiction go as far back as the origins of the novel.  Depending on which 18th century scholar you ask, the general answer for the first “novel” as we think of it today was either Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe or Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded.

Robinson Crusoe was originally published in 1719, well before any copyright laws were established in England; in fact, publishing anything—fiction or poetry—was seen as somewhat skeevy at the time.  But Robinson Crusoe made a splash when it was published.  It was based on a true story Defoe had read years before, and ran through four editions by the end of 1719, which meant there were a lot of copies of Crusoe running through London—and these were only the authorized editions.

It was almost immediately followed by unauthorized sequels by enterprising individuals attempting to cash in on the phenomenon.  A little like all the vampire stuff that’s come out since Twilight, England was almost seized with a Robinson Crusoe fever, and Defoe had to rapidly put out a sequel to the novel in order to maintain some of the control and profits.  But these unauthorized sequels were, essentially, fanfiction.

Pamela, an incredibly frustrating book for a modern woman to read, was published in 1740—essentially a tale about a young servant girl trying to protect her virtue from her richer, stronger employer, for whom she develops a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome and later marries in defiance of all British class structures of the time.  The outcry over this defiance of social structures almost immediately resulted in the first novel parody—Henry Fielding’s Shamela, and was quickly followed another Fielding novel, Joseph Andrews (ostensibly about Pamela’s brother).  While calling Fielding a fan of Richardson’s work might be going a bit too far, for two of the first big “novels” ever written—a derivative work was almost immediately written and published.

After the 1700s, fanfiction began to disappear somewhat, partly due to the enacting of more restrictive copyright laws.  Certainly, there’s not a lot of study of fanfiction between about 1750 and 1965….kind of.

It really all depends on your definition of fanfiction.  If you’re going to discuss fanfiction as a written story published either on paper or the internet for general consumption, then yes, you have a much more restrictive definition.  I prefer the definition given by the Organization for Transformative Works: “A transformative work takes something extant and turns it into something with a new purpose, sensibility, or mode of expression.

Transformative works include but are not limited to fanfiction, real person fiction, fan vids, and fan art. The OTW is interested in all kinds of transformative works, but our priority will be to support and defend the types of works hosted in our archive, and the fans who create them.”

Modern fanfiction, at least as we know it, began in the 1960s after the original Star Trek series was cancelled by NBC.  Star Trek fanzines took off in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the series began to gather its cult following in syndication, and the term “slash” to indicate fanfiction with a featured homosexual relationship actually comes from these fanzines and Kirk/Spock fanfiction.  Across the pond, Doctor Who fanzines similarly took off, and like their Star Trek counterparts, provided inside information, articles and analysis of stories and episodes, and in some cases, fanfiction.  Admittedly, the Kirk/Spock fanfiction doesn’t really help us face against the flak coming from Fifty Shades of Gray of fanfic being about porn.

But here’s what it does point out: during the late 1960’s and 1970’s, American culture, at least, was in turmoil.  We were in the midst of Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, Free Love, and any other number of cultural phenomenon.  Star Trek, in particular, with the insistence on providing social commentary and Gene Roddenberry’s mission of providing a vision of a better future struck a nerve with people.  And one of those resonating notes was with the LGBT community who were also beginning to emerge from the closet in an insistence for acceptance.  Star Trek provided examples of close male friendships (despite Kirk’s continual philandering and girl in every starport), and those friendships were transformed into K/S fiction in order to make this better future include the LGBT community (which, as of the 2009 Star Trek movie, this better future has still excluded).

And then came the Internet, fanfiction.net, and eventually, the OTW (who, in addition to lobbying for protection for transformative works, also runs Archive of Our Own and publishes an academic journal on transformative works).  Popular Culture studies, as a subfield of English, now includes fan studies.  The Popular Culture Association, which holds a conference every year, has separate panels for fan studies every year, and a quick search for “fan fiction” in the MLA International Bibliography comes up with a lot of results.

So, let’s come back to some of the arguments being leveled against fanfiction and other transformative works.

1. Fanfiction writers are deviants.

Obviously not.  Henry Fielding, one of the most respected novelists of all time, wrote transformative works in the 1700s.  No one hits back at Seth Grahame-Smith for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (well, except for devoted Austen lovers).  No one other than Christopher Tolkien is yelling at Peter Jackson for the Lord of the Rings movie adaptations.

2. Fanfiction isn’t worth anything.

Again, obviously not.  If it wasn’t worth anything, no one would be studying it academically.  But academics do and are studying fanfiction and transformative works because it’s important.  They’ve become a huge part of our society and how we interact with our culture.

Before World War I, art was, well, art.  The things you learn about in Art Appreciation, poetry.  The dime novel was starting to come out, but there was still a line between art and not-art.  And no one questioned people responding to art, either by writing a poem in response to another one, practicing painting by imitating the great masters, etc.  After the advent of television, art and popular culture became almost the same thing.

While there might still be a line between Jersey Shore as not-art and Game of Thrones as art, I’d like to point out something about the similarity between fanfiction and the practice of learning to paint by imitating the great artists, something that Brian and Nanci pointed out in a podcast a few weeks ago: fanfiction is a great way for people to learn to write.  In the No Child Left Behind era where our high schoolers are being forced into the 3.5 essay, fanfiction provides a creative outlet for them to experiment with narrative techniques, plots, and themes that wouldn’t necessarily be welcomed in their English classes.  For those outside of high school, it still provides a creative outlet.

3. Why not just write real fiction?

Well, a lot of fanficcers do.  Does anyone remember when the teacher in your English class would have you freewrite and brainstorm, perhaps to get your writing muscles going?  Fanfiction does the same thing.  Sometimes it’s a way to get creativity flowing.

And sometimes it does something even more important.  Every semester I’ve taught English 101, I’ve gone into my classroom and asked “Who here has been told that they’re a bad writer?”  Every semester, almost every hand in the classroom goes up.

Are these students bad writers?  No.  Many of them are actually quite good when they’re able to put away the rules they learned in high school English and can begin stretching out and taking risks with their writing.  But sometimes it can take the entire semester and the final grade of an A to convince a student that their writing really, honestly, is good.

Fanfiction builds confidence in writing skills, and those writing skills are one of the most valuable skills anyone learns.  And once you have that confidence, you can move on to “real” fiction.

Then there’s the part where fanfiction is downright enjoyable!

4. Fanfiction is stealing an author’s ideas.

Is it?  To a large extent, this depends on the author.  Jim Butcher, author of the Dresden Files, is absolutely okay with fanfic, so long as his fans don’t expect him to read it.  J.K. Rowling has simply asked her fans not to take it into a mature rating.  Ron Moore, who was executive producer of Star Trek: Deep Space 9 and Battlestar Galactica actively encouraged people to interact with and play in his sandbox.

Other authors aren’t okay with it.  Fics based on the works by Terry Goodkind and the late Anne McCaffery are banned on fanfiction.net.  The primary reason seems to have been that a lot of the fic based on their works ended up being erotic.  I might point out that so are the original works.  (And yes, George R.R. Martin, I’m looking at you here too.)

And once again, I don’t see anyone accusing Seth Grahame-Smith of stealing Jane Austen’s ideas, or Alice Randall, author of The Wind Done Gone, of stealing Margaret Mitchell’s ideas.  Publication seems to forgive all copyright sins.  There’s a double standard that’s at work here and which is only really being acknowledged with Fifty Shades of Gray, which might be the first published work based on another work to undergo such scrutiny.

5. Fanfiction is all porn.

First, I would like to demonstrate to you the massive number of fics on fanfiction.net whose ratings are between K and T+.

Second, this argument isn’t about erotica in general.  It’s about “mommy porn.”  First of all, that term is so misogynistic and so wrong that to go into it would make this post even longer than it already is.  This argument is about whether or not women have a right to read erotica other than Harlequin novels—and to read it without embarrassment.  It’s symptomatic of a larger problem that’s been plaguing Anglo-American society since Samuel Richardson published Pamela in 1740—that of whether women are allowed to be/should be/can be/are sexual.  No one seems to be arguing about regular porn and the male consumer.

One popular romance novelist, Eloisa James, writes Regency era romances.  She’s also a professor of English at a respected university, and it was only after she became a New York Times bestselling author that she felt comfortable “outing” herself to the rest of the faculty at her university.  The fact that she felt like she had to hide her work and be ashamed of it in an English department, which can sometimes be the most progressive department on a university campus, is very telling about the attitudes we still have toward female sexuality.

Third, this also puts fanfiction in the realm of “deviant women.”  Well, as we’ve already discussed, fanfiction is not deviant.  It’s a natural extension of art and a way to learn a craft.  And fanfiction, in general, is not solely read by women.  There are plenty of men out in the fanfiction universe.

Fourth, I’d really like to figure out who first came up with the term “mommy porn” and hit them over the head with my Kindle.

***

I still don’t know what to make of Fifty Shades of Gray, given the interesting circumstances around its development.  But I know one thing as an academic—transformative works are how the current generation is interacting with the art and literature of our time, and it’s time to stop the criticism.  This generation is interacting with the art and literature of our time.  How can that be a bad thing?

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4 thoughts on “An Academic’s Defense of Fanfic

  1. I applause your defense of creative and, as a student of Japanese history and culture, would like to add to it. While the European novel can be traced back to the 18th century, the novel itself, and fan fiction as well, can be traced back even further to early 11th century Japan. Murasaki Shikibu's "The Tale of Genji" is one of, if not the, oldest novel and is also considered the first piece of great literature (you might even be able to go so far as to call this first literary masterpiece real-life "fan fiction," as many of the characters were based on real people that the readers would have known). Chapters of it were distributed throughout the Kyoto court through hand-written copies. Many scholars speculate that the final ten chapters, which take place after the titular Genji's death and follow decedents of former main characters, were added by a completely different author due to continuity errors and dramatic differences in style. Even if this is not the case, it is certainly true that it inspired a legion of highly derivative works throughout the Japanese court for centuries. A lot of these could comfortably be called fan fiction.

    And many of the authors, including Murasaki Shikibu herself? Women. Just thought I'd throw that out there.

  2. Thank you so much for your comment, Ryorin! I'm not as familiar as I should be with world literature, so I really appreciate you bringing this to my attention. Yet more proof that fanfic is something not to be ashamed of.

    • Absolutely! And the fact that fanfic arose independent in two very different parts of the world during two very different times periods probably says something about it being a natural response to stories one enjoys, as well.

  3. I just read your article and I must say it's very refreshing to read about fanfiction from someone who gets it. 🙂 (Unlike the articles I've read from journalists who have heard about fanfiction and try to write what it is, but just fail).

    There is also the literature of the Middle Sea area. They wrote/told many stories, which were often changed by new storytellers. You could call that spoken novels. And there's speculation that both the greek and roman women wrote and shared little stories with each other, in particular romantik and erotic stories. So maybe novels and fanfiction can be traced back to ancient times. (I will admit to not knowing much about the subject, and of course, there's the problem with most of the things from those times being lost which makes it hard to study this).

    I agree with the points you make above, and will always hold that fanfiction is a great way to practice writing.
    Besides in my opinion if you write fanfiction you don't steal another authors ideas; you just borrow their universe/characters and make up your own stories aka use your own ideas. 🙂

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