thorny thoughts

There’s a lengthy entry up by one cupidsbow discussing fanfic in the context of Joanna Russ’ How to Supress Women’s Writing. I spent a good fifteen minutes attempting to write a comment in response to somebody over there, but I’ve decided I’m better off doing so over here; the thought I’m trying to articulate is thorny and awkward, and I’m having trouble figuring out how to phrase it, and if I try to do so over there, odds are I’ll just piss multiple people off and find myself at the bottom of a verbal dogpile I didn’t mean to start. So I’ll chew on my thought over here, and see what I can get out of it. Warning; what follows is rambling and unfocused, and not entirely thought-out.

The proximate comment that set me off is: And, of course, if you’re a really good fanfiction writer, you’re encouraged to write original fic – and this is seen as a step up, despite the fact that a lot of fanfiction written by experienced writers is better than published writing. But it also is colliding somewhere in the back of my head with: But what I’m wondering is if I’ve been encultured to think that my fun isn’t worth being paid for. See, men write stuff they want to read and get paid for it. Why is my work less valuable?

buymeaclue has already made the obvious response to that latter one, so I don’t need to. Instead, let’s start chewing on the thoughts in my head.

I’ve seen several comments recently in various places on the topic of encouraging fanfic writers to turn their hands to original fiction. All of those comments (which are by fanficcers) have been negative. And I’m increasingly feeling like there’s a hostile backlash happening within the fanfic community against this very suggestion.

I can understand where that would come from: if you run into people who think the worst of paid original fiction is inherently superior to the best of unpaid derivative fanfiction (I’m using “derivative” in the technical sense, not as a value judgment), then yeah, you’re going to be pissed off by the continual suggestions that you’d be much better off spending your time and effort on something worthwhile.

But for the love of little fishes, people — not everybody encouraging you to write non-derivative fiction is doing so because they think fanfic sucks. In fact, sometimes they’re noticing that it doesn’t suck, and encouraging you to bring the cool things that are happening over in that sandbox into this one. Because, as cupidsbow notes in that post, there are a lot of ways in which the institutional factors of fanfic contribute to its marginalization and suppression (and with it, the marginalization and suppression of those largely female voices) — so I think it’s helpful to bring some of the innovation of the marginalized community into the non-marginalized one. It’ll liven up the textual discussion over here, and draw eyes toward what’s going on over there, instead of leaving it in a ghetto the rest of the world tries to ignore.

There’s thornier stuff still in my head, though. Like the ways in which some of the fanfic community seems to want to do backflips in order to avoid noticing the fact that what they’re doing is illegal. We can have arguments about the problems with our copyright laws until the cows come home — I’d be the first to point out some of those problems — and yes, some authors give it a tacit or implicit thumbs-up anyway, and yes, there are fanfic writers out there whose craft kicks the stuffing out of some professional writers, and yes, there’s awesome stuff happening on a community level, but the point is, creating derivative works based on a text currently under copyright is illegal. Please don’t jump down the throat of anybody who brings that up. It’s relevant to the social position of fanfiction: yes, part of the reason it’s ignored is that it’s mostly written by women; it’s non-hetero-normative; it focuses on issues devalued by the (masculine) establishment; etc etc; but the reason you can’t get paid for it is that the law says you can’t. Which is another reason for encouraging fanficcers to try original fiction: what happens when we push the boundaries of the status quo with similar work that isn’t illegal? Then the legitimate reason to disregard it is gone; then we have to face up to the illegitimate reasons.

The tendency of the fanfic community (in a deliberately generalized sense) to valorize their own activity is entirely expected, and in some cases important. Where I get irritated is when it goes too far. Frex, when people act as if all fanfic is wonderful — face it, folks, it’s got its share of crap, just like everything does, but fanfic probably has a higher proportion of crap for the simple reason that there aren’t any barriers to entry; familiarity with a spell-checker is not a prerequisite for posting your work. You don’t need to pretend the bad stuff doesn’t exist, though.

I think I’ll leave it there, not because I’ve arrived at any conclusion, but because my thoughts have ceased to have anything resembling forward momentum, and rambling on even more aimlessly won’t suit anybody’s purpose. Now let’s see how many people I’ve managed to offend . . . .

0 Responses to “thorny thoughts”

  1. mrissa

    And not only does the law say you can’t, but:

    1) that law predates fanfic as we know it — it was not made because those fanficcers are all girls. In fact, I would be shocked if the people who made that law thought about women being a large group of those violating it at all. My guess from the context of their time is that they were largely focused on other men.

    and 2) it’s not a law that’s a particularly feminist object of civil disobedience. Copyright is a strange and twisted land, and trying to fight it as sexism and only sexism is going to leave you in bed with all sorts of people whose purposes are pretty orthogonal to your own. (Not you-specific, you-general.)

    • Marie Brennan

      I don’t think it’s necessary to argue that IP law is designed to suppress female voices in order to argue that it has that effect, and I think the latter is more what was aiming at. I mean, the folks who wrote that law never even conceived of fanfic and its community as they exist now.

      I also don’t know that (she? I assume she) was advocating fanfic as a form of civil disobedience. I guess I was left with a slightly confused feeling at the end, though, as to what she was advocating, if anything. Was she just there to point out the way in which Russ’ points apply to fanfic? Or to say something more? I think it’s the niggling feeling of “something more,” whether from her post or the comments, that made me start feeling thorny.

      • mrissa

        Well, no, it doesn’t have to be sexist in cause to be sexist in effect, but I felt that the person who replied to Hannah was behaving as though it was A Sexist Law, when…eh. I’m not sure that’s the case. Disproportionately affecting one sex does not make a law sexist — especially when those effects have shifted over time.

        I guess I’m mostly having trouble with fanfic as Female Voices instead of some female voices. Some female voices want to be able to make money from fanfic, some female voices think that making money from fanfic is counter to its community purpose, some female voices (like ‘s!) want other “voices” to stay the hell off their characters because it has a dampening effect on their own work with their creations…I don’t see a cogent argument for why fanfic should be a privileged female voice among other female voices, absent other, most likely non-gender-based argument.

        Here’s what I want to know: if someone feels that copyright law is having sexist effects through limiting fanfic, which is currently a female-dominated area, what do they want done about it? And by what means? If one is thoroughly convinced that Women’s Voices Are Being Unjustly Silenced, I don’t think, “So…uh…there it is, then,” is an adequate response. But I think “unjustly” is part of what needs demonstrating here, that isn’t demonstrated very well, necessarily. I think that if a female writer was to attempt to pass another female writer’s work off as her own, we would not support that even if she could claim that the other writer had authentically represented her own thoughts and feelings and therefore her voice. On the other hand, I think we clearly do want directly derivative works such as Geraldine Brooks’s March to be able to prosper (even though I was disappointed in it). So clearly there is a lot of ground between those two things — and some of fanfic falls to the far original side of Brooks on it. (And when they do, I wonder how much the dampening effects exist.)

        The effects of US drug laws are disproportionate, too: many more males are jailed for drug violations than females. And I have problems with US drug policy as I do with the current state of IP law. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the gender-based approach is the best way to figure out what’s wrong with drug law and where it needs changing, and I feel the same about copyright.

        • kurayami_hime

          Forgive me if I’m stating things everyone already knows.

          The people who made the law in the first instance are the Founding Fathers: Copyrights and Patents are in the Constitution. The current version is written by businesses for businesses, the consuming public be damned (er, there’s probably a less biased way to say that…).

          US Copyright law is also beholden to comply with aspects of the Berne Convention (first instance of which was created in 1886). I’ve not made a study of its provisions, but I know that it does not jive with our law particularly well (which is why it took us about 100 years or so to join). So it’s not necessarily just the US law holding back the female voice in literature.

          Yes, there are problems with the current copyright law, but a gender-based argument isn’t going to get people anywhere. The government isn’t discriminating, the current state of the industry is (or so it seems to me). It’ll be a hell of a lot easier to change the industry than it will be to change the law in order to get more women authors out there.

          And there ends my two cents. Anymore and I’d be tempted to digress on to why copyright should be perpetual and Mickey Mouse really needn’t ever enter the public domain, and, no this really is a good thing for the public at large, but I won’t as it isn’t apropos to the main conversation here.

          • Marie Brennan

            You can join in on the day that I decide to type up my Epic IP Rant. <g> However, that maybe a few days after hell freezes over, as the very thought makes me feel tired.

            If you read ‘s post, I don’t think she’s making a gender-based argument against copyright law; I think she’s making a gender-based argument about fanfiction, and if anything she’s failing to account sufficiently for copyright law in the process.

          • kurayami_hime

            There are an awful lot of . . . words on the other side of that link.

            Perhaps I shall attempt it later, but I doubt it. I have trouble reading posts that touch on intellectual property because they fundamentally hurt my head (eg: somewhere in the comments accusations of Disney plundering the public domain and trademarking it). Just . . . gyah. It’s like working in retail again, if that makes any sense.

          • Marie Brennan

            “Do you guys sell any calendars?”

          • kurayami_hime


            In response to your comment below, I too like gatekeepers. They give you bread and beer!

          • Marie Brennan

            Or bread and water, as the case may be.

            Also access to the best grass to lie on anywhere in the world.

  2. sartorias

    Well said. I agree on each point.

    I do feel that literature is flexing its muscles and changing yet again, as it has every single time there is a sizable technological jump that alters how lit is delivered in such a way that many can access it.

    There is so much to think about, on just about every level: yes, we’d love to get paid for our work, and be able to quit the dayslog. yes, women have lower bars, traditionally, and so many women would never have invented a money gate for access to fanfic, whereas men would have soon found a way (and found a CEO who was controlling everything–and makin the most money).

    Yes, types of stories…women’s emotions, views of sexuality, treatment of characters, writing about men but in a way that interests women, there are subjects for really good discussions, even studies, in them all.

    • Marie Brennan

      There’s an entire cadre of people — of women, really; off the top of my head I haven’t seen any men among them — at ICFA who study fanfic. I’ve only caught a few of their papers, though, and so I’m only aware of the broad patterns. Which means I’m skeptical of the more grandiose claims I see for fanfiction; I don’t disbelieve the possibility that people are doing awesome new innovative narrative things in fanfic, but I’d like to be pointed at examples of what they are.

      The problem is, fanfic is kind of inherently insular; its conversation is with people who know the source text, for the most part. So a really phenomenal Lost fanfic would be, well, lost on me (no pun intended; I swear I chose that title before deciding what the rest of my sentence would be).

      • sartorias

        I don’t read enough fic (it has to be read on line, and also since I don’t watch TV all that fic is beyond my scope) but it seems to me that the idea of fanfic, the hypertextual nature of it, the interactions between author, reader, and text, etc are all innovative. But wow, I’m reaching here, it’s only an instinct, I have zippo data to back that up.

        What I think of it as, though, as “women controlling fiction.” For ever so long, even when women were successful, men controlled the ventues, and of course made the bigger amounts of money. I’m hoping women will take it the next step–probably won’t be women my age, but these younger ones without the context of “You cannot possibly do it, you are too [insert negative here]” that most of us heard growing up.

  3. chibicharibdys

    Thank you. Every time I read an essay on the literary merits (or not) or fanfiction those are the only things I can think of, especially the illegal aspect, and it’s very frustrating to see people skirt the issue time and time again.

    • Marie Brennan

      I don’t have a problem with acknowledging the literary merits; it’s the ignoring of everything else in favor of valorizing that which is good that rubs me the wrong way. And like I said, I can see why it happens — it’s a natural reaction to being marginalized and spat upon — but that doesn’t make it right.

  4. moonandserpent

    Many, many good points here, but there’s just one thing that really caught my attention:

    “And I’m increasingly feeling like there’s a hostile backlash happening within the fanfic community against this very suggestion.”

    There’s a VERY hostile backlash happening, and here’s why.
    While a lot of people in fic communities have seethingly inflated egos and really don’t understand why the world does not beat down their door in order to pay them for their illegal work — in my experience, the bulk of people who get pissed off at the “but you could write something original” suggestion do so because the suggestion can be… well… kind of insulting.

    But why is it insulting to suggest that some of these really talented writers could change their topics and make some leagal green off of mainstream writing? Simple, because to do so misses several of the points of fanfic.

    By and large fanfic is really not about the craft of writing in the way that professional writing is. Fanfic is about interacting with the fandom. It’s a way of creating community and exploring and interacting with a text in a number of ways. But, very often it isn’t about “being a writer”. Professional writing and writing fanfic while there is a degree of overlap, are two different things with different aims and goals.

    Many of the ficcers I know/knew didn’t have aspirations to write professionally… publication, payment, all that stuff had no part of what brought them to fanfic. Community, peer respect and the ability to play around inside these worlds in their heads. Fanfic has far more to do with something like LARPing then it does to professional publishing.

    So while there’s often a compliment there in the “you could go pro” statement, there’s also a bit of confusion as to what the ficcer is doing in the first place.

    It’s kind of like going up to a hot guy in a gay bar and asking him why he hasn’t tried le vaginia fantastique.

    • Marie Brennan

      Somewhere in that post, I think, or its comments, somebody makes a comparison to RPGs, which I think is an interesting connection — full of points of similarity as well as points of difference.

      You’re right that a lot of people are in it for the community (or that’s my impression, looking at it more or less from the outside). At the same time, though, when you find somebody trumpeting the craft of fanfiction writing, it’s natural to suggest to them they try the craft of original fiction.

      Maybe there should be some system of flagging who’s a “community ficcer” and who isn’t? Some kind of electronic handkerchief-code that would let people know who’s in it for the social aspect and who’s in it for the craft. Then we could proposition the right people, and stay off the toes of those who don’t have the slightest interest in leaving their community.

      • moonandserpent

        Re: ficcy hanky code.

        Lol. You may be on to someone there. But, to once again invoke gaming: that would be as tricky as trying to pin down the gamers who are interested in the craft of LARPing in order to proposition them for theater.

        • Marie Brennan

          But in my experience, LARPers are less touchy about someone saying, “have you thought about trying out for a play?”

          • kitsunealyc

            But I do get really annoyed when my parents ask me why I spend all this time thinking up ideas for a LARP or a table-top, rather than writing them as stories I can sell.

          • ancientwisdom

            RE: LARPers are less touchy about someone saying, “have you thought about trying out for a play?”

            Yes, but I’d be annoyed if someone asked me (as a LARPer) “why aren’t you doing REAL theatre?” And that’s the appropriate equivalent parallel question. Asking someone “have you thought about trying out for a play” tends towards a compliment on his or her performance abilities. Asking “why aren’t you doing REAL theatre” is an insult to the entire premise of a LARP (an insult masking itself as a compliment), because it communicates that the person asking has deep presuppositions about what is “legitimate” and “valuable” that preclude “LARPing” from ever, ever, EVER even being considered in those categories.

            Ditto for fanfiction.

            Yes, fanfiction is illegal (and thus technically “illegitimate” in the eyes of the law — but we’re not talking about the law, we’re talking about the way people experience the value of their own experience). Yes, fanfiction is a paraliterary activity. But as moonandserpent points out, the point isn’t about the fanfiction writer — it’s about the assumptions about “value” that are held by the person asking “why don’t you write original fiction?” And those assumptions can be based in (at best) a deep misunderstanding about how fan fic writers value their own practice and experience, and (at worst) unquestioned prejudices about “originality” and “authenticity” based on class, gender, and economic elitisms (among others!)

            Interesting chat — thanks for bringing it over to LJ! =)

          • Marie Brennan

            That’s only true if the question is phrased, “why aren’t you writing REAL fiction?” or if you assume that’s the true subtext of the question, “have you thought about writing original fiction?” I feel like I’m increasingly running into a hostile reaction that does assume such a subtext. And when that happens, it closes off a possibility of dialogue between the two: I’m supposed to stay in my sandbox and leave them in theirs, or maybe go play in theirs, but never encourage them to come play in mine. Which results in a one-way traffic between the two worlds, if there’s traffic at all.

            I’m sure many people out there are that condescending. But it’s frustrating for those of us who want to express honest interest without getting jumped on.

          • ancientwisdom

            Hmm… I do get where you’re coming from. I guess the thought for me runs like this: Imagine that you encounter someone who didn’t like to read fantasy novels (they though fantasy was generally crap), but they liked the quasi-magical realism of TV shows like Lost. They then read your book, and to their surprise, they discover they enjoy your writing, and they say to you:

            “Wow! You’re such a surprisingly good writer for someone who works in fantasy! You seem to have a lot of serious potential — why don’t you try your hand at writing ‘Lost’ fan-fiction, where your talent could really shine?”

            How would you respond?

            That’s obviously a silly example, but perhaps, to imagine a more realistic context and reverse the hierarchy, how would you feel if someone said to you:

            “Wow, your writing is quite thematically rich for someone who writes in, you know, fantasy — especially mass market fantasy. You’re at the top end of a field that basically filled with crap. With all your potential, why don’t you write fiction? I mean real fiction, the stuff on the “fiction” shelf at Borders — you’d make a lot more money, and you could win an award that actually matters. I mean, why shoot for a fantasy-writing award when someone with your background (and a Harvard education) could probably win a Pulitzer, if you put your mind to it!”

            How would you respond then?

            What if it wasn’t just one person asking, but a LOT of people? Most people? Would you become hostile if most people you spoke to who saw “potential” in your work also automatically assumed that you were “wasting” that potential by working in fantasy? And what if those people were pretty universally NOT trying to condescend to you — they just honestly assumed that if you have skill, you’d want to shoot for the Pulitzer, and were honestly interested in your work, despite the whole fantasy thing (which they didn’t really understand because their only exposure to fantasy EVER was the Dungeons and Dragons movie?)

          • Marie Brennan

            Oh, trust me, I’ve already translated the situation into that scenario in my mind for comparative purposes; I’m well familiar with that kind of prejudice. What I’m trying to get at is, can we please have some way to conduct a dialogue without an assumption of bad faith being involved?

            And I think the reason I want this dialogue is, there are barriers to entry in professional fiction that don’t exist in fanfic. Printing out a manuscript with a cover letter and mailing it off to an authority figure is a lot more intimidating to many people than posting something on a fanfic archive is, and once you’ve sent off that story, odds are good that you’ll get a rejection, and will continue getting rejections for a while. This can scare people off from even trying. Mentoring is a critical resource for a lot of newbie writers in the pro-fic world, that gives them the encouragement they need to give it a shot, and keep giving it a shot until they succeed. People in the fanfic world already have a proven interest in writing (if not always for the same reasons), so it stands to reason that there are probably people over there who might be interested in original fiction, if someone were to encourage them or give them advice. And we on this side of the fence want to find those people, because “pay it forward” is perhaps one of the most universal parts of the writerly ethos, if such a thing can be said to exist. See a promising writer? Help them, if you can.

            So it hurts a little when we hold out a helping hand, and it gets slapped in response. And when the slapping becomes a pattern rather than an occasional thing, it starts making people think that maybe they shouldn’t bother trying.

            And no doubt there are people who would read what I’ve just said and see it as more condescension, more assumption on my part that they need help or want help or have any interest in the thing the help is being offered for. That reaction is exactly what bothers me. I want to be able to seek out people who might want what I have to offer, without having to run a gauntlet of people who assume I’m automatically an elitist bitch.

          • ancientwisdom

            [Chuckles] I get you, and I totally *don’t* think you’re an elitist bitch, just for the record. =) I completely see the “pay it forward” thing.

            It’s humorous to me, though, because I can also imagine how “pay it forward” can look like a condescending literary equivalent of “white man’s burden” from the fan fic writer’s perspective. (The successful writer, reaching out into the darkness to offer the light of publication to the poor savage, scribbling genius with her own poop! Cue music! Can you blame the fan writer for giving the successful writer the bird?)

            I like what you’re saying about trying to find a mode of dialogue that doesn’t get caught up in this mutual misunderstanding. Seems like an admirable problem to tackle.

            One that has uncanny resonance in lots of contexts, come to think of it. My mind spins off into the different (almost universally unsuccessful) ways that America has attempted to “offer” help building democracies in the middle east (“Here, let me help you! Your civilization has such potential!”)

            Obviously a WAY different context, but I see a similar core problem — how do you “offer” something without inadvertently communicating a basic disapproval or critique of how someone is living their life? How do you offer someone a hand without the possible insult of communicating that YOU think they need a hand? A really excellent question there.

          • Anonymous

            Why would you even want fanfic writers to become pro writers? Heaven knows, there’s no shortage of pro writers — somebody linked to a blog of hollylisle’s explaining how the pro publishing system is effectively designed to kill a midlist pro writer’s career in three books, and it’s not a problem for the publishers or bookstores because there are always plenty more where they came from. I don’t have any way of doing a statistical analysis to prove or disprove her argument, but I have three personal acquaintances who have gotten books published. They each managed to sell three, and that was it. Fortunately, none of them had quit their day jobs. It seems like the endless supply of aspiring pro writers would just drive down pay rates and “job security” for the current pro writers — why on Earth would you want people who are happy with their own little illegal playground of fanfic to try to make the transition?

            And it may be true that 99% of fanfic is pure crap, but so is at least 80% of the stuff that makes it onto the shelves. At least we’re not killing as many trees.

    • kitsunealyc

      I’m glad you’ve brought this up so that I can give a Squid-style supporting argument of “Yeah!”, rather than tackling it myself.

      That being said, here I go tackling it myself.

      Inherent in the question “Why don’t you write original fiction” are a lot of assumptions about why people write fanfic and what it is they’re trying to do. Especially at the writing craft levels where this starts to be an issue (that is, not your average tweeny squee-tastic TomFelton/LeatherPants!Draco/Harry-Sue fic), you’ve got authors who have thought a lot about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. These reasons are varied, and there are some authors who are interested in honing their craft and writing original fic as well (Heck, Cassandra Claire has an original novel out, and she’s notorious for plagiarizing source material in her fanfic).

      Community-participation aside, there are a lot of other authors who are using the practice of writing fanfic to deliberately write against the canon texts, queering or buggering them. These are readings that depend upon the canon texts in order for the fic author’s critique to have the intended impact. I’d argue that this kind of critical play should be viewed with the same legitimacy and legality as close academic readings. It isn’t illegal for me to post a critical academic reading of a text on a website or LJ. Why should it be illegal if the form that critical reading takes is a Snape/Sirius m-preg slashfic?

      But the expectation that fanfic authors’ intent or desire is to eventually write original works for $$$$ is both condescending and elitest. Of course there’s going to be a (rather vehement) backlash when inherent in the question is the obvious indication that the questioners not only don’t get “it” or respect it, but that they have very deeply held elitest assumptions about which activities are more legitimate and more valuable. Most fic authors (and readers) are already struggling with concerns over the legitimacy of their hobby. A question like that is bound to get their backs up and make them defensive

      Heh…only look at my language to see the proof. I should really change all those they’s and their’s to we’s and our’s.

      My final observation is that while the legitimacy of the backlash seems to be under question (why are people getting so offended?), the legitimacy of the question does not (it doesn’t seem like anyone’s asking why such a question would be asked in the first place or what the stakes and assumptions of such a question are).

  5. timprov

    I think you almost got to how I feel as one of the people who really wants as many fanfic writers who are willing to write original fiction (although I try to be circumspect about how and where I say it). The point is simple: I really like original fiction. There isn’t enough of it that’s any good, and the more people writing it, the more good stuff there will be. I don’t think that requires worrying about gender, or what communities are marginalized, or any of that. I don’t look down on fanfic writers; I’m trying to recruit them.

    Also, fanfic seems to have some quality (probably having to do with fun) that appeals to people who aren’t already fiction writers. And that’s something original short fiction desperately needs.

    I think fanfic has the potential to be really really good for us, or really really bad for us. And right now I see the balance of trade swinging heavily in their direction, and it makes me scared about what we’re going to end up with, and it makes me think we need to set up an environment where writers can make the transition to original fiction as easily as some are making the transition away from it. Mostly what I end up doing about it is kicking bigoted origfic people in the shins, which probably isn’t all that helpful.

    • Marie Brennan

      I think the sense of fun, the lack of barriers to entry, and the easy-access egoboo are all things that attract new writers to fanfic, and insofar as it makes them less afraid of the act of putting words on the page and then putting the page where other people can see it, that’s fabulous. It could be a great on-ramp to original fic for those who want it, if only we can avoid giving offense by suggesting it.

      I also think, though, that fanfic can derail people whose starting ambition was original fiction. There’s not a lot of egoboo when you first try pro writing; there’s a lot of form letters, instead. So who would want to suffer anonymity and rejection when they could have rave reviews online? I think the payoff of original fic is worth it, but one kind of does have to suffer on the way to it.

      • timprov

        I think the payoff of original fic is worth it, but one kind of does have to suffer on the way to it.

        One of the interesting questions that might be answered as this all shakes out is whether that’s fundamental, or just an artifact of the current system.

        • Marie Brennan

          I think it’s an artifact of any system that involves gatekeepers, and personlly? I like gatekeepers. Yeah, they’re flawed, but for every masterpiece they reject, they also filter out literally dozens of things I don’t want to have to wade through on the bookshelves. Also, I feel like most of those masterpieces will eventually find a path through. Obviously we’ll never know about the ones that didn’t, but still. I’m in favor of having somebody (or rather, lots of somebodies) in charge of quality control, and as long as that’s true, there will be a bar people fail to hurdle on their first try.

          • moonandserpent

            “Yeah, they’re flawed, but for every masterpiece they reject, they also filter out literally dozens of things I don’t want to have to wade through on the bookshelves.”

            See, I’m always left with the sneak suspicion that along with the dross (because I’ll admit that slushpiles are often filled with crraaaaaapppppp) they’re throwing away the things that I want to read.

            Because, let me tell you, it obviously doesn’t get to the shelves very often. While Gatekeepers DO police quality, they also police marketability…. which tends to lead to a lot of repetitiveness and blandness in the market.

            That and one hears stories about gatekeepers on writing boards and in various sources that are filled with fevered egos, drama queens and rampant unprofessionalisim… which are not things I associate with fields I want to be involved in.

          • Marie Brennan

            I think the tendency of writers to bitch and moan about stuff (just like people in any field bitch and moan about stuff) has skewed your perception of what the pro field is like. Yeah, there’s stupidity . . . but I don’t think it’s necessarily a higher proportion of stupidity than you find anywhere else. A different flavor, maybe. And you’re certainly welcome to choose the flavor you wish to deal with.

            As for your other point, if you look at top-tier places — which are, in other words, the most mainstream places — then yes, they’re probably throwing away the stuff you want to read. I do think there are places that run more to your taste, though; it’s a matter of finding them (and then hoping they don’t die from their niche-hood, which is a problem throughout the genre, really).

          • moonandserpent

            I hope you’re right about comfic fields being more professional than they’re perceived. Because to be honest, from my end, it looks like a lot of comfic writers have gotten used to the taste of shit because all that’s on the menu are shit sandwiches, shit salads, shit sundaes, and shit shakes. Actually, let me specify that I’m talking more about the periodical market and not so much the novel market. Keeping in mind that I’ve never tried to be published in the fiction periodicals field.

            (Well, okay, I submitted to Aboriginal SciFi when I was 16… but that was when I was still writing either Burroughs pastiches or golden age scifi.)

            And the difficulty of finding the niche stuff is by and large why I don’t really read much fiction these days. The last specfic book I read was Hal Duncan’s (fantastic) Vellum, I think.

          • Marie Brennan

            We should talk at some point, and you tell me what you perceive is going on that puts you off so badly.

      • therck

        What do you consider to be the payoff of original fiction? I’m genuinely curious.

        Also, I suspect that some of the hostile reaction by fan fic writers to being asked about writing original fiction comes from wording. In my experience, part of what’s offensive is if the wording implies (even if it’s not what the speaker intended) that fan fiction should be left behind entirely. Phrasing it more as an additional possibility comes across a lot better.

        • Marie Brennan

          For your latter point, see my new post.

          For your question . . . erf. That question isn’t easily answered, because in a lot of ways it’s the fraternal twin of the question, “so why do you write, anyway?” I get paid, but not a lot in the grand scheme of things, and it’s a long slog on the way to the paycheck. I get to see my work in print, hold it physically in my hands, but I’m also happy to get published in online magazines, where the presentation often isn’t much different from a fanfic archive. I get to reach an audience, but some fanfic sites would probably put me before a larger group of readers than some of the magazines I’ve been in.

          I get to create. I don’t know if I can expound on this one in any way that isn’t going to start sounding semi-mystical. I’m not queering somebody else’s text; I’m making my own. I’m not working with existing characters; I’m feeling them take shape and come to life in my own head. I . . . I don’t know how to say “I’m making something new” in a way that won’t sound like I’m assuming fanfic never makes anything new, either, but in my mind they’re different kinds of newness. And certainly it’s true that original fiction, in its own way, grows out of things we writers read, but the relationship to those other texts is different. Instead of slashing The Wheel of Time or writing my own end to it, I want to write a trilogy that will critique the thematic assumptions of that brand of epic fantasy from the ground up, in a world and with characters created with that end in mind.

          I could also say the presence of the challenges between me and professional publication adds savor to the victory when I sell something. If it were as easy as posting the story, I wouldn’t feel like I had accomplished as much. But when an editor whose taste I respect finds my work worth buying . . . .

          I suppose I feel like your question can only be answered properly by comparison to fanfic, and then you run into the problem that professional writers do what they do for a bunch of different reasons, and so do fanfic writers, so anything I say a) might not apply to all people in my camp and b) might contrast with only to a subset of people in the other camp. To the people who write fanfic because of a desire to engage with the worlds and characters somebody else made, I would say, I don’t want to play with somebody else’s toys. I want to make my own.

          (And maybe someday somebody will start fanficcing my own material, and won’t that feel odd.)

          So any answer I might give feels incomplete. It’s a whole mess of answers, some of which I can’t even articulate well for myself, let alone in a way that would be comprehensible to anybody else. <waves hand vaguely in the direction of thin air> The payoff is, y’know, that stuff over there.

          • kyuuketsukirui

            I think that’s the thing, though, is that “the payoff” isn’t that simple and isn’t necessarily something that will seem like a payoff to everyone.

            For example, sell some stories if I can find places that pay more than a pittance because it’s one way of bringing in extra money. And of course it’s cool to be able to say I’m published, but…to me that’s really not that big of an incentive, so most of my time is spent on fanfic, because fanfic offers me something profic can’t, which is a chance to interact with my audience and to know I’m being heard. Publishing professionally is kind of like talking to myself. I write because I want to communicate and fandom offers a much bigger payoff in that regard. I know I’m being heard.

          • Marie Brennan

            You might be surprised at the extent to which professional writers can interact with their audiences and know they’re being heard, mostly thanks to the Internet. My e-mail address is easily available on my website, and I have this journal, so even without things like con attendence that let me meet readers face-to-face, I’ve had a fair bit of back-and-forth. The ratio isn’t as high, of course — I’ve sold thousands of copies of my novels, but interacted with maybe a hundred readers (not counting friends and family) — but on the other hand, if the fanfic rate of response applied to my professional fiction, I’d never get anything done, trying to reply to everybody . . . .

          • mindstalk

            Analogy which popped into my head: running an RPG in someone else’s setting, vs. in a setting of your own. Of course that applies mostly to the GM, unless the players got to add a lot of worldbuilding input.

            I don’t know if the analogy goes anywhere…

  6. kitsunealyc

    It’s a little of my closet ludditism showing, but I hate the preoccupation with professionalizing the arts and creativity that this kind of question reveals. Nobody expects me to try to become a professional dancer because I like dancing, or singer because I enjoy karaoke. And while I like dancing and singing, I’d be terribly sad if I weren’t allowed to perform sometimes in public venues, because as much as I like rehearsal, I love performing. I’ve never written my own songs, and for the most part I’ve never choreographed my own dances (and even those dances I’ve choreographed were drawn heavily from “canon” material and often referenced specific artists or known performances — I’m not Martha Graham…nor is any other dancer at the community level). So it pisses me off when the public performance of what could be styled as contemporary folk-writing is held up to expectations that wouldn’t apply if the medium were dance or music.

  7. Anonymous

    For all the discussion of the interplay between gender and fanfic (which does incorporate some fascinating aspects on ideas of masculine vs. feminine stories, ideals and laws), the original essay sounded very much like some of the things Paul Kemp and many other (often male) writers have written about the stigma of writing in a shared world environment such as Forgotten Realms.

    • Marie Brennan

      I can believe that. It’s a shame, really; I periodically think about how phenomenally awesome a shared world could be, under the right circumstances. But frankly, the caliber of fiction associated with the Forgotten Realms is not generally high enough to catch my interest.

  8. starbrow

    creating derivative works based on a text currently under copyright is illegal

    I so don’t want to have this argument again for the 40 millionth time, but it’s actually not. It exists in an unlegislated legal grey area. If you want to think that makes it illegal, fine, but the truth is, that makes it neither legal or illegal.

    It’s not illegal until a) a law is passed not only in America, but every country forbidding writing, or possibly, distributing fanfic or b) someone sues a fanfic writer in a court case (again, in every country of the world) and wins for copyright violation. And the author/production company has to confirm, in most countries, that the violation of copyright has caused a direct loss of sales.

    So, no, the law doesn’t say you can’t write/distribute it — or Neil Gaiman would be getting sued by the C.S. Lewis estate right now for publishing “The Problem of Susan.” Which he IS making money off of, by the way.

    • Marie Brennan

      I’m aware of the existence of the legal intricacies, at least in their broad outlines if not their every case-history detail; I’ve had an extended discussions about this with several law-educated people. The transformative nature of the derivative work is generally the major issue. My comment was meant to be a shorthand of, “if challenged in court, 99% of fanfic would probably be found to be infringing copyright, but there’s no real profit in it for anybody to bother with such a challenge, which is why it mostly doesn’t happen.”

    • rhyannonf

      As a current student of law dabbling in intellectual property and copyright areas of law – I felt the need to stick an oar in the water here.

      In Australia (which is obviously not entirely relevant given the different legal systems between different countries) writing derivative works/fan-fiction is not illegal at all. It is not a breach of IP or copyright unless you do one of two things: Either claim sole credit for the writing, or get some direct financial benefit from the writing.

      I would imagine that this concept would be similar in US law for the simple fact that it is based on a common-sense principle.

      But really, this is just a technical point and not the crux of the issue at hand.

  9. heyiya

    The thing that really annoys me about the question of legality around fanfic is the assumption on the part of many people who bring it up that illegal=wrong. Personally, I don’t give a crap whether it’s illegal or not; I don’t make my ethical decisions based on the laws of the whichever land I happen to be located in. I do allow the laws to influence my behaviour, of course, and I take your point that the dubious legality of fanfic is a major reason for what some might see as its ghettoization; but the simple fact that IP law exists and places the legality of fanfic in a questionable position is no reason at all not to write it, for me (admittedly I’m not actually a writer of fiction) any more than the illegality of, say, drinking under 21 in the US is a reason not to drink under 21 in the US. It may be a reason to be careful about *where* you drink while under 21 and about who you mention it to…

    As somebody who does academic work on fanfic, I do think that there is stuff there as good as or better than in any other literary field. I think there is fic that works when you don’t know the source text and the fannish interactions around them, though it works differently and better when you do; when I don’t have end-of-semester insanity going on, I’ll make you a rec list, if you like. (I can link you to an excellent one made, with asterisked special-academic-interest stories, if you’re interested in Stargate:Atlantis fic. I read fic in that fandom before I ever watched the source, in fact I only started watching the source because of the fic.) But for me personally, while I may sometimes read fanfic for its literary value (sometimes, I freely admit, I read it despite its literary value, and I lap it up: which is another fanfic-specific pleasure for me), that’s not why it interests me as an academic/a theorist. I am fascinated specifically by the community of constantly interacting fic and meta, the gift economy, the gendered and queer aspects of it. So for me, the way that fanfic pushes the boundaries of the status quo is precisely the reason for which it is illegal, and/or the reason for which it would not be the same if it were transposed into original fic, even if the same plot devices and ideas and tropes were used.

    I am in strong sympathy with ‘s post here. All the more since I have spent a lot of energy trying to convince my academic peers that fanfiction is not an undifferentiated mass, that it’s produced in a complex matrix of individual and community.

    • Marie Brennan

      The first paper I presented at ICFA was cowritten with on the topic of studying fanfiction anthropologically, i.e. the community/networking/gift economy/etc. It dosen’t rank high enough on my list of research interests to pursue in more detail — probably because the fanfic texts don’t interest me quite enough to involve me in the community — but I’m aware of the existence of such things, and I think they’re neat.

      I’ve read fanfics I like. (“The Game of the Gods,” something like a 36-part Silmarillion fanfic/critical typology of Mary Sues, was sheer bloody brilliance.) Not many, in part because I would want a recommendation list to lead me through the swamps of badly written stuff and stuff that makes no sense without reference to sources texts I don’t know and stuff that might be fine but wouldn’t float my boat regardless. Even with such a recommendation list, though, I don’t think I would read a whole lot. Why? Because the list of other things I want to read is already seventeen miles long. And when it comes down to it, I would, on the whole, rather spend my time getting around to reading some of the things on that list than fanfics. For a variety of reasons I won’t try to unpack here.

      As for the illegality aspect, I brought it up mostly because of ‘s discussion of fanfic as being marginalized. I think you have to acknowledge the sketchy legal status if you’re going to discuss that, because otherwise you can find yourself arguing that it’s a gendered thing (okay, partly, but not entirely) or an elitism thing (okay, partly, but not entirely), or whatever; in other words, it’s a piece of the puzzle, but one some fanfic community members seem eager to sweep under the rug. Admit it’s there, folks; acknowledge that it doesn’t necessarily mean what you’re writing is bad or immoral; move on.

      • heyiya

        I understand about the lengthy reading list! My fanfic habit started as a way to get away from my ‘real’ reading (during undergraduate finals) and persists because I found the good stuff and got addicted to its specific pleasures. Now, when I get a minute for non-academically-related reading, whether I go for fanfic or profic depends entirely on my mood; it’s just another genre I enjoy. And sometimes it is especially fun to read free from the pressures of canonicity (in the literary rather than the fannish sense…).

  10. zvi_likes_tv

    Instead of asking fanwriters, ‘would you like to write original fiction?’ ask them, ‘what else are you writing?’ If they are writing original fiction, it’ll come up. And if they are writing original fiction, it’s then appropriate to ask if they want to work on getting it to publishable form.

    But original fiction fails at a lot of the things that make fanfiction pleasurable, aside from barriers to entry. Intertextuality is a pleasure. Close audience contact is a pleasure. Canon is usually a pleasure. It’s difficult to pimp ‘originality’ as a fandom.

    On the other hand, it’s always possible to express deeper interest in the person you’re talking to. “What are you writing? What have you been thinking about in terms of storytelling? What kinds of stories do you want to tell?” You might even be able to say, “I don’t read in the fandoms in which you are writing, are you writing anything original?” without nearly the same degree of offense. It certainly wouldn’t provoke the automatic hackles up that “You should be writing original fiction,” so often does.

  11. legionseagle

    The last time the question of whether fanfic was illegal came up in the profic/fanfic debate I wrote the following essay as a professional IP lawyer on the issue.

    In summary, the essay points out that “illegal” technically refers to a breach of the criminal law, and that in most cases the creation of not-for-profit fanfic does not contravene criminal sanctions in the IP field, which are usually aimed at commercial counterfeiting and the like.

    I’m all for jailing people who sell fake drugs and aircraft spare parts, put innocent lives at risk and funnel the proceeds through to organised crime and terrorist activity, and, what’s more, in my day job I’m engaged in stopping it. I just resent the way because of sloppy and/or deliberately emotive language choices – and given that the people making those language choices are people who use words professionally in their own day jobs I have my suspicions which it is – fanfic writers are being lumped in which them when, legally and in most jurisdictions, with regard to fanfic published not for profit what is being referred to is either a breach of private rights which may or may not be actionable, or something (arguments expanded at greater length in the essay) which is not even a breach of private rights at all.

    Don’t get me wrong; I’m quite clear that the vast majority of fanfic writers create an end product which is legally unpublishable (there is a significant body of Jane Austen fanficand fanfic about other out of copyright authors which is legally publishable so the generalisation can’t stand unqualified). I’m not unsympathetic to the argument you put forward that it’s actually worth examining – particularly in the context of how to suppress women’s writing – why so many people are content to generate end products which are legally unpublishable, but that debate gets stifled the moment one participant resorts to the “illegal” tag, because that suggests that the act of creation is a criminal one (which it is not).

    As a result you are for example going to get difficulties if you use phrases like “doing backflips to avoid noticing the fact that what they are doing is illegal” since it implies that fanficcers are in denial about a self-evident truth, rather than challenging a common misapprehension.

    A word of warning regarding the essay I link: it was written in the slightly different context, related to comparing “authorised” tie-in novels to unauthorised fanfic so some of the points raised aren’t directly relevant to fanfic versus wholly original fic.

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