Is Fan Fiction Really So Wrong?

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Why do big-name authors like George R. R. Martin keep yelling about how evil and morally wrong fan fiction is? Especially when their biggest fans are the ones writing it? Catherynne M. Valente has some ideas . . .

It seems like every few years a big name author will holler something about how evil, heinous, and morally wrong fan fiction and fan fiction writers are, and then the internet gets all upset and shocked, and then the author is shocked that people could get so upset. After all, all they did was massively insult a large portion of their most loyal fanbase. Why should anyone make a thing about it?

And I think: how many times are we going to go through this? Because the last time I posted about my stance on fan fiction, it was during another one of these pistols-at-dawn internet brawls. Of course, then I'd barely started publishing, so it's probably time for an update anyway.


This round of nonsense is mostly up to Diana Gabaldon and George R.R. Martin posting about how they don't understand the impulse to write fan fiction and think it's dirty and wrong in many legal and moral ways, and also fanficcers killed Lovecraft and made him cry. (nihilistic_kid took care of that ridiculous claim already.) Now, those are gigantic authors, and on account of that are getting a lot of politeness from folks without doling much of it out themselves, especially Gabaldon. (Certainly there have been angry comments, but I pretty much thing that's what you're signing up for when you insult people wholesale.) The hyperbole and misinformation involving fan fiction in the recent post is pretty amazing, and I commend any fan fiction writer who responded to it with manners—and even by pledging not to write fan fiction in those universes, which should tell you a lot about how generous and good-natured most fan fiction writers are. But the egregious issues of defending copyright and the different between copyright and trademark and Lovecraft and possibly how fan fiction is not actually like raping babies at all have been dealt with elsewhere and handily.

What gets me in this conversation is the privilege involved. You're talking about hugely successful writers who are so successful that they do not have to be concerned with offending their most loyal and invested fans (and make no mistake, kids - the people who write fanfic in your worlds are your biggest fans). They have assistants to sort through their blog comments so that they don't have to deal with the fallout of what they say, and shut down comments after 400 because it's not a constructive conversation (which—when is it ever, on a blog, but rarely? And if you're a bestselling writer you have to know people want to talk in your space) anymore. They had to have it pointed out to them that people might write fan fiction out of love. They go on and on about how they would never write fan fic, but waste no space on empathy for others who might. These are writers who are really probably never going to be hurt by fanfiction, who can't even be hurt by kissing off a nice slice of their paying audience. That's even if you make the argument that fan fiction can hurt people, that fanfic writers are just waiting to pounce on their favorite author and sue them to bits. And before you trot out the Marion Zimmer Bradley case, one of the things I've learned in this fight is that that case is far more complex than it's legended about to be. I really feel it's been used to scare authors into hating fanfic, when the story appears to be otherwise.


That said, y'all, don't prove me wrong on this score. I'm very touchy feely with my fandom, in part because they've never done me wrong or hurt me in any way. This is an awesome balance. I hope it stays that way forever.

For most of us, fanfiction is a non-issue. Even for midlist writers. We will never be popular enough for people to play in our worlds with any frequency. The problem for us is getting people to read and care about our books that much in the first place. I have never heard a midlist or small press writer shriek about fanfic the way bestsellers do. So much ire spent over something that ultimately helps books, keeps the conversation going past the long tail of marketing, keeps them alive and loved—I've never understood it. Quashing fan activity is not only self-sabotaging, but unkind. I have always been delighted when told there was a piece of fanfic inspired by a book of mine floating about. I don't read it for legal reasons, but I'm thrilled to know it's there. Someone cared. Someone loved it enough to spend their free time writing about it for free. My rule has always been: don't make money off it and we're cool. Writers require fans in order to keep living and working—it behooves us not to call them names or accuse them of incredibly awful crimes that are not remotely comparable to writing a little story about Buffy and Spike. (I do think this is partly a sex issue—authors seem to get most upset when they discover slash fic, to which I say: welcome to the internet. How did you avoid it so far?)


Is it a legal grey area? There has never been a test case. Of course it is. But look. It would be a bit shit of me to holler about fan fiction being evil when I've made a name for myself at least in part by retelling fairy tales. Of course, that hasn't stopped Jasper Fforde from saying idiotic things like: "My thoughts on Fan Fiction are pretty much this: That it seems strange to want to copy or 'augment' someone else's work when you could expend just as much energy and have a lot more fun making up your own." And then writing books which do nothing but copy and augment other people's characters and making money from it—arguably Jasper Fforde is the most successful fanfic writer around. God, I knew I was right to loathe those books. Anyway, the point is, I learned to write short fiction partly by wearing the narrative bones of fairy tales and then re-breaking them in interesting ways. And I can't say I got mine, now no touching.

It is part of the human activity of storytelling to retell, misremember, breakup and tell backwards, peek into the crannies and tell the other stories (thank you Euripides), wonder what might have been, what could be, and tell the same stories over and over, but tell them slant. I feel that trying to destroy that impulse is not only hopeless but cruel. I love my characters and worlds no less than any other writer. They are, as has been said over and over, my children. But with every child there comes a time when they are grown and out in the world, free to smoke in alleys and consort with boys of poor reputation, get in trouble on their own and probably screw around a lot. And you have to let them go. My characters and worlds are not wholly mine in the spiritual sense, even if they are in a legal sense. Reading is an active sport, and we create books together, in the space between my words and your heart. I put those people into the world, into the sphere of collective imagination. How can I possibly begrduge others playing with them? The whole point of publishing them was for others to love them.


I believe in planet remix. In culture as a vibrant and changing thing. I do not believe fanfic violates that, but encourages it. Yes, much fanfic is bad. I've got news for you. Most published fiction is bad, too. Life goes on.

In the end, I have an important secret to tell you. Huddle up.

This argument is already over. It is a generational one. You've got a whole host of authors coming into their own who grew up with fanfic as a fact of life, or even committed it themselves. Who have been messing about with creative commons since forever. A whole generation who sees fanfic as, not a nuisance, but a mark of success, a benchmark—if someone wrote fanfic about my book, then I've really made it. A certain generation of authors will always hate and fear fanfic, and every once in awhile the internet will get its hackles up and have a conversation about it. But that will happen less and less as years go by. You can't stop this beat, my friends. It's too old, and too basic.


This post originally appeared on Catherynne M. Valente's livejournal.