Fan fiction: it’s a term characterised by such polarising views whenever anyone so much as mentions it in passing. It’s a term with a history spanning over fifty years. It’s a term quite self-explanatory, having evolved from the less obvious meaning of original fiction published in fanzines.
But to describe fan fiction’s actual meaning… it’s an art form too often misunderstood. Some see it as a practice that completely lacks professionalism and dignity, to be delegated only to the credulous audience of the internet. Others consider it the gateway that many young writers take before they move onto the ‘superior’ territory of original fiction, once again not entirely accurate. But they have their justifications. There are over three million stories on Fanfiction.net, and I’d say it’s a fair bet that the majority of them are clumsily-written romances. That’s not even taking into account the other budding archives around the web, from various communities on Livejournal to Archive Of Our Own (also known as AO3).
Most of these archives allow writers to upload their work freely; submissions are not reviewed unless brought to a moderator’s attention. This has of course led to criticism. After all, this is amateur fiction, often only run through a spell-checker before being released to the public. But this also indicates a level of snobbery in the literary world, which has apparently decided that professionally published work is always better, regardless of who wrote it and how much editing has actually been carried out.
Many will use Sturgeon’s Revelation to prove their point. After all, it makes sense that 90% of fan fiction would be ‘crud’ – I mean, who even proofreads these things? But Sturgeon came to the conclusion that 90% of everything is bad. You are constantly searching for something good to read or watch, rifling through trash to get to something meaningful and worthwhile: it would be unfair to expect a masterpiece if there are no critical responses to back that up.
In this article I would like to draw a work of original fiction to your attention, the paranormal romance novel, Twilight, often billed as a #1 New York Times Bestseller. Even though a professional editor picked through its pages, it is still ridden with grammatical errors and purple prose. Now, you could say that Stephenie Meyer’s apparent appreciation of fan fiction means that I am practically biting the hand that feeds me. But such a protest assumes that she must be the only advocate of fan fiction in the world – quite a hyperbolic notion, wouldn’t you agree? In this article, I do not intend to criticise the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, CS Lewis, Terry Pratchett and JK Rowling. All four have (or had) been shown to allow or even encourage fan fiction.
In a way, the internet has made us far lazier, given the thousands of review sites – and illegal download sites – worldwide. Since fan fiction was popularised online, reviews tend to be more self-contained (although sites specifically for fan fiction criticism do exist), so it makes sense that people are more likely to stumble upon something awful before they get to the gold.
I don’t intend to touch upon the legal issues of fan fiction for very long, mainly because copyright laws are different in every country and I have submitted this article to a magazine with an international market. Every work of fan fiction is different and uses different amounts of the canon material, so it would be difficult to create any sort of solid legislation against it. It seems to escape the law’s attention unless the copyright holder disallows fan fiction, which generally ends in fans being obliged to remove their works from the internet. (I do not personally see this as a problem since it can be considered a dubiously legal practice; it is the reasoning of many copyright holders that I often don’t agree with.) Conversely, most authors do not read fan fiction in case they might be taken to court by a bad egg of the fandom, accusing them of stealing an idea from fan fiction for their latest instalment.
Some claim that fan fiction is ‘lazy’ or ‘unoriginal’ due to its transformative nature. This includes Game of Thrones author George RR Martin, who tries to prevent the publication of fan fiction using his source material. “Every writer needs to learn to create his own characters, worlds, and settings. Using someone else’s world is the lazy way out,” he argues. Yet this implies that fan fiction is strictly an exercise in ‘creation’. Surely the research and planning often necessary to create an excellent fan work is akin to a literary or media essay, and a lot of fan fiction authors find that experimenting with someone else’s creations is important if they ever want to produce something of a similar calibre for themselves. I could even testify that writing detailed analyses of my favourite characters has positively affected the development of my own. Perhaps fan fiction can be another approach to the advice that all writers should read with a ‘writer’s eye’, allowing one to latch onto plot holes and find room for expansion and character development.
Fan fiction is also a fantastic practice when one wishes to focus on good style. You are given an established universe with established characters, so it’s much easier to keep an eye on rhythm, tone, and diction. But just because it can help writers to grow doesn’t mean it should be looked upon with a condescending eye. As previously mentioned, it is often viewed as a so-called launching point for young writers, and I believe that this only sustains the idea that it is not a respectable discipline of its own.
Personally, I have always found it as easy to become emotionally involved in a moving piece of fan fiction as a commercially published novel. Since my first encounter with fandom culture, I have admired beautiful sentences and had the urge to give exclamations of joy when the characters overcome the conflict before them. I have enjoyed bittersweet endings, tragic endings, baffling endings. If you just take the time to look for good fan fiction, the genres presented are so rich and wide-ranging that I would say there is as much variety as there is in any bookstore. This is a genre with just as much potential for a good story as original fiction… but unfortunately, its reputation has been generated by the less impressive majority.
Let’s face facts for a moment. So many mediocre writers believe fan fiction to be the closest they’ll ever get to being professionally published, and in their flurry of joyous fanaticism, they have mistaken quickly-written chapters to be well-written chapters. The traditional literature communities look upon such people with disgust, thus perpetuating the idea that all fan fiction writers are terrible. And it has become a cycle that I don’t see stopping any time soon.
I myself can only see one situation wherein this might change, and it’s a long shot. Fan-authors everywhere, I urge you to attempt to write works of actual quality. Envision the story as if it were in book form, as if you would send it to a publisher – ignoring the unfortunate legal implications that would arise, of course. Proofread, edit, redraft, take things just a little more seriously; your works will benefit from it and so will the general consensus on fan fiction.
Perhaps one day we will no longer need to constantly compare the genre to its original counterpart… but sadly I don’t think there is any magic bullet for the prejudice that it suffers.