Is it time we legitimised Fan-Fiction?

I tried fan fiction – true fan fiction in my younger years. It never amounted to anything. It never could. I was continually thwarted. I would read a book and fall in love and wanted to live in that imaginary world, call the characters friends, but I couldn’t. It never felt right. Like the way strawberry chewits never taste like strawberries. There was, I found, no way for me to recreate those voices in my head, it was impossible to build more stories round what already existed and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t find a way to put myself in there – which ultimately is what fan fiction is surely really about? They were closed circles, they let me in when they told me their stories but once the last word on the last page was done, I was closed out again.

I didn’t fully understand it. Copyright had nothing to do with it, it was a gut feeling as the stories left me disappointed and frustrated, missing all those elements I had fallen in love with. They weren’t mine to play with.

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And this stains how I read fanfiction. More Dumbledore? Please…. But what I find isn’t Dumbledore. It doesn’t matter that you call him that, that you dress him in robes and make him suck sherbet lemons. You are not JK Rowling and Dumbledore is. Wholly. He begins and ends in the unreachable recesses of her grey matter and no matter that he lived so bright and real in ours, the minute we reach out to pin him down, we realise it was just an illusion.

Yet.. Fanfiction is HUGE. Like so big it forced me to use caps. People – fans – are turning to it in droves, droves of droves. Successful authors of their own worlds and characters, apparently choose to live in the worlds of others, write the characters given flesh by others. Again – fans. Not cheats looking for an easy buck – Hello Hollywood! Fans. Fans writing and fans reading, fans supporting and fans loving.

So if my limitations are just that, my limitations, and everyone else loves it, is it time to embrace it as more than a geeky enclave, as a true-blue, legitimate genre?

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Fan fiction is credited by many for giving us the Star Trek we know and some love (in worrying ways..) today. The original series that gave us Spock, Kirk and Scotty, lasted only three seasons and was not considered a ratings winner. Yet the fans who embraced it were ardent and despite cancellation its popularity grew. Nicknamed the show that refused to die, the Chicago Tribune claimed in 1987 that, ‘since that dark day in 1969 when NBC brought the programming hammer down on Star Trek, there probably hasn’t been a 24-hour period when the original program, one of the original episodes, wasn’t being aired somewhere’. Their absolute unwillingness to let it go has spawned probably one of the biggest science fiction franchises in the world, inspiring real life science as much as popular culture.

Of course fandom supporting a franchise is not necessarily fanfiction nor does it make any fanfiction that arises out of it, good. We could just put it in the bracket of hobby, a pass-time that is little more than a book club with geeks. (Don’t worry I’m a geek too. We reclaimed the word around the same time Picard was declared sexy.) And certainly, it does seem like this is a big factor. You love it, you meet others who love it, you spraff on and the magic is continued. It’s the sharing, the community aspect that makes it work, not the actual writing itself. One thing the internet offers is a chance for like-minds who might never otherwise meet to share their passions. Rather than sitting at home with a disgruntled partner – who still doesn’t know the difference between a Romulan and Vulcan – watching reruns, you can chat in Klingon with others who understand those strange stirrings every time you see that bald dome shine in the tricorders reflected beam.

But many do genuinely claim to enjoy the writing and fanfiction is now a recognised, legitimate aspect of the Star Trek universe. Gold Key Comics were granted license to use the Star trek crew as early as 1967 when the original series was still airing and perhaps that goes some way to explain why they charted their own course through the universe. Highly collectible they varied so much from the series, only occasionally in later issues tying in with existing episodes, that despite their venerable stuatus, they are still considered non-canon. Equally, when Marvel comics inherited the license from them they released a cross over ST:TOS and X-men mix. While Star Trek: Phase II a series created by fans, recast all the TOS favourites and yet found support amongst the original crew and was even nominated for a Hugo award. CBS have stated they have no issue with this, and indeed continue to issue licences to encourage a thriving cross-media enterprise (see what I did there…!), as long as no fan produced material attempts to profit of the name.

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In this sense we could start to speculate/hypothesize that all writing within the worlds of tv and comics, most of the visual storytelling mediums, is in fact fan fiction. Anyone who reads Marvel will know that everything is up for reboot with every issue. The alternate universe is a convenient term for some other writer wanted to do it different. We’ve all witnessed the reincarnation of Batman from earnest tights clad hero to sardonic and self-effacing Burtonion Vision to dull, tormented martyr. To… well who knows what Superman Vs Batman will bring, the very fact we have a film called Superman vs Batman really says it all. Within any series we have countless writers and voices, even if the core team remains, or is helmed as with the original Star Trek series by one man, we have the actors, the writers, the producers, cinematographers, directors, all artists bringing their own vision to the piece.

Does this extend to books? The voice of a writer is a unique stamp of authorship that doesn’t fully translate to other art forms. You may be able to forge a Van Gogh, but you can’t forge a Christie. Does that preclude fan fiction from working within the worlds of Tolkien and Rowling, in the way it does in Star Trek and other franchises which began life in visual mediums? There are some who would argue that most epic fantasy is nothing more than Tolkien fan fiction. Tolkien himself drew heavily on existing mythology to create middle earth, yet he drew from sources previously distinct and never married together, sources as diverse as the Volsunga Saga and catholic theology. Gandalf is commonly believed to be inspired by Odin, the King of the Norse Gods, who is frequently described as tall, with a long white beard, wide brimmed hat and staff. Many scenes contained within are believed to be based on existing myths, such as the collapse of the bridge at Khaza-dum which echoes the destruction of the Asgard bridge. While the iconic ending with the elves, Gandalf and the Baggins sailing away to immortal lands echoes the end of Kelevala, a work which draws heavily from Finnish mythology.

Undoubtedly some works have grown far beyond their creator’s original visions, spawning worlds and characters which have become archetypes, Tolkien’s middle earth amongst them. They’ve become a way to explore key ideas and themes against a familiar backdrop. Perhaps the best example of this is the phenomenal success of Fifty Shades of Grey. It began life as Twilight fan fiction yet the finished and multi-baszillion selling book would seem to bear little resemblance. Chaste teenage romance replaced with whips and chains, a vampire with an insatiable urge to attend high school PE lessons becomes a thirty year old multi-millionaire with trust issues. Even Bella seems unrecognisable reinvented as the virgin Anastasia, who rather than desperate to sacrifice her soul abandons her lover unwilling to embrace his lifestyle (I believe the sequels rectify this, but really who cares?) the point is that the base ingredients that drew readers in remain the same, Virgin innocence, immortal power, the fine line between being taken care of and being taken control of, the broken hero redeemed, the girl like no other…

But if we can transport themes, if we recognise the universal nature of human qualities, why the need for the familiar backdrop? What role does it play in developing the story and limiting the story? There is an argument that it offers structure to the beginning writer, unsure of themselves and the components needed to construct a fully realised world. It’s a poor argument. Using what exists does not help you develop necessary skills. In fact it keeps you unaware that you even need to. As long as I can buy bread I never need to learn how to grow wheat.

For Hollywood, it’s simple. They believe people are more likely to invest in the familiar. It does seem as though sales figures agree with them. The ever small number of authors managing to make a living from their work would seem to show that we will return time and time again once an author has established themselves. We don’t even have to like the majority of what they produce and we will still stick with them. The familiar is rewarded, a comfort blanket both for writer and reader.

And it is the reason I will never support the legitimising of Fanfiction. As a hobby/reading group activity for ardent fans I have no issue with it. As a genre and art form deserving of respect I have to withhold. I recognise both the influence and argument for that influence of all existing art and culture on our works, and I recognise I am no more exempt than any other, and I still cannot support it.

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It’s lazy. The very worst kind of lazy. Lazy thinking. We’re really, really good as a species at working hard at the wrong things. Shaking up our thinking is one of those areas we seem really reluctant to explore. We don’t want to be uncomfortable. We don’t like taking the scary path shrouded in the darkness of the unknown.

But Tolkien was new once. Once the world had never heard of tricorders and communicators. But aren’t we all glad someone took a chance on the unknown Wagon to The Stars, like every time you pick up your mobile phone? Or pull out your i-pad? We seem to have reached an odd situation where art may have more influence over life than life has over art. Certainly within many popular writing it is easier to trace the influences of other writers than it is to trace the influences of their own experiences. We have even begun to accept certain truths whose only evidence lies in works of imagination.

The framework seems like a harmless structure to build the new upon, to ease the literary pill down the reluctant gullet, but the truth is the ideas and themes are as recycled as the rest of it. As long as we keep the framework we’re not going to be able to see things differently and gain new insight. We are creatures of habit, so much of what we do falls into established patterns which we never consciously chose. Recent research has shown that the area of our brain connected to decision making actually lights up seven seconds before we are aware of making a choice. Writers are more burdened by this than most. We use familiar patterns every day and struggle to make them distinct to ourselves. We’re bound by the basic patterns of communication, the framework of grammar which has become a franchised world none of us – except Joyce – know how to break out of. We’re jigsaw makers, hoping to make our patch of blue sky different from every other. The very last thing we need to be doing is layering those frameworks, til the paths available have shrunk and we find ourselves not just writing, but thinking in the same ways as every other writer who came before.

So if you truly love Star Trek. If you truly love Hogwarts and the Knight Bus, show your fan-dedication and write something new. Something someone else will want to copy.

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2 thoughts on “Is it time we legitimised Fan-Fiction?

  1. I think that fan fiction is one end of the continuum of shared universe fiction, and as such is not inherently less creative than any other form of writing. Working within the constraints set by another writer can force one to be particularly inventive, in fact–observe the huge mass of Sherlock Holmes fiction and the ways in which writers have played with the characters while being careful not to violate the original canon or sequence of events.

    I, personally, haven’t written any fan fiction, but I don’t think it’s because it’s too easy, I think it’s too hard. It’s a lot less work for me to just make up my own world than to try to work within someone else’s.

    1. hi! thanks for commenting.
      I understand what you are saying and its certainly a possibility. Its just not one I have really come across. Most fan fiction I know really sets its own rules – whether it is the reboots we see endlessly in cinemas’ or the I wish I were Dumbledore’s estranged kid.. sort 😀 My fear is the former will lead to a kind of cannibalisation of art, where art draws on art, draws on art, in an endless loop that ceases to have much resonance outwith popular culture. Much as I enjoy Joss Whedon he has popularised the pop culture self reflexive style which is so pervasive in certain genres. I just feel maybe we need to be encouraged to return to looking at personal experience, and raising questions, rather than assuming truth or even ‘safety’ because its grounded in something already successful and accepted.

      But yes, I did take quite a rigid stand for the sake of the article. In reality I probably am more flexible and there is fun to be had in exploring certain established worlds.

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