To fanfiction or not fanfiction: that is the question

Since submitting a few manuscripts to a publisher and having one or two of them accepted, I can’t help but notice the negative feeling many people hold about fanfiction. In particular, authors who began their writing lives in one fandom or another.

I must admit, I don’t understand the vitriol or the derogatory comments that some people feel the need to direct toward a writer just because they do, or have in the past, written fanfiction.

Nor do I understand the ‘avoid at all costs’ attitude by some to ban any story from their ‘To Read List’ that is considered to have been ‘pulled to publish.’

What follows from here, in this post, are my thoughts and opinions. I don’t profess to speak for any other reader or writer, other than myself.

In the past, prior to the Internet, an aspiring author, who hadn’t gone to university to study creative writing or journalism, probably went the route of submitting short stories to magazines and/or to writing competitions, be they local, national, or international, in order to learn their craft and build a resume. The advent of the Internet, however, opened up a whole new arena for writers to hone and perfect their skills and gain feedback. All of a sudden, there was a multitude of amateur author and fanfiction sites where one could upload a story and test the waters, so to speak.

I am sure, many of the stories within the various fandoms are, indeed, odes to the writer’s favourite character/book/movie etc., but I’m equally sure there are many writers who have merely used a character/story as a departure point. Many authors inspired, perhaps, as much by the actor playing the part as the character they portrayed. I personally know a few fanfic authors whose stories began as original fiction, and they selected a relevant fandom to post to, and in doing so changed their character’s names and physical attributes to make them fit that particular fandom. Why did they do this? There could be umpteen reasons, and in the end, I can only speak for myself – I lacked the confidence to submit my original work to a publisher. It was my stint writing fanfiction, receiving a predominantly positive response to my stories, which gave me hope that my long-held dream might actually be able to become a reality. It gave me belief in myself, and I am sure I am not alone in this.

Having spent some time on various fanfiction sites, I agree with the many comments I’ve seen that a lot of the stories are not carefully thought out and researched, or particularly well written. But that is not all of them. I have stumbled across some absolute gems. Ones that have great plots, character development, succinct descriptions – all in all: damn good reads, and were they published works, I’d happily part with my hard-earned dollars to read them. (Anyone wanting to know of some of the ‘gems’, please feel free to make contact)

I find the attitude that states all fanfiction is just rehashes of the original somewhat off-base. Certainly, some are, but many aren’t, and I fail to see, as an example, how an author who wrote an M/M (or as its known in the fanfic world, slash) story involving two male characters who were heterosexual in the original as still being merely a ‘rehash.’

I mean, let’s take the fandom statistics from as of 23 February, 2013.

Top three sites for books: Harry Potter (632,688), Twilight (207,307), Lord of the Rings (48,121)

Top three sites for movies: Star Wars (29,964), Pirates of the Caribbean (19,639), High School Musical (17,934)

Top three sites for TV Shows: Glee (89.899), Supernatural (73,143), Buffy: The Vampire Slayer (45,545)

Out of those nine fandoms I think only three had gay characters – Buffy, High School Musical and Glee – please feel free to correct me if I’m mistaken. I don’t purport to be a guru on pop culture. My point is that any writer who was inspired to take a heterosexual character (or the actor portraying a character) and make him gay/bi/transexual etc. has already distanced their character from canon. They have already taken the first step in creating and building an original character. Certainly, it may still bear the same name as the original character while their story is a fanfic, but in essence, it is not the same character anymore. I’m sure there are as many gay ‘Harrys’ or ‘Edwards’ as straight ones in the real world.

If they’ve taken English schoolboy-come-wizard Harry and made him an American, situated him on the moon, aged him to his  mid twenties, or had him fall in love with Luna or Draco, they have, once again, distanced Harry from JK Rowlings’ characterisation of him. Certainly, there may still need to be a lot done to transform their story into a truly original work, but the seeds are there.

Why is there such an issue about where a writer finds inspiration? What does it matter if it’s an actor, model, athlete, character in a book, movie, story, or someone you work with? Heavens, many of Shakespeare’s most famous works were inspired by historical figures or old legends. The Aeneid by Virgil is clearly fanfic of The Iliad by Homer and Dante liked The Aeneid so much he used not only its story but also, Virgil, its author, to narrate his epic poem, The Divine Comedy. All three works are considered classics. If our ancestors had followed the belief that we shouldn’t read a work that was inspired by another earlier work, then we’d have lost two wonderful pieces of writing.

Let’s take the theory a step further. If a singer busks or performs in a bar/pub/club, singing cover versions of other bands songs should he/she never be offered a contract to write and sing their own songs? Well, if that’s the case, let’s take Cilla Black, Marianne Faithful, The Mamas and the Papas, The Seekers, Frank Sinatra, Marvin Gaye, Elvis Presley, Michael Bolton, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, LeAnn Rimes, Boyz II Men and about 2100 other singers out the back and strip them of their contracts, records, and awards, because they all recorded their own versions of Yesterday by the Beatles.

Or what about every designer who has had included in their collection a miniskirt or dress? Surely, they should feel ashamed? After all, it wasn’t their idea. Should they even be allowed to do it, and should any of us want to buy their version, when it was Mary Quant who made it fashionable in the modern era? Maybe, we should only wear hers as hers is the original…

Some of the world’s most famous artists freely admitted to being inspired by the work of other artists. No one thought less of Picasso because he was influenced by Gaugain and Cezanne (Cubism for which Picasso is famous was directly inspired by the brush stroke style of Cezanne) Nor was Georges Braque looked down upon because his foray into cubism was inspired by that of Picasso.

In the literary world, there are plenty of examples as well. Let’s see… The Innocents by Francesca Segal is a modern retelling of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence.  Lavinia by Ursula K. Leguin tells the story of Lavinia the second wife of Aeneas from Virgil’s The Aeneid, (yep, there he is again…) A Monster’s Notes by Laurie Sheck imagines the relationship between Frankenstein’s monster and Mary Shelley had they met when Mary was a child. Oh, and let’s not forget Bridget Jones’s Diary, which is a modern version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Need more? Well, how about His Dark Materials trilogy by Pullman? They both retell and invert John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Or there’s Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, which tells the feminine side of The Odyssey through the eyes of Odysseus’s wife, Penelope. There’s also Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Thousand Acres, which is Shakespeare’s King Lear set in the cornfields of Iowa.

The list could go on and on, the point being, all of the above-mentioned stories could be viewed as fanfic or having ‘borrowed’ from the original. That tells me that just because a writer was inspired by a an existing story/character/movie/TV show it does not  necessarily make their words unoriginal or mere rehashes.

Why dismiss something out of hand? Would it really hurt to keep an open mind?

At the end of the day; a good story, is a good story.

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