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What is fanfiction, anyway?

22 October 2015

From The New Statesman:

A few weeks back, Stephenie Meyer pulled a Beyoncé: with virtually no advance warning, she released her latest title into the world – and set off a firestorm of conversation. Even the publishing industry was caught off guard by Life and Death, a new full-length novel written in honour of the tenth anniversary of the Twilight series. Any book from Meyer would have made headlines, but this one was especially surprising:Life and Death takes Twilight, the first book of the four, and swaps the genders of its protagonists. Meyer has battled criticisms about outdated and harmful gender roles for years, and the switch, a romance between female vampire Edythe and male human Beau, is meant to address that. She begins the book by writing:

“Bella has always gotten a lot of censure for getting rescued on multiple occasions, and people have complained about her being a typical damsel in distress. My answer to that has always been that Bella is a human in distress, a normal human being surrounded on all sides by people who are basically superheroes and supervillains. She’s also been criticised for being too consumed with her love interest, as if that’s somehow just a girl thing. But I’ve always maintained that it would have made no difference if the human were male and the vampire female – it’s still the same story. Gender and species aside, Twilight has always been a story about the magic and obsession and frenzy of first love.”

 The same day Life and Death was published, Rainbow Rowell’s newest novel Carry On was released – and by contrast, not only did people know this one was coming out, it was one of the most hotly-anticipated books this autumn. Carry On’s origin story is unique, too: its protagonist, Simon Snow, the “worst Chosen One who’s ever been chosen”, originated in Rowell’s 2013 celebrated YA novel Fangirl, about a girl who writes fanfiction about the Harry Potter-esque Simon Snow series. Carry On is a self-contained (and utterly magical) work, but it also sits side-by-side with two other texts about Simon Snow: the “canonical” excerpts in Fangirl by the “original” author Gemma T Leslie and the fanfic written by Fangirl’s protagonist, Cath.

Like Life and Death, part of the pleasure and intrigue of Carry Onlies in these intertextual relationships. But when Life and Death and Carry On have been mentioned in the same breath these past few weeks, it was most often to call them works of fanfiction. It’s undeniable that both books employ techniques that are popular with fanfiction writers, who do things like gender-bending or filling in gaps all the time – if you’re fanfictionally-inclined, you’re always looking for another way into a story. And they’re doing what the best fanfiction does: engaging in a conversation with another work, or a whole host of other works. I wrote about this regarding Carry On upon the book’s release, and even though Stephenie Meyer has declared Life and Death “not a real book” (which is confusing but she can call it what she wants?), it’s still a text written in relation to another text, a critical tool even if it’s meant as a response to her critics.

. . . .

[W]e’re increasingly seeing people call things “fanfiction” as a compliment, meant to lift up both fanfiction and the work that draws the comparison. Some of this is grounded in historical precedent: when we reference famous works of literature that play fanfiction’s games, we work to ground our modern practices in the “seriousness” of literary history. Sometimes we talk about bigger ideas of influence and retelling – like, say, much of Shakespeare’s work – but sometimes our examples get as specific as the tropes that fill the best fic. Two of the most famous modern examples, Tom Stoppard’sRosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, both take minor characters from famous works (Hamlet and Jane Eyre, respectively) and twist the stories from their perspectives. The first piece I ever published about fanfiction, during the explosion of 50 Shades of Grey and the resulting media narrative that painted the vast world of fanfiction as a tawdry black hole, was explicitly meant to draw these comparisons, to suggest that fic deserves just as much intellectual praise as “real” literature.

. . . .

It comes down, as it often does, to money. Because money, and a lack of it, is at the heart of long-held tensions about fanworks. Fanfiction is overwhelmingly the product of unpaid labour, millions and millions of words given freely, whether for legal reasons or community norms. Because it isn’t compensated – and because it is so often done by women it is devalued, as an art form and as a way to spend one’s time. When money is added to the mix, whether in giant pull-to-publish book deals or, increasingly, fanfiction contests and authors sponsored by television networks and Hollywood studios, the place that fanworks occupy in the vast sphere of adaptation and reworking begins to shift. And not always for the better.

Link to the rest at The New Statesman and thanks to Toni for the tip.


14 Comments to “What is fanfiction, anyway?”

  1. I find it interesting how many people are trying to find a way to monetize fan fiction. Authors of fan fiction mostly do it for their love of the characters and the love of writing. Now it is becoming a business with websites like Wattpad providing a one stop shop for agents and publishers to peruse.

  2. It doesn’t matter what it is and how it’s monetized: eventually it comes down to Will the readers buy it? And Does the publisher make out like a bandit, break even, or take a bath?

    Some writers get fans and sales – everyone else is trying to piggyback on the writer.

    The marketplace is fickle – and not stupid.

  3. quality determines literary merit.

  4. I’ve always defined fan fiction as “playing in someone else’s sandbox,” with the understanding that this is something you do for free. I’ve changed the definition to include paid play, as in people who write the Star Trek/Star Wars/Gossip Girl books.

    If someone wants to *get paid* for writing in someone else’s sandbox, then it should be a licensed property (Star Trek) or with the author’s blessing (Honorverse books) or wait for it to enter the public domain (Wide Sargasso Sea). It’s only fair. I don’t see the point about whining about whether fan fic writers are compensated if they write outside those parameters.

    As far as prestige, I haven’t noticed that paid tie-ins get much respect, either. We value originality so much so that it’s a shock to students to learn that Ye Olde Greeks and Shakespeare used pre-existing stories as their material.

    I had coworkers who prided themselves on their home cooking. They looked down on Sandra Lee, the “semi-home made” cook on the Food Network. Originality = good, sweat of your brow = good. Taking pre-made material and adding a flourish or two = too easy, anyone can do it, ergo it’s not respected. That’s just how it is. Fanfic writers shouldn’t let that stop them. Theirs is not the only genre with low prestige; just ignore the critics and let the readers be the judge.

    Beyond that, isn’t it a compliment if readers care so much about your story that they find ways to keep it going?

  5. I write Pride & Prejudice fanfic, short and sweet (well, actually pretty spicy for Regency), under my not-so-secret pen name, Lily Lord. I can rely on that for a base income in addition to my original material.

    The books are fun and fast, and very light. Though I actually try to tackle some interesting questions about marital relations during that era.

    Darcy and Lizzy, the original handsome billionaire and his virginal wife… what happened after the happily ever after?

  6. I wonder if there’s been any interest in Meyer’s gender-bending book. Apart from the announcement awhile back, I haven’t seen anything about it until this article (not that that means anything). Has anyone here read the book?

    • I haven’t, but so far I’ve only heard not good things from fandom about it.

    • Everything I hear suggests she ripped herself off, destroyed her credibility as a writer, and abused the goodwill of her fans. In the old days she could have let the book go out of print and sat on the rights so that it could never be printed again. It would be interesting to see how she recovers her reputation in the Internet Is Forever era.

  7. 40% of the Kindle ratings for Life and Death are one star, and 10% are 2 star. Ouch.

    • The article sounds like she wrote the book to placate SJWs. So it’s not likely to please most readers, who are looking for real characters rather than politically-correct role models.

      • What was also interesting is how many purchasers were complaining about the price. The ebook is $12.99, the hardcover $13.19, and, oddly, there’s a paperback shown at $15.67. And the reviewers who noted these price points all seemed to be implying this was Meyer’s fault, and not her publisher’s. Cannot see how this does anything but generate ill-will.

      • There you go again.

      • Learn a new song, Eddy. We’re tired of this one.

  8. > and because it is so often done by women it is devalued,

    what difference does the gender of the author of fanfic have to do with the topic?

    It’s unpaid because all work done prior to signing any contract is unpaid. It remains unpaid because it uses copyrighted/trademarked settings/characters so to sell it would require approval of the original author (and not many authors are willing to give this permission)

    it’s ‘devalued’ because it’s recognized that it can’t be sold (and also because it’s hard to pick out the ‘good’ fanfic from the ‘bad’ fanfic) and because the author of the fanfic isn’t creating the universe and characters.

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