On fans, and fiction, and fanfiction

Hi, everyone.

As I’m gearing up for FanExpo in Toronto in just a couple of weeks, I thought I’d write something about the intersection of writing and fandom. Conveniently enough, I’ve been prompted to write about fanfiction.

It’s recently been brought to my attention that Amazon.com has opened the door to licensed fan fiction. Most recently, the news has broken that whomever Kurt Vonnegut Jr. foolishly bequeathed his copyrights to has licensed them off to Amazon on the cheap, so that anyone who likes can now write, and sell, books using Vonnegut’s characters and set in his universe.

The possibilities for this are endless. Kilgore Trout vs. the Moon Men; Kilgore Trout Meets Frankenstein, and so on. As Jacob Kastrenakes has shrewdly quipped, “Amazon wants you to write Slaughterhouse-Six.” For many people, this is perhaps rightly regarded as a Bad Thing, although a lot of people are having trouble articulating why. Rob Bricken has written a scare piece for io9.com which centers its objections on the idea that this is unethical and in poor taste, but only because Kurt Vonnegut is a good writer where other writers are bad. As Bricken writes,

[t]he man is one of America’s literary icons. To allow fan fiction based on his work is a disgrace to it, because while someone might write a Vampire Diaries story as good as the original Vampire Diaries author, there is no goddamned way anyone is going to write a story starring Kurt Vonnegut’s characters as well as Vonnegut did.

 This is just as insane as if the works of William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Harper Lee or J.D. Salinger were added to the Kindle Worlds program — and just in case Amazon somehow thinks that’s a good idea, IT’S NOT. DON’T DO IT.

I disagree on principle with how Bricken divides “high art” from “low art,” and not just because it leads to an unmanageable aesthetic discussion. Is Vonnegut really as good as Faulkner? If he is, what about Philip K. Dick? But if Dick is “high art,” what about Suzanne Collins? Her Hunger Games trilogy is exactly the kind of overpopularized, “geeky” speculative fiction that fanfics are being legalized to capitalize on.

This false business of “high” and “low” art has existed since Plato. It’s part of why lay folk everywhere know who Jane Austen is, but only literary scholars know who Ann Radcliffe is, even though she was vastly more popular during their lifetimes. It’s why Seth Grahame-Smith’s original extraordinarily clever “derivative work,” Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, is considered no closer to “high” art than the awful similar mashups (Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Android Karenina) which were hastily commissioned of worse authors to capitalize on Grahame-Smith’s unexpected runaway success. We should not forget that Shakespeare was something like the Joss Whedon of his generation—a guy with a surprising literary pedigree, the best in his business, but a guy who wrote for a popular genre which was not treated, then, as something of lasting literary value. And Shakespeare, of course, has spawned an enormously rich pedigree of fanfic which was valuable and original in its own right: Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, for one, or the classic Bernstein/Sondheim West Side Story. These are, in a sense, fanfics—derivative works based on Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet, respectively. Why are these not considered “fanfics?” It’s because the term is pejorative, denoting (quite rightly sometimes) writing that is amateurish, undisciplined, sloppy, and plain bad. But it’s also because we now treat theatre, thanks in large part to Shakespeare, as a form of “high art” rather than lowbrow popular schlock fit for the groundlings, a crowd now relegated to the genres of Internet fanfics and reality TV.

But if it’s not a question of Vonnegut’s “superiority” as a novelist, or of some elitist hierarchy (Let us not forget, Vonnegut wouldn’t even make the cut of Harold Bloom’s stody old canon), what is it that offends us so about this development? Is it just the licensing, the whoring out of copyright to others? No—George R. R. Martin fans, by and large, are quite thrilled to see a TV made out of A Song of Ice and Fire. Solid movie versions of The Life of Pi and even the unfilmable Cloud Atlas have pleased audiences this year. Never has the business of the “franchise reboot” been such a large or profitable one; and never have we asked for less time between our heroes’ reincarnations.

What actually offends me about the move, then? And what should concern us all? Two things bother me, though I’ll admit the first of these is a personal offense, founded in taste: authors care about their characters and worlds, and spend enormous effort in creating them, and their reward for this is creative control. George Lucas is a good example of this in action: anything George Lucas says on the subject of Star Wars is known in the fan community as “G-canon,” something like a universal trump. Even his most casual off-hand remark on the Star Wars universe sends writers and continuity checkers scurrying to bring the universe in line with his vision, such as that time he jokingly renamed a character from the original movie after talk-show host Conan O’Brien. Even when we admit that George Lucas’s judgment is pretty poor, even when fans rage against some of the changes he’s brought to the franchise, from Han shooting first to the stilted dialogue of the New Trilogy, there’s not much we can do about it. Up until very recently, at least, it’s been his universe, and he’s been able to do as he pleases with it.

Now, in the licensing world we have Star Wars novelists, some of them very good (Zahn, for one). But how does George Lucas feel about (spoiler warning) Drizzt Saga writer R.A. Salvatore killing off Chewbacca like a punk? Notwithstanding the hypocrisy that Salvatore’s too attached to his own hulking brute Wulfgar to let him stay dead, this is the kind of thing that derivative licensing can do to a canon. Think about Serenity and how sore people are about killing off Wash. Now imagine if Joss Whedon had licensed the rights to someone else, and they’d decided it was a good idea to arbitrarily off him.

Character-killing, of course, is only one example of the mayhem that fans, with no conduit to the author, can and will disrupt. Suppose Bricken’s slippery-slope argument comes true, and Vonnegut is only the first of many recently-dead writers whose copyrights are licensed off to Internet fanfic. I’ve already got my first licensed fanfic in mind—a lovely little gay-erotica sequel to Salinger, teasingly called “The Pitcher In The Rye.” Now, gay erotica is great stuff and it should be allowed, even welcomed; that’s not the point. The point is that gay erotica Catcher-In-The-Rye stuff is disrespectful to the author’s original vision, and unless it’s deliberately handled like ridiculous parody—as in the case of this list of the worst porn parodies you’ll ever see—it has considerable disruptive potential, violently rewriting our experience of the original and how it is read.

Suppose Harper Lee dies, and somebody licenses her rights to To Kill A Mockingbird, and some white supremacist writes a “fanfic” in which Atticus Finch is lynched for deigning to defend a black man? That can happen, and I’ll tell you something else: there are still plenty of racists in the Southern U.S. who would buy it. There’d be controversy, which breeds press, which brings attention, and before you know it it’d be the best-seller of the bunch. Everyone in Sanford, Florida would want a copy on their coffee table and a second in their gun locker. I’ll bet you that I could set myself to rewriting and selling violently racist revisions of the classics, and I bet I could make a living at it.

This is admittedly a long way from The Pitcher in the Rye. But my point is that once the box is opened, there’s no getting this stuff back in it. Once you’ve granted a license, that’s it. The Han Solo Carbonite Chamber Dance Party is now a real thing, and I’m going to think of it, just a little bit, every time I see Harrison Ford from now on.

But the second effect of this development, and the one that I’m more afraid of, is one that affects a larger portion of the mainstream: the idea that fanfiction is worth selling, that you can make better money by writing about somebody else’s better-known and more established franchise than you can by developing your own.

“Fan fiction” by definition is amateurish. It’s what separates Timothy Zahn and even R. A. Salvatore, licensed authors in the Star Wars expanded universe, from people who write Star Wars fanfics for the Internet. By definition, it’s unaffiliated, and it’s done for free. The idea that you can make money doing this—that consumers will pay you to do this out of their increasingly shallow discretionary spending—supports derivative writing at the expense of originality.

If more of the companies who own dead people’s copyrights start licensing them for fanfic, we’ll see a drop in the amount of good, original literature. We’ll have fewer literary worlds to explore, and the ones we do have will be overcrowded, contradictory, and even the best examples of the genre will be a little poisoned by the worst. This will first happen, of course, in speculative fiction, where it’s popularly believed that a good setting allows you to skimp on story. People with no originality, no ideas, no plot, and maybe even no grammatical skill of their own, will dive into writing secure in the knowledge that the familiarity and richness of someone else’s brilliant setting will save them.

And this will sell.

I have no illusions that I could set, in my own unproven world, a book capable of outselling the worst doggerel I could ever churn out about the early life of Professor Snape. Consumers, as a result of all this, will spend their discretionary dollars on inferior Tolkien and Douglas Adams retreads rather than paying hard-working, original writers for the important job of continuing to invent new things and ideas.

Consider even the tragically aborted universe of Firefly—a universe cut short so soon that it seems, at first glance, ripe for more new and original stories. We want the whole movie retconned, and we all want the original crew to reunite (Wash included) and keep flying for another seven seasons. This nostalgia makes us hungry for fan-texts—so hungry, in fact, that I sat through all of the awfully-scripted Browncoats: Redemption just because it was there, and it was in the ’Verse, and it was made with love.

The whole philosophical heart of the show, of course, is that love was a necessary condition to keep your ship in the air. But it’s not a sufficient condition, remember: all the love in the ’Verse doesn’t get Serenity running again until Captain Mal staggers into the engine room and replaces that one critical part that’s broken. You have to have love AND a catalyzer to stay airborne. A ship, like a well-written franchise, doesn’t run on fondness and sweet-talk for very long.

And yet in very large part, that’s what we get. The upcoming Firefly MMO, which was one of the greatest false-alarm moments of joy in this fanboy’s life, looks to be a glorified Farmville sporadically littered with the words “gorram” and “shiny” and whatever else developers could parrot from the finite amount of Whedon and Minnear’s series dialogue. Watching Browncoats: Redemption was a similar experience, a rehash of pre-existing dialogue in the mouths of slightly new crew: this girl is the new Wash. This guy is the Jayne because he’s the only actor they had with any muscles. Like many fan films, of course, they seem to fly through a ’Verse unrealistically overpopulated with twentysomethings. Like many fan films, they were too busy replicating someone else’s world with inadequate resources and technical expertise, rather than concentrating on what they had available to them. Their cardboard Firefly was a Firefly on good faith alone. Had it been a proprietary model, fans’ goodwill would not have kept the gauges from peeling off.

Had this been a film, rather than a Firefly fan film, I’d put it only one level above Birdemic: Shock and Terror in its writing, acting, effects, and overall execution. The only thing that makes it watchable is our shared fandom, our nostalgic affection for a setting we fell in love with because of Joss Whedon’s originality and the unbelievably slick dialogue that he and co-writer Tim Minear left us with. But now, riffing endlessly on throwaway lines like “Big damn heroes” and “I aim to misbehave”—now-iconic lines which were as cheap as salt to the clever, original writers—accomplishes nothing new under the sun, except reminding us of what was gone. Derivative writers in this vein are the equivalent of that guy who remembers all your dead uncle’s jokes, and thinks that (a)by telling them again, he’s as funny as your dead uncle was, and (b)that telling them will somehow bring your dead uncle back.

Some people, of course, tell these jokes better than others. And it is true that sharing these words again helps to keep them alive after they’re gone. It’s a way of remembering, of commemorating, of celebrating something that we have loved together. But in the end, this is what fanfiction is: retelling somebody else’s jokes. If you’re good at it, you can take something old and make it new again.

If you are a writer, as I am, and if you consider yourself a fan of Harper Lee, as I do, the best thing to do is likewise write a book which preserves your experience of a place—and maybe, if you are lucky, one which changes the way people think about each other and the world around them. I’m not sure the spirit of that book would be best served by a few more slices of life regarding what goes on in sleepy little Maycomb, Alabama, or a few more chapters in the life of Atticus or Scout Finch.

You could, indeed, write that book, and it could theoretically be outstanding. But if it were any good at all, it would not be because of your stolen setting. You’d be better off without trying to ape Harper Lee. You’d be better off writing a book of your own, in a world of your own, even if rape and racism and Southern law are your big themes. John Grisham, in A Time To Kill, wrote his own book about exactly that. He didn’t write Harper Lee fanfic—but there’s nothing in A Time To Kill that suggests it couldn’t have been made into a spinoff or sequel with minimal tweaking.

I’m starting to see myself not as a fan of this franchise or that, but as a fan of good writing, of good storytelling, of good ideas. What we miss about Firefly was neither the space nor the horses, nor the words “shiny” and “gorram” which are actually pretty dumb. We smile when we hear them only because of what they represent—a rich and brilliant world of original good ideas and good stories. We only laugh at our dead uncle’s jokes because they remind us of just how funny he really was. Whether we call our writing “fanfic” or not, the only real test of whether writing is good or bad is where your best ideas flow up from. Do you buy your nourishing ideas from someone, or steal them, as if stealing a loaf of bread or a bottle of water? Or is there an oven inside you, a wellspring, which provides from within?

If your wellspring is flowing, you will write good fanfiction, only because you would be writing good regular fiction too. If it’s not, all the Vonnegut in the ’Verse won’t help you.

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