The Other F-Word: An Author’s Bid to Reclaim FanFiction

This is the first post in a new weekly series titled FanFiction Fridays. Every Friday for the next few months, an eclectic mix of writers will guest-post on FanFiction (please go here for a controversial definition). You will be hearing from Computer Science majors and published authors and FanFic writers and Drama geeks. FanFiction is fascinating to me brings up issues of technology and copyright, originality and creative derivation, gender-norms and digital communities.

Beginning the series is my good friend Lilly, or Lillian DeRitter: Lillian DeRitter is a Directing Major at the Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama. She recently won the Carnegie Mellon University Press Prize for Fiction.


In an earlier post, Jessica applied the term “fanfiction” to works like “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” and The Red Tent. My largest objection to this is semantic: the word “fan.” “Fan” immediately sets up an unequal relationship between original creator and derivative author. When artists treat their fans well, we pat them on the back.

Oh, how kind you were to give that lady an autograph when you were out shopping!

Oh, how lovely of you to stop and talk to fans on the red carpet!

Celebrities and producers talk a lot about thanking their fans, about being responsible to their fans, but aside from the odd “Day with ____” contest, they rarely spend more than a minute with one of their admirers. A fan is somebody who is so separated from the object of their admiration that if that object stoops to acknowledge them, he or she is expected to be grateful for it. That is not how literature should be treated. Ever.

All art is derivative, this is something every creative artist knows unless they are a very ignorant and self involved individual (and that person is derivative too.) Every work of art, experience, telemarketing call, and traffic ticket goes into an artist’s little bag of tricks. An artist cannot think “what if…?” if there is no what in the first place. Yes, not all of us create derivative work in the copyright sense (i.e. work that includes major, copyright-protected elements of an original, previously created first work), but we are all derivative. Why put a word in there that makes the author of a derivative work completely beholden to the author who influenced them, especially when, in the case of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”, the author has been dead for over four hundred years?

The literary world refers to these types of work as parallel fiction, or derivative fiction, mostly because not all of the works that are used are emulated in the way a fan would. “Fan” comes from the term fanatic, a person, who according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “marked by excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion.” Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea sharply criticizes Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre by reclaiming Rochester’s first wife, the infamous “madwoman in the attic” as a biracial heiress who has been abused by the predictably awful Rochester. (Seriously, Mr. Rochester is the 19th century’s Edward Cullen. So attractive until you notice his abusive personality.)

I am well aware that the reclamation of the term “fan” is underway, bringing it further from its Latin root, fanaticus, or frenzied by a deity. Fans have begun to hold their creators accountable (the most notable example being the letdown and ensuing rebellion that stemmed from Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.) Disney fans have also fought back against the companies rampant lawsuits over their licensed characters. (Though I’m not sure they ever won…)

There are some writers of published derivative fiction that do characterize themselves as fans of their sources. Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked, has an admiration for The Wizard of Oz that verges on worship. I recently got a chance to speak to Mr. Maguire at a literary conference I attended. Much of his childhood play revolved around the world of Oz, and he talked about how frustrating it was to stop the game, to know that Dorothy was frozen there, lost in Oz. I think that a lot of derivative work stems from this feeling, this need to continue a world that has been put on pause because the original creator is not there to continue it.

On the notion of fanfiction, I asked Mr. Maguire, if there was any narrative universe a writer couldn’t explore ethically. Without pausing he replied,

“There is no such universe. No door is locked if the pen is sharp enough. […] Of course, there is a difference between writing and playing and selling.”

He said that he didn’t know what he would have done if the Oz books were still under copyright: “probably not publish.” (It turned out that they had entered the public domain less than three months before Harper Collins received his first draft of Wicked.) On a side note, he does not characterize his work as fanfiction.

In the best case, fanfiction enriches the work it emulates, while acknowledging where it came from. In the worst, it devolves into badly written erotica and rape fantasy. Kind of like “real” literature. The sooner we can move fanfiction as a genre closer to the rest of the literary world, the sooner authors will stop getting sued for their work. Part of that can be giving up a name that has handicapped creators from protecting themselves from large corporations and from the negative connotations the term “fanfiction” now has attached to it. The term “fan” does not protect anyone from legal action, in fact, most corporations have no qualms about “suing their fans.” [Update on the lawsuit: Rowling won in September 2008.]

Reclamation is a long process. A process that may outlive the interest and ambitions of most fanfiction authors. There is great derivative work out there that isn’t reaching as far as it could because the term “fanfiction” hangs around its neck. The writers and script doctors who write for franchises like Star Wars or Buffy the Vampire Slayer are doing the same thing most fanfiction writers do. The franchise writers are getting paid and the  fanfiction writers are getting sued. The two differences are authorization and labels. It’s pretty hard to get authorized, but not that difficult to pick a different label.

Inspirational Quote:

“You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.”–Neil Gaiman


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