Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Fanfiction Kerfuffle

After recently reading some recent blog posts and journal threads about fanfiction (which I'm too lazy to link to), I thought I'd mull over my own views on this topic. For the record (and as I think my dear Id and Self, Jack and Puck, made abundently clear during their stint in charge), I'd probably be chuffed to see readers digging my building-blocks of characters and settings enough to want to play with them. Hell, I can hardly complain about literary reuse, having written and published "The Disappearance of James H___" over at Strange Horizons, which pretty much does that -- takes another writers' building-blocks and tries to put together something new with them. However, as a writer I can see all too easily where the objections to fanfiction come from. I don't share those objections for reasons I'll get to presently, but I do think many of them are valid. So maybe I can explain the why of them.

See, one phrase I've seen used in some of those threads by fanfiction writers is, I think, a good clue to where they might be missing the root of the primary objection of writers who get shirty about fanfiction. That phrase is "playing in another's sandbox". That's a wrong way to think about it, a deeply wrong way, because the literary stuff being played with is not like sand, not for most writers, not at all. It's not formless, shapeless, infinitely malleable. Hell, a fuckload of work went into shaping those characters and settings; time and energy and, often, identity went into the construction of the personalities and cultures inhabiting a work of fiction. But that metaphor sets up a false division between the character and setting as mere rough material (the sandbox) and the story as fine detailed construction (the sandcastles). The fanfiction writer is placing themselves in the role of architect, the builder of the sandcastle, and placing the original creator in the role of... what? Someone who dug a hole in their backyard and shovelled it full of sand. A mere supplier of construction material.

Metaphors are important to writers. Every image has implicities. And the implicities of that image are not going to win you many supporters among the writer-dudes.

So, I use the phrase "building-blocks". It's not that much better, but it might at least suggest that what we're dealing with in characters and settings is not shapeless sand but rather crafted objects. If words are the Lego bricks of writing, settings are elaborate cities, whole streets and buildings built from those bricks, on a scale that you can step into and walk around in; characters are huge monumental sculptures, carefully placed in relationships to each other that, if they work, balance in a sometimes terrible, sometimes beautiful, blend of harmony and conflict. Stories are in part just those relationships, in part the brick-built bridges and expressways, like a monorail that leads the reader through the Lego city, around the sculptures, in a carefully-laid out path from A to B to C. The main point here is simply that those components -- the characters and settings -- if the crafting of them wasn't so full of effort, and if that effort didn't result in something kinda fuckin cool, well, fanfiction writers wouldn't be wanting to play with them... and the sandpit metaphor disrespects that effort. No, the writer is not just some spoiled brat who doesn't want to share his toys. He might be a po-faced uncle with no sense of humour who's built a full reproduction of the Battle of Little Big Horn in miniature and doesn't take kindly to your playing cowboys and injuns with his models. He might do well to lighten up a little. But don't disrespect the craft. I'm sure that's not what's intended by the "playing in someone else's sandbox" metaphor, but, as I say... images have implicities.

The subsidiary point is that, to many writers, the whole kit-and-kaboodle -- characters and settings and the pathways by which the reader experiences them -- are One Big Thing. To fuck with one part is to fuck with it all. Like taking a painting and deciding, well, I like the background and the foreground, the whole structural composition, but its not glossy enough, it's all grey and miserable, so I think I'll paint it over in nice primary colours so it's all pretty. That Caravaggio is so dark and gloomy; let's lighten it up a little! That Picasso is so blue and sad; let's make it bright and orangey so it makes me feel smiley! Wouldn't it be so much more fun if we had courageous Custer killing all the bad injuns?

Now, fanfiction doesn't strictly speaking change the work. It just builds new pathways through the terrain, creates a new... tour of the Lego city. It takes those sculptures and re-arranges them in the reader's experience, changing their relationships with each other. It may even make some minor adjustments in the way the sculptures themselves appear, or in how we see the terrain, by sticking some more weird sculptures up along the side of that new path. As we pass, we see this extra piece of Lego craftwork superimposed over the original, so that they seem to blend, so that we see a slightly different thing than that presented to us by the author. The fanfiction writer can't ever change the original but they can offer a different experience of it. Again, of course, this is where some writers get shirty, because the book -- the characters, the setting, the story -- is as much the experience in the reader's imagination as it is the words upon the page. And fanfiction can, while not changing the original text, functionally speaking, change the experience, adding interpolations which, in the writer's opinion, don't belong. The characters and settings as the reader experiences them become a redaction of countless different versions. You're writing a simple relationship of envy and bullying between a boy wizard and a spoiled brat; suddenly you know that half your readership are primed to take even the subtlest turn of phrase as sexual innuendo, a subtext of repressed homosexual desire. And as interesting as that reading of the relationship might be, it's not the story that you're trying to write.

It's like having a few thousand editors and book doctors, slipping new scenes in between every chapter...

Writer: Hey, hey, wait a minute! What the fuck is Harry doing in bondage gear here, giving Draco a blowjob?!

Editors: Chill, man. Don't worry about it. The orginal chapters are still there; we haven't changed those. And we've put our names on the sections we wrote so everybody will know that they're not actually yours.

Writer: But, but, but...

Me, I'm interested in that process, but I can understand entirely the viewpoint of a writer who feels that, sorry, you just ain't got the right to fuck with my Lego city in that way. I built it and I run the tours. Take yer weird-ass feelthy perversions and get the fuck out of my world. Because those tours, those stories, the reading experience is a process of communication, of self-expression. The writer has something to say, and they've built a whole fucking Lego city to say it with. Fanfiction appropriates that city and uses it to say something else entirely. And what if that something else is abhorrent to the ethics of the writer?

Writer: But, but, but... these characters are kids. Man, this is sick.

Editors: Come on. They're clearly locked into a subconscious love/hate tension that's just waiting to rip loose when they realise the true nature of their feelings for one another.

Writer: Gerrout!

Imagine you write a hero; call him Jack Flash. He's blond-haired and blue-eyed, dashing but bugfuck-crazy. You want to use him to subvert the cliches of heroic fiction. You show him fighting blackshirts in a fucked-up steampunk world where Britain is a fascist state, blowing up shit left, right and centre. But it's important to you, deeply important, that the reader shouldn't just be getting a cosy, reassuring power-fantasy, a shallow make-believe world which denies the realities of modern-day neo-nazis. Deep down you want to challenge the heroic story-pattern where violence is the final solution because you have a strong belief in pacifism, because final solutions like that, you think, lead inevitably to, well, that other type of Final Solution. To fight the Empire is to become it, as PKD said. Then someone takes that character and world and tells a story which, in terms of its moral message, pisses on everything you believe in. All it says is, yeah, violence is cool! Blowing up shit is cool! Smash the State! Anarchy, fuck yeah!

Ultimately this ethical objection is, if you want to take it to extremes, that of an artist whose painting gets used in a propaganda campaign by a regime they consider heinous. You have a simple painting of a worker in a field. He looks all noble and honest, but over in the corner of the painting there's a starving beggar-woman who undercuts any idealisation of peasant life. This is a hard life, the painting says. This is poverty, suffering. The peasant life is a miserable one. So the Ministry of Information just crop the painting, cut the woman out, and plaster posters all round the country, with slogans celebrating the good folk of Stalin's Russia, Hitler's Germany.

This is one reason writers want to keep creative control. Because ideas are powerful and with power comes responsibility. You create something which gets used to tell other stories about the world, stories that you consider deeply wrong, and you ain't gonna like it. People take your tools and turn them into weapons, well, you might well have some objections. You feel partly responsible.

As I say, I'm kinda interested in the thematic inversions and reinterpretations you get with fanfiction. I prefer my work to have ethical tensions rather than a straightforward moral message, so someone taking Jack Flash and using him to express a belief system maybe even utterly inimicable to my own would, for me, only add to that tension, complexify the meaning of the character. I mean, if some nazi fuck wrote a story which lionised the BNP I might well be speaking to a lawyer, but that's an unlikely extreme; the core idea of VELLUM is of characters existing in different worlds, as different avatars, so the inversions and reinterpretations of fanfiction are entirely in keeping with my fragmented multiple-perspective approach. In fact, as my take on a character I consider archetypal, universal, the wild rebel hero as symbol of the Id, it would be disingenuous of me to object to other takes on that archetype.

But I can easily imagine other writers being less happy about their building-blocks of characters and settings being put to other purposes.

Of course there's also the entirely selfish financial objection. You want to set up your own tour through my domain? says the writer. I don't care if you're charging admission or not; it's mine, all of it, the characters and settings as well as the stories. I'm the only one gets to use those tools, cause I built them from scratch. I'm the only one who runs tours in this Lego city because I built the fucker, piece by piece, street by street, sculpture by sculpture. The admission I charge isn't just for the tour; it's for the blood, sweat and tears I put into this part here, that part there. Go build your own Lego city, ya lazy bastard.

Yes, this is selfish, but its also self-preservation. There's value in the niftiness of the Lego cities themselves (if there wasn't, if those building-blocks of character and setting didn't have pulling power, the fanfiction wouldn't exist). That value can be converted into cash by setting up tours and charging folks the price of admission. If the author is good and lucky, they get some nice publisher to run the PR for the tours, to get people in the door and take care of the money matters; in return the author takes their cut but retains complete control over their Lego city. Of course, turning these tours into a paying business makes it all complicated and legal. The publishers run tours for many Lego-cities. They could afford to hire some hack to create a copy of your Lego city for a one-time fee and run tours round that without charging you a dime. Some scurrilous rogue could build their own facsimile, make a deal with a publisher who'd never seen your work, and make a pretty penny from all your hard work. Hell, with no dues to pay the writer, those bastards could throw more cash into the PR and before you know it, everyone's touring the copy instead of yours, while you're scraping the pennies together, eating dog food just to survive.

Hence copyright legislation. It's a simple deal. If you want to see my Lego-city at all, if you want me to run tours, then those tour operators gotta promise me they won't fuck me over by running tours round a copy. All of them gotta agree. Or rather, the government has to say, OK, this is how it works, has to assure me that I can come down like a ton of bricks on anyone who tries to rip off my hard work, copyist and tour operator alike. And that includes some Joe Schmoe with a small one-man business, doing it all himself, building the Lego-city and running the tour. Even if they're running that tour for free and the only PR is a link on some website to the online door into their copy of my work. The deal is that if I open up the doors to my Lego-city it's on the understanding that only I can grant the right to make copies, the copyright. I license the tour operators to run the business end, but at the end of the day I retain control of the supply.

Supply and demand. This is where fanfiction makes it gnarly because with particularly nifty Lego-cities there might well be a demand for other tours, new tours, which the author themself has neither the time nor the inclination to satisfy. And there's nothing -- nothing at all -- wrong with some fanfiction writer wanting to do that so much that they satisfy their own demand by building their own copy, in the privacy of their own home, and creating their own wee tour for themself. Hell, this is what any reader does with a book in some respects. They come out of your Lego-city with a copy of it in their head, one subtly altered by their own unique experiences, their own imaginative recreation of the original. If it shifts, expands, blossoms in their imagination in new directions, new potentialities, if they return to it in their imagination, seeking to explore terrain not covered by your tour... well, fuckin A! Result!

But that supply and demand is a tricky thing. You want to supply your own demand for new tours of my Lego-city? That's cool as fuck. You want to supply the demands of others? Well, now it gets thorny. I could be supplying that demand, after all. Hell, maybe the tour you've come up with is the very one I'm working on for the sequel. And as the supplier it's my prerogative to decide who gets to service that demand and how -- that's what we agreed on when I opened up the doors. Dude, I got a mortgage to pay. If anyone's going to smoke my stash they gotta come to me.

Me, I'm with the authors who say, well, if you're not charging for it, well, I ain't going to let you do anything you want, I'm not giving up my copyright here, making it all public domain, but as long as you treat the toys with respect, let's just say I'm none too bothered about you playing with them. J.K. Rowling seems to have a smart attitude to the Harry Potter slash, politely asking that this stuff be kept away from kiddies in members-only sites, so some eight-year-old doesn't find themselves reading about Harry and Draco in some fucked-up BDSM wank-fest, you know. And I can't imagine it's done her sales any harm.

But again, I can understand that other writers would get fucked-off about it. I mean, my own characters Jack and Puck are queer to the core. Knowing them, they'd love nothing more than a Yaoi slash site full of pictures of them in the filthiest of positions, stories of the most sordid depravity. And if they want to go out and play in the imaginations of others, fuck it, who am I to stop them? But that's my own perhaps eccentric position; other writers are a tad more protective of their creations and I ain't going to criticise them for that. It's a losing battle, practically speaking, fighting the blossoming of copies across the internet, trying to close down those unlicensed tours of unofficial copies... but they got a right to be surly about it. Hell, they got a right to sue the ass off the copyist if they want to; so if all they're doing is grumbling, cut them some slack.

But I don't think I've adequately defined fanfiction here yet. There's a lot of different ways to reuse characters and settings, and some of those threads I mentioned at the start of this, I think, confuse the boundaries between quite different things. Fanfiction is a dodgy term, I'd say, a bit woolly and vague. Fiction written by fans? What if you don't actually identify as a "fan" of something, a "fanatic", but you're still essentially doing the same thing, using another's characters and settings, copying their Lego-city and setting up your own tour through it, as my metaphor would have it? Writing a sequel to LITTLE WOMEN or a story based on, say, the early life of a well-known character from children's literature? It does seem a bit precious to distinguish professional reuse from fanfiction -- an artificial double-standard -- but should we assume that all reuse is driven by the same impulse as a Buffy Mary Sue or a Harry Potter slash? Maybe's aye, maybe's naw.

When it comes to derivative work, see, there's umpteen different approaches. There's parody, pastiche, homage, critique, copy, forgery and plagiarism. The first three are all fair use, as long as the derivative work distinguishes itself enough. Parody can lift characters and settings but it has to twist them, fuck them over satirically -- otherwise it's not parody. Pastiche and homage can lift the whole style of writing, but character and setting have to be your own. Pastiche and homage can owe a heavy debt to the works they're riffing off, enough that they're not really what you can call original, but they can't just steal; they have to be distinct. There's a fair whack of pastiche and homage in VELLUM, riffing off of the works of writers like Lovecraft or Moorcock, but I make a point of a) creating those characters and settings from the ground up so they're my own work b) tipping the hat explicitly so as to say, this is pastiche of X, this is homage of Y.

At the other end of the stick you have copies, forgery and plagiarism, which are most definitely not fair use. Fanfiction is neither of the latter two, but it does generally fall into the "copy" category by directly reusing those characters and settings.

What's the distinction here?

A copy doesn't have to be claiming authenticity. So it's not a forgery. Nor does it have to be claiming originality. So it's not plagiarism. A copy can, as much fanfiction does, simply 'fess up to its nature as an appropriation, a reuse, of extant material authored by another, openly saying "this is based on characters and settings created by and owned by X". There's no attempt to pass the copy off as another work by that original creator. Nor is there any attempt to present that work as entirely one's own. That Harry Potter slash is not posted on the web as "by J.K. Rowling", and the writers aren't claiming "these are my characters what I made up myself". But while neither forgery nor plagiarism by a strict definition, those works are breaches of copyright. That caveat means fuck all in a court of law. As I say, it's like setting up your own Lego-city modelled so closely on mine that it can't be considered simply parody, pastiche or homage, setting up your own tours through it and opening it up to the public. It's a copy, and that's verboten under copyright legislation.

So what about critique? This is where I think fanfiction stands or falls by the aesthetic craft of its writers, and its where the pros who reuse work now out of copyright are not considered fanfiction, despite the fact that they're doing pretty much the same thing. The boundary between critique and copy is the blurry middle ground where the divide is drawn between those who accept fanfiction as a legitimate aesthetic form and those who reject it as derivative tosh. It's the point where proponents of fanfiction will point to historical works which took pre-existing characters and settings and turned them into whole new works, while others will scorn such self-aggrandising comparisons and point to the Mary Sues and wank-fantasies, saying, dude, this is not the same thing.

Slash fiction is -- forgive the pun -- right on the edge of this razor-thin blade. Is a Harry / Draco story just a cheap sexploitation yarn, created as nothing more than escapist porn? Or is it an intertextual critique of the relationship between two characters, an investigation of underlying tensions, a hypothetical which starts from the common-place idea that hostility is a superficial mask for repressed desire, and applies that to the work at hand? Is it a one-handed wank-fest for S&M freaks or a Freudian critique of the relationship Rowling presents in her fiction? It depends entirely on the skill of the writer, I'd say. That Harry / Draco could be one or the other. Hell, it could be both.

That interests me, I've got to say. Sure, I think there's a lot of fanfiction written by folks lacking the nous or even the impulse to really get under the skin of a story, to deconstruct it and reconstruct it. But I'm quite sure there's a lot of writers out there doing fanfiction who are interested in the bits and bobs, the characters and settings, not just as variables to click into yet another formulaic fantasy of the boy wizard getting rogered by the blonde bastard, but as objects to be understood, taken apart, tweaked and twisted to see what else they might become, to explore the potentialities.

I kinda respect that because I do that in my own work. Go read "The Disappearance of James H___". Nuff said.

I've always been into that idea of intertextual critique. Coming from a love of pulp, I see the tropes of SF and Fantasy as shiny toys to be fucked around with. Generations of SF/F writers have taken the tropes of others and reused them, reinterpreted them, put new spins upon them. Aliens, robots, vampires, and so on. There's nothing more tempting than the challenge of taking a tired old cliche and finding an angle to it that nobody else has found. Hell, coming from a love of poncy literary stuff, I've snaffled Puck from Shakespeare and made some minor adjustments to use him in my own work. I've rewritten Inanna's Descent, Prometheus Bound, The Bacchae, and I've fucked them over in ways the original authors might well be turning in their graves about. Why? Because characters and settings, once they've entered the public imagination, become shared tropes with latent meanings wider and deeper than the author's intent. I'm interested in what makes people tick and what better doorway into the psyche is there than the archetypes most resonant in one's culture. Harry and Draco, Kirk and Spock -- these are the modern gods, the latter-day Apollo and Dionysus.

At the end of the day, I think there's a potential in fanfiction to provide not just derivative copy but distinct critique. But that critique is -- and I think it has to be -- proscribed by copyright legislation, because unlike parody, pastiche or homage, critique and copy are so close as to be all but indistinguishable. As long as the author's still using those characters and settings, it's their call whether they want to keep them under lock and key, license others to use them, or turn a blind eye to the proliferation of fanfiction. I tend to think the author's copyright should, by default, end with their death, unless otherwise specified in their will. If they want their children to inherit the family silver, keep it under wraps for a few decades out of respect, well, that's fair enough, but if they don't give enough of a fuck to put it in writing, fuck it, why shouldn't those nifty building-blocks become public domain the moment the writer isn't there to use them any more?

What? You're worried that others will write some cheap and tawdry travesty after you're gone? Fuck it, look at the way the loving family of Tolkien dealt with his explicit wish to have no LOTR merchandising ever. Yes, darling Christopher really followed his father's wishes, didn't he? Look at the way Zelazny's will -- which as I understand directly prohibited any sequels to the Amber books -- look at how that has been treated, with a prequel signed off by his estate. Yeeeeees. Well. Cause he didn't say we couldn't have a prequel. Man, if you can't trust your own kids to treat your work the way you want them to, then screw the money-grubbing fuckers. Let the people that actually care about writing have at it.

So what's the upshot of all this rambling?

The point is, we want a Yaoi LiveJournal. When are we getting our Yaoi LiveJournal?

Shut up, Puck.

I mean, Jack's dead easy to draw. He looks just like Jonathan Rhys Meyer, only with spiky orange hair.

No, I don't. I look like Christian Bale.

You wish! And I look like Hans Matheson, only prettier. With green hair. And horns.

Look, I'm trying to sum up here. Both of you just butt out.

Writers. No sense of humour.

Shut. The fuck. Up.

Spank me.

Razzafrazzinschickenfricken fuckin bolshie fuckin prima donna characters! Worse than fuckin children and pets. Just... shut it or I'll kill you off again.

Right then. Where was I?

Trying to score some free porn featuring your favourite characters, but being too lazy to write it yourself?

No, that is not what this is about. I'm trying to make some serious points about why fanfiction gets some writers all riled up while others simply shrug it off. I'm trying to look at the legalities, the ethics and the aesthetics of reuse. I'm trying to --

-score some free porn. Admit it. "Intertextual critique"? Yeah, right. You just want some filthy stories featuring yours truly, but you don't want to ruin any reputation you might have as a "serious writer". With themes and all that boring shit. Man, this full-time writing thing's gone to your head. Next thing you'll be using the word "ludic" instead of "playful", and -- *ow*.

Right then. I guess the point of all this is just that the whole authorial ownership thing is a contract between the writer and the rest of the world. It may be a bit stricter in some ways than some folks would like, but I can't really blame any writer who feels it ought to be stuck to. I wouldn't like to lose that safety net (as in suggestions I've seen of reducing copyright terms to spans that might see a writer's work go public domain in their lifetime), but I just can't imagine myself fussing over some happy wee hobbyist tinkering with copies of my tropes and coming up with free fanfictive PR, healthily homoerotic or otherwise.

Fussing over it? No but you can imagine yourself wan-

That's quite enough of that. Quite enough.

Ye'll have to excuse me while I deal with my wayward creation.

Right then, ya wee bastard. You want slash? I'll give ye fucking slash.



Blogger Sandra, your tropical tour guide said...

The phrase "playing in someone else's sandbox" is not so much about the sand but about the *toys.* The toys!

The majority of fanfiction is written about television and film, the shiniest, brightest, most pervasive forms of entertainment on the planet. It kicked off with Star Trek and Star Wars, which certainly foisted off toys on its loyal consumers. Character and narrative became toys as well for fans to seize and play with. Freely available, pop-culture toys produced by highly profitable corporations. Stealing wasn't even seen as an issue. It was all about entertainment, and entertaining your friends with your homemade fanzines.

Then the net happened, fanfiction got loose everywhere, quality took a nosedive, a hundred thousand kids starting putting up their Harry Potter fanfic, and here we are.

Most writers have a keen sense of ownership about what they create and publish. (Which in part explains why some fanfic writers try to "copyright" their own contributions to a fandom.) Writers are not corporations. We don't have action toys on the shelves next to our books. As individuals, we have nowhere near the mass appeal. So it's not surprising nor disheartening to me that many pro writers try to maintain control.

Me? I'd be delighted if someone wrote fanfic about my novels.

2:26 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Right on, Al!

4:55 pm  
Blogger Tamaranth said...

Serious question but have not properly read your post, so you may've answered it:

Do you think there comes a time when, as an author, you've detached from a particular setting / character, aren't going to do more with it, don't especially mind if someone else does as long as there's no risk that their work's taken for yours?

I'm in two minds about this one, and have seen various writers take one stance or the other. (Robin Hobb: "No, never!" Ellen Kushner: "Cool!")

12:30 am  
Blogger Alice said...

(very belated comment this) - probably not the kind of fan fiction you were thinking of, but there has been a spate of Terry Goodkind parodies over at, in the form of "What XXXXXXX would be like if it had been written by TG," and I thought you might be entertained by the Vellum one:

2:29 pm  

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