Happy 6th anniversay, KAT-TUN! Thank you for providing us this useful visual metaphor for what often happens when other communities and fandom, er, collide!
Hi, MB! This is the first of a series of posts about fandom being written in response to a series of posts about fandom. The romance review site Dear Author is holding a week-long examination of fandom and fanfic—with somewhat confusing results. It’s my goal, through these posts, to argue for a more contemporary view of fandom and fanwork that falls more closely in line with a) how fans actually act in fandom, b) how fanwork actually operates and what it actually does, and c) the actual status of fanwork under the law.
Starting with the first post in the DA series, we have “How I Came to Appreciate Fan Fiction.” This is, overall, a fairly positive post, but it has a lot of outdated assumptions about fandom that I’d like to unpack.
To give Sunita D, today’s contributor, credit where it’s due, there’s probably always a moment of shock upon a first encounter with fanfiction, or doujinshi or yaoi, just like there is with any new concept. Like sporks! Or literal cloud computing! We might think of this first encounter as a moment of simple culture shock. Sunita even describes hers:
Of course I’ve hated certain books’ endings, I’ve wished for sequels, and I’ve thought about the off-page lives of favorite characters. But I’ve never written to authors to ask them to keep writing about a particularly loved protagonist. And I’ve never wanted to write my own versions of books. Not because I thought doing so would be wrong, but because it just never occurred to me.
Whoa, hold on a tic. Already we’ve run into the first of what will be many false assumptions about fandom and especially fanfiction in general throughout the Dear Author series on fanfic.
“I’ve never written to authors to ask them to keep writing about a particularly loved protagonist.”
Okay, but most fans haven’t either. Most fans don’t need to, because our interaction with a canon has very little to do with what’s going on in the author’s head. This is a key aspect of fandom that many people outside of fandom get wrong. Many fans get very nervous and gunshy when the prospect of interacting with creators comes up, because those fans prefer as little contact with the makers of their canons as possible. Please note that this impulse is often not, not, NOT out of shame or embarrassment or fear of reprisals, but rather from a desire not to have the gatekeepers poking their noses in our business. There are exceptions, of course, especially in RPF fandoms; we are seeing something of a cultural shift happen as Twitter puts celebrities and fans in touch with each other on a daily basis. But for the most part, fans go about their business with little regard for TPTB (The Powers That Be). Which brings me to the next mistaken assumption:
“I’ve never wanted to write my own versions of books. Not because I thought doing so would be wrong, but because it just never occurred to me.”
Most fans don’t want to write their own versions of books either. That’s not what fanfic is. Many people think of fanfiction as the practice of trying to prove a creator got it wrong. Not at all. For most fans, most of the time, fanfiction is not about rewriting canon.
Sure, a fan can write fix-it fic—but then they’ll turn write around and write something completely different. Fans explore their canons and play around with the worlds they’re engaging with in order to do something completely new. Take, for example, what may be the most popular narrative genre of all: the post-canon fic. The canon ends—you write about what happens after. But that’s a story that can be told and retold forever, because the possibilities are endless.
In general terms, fanworks are about expansion, not re-creation.
Happily, this is also the conclusion Sunita arrives at: This path isn’t just about creating new romantic relationships or changing unhappy endings to happy ones. What if you think the most interesting character in the Harry Potter novels is Luna Lovegood and you want to read more about her?…. Even if you adhere strictly to canon, there’s plenty of scope for your imagination.
From this point on, Sunita’s post is a plain, fair and positive view of fanfiction; but it’s a simplistic one. It justifies rather than celebrates. Which leads me to…
My main problem with all of this justification/explanation of fanfic is that it’s just SO DATED. I have been hearing people “defend” fanfic or try to “explain” fanfic in exactly this way for the last ten years. Two thousand-fracking-two, folks (and incidentally those defenses were on the front page of the NY Times, hardly out of mainstream cultural earshot).
And yes, everyone’s experiences are different, and I’m sure Sunita’s explanation is helpful for many people. But REALLY. TEN YEARS, GUYS. COME ON. CAN WE MOVE THIS DISCUSSION FORWARD A LITTLE? How’s this for an advancement:
- Fanwork is dangerous because it challenges your worldview and makes you think critically about pop culture, literature, art, and the world you live in.
- Fanwork has serious repercussions because it operates outside of traditional modes of access to ideas, and it is predicated entirely on a culture of free exchange and non-monetary systems of value.
- Fanwork is complex and diverse. It opens minds, educates, and introduces new cultural experiences to the fan participant. It is anything but shallow.
SHIT JUST GOT REAL AKA THIS IS THE COOL PART OF THIS POST
In lit-crit terms, fandom is the living, breathing embodiment of Bakhtin’s ideas about dialogic imagination. Canon is monologic, expressing a single worldview, because usually canons have single or very few creators with one narrative goal in mind. But fandom? Fandom creates fics within communities, fics that are partly meta-commentaries, fics that arise out of passionate debates, fics that get reworked and turned into original fic, fics that offer serious literary critique, fics that seek to actively engage other fans in responding to them. Fandom is dialogic imagination.
Canon has to stick to the narrative parameters that define its medium. (Unless you are Homestuck and you are your own medium. Yeah, yeah, we know.) But fandom has no defined parameters and expresses itself any way it wants. Fics written in fictional languages? Have several! Fanart? totally and 100% canon compliant! Fanvids? How much is that geisha in the window, Joss?
Fandom constantly critiques privileged narratives, challenges established sociocultural ways of thinking, and expands the parameters of a particular established worldview. Have some of my favorite examples of fics that critique canonical narratives:
- a fic in which the character of Mary Poppins is reworked as an Indian ayah in order to offer an important critique of British colonialism.
- A fic written around Avatar: the Last Airbender which tells a post-canonical story of struggles for equality through a simple description of museum artifacts from various cultures within the Four Nations.
- A Hikaru no Go fic that realistically portrays Hikaru coming to terms with his sexuality despite his best efforts.
- An Inception fic that redeems the character of Mal (the protagonist’s dead wife) by imagining she was right all along.
WTF is this b.s. about fanwork being derivative? To quote Lev Grossman in his amazing Time magazine article, which you don’t get a link to because you have to SLOG YOUR WAY THROUGH THIS MESS WITH ME FIRST, these works “talk back to canon.” And they show their teeth.
We could have ended this post here (and I could have saved you 500 words, look, I tried, guys), because Sunita was on the right track! We could have worked with this! ugh, we were doing so good, Sunita. we could have been pals.
Except then we arrive at the money quote:
what. I mean. WHAT.
lsjdfksadjklad you don’t suddenly GAIN TRANSFORMATIVITY BY BEING THE SPARKLIEST OF ALL THE FANFIC PONIES IN DERIVATIVELAND, WTF.
(this is one of the results I got when I googled “fanfic pony.” Looks legit.)
False Assumption #4 & #5: Fanwork is Derivative / Fanfiction May Or May Not Be Legal.
I hope that at the end of the week Rebecca Tushnet will come along with her shining orb of Transformative Justice and articulate this idea as part of the DA series much better than I ever could (ETA: YESSSS she has!), but in her stead: There are absolutely no court rulings on whether a work of not-for-profit fanfiction is legal or not. None. That means all fanfiction is legal under the fair use clause of U.S. copyright law, safe and legal until proven otherwise. This protection will most likely last as long as the Fair Use clause exists. To quote the OTW, “current copyright law already supports our understanding of fanfiction as fair use.” And as long as current copyright law supports fanfiction, fanfiction is legally transformative.
It’s dishonest to talk about fanworks as if they pussyfoot around the law when they don’t. The ‘sliding scale’ train of thought implies that “transformative” fics have narrowly succeeded in evading the clutches of copyright law while “derivative” fics are just hanging around waiting to be slapped with a Cease & Desist. This train of thought implies shame, illicitness, wrongdoing, and flat-out genre snobbery and elitism. Most importantly, since presumably all fanfics (in the U.S.) currently enjoy legal protection, many fans don’t act as though they’re engaged in something that’s illegal. So the “sliding scale” perspective doesn’t even apply to us.
For comparison, look at the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. You don’t see them going “Manga is not a crime! Except for the really, really dirty yaoi, and the shota, and okay, maybe we could really really do without the vore and the bukkake because honestly, people.” Their argument is simple: either all licensed manga, in all its forms, is legal and deserves protection, or none of it does.
By the same token, fanwork does not “succeed” or “fall short” by managing or failing to qualify as transformative.
And here’s the ultimate kicker—a concept that this series of DA posts sadly seems to completely miss: the meaning of ‘transformative’ creative work extends beyond purely legal contexts. It involves the power of creative expression to change the creator and the audience. To many fans, the act of conceiving and creating fanwork is a transforming act, before you ever write the first word. They are transformative because they transform the reader. You and me.
arboretum. “A Resolution of Territory.” Livejournal. May 5, 2008.
Dhobi ki Kutti. “Promise of the पुरवाई.” An Archive Of Our Own. June 30, 2010.
electrumqueen. “i am the hero of this story (i don’t need to be saved).” Livejournal. August 14, 2010.
eruthros. “Ephemera from the Avatar Collection at Republic City University with notes and commentary by the archivists.” An Archive Of Our Own. February 7, 2012.
Shirozora. “So if Castiel was Zoe Saldana…” Dreamwidth. June 10, 2010.
Various authors. “Victorsverse Art and Artifacts. including the Ars Atlantiadae as well as Earth documents.” trickster.org. February 16, 2011.