MJ: So, I’ve been blogging in this general location about manga since late 2007, and this has long been my “professional” venue for writing about the things that make me fannish. I’ve met nearly everyone I know in the manga blogging community through this blog, including both of you. But what I don’t talk about much here are the many years before that I spent blogging on LiveJournal, in a subsection of fandom focused mainly on fanfiction.
Up until recently, I was the only blogger here at Manga Bookshelf with a real history in fanfiction, but with Sean now on board things have changed, and I admit I’m kinda thrilled to have the opportunity to talk about this aspect of fandom that was once incredibly important to me. To that end, I’ve invited Sean, along with Michelle (whose interest in fanfiction is new and somewhat tentative), to join me in a roundtable discussion on fanfiction.
Now, I have a lot of highfalutin’ ideas about fanfiction, why I wrote it, and why I think it’s important as a form of meta discussion and even criticism, but let’s start by talking a bit about how we got into fanfiction in the first place. Sean? Michelle?
SEAN: As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I am that sort of person who got into fanfiction, and indeed started writing it, before he got into anime and manga. Barring the usual Battle for the Planets/Speed Racer as a kid, my first exposure was in 1995, when I started reading Stefan Gagne’s Ranma fanfics. This quickly led me to John Biles’ fics, and from there I was hooked. I began writing Ranma in early 1996… and started reading it about mid-1996. XD
I was hardcore Ranma for about a year and a half, but then started branching out to more fandoms. At last count, I’d written for a good 30 or so fandoms, including some Buffy and Phoenix Wright fanfics in the non-anime world, with my last fic to date being in the world of Strawberry Marshmallow. I’m semi-retired (the fancy Internet way of saying lazy), but you never know what will pop into my head.
As for why I wrote it? The ideas get in your head and won’t let go. Or you want to finish the story before the author does. Or you’re rebelling against the preferred pairing. Or you want to see if you can do something people tell you is impossible. Or you want to expand on a minor character’s motives. Or you want to bash. I mostly avoided that last one. Mostly.
I still READ fanfiction constantly, of course.
MICHELLE: And then there’s me. I have read three fanfics so far and written about half a dozen drabbles.
MJ: Yeah, but you did a lot of RP writing, right? That doesn’t seem all that much different to me.
MICHELLE: Oh yes, tons and tons, mostly in the Harry Potter realm. I suppose it’s not that different. Though the way we did it—picking a point in chronology and continuing on from that point—didn’t set off my “canon is sacrosanct!” alarms as much as it would’ve if we’d been trying to wedge our original characters into the official storyline or something.
MJ: Like Sean, I got into fanfiction long before getting into manga, and in fact, I’ve written relatively little in manga fandoms. Though my first formal attempt at fanfic was in 2003, in retrospect I realize I’ve been writing it since I was a child, one way or another. From the epic Zenna Henderson-inspired stories my little sister and I acted out with our Barbies to the Buffy/Angel song from my singer-songwriter days, I’ve always felt the impulse to interact with fictional universes by finding ways to create within them.
With that in mind, I must embarrassingly admit that what actually pulled me into writing real fanfic was the world of LOTR RPS (Lord of the Rings Real Person Slash aka “Lotrips”), where the “canon” was basically movie industry gossip, blown up into a fully-fledged fictional world by the fanfic writers themselves. My friend Jaci lured me in with her own wonderful writing, and before I realized what I was doing, I was participating regularly in the LJ multi-fandom slash community contre la montre, which offered up weekly speed-writing exercises for anyone who cared to join.
For a while, I felt too intimidated by real fictional canons to try writing publicly in them, but reading the fifth Harry Potter book got me over that, and thus my proper fanfiction career began. Though my heaviest writing years were spent in Harry Potter fandom, I also dabbled as a writer in fandoms like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, and then much later in manga fandoms like xxxHolic, Hikaru no Go, and Banana Fish.
For me, writing fanfiction was mainly a means for participating in what I perceived as an ongoing meta discussion between writers, as well as a vehicle for interacting with the text in a very personal way. Though as I say that, I realize that a huge percentage of my fanfiction was written for either organized challenges or as gifts, some of which certainly seemed impossible or at least difficult at the outset (Neville/Oz, anyone?) so apparently I liked that aspect of it too. Fandom was a tricky place for me at times, partly because I was an omnivorous reader, with an interest in slash, het, and gen, and partly because my concept of an OTP is very, very… loose.
That last point, Sean, reminds me of something you said in your “thoughts on fandom and shipping,” specifically item two: “You can ship more than one contrasting couple at the same time, and not be betraying anyone.” In fact, both of your first two points there made me think, “Aaaaah, here’s someone I can actually talk to about fanfiction.”
MICHELLE: I’ve now gone to that link of Sean’s and returned, feeling rather illuminated about various fanficky conventions that have puzzled me. I must say I haven’t got much of a passion for “shipping,” but there are definitely a few pairings here and there where I think they’re genuinely in love with each other (Remus/Sirius in Harry Potter, Fai and Kurogane in Tsubasa RESERVoir ChroNiCLE) even if I don’t believe they’re actually getting it on.
I think I thought that fanfic writers all did genuinely believe these characters were getting it on, and part of the reason I’ve opened my mind lately is the realization that, for some (perhaps many), it’s a kind of writing challenge or, as Sean puts it, a “what if.”
MJ: Actually, Remus/Sirius is one of those pairings I feel strongly that the author actually wrote into the story and then hurriedly covered up later on when she realized what she’d done. And I stand by that, because clearly Alfonso Cuaron agreed with me on the first bit.
But yes, though there is sometimes generous subtextual support, generally I think non-canon pairings are pulled from our imaginations.
SEAN: As I’ve noted, I don’t WANT shipping in One Piece itself, but love it in the fandom. For one thing, the lack of canon romance leads to less yelling in the fandom. Sure, there’s some arguments between shippers and non-shippers, and the occasional rare slash v. het thing, but it’s mild and easily ignorable. Compare this to Bleach, where you simply CANNOT ignore the shipping. It was fine for about 25 volumes or so, but then Orihime told a comatose Kurosaki that she loved him. (As if this wasn’t obvious before.) FOOM! Made even worse that the two lead females are of almost complete opposite personality type, and you have a situation that simply cannot resolve easily. As a result, even in chapters where neither character appears, the debate tends to rage about them. (Let’s not mention Hinamori right now, that’s another kettle of fish.)
Some worlds are fun to read about, but I wouldn’t write in them, simply due to wanting to avoid arguing. Harry Potter is an excellent example. My ship of choice, Harry/Luna, is a fun one, and I can give you endless reasons why I think it’s best. But one of the biggest would be: “It doesn’t get into the H/Hr vs. H/G wars”. H/L fans tend to sit on the side and eat popcorn while those go on. Before Book 5, I didn’t really ship Harry with anyone, as Ginny was poorly fleshed out, and while I liked Hermione, her fans were insane. This has not changed with the release of Books 5-7 and the movies. :)
MICHELLE: Is there much fic written anymore where there isn’t boffing? I’m fairly smut-averse, myself…
SEAN: There is, but no one reads it. :) Seriously, lots of people write what is called “gen fic,” but with FFNet now providing sorting by pairing, many folks never see it as they sort for the ships they like and it floats by. It also gets far less reviews and attention than a hardcore shipping fic does. A lot of what writers want, especially young writers, is other people reading and saying “You are correct, that is awesome that you wrote that!” It’s easier to get comments if you write romance. Sadly, this is the nature of the Internet Beast
Another problem with fandom being “serious business” is that people start to take their own writing seriously. Yes, many fanfics were written for a need to see deeper characterization, or an epic that spans generation. But other folks wrote a fic as they thought “Wow, those two would be really hot if they screwed each other.” And that’s EQUALLY valid. I can pick apart your characterization, spelling, or lack of attention to basic anatomy, but I can’t attack your desire to write porn. That’s a valid choice, and I approve of it. God knows I’ve done it. A Phoenix Wright fic I wrote was a deliberate attempt to write a ludicrous porn story, with the title “Turnabout Orgy”. It’s not remotely my best work. Hell, it doesn’t even have much detailed sex. But it achieves what I wanted.
MICHELLE: Well, you can do romance without boffing! :) I should note that I don’t, in principle, object to people writing explicit stories or anything. I just don’t particularly want to read them. :)
MJ: Very little of mine involves boffing! Though I will always love a love story. And, y’know, I’m not averse to smut. Some of the most fun writing I ever did was for the recurring multi-fandom challenge, “Porn Battle,” and though even my smuttiest writing tends to be tamer than most, it can feel very freeing and, yeah, sometimes genuinely erotic.
Sean, I have to say if there’s one thing I’ve never understood about fandom, it’s shipping wars. Fortunately, it’s less of a big deal in slash fandom, where I spent most of my time, even when I was reading & writing non-slash. I think maybe because slashers never expect their favorite pairings to turn up in canon, they’re less likely to fight over it. At least that was my experience in Harry Potter fandom. I do recall knowing about some massive flamewars related to Prince of Tennis slash ships.
Also, Sean, to comment on your Harry Potter preferences, I think I tend to be partial to Neville/Luna more than Harry/Luna, but then, I pretty much ship Neville with everyone, so it’s not much of a stretch for me. Even back when I thought I ‘shipped Harry/Draco, my heart always belonged to Neville. ;)
SEAN: I do wonder how xxxHOLIC fans felt about the one or two threesome fics I saw that involved Himawari with the two guys.
Most likely, “Who is she again? Oh right.” :) It’s easy to not have a shipwar when your ship has a monopoly.
MJ: Actually, I think that’s a pretty popular OT3! True, though, there’s only one major pairing in xxxHolic fandom, though I’ve seen some Yuuko/Watanuki fic out there.
SEAN: How did xxxHOLIC fans react to the ending, out of curiosity? I know I had one experience with a fandom, School Rumble, where the manga ended SO badly that the fandom basically completely died. It was stunning to see. Everyone stared, bitched for about 2 weeks, then… stopped. And then the silence. And it never recovered (which is likely why Kodansha hasn’t picked up the remaining books).
MJ: Honestly, I don’t know. I’ve been waiting for the US releases, so I stopped hanging around xxxHolic fandom so as to not get spoiled. I will say, though, that I think Harry Potter fandom has never fully recovered from the Epilogue. It’s still alive—fandoms that big never die—but it’s not what it was.
MICHELLE: Aside from Remus/Sirius, which might as well be canon as far as I’m concerned, I can’t imagine shipping anybody in Potter, really. Like, I love Snape very much. I mean, really really love him. But I don’t want to read about him hooking up with anybody.
SEAN: Remus and Sirius are up in Heaven shagging right now. With Tonks. (runs away fast)
MJ: I can go with that.
MICHELLE: Ugh. :)
SEAN: Part of the reason I’ve always associated fics with shipping is my initial fandom: Ranma 1/2. In many ways, it was the perfect breeding ground for fanfic writers. The series was popular and dubbed in the mid 90s. The manga was coming out in Japan till 1996, but we had no access to Japanese volumes at that time, so theorizing was king. The characters were highly interesting types who were nevertheless two-dimensional, so they inspired fanfics that ‘deepened’ their characterization. The basic premise had implications almost entirely ignored by the author. Again, perfect for fanfics. (What would pregnant Ranma be like? What if Ranma gets a period?) It was an action-oriented comedy harem series, perfect for male writers, with strong female characters and hot guys, perfect for female writers.
So if you wrote Ranma in the 1990s, and you weren’t trying to simply duplicate the series with your own plot, you tended to write continuations (providing your own ‘resolution’ to the romance), the genre ‘For Want of a Nail’, where you change one plot point and see what happens (what if it was Kasumi who was cursed?), darkfics (what if Akane had a genuine mental illness and start to seriously injure Ranma?), or lemons (what if everyone finally got it on?). All of which either involve the romantic pairings, or in some ways are biased towards one or the other.
There was an entire GENRE of Ranma fics circa 1998 called ‘The Bet’, the basic premise of which was similar to For Want of a Nail but with the proviso that Akane was treated poorly or written out. The creator hated her, and said anyone could play in his pool, basically, if they observed the rules and did not pair Akane with Ranma. Likewise, I believe Sailor Moon had many, many ‘Mamoru must die’ fanfics written in the late 90s as well. Which just goes to show, I guess, that the more things change the more they stay the same.
And before anyone asks, no, I was never in the Pokemon fandom, so missed ALL of that.
MJ: Despite my deep enjoyment of gen fic, I admit I tend to associate fics with shipping, too, and for similar reasons, actually, since the bulk of my writing was done in Harry Potter fandom. Romance is one of the things JK Rowling writes the least well, so it’s hard to write in that fandom without wanting to do better, no matter what characters you’re writing about. I think, too, as an adult writing in a universe created for kids, there’s a real impulse to want to grey up some of its more black-and-white concepts, if that makes sense.
MICHELLE: There certainly was lots of adultifying and greying up of Potter going on on the RP game I played. Of the genres Sean mentioned (I admit that “For Want of a Nail” sounds really cool to me, by the way) our game was like a continuation. Everything up through Goblet of Fire (the latest book at the time) was canon, and then we went from there. We defeated Voldemort in our own fashion, and it was fun to see what we actually got right when the official books came out.
MJ: One thing I feel like I should say here is, that in my experience, almost any romantic pairing can work in fanfiction, if it’s written well enough. That’s one of the reasons I never understood shipping wars. Sure, I had my favorite ships, but a good writer could make me like almost anything. I have a couple of issues that are non-negotiable, but for the most part, I’ll give myself over to any writer who can make me believe, even just in the moment.
SEAN: I’d take that further: almost anything can be used in fanfic if it’s written well enough, romance or no. You want to write hot hot fic showing the forbidden romance between Remus Lupin and a potato? Is it well-written and reasonably in character? Sure, I’ll go with it. (Also, the potato totally tops.) If you’re writing a crossover between 270 series, and can make readers keep track of it all without the need for huge charts? Congratulations. Want to kill off the entire cast in a plausible, believable way that’s not just an excuse for gore? Knock yourself out. Want to write a self-insert where you become immortal and end up in Crystal Tokyo running a radio station and married to Sailor Saturn? Well, OK, that one’s been done.
The difficulty, of course, is in making it good. Which is why one needs pre-readers/betas. Sadly, they’re harder and harder to get these days. But they can, if they’re good prereaders and not just “Looks good, write more!” types, tell you when you’ve lost the reader. Why are you quoting your entire record collection in this fic? Why are you devoting 20 pages to saying how horrible this person is? Why is Hermione using an iPod at Hogwarts? For the last time, it’s you’re, not your! That sort of thing. A good spellchecker is not the same thing.
MICHELLE: I get where all of those things you mention would be fun to write and even an admirable accomplishment. I’m just not sure I’d want to read any of them, except the killing the cast one, perhaps. Personally, I still balk at things that challenge canon too much. Like, the first fanfic I ever saw was on a Battle of the Planets mailing list. So I am, like, “Oh, what’s this? Is it a story? What’s going… oh my god! Ken and Joe, noooo!”
SEAN: One other type of fanfic I forgot about, mostly as it’s a fairly recent development that wasn’t around when I was really active, is the Peggy Sue fic. No, not Mary Sue – those have been around much longer. In Peggy Sue fics, the characters go back in time and inhabit their earlier bodies, usually reliving their lives to ‘do things properly’ this time. Yes, this usually involves shipping too, but it doesn’t have to – there’s a fantastic Harry Potter fic called Oh God Not Again where a happy and content Harry in the future accidentally goes back in time – a one-way trip. He decides to simply screw around with everything for his own amusement. No ships whatsoever. This genre is especially prevalent in Harry Potter and Naruto, but I’m starting to see it elsewhere too. (It’s highly variable, as much of the time it’s an excuse for character bashing – ‘if only I’d known Ron was a pedophile rapist wife-beater, I’d never have befriended him!’ etc etc etc.)
MICHELLE: Oh, that sounds like fun. Having some kind of construct like that in play would probably nullify any canonicity issues by virtue of it technically being a continuation. Happily wedded to Ginny, Harry goes back and time and thinks, “Hm, what would’ve happened if I’d invited Luna to the ball that year?”
MJ: I agree with Sean on all points here (including the potato), and I think Michelle, where our view of fanfiction really differs here, is that I don’t actually consider any of this stuff to necessarily be a challenge to canon, or at least that’s not at all the way I think about my own writing. Sure, there are times when one might write a fic specifically with the purpose of “righting” canon, but most of the time, even when there’s a strong urge to diverge wildly from canon or just to seek out nuance the original author didn’t take time with, it’s about exploration, not contradiction.
Often, I’ve taken the smallest detail about a character and formed an entire universe around it, not because I think that’s what should have been in canon, but because it allows me to examine that aspect of the character more fully. For instance, I once basically created an entire piece of fanfiction based on the fact that Remus Lupin once encouraged Neville Longbottom to fight a boggart. I thought about how important that moment might have been for Neville, who generally was treated like a squib, and how that might have affected his feelings and actions over a long period of time, even into adulthood. None of what I wrote actually happened in canon, of course, but I didn’t write it to challenge canon. I wrote it to more deeply explore the potential ramifications of something that was already there. On one hand, it’s sort of an abstract exercise, but on the other, it also serves as way of expressing my thoughts about that one moment to a whole slew of other people more effectively than I could by any other means.
This is where, for me, fanfiction serves as an ongoing discussion between the people who read and write it. Since most of us are doing both, reading and writing, we’re constantly listening to each other and responding in one way or another, even if the conversation itself is completely unconscious.
MICHELLE: I am realizing more and more than “exploration” is the key here, but I spent a lot of time believing that fanfic writers believed what they were writing was true, or at least better than canon, which is the fuel for a lot of my lingering hesitancy. I mean, I’m sure there are people who would argue that The Doctor really is schtupping his companions off-camera, but perhaps they’re not the norm?
SEAN: I don’t. In fact, I was in Who fandom from almost since I could walk, and didn’t even realize there was a possibility of sex in the TARDIS till 1994 or so when I got on the Internet in college. And even then, there was very, very little of it. The sex came with the new series, and in particular the new fans, who saw 9/Rose (and 10/Rose) and had no preconceptions of “The Doctor has no sexuality, he’s above such petty human things” the way old-school fans had. I ship 10/Donna, but not canonically – I just think it’s fun and that they’d be hellaciously sexy in bed (10/Rose not so much, though I get the hurt/comfort value there.)
Another thing to note is that we three are, in Internet years, senior citizens. When I got into fics, most were college age writers and above – they started writing when they got the ‘net at college. Now that everyone has the internet, the age level of fic writers has dropped drastically, and you do sometimes see ‘Sorry, AFF readers, had to delete all my 10/Master porn, my mom found it.’ Not to mention the 12-year-olds writing fics at 7th grade grammar level (or well above, to be fair, but…)
MJ: Also, fandom as a whole is gigantic, and it’s spread all over cyberspace. I was already in my thirties when I started writing fanfiction, but because I had friends from other parts of my life who had already been writing for a while, it was pretty easy on Livejournal to find myself a fandom community of other likeminded adults who wrote thoughtfully and were interested in fanfiction for the same reasons I was. We were all on each others’ friends lists, and we tended to use the same community spaces, so we basically made our own subsection of fandom that worked the way we wanted it to. And there were probably a million other fandom corners on the internet just as specific.
The sprawling nature of the internet can seem overwhelming and unnavigable if you’re just trying to find one good Snape fic, because there isn’t any single, central depository for it all (though plenty of sites have tried to be that), especially in a big fandom like Harry Potter. But there are also real advantages to building small communities with their own group standards, because it means that once you’ve found your community, you can be pretty sure that you’ll enjoy the majority of what it produces.
MICHELLE: Yeah, the “sprawling nature” issue has been another discouraging factor for me. Like, I really don’t want to read something crummy if I can help it. The stories you two have sent me have been works you’ve been proud of (and deservedly) and therefore I enjoyed reading them ‘cos they were legitimately good. I don’t relish the idea of wading through a bunch of dreck. Maybe I am a “private corner” sort of person, too, who will just write my little Buffy things off by myself somewhere. :)
MJ: Of course, one way to pretty much ensure yourself a small fandom corner is to write in a very small fandom. On one hand, you’ll never receive the amount of feedback you might in a big fandom, but small fandoms tend to attract interesting, experienced writers who aren’t in it just for the squee. One of my favorite fandoms to write in was Banana Fish, which I think has something like five people participating in it at any one time. Actually, five may be a very generous estimate. It can be hard to handle the fact that your friends outside the fandom might have little interest in reading your fic, and you won’t get pages of feedback, but what you do get will be really heartfelt. And you have the opportunity to provide that in turn.
That said, big fandom does offer some rewards that small fandom can’t provide. My initial entry into Harry Potter fandom was via Harry/Draco, which was at the time by far the most popular slash pairing in HP fandom (and thus, the wankiest, but that’s another story entirely), with a huge catalogue of fic already written, including a hefty number of established “classics,” and thriving communities on Livejournal, FF.net, and FictionAlley, among other places. The whole thing was a bit intimidating, so when I decided to attempt writing in H/D fandom, I spent over two months planning and piecing together my fic with feedback from four beta readers (including one UK reader to specifically check my Briticisms) and three H/D-loving friends, finally posting it on Livejournal with the pessimistic subject line, “The dreaded HP fic.” I was completely unknown in that fandom, but thanks to a rec from one popular HP writer on my friends list, the thing spread like wildfire, and before I knew it, I had a couple of pages full of comments and recs popping up everywhere. That can never happen in small fandom, even for an experienced, well-known writer. To this day, that “dreaded HP fic” is the most popular I’ve ever written. And while I’d never say that I wrote fanfiction for the feedback, it can certainly be gratifying, especially for a new writer.
Sean, I’d be interested in your thoughts on big vs. small fandom, especially since we ran in completely different fandom circles, from what I can tell.
SEAN: It can help, but it depends on how much you’re looking for an audience. The most responses/reviews I’ve ever gotten were for a) A Kodomo no Omocha fic which I wrote in 1 hour for a contest, which was basically a ‘hit the giant emotional button’ fic, and b) my Sailor Moon self-insert, which is mostly along the lines of “I can’t believe you wrote a self-insert I didn’t hate!”. So one small-ish fandom and one large there. To be honest, though, most of my major writing was in the pre-LJ, pre-FFNet days, so most of my C&C came from mailing lists or on USENET. Remember them? :)
To a degree, we all want our fic to be read and praised (or panned), but a lot of the time when I write a fic, the primary audience is me or my close circle of friends. So while I do appreciate the larger number of reviews I get for, say, writing Sailor Moon or Buffy, I’d argue I feel even better when I get the 1 or two responses I get for my Sol Bianca The Legacy or Ichigo Mashimaro fics. I’m not expecting any audience for those.
So the question them becomes, are you writing primarily to satisfy an urge to write, or for the enjoyment of others? I’d argue most of us do both, but then how do you find a balance? I’ve sometimes taken good honest criticism and not listened to it, simply as while I see the point I want my story to go this way because it’s what I want.
MJ: I agree that I think we mostly do both (writing for ourselves and for the enjoyment of others), and honestly I’ve found some people’s insistence that there’s something wrong with seeking an audience to be pretty disingenuous. If we were truly only writing for ourselves, there would be no reason to post our work publicly, or even just to our friends. But I think do think people who get into fanfiction primarily for the feedback often end up disappointed. And to your last point, I also agree that while there is a lot of value in constructive criticism, it really is okay to listen to it and then still go your own way.
Ah, mailing lists… I think I pretty much missed the peak days of USENET as a means for fanfic distribution, but I was a member of a few mailing lists, particularly in my Lotrips days. Overall, I’m glad online archives and journals moved a lot of fanfic away from mailing lists, partly because I’m one of those writers who never feels finished with anything. I frequently go back and edit older stories, or at least I used to do that when I was writing actively. But also, mailing lists are so transient. It’s hard for someone new to fandom to access older works that way.
MICHELLE: What is “C&C”? Actually, there’s been a bit of lingo bandied about that I’m not very familiar with. “Hurt/comfort,” for example. Does that mean “You are hurt, therefore I shall comfort you?” Or is it, like, I hurt you then I comfort you? What’s an “AFF reader”? Are there more terms I should know?
SEAN: C&C is ‘Comments and Criticism’, as you would get from a beta reader. They read your fic before you publish it and give you advice, which can range from spelling/grammar to telling you to scrap everything as it makes no sense and treats the characters poorly. Ideally, the C&C is pointed and useful without being cruel. And is more than just “Wow, this rocks!”.
AFF is AdultFanFiction.net, which is pretty much what it sounds like. The fanfics there are of a much lower quality than most archives, though there are scattered gems, as always.
As for Hurt/Comfort, just go here. Your first choice is essentially correct.
You know about self-inserts and Mary Sues, right?
MICHELLE: Yes, I know what those are. And also what OTP means. :) Thanks for defining the rest.
MJ: On the topic of self-inserts and Mary Sues, I’d like to state my conviction that they are totally valid and occasionally even awesome approaches to fanfiction. Also, I think most people write one at some point or another, even if they can pretend they haven’t. Any one of us who has written a character we identify with strongly will eventually write something that’s essentially a self-insert, and actually I think those can often be people’s very best work, because they connect with it so strongly. Most of the original authors did this, too, after all. People write what they know.
MICHELLE: In a way, the Potter game I played lent itself to self-insertion. Players could apply for a Feature Character (involving answering a series of questions about the character and their background followed by an audition) or they could create original characters of their own devising who would (when Harry and crew were still young enough) get to attend Herbology lessons alongside the main characters or just otherwise inhabit the wizarding world.
It occurs to me, too, that I made a few crossover characters in my time there, since I had some based on manga characters, like the one who started off based on Minako from Sailor Moon but eventually grew to act more like Harmony from Buffy.
MJ: So, one of the topics I’ve been eager to get back to here is the plight of gen fic. I love gen fic (when it’s great, which it often is), and I’ll agree that not only is it difficult to find an audience for it as a fanfic writer, but it’s sometimes even difficult to get people to agree what the term really means.
One of the types of fic I used to write a lot, was the sort that focused on relationships (sort of) but wasn’t romance. For instance, one of my early HP fics featured a version of Draco Malfoy who was obsessed with maps. He was a little obsessed with Harry Potter, too, but though the two interacted in the fic in ways that might be said to contain homoerotic subtext, there was no overt romance or sexual content involved. Still, given its “universe of two” feel, I figured it read closer to slash than gen, so I originally posted it as slash… only to have quite a number of people complain that it clearly wasn’t. Later, I changed it’s genre to “gen,” only to be told by another batch of readers that it wasn’t that either.
So tell me, in your opinion, what exactly is a gen fic?
SEAN: In general, I regard ‘gen’ fic as being what used to be called, back in the day, ‘Original Flavor’, which is to say it’s using the canon universe to tell a story without resolving or changing much. So, for example, if you write a fic set during OotP which involves a day in the life of Harry going around being angry at everything, that’d be gen. If he thinks about Ginny and his awkward feelings about her, still gen. If he decides to go shag her in a broom closet to do something about it, you’re into het. Likewise, If your fic *technically* doesn’t have any romantic resolution, but the entire plot is Harry realizing that Ginny is a horrible person and that Hermione is the one he has awkward feelings for, that’s het as well, as you’re changing the canon to match your ship.
To sum up: Are you using the universe as close to canon as you judge possible? Are you not resolving anything? If so, I’d call it gen. But, as you noted, many will disagree with me and say gen should have no romantic feelings whatsoever.
It’s especially difficult with the Potterverse as so many people have not only their own biases, but also biases they try to avoid. If you say a fic is gen but it has Weasley bashing, Dumbledore bashing, and the ever popular dark!grey!independent!Harry, even if you don’t pair Harry with Hermione, Luna or Fleur, it’s not gen in my eyes, but an AU. If I see gen, I want a fic that’s sort of what J.K. Rowling could have written (only with deeper characterization, better plotting and thinking out her ideas more).
MJ: Actually, Sean, your response here reminds me that we should talk about… “community standards” (for want of a better term) and how drastically they may differ from one fic community to another. I’ve definitely seen the term “gen” used exactly as you describe it here, yet, within the fanfic communities I most often was a part of, “gen” tended to be a term slapped onto anything that didn’t contain sex or romance, regardless of whether or not it was AU or speculative in nature (which would describe a great many of the Harry Potter fics from my day, since the books were unfinished at the time). Truthfully, I prefer your definition, but in a way, it doesn’t matter what definition I like best, since what really matters in terms of labeling your fics for readers is whether or not the community you’re writing in will get what they expect when they click.
Now, I’ve never quite understood why it’s so horrible to go into a fic without knowing half the story first, but as I’m sure you know, reactions can be downright violent should should readers encounter such horrors as an unexpected ship or, say, character death that wasn’t warned for ahead of time. And while I do recognize the importance of some of these labels (yes, non-con can be a really damaging emotional trigger, I totally get that) others seem… really kind of silly.
SEAN: Tags can be very, very tricky, especially ship tags. If you’re writing a fic that’s all about Orihime’s love for Ichigo, but it ends with her seeing Ichigo married to Rukia, is it an IchiRuki fic? Rukia wasn’t in it except at the end, and it was all about IchiHime. But if you label it IchiHime, you’ll have a lot of angry shippers.
I wrote a Maison Ikkoku fic years ago (I reposted it during the Takahashi MMF as an old shame), where I avoided tags as they gave the game away. If you want to surprise the reader, tags are automatic spoilers, so tagging it ‘Darkfic, multiple characters deaths, OOC’ would have led to a) no one reading it, and b) it losing any impact it had.
That said, as I grow older my reading habits are far more conservative. I have my ships, and like them, and don’t always like being forced out of my comfortable little box. In that case, sorting by pairing or length is something I do quite a bit. (I do wish that FFNet would allow single character search, so that you could search for ‘Harry P.’ without a second person and get fics with only Harry as the character tag.)
Oh, in case Michelle doesn’t know about interro!bangs, from Wikipedia: ‘In fandom and fanfiction, ! is used to signify a defining quality in a character, usually signifying an alternate interpretation of a character from a canonical work. Examples of this would be “Romantic!Draco” or “Vampire!Harry” from Harry Potter fandom. It is also used to clarify the current persona of a character with multiple identities or appearances, such as to distinguish “Armor!Al” from “Human!Al” in a work based on Fullmetal Alchemist. The origin of this usage is unknown, although it is hypothesized to have originated with certain Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures, for example, “Football Player! Leonardo”, “Rockstar! Raphael”, and “Breakdancer! Michelangelo”.’
MICHELLE: I encountered interrobangs used thusly in the RP world, so I’m familiar with them. I feel like I have probably busted out some interrobangs in at least one Off the Shelf column, too.
I’m not qualified to give any definitions of gen fic, but I must say that Sean’s interpretation of “original flavor” fic sounds exactly like the sort I’m most drawn to and how my few drabbles could be classified.
MJ: So, I think I’ve mentioned that I don’t write fanfic anymore, and it’s really for lack of time than anything else. The more serious I got about manga blogging, the more it became clear that in order to be able to successfully maintain my (very) full-time job, my private teaching, and my marriage, I pretty much had to choose between Manga Bookshelf and fanfiction (even reading it), and Manga Bookshelf won. I don’t actually regret that decision, but it’s interesting to note the differences in my “fandom,” now and then. Now, of course, I spend a lot of time engaging with fiction by way of reviews, roundtables, essays, and other types of straight-up meta. Yet there are ways in which I feel that fanfiction is a more effective (and certainly more immersive) form of criticism than any of those things, or at least a form that comes out of a deeper interaction with the text. When I was writing and reading fanfiction, I carried the canon with me in my mind all the time, turning it over and over, considering its strengths and flaws, examining every crevice, and discussing it all through my writing, generally from multiple angles. And while straightforward discussion is certainly simpler to digest, I’m not sure it’s as thoughtful.
Sean, I know you’ve expressed a distaste for people taking their fanfic too seriously, and I don’t mean to suggest that I think my own fanfiction was the most brilliant criticism known to humankind. But if I don’t necessarily take the product seriously, I do highly value the process. Any comments on this?
SEAN: It will come as no surprise to find that my own most active period of fanfiction was when I was either unemployed or working a non-time intensive job. Real life tends to take over, doesn’t it? As for fanfiction as a criticism, I definitely agree. Sticking with good old Harry Potter as an example, I have a lot of issues with Rowling’s books. One of my biggest is the lack of any example of a ‘good’ Slytherin – at the end of the day, I still don’t think Rowling gave any good reason that they shouldn’t imprison them right after sorting for life. And given that’s a horrible prospect, I certainly approve of fanfics that explore ‘good Slytherins’ and the value of ambition.
The difficulty is when criticism becomes ‘bashing’. Disliking Ron and wishing he hadn’t ended up with Hermione is fine. Saying that Ron has all the hallmarks of a future wife beater is another (and yes, I’ve seen writers say that). And while one might blame some of this on the youth of the writers (the trouble with all ‘teen’ fandoms), I’ve seen just as many rabid 40 and 50 year olds saying such things. Finding a balance between analysis of a work and OVERanalysis of a work is a difficult thing to do, and can especially become hard when you’re not arguing a point but lecturing or harping on it instead. And it’s even worse on the anonymous Internet. When does analysis or criticism become an ATTACK on the work or a character?
At the end of the day, if you argue with someone who disagrees with you, can your mind be changed? If not… why are you arguing at all? (Yes, I know, because THEY’RE STILL WRONG. Welcome to the Internet.)
MJ: Poor Ron! I’m happy to say I haven’t had the displeasure of reading any such fic.
As you say, Sean, there’s always the risk of over-analysis, particularly when there’s a pet theory involved, though I’m not sure that risk is mitigated by engaging in only standard modes of criticism. I’ve seen arguments I consider just as wrongheaded from prominent critics in the comics blogosphere, many of whom I expect would consider fanfiction beneath them.
Don’t get me going on Rowling and Slytherin, though. This roundtable might drag on forever.
MICHELLE: Seriously. But know that we both agree with you, Sean. :)
MJ: Speaking of dragging on forever, I suppose we’ve talked everyone’s (virtual) ears off by now. Any final comments you’d like to make on the subject?
SEAN: Just that I’m always surprised when I learn how few reviewers and bloggers in our ‘manga sphere’ are heavily involved in fandom. Leaving aside fanfics and fanart and the bias they can lead to (I try to avoid obvious shipping in my reviews, as I’ve noted), this may also explain another reason (besides the ethical correctness) that bloggers are so anti-scans – they aren’t reading fanfics based off of last week’s chapter, they aren’t getting spoiled constantly in newsgroups/LJ groups/forums, they don’t care that they have to wait 15 months for the chapter to come out in the States. Being involved in fandom means either a) you learn to love spoilers, b) that you avoid reading ANYTHING that’s not marked as being safe to read if you haven’t read ‘xxx’ yet (and still get accidentally spoiled constantly), or c) that you quietly read the scans and simply don’t tell the other bloggers about it.
Fandom means being INVOLVED. It means that you love to talk about things, and argue about things. Hopefully with an open mind. You can’t be in a fandom for something that you only think is pretty good. If you’re outlining an idea for a fic, or chatting on a forum about whether a character is too powerful… you’re there, whether you admit it or not. It’s only a short hop from that to your awesome epic Doctor Who/Stargate/Bleach/Harry Potter/My Little Pony/Elric/Huntley-Brinkley Report crossover, where the tortured spirit of Chet Huntley returns from the grave to demand blood and souls.
MICHELLE: As someone who only recently made a conscious effort to be open-minded about this whole fanfiction thing, I would simply urge others to do the same—turns out it’s not all pr0n.
MJ: … and sometimes when it is, it’s still awesome.
SEAN: So you don’t want the link to my Sailor Moon 10-senshi lesbian orgy fic, then? :)
MICHELLE: Well, I have been considering also making a conscious effort *not* to be so smut-averse, but I don’t think I’m quite ready for that. :)
MJ: Thanks, both of you for indulging me in this roundtable! I secretly hope we’ll continue in comments.