Hello, MB! This is the 4th (or 5th, but who’s counting) post in a series of posts rebutting last week’s Dear Author series on fanfiction. And it’s the third of a set of posts responding to one post in particular: “Fanfiction: A Tale of Fandom and Morality.” TODAY IS THE VERY SPECIAL FAIRY EDITION OF THIS POST.
In the previous two posts, I talked about the ways in which trying to police how influence works itself out in fiction is nearly impossible, and ultimately bad for the works on either side of the equation. I also talked about how it’d be a bit hypocritical for us to do that in the case of 50 Shades of Grey, our current controversial work of fanfic-turned-pro, given that one of the things publishers want writers to do is to appeal to the audience who shelled out for Twilight.
In the original post, author Has asserts, “Taking an entire fanfiction story and turning that into a published book is:”
- ethically wrong
- a cynical ploy to market books… an easy way to cash in because there’s already a built-in fanbase that is able to market the book via word of mouth
- [an indication] that the author does not believe what they wrote is strong enough to stand on its own merits but decided to publish it so they could profit by exploiting their fanbase
- might start off an ever-crazier circle of fanfiction based on fanfiction.
- very detrimental to fandom and fanfiction
I’ve already pointed out, in the previous posts, how the “marketing ploy” argument is hypocritical to criticize a fan author for doing exactly what publishers want them to do in terms of appealing directly to a rich consumer base. As for the second bullet point: the whole weight of history is behind the act of spinning old works and characters into new versions and iterations. The idea that the fan author’s writing can’t stand alone/isn’t good enough to be publishable is one fanfiction authors have been saddled with for decades. I’ve already rebutted this argument very thoroughly, so I’ll just add: this argument, that fans surely couldn’t write an original plot, not only debases fanfiction, but it seems to target members of female fandom spaces. It also completely sidesteps the whole point that in most cases, the fanfiction that gets converted into original fiction winds up far removed from the source material. And in many cases already was to begin with.
Okay, now for bullet #4 (I’m skipping around, okay): might start off an ever-crazier circle of fanfiction based on fanfiction.
Hahaha. Okay, well, for one thing, people have been writing fanfiction based on fanfiction for fucking years. How is that bad? I’ve had several works of fanfiction written for my own works of fanfiction, and like every other member of fandom I know, I’ve never been anything but extremely flattered. Just like getting fanart or a podfic of your story, fanfic based on one of your own stories is seriously one of the best things ever that can be gifted to you in fandom. There are even remix challenges that invite authors to write fanfic of fanfic, all over fandom. This is not a serious criticism of the “danger” of published fanfiction, and no one who understands how remix culture works would ever offer it up as one, because the whole point of being in a remix culture is that we’re all gleaning, transforming, and passing on what’s come before.
Which brings me to fairies.
Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert has an amazing 2009 TED talk entitled “A New Way to Think About Creativity,” where she talks about trying to find new ways to “manage the inherent emotional risks associated with creativity.” ((transcript) I would never encourage you to read EPL but I would urge all of you to watch her talk because I think it’s completely brilliant, and her ideas, while they are offered in the context of taming genius, also are extremely relevant to the way we frame the argument about fanwork. Gilbert asks if we can “go back to some more ancient understanding of the relationship between humans and the creative mystery:”
[In Ancient Greece], people believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit… a “genius” was this sort of magical divine entity who was believed to literally live in the walls of an artist’s studio—kind of like Dobby, the house elf. So, brilliant, there it is, that distance—that psychological construct to protect you from the results of your work. ….
And for me, the best contemporary example that I have of how to do that is the musician Tom Waits, who I got to interview several years ago on a magazine assignment. And we were talking about this, and you know, Tom, for most of his life he was pretty much the embodiment of the tormented contemporary modern artist, trying to control and manage and dominate these sorts of uncontrollable creative impulses that were totally internalized.
But then he got older, he got calmer, and one day he was driving down the freeway in Los Angeles he told me, and this is when it all changed for him. And he’s speeding along, and all of a sudden he hears this little fragment of melody, that comes into his head as inspiration often comes, elusive and tantalizing, and he wants it, you know, it’s gorgeous, and he longs for it, but he has no way to get it. He doesn’t have a piece of paper, he doesn’t have a pencil, he doesn’t have a tape recorder.
So he starts to feel all of that old anxiety start to rise in him like, ‘I’m going to lose this thing, and then I’m going to be haunted by this song forever. I’m not good enough, and I can’t do it.’ And instead of panicking, he just stopped. He just stopped that whole mental process and he did something completely novel. He just looked up at the sky, and he said, ‘Excuse me, can you not see that I’m driving? Do I look like I can write down a song right now? If you really want to exist, come back at a more opportune moment when I can take care of you. Otherwise, go bother somebody else today. Go bother Leonard Cohen.’
And his whole work process changed after that. Not the work, the work was still oftentimes as dark as ever. But the process, and the heavy anxiety around it was released when he took the genie, the genius out of him where it was causing nothing but trouble, and released it kind of back where it came from, and realized that this didn’t have to be this internalized, tormented thing. It could be this peculiar, wondrous, bizarre collaboration kind of conversation between Tom and the strange, external thing that was not quite Tom. ….
This is hard. This is one of the most painful reconciliations to make in a creative life. But maybe it doesn’t have to be quite so full of anguish if you never happened to believe, in the first place, that the most extraordinary aspects of your being came from you. But maybe if you just believed that they were on loan to you from some unimaginable source for some exquisite portion of your life to be passed along when you’re finished, with somebody else. And, you know, if we think about it this way it starts to change everything.”
I like this idea a lot. I like it because it makes ideas a community process of receiving, sharing, and passing on. I like this idea for its potential to revise the way we think about storytelling and narrative theory. I like it because it’s anti-capitalist! I like it because it reconfigures creativity with communal narratives at the center of a kind of group process in which we all give and receive ideas as they come to us. And I like it because it implies an equal balance of agency between us as creators and the fairy-like muses that gift us with stories and ideas.
What if we viewed creators as being strands along a larger, interconnected web of ideas? What if we could agree that original works and the works they inspire could co-exist alongside of one another—since we know they already do—and that maybe that’s okay? And what kinds of new business models could we derive from thinking about creativity this way? What if I write a book that I am willing to openly claim is based on an idea that I drew from your book, and instead of you sueing me, we work out a deal where “Inspired by (Your Book)” goes on my cover? What if, after a certain number of copies sold, both of our books are reprinted and we share the wealth?
What if taking inspiration from someone else’s works didn’t have to get conflated with “plagiarism” (which is when you explicitly copy something and don’t credit) but could instead be seen as a form of literary sampling? Dear Author actually has a post from 2010 arguing for compulsory licensing for ALL fanfiction (um, how about no); but what if a conversation about licensing and royalties could be had without thinking of these things as a way to proscribe the boundaries of fanfiction? What if they could be seen, instead, as potential ways to make it easier for attributed transformative work to be sold openly and linked back to its source inspiration, for the mutual benefit of all parties?
Tomorrow, we’ll talk about the down-side of this new world of Free Love And Published Fanfic! But for now: