Doctor Science Knows

Sunday, September 05, 2010

How to tell fanfiction from literary fiction: you can't

Eric Rauchway of Edge of the American West wrote Banana Republican, a book about Tom Buchanan, Daisy's husband from The Great Gatsby. Henry at Crooked Timber posted Mountebanks, upstarts, thimbleriggers and persons of inferior education, a review of a bad (in both senses) review of the book. Hijinks ensued, including mine:

Maybe there’s a point at which this extrapolation from previous novels jumps the shark? Or on the other hand, maybe it’s become a genre in its own right so each one should just be taken on its merits?
(And what should be the name for that genre? Is there already one out there?)
We call it "fan fiction". There's rather a lot of it, and a good deal of scholarship, too.

As for the particular trope of making a secondary character from an existing work into your primary character, I'm not sure it has a separate name -- partly because it's so extremely common. I'm pretty sure I've seen the suggestion that such alternative-POV [point of view] stories are one reason current fanfiction is much more commonly written by women and girls than by men and boys. Women are used to not being the central character in the story, to knowing that we'd be off to the side, not really central, not the hero. This is much more the case with movies and TV than with books, and fanfic for filmed sources is enormously more common than fanfic based on purely text sources -- e.g. fanfic based on The Lord of the Rings was rare before the Peter Jackson movies started coming out.

ajay @16:
Really? I find that surprising given that a) fanfic is so closely associated with the SFF fan community and b) Lord of the Rings is reasonably well liked in this community. I wonder why that should be.
I'm sure it's true, because I helped someone track down stories before the Fellowship movie came out and we could only find a few hundred. Later that summer, LOTR stories were being posted at at the rate of a hundred *per hour*.

IMO, fanfiction for unfilmed books is rare because books (and stories) have a strong inner voice. In the case of LOTR, that voice -- that style -- is very distinctive and difficult to mimic, so people have rarely tried. Film -- movies and TV -- has no inner voice: all we see is the outside, we make up our sense that the characters have thoughts and feelings in a kind of enthymeme.

Also, film is very pretty. In the case of Orlando Bloom, *extremely* pretty.

alex @19:
“if it’s published, it isn’t fanfic”
Are you a fanfic writer or reader? If you aren't, your definition is somewhere between idiosyncratic and worthless. Not to mention your definition of "published".

Zamfir @23:
I’d say the Odyssee is itself Iliad-fanfic, probably even made up by a community of Iliad-readers.
Not readers, remember, listeners -- the Iliad and Odyssey come out of an oral tradition.

More generally, though, many fanfic writers/readers recognize that what we do is very like pre-copyright storytelling: sitting around the fire, each telling part of one story or different (or contradictory, mine-is-better-than-yours) versions of the same story or set of characters.

alex @22:
Otherwise we’re back where we started, and Ulysses is Homer fanfic.
To me, it is obvious that it *is* Homer fanfic -- not least because it was initially banned, even though not for the usual reasons fanfic is scorned, banned, or looked down upon. "You got sex in my Homer!" is not an argument that can be made with a straight face, though it's amazing how many people will assure you that Achilles/Patroklus is a horrible perversion of the text, and you have a depraved mind to even think of such a thing.

Yet the first recorded slash discussion is in Plato's Symposium, where Socrates and the fanboys are hangin' out, drinkin', and discussin' "Achilles/Patroklus: who tops?"

y81 @33:
it seems more useful to confine the word to unpublished work, generally of a literary quality too low to result in publication, written by aficionados of the underlying work. To expand the word to include every work that includes characters from another work is to make it less useful, unless you are the kind of person who genuinely cannot detect any difference in kind between the Odyssey and some online Hermione/Malfoy slash
Your statement is riddled with problems, which I'll outline not to beat up on you, but because other people probably share them:

- "more useful", "less useful" -- to whom?

- "unpublished work" -- what counts as published, in your mind? Back in the days when fans traded stories in mimeographed zines, perhaps you could say "unpublished" meant "not widely available." These days, a story posted on the Internet for free is likely to be *more* widely-available than one published in a book or magazine. Or does it only count as "published" if you get money for it?

- "generally of a literary quality too low to result in publication" -- otherwise known as *writing*. Most writing is of too low a literary quality to be published in the New Yorker, and even "published" writing generally conforms to Sturgeon's Law.

Conversely, as cofax points out @47, the best fanfiction is fully as good as the best "published" fiction. Here's an example: Apple Blossoms and Laurel Leaves is a brief Midsummer Night's Dream fanfic about Hippolyta. As you can see, its style is just as literary as any story in the "literary fiction" genre, it's based on a work emphatically in the public domain, and it's widely-distributed.

- "the kind of person who genuinely cannot detect any difference in kind" -- I submit that there *is* no difference in kind -- that is, as texts -- between "Apple Blossoms and Laurel Leaves" and the New Yorker's literary fiction. They *are* the same sorts of things.

What makes them different is the communities in which they are written and read. As you may have deduced from its header, "Apple Blossoms" was written as part of an annual multifandom gift exchange of stories in fandoms (or for sources) where there aren't many stories. Several thousand fanfic writers submit lists of "what I'd like to read" and "what I'm willing to write", Computer Magic! occurs, and everyone ends up writing and receiving at least one story. And then we *all* get to read them.

IMO the lack of distance between writer and reader, the fact that no money is exchanged, the way tropes are passed from hand to hand, the tolerance for repetition, and the whole tight social context makes fanfiction *more* like the way The Odyssey was created than the way your "published" fiction has been created in the copyright era.

- "online Hermione/Malfoy slash" -- Hermione/Malfoy would not be "slash" unless one of them has a sex change. "Slash" is used for same-sex pairings, especially male/male; the virgule in "Hermione/Malfoy" is not, technically speaking, a slash slash.

I'm quite startled by the fact that several of you think it obvious that the pre-movie LOTR fanfic "niche" was filled by role-playing games. To me, it seems obvious that RPGs and fiction are two very distinct art forms, as separate as painting and drama, and it would never occur to me to swap one for the other. How does that work, in your minds?

Salient @52:
Isn’t it a bit presumptuous to assume that, just because Author X appropriates Character Y or Universe Z, Author X is a fan of Character Y or Universe Z?

Fan fiction is referential fiction written by people who self-identify as ‘fans’ of the source.
I'm not sure what distintion you're trying to make. Was Virgil a "fan" of the Iliad? I'm not sure it's reasonable to talk about being a "fan" of something that is non-optional in one's own culture.

For James Joyce, it seems to me clearer that yes, he was a "fan" of The Odyssey: he thought about it a lot, he imagined the characters fully, he admired it and there were parts he didn't care for.

roac @63:
Speaking as another birder, fanfic writers and readers are *much* more widely derided than birders. Birders are at worst silly; fanfic writers are frequently accused of being perverts who drag respectable stories through the muck (by which they mean, writing the sexy bits), and who threaten the livelihoods and emotional stability of innocent writers, actors, directors, etc.
And lots of people write for a hobby, nothing strange about that at all—it’s the organized-social-circle aspect of it that I don’t get.
Your attitude is unusual. What I've found is that most people have a lot of trouble getting their minds around *writing* for *fun*. Writing is homework!

Oddly, even many people who love reading fiction have trouble understanding why anyone would write it for fun, as a hobby -- yet no-one has trouble believing that a basketball fan might also like to play hobby-level basketball.

Martin Wisse @64:
think Ulysses is a bit problematic as an example of respectable fan fiction, as it doesn’t take the characters of the original into a new plot, but rather recreates the form of the plot in an entirely new setting; certainly not the most common form of fan fiction.
Not "certainly" by any means. Such stories are called "Alternate Universes" or AUs, and they are *extremely* common. Ulysses would be a modern-day AU insofar as the characters are felt to be the "same characters" as they are in the Odyssey.

Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres, for instance, is perfectly respectable fanfic, a modern-day AU of King Lear.

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  • The thread on CT has rather petered out now, but I wanted to say that some of your comments there got me thinking about and writing up some of my recent experiences in being an academic historian now trying her hand at fanfic.

    By Anonymous magistra, at 5:56 AM  

  • "...fanfic based on The Lord of the Rings was rare before the Peter Jackson movies started coming out."

    There were, as I recall, a number of Tolkien fanfic stories in several fanzines in the early Sixties, although no longer having access to my collection, I can't give you any specific cites at the moment.

    I don't recall, off-hand, much other fanfic set in pre-existing universes until U.N.C.L.E. fandom started, although a few people took their hand at E. E. Smith pastiche, and there were plenty of other pastiches. I don't know how pastiche fits into the taxonomy of fanfic, since my knowledge of the fanfic world is limited.

    By Blogger Gary Farber, at 6:43 AM  

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