Fanfiction as Creative Commons

Fanfiction as Creative Commons

She seems to be under the impression that everyone who writes fanfiction wants to be just like her (i.e. a successful published writer named Diana Gabaldon), but because they are just not as dedicated/original/awesome as she is, the best they can do it try to write exactly like her. With her characters and everything. (link)

I’ve been skimming through the great fanfiction debacle. For those not following along, I’ll summarize: Diana Gabaldon, fantasy fiction writer, discovered that a group of fanfiction writers were auctioning off custom-written fanfiction based on her books, with the proceeds going toward the hospital bill of an uninsured breast cancer patient. When Diana Gabaldon caught wind of this situation, she did not like it one little bit. She posted about her opinions of fanfiction in general (not something she’s avoided airing before: she has previously stated that fanfiction is like someone selling your children into white slavery.) She struck a nerve by describing fanfiction as immoral and illegal, and then went on to wax poetic with analogies for fanfiction like “You can’t break into somebody’s house, even if you don’t mean to steal anything. You can’t camp in someone’s backyard without permission, even if you aren’t raising a marijuana crop back there.” And more inflammatory yet: “I wouldn’t like people writing sex fantasies for public consumption about me or members of my family—why would I be all right with them doing it to the intimate creations of my imagination and personality?” The posts themselves, there were three of them in total which garnered a significant number of comments in reaction, have been deleted from Gabaldon’s blog, but have been reproduced for posterity here. Obviously, these words generated a lot of hurt feelings, and many others, fanfiction readers, writers, and published authors alike have weighed in.

What I find so interesting about the whole mess is the basic misunderstanding, summed up so succinctly by one of the commenters on the fandom wank post quoted above: Diana Gabaldon appears to believe that the purpose of writing fanfiction is mimic writers. And perhaps, if understood from this perspective, her reaction makes sense.

In the mid 90s, when I was finishing my undergraduate degree, I did a research project on an oddity that I noticed in journalistic sources during the 19th century; women in factories wearing outfits that would have cost them their entire yearly wage to buy. I wondered what would possess a woman of limited means to buy such an dress, and uncovered a whole paranoid segment of literature where the upper classes were unrelentingly scornful of the working classes who sought to “pass” as above their station. There was a great deal of worrying about this possibility, and certainty that such “greasy silk” would never really convince anyone. Once I started to dig into the working class side, another motive appearedl it wasn’t limited to fancy clothes, either. Furniture and general household objects, all sorts of things, including fake dinners, complete with the rattling of silverware even if they had no food, to keep up appearances. And then I understood; while the upper classes saw their underlings trying to “pass”, the working classes were actually communicating amongst themselves. They were signaling to each other that they were doing okay, doing great, doing better than their neighbours, no matter what their actual circumstances. The upper classes were there only as a metaphor, as the providers of a language of symbols they could use to communicate, not with the upper classes themselves, but with each other.

This is pretty much exactly the same thing that’s going on in fan communities, including the scornful, wealthy observers. While authors see amateurs stealing their work and possibly trying to masquerade as one of them (usually very poorly, laughably poorly, and the wealthy, educated, comfortable elite has no issues announcing that fact loudly and proudly), fan writers are really only communicating within their own group, to each other. What those on the outside of these communities fail to understand is that any one work of fanfiction rarely stands alone. It is part of a larger discussion about who these characters could be, what these places are like, and working through the issues of the moment within the community itself. This is why it’s often possible to track the development of a fandom version of a character regardless of who the writer is. Fandom tropes come and go, objects, jokes, ideas, themes come into style, and within the culture of the fan community. It’s up to each writer to tackle these things in new and creative ways, to contribute to the narrative behind these characters, these ideas: that’s the challenge, that’s the fun of it. It’s not about you, Diana Gabaldon, privileged writer with a comfortable living and no concept of fan community. It’s about us.

Of course, all fan communities are rooted in the original text (whether that text is in fact text, or video, or any other media); that text is the language that everyone understands. It’s the commons from which everyone feeds. All creative work happens on top of that commons, and subtle differences between the canon action and the story presented carries a ton of meaning. These shared language, structure, place, and characters is what brings strangers together, gives them a common location from which to start.

This is exactly how biblical stories are thought to have developed. They would take a standard story that everyone knows (The garden-paradise, the tower of Babel, etc.), and embroider it in a particular way. The way you chose to embroider a known story is where all the politics and challenge is, and demonstrates your take on the story, your comment on the workings of the day. In the story of the garden that we understand as the standard one, Adam and Eve are thrown out of the garden; in another, they walk out of their own accord. These are the decisions that tell you what the author means to say with his version story; are humans powerful or powerless? Are we here because we outsmarted God, or because we are being punished? Should we be proud or humble? The author is communicating something above and beyond the story itself, using the story elements as tools. If you don’t know the base story, you’ll miss the whole point, the meaning behind the differences. You’ll think it’s just a story.

Published writers unfamiliar with this kind of community will say, “go write your own story! Stay out of mine!” which displays a basic misunderstanding of the whole point of fan communities. If we were all writing our own, we wouldn’t have the shared language to work from. I couldn’t read your story and say, “hm, so you think there is the psychological basis to have character X go this way, well, that seems reasonable and I can see where you’re coming from, but it doesn’t resonate with me. I’m going to write something indicating the opposite, which is also reasonable and arguable, as you shall see.” The first writer will project one tiny element in one direction, and another will come along and build on that, pushing boundaries in another way. You can see characters in fandom as great big trees; starting with a trunk in the commons as part of the original work, then branching off as the community wrestles with him, pushing him in different directions. Camps form; some people see a character as essentially one way, and others see the opposite. People from the camps gather and further refine ideas together, with waves of creativity taking them off in new directions altogether from time to time. If everyone were writing their own story, there would only be a single branch. There wouldn’t be a whole community getting together and sorting out all the ways a given character might go, and writing each and every direction.

The original author is largely irrelevant to this entire process. S/he can step in and add some elements, which might make one faction feel triumphant in their “right” interpretation, but many more couldn’t care less. (Most slash fandoms, for example.) Interpretation of canon material springs from the canon material only; if the book leaves arguable room for a character to become a lawyer, or be gay, or be straight, or marry his best friend, then some part of the fandom will celebrate him in that way, no matter what the author says about it or what the author would prefer. Fandom is about the various interpretations of the collective, not the desires of the individual.

While many fanfiction writers want to be published authors one day, and in fact, many former fanfiction writers have indeed gone on to publish their own original work, the majority do not. This is where Gabaldon is so confused; most fanfiction writers write to participate in this larger community of interpretation and imagination, following not only her lead with her characters and her world, but the lead of all the fanfiction writers who had come before and laid the groundwork, establishing rationales and potentialities. A fandom once born tends to feed itself like a brushfire. Many fanfiction writers get into the culture not by reading the original text, but by reading fanfiction, which by its very nature begs the reader to answer it, to add their own layer, to contribute. Characters leave their original stories and live a million other lives through these multiple lenses, picked up and reconsidered, refashioned. No one’s trying to pretend to be Diana Gabaldon; no one thinks they’re version is a replacement for the original, anymore than a branch is a replacement for a trunk. Instead, fan communities face inward, sharing their stories, their ideas, their interpretations with other fans. The creative commons of culture, including books, movies, tv, video games, provides the base layer on which fandoms begin to create their scaffolds, which spawn more and more scaffolds on which to hang a new story every day.

0 thoughts on “Fanfiction as Creative Commons

  1. A really interesting post. I’m trying (as an ABD of a zillion years standing) to dreg my memory banks for concrete examples; but it seems to me that every new technological phase has raised hopes of(as with Berdyaev and J. F. C. Fuller) or attempts at a primitivist recapture/reissue of culture/Kultur. I have an interest in locative art and certainly many of the early examples, like the Britglyph project, were just in that vein. Since locative media and ideas about augmented reality come out of VR and the gaming world where primitivism is always a Dassein, this isn’t surprising, I guess. But in this context, even if our primitivism comes in postmodern drag, fanfiction is really cool.

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