Monday, February 25, 2019

Ascended Fanfiction: Some Thoughts

Once again, I was having a conversation with some friends and stumbled across a topic that I had more to say about than I realized. Surprise, now I'm blogging about it. Strap in, because we're about to talk about Fanfiction, its place in literature, reasons some authors are totally fine with it while others want to burn it to death with a flamethrower, and what happens when it transcends fanfic and enters the public eye as its own thing.

Content Warnings; Allusion to toxic relationships and their portrayal in fiction, tons of examples of literature both good and bad, an overflowing spoonful of reference links, a little bit of shade thrown, a minor history lesson, a vast endless sea of irreverence, and the inclusion of Steven Moffat. Enter at your own risk.

I can't think of many topics that are as polarizing as fanfic in the literary community. It feels like people either love it or hate it, and there isn't really an in between. And then you have cultural phenomenons like E.L. James and Cassandra Claire who come into the literary spotlight directly from fanfiction roots, and it's no wonder a lot of people have a lot of things to say about this.

Now, y'all have met me so you probably know how I feel about this, but I'm not so much trying to make a point here as I am just analyzing the topic and sharing some of the information I've stumbled upon. In light of that, I'm going to start at the negative extreme and work my way over.

You can't really talk about polarized opinions on fanfiction without mentioning Anne Rice and Orson Scott Card. Namely, they both really, really hate it.

OSC is "flattered" when people write fanfiction based on his work but "if they try to publish it...I will sue". It's presented as being very practical, but he also describes fanfiction as "a poor substitute for writers inventing their own characters and situations" and says that "it does not help them as writers".

Meanwhile Anne Rice has been described as "the terrorist of fanfiction". Her pursuit of people writing fanfiction about her characters has been legendary in terms of its egregiousness, to the point that many of the fanfic authors she tracked down report having been harassed over it long after they took the offending fanfiction down from the internet.

And if you're interested in reading more about that, there's an excellent article on the topic over here, with sources of its own. If I try to get into all the details of this particular kerfuffle, we're going to be here all night and none of us have time for that.

Anyway, as a brief side note the thing that most bothers me about all that up there is that after getting on her high horse about fanfiction, she then returned to the catholic church and in 2005 had the audacity to fanfic the bible. If this had been accompanied by a change of heart re: fanfiction, I would have been all on board with this, but since it wasn't, it was kind of hypocritical and hypocrisy bothers me a lot.

But the long and short of this is, some authors are really not okay with fanfic. Which raises the question: what were they so afraid was going to happen?

And I'm glad you asked, rhetorical figment of my imagination, because that neatly brings me to my next point: ascended fanfiction.

See, once upon a time in the 1600's, someone wrote an unofficial sequel to Don Quixote while Cervantes was in the middle of writing the official sequel. Copyright was not what it was now back in the day when this happened, so there wasn't actual legal action Cervantes could take. The other writer was actually making money off of this (something contemporary fanfic authors typically don't), and suffice it to say, he was furious.

So in the official sequel he literally had Don Quixote find out about this fanfiction, read it, and become livid at the way he was portrayed in the book. It got super meta. The point is, this is not a new problem. It was happening 400 years ago. More on that over here, but incidents like this are much the reason why copyright law is what it is today. Odds of that up there happening in today's day and age are stupid low for that reason.

Meanwhile, authors like J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer are totally fine with fanfic and in fact JKR encourages it. And both of these thriving fanfiction communities (both for Harry Potter and Twilight) have given rise to other authors with their own original works with clear influences from back in their fanfic days.

Now mind you, loads of us cut our teeth on fanfiction and this isn't meant to call out Cassandra Claire or E.L. James for writing fanfic. Frankly, I think fanfiction is wonderful practice, gives you a great framework to reference off of when you're just getting started, and let's face it; if you're ever planning to write for television you're going to have to get used to writing other people's characters because no TV series is ever written by just one person and keeping already established characters in character is an indispensable skill for that.

But you can't deny these two are probably the most well known ascended fanfic authors, and it's only natural to follow that thread into the resulting media that came from it.

And boy, there's a lot to unpack about that.

So. Tackling this in chronological romance, Cassandra Claire got her start writing Harry Potter fanfiction and became well known for her work "The Draco Trilogy". People really enjoyed this because, while it wasn't the first fanfic to portray Draco as the redeemable fanon sex icon he is in this story, it was largely the one to popularize it.

Unfortunately, she's also been at the center of several plagiarism controversies, the first due to some lifted action sequences and dialogues taken from The  Hidden Land, some dialogue lifted from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Babylon Five, and other things within The Draco Trilogy itself, and then later on some kerfuffle over the term "Shadowhunters" being used and lifted from fantasy author Sherrilyn Kenyon.

And once again, if I try to talk about this in its entirety we are going to be here all night, so. If you're more interested in that debacle, the stuff on the Draco Trilogy can be found over here and an article to get you started on the Claire vs Kenyon clash can be found over here.

And yeah, that's all pretty unfortunate, but I've read The Mortal Instruments, and I've got to say, it wasn't terrible. It kept my interest the whole way through, which is more than I can say for a lot of other things that aren't the center of a lot of controversy. Was it the deepest thing I've ever read? No. Did it have its stumbling blocks? Hell yeah it did, Claire really likes to use her weird similes, but honestly that wasn't enough to kill the experience for me.

There's totally enough in The Mortal Instruments to showcase where it was influenced by Harry Potter in places, mostly in the characters. You can see where Jace is influenced by Draco, and where the main villain, Valentine, was influenced by Voldemort, and where Luke Garroway is influenced by Remus Lupin. But it's not Harry Potter. It doesn't feel like Harry Potter. Not really.

Then you have E.L. James, whose novel 50 Shades of Grey was literally Twilight fanfiction with some of the names changed. And I've read it and can attest, if you hit cntrl+f and replaced all the characters names with the characters from Twilight it pretty much feels like a weekly-update fanfic. There wasn't a lot of changing around done to this one.

It's not a good example of a novel. It's not a good example of the BDSM lifestyle. It's not even really a good example of smut. But you know what? It made its readers happy and honestly that's what it was supposed to do. I wasn't a part of the target audience for this book, and I can acknowledge that.

Am I a little bit skeeved out by the abusive relationship portrayed as being totally normal by the characters involved? Yeah, absolutely. But you know what. James isn't the first person to do that and isn't going to be the last. She didn't invent glorifying abuse, and to the untrained eye it looks like good conflict, so it is what it is. I'm willing to let it be.

And to be fair? The source material was also a toxic relationship portrayed as totally normal by the characters involved. I know Twilight got a lot of shit for that, but Stephanie Meyer didn't invent the trope either. It's a symptom, not the cause.

The point I'm trying to get at though, is that I feel like the only reason we know these authors were fanfic authors to begin with, is that they took their fanfic audience with them when they upgraded to doing original novels and had to be up front about that if they wanted to retain their popularity. Because we know the source material, it's easy to draw those parallels.

I'll admit it. I never would have connected Valentine to Voldemort or Jace to Draco if I didn't know about the Draco Trilogy. I probably wouldn't have connected Christian Grey to Edward Cullen if I hadn't known about Master of the Universe. But the authors were up front, and I can see their influences, and you know what?

That was a smart marketing decision.

If you already have the audience it'd be stupid not to bank on it, right? And like it or not, if you're writing books, you're also marketing. Even if you're trad pub. Being a good businessperson is a part of the game and the craft.

And while Claire and James get a lot of shit for having written super popular fanfic that then became super popular novels, I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with those particular parts of their personal narratives. Mind you, there are other parts of their stories that are a little less okay, but consider for a moment that if you dig at anyone, you're going to find some less than shiny bits, and the more popular you are the more people are going to be digging.

But that's not the end of it. You could easily take these two examples and stamp your gavel and be like "okay, done, fanfiction is bad and turns out bad things", but you know what is very clearly derivative and doesn't ever get any of that mud slung on it? BBC's Sherlock.

It gets criticized a lot for queerbaiting and bad representation (and now that I'm actually researching this for the blog entry and see Steven Moffat was involved I've got to ask myself if that's honestly all that surprising), but you never see anybody going "oh, but it's garbage because it was fanfiction".

Now, if you're being really generous, you can look at that and say, "well, it isn't infringing on anyone's copyright because Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain now", and you'd technically be right. But I'm going to stick my neck out here and interject that maybe it also had something to do with the fact that people receive the fanfiction written by two rich white guys backed by the BBC a little bit differently.

But it's like TV has an entirely different standard when it comes to writing things because if you're writing for television, it's very likely you're writing other people's characters, so if the show's creators borrowed a little from some older lit, no big deal, right?

I have one more comparison to draw before I close off. Sarah J. Maas has gotten really popular for her fairy tale retellings. That could be considered fanfiction to a certain degree; it's derivative of folklore. It's in that weird grey area of not victimizing someone that holds the copyright to the original source material, but also being based on something previously existing.

Her Throne of Glass series is a retelling of Cinderella, where the titular character is an assassin. And I haven't read it since it came out as an actual book, but I was around and reading it when it was originally being posted on as Queen of Glass, and I remember loving it and thinking it was amazing back then.

All of the shit that I have seen her catching has been about the blatant and romanticized sexual assault in her Court of Thorns and Roses series. Nothing about having originated on the internet. Nothing about bad prose. Nothing about being fanfiction, even though these are both fairy tale retellings and squarely in the vain of 'exactly what fanfiction is'.

And maybe that's because her diction is actually leagues ahead of what can be found in The Mortal Instruments and 50 Shades of Grey. Or maybe it's because fanfiction tends to get a bad rap and a fairy tale retelling isn't exactly the same thing. But theoretically, if you strip down all the legal kerfuffle, what you have are derivative works that began online, gained a following, and then came to the mainstream media.

I'm not sure what all that boils down to, guys, but I do know it's all really interesting to look at. And you know what? I still don't thing derivative is bad. After all, we're all just building on what came before us anyway. Most modern fiction is standing on the shoulders of Gilgamesh and Beowulf. That's how stories get better. That's how the craft grows.

By today's standards, Moby Dick is terrible. It's long, rambling, not super well structured and has been described as "everything I never wanted to know about whaling". I don't know if anybody else said that, it's just how I felt about it when I read it.

But that is how it was done in 1851. We as a community and as a craft have gotten better since then, learned from the mistakes of our forebearers and learned how to tell a better story. This is part of that process.

PS? China Mieville's critically acclaimed novel, Railsea, is based on Moby Dick. And it is awesome and un-put-downable. Just saying.

Fortune Favors,
Megan R. Miller

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