— Satan in Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger
I’ve been writing all my life — fiction, poetry, book reviews, essays, the (so far) lone book. Shaping worlds of my own and opining on the worlds of others kept me sane, or at least distracted me, whenever problems in real life grew so large that sleep became impossible. At the same time, this was not therapy. I wrote for publication and was lucky and persistent enough to push a decent fraction of the work out into the world.
Twice only in my four decades of writing was I induced to write fanfiction. I didn’t venture into those creatively murky waters because I was a fan. On the contrary, the urge arose from my profound dissatisfaction with the particular original sources. In the first case, the (justly famous) author eventually extended the trilogy that had engaged me deeply, yet had left me so oddly unfulfilled. She crafted three sequels that were so viscerally right — and so beautiful — that my take became redundant. In the second case, I wrote the fanfiction when I still felt angry and bereft after I had written a lengthy critique of the original. Intrigued by the fanfic forums, I posted on several and there I got to observe the phenomenon in all its bizarre glory.
Most contemporary Americans date fanfiction since its Star Trek beginnings, but the activity started ever since language-wielding humans gathered around their campfires. Because ancient texts were transmitted orally, they are palimpsests created by grandmothers and bards, the plots and characters constantly borrowed and modified to suit the particular audience. Many respectable artworks are de facto fanfic of works whose copyright has expired (Milton’s Paradise Lost and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead come to mind, as does West Side Story – not to speak of Romeo and Juliet itself).
Fanfiction and fanart are both artistic enterprises and social outlets. When I posted my story, I was only aware of the former aspect. When I realized the extent of the latter, I felt like Richard Burton wandering through Mecca in disguise: an infidel, a farang anthropologist watching the rituals of aliens. Each fandom, an accretion around the kernel of its inspiration, combines the custom-bound outlook of an insular tribe with the hothouse atmosphere of a girls’ boarding school. Fanfic writers and readers get as immersed and vested in their communities as do players of World of Warcraft.
The artistic level of most fanfic is lamentable. But then, so is most of published fiction, especially the bloated sequels increasingly expected by fantasy and SF editors, the cynical commissioned works in franchises and the copycat clones in the various specialized genres — mystery, romance, westerns. Good fanfic is on par with published work. Fanfiction is the contemporary equivalent of storytelling, the return of mythmaking to collective ownership, the empowering of the fans (especially female fans, who write an estimated 98% of fanfiction) from passive consumers into transgressive creators, subversive Liliths rather than subservient Eves.
The opinions of published writers on fanfiction range across the spectrum but most don’t consider it a serious competitor. Many are flattered if they evoke fanfiction from their readers, the sign of having attained iconic status. Yet the phrases that encapsulate their views about fanfiction show fundamental contempt for the undertaking: “the intellectual equivalent of playing with dolls” and “a safe sandbox”. Part of the condescension undoubtedly comes from the fact that fanfiction authors do this for love or pleasure and are not paid for their labors. It says something about today’s mindset that professional authors who also write fanfiction almost invariably attempt to hide this fact, whereas authors who write commissioned works (officially sanctioned fanfiction) admit it freely. Nevertheless, these phrases pinpoint two serious drawbacks of fanfiction.
The first puts fanfiction in a permanent defensive mode and this is not only because of its shaky legal status. In traditional storytelling there was no dominant “truth”, no canon. All versions of the Border ballads were equal, distinguished only by the skill of the story weaver. The best survived, the rest sank into the waters of Lethe. In fanfiction there is a “master”- the creator of the original source. All fanfiction writers are eternal apprentices even if the beauty and originality of their writing exceeds that of the source. And because fanfiction is not formally published, it’s all slated for oblivion regardless of its quality.
The second is critical if the fanfic writer is talented. Inhabiting someone else’s universe is inherently constricting even if the author creates rebellious alternative versions of that universe. At the same time, the ready-made mythology invites laziness and rewards short-hand. Using a particular name in a particular fandom is guaranteed to invoke the desired response from readers, so why bother with careful craft? And the feedback in fanfiction, always positive, creates the potential for emotional addiction, the craving for ever more uncritical admiration.
Fanfiction is here to stay. It fulfills many needs: it grants recognition, gives access to a like-minded community, feeds dreams (or obsessions). And the Internet is an ideal venue for it. Too, the publishing world may well change under the overwhelming presence of the new medium. But if mainstream publications become more receptive to a larger, more informal concept of authorship, it would be better for everyone if all that talent that now spends its creative juices on Xena, Buffy, Harry Potter and the Skywalkers were given motivations to invent original stories.
It may be true, as Dostoyevsky so famously said, that there are only two stories: “Someone goes on a journey” and “A stranger comes to town”. Yet across eras and cultures, humans have found infinite ways of telling these two stories. Writing fanfiction is a pleasant and constructive hobby and it can foster loyal friendships. It takes courage to leave such a cocoon, although it inevitably suffocates what it originally nourished. But for those who truly want to create, there are whole universes yet to be dreamt and brought forth.