Fanfiction: The Merits of Originality
If you are not familiar with Fanfiction, then you will want to sit down for a moment. Because you are missing out on a subgenre of writing that has hundreds of millions of items devoted to it.
Really, it’s quite a simple concept. We have all been sitting in that cinema and thinking to ourselves, “that ending sucked,” and we’ve all turned to the person beside us at some point and said, “they could have done that ending so much better.” Well, what if you thought up a new ending and then wrote it down? What if you shared it with people? What if you kept on going, kept on writing and kept on exploring the what-ifs? If you did that… you’d be a Fanfiction author.
If you want to start at the beginning of the subgenres origins, you may want to explore The Testament of Cresseid or explore the archives of the internet where Spock and Kirk have already been in a relationship for thirty or so years of writing glory.
In terms of public opinion on Fanfiction as a whole, there are generally three extremely emotive opinions that you hear and read constantly from a published Authors point-of-view:
1. Rage: “Fan fiction is to writing what a cake mix is to gourmet cooking. Fan fiction is an Elvis impersonator who thinks he is original. Fan fiction is Paint-By-Number art.” – Robin Hobb
2. Apathy: “I think you get better as a writer by writing, and whether that means that you’re writing a singularly deep and moving novel about the pain or pleasure of modern existence or you’re writing Smeagol-Gollum slash you’re still putting one damn word after another and learning as a writer.” – Neil Gaiman
3. Encouragement: “I myself used to write Star Wars fan fiction when I was tween. I think writing fan fiction is a good way for new writers to learn to tell a story.” – Meg Cabot
Clearly, if the quotes above can demonstrate anything, it is that fanfiction evokes very powerful emotions.
So, does fanfiction deserve the same credit as the literature it’s based on?
An interesting and strangely relevant book to refer to on this topic is that of Don Quixote. To quote Wikipedia, “It follows the adventures of a nameless hidalgo (at the end of Part II given the name Alonso Quixano) who reads so many chivalric novels that he loses his sanity and decides to set out to revive chivalry, undo wrongs, and bring justice to the world, under the name Don Quixote.” While the book itself was (and continues to be) extremely unique, it is also very enriched by Quixote’s references to past books and well-known stories:
Have I not already told you’, replied Don Quixote, ‘that I intend to imitate Amadis, and to act the desperate, foolish, furious lover so as also to imitate the valiant Orlando, when he found signs by a spring that the fair Angelica had disgraced herself with Medoro, and the grief turned him mad, and he uprooted trees, sullied the waters of clear springs, slew shepherds, destroyed flocks, burned cottages, tore down houses, dragged away mares and performed a hundred other excesses, worthy to be recorded on the tablets of eternal fame?’ […]
Even in this time before the internet and mass publishing, there was a value of repeating a familiar story in a new setting. At the time, there would have been many readers who delighted at such well-known romps being referred to by this insane and delusional character. Even today, the book stands as an important reference to works of literature that may have been forgotten, if not for their inclusion in this great of literature.
The reason that I would include this book as a frame of reference is because it plays with the idea of originality. There have always been stories of big-headed idiots which have flown by unnoticed and yet, this story twisted these fables in such a way that it drew millions of readers into its pages.
Is it worthwhile to ask if these references to past stories and books make the value of this book any less? Is it negatively effected by these references and could it have been even better if it had been a 100% original novel? Honestly, we will never know. As a reader who has no knowledge of these past stories, the most important reasons for continuing my reading were based on the quality of the writing, the dialogue and the engaging characters. Not its originality.
In many respects, I understand why authors do not enjoy the idea of fanfiction. Some of the writing is just… terrible (and I say that with all due respect to the hundreds of stories I have read, favorited and re-read over the years). This not even semantic of the industry or a factor that is questionable. There are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of stories out there which are terribly written.
However, there are also many stories which read like a dream.
Truly, it doesn’t matter if the characters you portray are closer to the reader than their own parents. It doesn’t matter if there is a genuine story behind each moment and a reason for every setting to be included. What matters is whether the writing is well done and whether the reader feels satisfied. Whether the plot and idea have been executed and whether the reader is absorbed. And this mirrors exactly the situation that reviewers and readers face every day when picking up completely original books. Does this book deserve the same credit that I would give to a classic of literature? Is it readable? Is it well executed and will I actually enjoy it?
This highlights the difficulty of analysing the worth of fanfiction as a writing form, as prescribing a measure of value to it will always be done with a huge heaping of bias. From the perspective of a past fanfiction reader and writer, I believe fanfiction which is well-constructed and well-written to be a highly valuable form of writing. To be clear though, I have never published a book of my own.
It is obvious that a published author will value originality. Quality writing is already a prerequisite of getting to the financial position that they are already in, so the value of fanfiction surpasses the basic evaluations that a normal reader will give it. It is assumed, if you are published, that you know how to string a sentence together.
If authors are evaluating fanfiction through a lens that most other readers do not possess, should they be the authority on the matter? Should they be the ones to give credit and allow us to do the same? Or should they have a certain understanding that their value system is different to the average readers, who may care very little about copyrighting but may have an enormous level of concern over the stories readability?
So what happens when the decision of its quality and popularity is taken away from Authors?
Let’s be clear, I have no interest in evaluating whether 50 Shades of Grey is a good book or not. That discussion could easily take up a book on its own.
What is important about this book, however, is the fact that the readers made a choice as to what they deem to be valuable. Readability, eroticism and excitement have made this a more popular book than other recently released novels. So is it important for us – on top of evaluating the writing, character development and plot – to also evaluate it’s original sources? Has it stayed true to Twilight? And if we are comparing this to Twilight, shouldn’t we then compare Twilight to Dracula, and Dracula to the historical accuracy of the stories of Vlad the Impaler? Should all works based off Vlad be evaluated as different forms of fanfiction?
Or should we once again look at what the common people actually care about? Is this a good read? Was it written well? More to the point, should we expect every person to be intimately familiar with the original source? On many occasions, I have read fanfiction based on media I have never viewed or read. To me, these stories are original. Therefore, I am not evaluating them on their accuracy, but on whether the characters are continuing to develop and whether the story is progressing in a way that is readable and interesting.
There are many people who would without a doubt say that 50 Shades of Grey is a terrible book. And they are absolutely entitled to their opinions. But can we expect such a small, suppressed market to have quality writers within it? Would you expect a child to be a great horse rider, even if he’d watched dozens of adults ride before him? Probably not. Because there is no standard for the skill level of a child rider. At that point, just getting them on the horse is the most important thing. And for fanfiction authors, just getting published is a huge and incredible step. How can we except the quality of the writing to be amazing if there is no precedent or standard for what that quality should be? General Fiction authors have industry standards, awards and various accolades constantly at the edge of their peripheral vision. But fanfiction authors have none of this. There is no award called Fanfiction Author of the Year or Best Fiction Adaptation of a Novel. Should you invest in creating beautiful prose and writing if an engaging story is what is going to get you published?
At what point does a work stop being Fanfiction and start being its own independent work – like in the case with Fifty Shades?
The sad thing is that there is no defined point at which this occurs. To be honest, 50 Shades of Grey was a stroke of good luck. Even though I never want to read it (it isn’t my style of book), I have to acknowledge that it has kick-started something which may change the way Fanfiction is viewed. In this case, the average readers spoke and decided that even if professional authors didn’t value the attributes this book possessed, that was unimportant as to whether it should be counted as a valuable work of writing.
At the end of the day, who should be deciding the merit of the book? Does getting published make your opinion more valuable than that of a 12 grade student’s?
I am inclined to say that the numbers speak for themselves. Currently, the combined sales of Robin Hobb’s first nine novels is 59 million sales less than the first 50 Shades of Grey Book. Which maybe explains her rage (I will still love you Robin, no matter how many rants you publish on the matter).
What do you think? Leave a comment.