Posted on August 14, 2012 - by MG
That Ewan Morrison has a lot to answer for. I spent yesterday morning listening to the Naked Book podcast in which he and best-selling author Barry Eisler had a giant row about self-publishing over Skype, then reading the pages of comments to Ewan’s Guardian article that prompted my own piece on NosyCrow’s website about my experience of self-publishing.
And then today Ewan wrote another article in the Graun, rather good for a broadsheet article about the niche and wonderfully weird topic of fanfic. @MrEwanMorrison and I had a Twitter conversation about it in which I mentioned an article I once drafted in 2006, entitled ‘We’re All Writing Fan Fiction Now’.
Ewan suggested I dig it out and publish now. I must not have enough displacement activities to distract me from the WIP because I agreed.
Amazingly, I was able to find the draft of my article. I read the first page and realised why I hadn’t published it in 2006. The article suggested that both Russell T Davies (at the time, the new producer of Doctor Who, at the time) and JK Rowling were, in fact, writing a kind of fan fiction.
I began my writing career as a 100% fanfic author, and a co-editor of the first Blake’s 7 webzine, The Aquitar Files. So when I say that someone is basically writing fanfic, that is no bad thing.
Here’s the original article I drafted.
It’s all very well being obsessed with the characters in a TV show or a movie, but what’s to be done when the lights go dark?
No-one’s sure when written fan fiction started but as far back as the days of travelling troubadours people have been entertaining their friends with ‘what if’ stories based on well-loved characters.
Traditionally, adventure stories didn’t bother much with emotional subtext. Heroic characters, sidekicks and their shadowy counterparts in the realm of darkness would play out their roles in the fight between good and evil. How they felt about anything was left up to the imagination of the audience.
For some in the audience, however, that wasn’t good enough. This is where fan fiction really took the dive into innovation. By crossing into territory previously uncolonised by ‘canonical authors, fan fiction took on a flavour all its own. You’d never see Kirk actually fall in love, get married and have kids on ‘Star Trek’ – at least not without the famous ‘reset’ button that most long-running TV shows had at the end of arc-breaking stories. You’d definitely never see Kirk kiss Spock – ever.
When fans starting writing their own TV shows, however, some of the conceits of fan fiction began to invade the actual show. To some extent, the originators of this invasion were the creators of Star Trek – The Next Generation. Series 1 and 2 begin very much in the same vein as TOS. The first glimpse that we might see something fannish; arc-breaking and leaning heavy on the private lives of the main characters, was Data’s sexual encounter with Tasha Yar, followed by his robotic puzzlement and grief at her death.
Ever since Russell T Davies, long-time fan of Doctor Who, became the series’ new producer, a fannish element has entered the show; the emotional life of The Doctor. Fanfic often explored the loneliness of the nine-hundred year old Time Lord, but we saw nothing more than a hint of it in the TV show. We may have suspected that Sarah Jane Smith was secretly in live with the Doctor, but with Rose Tyler, it’s not mere subtext any more.
But that’s fine too. Why shouldn’t the producers of a TV show themselves enjoy a bit of playing around in the sandbox of their own creation?
The 1980s detective-comedy ‘Moonlighting’ was a ‘shippers’ paradise (shippers being fans who obsess about the potential for a romantic relationship between two characters). More than this, it appropriated another device of fan fiction; the alternative universe setting.
By experimenting with the narrative – setting the characters in a Shakespearean or a film noir context, for example – the writers effectively were writing canonical fan fiction.
Fan fiction is the open market for ideas around a popular TV show, novel or film. Everything and anything is up for grabs. Fan writers try everything and by some Darwinian process, the ‘echt’ ideas emerge. Having been exposed, as fans of a particular genre, exactly what comprise the key emotional triggers, the most appealing ‘what ifs’, today’s generation of genre screen and novel writers are hardwired to deliver the goods.
That’s why Harry Potter broods over the loss of his parents and his feelings for Ginny, whilst E. Nesbit’s adventuring children manage to brush over any grief they might have about their absentee parents. The painful emotional backdrops were always there – Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter as well as the kids from Mary Norton’s wonderful ‘Bedknobs and Broomsticks’ were war evacuees. They had to be running any gamut of emotions right there. It’s just that in those days, somehow, the adventure of the story was expected to be enough; the emotional stuff was left understated.
A.S. Byatt has written that it is ‘childish adults’ who read Harry Potter. As a self-confessed ‘childish adult’ and Harry Potter reader, I’ll admit that as a group we are probably responsible for the bleeding of fan fiction-esque elements into genre fiction.
Some of us even like our fiction peppered with literary references, mythology and symbolism, but then that’s geeks for you.
Henry Jenkins, author of what’s become a textbook on genre fandom, Textual Poachers, observed that fandoms build primarily around genre creations in which there is a significant mismatch between the intended audience for the ‘product’ and the hardcore fans. For example, the Harry Potter fandom was not built by 9-12 year-olds (the target audience), but (mainly) by women in their twenties. The fanfic then fulfils the unmet wants of the hardcore fans – who will likely have rather different proclivities.
Fan fiction isn’t new, but as audiences become wider and reach parts of the population for whom they weren’t necessarily designed, the subtext is what is exploited. If we love stories of spaceships and exploration, we can merely create our own. Why waste creative effort writing stories about characters we already know, if not to explore what the canon does not or will not: the subtext?
That’s where I stopped writing. But now that the lid has been blown on fanfic, maybe it’s time to round off my reflections from 2006.
I’m not saying that these canonically unexplored proclivities are always sexual. My own years of dabbling with fanfic were also about finding a way to exercise my writing muscles, via pastiche; Blake’s 7 stories in the style of Italo Calvino, etc. But my own fanfic was also at least 50% about the sexual relationships between the characters.
There will doubtless be protestations on the comments of his article, but I’d agree that Ewan Morrison is right that of all these subtextual fascinations, the dominant one in fanfic is sex.
But then again, so is any version of Robin Hood.
Ewan uses the analogy of Ouroboros – the worm that devours its own tale. It’s perfectly apt. One fiction’s subtext becomes the next fiction’s text.
Just look at the genealogy of 50 Shades of Grey:
Part of the many-layered subtext of Buffy was that in her relationship with Angel, her innocence was threatened by his dark side. Buffy and Angel stories were about control, who has it, who gives it up. Twilight stripped away most of what was extraneous to the urban paranormal story of Buffy and focused on the innocent human girl’s relationship with the tormented paranormal creature: Bella and Edward. But the subtext of that story, right away, was about the older, controlling male and the girl’s subconscious desire to submit. So EL James, like many other Twiglet fans, stripped away all the extraneous backdrop of that fictional universe and exposed the subtext: controlling older male as ‘Dom’ to the young girl’s ‘sub’.
And because of that, now you may find yourself talking about BDSM to perfect strangers. Or your mum. Yikes.
It’s gotten so that once an author is aware of who the hardcore, active audience really is, they may even tailor the story for that audience. Easy to do if you’re entertaining adults – for example Torchwood, where apparently ‘the slash is canon’ (Thanks, @SympleSimon!). If your primary audience is children, you need to be smarter, but you can still manage it.
JK Rowling is a very cunning writer indeed and has laced her kids story with deliciously cruel, often adult subtext. If you didn’t know this, prepare to have your eyes opened by Top 6 Reasons Harry Potter Isn’t For Kids, 6 Horrifying Implications of the Harry Potter Universe and The 5 Most Depraved Sex Scenes Implied by ‘Harry Potter’.
Harry Potter invites fan fiction; a smart move by someone who is surely not blind to the benefits of letting your audience indulge a mania for your invention. Just like Twilight, HP has inspired a generation of authors who cut their teeth on fanfic. So far the most successful former HP fanfic author is Cassandra Clare, whose Mortal Instruments books explore the darker aspects of YA fantasy in a Manhattan setting.
It no longer a niche thing to write fanfic, it’s become one of the best ways to make money in publishing. Ewan suggested to me that this year’s as well as next year’s biggest publishing successes have their origins in fanfic. His article suggests that we’re moving to a situation where the original creation (if anything can be said to be original at all) earns less than the fanfic it inspired. E-publishing has enabled this to happen. Are we in danger of all new creation grinding to a halt?
Firstly I’d argue that we’re not. Every iteration shifts the debate along. Mortal Instruments, a by-product of Harry Potter fandom, is very different from The Worst Witch, an earlier version of the magical kids at boarding school story. There’s enough that is new; we rather seem to like stories that are just like the one we already enjoyed.
Secondly, I’d say that fanfics have already surpassed the earnings of their inspirational texts. All vampire stories are Dracula fanfic, but Anne Rice probably earned more than Bram Stoker and Stephanie Meyer earned more than Anne Rice. EL James looks set to earn even more than Meyer. Oh well.
Where I agree with Ewan is that because of epublishing, it is happening faster.
As a former writer of fanfic, I tend to stick to the original principles – it should be free. Like many, I was baffled by the craze for poorly-written erotica, not because I doubted that people wanted to read it, but because I was baffled that people didn’t know how to type ‘free erotic fiction’ into a search engine, and were therefore prepared to pay to download it.
There’s at least one solution – flood the market with cheap, easily available erotic fanfic.
Here’s a free idea for any tech entrepreneurs out there: design a search engine to index free erotic fanfic, scrape up the content and crunch it through something which spits the text out as mobi or epub. Charge a subscription and get subscribers via Kindle, iBookstore, Kobo. The subscription isn’t for the content but a service charge for the reformatted data, so you have no content fees.
Heck, on the Interwebs, someone is probably already building it.
Like most however, I do believe that author worth their salt ought to work on something at least slightly original. And the authors I most love and respect are some of the most original; Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Haruki Murakami and Junot Diaz.
In fact, I was lucky enough to get Junot to agree to a brief interview for this blog. Junot Diaz is at the Edinburgh Book Festival on Saturday. Check back here on Friday for the interview, to find out about Oscar, about Yunior, and about Junot’s favourite salsa band.