The title has a subtitle, Do Fanfic Readers Like Being Readers? I thought to write two separate posts for this, but then realized that both have to be understood together.
This post should not be understood as anything other than Meta. It is something I have been thinking about over a great amount of time, and its conclusions are far from swift or impulsive. I write it down because I must, because if I don’t my head will explode. I speak in generalities, and though I state some specific examples, it is only because I think they best exemplify what my point it. That being said, if when you read this you think I am talking about you, you should know that it is more than likely that I’m not, but if you really think that I am, then maybe that is just something you should think about.
First, Do Fanfic Authors Like Being Authors?
I shall begin with an example. Once upon a time in a Twilight fandom forum there were the normal discussions of the books about which the forum was named after. As it turned out, a great number of people didn’t really like the books very much. The BD forum in particular was a place where there was much abuse of the book, and much anger. It became, I thought, a place where people went to learn how to hate the book even more. Abuse was heaped upon abuse, until it became a mark of distinction to come up with even greater reasons to hate the book. People who made posts like “I liked this part of the book, and I thought what SM did here was really interesting,” were considered to be ignorant noobs. Didn’t they know that SM pooped on them all when she did a fade-to-black in the honeymoon scene and left them all to be sexually frustrated? Now, I do think there are major issues with BD, but I do think that a lot of the reason why people began to hate it was because it lacked porn. Does a fandom forum have a right to say whatever they want about the books they are a forum about? Well, yes. But it struck me at the time that if the people making those comments about BD said half those things to authors of fanfic, a lot of fanfic authors would have committed flounce-by-suicide.
In the midst of all this, people also made comments about SM herself. It began, I suppose, in the context of discussing the books, both fairly and unfairly. But it soon devolved into simply being personal. Not only was it thought that Bella was a self-insert to satisfy her own sexual desires, but it was thought that that SM herself was a sexually frustrated middle-aged woman. Her weight was discussed, her religion was snarked, and what she wore to the movie premiere was laughed at (objectively, it was pretty awful). Was any of this acceptable? Maybe not, but nobody stopped it. SM, after all, had published books and was now very wealthy. Sociologists may have something to say about why we think it is okay to attack the wealthy and successful, but in the end of the day SM is a person too, and nothing would prevent her from reading that forum herself.
About the same time some of the major fanfic authors at the time organized a Q&A panel at a Comic-Con. Someone videotaped it and posted it online for people who hadn’t gone to it. This was discussed on the same forum, and a lot of comments centered on the main organizer, who was an author who wrote, if I remember correctly, a rather porntastic fic. In any case, she was also deeply involved with a very porntastic Robsten RPF. She was, to everyone’s surprise, a rather typical middle-aged white suburban woman. She was a bit on the heavier side, she had very bright red hair that was a bit oddly styled, and she had one of those high girly voices one usually associates with preschool teachers. The comments those girls posted, and girls they were, largely centered around their shock that they flapped to something written by someone so obviously sexually unattractive. I found this kinda funny, since these girls obviously had yet to learn that the reason there was no author picture in all the trashy novels they liked didn’t completely lie in the fact that the authors wanted to be anonymous. But the person they were commented about also happened to be the founder of the fan archive and fan forum they were on (I don’t think all the girls realized that) and the thread was quickly deleted with admonishments that we should all be nice to each other, and not say things which will make people feel hurt. At which point all the girls probably took their discussion to the Place it Belonged, which was behind the author’s back.
I learned two things from all this. The first is that when people say “If you have something to say about me you should have the courage to say it to my face” they don’t usually mean it. The second is that there were entirely different standards with which fanfic authors and the authors of the story they were writing fanfic about were to be held. If the founder of the forum thought that all comments on the forum should “be nice to people” then she should have never allowed people to say half the things about SM that they did. But clearly, “be nice to people” was a principle that should be followed when it affected her, or her author friends.
And this principle, that fanfic authors demand more rights than they are willing to give to the author who wrote the story they write fanfic about, was something which, when I realized it, became obviously rampant, even in the most unlikely places.
One of the ways in which it is rampant, beyond simply having the expectations that no one can say anything bad about them or their fic, is when authors demand that no one write fanfic using their OC’s. I have seen, and this is more than a few times, authors who say something like “I have put a lot of thought and time and effort into creating my OC’s and my fics, and they are mine. Don’t write any fic including them or my verse in any way.” Whenever I read this I feel like asking the author “Did the demon of Anne Rice posses you when you wrote that? You do realize that you as a fanfic author writing that is pretty lulzy, don’t you?”
Dramatic irony is funny when you see it on stage, it is sad when you see it in real life.
Some authors do say, of course, “you can borrow my OC’s or my verse, as long as you ask me first.” But this then begs the response, “Did you ever write to SM asking if you could please write a fic using her characters? Did you have to send her a detailed outline of your fic, what you were using her characters for, and the message you wanted to convey?” The answer, of course, is no.
I don’t think that most fanfic authors would agree that what they are doing when they disallow people to, essentially, write fanfiction of their fanfiction, is channeling Anne Rice. If they do they really have no business writing fanfiction in the first place. They disallow it because they feel insecure in their authority as an author. It is rare for a fanfic author to write out their whole novel before they post the first chapter, and it is even more rare that the whole novel is posted in one big go. Nobody likes being jossed, least of all by their own characters, and I do understand that.
But what then, when the author is done, the characters established, the plot full, and “Complete” has been marked? Then I do think it is entirely appropriate that the OC’s and verse are set free to the fandom. This may sound strange to some, but I have seen it done, and it is very lovely. It even has a name, Recursive Fanfiction. One example of this is the Dumbledore’s Army and the Year of Darkness fic by Thanfiction. Though the author says he is still writing, the verse is free. People can write fic of it, put DAYD-verse in the summary, and everyone knows and understands the relationship of the fic to Thanfiction. The “authority” of the original author is completely secure, and though the secondary fics may be AU’s of what the original author wrote, this really isn’t a problem. Nobody would read fanfic if they had an issue with AU, and everyone knows that an AU is an AU.
But even here, I see the old problem resurrect. Thanfiction has said in a FAQ post:
This is the first thing on the FAQ that is preemptive, not a response to comments or emails, but I feel I need to, particularly after #50 .I have given other authors permission to play in my world, but I am putting a few caveats on that. I have no problem with slash or homosexuality. Rowan Glynnis and Malcolm Braddock both “stir their cauldrons in their own direction.”… HOWEVER, I am refusing permission for anyone to slash my Neville and/or Ernie, as well as any Michael/Terry slash. Obviously, these are all four originally JKR’s creations and I cannot ban the pairings in general , but I can ask people not to use my story as material in them… and that is why I am requesting that it not be done. Please respect this, and if I find out that someone has written a story from my canon that violates it, I will be reporting it to ff.net as uncondoned plagiarism.
I am, in the whole, sympathetic to the reasons Thanfiction gave for this statement. I quite prefer brother-fics over slash, and I thought the whole Ravenclaw Boys Are Metrosexual was one of the more interesting parts of that whole train-wreck of a fic. However, this whole statement is just full of lulz.
Just imagine for a moment if JKR released a statement in which she said, “You know, I don’t have a problem with gay people. Dumbledore is gay, after all. But I ask that nobody write Sirius/Remus slash. I wrote in my stories that Sirius was a lady’s man, and Remus had a wife. I don’t know why people are so stupid to not get that they are definitely not gay, and I think making them gay ruins their friendship. I am instructing my lawyers to inform ff.net that they must immediately delete any fic with a Sirius/Remus pairing.” The HP fandom, and all fandoms, would immediately erupt in outrage.
What makes Thanfiction think he can do something we wouldn’t allow JKR to do? And it’s one thing to disallow slash, the bread and butter of fanfiction, but it is quite another to threaten to report such fics to ff.net for plagiarism. Not only is it a completely empty threat (I doubt the ff.net lackey who reads such a complaint would even bother to send a form response), but to call it plagiarism is just all sorts of wrong. Because if he really does think such a thing qualifies as plagiarism then he really has no business writing fanfiction at all.
Then there is the issue of how fics are shared and disseminated in the fandom. And this is tangentially related to this site, but, believe me, the issue is quite a bit bigger and has a longer history than just me. I think it is best here for me to make an analogy. Did you know that many musical artists wish that people would only hear their music by listening to the whole album while holding the album insert in their hands? It’s true. The musician, well, any true musician, constructs the ordering of the songs on the album, the way the artwork is presented, and what is written in the insert to convey a certain meaning and mood for their music. To listen to a single song in isolation is, they think, to miss a part of the message. For them, being played on the radio is a travesty, especially if the version has had “radio edits” made. And, you know, I think they are partly right. I have sat down and listened to an entire album of music while holding the cover in my hands, and yes, I think I got a broader sense of the artists meaning by doing so. But do I think that this is the only way the songs can be listened to? Would this be the only way I would listen to music even if I knew the artist expressed that he only wanted his music to be heard in this way? The answer, simply, is no. And I think that is what everyone would say, because that is what we do. Ever since the technology allowed us to we have made playlists, throwing together a bunch of different songs completely out of their original order and by different artists, first on cassette, then on CD, and then on youtube, where anyone can access the playlist and listen to it. And I believe that, even if more people realized that the musicians did not like having this done to their music, we would insist upon our right to do it. And, frankly, unless you think that people don’t have the right to listen to music other than in the context of the whole album, and that you will never listen to a CD a friend burned for you, or listen to a playlist they send you, then you really have no right to object to what I have done on this site.
Second, Do Fanfic Readers Like Being Readers?
Yet another experience brought this issue to my mind. There was once a closed LJ comm. which discussed Twilight fanfic. The topic at hand was, I believe, good fics. Not fics that were popular because girls squeeed about how “hawt” they were, but fics which were good on the literary level. One person brought up a fic written by a certain author as an example of a really good fic. To which another person answered, “I will never read any story by that author, not after what she did here.” Being insanely curious I was wondering whatever the author had done to make a person decide to never read them. Did she admit that she had blessed her hard drive the blood of goats before she posted the story, cursing all readers thereof with eternal incompetence, poverty, and low libido? Ohmygosh, I had read that fic! So I went to the here the person had mentioned to find out, which was a previous discussion on the same LJ comm. That topic had been on a recently completed fic (by a different author), where a person stated that they thought the fic and the author of it was awful because of one rather insubstantial detail. Now, the author-in-question-above jumped in to take issue with such a statement, because really, it was a silly thing to hate the fic over. But as most discussions of this sort on closed LJ comms go, it soon devolved into the author-in-question-above stating all of the reasons why such a statement was ridiculous and the person who made the original statement finally saying “I was just joking anyways, SHEESH!” which then set off yet another round of poking with pitchforks. It was, reading it all in hindsight like I did, a rather silly thing. And while the people involved probably still felt emotionally invested in it, I thought it was a very stupid reason to just not read a really good fic. Because this was, I realized, an example where a reader has treated a fanfic author in a way they would not treat any author of published original fiction.
I, for example, think that what JKR said about Susan was stupid, and actually kinda offensive. That does not mean that I have stopped reading and liking the HP books. I have also read all of Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series, and I didn’t even check the books out of the library! After reading Goodkind’s personal website I can honestly say that I very much dislike him as a person, and not just because he disallowed fanfiction. That does not mean I stopped reading his books, I even kept on reading them after he started trying to use his books to shove his political philosophy down my throat, destroyed his own world, and then made a backhanded swipe at my religion out of left field in the very last chapter. I even passed on the books to someone else to read when I was done. I may not be completely cuddly with the author, or accept what he eventually did to his own world, but I have never regretted reading about Richard and Kaylan.
Though I have been sorely tempted to do otherwise, I have tried to apply this principle to my fanfiction reading and recommendation as well. There is on my faves list on ff.net a fic which I thoroughly enjoy, but wish I had never visited the author’s story forum for. The author of the fic is, and I do think I am entirely objective when I say this, an arrogant prick who treats her readers despicably. But the story she wrote is, I can also objectively say, really good. Inventive and rich. It incorporated Big Things and handled them well. I keep it on my fave’s list because I do hope that it might allow others to discover it and read it. But I also hope that those people never try to contact the author and get abused. The author has said that she will never write another fic, and though this makes a part of me sad (because she does have a lot of talent), I think this is a good thing. She obviously found out that, despite being talented, she can’t handle having readers. Maybe, hopefully, someday she will come to a place where she can. But in the meantime, I will continue to rec the fic, because at the end of the day her story is not about her, it’s about her story.
Another example: a group of people were once discussing a fic, and somebody said, “ugh, I thought that fic was good until Example G, then the author totally lost me.” When asked, “did you ever leave the author a review telling her that you thought Example G was confusing?” the answer was “bah, no, I’ve decided that I will never bless that author with a review.” To be clear, in this fandom review count was everything, having over 1000 reviews immediately made the fic Popular and the author a BNA – whoever came up with this system obviously wasn’t thinking through the fact that not all reviews were necessarily positive ones. But here I saw yet another permutation upon the previous example: people might still read a fic by an author they don’t like, but they will withhold reviews as punishment upon the author. In a system where review count is everything this practice has some logic, but in the end of the day is it reasonable that a person who is a Reader of fanfic would de facto remove their main method of expressing their enjoyment (or disappointment) with a fic?
Part Three: Conclusion
I have not exhausted all my examples of how I see the actions of both Authors and Readers, and I’m sure I have not seen everything. But it has been enough for me to reflect upon the ways in which a “pure” art form such as fanfiction (it is pure, there are no editors, publishers, agents, geography, or marketing campaigns standing between the Writers and the Readers) can turn simple and enjoyable things such as writing, reading, and reviewing into not just tools, but weapons. Yes, in the land where everyone has a sword it is silly to walk about unarmed, but is it then necessary to pick fights? Is it necessary to demand rights which you yourself do not extend to others, and then use weapons to try to achieve them?
Now, you should not think that I consider everyone and anyone who has done anything like the examples I give above to be a completely bad person. To paraphrase CS Lewis, I do not speak about sins which I have not myself committed. Too often though we simply copy the actions of the others around us (as sociologists would say, we fulfill the expectations of our social construct). Once upon a time in a fandom it was considered okay to bribe readers with special cookies to get votes in fanfic awards. Everyone was doing it, the popular authors were doing it, so everyone did it, until a few brave people stood up and said “this is not acceptable.” I don’t think everyone who did it meant to do the wrong thing, they just didn’t think through what their actions meant. And really, I do think that a lot of people (in a great number of fandoms) need to stop and think a few moments about whether they actually like being an Author, or like being a Reader, and if they do, to act the way they themselves expect Authors and Readers to act, no matter what “the fandom” says is allowable behavior for them.