Questions Posed by Fan Fiction

September 23, 2009 at 12:00 am 13 comments

In this age of instant internet publishing, I think it is valid to take a moment and consider fan fiction. I can just hear the twitter of snickers going around the blogosphere as I type this, but bear with me. Yes, fan fiction can be plain old silly and oftentimes happily excels at doing just that, but does its occasional silliness and derivative nature prevent it from having legitimacy as a form?

Personally, I think fan fiction is an excellent device to be used to look at what we consider to be “literature” and how we make the distinction between was is and isn’t. What makes something literature? Is it authorial pride, public recognition, being published by a reputable publishing house, good reviews, widespread readership, or none of these things? One hundred years from now, when people are reading millennial literature, will they read fan fiction, too? I rather doubt it; there is still something ephemeral about internet publishing, but just because it may be there one day and gone the next does not automatically mean to me that the content isn’t good and possibly of high literary merit.

Not being a fan fiction connoisseur, it is difficult for me to bring in any examples, but judging by the sheer bulk of how much is out there, there must be something worth reading it all of it. Considering the sheer originality and creativity that goes into writing what are often epic novels of fan fiction, I think they should definitely be considered independent in nature and possibly as literature. The only constraint of the form are the borrowed characters and/or situations, but oftentimes the fan fiction author takes such liberties and seizes on the characters as his/her own that even these can be considered occasionally original.

This post poses a lot of questions and I do not have very many answers. In all likelihood, this is just a result of my being a new anthropology graduate student in a program where the main question everyone asks of everything is “and does it matter?” and now I’ve started thinking that way, so forgive the rambling nature of this post. All I really meant to do was start a discussion about the merits and demerits of fan fiction, considered as a form rather than based on literal content. I hope you’ll join me in this even though this is not the most well-articulated post. At least we have one answer here: this post: not literature.

And a very special thanks goes out to my former roommate Laura who introduced me to words like “fandom” and to the worlds of fan fiction, without which I would not have been able to procrastinate nearly as effectively as I did throughout college and I now do in graduate school. There are new levels of dorkery to which we can aspire, my friends.


Entry filed under: Contemporary Fiction, Musings and Essays. Tags: .

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13 Comments Add your own

  • 1. KT  |  September 23, 2009 at 10:44 am

    Ugh, the dreaded “and so what?” question! I always take that way too far and end up with the answer that nothing matters at all, let alone graduate school, and then sink into a depression that can only be cured by repeated viewings of West Wing.

    Incidentally, I just reread my one and only piece of mock fan fiction last night! While it’s certainly not great literature, it was fun to write and it was a new way to engage with characters I enjoy. I think that’s what drives a lot of people to fan fiction, the desire to interact in a deeper way with a work that was meaningful to them.

    Is it great literature? I think that depends on the quality of writing. In a way, Shakespeare wrote fan fiction, taking mythical and historical characters and reinventing their stories. (PS, Shakespeare is my new favorite example for everything.)

    But then you get fan writers like those on , whose writing is so terrible that its only merit is that it’s unintentionally amusing.

    Still, I’m not sure the point of fanfiction is to produce great literature. I think it’s all about stretching one’s imagination and engaging with books, which is never a bad thing. And if the result is something readable, then so much the better! :D

  • 2. Corey  |  September 23, 2009 at 12:05 pm

    Ah, yes, but then the question becomes “does the author have to have intention to produce great literature for it to be so?”! I can see why this kind of thinking (does anything matter?!) is endless and fairly morose and I agree with your recommendation to just watch “West Wing” with gay abandon until it passes over.

    Anyway, I basically agree with you that the point of fan fiction is not to write “literature,” but rather to fulfill fantasies or interact with characters/places that struck a personal, emotional cord with fans. I also really like your point about using fan fiction as way to explore your own creativity and “stretch the imagination.” Lovely way to frame it.

    And incidentally, Shakespeare is an amazing example for most things! Oddly, I’ve found myself referencing him more than usual of late as well…

  • 3. KT  |  September 23, 2009 at 12:43 pm

    I think the answer to your question is no, it doesn’t have to be intended to be great literature for it to be so. However, I think the goals of fan fiction are different from those of great literature.

    Literature is meant to tell a story about the human experience and touch people on a fundamental level. I think the author has to be reaching out to her readers in that way in order for her work to even approach greatness.

    While fanfic writers do often keep their readers in mind, I think at its heart, fan fiction is more about the writer’s experience with the books she is working from rather than an attempt to make the reader understand some fundamental truth in a new way.

    There’s nothing wrong with that, and in fact it can be very entertaining. But it’s still not really great literature.

    • 4. KT  |  September 23, 2009 at 11:04 pm

      Additionally, bad fanfic is addictive. I have been on for like three hours today. Oh. My. GOD. Hilarious stuff :D

      • 5. Corey  |  September 24, 2009 at 10:15 am

        No joke. You would not believe the time I have spent (wasted?) reading endless West Wing fic. I now avoid 10+ chapter epics that have the word “angst” in the description. No thank you.

    • 6. Corey  |  September 24, 2009 at 10:17 am

      I don’t think the author’s intentions in terms of reaching out to readers needs to exist to create great work. I agree with you that fan fiction is really not great literature, but I think there are examples where the author did not intend to create anything particularly amazing or to reach out to anyone and it is now considered great literature (the publications of edited diaries after the author’s death comes to mind, although I guess that is not strictly “literature”).

      Thanks for taking my “does it matter?!” questions seriously. :)

      • 7. KT  |  September 24, 2009 at 11:03 am

        Ah, if we’re going to include diaries, we’re delving into the world of non-fiction! That’s so cheating ;)

        And everyone has a different definition of ‘great literature’ anyway, which I think is our main problem in this discussion…

      • 8. Corey  |  September 24, 2009 at 12:07 pm

        Yeah, I know. :( I fail at examples.


      • 9. KT  |  September 24, 2009 at 10:25 pm

        Ah, but I argue that Shakespeare was trying to express fundamental truths and human experiences! “To be or not to be,” “the course of true love never did run smooth,” etc! He may have been writing for a popular audience, but he was still striving for greatness.

        (Or did he have greatness thrust upon ’em? :P )

  • 10. Laura  |  November 5, 2009 at 7:11 am

    Woo, shout-out. XD See, you linked in your LJ so I managed to get over here.

    For me, I think it’s actually simpler to find the merit of fanfiction if you look at the adult works. Cos that’s where fanfiction really excels. It’s a genre of pornography that’s created primarily by women for women. That NEVER happens. I guess there’s playgirl and a few half-hearted movies, but the absolute bulk of pornography is created by men, for men, and women have to try to find the stuff made for gay men.

    I think part of the reason for that is that women – by biology or socialization (you can guess which one I think) – emphasize relationships more, so when writing pornography about established characters, there’s already a relationship and an emotional connection to build on.

    But I have read quite a number of well-written, non-sexual epics that I’ve greatly enjoyed. Sometimes more than the source material. Although even those usually focus on a particular (usually slash) relationship, which is something that the source material often can’t do – both because there aren’t many gay couples, but actually more so because tv shows and movies actually have to have plots, and can’t dedicate themselves to just focusing on a relationship. (There probably are things like that, but I don’t like them cos it’d be boring in a different medium!) So fanfic can explore aspects of relationships or go more in depth into things that the source material can’t.

    I think that might be part of why it’s not “literature,” though – it cannot stand alone. If you’re writing fanfiction that is so thoroughly developed and interesting that it could be its own story, you should just do it with original characters. Fanfic enhances the experience of the source material (or its primary purpose is pornographic) and as such, has merit, but not as an independent literary work.

    Pornographic fanfiction, I’d actually probably rate higher, but that’s the feminist in me getting all excited about women having a place in which to express their sexuality. Not really, um, literary.

    • 11. Corey  |  November 6, 2009 at 7:15 am

      I think you make an important distinction between fan fiction and literature when you point our that fan fiction cannot stand alone, whereas a work of literature can. I guess I get turned around when talking about those stories, like the ones you mention, which are so developed and interesting on their own, that the source becomes almost incidental. I agree with you that the author should then really just use his/her own characters, but then it makes me wonder if that kind of fan fiction can be considered “literature” even if the author does not blatantly use original characters (change the names, etc.). They are clearly doing their own thing, away and apart from the source material, but they are more using the source material as a creative jumping-off point. What does that make what they wrote?

      • 12. Laura  |  November 6, 2009 at 8:56 am

        I wonder. . . Cos those fully-formed works raise questions about other derivative works – sequels written by other authors, whether authorized or unauthorized. Like. . . Are there any good examples? I know non-Frank Herbert people wrote subsequent Dune books but they were terrible. But say they weren’t. I’d say if you were going to consider those literature, works of fanfic that are fully formed and can stand on their own can be considered literature. Like, if the fanfic COULD be published in that capacity given the appropriate authorization, maybe you could call it literature? But if it can’t serve as an independent text, then it’s like DVD bonus material for the source material rather than a complete work.

        Not to say that these less complete works can’t have literary merit, though. Which I think is a separate thing? But if your definition of literature is simply that it has literary merit, then you could include those. But for me maybe I’m drawing line where if you’re using characterizations that are already established, instead of developing them yourself, no matter how beautifully you explore those characterizations and relationships it’s not an independent work of literature. Although I might be simplifying things so they fit neatly into my categories. . .

  • 13. justincaynon  |  February 19, 2012 at 6:24 am

    There are some horrid fan fics out there, true. Some of them that have stuff that can’t even be thought about in pleasant company. But there are some master pieces that had me so taken, so wrapped up, it was like reading the book all over again. I think that fic for me would have to be After The End, its a Harry Potter Fan Fic that weighs in at 475,000 words and basically makes up an entirely new canon from book 4 onward. It’s good, its well written and its obviously a labor of love. The point being is that there are things out there like this that make you remember the magic of the series and why you first fell in love.


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