I kind of thought I was past this whole upheaval about Fifty Shades of Grey and its origins. However, just last week I read about another huge traditional publishing deal that just went through for another “re-purposed”, former Twilight fan fiction story.
Can open. Worms everywhere. Again.
To be clear: my problem with Fifty Shades of Grey has never been the genre. It’s not even really about the poor writing. Sure, I don’t like that poor writing is outselling superior writing, but it’s not a new thing. For me it has always been about the origins.
Fan fiction, by definition, uses other authors’ characters. They are not our own. We may insert our own original characters in a story sometimes. We may think we can change our story enough to make a “new” one (and truly, the vast majority of our readers would never know that it was originally a Twilight fan fiction story or a Bones one or whichever fandom), but in spite of these things, at best we are perhaps saying that the characters simply “inspired” us; at worst we are merely playing with semantics. Change a name here, change an occupation there.
If the primary characters were never your own to begin with, though, can the “new” story truly be our own? Would the same story have come from different characters had we not written that original fan fiction story to begin with?
Becca Weston had this to say:
If you write a fanfic, even if you’re writing an AU [alternate universe], you’re not starting from a blank creative slate. You’re taking a network of characters and ideas from an existing universe and playing around in it as you choose. You may bend it a LOT; you may choose unusual romantic pairings2 or put them in – oh, say – a university setting instead of small town Washington. But none of it is really yours.
So what about novels that re-do, give prequels of, or continue a story from an author such as Jane Austen? Isn’t that the same thing?
An excellent question. I pondered it a great deal.
March, by Geraldine Brooks, takes the father from Luisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and gives him a story for while he is away at war. Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea serves as a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Isn’t this fan fiction? How is it any different than what I’ve been talking about?
Author Maureen Johnson suggests that the issue disappears because the work of those authors is now in public domain regarding copyright. You know, they’re old. In the context of copyright and profit from another’s work, this is an important and valid point.
For me? It’s an artistic issue. Writing fan fiction, while potentially a great way to practice and develop writing, does not offer the full skill of using that blank slate that Weston mentions. We don’t have to imagine how our characters will react because the original author has already done that for us. It’s kind of like taking an independent writing course, except the scaffolding is always there. Our audience is even pre-selected. The craft of writing our own original pieces, however, should entail only our own architecture.
Even more so, though, it is a matter of integrity. My “aha” moment arrived when I realized that the core difference between re-purposed fan fiction and the novels of Brooks and Rhys lies in the transparency. Brooks and Rhys do not pretend that their novels don’t use Alcott’s and Brontë’s characters (and it should be noted that both of these authors had already established themselves as authors of original fiction before these particular novels). For me, when I see some of the current fanfics-turned-novels, I feel like it is stealing. These authors can change the names of the characters – but ultimately these same characters may never have existed if they weren’t already someone else’s.
As a reader, maybe you don’t care (no matter how much I wish you would) – a fun read is a fun read.
As a writer, I am annoyed and disappointed in the subterfuge, which to me feels like a lack of respect for the craft, and yes, I take it personally. I’m okay with that. I’m betting y’all could find your own analogies regarding your own crafts for this kind of thing, no?
What do you think? Is my distinction between converted fan fiction and novels like Brooks’s and Rhys’s a fair one?
(Re-makes of old songs. Good analogy for fan fiction in music or no?)