Attempting to Define the Blurry Lines of Publishing Fan Fiction

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 - Geraldine BrooksWide Sargasso Sea - Jean RhysMarch, 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?)

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16 Responses to Attempting to Define the Blurry Lines of Publishing Fan Fiction

  1. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

    Two quick thoughts. 1) How does historical fiction (especially those that use famous people for main characters) work with that blank slate? It’s not just the characters, of course, but the events, too. 2) With re-made songs, I’m always amazed at remakes that sound identical to the original. I don’t see the point. My favorites are those that really bend the rules (key, style, but probably not lyrics). Creative? yes. Original? no.


    • ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) says:

      Well, I am definitely wishy washy on the whole “completely” blank slate thing. I really do think it is the cover-up of sorts that seems to bother me most and not necessarily the use of characters. However, there really is a lot to be said about copyright, too – for me it’s very much inter-connected. You use something, you give it credit – ethically and legally.


  2. Hmm. I’m going to have to think about this. Right now, I can honestly say what annoys me about these books is the writing. Actually, that’s what annoyed me about Twilight too. Andy makes a good point about song remakes- there are several songs that I have downloaded multiple version of on my IPod. Of course, the writer still gets paid when someone new cuts his/her song, so there’s a difference right there. I wonder about the number of writers who use people they know or situations they’ve heard of as starting off points for their books, or who jump in on a trend (Vampires! Magic! Dystopia!). I can’t decide if I agree entirely with the blank slate argument, though you know I’m mostly on your side here. I also wonder whose responsibility it is to draw those lines. The reader’s? Why shouldn’t they want to read something fun that appeals to them. It’s their money, right? The publisher’s? Their job is to get paid, so who can really blame them for selling something that’s hugely popular? I guess it’s the author’s. Hmm.

    I’ve read March, and it’s wonderfully written. For me, Geraldine Brooks (you have her name as “Gwendolyn”, by the way) writes well. Fifty Shades of Grey lady doesn’t. That’s truly the main thing that makes me read one and not the other.


    • ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) says:

      Thanks for pointing out the author error. (Gwendolyn Brooks was primarily a poet.) Fixed.

      Inspiration for someone’s work is different than actually using that person’s plot or characters though, right? However, I certainly don’t have strong feelings about the blank slate – I liked that Weston pointed it out, but agree that it doesn’t have to be 100% blank – as long as it’s clear and legal.

      Writing, without a doubt, irks me too – but I decided I had to consider what is fair and what is not in my assessment of future instances of fanfic-turned-novel. If I discover a previous novel I loved did this kind of thing would it change my opinion of it? I think it would.


  3. Jen J. Danna says:

    Transparency… YES. That totally hits the nail on the head for me.

    And, BTW, let me join you in that mess of worms everywhere. I need to stop being REALLY irritated by all of this.


    • ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) says:

      My mantra some days: “it’s just a trend-it’s just a trend-it’s just a trend”.

      I may be totally wrong, but sometimes it makes me feel better to say it. 🙂


  4. Becca says:

    You make a great point here – I got into a twitter exchange about the whole fanfiction vs. reduxes or prequels of classics, and no one mentioned that, but it’s very true. Transparency, simply taking it from “we’re all aware I didn’t create the Marches” to “no, this is Ana; this is DEFINITELY not Bella,” changes the whole ball game.



    • ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) says:

      Thanks! I was glad for your well-timed post (that definitely reflected my own opinions) that had paralleled my own Twitter conversations that had been going on simultaneously.


  5. Fascinating! I agree. It is the matter of Transparency. E.L. James tried to hide it, despite all the internet evidence out there. I’m glad you mentioned Wide Sargasso Sea. Also, what are your thoughts of the mashups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and those books. I see them more as parody homages to the original.

    Awesome post.


    • ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) says:

      If we look at copyright only, then parody falls within legal parameters of being transformative work.

      On a pseudo-professional and definitely personal level, I’m good with parodies – and like anything else, there is the spectrum of well-written/not-so-well-written versions. I don’t like malicious ones, but something like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter are written in good fun (I assume?). Ultimately, once again, there is no subterfuge in those novels, which goes a long way for me even if I were not inclined to read them.

      (And thank you, btw.)


  6. Carla Cullen says:

    To follow up with Becca’s response, I think the same holds true for fairy-tale retellings – the writer is using an existing set of characters and a known storyline, but the fun here is seeing how creatively these classic stories can be retold. And there’s usually no question about transparency because most writers will admit that their book is a twist on Cinderella, or Beauty & the Beast, or whatever.


    • ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) says:

      Exactly, and truly, in the end, they are on solid legal ground to do so because that copyright issue is still paramount regardless of how I might ultimately feel about it.


  7. Vanessa E.L. says:

    Thank you for being another person to handle this situation in a professional, no biased manner, it is appreciated by me and some of my other writer friends.

    As a person who has been writing fanfic since a child, I can agree with you how unethical it is to publish a fanfic. I wrote fanfic for years, but I never publihsed them, in fact they are all still posted online. If you asked many big authors, their first manuscript was horrible, so what do they do, they wrote another story. If you write fanfic, lets say you complete a fanfic story that’s over 200,000 words. That’s great, consider those your practice manuscripts, now go write another fanfic story. The more you write the more you improve, just like learning the piano, you don’t become Chopin over night, you have to practice, practice practice the craft. This is a subject that is dividing the fandom. There are people who say “well we spent so much time on these stories, they’re not the same as the original so we should get money on them” then you have those who say “no publishing fanfiction stories is wrong. you’ve already let people read them for free, and now you want them to buy $9.99 for the same story when all you did was change the names?”

    Part of the reason these authors use the fandom base is because they knwo they will have a hard time establishing an author platform so they use the fandom to post reviews all over social media.E.L James is not a real author. Neither is Sylvain Reynard, who by the way in the fandom, posted the story on his fanfiction account, then when it got over 20,000 reviews, he pulled them down and said “Thanks for the review folks, these were just ideas I was trying out so now I’m going to publish the fic” THAT was just wrong, using people to get feedback on the story and then to pull them down? That’s wrong. The main issue is Meyer, she’s not suing and authors have lost respect over her not suing. If it was J.K. Rowling or Suzanne Collins, there would be lawsuits. But Meyer is a fool. E.L. James is even a bigger fool, “I was inspired by Stephenie Meyer” yeah more like stole from Stephenie Meyer.

    I’m sorry for ranting. Thank you again for allowing me to post this response


    • ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) says:

      Haha! I welcome your rant. I assure you, I rant out loud at the computer screen about this issue frequently!

      I definitely see the point about getting Meyer to sue, but I also see the conundrum behind the decision. Does she want to be THAT author? It’s divisive and even though she would not have to be directly involved (she’s got the money for her lawyers to take it on, right?), backlash, even undeserved, is hard on an author – especially one who has a plethora of mixed opinions about her own writing.

      In spite of this, I think, for now, I agree that she has grounds to sue and in my ethical viewpoint (which clearly may not be everyone’s), perhaps she should. I feel a bit about James’s work as I do about memoirists who completely fabricate large portions of their work. Quite simply, it rubs me the wrong way.


      • Vanessa E.L. says:

        Your’e a writer you understand what goes into making characters. They feel like our friends. Imagine you get a fandom base based off your books and then someone publishes that fic as a book, wouldn’t you feel disrespected and violated? I spoke to an IP lawyer at my Univesity and said since there hasn’t been a court case about this, the courts would vouch in favor of the original creator meaning Meyer. Meyer’s agent is a lawyer so it’s surprising she’s not taking action. If it was me and someone did this to me, I would sue all those authors. And then I would sue those publishers for violating my rights.

        But also if you were in the fandom such as I was, you wouldn’t help but notice how all those fanfic authors who published fanfics, don’t write anything else. Like Gabriels Inferno which was original The UNiversity of Edward Masen and well over 250,000 words, he took that fanfic and split it into 2 books.


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