Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Rise of Fanfiction

Actor Wil Wheaton and science-fiction author John Scalzi are running a fanfiction contest for charity. Entrants must come up with a short story to go with a gloriously ridiculous picture of a forbidding volcanic landscape, where Scalzi, with an ogre's greenish visage and battle armor, is about to engage in mortal combat with Wheaton, riding a giant winged cat. The subject matter may be unorthodox, but this is a fairly typical prompt for many writing contests and English assignments. I wouldn't have mentioned it here, except that Wheaton and Scalzi are specifically calling this a fanfiction contest, evoking the media fandom cultures that tend to form around major genre properties like "Star Trek," "Harry Potter," "Star Wars," and "Twilight."

The first thought that came to mind when I learned about the contest details was to question whether the contest entries should really be considered fanfiction. "Fanwork," an umbrella term that covers all fan-produced derivative media including written stories, videos, artwork, music, craft projects, and more esoteric items, covers a very broad spectrum. Anything inspired by existing source material could technically count as fanwork. Participants in Wheaton's and Scalzi's contest would base their work off of the picture provided, and presumably the personas of Wheaton and Scalzi themselves, who keep popular blogs and are well known in genre circles. Their existing fans will no doubt have a leg-up over those unfamiliar with their antics. And there's no requirement that the source material for fanfiction must be fictional. A whole subset of fanfiction known as "real person fiction" or RPS has flourished for years online, postulating on the activities of popular celebrities.

But then there's the question of the money. Wheaton and Scalzi announced that the contest winner will be paid for their work, at the rate of ten cents per word. Since the upper limit on story length is two-thousand words, the most that can possibly be paid out is the princely sum of $20 $200. Still, even token compensation sets a worrying example. When fanfiction and other fanworks are based on someone else's intellectual property, they're treading on dangerous ground as far as potential copyright and trademark infringement. As long as the actual source material is not being appropriated - see remix videos and the Hitler parody meme - Most IP holders will turn a blind eye. There's no incentive to go after most fanfiction, because it operates as free advertising, there's rarely any confusion about a fan-produced story being officially sanctioned material, and most importantly the fans aren't making a dime for their efforts.

It's only when particularly ambitious fans like Steve Vander Ark, who tried to publish the "Harry Potter Lexicon," try to profit from successful fanwork that bitter lawsuits result. So understandably there's a deep-set aversion to any sort of monetization of fanfiction in the fan community. Many fan authors take pride in writing purely for the love of the source material and the gratification of their fellow fans. Some of the biggest fandoms have created a sort of gift economy centered around writing contests, challenges, and yearly holiday exchanges. The only exception I've seen is recent forays into fundraising, where popular authors will promise write-to-order stories in exchange for donations to noble causes. Legally there may not be much of a distinction, but socially it's more acceptable. There's also less of a stigma attached to selling fanart and crafts, probably because the cost of production is much higher.

Related to that point is the recognized professional/fan divide. Technically, tie-in novels, spinoffs, pastiches, parodies, tributes, reimaginings, reboots, and a lot of other writing could be considered fanfiction because it's derivative work based on previously established material. However, when it's officially sanctioned by the IP owner and money changes hands, the creators are no longer considered mere fans and their work is no longer thought of as fanwork. Or if the work falls into the parody or critique exceptions to copyright, or is simply based on source that has fallen out of copyright protection, there's no question as to its artistic legitimacy or kosher legal status - though the categorization can often seem pretty arbitrary. No doubt many of the professional writers who create such derivative works are fans of the originals, but few would expend so much time and energy on such works without hope of compensation. After all, writing is their livelihood.

Fanfiction, on the other hand, is by and large associated with amateur writers and hobbyists who do not expect to receive any acknowledgment, let alone approval from those associated with the original source material. Authors generally have no compunctions about breaking all sorts of rules regarding taste and subject matter for their own amusement. Pornographic stories are very popular. Self-insert protagonists, often derided as "Mary Sues" are common. Debates over a certain character's romantic preferences will often lead to reams of sappy love stories from all sides. The free-for-all atmosphere, lack of any kind of quality control or editing standards, and the proliferation of younger, untrained writers has given fanfiction a very bad reputation. The term "fanfiction" is synonymous in some places with the worst, unpublishable, bottom-feeder dreck. Yet there have been good stories produced from this culture that are all but indistinguishable in quality from professional work.

A showdown of sorts happened last month between Diana Gabaldon, the author of the popular "Outlander" novels, and members of the online fanfiction community after Gabaldon vehemently made known her dislike of fanfiction and those associated with it. The debate is still playing out, but what I concluded is that fanfiction not only does not require the original creator's approval or oversight, it thrives precisely because of its absence. The lack of imposed limitations allows for a freer exploration of fictional characters and universes in a way that would be impossible if fanfiction authors had to worry about pleasing the IP owners. The best fanfiction often functions as commentary, critique, wish-fulfillment, or simply a way for a fan to react to the original work. The lack of filters results in more bad stories than good, but also allows for more interesting work to emerge.

So the idea of officially sanctioned fanfiction feels counter-intuitive, though I don't think it's impossible. There have been attempts to corporatize fanfiction before, most recently with the heavily moderated FanLib Archive that went online in 2007. The corporately-backed project generated plenty of controversy, but failed to gain traction with writers or readers, and shortly collapsed in 2008. The fanfiction community has always existed comfortably outside of the mainstream, but it's become more and more visible in recent years with the increased interaction - and even cross-pollinization - of fans and creators in some fandoms. There's also at least one group, the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW) that seeks to establish the legality and legitimacy of fanworks, including fanfiction. But there's always the danger of clashes, of creator toes getting stepped on, or of certain fannish creative impulses getting quashed.

I'm sure John Scalzi and Wil Wheaton are completely well-meaning and just looking for a couple of laughs and a new way to connect with their fans, but like most they don't quite have a handle on the ins and outs of the fanfiction phenomenon yet. Or the terminology. The original rules for the contest prohibited "slash," a subgenre of fanfiction that explores homosexual relationships. This was quickly amended to prohibit explicit sexual material instead. It'll be interesting to see how this little experiment goes. What does fanfiction written for the subject of that fanfiction look like? What kind of effect will the involvement of the celebs have on the kind of fanfiction that is produced? They've already nixed the porn (not that anyone can ever *really* nix the porn). Will authors be stymied or emboldened? Will Wheatzi (or Scalton) take off as a new slash pairing? Will Dreamworks come after them for unauthorized use of "Shrek"?

I may have to enter this thing myself - just out of intellectual curiosity you understand.


  1. "Since the upper limit on story length is two-thousand words, the most that can possibly be paid out is the princely sum of $20."

    $200, actually (2000 x .10 = 200).

  2. Ack! Curses, foiled by math again.