Thoughts on Fan Fiction

Hey, how many of you write fan fiction? Wow. Uh-huh. Lots of hands out there. And one person waving a plastic monkey, which is fine. We’re all friends here. No judgments. Could you turn off the monkey’s light-up fez, though, please? It’s getting me right in the eye. Ah, that’s better. Thanks.

If somebody says to me, “I loved your books and wanted to riff on them in my own way,” well, I’m chuffed. And if somebody says, “I hated the way you ended a certain book and so I am going to give it an alternate ending in which a certain character starts a mail-order business selling figurines made from tree bark and also spends much time undressing another certain character,” hey, it’s all good. That anyone would feel such love for characters or worlds that I’ve created that they want to invest more time and energy into those characters and worlds…wow. I feel very honored by that.

I know some authors feel differently. Some authors feel that the very existence of fan fiction is a threat to their copyright. I understand their concerns, and I’ll address that in a bit. I see fan fiction more as a wonderful complement (and compliment): Thank you for caring so much that you want my stories to live on in new ways. I think I’ve always accepted that once the book is written and on the shelves, my work is done, and the book only comes to life again when someone reads it. It exists as a conversation between the writer and the reader. I can’t control a reader’s reaction to or interpretation of my books—nor would I ever want to. It is out of my control. I do not feel—beyond certain compelling copyright boundaries, which I will discuss in a moment—that I need to control the content of fan fiction, i.e., “How dare you make Nightwing into a vampire when it says quite clearly on p. XY that she hates the sight of blood!” Hey, if Nightwing gets her groove on by fanging people in your fan fic (or is that fang fic?) story, she does. Canon, schmanon.

I suppose I also like the populist idea that fan fiction is giving rise to writers who can take things into their own hands. Many writers are beginning their publishing careers by starting off in fan fic. When I was growing up, the idea of being a writer seemed like saying, “When I’m older, I would like to be a kangaroo.” It seemed an elitist profession dominated by people in black turtleneck sweaters whose book jacket photos showed them working at Chippendale desks or staring off into a future only they could know. I grew up in small-town Texas. Not a lot of turtleneck sweaters. How could one go to a writing program if one didn’t have the means or know connected people? It all seemed so mystifying. Trying to break into playwriting felt like ten years of not having a golden ticket. And believe me, I tried to break in. (In fact, if you look closely at some of those doors I never could knock down, you might still see the imprint of my hard head.) But if you have access to a computer and a love of writing and are a fan, you can create fan fiction. It is the vox populae. (Yes, I took Latin. It was in lieu of a black turtleneck.) And it’s a great way to build a fan base and work on your skills and get instant feedback and, like the old Carnegie Hall joke, practice, practice, practice.
Also, it’s fun. Let’s not forget that. As Holly Black says, “I find fanfiction inspiring in that the people writing it are writing out of joy, with nothing but the actual writing to reward them.” Word.

Maybe I’m down with fan fiction because I’m such an unabashed fan of so many things (You’ve heard me gush here.) Though fan fiction, per se, didn’t exist in such a way when I was younger, I did my own version of it. I remember the first time I really fell in love with a writer’s work. It was J.D. Salinger. After I read CATCHER IN THE RYE, I wanted to live in that world all the time. I interjected (ooh! A “Schoolhouse Rock” word! Two points!) the word “phony” into all my writings. I read “For Esme with Love and Squalor” and FRANNY AND ZOEY and suddenly, everything I wrote sounded like slightly Libba-fied, imitation Salinger: stories about neurotic rich people (neurotic I understood; rich, not so much); affected, Zelda-esque party girls; and wounded, world-weary men. I did the same thing with Dorothy Parker, Doug Kenney and P.J. O’Rourke, Monty Python, e.e. cummings, John Guare, hard-boiled detective stories, and Anais Nin. And have I mentioned my Raymond Carver period? In college, I read his short stories, thought they were brilliant, and immediately tried to copy his style. This mostly resulted in my sitting at a kitchen table drinking Scotch and penning abysmal, minimalist stories about other people sitting at their kitchen tables drinking Scotch. But I was a fan, and I wrote like a fan, and what’s wrong with that?

For me, this stylistic imitation was a necessary step on my own path as a writer. I needed to “try on” other styles as a means to finding my own voice, my own characters and worlds, my own truths. Besides, I wasn’t publishing any of those stories; they were for my enjoyment alone.

And therein lies the important legal distinction: Because fan fiction takes characters created by someone else—because it deals with the intellectual property of a writer who is the sole owner of that work—fan fiction must be done for the joy of the writing alone. While I’m in support of the fan fiction community, if people ever tried to make money by co-opting my intellectual property, be assured I would come down on them like the freaking hammer of Thor, with big, bad, nasty lawyers and maybe a couple of pit bulls for good measure. Stealing is not cool. We’re talking about an honor system, and I choose to believe in the honorable. But if anybody ever crosses that line, rest assured I can lock and load with the best of them.

I’m often asked if I read fan fiction of my own work. No, I don’t. I will never, ever, ever read it.

There are compelling legal arguments for this. What if I’m working on a book and some of my ideas are also ideas contained in someone’s fan fic story? What if I decided to write Gemma #4: Kartik’s Revenge—“You’re barking up the wrong tree this time, sister!” and I decided to put Fowlson in drag, but someone else had written a fan fic story called, “Kind of a Drag,” in which Fowlson was the Victorian equivalent of Lady Bunny? (Actually…I am feeling compelled to write this now…) Now we’ve got a legal quandary. I could be sued over my own work. So I don’t go there. Don’t send me your Gemma Doyle fan fiction. I will not read it. It’s nothing personal; it’s just my iron-clad policy.

But enough of that. The upshot is, I think fan fiction rocks. It’s the many worlds theory of books. There are so many possibilities, and I’m glad there’s a place where they can be explored, where books can live on in interesting new ways. Hey, the world is filled with lots of possibilities and alternatives. Happy imagining.

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