The Fanfic Dialogues, Part One

What defines something as fanfiction?

It’s not as easy a question as it might appear at first blush. Most of us have an idea of what fanfiction is, and that idea is built on our experience, or lack of experience, with it. Most people who care know that 50 Shades of Grey started out as a fanfic of Twilight, which is usually added to the list of its failures. Even if you’ve never read a fanfic in your life, you probably have some passing acquaintance with its tendencies and flaws. Whether talking about Mary Sues or slash fic or shippers or mash ups or whatever else, anyone with an opinion on fanfic probably has it shaped by their expectations rather than the reality.

I haven’t read a lot of fanfic, myself, but when I hear it hastily dismissed, I get the same feeling I do when I hear anime dismissed as “tentacle porn”, as if the medium is so one-dimensional and easily defined. With so much fanfiction floating around, my only certainty is that a lot of it is probably terrible, much if it is okay, and some of it must be pretty good.

So really no different than any other form of art out there.

As a professional artist, I find my opinion of fanfic evolving in many ways, and still evolving. Now, I’ve done a bit of searching now and then, and I don’t appear to inspire much fanfiction. A wise friend once pointed out that fanfic tends to spring from unanswered questions or unexplored bits of continuity that inevitably result from long-running series, and since I haven’t written a series yet, there’s not much inspiration to be had for fanfic writers. Considering the few pieces of fanfic I’ve run across are exactly of that type, I’m curious to see what happens with the Constance Verity trilogy. Will it inspire more fanfic? We’ll see.

But if you really want my current opinion on fanfic (and if you don’t, why are you reading this?), I think it’s fine for training wheels. Most writers start with fanfic in one way or another. My own first novel was a Conan the Barbarian pastiche, but Conan was also a wizard! It wasn’t set in the Hyborean Age, and the world was my own, but in most ways, the foundational ideas were all cribbed from existing works that I enjoyed. It’s a safety net, but also a way for a fledgling writer to focus on creating without being overwhelmed by the act of creating.

Does this mean I’ll always consider fanfic to be a “lesser” form of fiction?

Short answer: Yes.

Ouch. I know. It’s rough to say, but it comes with some disclaimers. Some people just want to write for fun and some small acclaim among a select group, and fanfiction is a perfect outlet for that. Not only is the audience built-in (You like My Little Pony? I can write that.) but it allows one to create in a more well-defined universe. It isn’t bad to write as a hobby, though The Mighty Robot King knows I’d never do it. But to each their own, right?

The bottom line is I fault none for writing fanfic and consider it a fine outlet for creativity, but it is, by its nature, a limited form of creativity. Nothing wrong with that, but I’ll always prefer a writer who takes a chance with original material over one who chooses to play it safe. Sorry about that.

Lately, I’ve come to see and use the term “professional fanfic” more and more. It might seem like an oxymoron, but that depends on how you define fanfic. For me, the defining aspect of fanfic will always be “fan”. And fandom is a tricky proposition. Not just for artists who create in their preferred fandom but also for the audience who enjoys media in that fandom.

(Can I pause here to say how much I dislike the very notion of “fandom”. It feels too much like an oath of allegiance, a swearing of unquestioning fealty. I enjoy having fans, but I don’t need, nor would I ever ask, for anyone’s devotion. I want people to like what I write, and I hope they’ll give my weird stories a chance, especially if they enjoyed them in the past, but I don’t mind if someone has something negative to say now and then. You can criticize my work even while calling yourself my fan. I’m cool with it.)

Simply put, there’s a critical mass of fandom where something becomes unassailable as long as it gives the audience what they expect for their fandom checklist.

We really don’t have to look much further than the current incarnations of nearly all long-running properties. The new Star Trek might be hit or miss, but it certainly knows what beats to hit. And when it fails, it fails based on trying way too hard to hit those beats (i.e. Into Darkness) and when it succeeds it does so by hitting those beats just right (i.e. most everything about Beyond.) The new Star Wars films are all about hitting those beats, to the point that you could see the script being written with how it could be cut up to make an interesting trailer. (Search your heart, fans. You know it to be true.) Heck, Rogue One is professional fanfic on every level, including having reshoots meant to make it less of a story and more of a continuity nod to all the cool things fans love.

And here’s where we run into that term again: Professional Fanfiction. Is there even such a thing? Isn’t fanfic defined by its lack of professional capacity?

I’d say the answer isn’t so simple as that. The first thing we have to remove from the equation is actual quality itself. Whenever I bring up this idea, people’s response tends to boil down to either, “I liked it, therefore I disagree” or “I didn’t like it, therefore, I agree.” Both positions are flawed by their assumption that fanfiction is innately bad or that indulging fandom is innately good.

The complexity here is way more than I want to get into at the moment, but just because fans enjoy something, that doesn’t make it good. Most fans seem to love the gratuitous appearance of Darth Vader at the end of Rogue One, which from a pure storytelling 101 point is a complete failure. A villain irrelevant to the story we’re experiencing kills a bunch of characters we don’t know to stop a foregone conclusion. If it wasn’t Vader, the scene would be viewed as a pointless time waster. Though because it is Vader, it’s not exactly a time waster because the fans don’t really give a damn if it works as a story. Just if it pleases their fandom.

On the other end, I happened to enjoy the heck out of John Carter, even with its flaws. In particular, I’m always happy to see Tars Tarkas, one of my favorite characters in all of fiction. If Tars didn’t serve a purpose in the story, I’d probably still forgive a lot if he appeared in some form or another. But Tars does. So that’s a fan element I feel incorporates well into the story.

(Of course, John Carter suffered from a lack of fandom. While not a great movie, I’d argue that it’s a more solid storytelling than anything recently put out in the Trek or Wars franchises. But then again, I’m a fan of the original books, so I’ll acknowledge I could very well be guilty of the same bias I’m talking about elsewhere.)

As a long-time superhero comic fan, I’ve seen the rise of the professional fan (and by extension, the professional fanfiction story) with all its mixed results. How many writers have wasted their time trying to recreate classic, if dated, stories like The Dark Knight Returns or The Killing Joke? Heck, even Frank Miller can’t reproduce his success with Returns.

My own feeling here is that the most vital element a creator can bring to their creation is a voice and a style that is uniquely their own. And this is where most artists run into a lot of trouble without the shackles of fandom. Even artists struggle to stay interesting and relevant once they become defined in their style. What is awesome and interesting in one moment can be stale and repetitive in another. We all know great creators who seem stuck on their greatest hits, but what is it like to be stuck on someone else’s greatest hits?

And here’s where we run across the peril of fanfiction, professional or otherwise. This entire line of thought came about because of a discussion of the new Fox show The Orville. The brainchild of Seth Macfarlane, it’s basically Star Trek with a looser attitude. Neither parody nor satire, and stylistically, it’s so close to the original Trek that I don’t know why Paramount hasn’t sued. From the uniforms to the technology to the storylines, it’s Trek to its bones, with the occasional joke thrown in.

For me, this is why The Orville IS professional fanfic, because it carries all the problems and limitations that come from unexceptional fanfic. It’s a decent idea but stale and gimmicky. With only two episodes in, I feel as if I’ve seen this show before. The opening credits, the visual aesthetic, the crew. None of it is particularly unique or interesting. It just comes across as a weaker version of the original by someone too afraid to take any chances. People love to remind us that 50 Shades started as Twilight fanfic, but that’s an informed fact. It’s not obvious from reading  or watching 50 Shades.

And, yeah, I’m basically saying that 50 Shades is more original than The Orville. Perhaps more interesting as well. I might have a lot of issues with Shades but at least those are issues based on itself, rather than its resemblance to its forbearer.

So this is a big topic, and I think that’s enough for now. But we shall return.

Stay tuned, Action Force.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

LEE

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5 Comments

  1. Posted September 20, 2017 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

    I think my first attempt at writing was a mashup of King Arthur myths with the Sleestak from Land of the Lost, followed by some paper-thin comic book scripts and a few dozen pages of Boba Fett fan-fiction.

    Also a John Carter fan…

  2. Charlie
    Posted September 25, 2017 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    Question and comment:

    Q. Where can we read your Conan as a wizard novel? I am not aware of a pre-Gil’s All Fright Diner novel and that sounds intriguing. It wasn’t In the Company of Ogres was it?

    C. While I liked Rogue One, I wasn’t very excited about the second Vader scene. It is just so out of sync with what we see Vader doing throughout the Original trilogy. It seems much more akin to the Force Unleashed Vader (which is fine within its own context). I guess I never had a hankering for Vader the murdering bulldozer like some other fans did.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted September 25, 2017 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

      A: It is long gone, written well before the internet age. It might be in manuscript form in the back of my mom’s closet, but even that’s a long shot.

      C: Murdering bulldozer Vader is probably the best metaphor for all those things adults like to take and ruin.

  3. Shawn P. Bellamy
    Posted September 26, 2017 at 1:06 am | Permalink

    I, like a lot of others, the uncreative, and the unimaginative, like to watch a familiar show that goes down easy, like all my dreams and hopes. Chugging it down like the nectar of budweiser. We, en masse, do not think about uniqueness or story, truly people just want to be entertained so we can forget about our blah, blah, blah life. The Orville and Darth Vader are just what WE want. As a professional, even you, bow to the masses in writing a series. Doesn’t that go against your instinct as a writer? As a professional you have a more critical eye than most. You seem to be imposing your high standards of art to everyone else whether its as a writer or viewer. Artist starve in obscurity and professional fans make a good living in Hollywood.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted September 28, 2017 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

      I think you’re reading a bit too much into my thoughts here. I completely understand and relate to the desire to be entertained, and I don’t think it is an automatically bad thing. However, I can also still discuss the problems that come with that, which is what the post is all about. Saying that sometimes we want to just be entertained is very true. But is that a get out of jail free card from all counterpoints? I don’t think so.

      And, yes, as an artist I do consider what the audience wants, though that isn’t my only consideration. My goal isn’t to merely get people to buy my books. That’s a big part of it, but it isn’t all I’m thinking about. (If it was, Constance Verity wouldn’t have been my first choice, as I’ve talked about previously.)

      I’m imposing no standards, by the way. I’m merely sharing some thoughts. I wouldn’t dream of telling another artist what they should do, and I’m not out to tell people they are wrong for enjoying things. I’m just trying to open up a discussion, which is what it’s all about.

      We can be critical of media. Even media we like. I love Tarzan stories, but I acknowledge the baggage and problems that come with them. So it is with this particular topic. If you’re looking for an either / or here, then you’re going to be disappointed.

      Life (and art and media) is complicated. I don’t see talking about this truth to be anything other than part of the shared cultural discussion we’re all a part of.

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