After breakfast this morning, the Spawn and I were talking about writing in general, and fan fiction in particular. We’ve come to the conclusion that some of my discomfort with the form may be generational — not so much in a “get off my lawn” sense, but in another way.
The Spawn put it this way: “When you were a kid, Dad, I think you saw cartoons and stuff as telling you a story and being self-contained. I saw them more as showing a world that I could wonder about, and imagine what was going on when the cameras were off.”
I think she’s onto something here — I tend to think of fiction in a “closed source” kind of way, whereas for Generation Fanfic, these imaginative worlds are open source. In my view of the world, for example, Kenny and Jean from Broken Glass Waltzes (available from fine booksellers near you!) are people I made up. They have histories, some of which are in the book, some of which are not, but which are mine to tell or not tell. If someone were to write Broken Glass Waltzes: The Lost Episodes, it would strike me as intrusive and perhaps lazy on some level (I made these people up — why not make up your own characters instead of using mine?), and also wrong, in the sense of being non-canonical, even if it’s just in the sense of what some folks call a “headcanon.” In PoMo terms, I privilege the original author’s headcanon above those of fan writers, particularly if I’m the original writer.
For folks of the Spawn’s generation, however, once the original story enters the world, there’s nothing wrong with adding one’s own spin to that particular world, providing “lost episodes” or moving characters into an A.U. (alternate universe), changing the sexes or sexual orientation of characters as suits the fan’s desires while still maintaining a connection to the original fictive world. For me, a gay Harry Potter (which apparently happens a lot in fan fic) isn’t Harry Potter, because J.K. Rowling didn’t write him that way. But for fanfic writers such “fictive counterfactuals” are simply additional avenues to explore — always acknowledging one’s debt to the original creator’s work (in this case, Rowling), at the very least in the form of an “I don’t own these characters” disclaimer. The Spawn also observes that fan fiction is typically a non-profit enterprise; the fanfic writers aren’t getting paid for their products. (However, this isn’t always the case.)
On the one hand, this bothers me as being somehow analogous to a sort of intellectual piracy flying a flag of hommage, but on the other, I’ve never had much difficulty with Sherlockiana, or post-Lovecraftian contributions to the Cthulhu mythos. And I certainly think there’s a difference between giving away a song written in the manner or style of a band and uploading that band’s original work to a free torrent site (a frequent problem for musicians these days). But in that case, where does a cover band, or even more nebulously, a tribute band, fit into such a discussion? Is an Elvis impersonator a kind of fan fiction?
One could even argue that fanfic might serve as a sort of advertising for the original work, rather than as a parasitic form. And the matter is further complicated when you think about the legally authorized continuations of characters whose authors have retired or died. Is Ace Atkins writing/selling Spenser fanfics? And what about series that have been ghosted for most of their run under house names (as in Nick Carter: Killmaster and other such works-for-hire)?
As you can tell, I’m a bit conflicted by all this. So I’m opening the floor to the other writers and readers who drop by here — of whatever generation. LB, what would you think if you found out that someone had written an A.U. in which Matt Scudder never quit drinking, and is dying of an alcoholism-related medical condition, and posted that story online? (I’d ask Harlan Ellison, but 1. He doesn’t read the blog and 2. I’m pretty sure his response would involve sowing someone’s fields with salt.)
So, writers and readers, the comments await.