Sunday, 9 May 2010

GRRM on fanfic

Really interesting article on fan fiction from George R. R. Martin:
Consent, for me, is the heart of this issue. If a writer wants to allow or even encourage others to use their worlds and characters, that's fine. Their call. If a writer would prefer not to allow that... well, I think their wishes should be respected. 
Myself, I think the writers who allow fan fiction are making a mistake. I am not saying here that the people who write fan fiction are evil or immoral or untrustworthy. The vast majority of them are honest and sincere and passionate about whatever work they chose to base their fictions on, and have only the best of intentions for the original author. But (1) there are always a few, in any group, who are perhaps less wonderful, and (2) this door, once opened, can be very difficult to close again. 
Most of us laboring in the genres of science fiction and fantasy (but perhaps not Diana Gabaldon, who comes from outside SF and thus may not be familiar with the case I am about to cite) had a lesson in the dangers of permitting fan fiction a couple of decades back, courtesy of Marion Zimmer Bradley. MZB had been an author who not only allowed fan fiction based on her Darkover series, but actively encouraged it... even read and critiqued the stories of her fans. All was happiness and joy, until one day she encountered in one such fan story an idea similar to one she was using in her current Darkover novel-in-progress. MZB wrote to the fan, explained the situation, even offered a token payment and an acknowledgement in the book. The fan replied that she wanted full co-authorship of said book, and half the money, or she would sue. MZB scrapped the novel instead, rather than risk a lawsuit. She also stopped encouraging and reading fan fiction, and wrote an account of this incident for the SFWA FORUM to warn other writers of the potential pitfalls of same. 
That was twenty years ago or thereabouts, but that episode had a profound effect on me and, I suspect, on many other SF and fantasy writers of my generation.
GRRM's article was in response to a post on the same topic by Diana Gabaldon, which caused a bit of a  shitstorm.

It was quite interesting to read what people think does and doesn't constitute fanfic, and their various explanations/excuses for why they write/read it. It's such a complicated issue that even GRRM has subsequently admitted he's not totally clued-up on the legalities of it all.

My own feelings towards fanfic are pretty straightforward: I think it's pointless.

If you want to be a writer, write your own material. A lot of people have argued they write fanfic to develop their writing ability, but I think you'll improve much more quickly and to a greater extent if you're creating your own characters. After all, characters are the heart of every story, and pissing about with characters that someone else has devised and developed isn't going to help you develop a strong grasp of characterization. And yeah, perhaps by writing fanfic you can develop your skills in other aspects of writing - but you can do so equally well by writing your own original material.

As for the reading side of things, I just don't get it. I don't have enough time to read all the 'proper' books I've got sitting on my living room table, let alone time to trawl through countless poorly-written, ill-conceived fanfic. Furthermore, fanfic isn't canon - so what's the point? You're reading stories about events that - as far as the original creator of the world/characters is concerned - never happened. So why bother? I just can't see the sense of it.

No matter what angle I look at it, 'serious' fanfic just appears to me to be masturbation in prose form.

19 comments:

James (DR) said...

I feel the same about writing fanfic as you do. I don't do it and never really saw a point to it. However, there is a point I consistently missed and had pointed out to me by friends who write fanfic: not all the people writing fanfic have an interest in writing seriously. Some are just interesting in having a bit of fun writing in their favorite fandoms or are disappointed in the direction that the canon took.

And as far as reading goes, I have never asked. I know all about not having enough time to read the proper books we have on hand (I have near a hundred now), but there is the chance that your average fanfic reader might not be in the same situation.

I don't write fanfic, I don't read it, and, yes, I think it is a pointless exercise for those that want to write. I stopped wondering why people would prefer to write it rather than their own original fiction long ago.

S.M.D. said...

I disagree that fanfic is pointless. I don't personally read the stuff and have absolutely zero interest in it, but I don't think it would be fair to say it is pointless. For the people that do it, there is usually a reason for it. They might not be interested in writing their own work or using their own characters. Maybe they write fanfic as a release. Maybe they do it because the book captured them so much they just didn't want to let the characters go. Maybe they do it because it makes them feel better.

I think the problem here and with Gabaldon's tantrum (and the tantrums of many of her fans) is that none of us are really part of the fanfic community and have no idea why fanfic people do what they do. We assume we know or we insinuate some meaninglessness or evil to their actions, but ultimately by not being a part of that community, saying anything about it is almost like a guy from the West trying to say something about the Middle East having never been there and never read anything about the place. Most of us have no idea why the people do the things they do in the Middle East, whether it be extremists or regular everyday Middle East Joes. Yet so many of us make judgments and assumptions about them. The number of people who can legitimately talk about the Middle East is staggeringly small...

I don't know if it's pointless on the writing end either. Some writers started out on fanfic and got published doing original work later. It's not common, that's for sure.

Ian Sales said...

Fanfic is just a form of reading. Most people read books and enjoy them. Some people carry on the stories in their imaginations afterwards. And some people write down those continuations of the stories they imagined. I see no harm in it. No one ever seriously considers it a valid legal alternative to the source text. It's like kids playing Sam Tyler and Gene Hunt in the playground.

I don't read or write fanfic myself. I also grew up in the Middle East.

James said...

You raise some good points, S.M.D. I suppose I can see the point in people doing it simply for fun - if they enjoy doing it and it isn't to the detriment of the author, then fair enough. But as a way of developing writing skills, I remain utterly unconvinced of its worth. And I still don't see the point in reading something that isn't canon.

axe said...

>> 'serious' fanfic just appears to me to be masturbation in prose form.

Seriously - this is the level of critique we are descending to ?

Didn't we hear serious people calling fantasy as wish fulfillment / masturbation last week ?

S.M.D. said...

James: I think it comes down to a personal preference. Some people find fanfic enjoyable and other people don't get the point. The great thing about fanfic is that you don't HAVE to read it :P. But I see no reason why people who get some sort of pleasure or release out of it shouldn't be able to do it. If they're not harming anyone, then so be it.

The Evil Hat said...

I can see the point of fanfiction as an aid to "real" writing. It's not so much developing your actual skills as developing your confidence, a stepping stone from your imagination to the page, if you will. For me, the first serious writing I ever did was a grotesquely overlong video game fan fic (though I used my own characters in that world). Was the writing very good? No, of course not. Did it really have any "point"? No. What it did do, however, was let me have a crutch to lean on until I trusted myself enough to swim away from the wall and write with my own worlds. You really need confidence in your vision to spend hours and hours hammering out your thoughts onto the page, and so I don't think it's fair to label anything that gives people some of that confidence as "worthless."

Scott Lynch said...

Hey there, James. Aren't you being a bit harsh with words like "pointless" and "masturbation?" The point is pleasure... writing and reading fanfic is no more pointless in that regard than gardening or watching football or any other hobby we pick up as we all spin merrily toward our eventual fate.

You'd certainly rip the verbal bejeezus out of any lard-headed plonker who blew in here and announced that reading fantasy and science fiction was a pointless waste of time for nerds and sissies, wouldn't you?

Cheers,

SL

Jebus said...

Yeah I too don't understand the appeal of writing or reading fanfic. I've come across it occasionally and every single thing I've ever seen was just atrocious.

But whatever, if people want to waster their time then so be it but it's not something I am remotely interested in.

Emily said...

There are people who want to write fan fiction, that's fine.
There are people who want to go to anime conventions and cosplay as their favorite characters, that's also fine.
There are also people who spend all their time on 4chan or tvtropes, which again, is a perfectly fine thing to do if that's how people want to spend their time.

If people want to write fanfiction that will probably never be published (except on fanfiction.com)and do so for their own enjoyment, that is their own prerogative. And yes, you can actually develop writing skills by writing fan fiction. Hell, writing *anything* helps you develop writing skills, it's not so much what you write as it is that you're writing.

To me, dismissing someone's hobby or an activity they take pleasure in as "masturbation in prose form" is more rude than anything else. If it doesn't hurt you or the author, what's the fuss?

James said...

The Evil Hat - I take your point, though don't see why people need to write fanfic to 'build' their confidence. I started writing when I was fifteen, and I'm still writing now. In that 12-year period, I've always written my own material - I didn't have to start out with fanfic to build my confidence. Then again, it's probably different for some people. I still think writing your own stuff is more worthwhile from a writing perspective.

Scott - great to see you drop by (if it really *is* you, hard to be certain!). No doubt a lot of people agree with you and think I'm being too harsh. Maybe I am. Perhaps I didn't take into account how much pleasure people can take from writing fanfic - and if it doesn't harm the author in question in any way, then perhaps its ok. To be honest, I don't think I qualified my argument that well in the post - perhaps I should have differentiated more between the reading and writing sides...well, whatever. I still can't help but view the whole fanfic thing with suspicion. As for your last point, of course I'd take issue with that - but that's an entirely different situation!

Emily - yeah, but is it fine? That's the issue - a lot of authors don't like it and would prefer their fans not to write fanfic (GRRM for example). So is it fine to ignore their wishes and mess around with the characters they've created? I don't think it is.

I take your point that if the fanfic is never published and it doesn't affect the author financially, then legally there's not an awful lot wrong with it. But it still feels to me like fanfic writers are pissing in someone else's vegetable patch. And I stand by the 'masturbation' statement, because a lot of fanfic is just that - obsessed fans geeking out and writing ridiculous stories. Though whether you agree with that's a bad thing depends of course entirely on which side of the fence you're on.

L. Merciel said...

I don't understand the appeal of fanfic myself, but I don't understand the appeal of plenty of other things too (pro wrestling, lolcats, banana cream pies, the list goes on...).

Where I draw the line, personally, is in whether the author has given permission for fanfic writers to do their thing or not. If the author's okay with it, great, go wild. If the author is not okay with it, then I firmly believe those wishes ought to be respected. Doing otherwise would be just plain rude (and, at the extremes, might make the author abandon that project altogether -- as has happened).

Beyond that I don't see any point imposing a moral judgment on it. People have lots of hobbies that don't have any obvious intrinsic worth. But it makes 'em happy, so if the author -- as the only party who might conceivably be harmed by it -- doesn't mind, why take it away?

Kristopher A. Denby said...

"Fan fiction" has made its way to Hollywood in the form of feature films. Some of Hollywood's biggest blockbuster films begin as spec scripts based on existing properties. Is there a difference between someone writing a manuscript as a spec, set in a world and with characters that belong to someone else, with the intention of trying to sell it. Or at least the idea?

I don't read fan fiction as a rule. But I have read a little. And I don't think they are at all pointless. If not for the above reason, they are also not pointless if the person writing them enjoys what they are doing.

Abcdefg said...

This opinion probably comes a week too late, but I still send it :) Others have already pointed out, that words 'pointless', 'prose masturbation' etc. are too harsh and prejudiced and I agree with them. If you don't understand something, there is no need to insult it. (I noticed you already responded the critisism, just wanted to say where I stand)

Personally, I don't write fanfic, but I've read some. So here we go:
cons:
-most of the fanfics is poorly written
-some fics may hurt author's feelings

pros:
-fanfics show that the readers love very much the book; otherwise they wouldn't bother writing it
-ficcers are writing and letting others read their texts for free, they also give good feedback to each other; we are talking of a very broad-minded, equal and encouraging community
-some fics are really good, sometimes even better than original and 'proper' books

Anonymous said...

"fanfic as masturbation"...consider that some people masturbate TO fanfic :D I'm being completely serious. Most shows don't get into the racy stuff, and a lot of fanfic provides a great outlet for erotic literature.

Seth said...

The other attraction of fanfics is that sometimes they explore elements of the stories that the original authors didn't. By that I don't mean "inserting something that was obviously never there", but "fleshing out characters who weren't well developed", or "examining how the world itself functions in more detail than the author".

Obviously, the more open space the original author left in their world, the easier it is to write something like that. For an example, see every author for the past eighty years who's done a story set in the Cthulhu Mythos.

I'd also say that if you're trying to write fanfic and write it well, it can actually be more challenging in some ways than making your own world. Specifically, the challenge of trying to stay in-character when you weren't the one who created the character in the first place, especially in fandoms where there are fans who are both obsessive and intelligent (and that combination does actually occur on occasion), and who will call you on it if you make a mistake.

Kari said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kari said...

Writing fan fiction is a hobby. And sure, there are a few less than honest people in the community. But that's true in almost any community.

I am saddened that Marion Zimmer Bradley had such a bad experience with one person since it was an activity that she enjoyed prior to that. I also think that this fanfiction writer did not have two legs to walk on in suing her. How can someone sue for stealing their own idea when their entire work is based off her own premise and world? A fan fiction writer has no ownership of anything they write because the work inherently belongs to the original author. And it is truly tragic that she scrapped her own work because of it.

But this is not the rule and you should not base your opinion of the entire community on this one individual nor say that the community shouldn't be there in the first place.

I have read fan fiction. And usually the first thing you see in a story is a disclaimer. "I do not own these characters nor this world. They belong to ." Fan fic writers as a whole understand very well that the world they are working in does not belong to them.

I have even written one fan fiction based on a game. The reason was that I loved the characters so very much. I played the game over and over, but I realized after my 15th rendition that it was a game - and there was only so much there. I wanted to flesh out the characters while staying true to them. So I wrote a story around 50,000 words! And you know what? Even I could tell that it got better as it went. In the beginning it was choppy and stilted. By the end it flowed much better. And you have any idea how exciting it is to write dialogue that fits the character so perfectly? Especially since its NOT your character! You have to create something that already works with an already established character. This requires creativity as well. Especially as the character grows as they experience new things because they have to change to be interesting characters. But if you stray too far its not the same character anymore. And you know what's crazy? The characters decide to do things that I never anticipated as the "author". It makes me feel like a real write because I've heard real author talk about this same phenomena. They are real to me as they never truly were while I played the game. So mission accomplished!

The other thing I had to learn was how to write combat. Something that I've never truly experienced nor been terribly interested in, but that was important to this story. I really had to expand my way of thinking. And I started reading more to find examples. Reading more novels I mean. I found R.A. Salvatore to be immensely helpful!

Kari said...

Continued from previous post.

The point is, my writing has definitely improved a lot in writing this story. I feel like I might even be good enough to do another story - my own original story - justice. Right now I've only an outline. But I know how to describe an environment, I have learned to tell a story through dialogue, how important it is to establish the characters, and I even have a sketchy idea of how to make them fight with one another.

But I have no illusions. I am not a professional writer. And I never will be. I have no desire to be. I am a high school teacher (physics so I'm not teaching kids to write stories) and I enjoy my profession and have no intention of changing it. When I write it is purely for my own enjoyment. A creative outlet for the analytical logic I have to promote and teach all the time.

I just wanted to give you and inside picture about the thoughts and motivations of those within this community. My goal is not to convince anyone. But just so you know the fanfic writers are your biggest fans. They are the ones that loved what you created so very much that they never want it to end. And just because they've started writing about your world doesn't mean they are not going to buy and devour every book you've ever published. I'd be willing to say that more than 99% of fan fictions writers would not be willing to sue the author they get their inspiration - because then how else are they going to get more books? Or in my case, games?