Fanfiction Is Not just for Trekkies Anymore (Not That there’s Anything Wrong with Trekkies)

Can fanfiction be creative and original? Is it always derivative? Does fanfiction violate copyright laws? Is it plagiarism?

Don’t worry. If you (at any point in time) thought fanfiction was only for people who “were kind of crazy” or Trekkies or thought that fanfiction was “a laughable, shameful expression by the nerdiest of nerds”, it’s okay. So did many of the writers featured in Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World.

Edited by Anne Jamison, Fic is an ambitious undertaking. The book opens in 1966—the year Star Trek premiered, the year Jean Rhys’ Wild Sargasso Sea was published, and the year Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was first performed. Three things, Jamison argues, that “changed the way we think about fiction”. However, Jamison goes back much further than that—she talks about Aristotle, Shakespeare, and George Eliot before moving into the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Fic includes not only Jamison’s thoughts, but interviews with and essays by fan and professional writers. Some of the content is certainly expected; how can any fanfiction book not mention Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Twilight, and yes, Fifty Shades of Grey. The discussion of popular fan fiction sites is, as Jamison relates, designed to give the unfamiliar a sense of place: “Fic is of necessity a kind of survey-like volume… I wanted to give a firsthand sense of fic community motivations, dynamics, and experiences—good and bad.”

Still, Fic is much more than just a survey. The book actually goes well beyond its subtitle. Fic isn’t just about why fanfiction is taking over the world, it’s about how fanfiction is changing the world of storytelling, how we’ve moved from fanfiction writers being “terrified of Warner Bros” and nasty cease-and-desist letters, to fanfiction writers having fans themselves and sometimes even making money from their work. It’s about how writing fanfiction can help writers become better writers, and it’s sometimes even about how to write good fanfiction.

As with any book composed of essays written by different authors, there are going to be some hits and misses. There are going to be some essays that may resonate with one particular audience and irritate another. That said, it’s almost impossible not to intrigued by an essay subtitled “Or, How Several Years of Writing Sex Stories about Television Characters Can Be Just as Valuable as—and Way Cheaper Than—a College Education”. Written by Jen Zern, it includes writing tips such as “Write Hot Smut Without Breaking Character” and “Use UST: There is nothing hotter than Unresolved Sexual Tension, so use it. Keep it going. Push it as far as it can possibly go before you can’t stand it anymore and have to get them naked.” Much of the advice—avoiding clichés, writing “snappy” dialogue, and creating a “plot that doesn’t suck”–is advice many writers, not just fanfiction writers, should take under consideration.

This essay partners nicely with Rachel Caine’s “Preying for More”, which opens “My writing career was probably saved by my love of fanfiction.” Her fanfiction focused on the short-lived television show Prey. Caine wrote a novel based on Prey, and then she notes “I had an idea for another novel I thought could be fun. Did it have anything do with Prey? No. But Prey had fired my mind in creative new ways, and what came out of it was a book later called Ill Wind, which was published in 2003 by Penguin Books under my shiny new pseudonym of Rachel Caine”. Caine is still publishing (and writing a whopping 500,000 words every year), but she has a bone to pick with fanfic critics: “I’ll occasionally hear other writers say that fanfic is bad, that there are no professionals out there who write/wrote fanfic who will own up to it, and to that I just simply say, bullshit. I know of four NYT bestselling authors who got their start in the fic world and freely admit it…”

As Caine notes, fanfiction can be a controversial topic, and Jamison does not shy away from this. Can fanfiction be creative and original? Is it always derivative? Both Jamison and the other authors in the book spend time addressing these concerns. And then it’s on to even bigger questions: Does fanfiction violate copyright laws? Is it plagiarism?

One place Jamison discusses copyright is when talking about the Cassie Claire “scandal”—when some of Claire’s work was pulled from FanFiction.net because of a plagiarism charge. Jamison’s thoughts:

But wait. Doesn’t the whole site infringe? Well, no, probably not. Each case is different; some fic is clearly fair use, some parodic, some wildly transformative. Still, doesn’t a lot of it? Probably. Who knows? It’s never been tested. Copyright is a thorny, widely misunderstood, variously interpreted code that ultimately comes down to case-to-case instances of use and people don’t (yet?) litigate…bbecause there hasn’t been much profit.

Hopefully this quote shows another reason why this book is often so enjoyable. Jamison is engaging. Her voice is clear and witty and sometimes irreverent. She sounds like someone you’d want to have lunch with. Even when discussing ideas like postmodernism, appropriation, and conceptual writing, the tone is conversational. Jamison may be an academic but this book is not. Nor is it neutral or even completely objective. Given the title, however, I didn’t really expect it to be.

The last essay, “Blurring the Lines”, provides an excellent finish to the book (and is a good way to close this review as well). It’s by Amber Benson who,after leaving Buffy the Vampire Slayer, became a creator: she writes fiction, she makes films, and she works on transmedia projects. Here’s what she has to say:

There used to be a hard-and-fast rule. There was ‘them’ and then there was ‘us.’ ‘Them’ was made up of artists—the people who created the TV shows, books, films, music, and visual art. ‘Us’ was the group of people who consumed what they made…’Us’ could enjoy ‘them’ and their work, but ‘us’ could not contribute to the creations we loved in any appreciable fashion. But then something interesting happened: the internet took over the world…

RATING 8 / 10