There. I said it. The Thing That Lurks In the Darkness Of The Internet.
What is fanfiction?
Depends on who you talk to. For some, it’s literally a derivative work written by a fan, with the intent of engaging with their fellow fans. In this view, it is entirely a product of modern geekery – without late twentieth century/early twenty-first century Western popular culture, fanfiction would not exist. In the era of modern copyright, it also occupies a curious legal grey area, and some authors (though not others) are known to come down like a metric ton of bricks on it whenever it appears.
In another view (which I happen to share), fanfiction is simply the unauthorised borrowing of characters and/or setting. Fanfiction can therefore cheerfully exist without modern fandom – all you need is the old borrow-and-twist – which means everything from Neil Gaiman’s A Study In Emerald (Arthur Conan Doyle) to George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman books (Thomas Hughes), to Virgil’s Aeneid (Homer), to Dante’s Divine Comedy (The Bible) is… fanfiction. Which scares some people, because the idea of putting Snape/Harry slashfic authors on the same level as undoubted literary classics seems outright blasphemy. Perhaps it is, but bear with me.
What I like about the latter view is that it avoids the deadly trap of appealing to Authorial Intent. If I write a story, it doesn’t matter what I was intending in my brain to do – what matters is what is actually on the page. The reader of the text is not a mind-reader, and should not be treated as such. How on earth should anyone reading one of my stories know whether I was seeking to engage with fandom, or even if I actually belong to fandom at all? If I am not a fan of E.L. James, but write a story about Christian Grey for my private amusement that never leaves my hard drive, is that fanfiction? What if exactly the same story were then put up on the internet by a Fifty Shades fan? Surely a story is rendered fanfiction by its material content, and not by the context of its creation – especially when the context of its creation is not universally known or accessible?
To my mind, fanfiction is simply the modern name for an incredibly ancient impulse – the desire to invent new stories about familiar characters. The first fanficcer wasn’t some spotty Whovian in 1960s Britain, it was some forgotten Stone Age dweller, who had just heard a ripping yarn from a friend, and decided to come up with their own. No copyright, of course, existed back then, so no-one was around to defend the first storyteller’s intellectual property. Re-using characters and re-using setting was a perfectly legitimate form of storytelling for the vast majority of human history. Shakespeare, for one, certainly never baulked at it, and would have probably been downright confused at a lawsuit over Romeo and Juliet.
Then 1710 happened. The Statute of Anne has many things to answer for, even if it seems positively tame to a generation that has been raised under Disney (imagine copyright lasting a mere seven years, with a non-automatic one-time right of renewal!). But 1710 marked the start of original works being protected from unauthorised derivatives, and the trend towards more extensive coverage has been eating away at creative art for the past three centuries. Fanfiction has been in the shadows ever since – certainly illegal to make money off (as the German film-makers of Nosferatu found out, when sued by Bram Stoker’s Estate), and a grey area even for non-profits. Frankly, I’ve always been of the opinion that the stance of the late great Terry Pratchett is the most reasonable in the modern era – write what you like, but don’t write for money, and don’t write where the author can see it – they don’t want the headache of arguing that their ideas are original and not borrowed from fans. This will be my stance should anyone ever be tempted to write Wise Phuul fanfic.
As a final note, George R. R. Martin has said various things about fanfiction, most of them (in my humble opinion) wrong. He’s factually incorrect that the existence of fanfiction legally weakens his copyright (it doesn’t), but I think he’s also wrong with the notion that fanfiction is a crutch for budding authors incapable of developing their own characters and setting. The reason I say this is that there is plenty of scope for originality in such areas – fancy exploring the outer fringes of Khand? Tolkien never did, so why not write some (non-profit) fic yourself? Irritated by J.K. Rowling’s shoddy and judgemental treatment of the Slytherins? Take issue with it in your own story. And so on. But seeing as Martin takes such a view, I think it’s only fair to steer clear of writing ASOIAF fic. Fanfic authors shouldn’t hang around where they aren’t wanted – and speaking as someone who has written the stuff in the past, it is definitely a policy I adopt.