Today is International Fanworks Day, aka the day to celebrate fandom in all its geekish finery. So I'm going to talk about fanfiction and, more specifically, its relationship with TPTB - The Powers That Be. Those who create or own the work can often feel threatened by the existence of fanfiction, and over the years many have attempted to ban transformative works based on their creations. Of course, that's a thankless and nigh impossible task, so these days more and more creators are embracing fandom.
For one thing they're more likely to know what fandom is and what it's all about and, correspondingly, they're also much more aware of how an active fandom can benefit their brand and their own ability to make money from their creative work. Because fanfiction has come a long way since I first stumbled across it some 20 years ago. Back then there was real fear - justified fear, at that - that your uncool hobby could bring the legal might of big name authors, TV companies, and more down upon your broke ass self.
Today fan loyalty is rightly recognised as the vital ingredient for success that money just can't buy.
(Note: this post focuses on authors and actors portraying characters - rather than the subjects of RPF (Real Person Fiction) because it's one thing for people to be writing about something you created, and another for people to just be writing about you.)
Let's just say it - some creators are against fanfic. Really really against it.
Anne Rice, author of the Vampire Chronicles series, is renowned in fandom circles for her, er, enthusiastic insistence that there is only one way to interpret her work: her way. Not content with formal cease and desist letters, Rice personally harassed fan authors to get work taken down in the early 2000s, and infamously attacked those who dared to leave negative reviews of the Blood Canticle on Amazon, claiming that they had used the site as a 'public urinal' and, still worse, were 'interrogating the text from the wrong perspective.'
Diana Gabaldon, known for the Outlander book series, is perhaps even more zealous about ensuring that nobody tampers with her creative vision. In 2008 Gabaldon wrote: "A good bit of my objection to fanfic ... is that 99% of it is Just Awful, and it's revolting to see your characters being made to do and say idiotic things, or be forced to enact simple-minded sex fantasies (which is what most fan-fic that comes to my unwilling attention is). Like someone selling your children into white slavery." Seeing as she willingly admits that the main male character of her book, forced to enact multiple simple-minded sex fantasies, is basically poor Jamie McCrimmon from Dr. Who it's hard not to see this as one of those cases of pot, kettle, and black...
Although few take it to such extremes, plenty of authors are explicitly against fanfiction - either from a moral standpoint or because they believe it invalidates their copyright. These range from big names like G.R.R. Martin to people who probably ought to know better - e.g. a writer who believes fanfic is 'the equivalent of stealing someone else's work and putting your own name on it' while making a living writing tie-in novels for TV shows. However as times change increasing numbers of authors are actively embracing transformative fandom.
As the creator of one of the biggest fandoms of all time, it would be impossible for JKR to avoid fanfiction based on her work completely. By publicly embracing fic in 2004 Rowling really paved the way for acceptance. Nobody seriously tried to claim Rowling had relinquished her copyright because teenagers were publishing short stories about Harry and Hermione going to Yule Ball together - or even because adults were writing multi-volume epics about the love-hate relationship between Snape and Lupin. Regardless of her own personal feelings, possibly ambivalent based on previous attempts by Warner Bros to suppress HP fic, by supporting the fandom Rowling really cemented the support of the fanbase that has made her one of the richest women in the world.
I won the Hugo Award for a piece of Sherlock Holmes/H. P. Lovecraft fanfiction, so I'm in favour.— Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) November 30, 2017
Neil Gaiman has long been openly supportive of fanfiction and here addresses a growing phenomenon in the world of published fiction: many authors wrote or are still writing fic. Big names like Cassandra Clare and Naomi Novik first made their names in fandom - Novik was the founding board member of Archive of Our Own, the go to website for fanfiction based on western media, and her fanfic pen name is an open secret in fandom circles - while others made the bestseller lists by 'filing off the serial numbers' (i.e. switching out names and identifying features) and publishing the fanfiction they had written based on other works. E.L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey was originally Twilight fic, for instance, while Jen Archer Wood's Point Pleasant started out as Supernatural fanfiction.
These authors come into the professional publishing world already knowing what a lot of writers are only now waking up to - fandom can make or break you. Nowhere is this more evident than with film and television. Long gone are the days when 20th Century Fox aggressively demanded the removal of every piece of X-Files fic they could find on the internet; today Fox, and all its rivals, pour a lot of time, effort and money into encouraging that kind of fan engagement.
When I discovered fanfiction the first rule of fic fandom was that you didn't talk about fic fandom. In the early 2000s people still genuinely feared being sued for writing fic, and were almost universally mortified at the idea of TPTB or anyone connected with them finding out about it. These days that seems so quaint because, well, in this age of personal branding and digital literacy it is almost unthinkable that writers, showrunners, actors, etc, don't know about the fandoms based on their work. Now TV is courting it: official social media channels encourage discussion of fanon (as opposed to canon, i.e. what is actually on screen) pairings and share fanart, while Viacom held an official Teen Wolf fic contest. There is an incredibly interesting interview on The New York Times with Sarah Barnett, president of BBC America, talking about how Orphan Black fandom turned a relatively unpopular show in terms of ratings into a success.
Orphan Black provides an example of how interaction between fandom and TPTB might look in the future. Going forward it will be particularly interesting to see how this impacts on not just the showrunners and the PR team, but those at front of house - the actors portraying the characters. In the past the first encounter with fandom for these people was usually when an overeager fan brought it to their attention. Because for all that fandom as a collective was obsessed with not breaking the 'fourth wall', not outing themselves to TPTB, individual fandoms had good relationships with actors and creators, and there were always members of any fandom who didn't know or disregarded the accepted etiquette. How people reacted depended in large part on what aspect of fandom they were exposed to, and their own personal sensibilities.
Some stars were shocked and dismayed at the concept, but many strove to be accepting and supportive. Star Trek, as the granddaddy of modern fandom, lead the way on this too. 'Slash' - derived from the '/' symbol used to denote romantic pairings (i.e. Kirk/Spock) and now a catch all term for male/male pairings in fandom - was particularly controversial and some of those working behind the scenes on the show made no attempt to hide their disgust and derision. Shatner and Nimoy, on the other hand, chose to maintain the so-called fourth wall in deference to fans' wishes, unless specifically asked about it. There's a lovely story on Fanlore about Leonard Nimoy being asked his views on slash at a convention Q&A in the early 1980s, to which he simply responded that he thought Star Trek fans had great imaginations.
The difference between then and now, of course, is that in 1982 that kind of support was a sign of liberal understanding. Today, outrage at the idea of two male characters getting together just comes across as more than a little homophobic. Tyler Posey, star of MTV show Teen Wolf, caused a stir in fandom in 2014 when he said in an interview that Sterek - the smushname given to the most popular slash ship (i.e. romantic pairing) on the show - was bizarre, weird and twisted. Fan backlash was swift and widespread. Similarly, in 2017 the cast of Supergirl felt their fandom's wrath after they made fun of Supercorp (Kara/Lena) shipping, mocking the idea that the pairing could ever become canon. Feelings were hurt, apologies were made, but formerly hardcore fans still chose not to continue watching amid a slew of bad publicity. Your fandom can be your biggest cheerleaders and will forgive you a lot, but nobody likes to be singled out for mockery.
In 2014 The New Statesman used the above quote from Orlando Jones, an actor who actively engages with the fandoms based on his work, to contrast his positive approach to fanfiction with that of Benedict Cumberbatch, star of BBC drama Sherlock, who admitted to being somewhat bemused by the whole thing. Sherlock is a fascinating case study of what happens when fans get over invested and showrunners don't always balance the fine line between engagement and promising things they can't deliver. It's particularly interesting because Sherlock's writers, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, are solidly pro-fandom. They are both open about their love of the cult and the geeky, and have sought to be inclusive of themes close to fandom's heart, like depictions of LGBT+ characters. But. Some feel they could be better, they could do more, and, when Holmes and Watson ('Johnlock') didn't become more than just good friends, fans complained, vented, and some even sent death threats.
Because fandom is no longer a niche interest. Fanfiction is no longer confined to paper zines circulated on a need to know basis. As creators attempt to harness the power of fandom, they have to recognise that, as with any community, fandom has its good eggs and its bad. Some see the involvement of TPTB as validation - as a sign that if they only lobby hard enough their preferred ship or plot points will become canon. Others resent the outside interference - fandom is for the fans, the argument goes, not the creator who left the glaring plot hole or unresolved tension fanfiction is seeking to resolve. Both sides need to learn how to work together as the dividing line between the two worlds, the fabled 'fourth wall', is worn away. Fandom sometimes needs to reign in the enthusiasm, while creators need to do their homework if they want to make best use of their fanbase. It can be difficult to predict which ship will become the 'juggernaut' (the most popular), and impossible to ensure all the fanwork produced will match your vision, although you can certainly set parameters for content that can be officially engaged with. Just make sure everybody's singing from the same hymn sheet; it's no good basing your marketing on fan engagement if your top star is going to turn around and say fan activity is weird and twisted.
Keep it positive, be respectful, but don't make any promises you might not be able to keep. If creators follow those three golden rules, they won't go far wrong. I leave you with this excellent response from Ben McKenzie's 2016 Reddit AMA...
Fanfiction and TPTB - creators and changing attitudes towards fanfic and fandom. My contribution to #IFD2018 #InternationalFanworksDay :) https://t.co/OeMRCDZ6MF— Jessica Powell (@jess__powell) February 16, 2018
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