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This essay was first posted to my Livejournal on 2 September 2005. There's a long comments thread on the LJ post responding to the essay, and further comments are welcome there. I don't normally have anonymous posting disabled, so it's not necessary to have an LJ account if you wish to comment there.
Sturgeon's Law: "90% of science fiction is crud. But 90% of everything is crud." Though there's anecdotal evidence that he used a somewhat stronger word than "crud"...
It's a well-known saying in sf circles. And it applies equally well to fanfic. 90% of fanfic *is* crud. The difference with fanfic is that the 90% is out there in public. The crud that in profic is only seen by unfortunate slushpile readers is in fanfic available to anyone who cares to go and wade through the relevant web archives. When you read the slush, the 90% of crud, it's easy to forget that the 10% does exist; that there are people writing fanfic who are competent, even brilliant, writers; who choose to write fanfic not because they are incapable of "doing better" but because fanfic offers them the opportunity to write stories that they couldn't write in the profic world.
This outbreak of navel-gazing was prompted partly, but only partly, by a recent outbreak of "all people who write fanfic are parasites who only write fanfic because they're too stupid and illiterate to write *real* stories". Which, as any fule kno, is a load of foetid dingo's kidneys. Not least because there are a good many people who started in fanfic who went on to write professionally published fiction, there are plenty of them who kept right on writing the fanfic alongside the profic, and there are people who only discovered the joys of fanfic long after they were making a living from their writing. I'm fairly sure that one of my friends who happens to fall into that last category would not be impressed with anyone who suggested that the talent that allows her to earn a living from writing magically deserts her when she writes a story in someone else's universe without prior permission and an official contract.
There are also people who are good enough to be published professionally if they chose to write for the professional markets, and who choose not to do so. And it's an exchange I've been seeing in fanfic circles for lo these many years that is the real root of this essay. "You're such a good writer, why don't you write for money?" "Because if I wrote for money, I wouldn't be able to write the sort of stories I want to write." Some of these are undoubtedly people who just prefer to be a big fish in a small pond; who don't want to take the risk of putting their work before a more critical audience. But some of them mean exactly what they say. And no, they don't mean that they believe that their muse is a sensitive creature who would desert them if fettered to filthy commerce. They mean that the sort of stories that they are interested in writing are ones that do not have a commercial market, or that have such a small commercial market that the monetary reward would not make up for the loss of the non-monetary rewards that they get out of fanfic.
There are many reasons why someone would choose to write fanfic. One is quite simply that it is often *fun* to play with someone else's characters, or to play in a pre-existing universe. What happened next, what happened in between, what would have happened if, how it *really* happened. It's possible to do this in commercial publishing. Quite apart from the spin-off novels for media franchises such as Star Trek, there are several shared world series in profic, where several writers use a common universe, with varying degrees of control by a series editor. In some cases these are spun off from an established writer's existing universe -- an example of this would be the Darkover anthologies. In other cases the universe is set up from the start as a background against which several writers will be writing -- an example would be the Wild Cards series. But doing it by the rules means doing it by someone else's rulebook, which can be very restrictive. An obvious example would be the way Star Trek novels are often mocked for having a reset button -- by the end of the book, nothing substantial can have changed in the Trek universe. There are sound commercial reasons for this, reasons with which I agree. The show must go on, and in an authorised franchise novel you can't permanently alter the landscape that other writers will have to work in. But that cuts off a whole range of "what if" possibilities. If one of those "what ifs" is the one you'd like to explore -- it's fanfic or it's nothing.
Sometimes there simply is no practical commercial market for the spinoff fiction. It may be that the market is not big enough, and thus profitable enough, to attract the interest of a commercial publisher. The reality is that a publisher has to shift enough copies to make a profit, or eventually they will go out of business and be shifting no copies of anything at all. They can't afford to take a risk on something that might not sell well enough to pay back the production costs. I'm aware of one BBC sf series where the novelisations by the series creator were eventually published as fanzines, because the series is nowadays well regarded by fans, but didn't run for long enough or attract a big enough audience at the time for any publisher to see a commercial market for the books. It may be simply too complicated to untangle the rights, or one of the rights owners demands a payment or creative control well beyond what is commercially viable -- and again, I'm aware of real life examples of both situations.
There are other commercial issues which come into play, and particularly when we get into the realm of sex. Sex sells, but only carefully sanitised sex. If you're an American network executive, you're going to be balancing the extra audience you'll get by titillating the male viewers with a hint of hot girl-on-girl action against the boycotts and screams of outrage from the Bible Belt. You won't be wanting hot boy-on-boy action at all -- that's just asking for trouble. The most you can do there is provide material that can be interpreted by the slash fans as they choose, without it being overt enough to trigger complaints.
So someone who wants to write a story with explicit sex, or even the wrong type of implicit sex, may have no option but to go down the fanfic route. There can be very good literary reasons for wanting to write about sex. For one thing, it's a very useful tool with which to examine other issues. A story can be ostensibly about sex, can have extremely hot sex scenes, without its primary purpose being to sexually titillate the reader. Consider the wellspring of a lot of slash -- the frustration many fans feel with the marginalisation of women in much sf, the assumption by the pro writers that the only real role for a female character is to serve as the bad conduct prize for the hero. Some slash fanfic is deliberate and explicit commentary on this situation. Sex may also be used to add depth to a story -- sometimes it does matter not just that the characters went to bed, but what exactly they did there. Blake's 7 in particular has inspired a lot of X-rated fanfic which is nothing more or less than political sf that uses explicit sex to explore political and cultural issues -- some of which were in fact explored by the show, though in a much more inhibited fashion.
And yes, some fanfic is porn. It's hot, sweaty sex, that's written for no greater purpose than to get the writer and readers off as quickly as possible. A lot of it is of no literary merit whatsoever, but when it's well-written porn, why is it bad just because it's fanfic? God knows there's enough badly-written commercial porn out there. 90% of *everything* is crud. There are some stunning examples of erotic fanfic, and if they were written for a market sector where the payoff for the writer comes in the form of "I loved your story" rather than cash in hand, then that may be the payoff that the writer prefers.
Which leads back to another reason for a writer to prefer working in the medium of fanfic. *Any* fanfic, not just the stuff with the sex. Interaction with your audience. In many fandoms, good fanfic writers get a lot of feedback. Unfortunately bad writers do as well... But that fast, often detailed response from readers can be a more desirable payment for some writers than royalty payments that only start to come in months or years after you've turned in the manuscript. Where it's feedback from readers who are selective about quality, a detailed "I loved your story because..." can be an enormous emotional reward. Write a story that you may have to shop around several editors even if you're an established pro, that you won't get paid for until several months after you submitted it, that you may never get any letters of comment about at all -- or write a story that will get you feedback within hours of your being sufficiently satisfied with its quality to post it online. For many people the choice isn't automatically in favour of the money.
Guaranteed publication is sometimes an attractive feature as well, even for those who understand the perils of thinking that you don't need an editor. The fanfic world is often (not always) more tolerant of experimentation, simply because there isn't money at stake. More tolerant of experimentation, of odd lengths that don't fit the practical needs of the commercial world, of authors deciding that they want to seriously fuck with the reader's head. I plead guilty to the latter. I'm not currently writing fanfic, but one reason I wouldn't ever rule out going back to it is that I know that there is an audience out there who will put up with me seriously fucking with their heads, maybe even enjoy it and want to do it again, just so long as I don't do it *too* often and I do it well enough. There are also people who will swear to never read anything by me again, but that matters rather less when my publisher's livelihood won't be affected because in effect there is no publisher with a livelihood to worry about.
One more reason to write fanfic: because it allows you to write the sort of story that needs to be written as an incident occurring in an existing universe that the reader is familiar with. Sometimes all the exposition needed to set up the payoff of the story blunts the impact of the story. When the reader can be assumed to already have a large chunk of background, you can strip the story down to its bare essentials and punch the reader in the gut. Or you can play with the expectations set up by the pre-existing knowledge, and surprise the reader by giving them what they *didn't* expect. You can add implicit layers to the story, things merely hinted at, that are fun for the reader to tease out into the open. Again, it's possible to do this in commercial fiction. You can play in a shared world series, where readers already have a lot of the background by the time they're several stories in. You can write franchise novels. If you're an established author with your own well-established universe, you can do it there. Obvious examples for that would be Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan books, not all of which feature the Vorkosigans as major characters, and Terry Pratchett's Discworld. You can draw on our shared cultural background, that web of myth and legend. There are many, many versions of the Arthurian legend out there, and people are still finding new things to say with the concept of the vampire. Or you can borrow someone else's universe without permission, and write fanfic.
There are lots of reasons why someone would write fanfic when they're good enough to be published commercially. When, in some cases, they *are* being published commercially, are earning enough to make a reasonable living from their commercial writing. I've only given some of the most obvious, the most generic, reasons. It's never a good idea to assume that people write fanfic because they can't write profic, or because they use it as a tool to learn some of the techniques they'll need in profic. That's true of some people. But some people write fanfic because... it's a hell of a lot of fun.
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© Copyright 2005 Jules Jones