What is "fanfiction"?
Posted April 27, 1999
As its name implies, “fanfiction” (or “fanfic”) is fiction written by fans. Specifically, it refers to fiction written by fans of a story about that story, whether original to movies, television, comics or books. When a viewer of George Lucas's Star Wars wonders what would have happened if Uncle Owen had let Luke Skywalker go to the Imperial Academy, then writes a story about it, that story is fanfic. When a reader of George Eliot's Daniel Deronda wonders what Gwendolyn Harleth does with her life after the novel ends, then writes a story in answer, that story is fanfic. Because it is legitimately published, however, The Wide Sargasso Sea is not fanfic of Jane Eyre, though certainly it is fanfic in spirit. Similarly, when the estate of the author of Gone With The Wind authorized and published Scarlett as a sequel to that novel, the sequel was not fanfic. None of the dozens of official Star Trek and Doctor Who novels rank as fanfic, though several of the authors of those works began as writers of fanfic. Lack of authorization from the owners of the original story defines fanfic.
Many contemporary movies and television series boast large groups of fans so fascinated and moved by those stories that they write tales of their own about those characters, situations and themes. Legitimate media fanfic is sometimes sold for charity, but never for profit. Fans share for love of the tale alone. Legally, any copyright holder may — some would say “should” — enforce an absolute ban on all fanfic responding to his or her property.
Alfred Tennyson's poems “The Lotus-Eaters” and “Ulysses” are, in a very real sense, fanfic of Homer's Odyssey. But general consensus names “The Lotus-Eaters” and “Ulysses” Great Literature, while writing an ode on the conspiracy at the heart of The X-Files is generally regarded as a pursuit not only less than literary, but in fact running the ragged edge of prosecutable copyright infringement. What makes the difference?
The difference lies not in that Tennyson was a brilliant poet and the faceless member of the network television audience is not — for he or she may also be a brilliant poet. The difference lies not in that the Odyssey is high culture and The X-Files middlebrow, for to the extent that those classifications have any true meaning, the Odyssey, in its day, was middlebrow, and The X-Files may one day be high. The recycling and reclaiming of shared culture in the form of the stories and characters we all hold imaginatively in common is as old as the first response to the first creative impulse in humankind.
No, what makes the essential difference between Tennyson and the theoretical X-Files viewer is that Homer was many long centuries dead when Tennyson wrote, and no heirs claimed rights to his estate. By selling his poem, Tennyson in no way competed with Homer's interest in sales of the Odyssey. But if one were to sell a poem about The X-Files, might one then be competing with the series, taking bread out of the mouths of creator Chris Carter, actors David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, employees and shareholders of the Fox Network and their families?
Indeed, in theory, one might. Thus we have intellectual property laws.
And laws of intellectual property are indisputably very important. Copyrights to intellectual property protect the livelihoods of the creators. They also, therefore, protect the practical ability of those creators to bring forth the stories we all enjoy. They should not, however, stamp out the vitality of intertextual cultural conversation in the contemporary world.
In the case of movies and television, the fanfic medium (novels, poems, short stories) differs from that of the original tale, thus minimizing the chance that the fanfic production could in any way compete with the original. Television and movie producers often manifest quiet tolerance for the existence of fanfic, recognizing how such productions sharpen audience appetite for their own work. In the case of fanfic about novels, however — for example, a fanfic story based on characters from the novels of John Grisham or Anne Rice — the similarity in medium may pose a threat not only to the author's income, but even to his or her legal ownership of the imaginative world of his or her novels. By necessity, professional novelists more rarely demonstrate tolerance for fanfic, and many fan venues forbid novel-based fanfic in deference to those considerations.
Still, our cultural conversation is unavoidably informed by that which we share in common, and today our common ground is largely forged through the mass media — through Hollywood, television networks and best-selling novels. As Tennyson's readers shared his familiarity with the world of the Odyssey, so we share with each other a familiarity with the worlds of Star Trek, ER and Seinfeld. If that is an observation of the degeneration of popular culture, it is, nevertheless, true.
In fanfic, writer and reader converse through the lens of shared popular culture. The vast majority of fanfic productions show very poor quality; the writers are, after all, amateurs and hobbyists. But some portion of the fanfic corpus achieves brilliance and inspiration in a way the original productions, constrained by the economics and politics of mass distribution, never can. Those are the works which make fanfic, in all its tenuousness, such a fascinating and vibrant genre.
Forever Knight was created by Parriot & Cohen and belongs to Sony.