Well, funny they should ask. As a matter of fact, it was. (Frankly, I’m not sure what the alternative would have been. Usually, as a writer, I try to choose my words fairly carefully. Although I note that I included two qualifiers in that last statement.) But yes, I had something very specific in mind when I typed the phrase: fanfiction, or fanfic as it’s often called. Having taken aim at one bastion of the writing community with my NaNoWriMo post, I thought I’d tackle another.
(Have you noticed our fondness for diminutives? Strange, don’t you think? Rather like we’re in such a verbal hurry, we have a compulsive need to shave as many letters from words as we can get away with.)
For those who find “fanfic” as baffling as “NaNoWriMo” (although the former’s much easier to say and type), fanfic is what happens when otherwise ordinary people like a particular story soooo much they decide to write more of it. On their own. Using the same characters and settings as the original, but with their own plots and sometimes strangely altered character motivations.
Now look, I understand: when we like something, we tend to like it a lot, and want more. And more and more --- not unlike those poor lab rats whose brain pleasure centers were wired to electrodes and ended up starving to death in a weirdly masochistic, orgasmic frenzy. I get it, truly. So does Hollywood, by the way, which long ago came to the realization it could avoid all kinds of creative costs by simply churning out clones/sequels/rehashes/insert-your-own-term to satisfy our insatiable desire for More Of The Same.
So yes, I realize people write Middle Earth, Narnia, Hogwarts and (shudder) Twilight fanfic (and much more) because they love the stories and characters and want to see them continue. Stephen King, for example, once remarked he was often asked what happened next to characters in his stories, as though he got letters from said characters from time to time. It’s okay to like something a lot.
But I have three criticisms of fanfic:
- Quite a lot is not very good; some, in fact, qualifies as Crimes Against Literature
- Much is bafflingly --- sometimes horrendously --- pornographic. I’m absolutely certain Tolkien and Lewis would be aghast if they knew what some people have their characters doing. (I’m sure Rowling is aghast, too, but she’s still on this mortal plane and likely only too aware of what I speak.)
- It’s imaginatively bankrupt.
The first criticism is the easiest to shrug off, I know. There are many people around the world doing all sorts of creative things. Some are very good at what they do, others not. Either way, as long as those pursuits are legal and ethical, I say have at ‘er, knock yerself out and such. I’m all in favour of creative leisure endeavours. (Contrary to what my students think, I do have a life.) I also understand the innate need most of us have to showcase our efforts. Even five year olds love displaying their latest accomplishments, and as adults --- because we want to be nurturing --- we praise their embryonic efforts, even though those efforts aren’t really very good. But if you’re writing fanfic, chances are you’re not five. And some fanfic writers really, really need to develop the ability to look at their work objectively and decide whether it’s worthy of seeing the harsh light of electronic publication. The internet, curse its stone-cold mechanical heart, has unfortunately made it possible for everyone with even rudimentary writing skills to post their dirty laundry to the entire world... and many do (along with endless cat videos and pictures of food they’re eating). Oh, the humanity.
I know this may sound a tad arrogant. But we all need to recognize our strengths and weaknesses... so I don’t try solving Fermat’s Theorem and posting my results, because I am hopeless at numbers. More importantly, I’m just not very interested in them.
The second criticism is harder to dismiss. I’m no prude, but... yikes. As long as no one’s hurt or laws broken, what you do as adults in consensual privacy is your business... but why must you violate beloved literary characters like that? And then put it out there for all to see?
The final criticism is the gravest. Yeah, I know the saying “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” It’s not, folks. It’s a lie. Like I said, it’s imaginatively bankrupt.
Here’s my plea: if you like a story so much you want more of it... go write your own stuff. With your own characters, worlds, and situations. Don’t slavishly, lazily horn in on somebody else. Sure, Tolkien was my literary demigod from a very young age (although not blindly --- I’ve long been aware that, like all of us, he has his literary faults). But I was never tempted to write stories set in Middle Earth, starring hobbits and heroes of Gondor. No, no: I wanted to create something that was mine.
Which I did.
Tolkien inspired me to create my own unique work, which eventually became my novel Gryphon’s Heir. It’s set in my own world, populated by my own creatures and peoples, living their own lives, and is therefore uniquely rewarding, because these things emanate from the well of my imagination, not rudely elbowing someone aside and dipping my bucket into theirs. Sure, it’s more work, but as I said, vastly more rewarding.
Because it’s mine. My own. My preciousssss.
(Sorry, Professor T. Couldn’t resist.)