Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Your Children Are Not Yours

I found this pretty strange rant about how fanfiction is an abominable thing, by a fairly popular author. I hadn't really thought about fan creations before, apart from whatever copyright issues we've had to handle. After thinking a while I found that it's actually a kinda strange phenomenon - but so is the whole fan phenomenon in the first place.

It's no secret that I am sort of bewildered by KS's popularity (and so are the rest of us) and that we tend to be sometimes uncomfortably - and maybe unwisely - honest about our uncomfortableness. But the fact remains: I absolutely did not expect to ever have to wonder about what I think about the fans of a work I created. I've never identified as a fan of anything and feel kind of distant from the phenomenon, but being in the receiving end is something really strange. I say that publically talking about this could be unwise because it could easily be interpreted as dislike of fans (which it is not, I like the fans more than the rest of 4LS, at least on weekends), especially combined with the notoriously short patience for stupidity many of us share.

Anyway, Hobb apparently is (or was, seeing as the rant is 5 years old and not up in the original location anymore) awfully hurt by the existence of fanfiction of her works. I can kinda see why, but I can't really agree with her position at all, plus I think the arguments she's refuting in the rant feel kinda handpicked. Fan creations have both pros - they engage fans more, creativity is never bad etc - and cons - they do violate copyright and whatnot. It all comes down to what weight one places on each of the effects and whether the sum comes up as net positive or net negative. So am I pro fanfiction or anti fanfiction? I suppose that's what I wanted to find out.

The first explanation is that fanfics are simply bad, and insulting to the original creator, or at least a majority are. I doubt the validity of this explanation but wanted to include it for later use. This blogpost counters the argument by presenting a huge list of acclaimed literature that could be classified as "fan fiction". Well, the definition has to be extremely broad, far more so than what I'm wlling to do, to call all of those "fan fics", but anyway. There is good fan fiction too, but it's true that fan fics do have a certain, somewhat negative general reputation surrounded by a thick coating of stereotypes.

A quick poll revealed that none of the irc regulars read KS fan fiction (okay one does but he is not straight in the head in many ways), but everyone visits our fanart imageboard more or less regularly. Why is this? The quality explanation is valid here, and most cited one: because most of the fan fics are bad. But so is most of anything, including fan art and non-fan fiction. Two things that fanfics have against them though: fan art takes a second or two to parse, reading a fanfic takes a long time and published fiction has a vetting system called "publishing". Anyone can post a fic they wrote on ff.net or our forums but to publish you need to meet the standards of your publisher. It's likelier that a book you bought is of greater quality than a random fic you are reading. Thus for the consumer, it's a simple risk/reward ratio analysis that makes them choose doing something else over reading fanfics, and also explains neatly why fanart gets an easier treatment than fan fiction.

But that still doesn't explain why Hobb is so angry, or why I am writing a stupidly huge blog post about this issue. I doubt Hobb cares whether fanfics are good or bad, and I don't read KS fanfics so the quality theory doesn't fit. Saying that fanfiction is bad because it breaches copyright is pretty weak in my opinion. Legislature only reflects morals, it doesn't dictate or explain them. From Hobb's rant I gather a sense of moral ownership that is breached when someone else uses (steals) her settings or characters. I guess that is a deeply subjective issue, how much a creator is attached to his or her creations probably greatly correlates with their opinion of this question. A creator feels that her work is something of her own, a personal aspect of herself, and gets offended at observed violation of that personal space. You can look, but you can't touch.

So the final question is, why does a creator care more about fan fiction than say, fan art? The quality argument, again, is false, and the sense of moral ownership should be as strong for both. I think it's because of the transformative characteristic of each. Art is generally only stylistically transforming of the original content, but fiction is by necessity a transformation of the content itself. As proof, delta suggested a hypothetical version of Katawa Shoujo's opening scenes, written by the great Kinoko Nasu. I thought the idea was awesome. He has a characteristic and... interesting writing style, I'd love to read that if it existed. Thus, a stylistically transforming fanfiction got my instant approval. So there's the answer to the art vs fiction question.

One thing where I think Hobb is absolutely on the money is that writing fanfics is a terrible way to learn to write. By writing a fanfic you bypass one of the most critical aspects of storytelling: making the reader give a fuck about your story. For a short story it might be convenient and you get an audience for free, but it teaches you awful habits and is NOT a stepping stone for becoming a "real" writer. Like copying artwork, you do learn some things though, so it's not like I'm saying that writing fanfics is a waste of time. But you are not gonna learn to build a house by thinking up new furniture. At any rate, creating fan works is most definitely leagues better than doing nothing at all, so by all means, do it.

As for myself, do I believe I have a moral ownership of the words I write? Maybe, but my words are not only mine. I read and hear things, ask for commentary, and find ways to put down words that I might've not thought of by myself. I reparse, reflect, repurpose and refer, I collect influences, I take what I can from the canon of writers before me, so it's only prudent to be willing to do my share of giving too. Besides, what do you care what I think?

- Aura

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