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I've been rereading Robin McKinley's Beauty, which is a pretty charming story and interestingly told but definitely a retelling of the Beauty and the Beast story. It's the first time I've done the rereading since I discovered her views on fanfic, discussed on her site here, but basically... her agent says it's legally dangerous; it's only okay as a writing exercise; and it's somehow less "real" than o-fic so why would anyone want to spend time writing/reading it anyway.

And it's just such a surreal experience.

Because here's this woman taking a very well-known story that's been retold hundreds if not thousands of times in professional, published movies and novels, and that's without getting into the examples that work with the story in ways other than the literal retelling. And she didn't just write this as an exercise, she didn't just share it with friends - she put it out there in print and charges complete strangers for the privilege of reading it. Which means either she's wrong about fanfic, or else "Beauty" is just trash. And I'm actually enjoying it quite a bit, so I reall don't think it's the latter.

Add to that the taste for reboots, good and bad ("Ghostbusters," I'm looking at you; all things Marvel, I'm equally looking at you), and it has me wondering: where's the line between fanfic and o-fic? Is there even one? I mean, you might point to the fact that fanfic only makes sense to people already familiar with the tropes, but the same could be said for harlequin romances and knowledge of the tropes involved. I'm increasingly drawn to seeing i as a kind of continuum, with good and bad at all places along the spectrum.

In that category, I think Avengers (CW but even before it) is doing some fascinating work repositioning the jingoism I associate with Captain America in a framework that makes sense to people today with our much more jaded perspective, up until -- spoilers -- [Spoiler (click to open)]Cap is so invested in his friendships and personal priorities that he doesn't really still have the right to carry Stark Sr.'s shield anymore. That's precisely what needs to happen to make Cap come alive for people after both Watergate and Afghanistan. It's art, it's new art, but it's also fanfic in its way.

Curious where other people draw the boundary, if they bother with it at all.

Comments

( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
fractalwolf
May. 15th, 2016 02:21 pm (UTC)
My vague definition is something like "If it's explicitly set in a world someone else created, and the original work is still under copyright, and it's not acknowledged as canon by the copyright holder, it's fanfic."

Which is not to say that there aren't some fanfics I like much better than the original (eg lopiverse), and some works which started as fanfics but which were so well developed they managed to "scrub the serial numbers off" and publish as original works (eg administration series by Manna Francis). For me "fanfic" is just a category, not a quality judgement.

I tend not to think of things that are retellings of public domain works as fanfic for two reasons, I think. First, if we're tracing complete chains of inspiration, Tolkein wrote fanfic of norse mythology. Which I could see the argument for, but I think it drops 99% of modern literature in the fanfic category, thus making it a useless definition. Secondly, most really good fanfic takes a complete world, focuses on an aspect the original creator didn't explore enough/in the direction the fanfic writer wanted, and expands on it within the existing setting. Most old fairy tales don't have enough meat to the setting to do that. If I were to put it in terms of canvases, fanfic for me is like finding one part of a grand mural where more detail could be added, but with fairy tales there's more blank white canvas than art -- there's not enough to have the kind of fiddly parts needed. I don't know if that makes any sense.

Though I suppose I would tend to consider the rash of movies about the histories of the evil queens to be fanfic, because it's exploring a detail that the original didn't.

No, wait, three reasons. A lot of retellings aren't set in the same setting. They might have the same plot, but a lot of fairy tales barely have anything that could be dignified with the label "setting". Look at T. Kingfisher's "The Raven and the Reindeer". Even though it's a familiar story (the Snow Queen), it's so much richer I just can't consider it fanfic.

The "canon" clause springs from the fact that many things have acknowledged spin-offs, written by different people. Star Trek has innumerable novels in addition to multiple television series and movies. It also has, I'm sure, a vast quantity of fanfic that isn't approved as part of the canon. Same with Doctor Who, actually.

Sorry, babbly :) It's just an interesting question. I've wrestled with kind of the inverse question regarding filk. Filk is mostly just fanfiction set to music, IMO. But a lot of filkers also produce CDs that have nothing to do with any sort of fandom, and it baffles me how they can still call it filk.
donutgirl
May. 15th, 2016 02:30 pm (UTC)
ooh, I wish I'd read your answer before I wrote mine. you brought up a lot of good questions, and gave me a lot to chew on!
marta_bee
May. 15th, 2016 09:53 pm (UTC)
A lot of what you say does make sense to me - fanfic as genre does tend to involve a lot of those fiddly bits, gapfillers and fix-its and things that really enrich the original but may not be fully appreciable to people unfamiliar with the canon.

I'd question how much of what's labelled fanfic and posted in fanfic communities fits that definition, though. Tolkien fanfic archives are full of novels about the childhoods of canon characters where we know very little - I'd say there's much more canon to Beauty and the Beast than, say, we have about Boromir's and Faramir's childhood; but the second is clearly fanfic while the first isn't. And then there are stories about canon characters in more or less original situations. There was a great story about a conversation between Boromir and Aragorn in Lothlorien, when Boromir is basically recounting all the things that went wrong on a particular date - falls out of windows, army camps set on fire, etc. It was hilarious, and really quite fun to imagine the great captain-general imagining all that stuff. but it would have still worked as really well-done humor without knowing those characters. (It's Cori Lannam's "The Believer," but I can't find it online anymore.) So while I think your definition does a good job defining a genre --and thanks for staying away from the value judgments, as description it definitely works-- I'm less sure it covers everything people call fanfic in practice.

But then I'm in a blabbery mood myself. You've definitely given me a lot to think about here. Really interesting questions.
donutgirl
May. 15th, 2016 02:22 pm (UTC)
Well... pragmatically speaking, the most obvious division is, "is the source text in the public domain or not?" And if the source text is *not* in the public domain, did you pay for the right to use it? The original Beauty and the Beast story is in the public domain, so anyone can do whatever they want with it. Marvel characters are not, but Hollywood obviously paid very good money for the rights to reproduce those characters, and got all the necessary creative approvals from the rights holders as well.

But I understand you're speaking philosophically, not pragmatically. Basically, I do agree with you that there's no firm line, and that people who denigrate fanfic as a genre are often being hypocritical to some degree. But I do want to propose a possible distinction:

1) "fanfic" as such only makes sense if the reader is familiar with the source text
2) derivative works that are perfectly comprehensible and enjoyable even if the audience knows nothing of the source text may be conventionally considered "not fanfic".

Now, it's not a perfect definition, because I can immediately spot some exceptions, and also it leaves a LOT of grey area, where we can debate for any given text whether it is *necessary* to be familiar with the source text in order to appreciate it. But as a general rule of thumb?

I'd point to BBC Sherlock and most other Holmesian adaptations as being perfectly accessible to someone who has never read the original stories. The Marvel movies as well are designed to be accessible to a broad audience, including those totally unfamiliar with the comic books (hence the popularity of using origin stories to kick off a reboot). Most of the stories on AO3 or FF.net, otoh, are written with an audience in mind who is intimately familiar with the source text.

As I said, there are definitely exceptions and lots of grey area for debate in any given story. But I think when people outside of fandom casually distinguish between fanfic and other obviously derivative texts, that might be the distinction they're unconsciously using.

I know for my part, I do write Sherlock fanfic, and I've also written a novel for mainstream publication based on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. In some sense, I should consider all these works "fanfic", but I do make a mental distinction between the two. and if I had to justify why, I think this is the rule I'd use: my fanfic was written to be enjoyed exclusively by other fans of the BBC show, and wouldn't really hold up or even make sense outside that context. My Jekyll and Hyde book, otoh, was written to appeal to a broad audience, and does not require any familiarity with the original source material.

Edited at 2016-05-15 02:26 pm (UTC)
marta_bee
May. 16th, 2016 12:09 am (UTC)
I really like your distinction between derivative works and fanfic. I'd question the "makes no sense without knowledge of canon" aspect - I've read fanfic long before I experienced the original canon because I knew the authors from other fandoms, and I was able to appreciate the quality of writing and the way they made the characters compelling, even if I suspected I wasn't getting the full impact - but I do think there's a useful distinction to be had here.

I wonder, would you be comfortable putting stories currently posted on AO3 and the like in the "derivative works" category, if they'd be enjoyable/readable to people who didn't know the original? I'm wondering if the way we use "fanfic" is too broad. I mean philosophically - like you say, I do get the pragmatism.
donutgirl
May. 16th, 2016 04:05 am (UTC)
Yes, that's exactly what I meant when I talked about exceptions and grey areas. To cite an example I know you've read, I think Stranger at the Gate has so much of its own backstory and worldbuilding and characterization that it felt to me like a self-sufficient story. (I did have problems with it, but for unrelated reasons.) And maybe that's not that uncommon with AUs -- quite a few are so fully developed that they could exist very well without the support of the source text.

(I want to emphasize, though, that I in no way mean that as a value judgment -- "standing on its own" does not necessarily make something a objectively better than fanfic that depends on familiarity with the original text.)

Anyway, yeah, it's definitely not a firm line. But it might be a useful starting point?
shadowfireflame
May. 15th, 2016 03:19 pm (UTC)
I totally love your comments about Captain America:

That's precisely what needs to happen to make Cap come alive for people after both Watergate and Afghanistan.

Absolutely. That's why I really enjoyed Winter Soldier and CW. They're managing to be timely and to say new things and bring new perspective on an old character--just like fanfic and reboots should! :)
marta_bee
May. 16th, 2016 12:13 am (UTC)
Oh, I loved CW - so much thinky thoughts, and so much patriotic backside and/or biceps, and just so much fun. I've seen it twice in the space of a week and really should unpack just why I loved it so much.

Well, everything except the Sharon Carter scenes. That was just alternatingly creepy and forced IMO. But there's always something, and so much other content to make it worthwhile. I could go on a spoiler-rich squee right now.

(Don't get me started on the utter and complete perfection that is everything Howard and Maria Stark in that movie. Guh.)
shadowfireflame
May. 16th, 2016 01:44 am (UTC)
OMG, yes to all of that. I've seen it twice in theaters myself now and love it to bits. That said, the Sharon parts were quite forced. But then I think of it like Steve's 2 boyfriends are sitting in the car and giving him permission to pimp himself out to her in order to get back their gear, and I feel a bit better about it. :) I think I ship Steve with everyone at this point...
riverotter1951
May. 15th, 2016 06:39 pm (UTC)
All of your comments about fanfic and canon makes me think about my favorite fairy tales. I enjoy a new twist and Robin McKinley's Beauty supplies that.

I agree with your comments on Captain America. Shadowfireflame echoes my feelings as well.
lindahoyland
May. 16th, 2016 05:24 am (UTC)
Very well said. There are only about 7 basic stories in the world. The obsession with originally came pretty late in human history.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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