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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.


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)
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.
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?



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