Monday, March 21, 2011

Morality and Fan Fiction

My favourite new word is usufruct. As well as being funny to look at, it means "The right to use and enjoy another's property without destroying it. " It's a legal term usually applied in terms of land. 
To me, it also defines what fan fiction is. 
(This post began as a thorn on the side of the previous post. I figured that it was too much of a tangent, though, and detached it so that instead of a thorn it might be a...I don't know, a pointy thing with an independent nature of its own.)
The discussion here is going to be simply "Is fan fiction wrong?" Is it really possible to "use another's property" without "destroying it"?  As someone who writes the stuff in most of my available free time, I basically have to say that it is. But what of the question of copyright? Aren't derivative works infringing on another author's ideas? 
What about the numerous spinoffs of things like The Wizard of Oz? In this case, the text and world are in the public domain because the text is of a certain age or, as said, the author has died of the plague. 
For me, the moral issue is usually bypassed. Do I think George Lucas might be miffed that I'm using his world? Maybe. But I'm having fun. I'm not making money either, although yes I would very much like to. Nor am I overstepping his strict content boundaries.  
What it comes down to for me is whether I would mind if someone wrote fanfic based on my work.
And, honestly? 
I'm not sure. I know I would want that work to adhere to my own moral standards. Let's clear something up here. I'm not for bowdlerization. I'm for morality, but I don't go around telling people they can't do things either. (At least, I don't any more.) 
Now, I haven't heard of anyone else who holds this opinion, but it's alway been my unspoken assumption that fan fiction should hold exactly to the moral standards of the canon that it is based on. Meaning, since you don't often see blood in Star Wars, you shouldn't often see it in Star Wars fan fiction. Since you see blood relatively often in Halo, it's fine to see it in the fanfic as well. Same goes for the level of nudity etc. in whatever fandom you're writing for. Keep it to the original; that way, you're not overstepping the bounds the author created. Those bounds exist in terms of morality as much as they do in terms of other kinds of content. For example, excessive gore in the Zoids universe is, in my opinion, just as strange as excessive Jedi in the Zoids universe.  
The argument can be made that canons like Halo, Mass Effect, and Harry Potter do not have moral standards because they exist in an alternate or future version of the real universe, which does not itself have a moral standard. 
Star Wars, however, is different in many ways, one of which that it takes steps to distance itself from the real world. "A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away" is the analog to the fairy tale beginning "once upon a time". It really means that there are no physical or temporal connections between that universe and ours. The Expanded Universe reinforces this by making up as many thinly-veiled ripoffs of real analogies as possible. George Lucas does this by insisting that all of the EU follow his moral standard. And you know what? I'm okay with that. The derivative material, regardless of whether it is authorized or not, should be on the same moral level as the original. 
So, assuming that the moral stuff in terms of content is out of the way, would I mind if someone made money off of my ideas? Again, the instant first response is I have purchased unlicensed fan art. Therefore I have to say no. But regardless of that? 
I'm not sure. I'm not in a position to react to that. But my immediate response is this:
Not if I had a work popular enough that there was a huge, money-generating fandom around it. Mostly, I want to be remembered. And fandom guarantees that. It is memory in action. It is inspiration in action, ideas that you can watch being transferred from one mind to another, and changed to fit that mind and what it alights on-- fandom is a tracking system for how writers think. 

This is one of the reasons why I love it.  

If the canon is a piece of land, we the writers are just using it according to usufruct -- not possessing, just using without destroying. 

A Very Brief History of Fandom

Being an extremely cursory timeline of fan fiction and fandom based on my dipping of my toes into the waters of Studies in Fan Culture. 

(Inspired in part by's recent article on pop culture and fanfic, which, be warned, is very funny but also very not at all PG. I like my blog PG and will warn in advance if it is not. Article contains the whole gamut of potentially disturbing subjects.) 

So. Timeline.

1136-1200 AD. The King Arthur stories.  Of course, you say, these are myths. They don't count. But the original King Arthur and the Round Table story was expanded upon by other authors extensively, most notably by the addition of Lancelot in 1136 by Chretien de Troyes. Some scholarship has been done on Lancelot being inspired by similar Welsh heroes, but he was first "imported" into the King Arthur mythos in de Troyes' work. The site linked to above notes that "The poet seemed to assume that people have already read Chretien's Conte du Graal", with 'Graal' being the first text in which Lancelot appears. Maybe it's not fan fiction per se, but it's certainly expansion. It is fiction with the intent of a previous fictional world existing behind it. 

1719. Unauthorized sequel(s) to Robinson Crusoe

1728, The Beggar's Opera. I note that the wikipedia article lacks sources, but can cite the source of Some Overenthusiastic British Professors I Studied With as well. "The Beggar's Opera" was the 1700s equivalent of Glee. It used popular songs, and parodied the Italian operas popular at the time. People liked to buy stuff with the characters' faces on it. Strange but true. 

1787. The Sorrows of Young Werther is published. This novel is the poster child for German Romanticism. It also spawned a fandom of people who dressed like the main character, and committed suicide in imitation of him. Yes. Werther was adapted into an opera in 1887. I'm not sure if there were amateur derivative stories produced based on it, but that's what my next huge paper is for. 

1887. Sherlock Holmes fan fiction and fan groups. The Fan History Wiki has a nice timeline of derivative works. 

1967. Star Trek fanzines created fan fiction as we know it today. These were mailed or hand-distributed anthologies of fan works. Slash and/or adult content were common, possibly leading to that trend (or that stereotype) being so predominant today. These magazines also created some of the terms and punctuations ( the use of "/" in pairings, for example) that we use today. Zines are considered a collector's item today, and to see them in print is rare or impossible, because the same needs are met by the much easier medium of the internet. 

Some people are bringing zines back because they like the format, or for the retro feel. My own work should be appearing in a printed Zoids fanzine any time now. However, the big difference is that these zines feature international authors through connections only made possible by the use of the internet. 

1998. is founded. Things change. Fans now have an organized, easy-to-use sharing system. It's not perfect, but that's another post. 

Told you it was cursory, but there's the timeline. Hopefully you've learned that fan fiction and fandom are in no way new phenomena, and that aspects of them have been studied in an academic setting before. 

Next post coming soon. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Some Anecdotes on the Status of Fandom

So the other day at work one of the guys was handing around sheets where people could sign up to keep track of who won all the basketball games in the season.  I didn't take one but a friend did, and I asked if I could look at it.

He said, "I didn't think you were interested in basketball."

I said, "I'm not, really. But I'm interested in how people act around sports. It's fandom."

He said, "....Huh."

I think it was actually the Journal of Transformation Fiction or another source that introduced me to this concept. I set out to explain. "People watch every week, wonder what's going to happen next week. They get excited about it. Want to know who wins. They have favorite characters and talk about relationships between those characters. It's fandom."

My friend told me his world had been rearranged.


People do this funny little dance when they're trying to figure out if the person they're talking to also writes fan fiction. Somebody mentions it because they're talking about their favorite fandom and how they want more. Then comes the dance. This happens in workplaces, schools, or parties--not on the internet or at conventions. It happens in "normal places".

"Oh, you fiction?" The purpose of this step: to find out whether they think it's weird or not.


"Do you...write?"

"Yeah." It's this tentative little ritual of finding out how into it the other person is.

"What for?" And so on, finding out whether you're into the same fandoms or the same pairings. Best thing of course is if your interests coincide; second best is if you write for two different fandoms. All concerned probably exchange their names, because looking at what they've done online is so much more real than hearing about it to their face.

People like to hide the fact that they write fan fiction--and understandably so. Nobody wants to be seen as the one who does the weird stuff. There's weird stuff in fandom, and usually that's what people think of when they hear about it. So when writers meet each other they sniff around to figure out who's deepest into it.  If they're lucky they're in with the same amount of dedication. Because in the field of fan culture, unlike sports or original writing, the more dedicated you are, the stranger it is.

Writers of original fiction don't do that. Sports fans don't do that. It doesn't take the dance to find other fans.  There's the assumption that fan fiction is this underground, shameful thing, while the basketball fan goes around to everybody in the office asking whether they want to be in on finding out who wins this week, and all the weeks after.


Then, on the other hand, there are the rare people and communities who treat fandom as if it's as worthy as anything else: as if it's worthy to have books and research papers written on it, as worthy to be discussed at panels and in classrooms. At the Harvard University bookstore I found a book called Bonus Materials: Digital Auras and Authors by Jonathan Gray. It talked about how paratexts-- mostly advertisements and movie trailers, but also fan fiction and fan video -- create a larger framework around a movie (the primary text). My favorite quote from it was the following by writer/director Joss Whedon.

"I doesn't feel like [the producers of fan work] are paying homage to me...we're both paying homage to something else." 

That 'something else' is the world of his stories

This book and its sources inspired me to get more into the research aspect of fan culture. There are people out there doing it, mostly women online who gather around places like The Organization for Transformative Works.  I want to find out why people love fandom, and what they do with it when they do. I want to know what exactly both fan writers and original writers like Joss Whedon are paying homage to. That's what this blog is going to try to do; track my thoughts on this sort of thing.

And also provide amusing anecdotes.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Why's It Called That Anyway

Greetings, programs!

This post is a placeholder. The blog may not be officially in use for a few months. Thank you for following me over here from facebook,, or deviantArt if you did that, or for stumbling upon me randomly in the vastness of the internet if you did that...which I doubt you did, but I suppose you might have done. Welcome. 

So why's it called "This Blog Is Full of Words"?

Because of the following conversation, which happened not-at-all verbatim on the infamous Ninety-Six Steps of my university.

I was trying to explain my thesis to the Long-Suffering Roommate. "So, it's about how people see themselves as created. And they also see themselves as creators, so they write about people who see themselves as created. Those being fictional people who then comment on their own fictional status. Oh dear. I feel like this is such a useless thesis. It's so glaringly obvious to everyone."

Long-Suffering Roommate sighed. "Megan, I think that of all the things you need to worry about, this thesis being glaringly obvious to everyone is not one of them."

I protested. "But, but, I feel like forty-five pages in all I've said can be boiled down to "Look! This book is full of  words! And that's important!"

Between laughs she insisted that I change the title of my thesis to "This Book Is Full of Words."

I didn't.

But I did this.