Author’s Note: When Fandom and the Real World Collide

If you’re involved in the fanfic community at all, you may have heard about the recent published-author-vs-fan-author kerfuffle. If you haven’t, here’s a recap:

Diana Gabaldon, best selling author of the Outlander series, put up a blog post in which she equated fanfic writers with creepy sexual stalkers and robbers. That post has since been taken down, but the Internet is all-knowing and all-seeing, and book blogger Kate Nepveu has copied and pasted it, along with the follow up posts, here. Nice try, Diana.

This post sparked a huge controversy, mostly from fanficcers who didn’t appreciate the parallels drawn between them and people doing highly immoral things.Other published authors got in on it, folks started breaking down her argument, someone posted a list of published fanfic, and everyone argued over whether or not it was actually legal. Apparently, Diana deleted her blog post and after a while everything settled back down.

Hi. I’m JB McDonald, and I’m a fanfic author.

I’m also a published author. I’m not going to talk about the law, because to be honest, I can see both sides of the argument and I’m not a lawyer. I’m not even going to talk about the morality of it, because I don’t think it’s immoral. What I am going to do is talk about what a very stupid idea I think it is to throw a hissy fit.

Take Anne Rice. Anne Rice wrote lots of vampire novels that sparked movies and tons and tons of fanfic. Then she said she didn’t want people writing fanfic, and prosecuted and harassed those who did. First off, I think if an author asks people not to write fanfic, those wishes should be respected. That said, the fan backlash from an author who tells people not to write fic—especially one who is rude about it—is huge. I don’t buy books by Anne Rice, nor will I buy books by Diana Gabaldon anymore.

On the other hand, I’ve found myself buying books because a fan author I liked started writing in a new fandom, and I got hooked. I also have a soft spot for people and companies who say, “By all means write fanfic! Please be aware you give up all rights to anything you write about my characters.” Viacom and Gene Roddenberry were great about this, and forever have my love. They even took authors from the fandom and gave them jobs writing Star Trek novels. The Pinis, authors of ElfQuest , were equally great and also earned my forever-love. Besides, if I’m borrowing someone’s characters, it seems only fair that they borrow my ideas. (Any ideas I don’t want borrowed I don’t put online!)

The short of it is that I don’t see the harm in fanfic, and I do see the good. It creates fan goodwill. It promotes an author’s work. It creates brand recognition. It stirs up excitement for the next work coming out. It’s awesome!

But then, I admit to being a smidge biased. I started writing fanfic when I was 16. It was terrible. No, you don’t understand—I mean terrible. Someone should have taken the computer away from me. I’m not kidding. Punctuation was apparently in short supply, and grammar went against my moral code. Forget characterization. I was the teen whose fanfic you read and think, “…did they even go to school?” while all the comments are oozing with praise.

It was those comments, though, that kept me going. It was being able to focus on mimicking a character that taught me how to craft one. It was writing Mary Sues and hammering out predictable plots and the gentle (and sometimes not-so-gentle) nudges people gave me to get better. It was my first beta reader, who calmly told me what made no sense, and my second beta-reader, who sent an entire chapter back to me with only this comment: “I know you’re a better writer than this.”

And then I look at Diana Gabaldon, who equates 16-year-old me to a man in his forties writing graphic sex between him and her 21-year-old daughter and giving it to her. Yeah, I can understand where the fan fury comes from.

What I only vaguely understand is where the author fear comes from. I’m waiting for the day someone writes terrible, out-of-character fic about my books. Ms. Gabaldon seems to think that part of her is in every character she writes, and that when you write about her characters you’re writing about her. I would agree that some part of me is in every character I write, but I don’t feel that if someone writes about my character they’re writing about me. Rather, I think they’re writing about the aspect of themselves within that character—because everyone puts a bit of themselves into their characters, even when those characters are borrowed.

I better understand the fear that someday a fan author will sue because they feel an idea was stolen from them. It happened to Marrion Zimmer Bradley (scroll to “Copyright Issues”) . Frankly, I think that’s bad behavior on the fan author’s part. If you don’t want an idea stolen, you shouldn’t first steal someone else’s characters and world. But aside from that, there’s a simple solution: “You are welcome to write fanfiction about my characters, but please be aware you release all rights to the story.” Ta da! Problem solved.

There’s also a vague fear that by allowing fanfiction, an author gives up their copyright. This is just ignorance, though; an author has the right to prosecute or not without losing their copyright.

Basically, I think it boils down to one of two things:

1. “I don’t want someone writing fic about my characters, and I’m trying to rationalize it.”

Just stop rationalizing it. It’s really okay to not want that, just say so.

2. “I’m afraid, and I’m not quite sure why, but I just don’t want it to happen.”

There’s all sorts of reasons for an author to feel fear, from fear that someone else will write their characters better, to fear of judgment from the fanbase, to fear of the unknown and that they might lose their copyright. Fear is a perfectly valid emotion. Again, rationalizing it is unnecessary.

You know what authors shouldn’t do? Alienate their fans.

There is another way to handle fanfic. Take Wil Wheaton and John Scalzi, who are offering up a contest for fanfic about them. The winners will have their stories published in an online chapbook, and the proceeds from the chapbook will go to the Lupus Foundation of America. Ms. Gabaldon might be worried about people writing aspects of her, but these guys have offered themselves up in their entirety. You don’t get much more personal than that. (And in case you were interested, the contest is still open!) These are the authors I admire and support. These are the authors who aren’t alienating a large section of their fans.

Hi. I’m JB McDonald, and I write novels. I also write fanfic. I hope someday people will write fanfic about my novels—even knowing they’re releasing their rights to those stories.

In fact, I can’t wait for that to happen.

Posted on June 15, 2010 at 15:50 by JB McDonald · Permalink
In: Columns · Tagged with: , , , , ,

7 Responses

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Trisha Lynn, Geeking Out About. Geeking Out About said: Author’s Note: When Fandom and the Real World Collide […]

  2. Written by Kelgar01
    on 2010-06-15 at 20:58

    I wish I wrote fan fic. I'd do one of your stories for you, lol.Great article!

  3. Written by JB McDonald
    on 2010-06-15 at 21:27

    *LAUGHS!* Well, if you ever start writing fanfic I'll take you up on that. ;-D

  4. Written by Michael
    on 2010-06-16 at 03:18

    While I can't cite any specific examples, this [fan vs creator problem] happens to graphic artists as well as writers. Although, it seems they're more lax about the whole situation.

    I can totally understand where Gabaldon is coming from, though. She says the characters are parts of her. Imagination, sure, but is my imagination not part of me? Why should I allow other people to do strange things to me that I wouldn't do to myself?

    Regardless of legality, I completely agree with you. If someone says, “Hey, man! Don't touch that: it's mine.” I'm liable to listen.

  5. Written by Arkonbey
    on 2010-06-16 at 15:55

    I read somewhere that Tolkien intended Middle Earth to be, more or less, the first fanfic landscape. He said that he created it, languages, culture, geography, flora, fauna, etc. so that people would write stories set in it.

    aside:I've only written one piece of fanfic in my day (typed on a 486, no less). I found a chapter last year and it wasn't bad. However, it was, like many fanfic pieces I've read over the years, a self-serving personal fantasy. I'm glad I only wrote one and that any other fanfic urges I had have stayed in my daydreams.

    I don't fault people for writing them, Far from it. But, I think that if you don't write a couple and move on to original works, it's like doing nothing but tracing someone else's artwork rather than coming up with your own style.

  6. Written by JB McDonald
    on 2010-06-17 at 05:44

    Tolkien — hey, that's pretty cool! I'm not a big Tolkien fan, but I have to respect the guy for that. And what do you know, he succeeded!

    Aside — *laughs* As far as I can tell, all writing is self-serving personal fantasy. ;)

    Hmm. I'd have to disagree: writing fanfic and writing original works are very different beasts. And writing fanfic, for most people, is a hobby within a community. Saying they should move on to original works seems to me a bit like saying people who play softball for fun should move on to trying out for some kind of league. There are different reasons for doing each!


  7. Written by JB McDonald
    on 2010-06-17 at 05:48

    I wouldn't have thought of that, but it makes sense. Graphic artists are telling stories, and I'm sure their ideas get taken and used, too! Interesting that they're more lax about it.

    I'm still not sure I can see that point, but I don't really need to. Like you said, like I said, if someone says not to touch it I don't think it matters if I agree why. I'm going to listen. ;)

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