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Someone Is Angry On the Internet

My position on so-called "fan fiction" is pretty well known. I'm against it, for a variety of reasons that I've stated previously more than once. I won't repeat 'em here.

My position is not unique. It is not universal either, I realize. Some writers actually encourage fan fiction (I know some of them, have heard their arguments), others don't seem to care one way or another (I know many of those). Many writers have no idea that it exists, no concept of what it is (in part because of the confusing term "fan fiction," which subject I will return to later), and have given the subject no thought. So there's a wide range of opinion on this matter, even among writers.

There are lots of us who oppose fan fiction, though. One such is my friend Diana Gabaldon, author of the mega-bestselling OUTLANDER series... and the occasional terrific short story and novella, some of which Gardner Dozois and I have been privileged to publish in our anthologies. Diana recently outlined her own feelings about fan fiction -- especially fan fiction involving her own world and characters -- in a series of posts on her blog:


Subsequent to Diana's first post, all hell broke loose. (As it seems to do more and more often on this "interweb" thingie). A thousand comments on her first two blog posts on the subject. It's all there, for those who want to check out the "debate." Which soon, alas, became heated, as hundreds of... what's the correct term here? fanficcers? fan fictioneers? fans of fanfic? defenders of fanfic?... arrived from all over the internet to take issue with Diana. A good number of them seemed to open their posts with variations on 'I don't know who you are and I've never read your books and I've never visited this blog before, but I've come by specially to lambast you.'


I have a colorful metaphor in mind to describe what this reminds me of, but I won't use it. Metaphors seemed to spark much of the outrage here. Writers have a natural prediliction for the colorful phrase, the striking comparison, but in political discussions -- and this is, at base, a political discussion -- that can lead to hyperbole, which can lead to anger.

So let me try to eschew all that and remain calm.

I am not going to rehash the arguments for and against "fan fiction." If you want to read those, go to Diana's blog. In between the shouting and the abuse and the endless restatement of the same three or four points by several hundred different posters, there's actually some fairly cogent posts on both sides, arguing the pros and cons of the issue.

I would like to say a couple of things that I don't think anyone else covered, however (and yes, I read all thousand-plus comments, though admittedly I skimmed some that just seemed to be more of the same).

As I said, my reasons for opposing fan fiction have been stated in the past. They are more-or-less the same reasons as those cited by Diana Gabaldon, and pretty much the same reasons that would given by any writer who shares our viewpoint on the matter. So I won't repeat them here. But I'll add a few thoughts.

One of the things I mislike about fan fiction is its NAME. Truth is, I wrote fan fiction myself. That was how I began, when I was a kid in high school writing for the dittoed comic fanzines of the early 1960s. In those days, however, the term did not mean "fiction set in someone else's universe using someone else's characters." It simply meant "stories written by fans for fans, amateur fiction published in fanzines." Comic fandom was in its infancy then, and most of us who started it were kids... some of whom did make the mistake of publishing amateur fan-written stories about Batman or the Fantastic Four in their 'zines. National (what we called DC back then) and Marvel shut those down pretty quickly.

The rest of us knew better. Including me. I was a fan, an amateur, writing stories out of love just like today's fan fictioneers... but it never dawned on me to write about the JLA or the Fantastic Four or Spider-Man, much as I loved them. I invented my own characters, and wrote about those. Garizan, the Mechanical Warrior. Manta Ray. The White Raider. When Howard Keltner, one of the editors and publishers of STAR-STUDDED COMICS, the leading fanzine of its day, invited me to write about two of his creations, Powerman and Dr. Weird, I leapt at the chance... but only with Howard's express invitation and permission.

So that's the sort of fan fiction I wrote. How and when the term began to be used for what is called fan fiction today, I don't know. I wish there was another term for that, though I confess I cannot think of one that isn't either cumbersome, vague, or prejorative. But it does bother me that people hear I wrote fan fiction, and take that to mean I wrote stories about characters taken from the work of other writers without their consent.

Consent, for me, is the heart of this issue. If a writer wants to allow or even encourage others to use their worlds and characters, that's fine. Their call. If a writer would prefer not to allow that... well, I think their wishes should be respected.

Myself, I think the writers who allow fan fiction are making a mistake. I am not saying here that the people who write fan fiction are evil or immoral or untrustworthy. The vast majority of them are honest and sincere and passionate about whatever work they chose to base their fictions on, and have only the best of intentions for the original author. But (1) there are always a few, in any group, who are perhaps less wonderful, and (2) this door, once opened, can be very difficult to close again.

Most of us laboring in the genres of science fiction and fantasy (but perhaps not Diana Gabaldon, who comes from outside SF and thus may not be familiar with the case I am about to cite) had a lesson in the dangers of permitting fan fiction a couple of decades back, courtesy of Marion Zimmer Bradley. MZB had been an author who not only allowed fan fiction based on her Darkover series, but actively encouraged it... even read and critiqued the stories of her fans. All was happiness and joy, until one day she encountered in one such fan story an idea similar to one she was using in her current Darkover novel-in-progress. MZB wrote to the fan, explained the situation, even offered a token payment and an acknowledgement in the book. The fan replied that she wanted full co-authorship of said book, and half the money, or she would sue. MZB scrapped the novel instead, rather than risk a lawsuit. She also stopped encouraging and reading fan fiction, and wrote an account of this incident for the SFWA FORUM to warn other writers of the potential pitfalls of same.

That was twenty years ago or thereabouts, but that episode had a profound effect on me and, I suspect, on many other SF and fantasy writers of my generation.

Okay, it was one incident a long time ago, you may say. Fair enough. Let me bring up a couple other writers, then. Contemporaries of an earlier age, each of whom was known by a set of initials: ERB and HPL. ERB created Tarzan and John Carter of Mars. HPL created Cthulhu and his Mythos. ERB, and later his estate, was extremely protective of his creations. Try to use Tarzan, or even an ape man who was suspiciously similar to Tarzan, without his/ their permission, and their lawyers would famously descend on you like a ton of bricks. HPL was the complete opposite. The Cthulhu Mythos soon turned into one of our genres first shared worlds. HPL encouraged writer friends like Robert Bloch and Clark Ashton Smith to borrow elements from his Cuthulhu Mythos, and to add elements as well, which HPL himself would borrow in turn. And in time, other writers who were NOT friends of HPL also began to write Cthulhu Mythos stories, which continues to this day.

Fair enough. Two writers, two different decisions.

Thing is, ERB died a millionaire many times over, living on a gigantic ranch in a town that was named Tarzana after his creation. HPL lived and died in genteel poverty, and some biographers have suggested that poor diet brought on by poverty may have hastened his death. HPL was a far more beloved figure amongst other writers, but love will only get you so far. Sometimes it's nice to be able to have a steak too. The Burroughs estate was paid handsomely for every Tarzan movie ever made, and collected plenty on the PRINCESS OF MARS movie I worked on during my Hollywood years, and no doubt is still collecting on the one currently in development... though the book is in the public domain by now. Did the Lovecraft estate make a penny off THE DUNWICH HORROR movie, the HERBERT WEST, REANIMATOR movie, the recent DAGON movie, the internet version of CALL OF CTHULHU? I don't know. I rather doubt it. If they did, I'll betcha it was just chump change. Meanwhile, new writers go right on mining the Cthulhu mythos, writing new stories and novels.

Cthulhu, like John Carter, is in the public domain by now, I know. But it wouldn't matter. Because HPL let so many others play in his sandbox, he essentially lost control of his own creations. That's what I mean by (2), above. The fan fiction door, once opened, is hard to close again.

A writer's creations are his livelihood. Those copyrights are ultimately all that separates an ERB from a HPL. Is it any wonder that most writers are so protective of them?

Those of us, like Diana Galabdon and myself, who prefer not to allow fan fictioners to use our worlds and characters are not doing it just to be mean. We are doing it to protect ourselves and our creations.

Furthermore, we HAVE to do it. That's something no one addressed, in those thousand comments about Diana's blog. There was a lot of talk about copyright, and whether or not fan fiction was illegal, whether it was fair use (it is NOT fair use, by the way, not as I understand the term, and I have a certain familiarity with what is and isn't fair use thanks to my own experiences with THE ARMAGEDDON RAG), but no one mentioned one crucial aspect of copyright law -- a copyright MUST BE DEFENDED. If someone infringes on your copyright, and you are aware of the infringement, and you do not defend your copyright, the law assumes that you have abandoned it. Once you have done that, anyone can do whatever the hell they want with your stuff. If I let Peter and Paul and Nancy publish their Ice & Fire fanfics, and say nothing, then I have no ground to stand on when Bill B. Hack and Ripoff Publishing decide they will publish an Ice & Fire novel and make some bucks. Peter and Paul and Nancy may be the nicest people in the world, motivated only by sincere love of my world and characters, but Bill B. Hack and Ripoff don't give a damn. They just want the bucks.

Once you open that door, you can't control who might come in.

No one would ever do that, I hear someone muttering in the back. Hoo hah. The history of publishing is full of such cases. Even the famously and fiercely litigious ERB estate was famously victimized back in the 60s, when someone forget to timely renew the copyright on a Tarzan book, and a bottom rung comic company noticed and promptly started up a completely unauthorized (and unpaid for) Tarzan comic.

Those are some of the reasons writers like me will not permit fanfic, but before I close, let me put aside the legal and financial aspects of all this for a moment, and talk about more personal ones. Here, I think, Diana Gabaldon absolutely hit the nail on the head in the latest of her blog posts on the subject. And here, she and I agree completely. Many years ago, I won a Nebula for a story called "Portraits of His Children," which was all about a writer's relationship with the characters he creates. I don't have any actual children, myself (Diana does). My characters are my children, I have been heard to say. I don't want people making off with them, thank you. Even people who say they love my children. I'm sure that's true, I don't doubt the sincerity of the affection, but still...

I have sometimes allowed other writers to play with my children. In Wild Cards, for instance, which is a shared world. Lohengrin, Hoodoo Mama, Popinjay, the Turtle, and all my other WC creations have been written by other writers, and I have written their characters. But I submit, this is NOT at all the same thing. A shared world is a tightly controlled environment. In the case of Wild Cards, it's controlled by me. I decide who gets to borrow my creations, and I review their stories, and approve or disapproval what is done with them. "No, Popinjay would say it this way," I say, or "Sorry, the Turtle would never do that," or, more importantly (this has never come up in Wild Cards, but it did in some other shared worlds), "No, absolutely not, your character may not rape my character, I don't give a fuck how powerful you think it would be."

And that's Wild Cards. A world and characters created to be shared. It's not at all the same with Ice & Fire. No one gets to abuse the people of Westeros but me.


I have gone on longer than I intended, but I think this is important stuff. "Fan fiction" -- or whatever you want to call it -- has been around for a long time, but never like now. The internet has changed everything. Whereas before the fanfic might be published in obscure fanzines with a circulation of a hundred, now tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, can read these... well, let's just call them "unauthorized derivative works." (Except in cases where the writer has authorized 'em, which I suppose would be "authorized derivative works.") More than ever, we need some boundaries here.

I salute Diana Gabaldon for opening the debate.

And now I step back, and await the onslaught.

(But a word of warning. I'm not nearly as nice a person as Diana is, and this Not A Blog is screened and monitored by my assistant Ty. Diana was willing to let everything go in her comments section. I'm not. So -- my roof, my rules. Disagree, if you want. Disagree vigorously. Argue your points. But no name-calling, no abuse, no threats. And you can spare me the "I have never read any of your books, but now I'm not going to, and I'm going to tell all my friends not to read your books either" posts as well. Fine, you just want to read books by authors who support fan fiction, go ahead, do that, there are a number of very fine writers in that group, we don't need to hear about it here. No derailing the discussion, please. Let's talk about the issue, not tone. I'd love to see some rational discourse here, thanks).

(And yes, the title of this post is a reference to the classic xkcd cartoon that can be seen here: http://xkcd.com/386/)



May. 8th, 2010 02:31 am (UTC)
Interesing perspective, and I thank you for the comment... but my point of view is just the opposite of yours.

I don't want anyone else writing about my characters without my permission. Yes, sure, in a sense it is flattering, but...

On the other hand, taking my characters, filing off the names, and writing a loosely-veiled imitation... well, it might depend on just how loose that veil was, but I don't think it would bother me half as much. There's a long tradition of that. A guy named Otis Adelbert Kline made a whole career out of publishing imitations of Edgar Rice Burroughs. And when John Jakes and Lin Carter wanted to write Conan stories, and couldn't, the world got Brak the Barbarian and Thongor the Barbarian. (Hmmm. Come to think of it, maybe Conan fanfics would have been preferable). ((I won't even menion Webgar the Savage. Those other guys were just barbarians, but Webgar was a down-t-earth SAVAGE))
(Deleted comment)
May. 8th, 2010 02:58 pm (UTC)
I would agree with this. It doesn't make sense, to me, to write more of a universe that already exists in written form.

But people do like to fill in the blanks (or, from what I've seen, sometimes fill in when Good Writing Goes Bad)

I can also understand it a lot more when it's from something immersive, like a video game, than even television or movies.
May. 8th, 2010 04:10 pm (UTC)
Back in the early '90's there were a lot of writing groups centered around Pern.
May. 8th, 2010 07:23 pm (UTC)
I think it's more that the audience for films and TV is bigger. More fans, more fiction.

Plus some variables about unresolved plot lines or characters to pair up. A certain amount of sloppy writing might fuel more fanfic than tight excellence.
May. 8th, 2010 04:15 am (UTC)
I find what you describe pretty offensive. I'm not sure if I should have the right to prevent it, but I wouldn't blame an author for pulling out the lawsuits left and right.

Conversely, I'm highly disturbed by the assumptions that give rise to the viewpoint an author should have the right to stop unauthorized, non-profit fanfic.

I have to wonder to what extent what we say about this is merely rationalizing intended to justify what we do or don't like.

(Well, it's hard for me to visualize the opposing view to my own any other way, and it wouldn't be nice to make that accusation about just one side..)
May. 8th, 2010 04:11 pm (UTC)
Conversely, I'm highly disturbed by the assumptions that give rise to the viewpoint an author should have the right to stop unauthorized, non-profit fanfic.

Their creation is still their creation. Just as a photographer can say that another person can't use their photos without their permission, an author can say that you can't use their ideas for your own even if you aren't making money off of it.

Because it isn't yours, it's theirs.
May. 8th, 2010 07:07 pm (UTC)
It *was* theirs before they released it into the world. Even with the limited rights given to them by copyright, they cannot completely control use of the ideas they introduced. Obviously, there are limits to that control; otherwise, you couldn't even repeat the name of a character when describing it, you couldn't discuss it, or copy a segment of it in a review.

It's fairly easy to establish that an author does not have total and perfect control over his or her work for a variety of reasons and ways. We merely disagree on the extent of that control which does (when we argue legality), or should (when we argue morality) exist. I'm not entirely sure from which viewpoint you're arguing here (or both).
May. 8th, 2010 04:26 am (UTC)
That doesn't really sound like fan fiction, though, so much as pushing the boundary on what you could get away with in terms of derivative published fiction.

I can see where you're coming from on the whole "don't muck with my characters" thing, but I don't think it really -hurts- them in any way. Nobody is going to confuse some obscure piece of fan fiction with the author's actual work, unless the author himself/herself was obscure and/or godawful.
May. 8th, 2010 05:11 am (UTC)
when talking about 'filing off the names' and using the character, I would certainly hope that Diana Galabdon would agree with you that it is preferable -- because, while she clearly opposes fanfic, she herself admits that her character of Jamie Frazer is somewhat based on the Doctor Who character Jamie MacCrimmon.

To me, this attitude is deeply problematic -- by all means use others creations, as long as you aren't too open and truthful about it? I'd much prefer an honest borrowing, myself -- would anyone really be better off if every literary reuse of Sherlock Holmes had been forced to give him a different name and a different hat?
May. 8th, 2010 07:13 am (UTC)
I think these are different things, myself.

Characters inspired by other characters are as old as time. But they are not the SAME character. Brak and Thongor may be barbarians, but they are not Conan.

And yes, if someone other than Arthur Conan Doyle wants to do a Victorian investigator, I would prefer he invent his own, and not use Holmes.
May. 8th, 2010 02:39 pm (UTC)
I think it's funny that the character of Jamie Frazer is based on Jamie MacCrimmon given that the actor of Jamie MacCrimmon is named Frazer Hines. This amuses me. Jamie is the best Doctor Who companion BTW.
May. 8th, 2010 05:14 am (UTC)
[For the record, like 99% of the commentors on Diana's blog, I absolutely respect the author's right to call the shots regarding fanfiction for their own material. Often a strong dislike for fanfiction comes from a visceral emotional reaction and it's silly to argue with gut reactions. This is not an attempt to ask you to reconsider them for your own work, more just a question in how you look at fanfic for the larger body of creative works.]

I'm curious at the distinction you're making here. Surely there's also a long tradition of transformative works without the names filed off? Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead doesn't diminish Hamlet, for example. There are many examples of such 'legitimate' works that are coming from the same impulse as that which causes people to write non-commercial fanfic*. What do you see as the difference? Or do you think there isn't really one and it's all suspect?

[*The non-commercial aspect is important. Not only are fanfic writers not causing possible monetary harm (as similar to Lovecraft), I'd argue they actually have a positive economic impact on authors. Fandom in general tends to reinforce itself, after all.

I think Cory Doctorow may have summed it up best:

http://www.locusmag.com/Features/2007/05/cory-doctorow-in-praise-of-fanfic.html ]
May. 8th, 2010 07:16 am (UTC)
The law makes a distinction between works still under copyright and works in the public domain. So do I. I think the boundary there is an important one.

I have no problem with ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD for that reason. If Shakespeare were still alive, I might feel differently.
May. 8th, 2010 07:36 am (UTC)
I was more curious about the distinction you saw from a moral/ethical standpoint rather than a legal one.

I think what surprised me about your comment is that to me the very long, often very fruitful tradition of playing off another author's work is much less problematic than the idea of writing the characters and filing the names off. In the first, you're acknowledging the creator of the original characters, acknowledging your debt as it were, and then working from there. In the second you're claiming credit for something that absolutely wasn't yours, and trying to pass it off as your own invention.

But that might loop it straight back around to the very individual world of emotional and mental attachments to characters. If someone *is* attached in a strong, protective way to their creations, then no matter how credit is given, it is still seeing your creations doing things you know they wouldn't. If the names are changed though, it's not 'your' characters doing these OOC things, so it doesn't have the same visceral impact.


George R.R. Martin
George R. R. Martin

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