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Tony Grist

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An Olive Branch [Aug. 7th, 2007|09:41 am]
Tony Grist
I've been thinking about fandom, trying to understand.  I even read (or rather skimmed) a piece of Potter fanfic last night. It was surprisingly good. People have been saying how fanfic is mostly rubbish, but this was thoughtful, touching, respectful of Rowling's characters and at least as well written (in terms of literary style) as Rowling's own work. It wasn't porn- I hasten to add.

"Literature is a luxury, fiction is a necessity", said G.K. Chesterton. We all need that escape out of the real world (which may not be as real as it pretends to be) into story. In story the rules are simpler, there's authorial control, less randomness, fewer boring bits and we can engage our emotions without ever getting really hurt. In Chesterton's day they had books and theatre. These days we also have cinema, TV, radio, RPGs, video-games and the internet. It feels good to get lost in story. The danger is we get in too deep and stop paying attention to the real world.

Like Don Quixote.

So that's one reason for fandom. It's about getting deep into story and exploring it beyond the bounds of canon.  Fanfic turns finite story into never-ending story. 

The other reason for fandom is the human need for community. Fandom functions like any other community- like a church, tribe, clan, gang, order, fraternity, sorority, club, whatever. It's about people bonding round a totem. Only the totem here is not a deity or a secret or an oath or shared blood, but a work of fiction. Compared with other types of community, fandom seems relatively benign. Some fans despise outsiders (as some wizards despise muggles) and there's always the temptation to turn inwards and separate from the herd on the model of the saved and the unsaved, the sheep and the goats,  but, on the other hand, there doesn't seem to be much in the way of hierarchy, membership is open to anyone who cares about the totem, and the values implicit in the totem (LOTR, Trek, Star Wars, Potter are all highly moral works) are likely to keep most members on the straight and narrow.

There are some extremists. I still think that picture is a bit iffy.  But has fandom committed any murders, rapes, persecutions, terrorist outrages, invasions of a foreign country?  Not that I'm aware of.

From: shewhomust
2007-08-07 10:42 am (UTC)
There's also the whole issue of labels and definitions: calling something fanfic says that it is secondary to some other piece of work, limits its ambition. Literature in general has no problem with writing which derives from a pre-existing story. You can tell the story of King Arthur as many ways as you like. No-one says that Shakespeare is a really good writer, and he should stop limiting himself to pre-existing characters and invent some of his own...
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[User Picture]From: redatt
2007-08-07 10:59 am (UTC)
Parts of fandom have begun to move away from calling their pieces fanfic and fanart and to simply calling them stories, but part of the problem is that unlike with retelling the story of King Arthur and things like HP are still in copyright and haven't quite yet achieved the status of being cultural heritage. I suppose labelling stuff as fanfic is in part an acknowledgment of, or doffing of the cap to the original creation and living author.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-08-07 11:34 am (UTC)
Good point.

One of the reasons I'm unlikely ever to write fanfic is I'm just too proud.
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[User Picture]From: arielstarshadow
2007-08-07 01:18 pm (UTC)
As with most things that have to do with the human species, there are a few very well-written stories, a lot of average stories, and then the drek. The same goes for the fans themselves. There are the real fanATICS, and then there are simply the people who loved something enough that they want to play and get lost in the world for a little while.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-08-07 02:28 pm (UTC)
Fandom is a pretty broad church, then?

I must say I was expecting to get flamed. In fact all the people who wrote in to defend fandom were very polite and reasonable.
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From: senordildo
2007-08-07 02:59 pm (UTC)
The original issue you raised about why play with other people's characters is an interesting one. I think it's true that fandom-inspired works can be good, but rarely inspire works that can stand alongside their objects of inspiration. Perhaps this is because fans write out of veneration, and if you're going to use other people's characters for a story, veneration isn't enough--you have to also use your more dispassionate critical faculties, and you have to apply a vision of your own that can't be dwarfed by the original creator's. We don't call Sir Thomas Malory and the other great Arthurian writers "fans." They approached their material as writers who sought to use pre-established characters for their own ends. Malory often closely follows the french Lancelot-vulgate, but it's clear that he's making the story his own and giving the characters his own voice. In fandom you have to avoid too much of that, or else what you've created isn't so compatible with the pre-established fan love-object because you've deviated from the original author's vision and spirit. If you follow those too closely, you inhibit yourself as a creative artist.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-08-07 03:23 pm (UTC)
I'm reminded of something Blake said. "I must create my own system or be enslaved by another man's." He was talking about religion not art, but since the two were so closely entwined for him it hardly matters.
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[User Picture]From: serenanna
2007-08-09 04:26 pm (UTC)
Sorry to butt in, but I've been following this since the earlier post and would like to comment if I may. (I'm not a stalker I swear)

From a fan perspective, to say that fanfiction does not break outside of the original source material, or canon, is rather untrue. Like anything else, canon material is not just something to expound upon but can reimagine or completely rewrite as an author chooses to make their story. To a degree, each fanfiction cannot follow the canon exactly because none of us are the original creators, and each interpret the source differently. For example, the way I think about and analyze Kakashi from Naruto for example isn't exactly the same as how other Naruto fans would portray him, and it's certainly not the way Kishimoto, the creator, would see him.

Not all of us sometimes like the way a stories goes either, or would rather think about a different outcome. To use Potter as an example, how would the story changed if Sirius Black lived or came back from the veil? Depending on how severely the writer chooses to change story events, they can be dubbed as just messing with canon or if it's a completely different future setting or drastic plot change, an Alternate Reality. This is more seen in fandoms with drastic skips of time between events.

All of this is similar to what's known as retconning, and is very frequently done in comic books. DC and Marvel change their worlds and character over and over again so often that a complete linear timeline of a character is near impossible make. Stephen King even has tried going back and reinterpret parts of his own Dark Tower series (memory is fuzzy, but I know it's on wiki under retconning).

There are subsets of fanfics that differentiate themselves by completely throwing out all of the plot and world-building in the canon, but often retains the cast and all their foibles along with the spirit of the original. These stories are known as Alternate Universes and are probably the closest thing to original creations fans get . . . this isn't counting high-school AU's of course, which are generally written by teens only and are so bad it's become cliche among the very fans it's meant for.

I have seen though people building original worlds though, such as one I read of the cast of a mecha anime transplanted into a world of pirate adventures. To admit, I've done similar to the same thing in one of my own stories for Naruto, having a character writing a fantasy novel using his fellow ninjas as inspiration for his story, including turning his captain into an elf.

So, to think that it's all about the canon, is . . . well, not entirely true.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-08-09 05:31 pm (UTC)
Someone pointed out somewhere on one of these threads that if a writer takes a traditional or legendary story- the Arthurian cycle for example - and puts his or her own spin on it, no-one thinks of the result as fanfic- but actually what's going on is much the same. The only difference is that fans are working with material that's still in copyright.

But I'm still not entirely sure why- if a writer is departing from canon- she doesn't go the whole hog and invent her own characters? Is it because writing fanfic gives her access to the support of a community?

I ask because I've written a certain amount of fiction- and find creating characters enormous fun. Personally I can't imagine wanting to work with ready-mades.
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[User Picture]From: serenanna
2007-08-09 06:10 pm (UTC)
I've thought of that question myself before since i do keep plans for original novels as much as I do for fanfictions, something I believe most of the serious fanfiction authors do, and I think we all just keep writing using the canon because it's, well, easy.

No, really, it really is lazy and easy, but that doesn't mean someone can't make a better story out of what they already know, the canon.

Half of the ideas and world building is already there and most of what we do is expounding on it and taking it in different directions. The readers already have a base knowledge of the characters and story before they even look. By now, everyone and their dog knows about the story of Harry Potter, but appeals to much of fandom is the twists to what they already know and how well the author pulls it off.

I will be the first to admit that I write fanfiction for practice in how to write and tell a story well since I didn't get a creative writing degree in college. So I learned by experience what the US public school system only covered a part of for me. Using someone else's work and rethinking it is also a mental exercise in characterization, plotting, and structure. For me, I can keep the plot moving, stop and make character points, and concentrate on the action rather than having to stop and explain how something works because the readers, as fans already know.

Going further into AU's as their called is just one more step off the training wheels to me at least, the next mental leap. Part of the fun in AU's is taking a familiar character and personality, and changing them just enough so they're still recognizable. It's not so much whole character creation as it is tweaking.

Besides, with a character that isn't yours, there's less emotional attachment or personification. By now you must know about Mary Sues/Marty Stus, overly perfect and beloved original characters that can do no wrong no matter what they do, so is shouldn't be too hard to imagine the attachment an author can get in character creation to their Frankenstein. While I hate killing characters, I can see how someone would be more apt to kill someone else's characters than one they made.

Also, if you think about it, there's been already established stock character types with just a few variations on the same theme. I remember back in the day of an author who wrote the equivalent of a romance novel in a modern setting for the Sailor Moon fandom. Eventually, she took the story down, changes the names and a few of the details, and manages to get it published by a small firm. One of my male friends started a fantasy story for a DnD setting till he realized he could actually get it published just by changing the specifics since much of it was just standard high fantasy anyway.

So, in summary, there is a line, but after a certain point it does blur too much where it's just an original story and not so much fanfiction. But, really, if it's a good story, what's the point in arguing semantics?

Ugh, that was probably a rambling response. My apologies.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-08-09 09:33 pm (UTC)
I've killed off characters of my own and- yes- it is painful. You get attached to them. Besides every character you make- good, bad or middling- is some kind of extension of yourself.

All this talk about writing fiction has made me want to get stuck in again. I wrote four novels in a sequence last year- posting them on LJ as I went- and I've been wondering whether there are still stories to tell in that universe. I've been giving the characters little pokes to see if they'll respond. It would be nice if they did.

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[User Picture]From: redatt
2007-08-07 03:47 pm (UTC)
I find myself curious as to which story you skimmed and how you came by it. Was it suggested to you or did you bravely dip your hand into the melting pot? :o)

I agree with you, fandom does help meet a human need for community. Yes, there are definitely some extremists and those who don't seem to find any meaning outside fandom, but it's been my experience that fans tend to be socially conscious and politically aware and active.

As well as fan fiction and fan art there's also the essays and debates about the original works and the issues they raise. HP has lead into an awful lot of discussion about, for example, racism and segregation, sexism and family values over the years, so fandom can often be a means of engaging with issues that are important outside the fandom playground.

In fact, one of the things I like about the fandom community is that it's often outward looking and supportive of other communities. Fans regularly tap into fandom's energy and enthusiasm in order raise awareness and money for other communities, causes and individuals and to effect change in the real world.

Heh, this comment's longer than I intended it to be ...

Oh, and ... you've obviously noticed that I added you by now, since you added me back, but, hello! :o)
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-08-07 04:03 pm (UTC)

The story was "Summer Holidays" by penknife. I found it by following a chain of links.

It certain respects it improved on Rowling. It dealt with with the issues it raised- primarily bereavement- with a very delicate touch.

I was moved by it in a way that Rowling herself has never moved me.
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[User Picture]From: goddlefrood
2007-08-08 12:22 am (UTC)
As you know, in another response to an earlier entry I did criticise fanfiction. I've only ever read one piece of it, like yourself, and that because the author had asked me for input. I, therefore, wanted to know how the suggestion I'd made fit into the story. It was a very good piece and nicely done.

The reason I haven't really looked into fanfiction is pollution of the story, also as a some time legal eagle the thought of copyrighted material being used in other's work didn't sit well with me.

One of your respondents mentioned the debates that raged about various moral aspects of the story. Frankly Deathly Hallows showed that the morals were somewhat shallow. There was no freedom for other magical beings or even a movement towards same as many had expected there to be. There was no resolution of the differences between the school houses excpet in a very minor way, which was contrary to a lot of foreshadowing in the preceding 6 books. Also good guys could do anything they wished with little or no moral analysis of whether it was justified, whereas anything the bad guys did was bad full stop. A little shallow in my opinion in that regard.

Two essays I've written have been picked up on by some outside the Potter fandom and used as instructive. One was about Dittany and is linked somewhere on a botanical institute's website. The other was a comedic speculation regarding some of the characters and how they might play out in book 7. That one is now linked from a psychological site and recommended for generating laughter. As I'm far from conceited I won't go much further into where these are available. I think one might be on my blog too, or possibly both.

I agree though when you say Rowling is not a writer who easily moves one, she writes action well but is a little hamfisted in certain other areas. Time will tell if the books remain as popular as they have been ... using dots despite M. R. James's lovely line that words would be preferrable.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-08-08 09:52 am (UTC)
I thought Order of the Phoenix was easily the best of the series. She got stuck into a groove there that resonated very nicely with the politics of Blair's Britain. I wouldn't say the later books disappointed me, but I don't think they're as solid.

She's a great story teller. When it comes to handling character and emotions she's superficial.

Will she last? She's not great literature, but then neither is Bram Stoker's Dracula or Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and they're still going strong.

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[User Picture]From: goddlefrood
2007-08-08 11:08 am (UTC)
There's something we have in common then, I too liked Order of the Phoenix best of the series. It did peter out a little though, I suppose we can't have everything.

It'll be interesting to see if the books do last, it's a solid enough tale, after all, a little like Dracula and Frankenstein possibly ... good tales both.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-08-08 11:26 am (UTC)
Great stories have a habit of surviving- irrespective of their worth as literature. We'll see what happens...
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