Fanfic has an interesting place in the grand scheme of things. There are whole communities that have arisen around a book or TV show, that simply exist to share stories that the fans feel should be out there. These include a way of providing an answer to a question that is too unimportant for the source material to address (but which has taken on significance to the community), or exploring an unlikely situation – a romantic entanglement between characters that are normally enemies is a popular form of fanfic. It might be a way of filling a gap when the next book of a series is over due, or when a TV show is cancelled. It might be a way of gently poking fun at the more absurd aspects, whilst saluting the parts that make the source material so worthy of a strong fanbase.
Fanfic has a lot of potential, and numerous writers begin their careers by writing fanfic and then graduating to their own stories. Some writing courses encourage the writing of fanfic as a way of getting started. The question though, is when does fanfic become plagiarism or an infringement of intellectual property? Can fanfic be mainstream?
Fan fiction was originally applied as a pejorative term for (usually science) fiction writing of generally poor quality that was submitted by amateurs to be published in magazines. If you follow any writers on social media, one of the things that comes across quite strongly is that there is a strong view that a writer is someone who is putting their own words down on paper (electronic or otherwise), whether or not they are paid to do so. Even some professional writers, by which I mean those that receive financial remuneration for their writing, have other jobs in addition to their writing gigs, or their writing is a form of paid employment e.g. journalists.
With the advent of the internet, it became much easier to discuss shared interests, much easier to achieve critical mass for small niches within a larger setting, and so fan fiction changed its context. But arguably there are many professional writers who have undertaken fan fiction gigs – if they got paid for their fan fiction, is it still fan fiction? To illustrate, let me give an example: Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes is the IP of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who died in 1930, which means that the copyright on the books expired in 2000 (in the UK at least).
The first pastiche was apparently written by JM Barrie (yes, of Peter Pan fame) in the 1890s – a contemporary piece, and something of a friendly jibe. Conan Doyle (and subsequently his estate) seem to have taken a fairly laid back view of the works that have been written – there is a separate page on Wikipedia that lists the (majority of) published works built on the Holmes canon. This “extended universe”, as it were, includes stories from the perspective of other key characters including Lestrade, Mrs Hudson, Mycroft, The Irregulars, and of course Moriarty. Many collections of short stories have been written that purport to be from a descendent of Watson who finds a bundle of papers…these usually deal with the stories that it is suggested have been suppressed for political or other reasons in the main stories. There was also a treatment which had the grandchildren of Holmes and Watson – a very serious Watson who talks of the legacy of the grandfathers and a Holmes who would rather be doing anything else, but of course is prevailed upon to deal with whatever situations arise.
As an aside, one of the least convincing series of stories is by Laurie King, who has Holmes found in retirement by a teenaged American girl; she becomes his apprentice and subsequently his wife. It feels in rather poor taste, and completely flies in the face of what we know of Holmes. People do change…but Holmes marrying is improbable, and marrying someone of the order of 30-40 years younger is, I would contend, unlikely in the extreme. That said, King is a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, and I am not, so what do I know?
In summary, more words in the vein of Conan Doyle have been written of Sherlock Holmes by others than by the man himself, not to mention the parodies and allusions. Are these fanfic? I would argue, yes, even if the authors got paid for their troubles.
At the other end of the extreme, others have gone to a great deal of trouble to squash anything written about their characters. Given that there have been law-suits by fanfic writers claiming that the owner of original IP stole anything from a plot-device through to a complete book which forms a part or the whole of a subsequent book in the series, it is not surprising that there are those who steer well clear of fanfic.
So, should I write fanfic? Should you? For the most part, I’ve never really felt compelled to write fanfic per se, there are enough of my own stories that I want to write that this doesn’t feel necessary (although I did write a piece off the back of one of our prompts that was very much an homage/parody of an Asimov ‘Union Club Mystery’). On the other hand, I do have to watch myself, as sometimes things have a much stronger influence than some writers might like. I don’t think that I’ve ever gone so far as to get someone excited enough to threaten legal action – but a quick smurf of the internet shows that litigation is popular in the field, and some people will suggest plagiarism or some other literary shenanigans at the least provocation.
As a closing thought, the Anglican church says of confession that “all may, some should, none must”, and that actually works quite well with fanfic, I think.
© David Jesson, 2018