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What is Fanfiction?

This is partly a follow-up to my MZB vs. Fanfiction post from last week, and partly a response to a much-linked post at which answers author criticism of fanfiction by saying, “You’ve just summarily dismissed as criminal, immoral, and unimaginative each of the following Pulitzer Prize-winning works…”  The post presents a list of works including the Star Trek: Strange New Worlds anthologies, the Tina Fey skits of Sarah Palin, Gaiman’s brilliant Holmes/Cthulhu story “A Study in Emerald,” and many more.

A recent (now deleted) post by a commercial fantasy author described works like Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, among others, as fanfiction.  Though when I asked about my princess novels (fairy tale retellings), she stated that they were not fanfiction.

I’m officially confused.  To me, this feels like a very broad definition.  I’m not going to try to argue that my personal definition of fanfiction is the right one … but it’s difficult — almost pointless — to have a conversation when you can’t agree on what the words mean.

Do we define fanfiction from a legal/licensing standpoint?  If so, anything published either with the legal permission of the copyright holder (Star Trek: Strange New Worlds) or based on public domain works (”A Study in Emerald”) would not be fanfiction.

Almost every fanfic author I’ve spoken to has explained that the culture of fanfiction strongly condemns commercialization of fanfic … if that’s so, then isn’t the bookshop LJ post violating that fundamental tenant by listing so many commercially published works?

For a much deeper legal analysis, see

Or is fanfiction a matter of originality?  If so, my understanding of the term becomes so fluid as to make it almost meaningless.  What is a truly original work vs. one that takes inspiration from elsewhere?  Are my Goblin Quest books fanfiction because they riff off of Dungeons and Dragons tropes?  Is 90% of the fantasy genre nothing but Tolkien fanfiction?

I couldn’t find a fanfic definition on the Organization for Transformative Works site, but I did find this statement: “While some transformative works legitimately circulate in the for-profit marketplace — parodies such as The Wind Done Gone (the retelling of Gone with the Wind from the perspective of a slave), critical analyses that quote extensively from an original, ‘unauthorized guides,’ etc.—that really isn’t what fanfic writers and fan creators in general are doing, or looking to do.”

When I think of fanfiction, I think of two things:

  • Fiction written using another author’s (usually copyrighted) characters and/or world
  • Fiction which is may be shared, but never sold commercially (exceptions being quickly squashed by the fanfic community)

I also agree with scrivnerserror about excluding parody from fanfiction (the Tina Fey skits).  I see them as two different kinds of storytelling.  (Parody has its own legal definition as well.)

Like I said, I’m not saying my definition is the Right one, nor will I argue that it’s complete.  (It wouldn’t include the Scalzi/Wheaton fanfic fundraiser, for example.)  But it’s my starting point for understanding fanfiction.

What about you?  Do you buy bookshop’s claim that all of these works are fanfiction, or does that stretch too far in an attempt to defend fanfic?  Does commercialization really matter?  What’s your definition?

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.



( 156 comments — Leave a comment )
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Jun. 4th, 2010 01:43 pm (UTC)
I don't think the bookshop post actually said that list was fanfiction, did it? I believe she said these were works that were derivative of previously written works yet still had literary merit, which is a valid point. When Gabaldon attacked fanfic writers for not being creative and being lazy for not creating their own universes, she was forgetting the history of literature that is exactly that--writers diving into old works and turning them into something new.

I think the problem came when people like Scalzi linked to the entry and labeled it as a list of fanfic. Bookshop didn't actually call it fanfic, did she?

I think some of the examples might be considered close to fanfiction, when the writer in question loved the source material so much that they felt compelled to explore it from a new perspective, and I think those are valid comparisons.

Other works on the list aren't. Professional writers getting paid to adapt previously published work (whether in the public domain, or still under copyright) isn't the same as fans writing for the love it, especially when some of those were literally hired to do the job. They didn't champion it themselves.

But again, I don't think bookshop's list is at fault. I think it's the people who latched onto it and called it a list of fanfic, when it's not.

Edited at 2010-06-04 01:44 pm (UTC)
Jun. 4th, 2010 01:45 pm (UTC)
Bookshop's post starts out:

"You think fanfic is a personal affront to the many hours you've spent carefully crafting your characters. You think fanfic is "immoral and illegal." You think fanfic is just plagiarism. You think fanfic is illegal. You think fanfic is cheating. You think fanfic is for people who are too stupid/lazy/unimaginative to write stories of their own. You think there are exceptions for people who write published derivative works as part of a brand or franchise, because they're clearly only doing it because they have to. You're personally traumatized by the idea that someone else could look at your characters and decide that you did it wrong and they need to fix it/add original characters to your universe/send your characters to the moon/Japan/their hometown. You think all fanfic is basically porn. You're revolted by the very idea that fanfic writers think what they do is legitimate.

We get it.

Congratulations! You've just summarily dismissed as criminal, immoral, and unimaginative each of the following Pulitzer Prize-winning works..."

To me, that's a pretty clear statement that they consider those following works to be fanfiction.
(no subject) - blitheringpooks - Jun. 4th, 2010 01:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Jun. 4th, 2010 01:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Jun. 4th, 2010 01:47 pm (UTC)
Is 90% of the fantasy genre nothing but Tolkien fanfiction?

Or, to be more exact, Tolkien was a fanfic author of Anglo-Saxon and Norse stories. ;-)
Jun. 4th, 2010 01:49 pm (UTC)
Touche! Well played :-)
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Jun. 4th, 2010 01:51 pm (UTC)
If we allow the creators to define themselves, then fanfiction is a lovingly created story that honors an author's original (commerical, at any rate) work.

I had an argument/discussion with my brother for hours on originality. I'll paraphrase whatever sage said that we gladly feast upon the bones of the dead.

Saying that your work is fanfic due to its fairy tale/mythology/legendary elements is like saying Shakespeare was a fanfic writer for the same reasons.

So Jim Hines = Shakespeare! How's that for fuzzy math?
Jun. 4th, 2010 01:56 pm (UTC)
"So Jim Hines = Shakespeare!"

I like it! I'm officially switching my definition to whatever will support this conclusion!
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(no subject) - lenora_rose - Jun. 6th, 2010 08:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 4th, 2010 01:52 pm (UTC)
I do think some of the works above count as fanfiction in its broadest sense; I have used Wicked as an example of fanfiction when trying to explain it to a class, for instance. I think they count as fanfiction within the scope of what authors are generally attacking when they make outraged moralistic posts on the subject: i. e., transformative stories based on a single creator or group of creators' works.

I personally don't have a problem with authors who say that they worked hard on their characters and have the right to profit from them and to "own" them; I think it's a little silly to object to fic on those grounds, because I know thousands of people who have been converted to (and subsequently purchased) books, television, etc. through fandom, but if your stance is "I made these toys and I don't want you to play with them" I am enough of a preschool teacher to say, "Well, they're yours; nobody should have the right to take them if you don't want to share."

However, when it turns into "it is wrong to play with anybody's toys," I think that statement implies including the toys of people who sell the rights to their toys, people whose toys have been given either by them or by the law to the entire classroom, and people who have said, "I'm glad you like my toys! Have as much fun as you like!"
Jun. 4th, 2010 01:54 pm (UTC)
I like the toy analogy!
(no subject) - jimhines - Jun. 4th, 2010 02:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - elucreh - Jun. 4th, 2010 02:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 4th, 2010 01:52 pm (UTC)
My dividing line is the commercial one. If you're dabbling in someone else's universe and not trying to sell your efforts, that's fanfic. When you cross the line into selling the work, then it's become a commercial enterprise and is either 1) sanctioned by the copyright holder(s) or 2) illegal. I'm totally mellow with fanfic in my worlds providing the writer doesn't stray over that line. Then I go Medieval. Maybe even AngloSaxon.
Jun. 4th, 2010 02:00 pm (UTC)
"Then I go Medieval. Maybe even AngloSaxon."

I am much entertained by this line :-)

What would you say qualifies as "dabbling"?
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Jun. 4th, 2010 01:52 pm (UTC)
I definitely agree with your definition, but I do think the point that fanfic isn't unoriginal - look at these famous people who write in the same "unoriginal" fashion - is a good one. I have no idea if that's what the writers of that particular argument were going for, it seems that it wasn't.

Though I'm not sure fanfic has to be shared - a number of authors I admire have admitted to writing Lord of the Rings "fanfiction" before the existence of the internet, that was not shared. But like you said, it's a good broad description that probably doesn't cover every little example.
Jun. 4th, 2010 01:57 pm (UTC)
Ooh - very good point re: sharing vs. writing for one's self. Definition has been tweaked to address this, thank you.
Jun. 4th, 2010 01:58 pm (UTC)
Bookshop has an overly broad definition of fanfic. I don't think retelling a story with new setting, characters, etc. constitutes fanfic. Going down the slipery slope of their definition, then almost everything is fanfic these days. When I look at published books for one that I think cross close to being "fanfic", I think of books like Elizabeth Aston's _Mr. Darcy's Daughters_, which directly uses the same characters and world as the original and builds *on* to the original storyline. In fact, it's marketed as the sequel to Pride and Prejudice. If this were an unpublished "sequel" to a published work still in copyright, it really would be fanfic.

In other words, my definition is much like yours. And I exclude parody, too.
Jun. 4th, 2010 02:02 pm (UTC)
It's strange to think that the status/description of a story as fanfiction or not could depend not on the story itself, but on completely external factors (is the original source material in copyright? is this a licensed work or not?) I do think the external factors are as important as the inherent ones, but it makes my brain spin a little bit :-)
(no subject) - shekkara - Jun. 4th, 2010 02:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 4th, 2010 02:00 pm (UTC)
Depends on the context. I've seen two types of arguments against fanfiction* -- the legal argument that writing unauthorized derivative fiction of work in copyright is actionable, and the 'moral' argument(s) that writing derivative fiction is uncreative or stealing or something.

In the former, it makes perfect sense to define fanfiction by your definition. In the latter, either we need to expand the definition to include works that are written for-profit or for commercial sale, on sources that are public domain, or works that are authorized but don't have the involvement of the creator, or we need to specify a sort of superclass that includes these things and fanfiction, but not other derivative works like guidebooks, parodies or lit. crit. (Maybe we can borrow 'Transformative Works'?)

I see what you are saying since, as a fanfiction writer, a lot of 'genre conventions' and the community of fans make things like Austen and Shakespeare fanfic seem different than the commercial variants. Though a lot of that is in author interaction, not the text. (Well, that and the fact fanfiction is unmoderated -- so you can get as much crap as comes in the average slushpile, but also the stories that publishers won't pick up because they think 'the secret love affair of Benvolio and Mercutio' wouldn't sell.)

* Well, three, with the third seeming to argue that it personally upsets the author to see her characters in out-of-character situations, so we shouldn't do it.
Jun. 4th, 2010 02:37 pm (UTC)
The "personally upsets the author" issue seems ironic to me. Authors want characters who live on in the readers' minds, entrance them, seduce them even, but heaven forbid if that reader then decides to take those characters and tell a story of their own. It's much like wanting the sky but complaining when that same sky rains on you.

I'd rather have my readers totally hooked on my characters and where they might end up writing some stories that make me cringe, so be it. I just won't read them and that way everyone is happy.
#3 - marycatelli - Jun. 5th, 2010 03:00 am (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 4th, 2010 02:02 pm (UTC)
I think there is an interlocking chain here. As blitheringpooks points out, the history of literature evolved from writers delving into older works and transforming them into something new. Ariosto is using Arthurian material, specifically Roland, as had writers for four hundred years previous.

There is some terrific fanfiction out there, written by superlative writers who have chosen this method of expression because they have something to say. Three hundred years ago, there would be no problem with that. It was expected. Now we have copyright protection, so these writers create their works knowing that they will not be able to profit from them, if the material they are drawing on is copyright protected. They can still have thousands of readers. They just don't get a print artifact, or money.

I asked a couple of weeks ago for recommendations of well written transformative fiction so that anyone curious about fanfiction could begin with some examples admired by those who read (and write) fanfiction.

Literary quality, I've found, matches the best published literature. There is good and not so good fanfiction, mirroring the world of publishing. The big divide is in copyright, and that's not an easy thing to solve. I suspect that how we view literature, and works of art, is going to undergo another big change as the digital evolution ceases being "new" and becomes ubiquitous.

But for now, the fanfiction world polices itself pretty diligently. Fans who try to cash in on someone else's work get the metaphorical boot. And some writers can't bear the thought of anyone using their characters or settings, and for the most part the fic world respects that.
Jun. 4th, 2010 02:07 pm (UTC)
Her list gives the appearance of attempting to defend the potential literary merits of fanfic by labeling things fanfic that never were. That's where it gets sticky. (I'm still not certain whether she intended that list to be taken as fanfic rather than transformative works, but either way, there's too much confusion and it dilutes the debate from merit to "wtf?")
(no subject) - sartorias - Jun. 4th, 2010 02:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - blitheringpooks - Jun. 4th, 2010 02:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 4th, 2010 02:18 pm (UTC)
Perhaps we need to start with the fact that some people say "fanfiction" like that's a BAD thing. Humans have been producing fanfiction for a very long time just in the way stories have been retold around fires on a winter's evening, with each successive story-teller embellishing upon the previous version and making it his/her own. (I have a collection of Italian folktales and fairy tales edited by Italo Calvino, and some of the stories are actually "outtakes" from The Odyssey! Some I also recognize from Grimm, Perrault and Hans Christian Anderson.)

I believe that all derivative works do in fact fall under the category of fanfiction but that there are different types of fanfiction--saleable and unsaleable. It comes down to whether the author has permission from the "owner" of the characters/settings to use them in a published work (that isn't parody, for which permission isn't needed under our parody laws); the author doesn't need permission to use the characters/settings in a published work because the original is in the public domain; or whether the author neither has permission to publish nor is using public domain material. The last is unsaleable fanfiction, no matter how many original elements are added to it. The first two categories are saleable fanfiction, but they're still fanfiction.

Some works, both saleable and unsaleable, build substantially upon or even depart quite far from the original inspiration, such as Gregory Maguire's. I truly doubt that Baum envisioned the detailed world in which Maguire wrote Wicked and Son of a Witch. Fairy tales are also so sketchy in their settings and characterization that fleshing these out substantially also results in their straying far from the originals (your own books and, again, Maguire, with Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister). And some works explore backstory (Peter and the Starcatchers) or present a story from the PoV of a character or characters who was/were not originally the protagonist (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the Huckleberry Finn retelling from another character's PoV). In all of these cases the works build on scenarios, characters or settings that were NOT first dreamed up by the author of the new work, which is a primary criticism that some people enjoy leveling at fanfiction and its authors, condemning all derivative work when they criticize fanfiction on this basis.

I think that many people would simply like for those who don't care for fanfiction--or specifically, fanfiction based on their own work--to just say they don't care for it, period, and prefer to be the only one writing stories for those characters and in those settings, rather than listing all of the reasons they say that it's empirically bad, and in the process trashing a large proportion of saleable work being written by fellow authors, past and present. I've seen a lot of unsaleable fanfiction that really does contain as many original elements as saleable derivative works and the only thing distinguishing them from a novel by Maguire or by you is whether they can legally publish.

But it's still all fanfiction. And I mean that in a good way. :D
Jun. 4th, 2010 02:34 pm (UTC)
Perhaps we need to start with the fact that some people say "fanfiction" like that's a BAD thing. I think that this is essentially the crux of bookshop's argument and the reason for her frustration!
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Jun. 4th, 2010 02:22 pm (UTC)
I'm interested in the fact that by and large parodies and satire are seen as a separate thing. Why do you suppose that is?

I think from a legal standpoint, having a definition based on whether or not something's distributed for money or not makes sense. But legal definitions are often not the same as general-use definitions.
Jun. 4th, 2010 02:29 pm (UTC)
As I understand it (and I AM NOT A LAWYER!!!), the copyright issues apply regardless of whether something is sold for profit. For example, if someone copies my work and posts it on LJ, I can issue a DMCA notice and have it taken down, regardless of whether profit was involved.

Are you asking why parodies are not the same thing as satire, or why parodies/satire are not considered the same as fanfic?
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Jun. 4th, 2010 02:27 pm (UTC)
"I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that."

— Justice Potter Stewart, concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio 378 U.S. 184 (1964), regarding possible obscenity in The Lovers. (via Wikipedia)

That's pretty much how I see fanfiction. Not that it's porn, just that it's a "I know it when I see it" kind of product. If there was a clearer definition, OTW would have decided on it by now.

I think the commercial and copyright aspects muddy the waters. Like you, I believe that all fanfiction incorporates another author’s characters and/or world. When we get into the areas of tie-in products or successful commercial products based on out-of-copyright works (Wicked, JJA's recent Sherlock Holmes anthology , Datlow's recent Lovecraft anthology, or Pride and Prejudice with Zombies), I worry that the distinction we're making is based on the quality of the work rather than if it's derived from a previous work or not.
Jun. 4th, 2010 02:30 pm (UTC)
Personally, I think the moment you try to define fanfiction based on quality, you fail. There's plenty of crap fanfiction out there, but there's some crap published fiction too, and I don't think it would be too hard to find a fanfic work that was better, in terms of quality, than a published commercial work.
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(Deleted comment)
Jun. 4th, 2010 02:56 pm (UTC)
The idea that fanfiction is bad/evil because it's all lazy crap is just silly to me, one that is well worth arguing against and undermining. (Also see, "All media tie-in is crap," "All SF/F is crap," "All romance is crap," and so on.)

In terms of showing that works which draw on other, earlier stories can be valuable and good, I think the post works. But the way it's written also blurs the definition of fanfic in a way that, for me, undermines the argument.

That said, I love the idea of Dante's Inferno as Biblical fanfic :-)
(Deleted comment)
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Jun. 4th, 2010 02:32 pm (UTC)
You've sort of hit on a differing point in fandom proper with this, is the thing. bookshop (who I'm flist buddies with, so I've heard quite a lot of her standpoint on things!) is sort of a proponent of a more vocal, less "hiding what we're doing" fandom, and so her post, (which as I recall is a reaction to yet another "what you're doing isn't legitimate writing, and is also lower than dirt!" reaction from a pro-writer) is very much from that point of reference.

I think it's a complex thing, personally. I am personally writing a fanfiction myself at the moment that entails a number of different source materials as well as vast original components, coming together into one tremendous story that doesn't have much to do with the original sources. It's novels long, and it's for fun. I've also written fanfiction stories that centered entirely one characters emotions during a pivotal scene in a show, book, or video game and contained very little BUT my speculation on someone else's character. And I personally think both of those examples are legitimate forms of writing (they're done for my pleasure and for the joy of storytelling and emotional exploration through characters, after all) but I sort of think that only the first one is transformative. I think in fanfiction you get two different kinds of motivations sometimes -- writing to "achieve" (tell/retell a story) and writing to "feel" (to experience the emotions the source material puts into you through your own writing.)

I'm rambling here a bit, but it basically comes down to: in fandom, there are people who want other people to stop treating fanfiction writers and fanfiction itself as dirt, and uncreative and worthless, and who are working towards that goal by being vocal and making comparisons and so on. The other side of it are people who roll their eyes are the "like dirt" statements and keep on writing, well aware that people can make as many statements about fanfiction on the internet as they like, but they can't stop it. And that's sort of where I fall, personally. I'm pretty secure that what I do is creative and worthwhile, because it's worth something to me, and that's all I want out of it. Other people just want other things, I guess!
Jun. 4th, 2010 05:17 pm (UTC)
I definitely agree with you re: the complexity, which is one of the reasons I wanted to write this post. I love the messy, contradictory, complex back and forth ... so long as it doesn't just turn nasty (which, thankfully, nobody has done here so far).

I can see several sides in the fanfiction debates, but I've never understood the "Fanfic sucks, fanfic writers suck, and writing fanfic is worthless and a waste of time" argument. I just don't get that one.
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Jun. 4th, 2010 02:47 pm (UTC)
Hiya Jim!

Well, here's the problem from my POV. People who argue against fan fiction don't just argue from a legal perspective. They don't just say 'I think you're on shaky legal ground here, and you should stop'. Many of them seem to find it necessary to belittle fan fiction writers by saying that it's unimaginative, lazy, etc. etc. I believe that Bookshop is trying to point out the absurdity of such attacks.

*Technically* the works listed are not fan fiction, because they were based on works that were in the public domain, or written with the copyright holder's consent. *In reality*, there's nothing else to set them apart from fan fiction. They're doing what fan fiction writers do; they're not even trying to file off the serial numbers. Just because what they're doing is considered more legitimate, in the legal sense, doesn't automatically give it greater artistic integrity. Only the skill of the writer can do that, and a talented and hard-working fan fiction writer is just as capable of great writing as a professional author creating commercial derivative works.

And yeah, I think it could be argued that a lot (maybe not 90%) of high fantasy is Tolkien fan fiction, especially early fantasy.
Jun. 4th, 2010 03:56 pm (UTC)
Well, and Tolkien itself can be read as Beowulf fan fic ;-)

But otherwise, exactly. There's two arguments at work: moral and legal. The people who argue that fan fiction is immoral sure are vehement about dismissing most of the thousands of years of human storytelling. Those who argue that it is illegal are probably right given current attempts to fit creative work into capitalism's reward framework, but there's a giant jump from that to it being immoral.

We weren't allowed to discuss the existence of fan fiction at my college SF/F club because some people took it as a religious crusade to drive it from the earth. We regularly discussed actual religion and people didn't get nearly so upset...
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Jun. 4th, 2010 02:48 pm (UTC)
I wouldn't define parody as fanfiction, no. But commercial works I do label as fanfiction, though I understand why TWC doesn't. I think a lot of it has to do with the distinction between pro writer and non-pro, though plenty of pro writers write fanfiction. I think you also have to consider that fanfiction usually happens within the context of a fandom. If you're in a fandom and participate in that community, then the works you write are more likely to be seen as fanfiction. But you'd be hard pressed to find a media tie-in writer who is not a "fan" of the property they're writing about. They may not participate in fandom, but you have to have a love of the show in order to write a decent book based in the universe.

The stuff based on public domain works is fuzzily defined for some, but I seeit as definitely fanfic. Look at that story by John Kessel that was nothing but a Frankenstein/Pride & Prejudice mashup. That story was awesome, and really only worked if you were familiar with both of those books. Maybe that's the key -- if your book or story relies on your audience having read/watched the media property you're using, then that's pretty fanficcy. I don't think that Kessel story would have worked without prior knowledge of those characters and their situation, and that's just fine. Same with Gaiman's Study In Emerald (which is why I think a lot of people I know didn't like it. They either are familiar with Lovecraft OR Doyle, but not both, and thus it just fell flat for them).
Jun. 4th, 2010 04:15 pm (UTC)
I think for me, this is a key point in the difference between something being fanfic in particular as opposed to the more general category of derrivative. If what makes a story work is the reliance upon the sources, and specifically the reader being acquainted externally from the text with those sources, that's where it moves into fanfiction for me.
Jun. 4th, 2010 02:56 pm (UTC)
Without having stopped to read anyone else's comments/definitions, I would broadly define fanfic thusly: Any derivative written work using character(s) and/or setting(s) not created by the author, of which the author is generally a fan, and without the original creator's official inclusion into the canon work(s).

So I'd say that any licensed spinoff series is not technically fanfic, even though it may have been written by someone who is a fan. Similarly, a fannish work may be recognized and celebrated by the creator whose work it derives from and still be considered fanfiction.

A recent (now deleted) post by a commercial fantasy author described works like Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, among others, as fanfiction. Though when I asked about my princess novels (fairy tale retellings), she stated that they were not fanfiction.

Incidentally, Fandom Wank has screencaps. I'm going to assume that you're not particularly interested in making it part of the main post, but you might at least enjoy knowing that you won a few fans via snark ;)
Jun. 4th, 2010 03:03 pm (UTC)
And since I forgot to include it in my main comment, on the selling of fanfic (per my own definition):

While I'd say it's permissible for a fan to sell fanfiction, if it's fanfiction for a work that's still under copyright, then there are a metric fuckton of legal hoops to jump through in order not to be sued into next Sunday (licensing as a parody and such). So I'd generalize again and say that the fannish community doesn't so much condemn selling of any fanfic as much as any attempts to take shortcuts when selling fanfic. Because if some creator/copyright holder gets mad at Fan Y for selling fic without the legal hoop jumping, it's a danger to the entire fannish community, particularly that fandom.

Selling fanfic for charity is a different matter entirely, IMO, in that none of the writers are making any profit off of it. I'm pretty sure we believe that this protects us from most, if not all, legal ramifications, and there might be specific wording things involved as well.
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Jun. 4th, 2010 03:03 pm (UTC)
Hah. This seems timely. Someone left a comment on my blog that served two functions: (a) telling me that Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga was never fanfic, and never started that way (; (b) telling me that fanfiction is a derogatory term to Bujold.

I... I figure it's just a culture thingummy. Bujold's quoted comment quoted was from 1997, a time when fanfiction was considered under the radar and supposed to stay that way, as well as thought of as unimaginative. So basically saying, "Hey, this sort of looks like Star Trek fanfic" was (is?) a deadly insult to a professional writer.

Times have changed, but on the other hand, a lot of authors (I don't know if Bujold does or not) and their fans hang onto the 90's.

At that point I started to wonder whether "The work seems to be influenced by X" is as bad as saying "The work seems to have started as fanfic for X, but then changed." Which wass most of my original post that the fan took strong objection to.

In older Holmes fandom, there's still a fiercely contended dividing line considered between fanfiction and "pastiche" (i.e. So Totally Not Fanfiction Y'All), which is purely based on whether it's available at bookstores. Given that there are a lot of self-publishing options these days... the definition is weaker than it used to be. So I guess the next logical step of making a true dividing line is based on whether a professional publisher has picked up the work---but that doesn't work either, because a lot of what are considered pastiches, alongside a lot of what most consider fanfiction, aren't made to be professionally published.

But to some people it's still a deadly insult to say a pastiche is fanfiction. Because pastiches are serious business.

Jun. 4th, 2010 03:12 pm (UTC)
Thanks for that. I especially appreciate that they link back to Bujold's own posting at
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Jun. 4th, 2010 03:07 pm (UTC)
I pretty much buy Bookshop's definition (except I wouldn't include Tina Fey's skits about Sarah Palin; I think parody is a separate animal). Maguire's Wicked is absolutely fanfiction. It uses a world and characters created by another author. The only difference between that and, say Harry Potter fanfic, is that Baum's world and characters are no longer under copyright.

I think fanfiction is tough to define because all fiction is derivative, but there's a huge continuum of just how derivative it is. Wicked is highly derivative; it's entirely baused on Baum's worldbuilding. Your Goblin Quest, far less so. It riffs on D&D tropes but involves a world and characters of your creation.

It's really hard to say where the line falls, to say fiction on this side of the line is not fanfiction, and fiction on that side of the line is fanfiction. Especially when some fanfic, known as "alternate universe" fanfic, involves an entirely created world and characters that are so far transformed from the original characters they were riffed on that the work is not in copyright violation at all, though it is still distributed in fanfic circles. Some fanfic works of this kind have been slightly modified ("serial numbers scraped off") and quietly published as original fiction.
Jun. 4th, 2010 03:15 pm (UTC)
So it sounds like you're saying it's not about the copyright or legalities, but the extent to which the work is derivative? I.e., both licensed and commercially published Star Trek fiction and stories published online as "fanfic" would both be fanfiction?
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Jun. 4th, 2010 03:33 pm (UTC)
When I read something, or watch something, I don't just see the story I'm being presented with. I might notice the costume design (Ironman 2's costume design was terrible), or the prose, or the assumptions underlying the work. Or I might be mentally rehearsing where the story might go, filling in the parts that are underwhelming or unexplored, considering what pieces of characters' personalities I find interesting, and what story I'd tell to illuminate those areas. If I write those down, that's fan fiction.

That is, perhaps, a not-particularly-rigorous definition, and it ignores the social and fandom-based aspects of fan fiction. It also encompasses certain kinds sequels written by the original author (for example, Ann McCaffrey's later Pern books I generally consider author-written fan fiction; they were obviously in conversation not only with her earlier books, but also with the fandom that had arisen around them.) It does not include sequels originally envisioned, or that are part of the initial story line; only those composed after-the-fact.

I know it's an unpopular opinion, but I don't feel that I have greater ownership over my characters or setting than someone who reads my books. Probably this comes from being a role player; I am used to the setting being separate from the narrative (and available for $30 per Player's Guide, distinct from the story).

Perhaps the one-line description is "using established characters and setting in order to tell a new story." At it's best, this is a story that the original author would never tell. It is a way to expand the voices in the world, move away from authoritative protagonists and their frequently-privileged view points. This is evident in the origins of slash. When watching early Star Trek, I still, years after the fact, feel intense frustration at the story that is almost told. I completely understand why someone sat down and wrote that story out. My favorite Lord of the Rings fan fiction weaves an inner life for Rosie, transforming the female characters from motivating objects for the men into fully-rounded persons.

I've written two pieces of fan fiction. The first was a short story where I wanted specific characterizations and rather than try to establish these characters in a short space (which at the time was an enormous challenge for me to show-not-tell), I borrowed some.

The second was when I read The Time Machine. I read the whole thing waiting for the turn, when it would be revealed that the Morlocks were the only things keeping the Eloi safe from predators, that their "chittering" was speech, and that they had become the keepers of society and culture. When I got to the end and realized that that turn never came I threw the book across the room, a fate up to then reserved only for Heinlein. So I wrote a bitter piece from a Morlock's point of view about this self-righteous jerk who shows up in a time machine, refuses to even try to communicate and clearly is a precursor of the Eloi, unobservant and ultimately useless.

One of these is "good" fan fiction (though poorly written; I plead high school), the kind that's legal, that is commentary on the original piece in narrative form. The other is "bad" fan fiction, the kind that isn't legal, that is participating in a culture of story telling. But when I read a book or watch a movie, I see both kinds of stories, all the time. It is part of the joy of well-constructed worlds. Sometimes I get to watch the story I've imagined unfold through the rest of the novel. Sometimes the author goes in a different direction, but my original idea still intrigues me. Since it's not a paying gig, I don't usually write those down, but sometimes either frustration or joy is sufficient motivation.
Jun. 4th, 2010 04:31 pm (UTC)
I'm going to do what I know I shouldn't, and comment without reading the rest of the comments.

My opinion is that Bookshop's list covers a lot of derivative work, and while you're right that a lot of it isn't fanfiction, the point she's making is that a lot of people claim fanfiction is worthless because it is derivative. "Why don't you invent your own characters/universe? Why you gotta ride on the coattails of people smarter and more creative than you?"

Fanfiction is one type of derivative work; works like Wicked are another. But the line between Wicked and Neil Gaiman's The Problem of Susan and Yahtzee's Goodnight, Moon is pretty blurry, and the situation isn't helped by the complexities of copyright law.

Anyway, I posted last week about how we define fanfiction, there's some really good discussion in the comments about it. I know it when I see it, but a lot of the defining elements of fanfiction are not in the work itself, but in the social context and authorial intent. That makes it hard, from outside the fannish community, to draw a bright line between The Wind Done Gone and The Kids Aren't All Right, both of which contain some pretty important criticism about the original text.
Jun. 4th, 2010 05:14 pm (UTC)
And I think that's a valid point, that fanfiction isn't inherently bad or worthless any more than any other genre. That's one argument I've never understood or agreed with. But I do think the way the list is presented (the opening strongly implies, to me, that the following works are all fanfic) undermines and weakens the argument a bit because I don't think of many of those works as fanfic.
(no subject) - cofax7 - Jun. 4th, 2010 05:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 4th, 2010 04:37 pm (UTC)
Bookshop's post is not violating any tenants, only (possibly) a tenet or two, depending on viewpoint. No tenants were harmed in the production of that discussion.
Jun. 4th, 2010 04:37 pm (UTC)
Everything you think you know is wrong....
I have been arguing for quite awhile now that one can't legitimately use "fanfic" as a label in a way that makes any qualitative judgment about a work's content. "Fanfic" isn't a descriptor of craft or skill; in and of itself it can't tell you whether the work so labeled is any good or not. [Example: I hand you two Star Trek novels in pure text form -- no outer packaging, just text. Without labeling, one has no way to tell which one is "fanfic" and which is a licensed tie-in.]

There's a flip side to this, though, that I think most discussions have either missed or not thought through completely. And it's this: labeling a work "derivative" or "transformative" is also NOT a descriptor of craft/skill/quality. And the trouble with trying to defend "fanfic" by way of the "derivative/transformative" standard is that it relies on an essentially flawed relationship model.

See, the "derivative/transformative" model -- necessarily, from a legal standpoint -- operates on the premise of a single parent work or canon, out of which a lot of "daughter" or "child" works are created (whether commercially, as licensed tie-ins, or informally, by fanfic writers). But for a reader, the parent/daughter model doesn't necessarily apply. Two examples this time:

(1) I give someone who's never read a Sherlock Holmes story two unlabeled short story manuscripts, one written by Arthur Conan Doyle, one a pastiche. Without prior knowledge, that reader has no way to determine which story is "canon" and which is "derivative" -- the two works function as siblings, not as source and spinoff.

(2) Consider the Robin Hood legend; historically, we can trace it back to a group of medieval ballads and story cycles. But many readers of my generation will have come across it first in the Howard Pyle retelling, and many others may have seen it first by way of film (whether Errol Flynn's, Kevin Costner's, or the brand new version just out). In historical terms, the "parent" work is the earliest material -- but in readers' or viewers' terms, their "source" Robin Hood is the version they read or saw first, or have bonded with most closely.

So when I use "fanfic" nowadays, I'm generally using the word to mean "stories written by self-identified fanwriters". By contrast, when I'm discussing craft/content issues, I use the phrase "collaborative or shared creation", as distinguished from "singular creation". This last is a trifle bulky, but it's the best I've managed to date.
Jun. 4th, 2010 05:31 pm (UTC)
Re: Everything you think you know is wrong....
I'm getting flashbacks to deconstructionist theory in grad school...

I'm agreeing with most of what you say here, particularly that the "fanfic" label can't be used as a determinant of quality or the lack thereof. I also see where many readers might not be able to distinguish bewteen a parent work and a derivative. (Depending on their familiarity with the genre.)

On the other hand, the fact that many readers might not recognize that difference doesn't mean it's unimportant. And I've heard some authors argue that the inability to separate original and derivative work is one reason to discourage fanfiction, because it can lead to confusion over the author's canonical works and intentions. (I don't know that I agree with this argument or not; I don't think it would be a problem in most cases, but it's not something I'm yet ready to dismiss altogether.)

Things like Robin Hood or the Arthurian stories ... those feel a little different, and I agree that 99.9% of the folks out there wouldn't even recognize the source material for what it was.
Re: Everything you think you know is wrong.... - djonn - Jun. 4th, 2010 05:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Everything you think you know is wrong.... - djonn - Jun. 5th, 2010 04:59 am (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 4th, 2010 05:06 pm (UTC)
Fanfiction does have a lot of definitions. And they are contradictory. No one will ever agree.

However, as djonn points out above me, without a label, most published fanfiction cannot be told from unpublished.

Everytime published vs unpublished comes up, I wait for someone to mention Lee Goldberg. Why? Because a lot of the time he starts screaming about fanfiction... and he writes tie in novels for TV shows. Laughing is the only solution.

(Pardon my incoherence. Life and germs have beaten me into a sticky oozing goo...)
Jun. 4th, 2010 05:12 pm (UTC)
But in a way, I can see Lee's point.

In terms of content, I agree with you that often it would be impossible to distinguish a fanfic story from one which was licenced and published "legally," such as in the Star Trek: SNW anthology.

On the other hand, one was written and published with explicit permission from the copyright holder. The other was not. That distinction does matter, and from that point of view, there's a very clear difference between licensed tie-in novels and fanfic.

A lot of the comments have jumped from definitions to arguments, such as the argument that you can't condemn fanfic based on quality, because ... well, because it's silly.

I don't know what arguments Goldberg has made, and it's possible his arguments are ridiculous and deserve to be shot down. (He certainly wouldn't be the first.) But I don't think the fact that he writes tie-in works necessarily means his arguments are meaningless.
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Jun. 4th, 2010 05:52 pm (UTC)
I think my problem with every single definition of fanfiction that's done by non-fanfiction people is that it makes assumptions that never quite fit. Honestly, I started off with a relatively narrow definition of fanfic and ended up basically broadening it because every single time someone gave an example of why a commercial fanfic work wasn't fanfic, I could think of a fanfic example or three that was exactly what they were claiming fanfiction couln't be.

Even yours, which has the massive advantage of not trying to impute motives on fanfic authors and not trying to say it can't be, say, an exploration of what they didn't like about the text, I can think of examples I've seen of fanfiction where it doesn't actually quite work because I've seen theoretically publishable fanfic. (Even excluding Tolkien fanfic.) It's fairly rare, because the fanfic authors are generally writing reincarnation fic or complete alternate universe fic where the characters can pretty much only be identified as the characters in the original by people who know tend to either be writing horrible high school AUs because they've listened to write what you know a bit too literally or they know their work will be lost among the sea of high school AUs when they really just want to do a character study and explore the themes from a different angle and they think that throwing the characters into the future under different names will be an interesting way of doing that.

I mean, I guess there's some validity to the idea that fanfiction can't be commercial fiction. Except then you get works like Maguire's who is fanfiction in any way you care to define it except commerciality. And personally, even if it is a commercial work for hire done by someone who isn't a fan, every single one I've seen wasn't actually distinguishable from fanfic in the end product. I mean, frankly there's a whole lot of fanfiction written by people who aren't so much fans of the series as really bugged by it and want to critique what they're bugged by in fanfic form, so it's not like being a fan is already part of the definition.

After that, I for one can't take any kind of definition of fanfic as anything derivative that's noncommercial as really workable. I suppose, if I were to define fanfiction for myself, it would be fiction that draws on other sources and doesn't file off the serial numbers. Sometimes it's possible for it to be commercial, sometimes it's not, but it doesn't make the urge behind writing it inherently different.
Jun. 4th, 2010 05:58 pm (UTC)
...Actually that's not entirely true. I can take fanfiction as anything in the genre of transformational fiction or whatever the fancy term ends up being that is noncommercial, and that strikes me as a potentially good distinction. My problem is that there's an artificial line drawn between fanfiction and commercial work when they're basically doing the same thing, and there's no currently accepted overarching term to define that.
(no subject) - jimhines - Jun. 4th, 2010 07:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
New vocabulary: "spinwork" - djonn - Jun. 4th, 2010 09:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
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