Let’s Argue About Fanfic Like It’s 1999!

It’s spring, when a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love and authors post rants about fanfic. Diana Gabaldon is the latest author to denounce fanfic and those who write it in a manner reminiscent of Anne Rice at the turn of the century. Unfortunately, many of her arguments are so shaky and problematic that a building inspector would have her entire logical edifice torn down for not meeting code.

OK, my position on fan-fic is pretty clear: I think it’s immoral, I _know_ it’s illegal, and it makes me want to barf whenever I’ve inadvertently encountered some of it involving my characters.

It’s fair for authors to say, “You know what, I don’t like fanfic, and I don’t want any of it written with my characters.” Most fanfic authors respect that; I believe all of them should. Diana is on shaky ground with her statement about how she knows fanfic’s illegal. She’s a US citizen writing and living in the US, so she should be familiar with the fair use doctrine in US copyright law. Mounting a fair use defense is akin to building a house on shifting sands, but nevertheless, much of fanfic is likely to reside on those sands.

That first paragraph may be reasonable, but even there you can hear the faint sound of squealing wheels as the train prepares to leap the rails. By the fourth paragraph she’s analogized fanfic writers to burglars and made the completely incorrect statement, “And you can’t use someone’s copyrighted characters for your own purposes, no matter what those purposes are,” which means my making up Phineas and Ferb stories for Eli is right out.

But wait! She’s just getting started! She compares fanfic writers to someone trying to seduce her husband, and later analogizes fanfic writers to a stalkerish middle-aged man who tells a mom how he fantasizes about having sex with her twenty-one-year-old daughter. She manages to conflate real-world stalking with people writing porn about imaginary people.

Then she goes a step further, giving a blanket condemnation of fanfic because so much of it is terrible, and a lot of it is porn. “A terrible lot of fan-fic is outright cringe-worthy and ought to be suppressed on purely aesthetic grounds,” she says, later claiming that the amount of pornographic fanfic “constitutes an aesthetic argument” against all fanfic. Is a type of artistic expression only allowed if the majority of it is good? It puts the fanfic author in the place of Abraham, asking Gabaldon, “Suppose you find fifty good examples of fanfic. Will you really sweep it all away then? What about forty-five? Or forty?”

A lot of people have pointed out that Gabaldon’s house is entirely made of glass. She has admitted that the hero of her Outlander series was inspired by a character from Doctor Who. Later books in the series feature plenty of sex, some of it with real historical people — at one point, the King of France rapes one of Gabaldon’s characters. Given that, the saddle of her high horse is resting on the floor.

I find fanfic and other transformative works fascinating. People are not passive consumers of entertainment. We are not empty glasses waiting to be filled. We are active in a dialog among fans and creators, taking creative works and riffing on them. From the kid making up stories about adventures with the Transformers to the Doctor Who fan imagining what it would be like to travel with the Doctor, we weave these stories into our own imaginative play. Authors and creators can opt out of that, asking that there be no public expression of this imaginative play, but I believe that doing so makes our overall cultural experience poorer. It is their right, and I support them exercising that right, but I’d rather they not.

To Diana’s credit, she’s listening to the angry conversations stirred up by her post. This evening she posted that she’s reassessing her take on fanfic writers’ motivations. She evidently had never considered that fanfic writers might be doing it out of love for the original work. I hope she also reconsiders her position on fanfic, or at least is willing not to conflate its writers with stalkers and burglars.