Fanfiction is an easy target. Attacking it is akin to plopping the cast of Finding Nemo in a barrel from Donkey Kong and taking aim. In fact, there’s probably a melodramatic 25-chapter crossover-fic with that exact plot being written right now. See? Easy target.
Articles like my own “Penning the Perfect Fanfiction” have taken a satirical swipe at some of the more ludicrous compositions – but could they be missing the point? According to two fanfiction writers and one “fan of fandom” from The Escapist‘s own forums, there’s a depth and complexity to the community that the typical portrayal of fanfiction rarely reveals.
In many respects, the motivation for authors of fanfiction is the same as any other writer. Andrew (awmperry on The Escapist‘s forums), who writes primarily about Harry Potter and The Big Bang Theory, says that the “stories and plot bunnies piling up in my head” needed an outlet – a sensation that will be familiar to most authors. (“Plot bunnies” refer to stray story ideas that build up during one’s appreciation of a work.)
However, fanfiction writers aren’t driven to create a tale from scratch, but rather to tweak, alter and expand existing narratives, often stemming from a disappointment with how the series’ original creator has handled his or her own plotlines – “adjusting things that I think should have been different in the canon,” as Andrew puts it. In other cases – and especially with videogames – fans are driven to fill in the gaps of a series that is otherwise sparse on plot. Tiut, a fanfiction author since 2007, says he felt the Trauma Center storyline was too linear. “So I worked on giving it more substance.”
This need to re-shape narrative could be interpreted as a bit fussy or an inability to accept the “canon” version of events. And if fanfiction were a purely individual pursuit, that might be true. But Dean (aka Ultrajoe), a convert to fanfiction who now regards it as a literary medium with an “unparalleled social component,” suggests that the revisionist approach is more likely a result of its intended readership: others immersed in the fandom.
“When a fanfic’er writes, they are writing for others who know and enjoy the existing material,” Dean says. “The thing to keep in mind with their motivations is this: It is tied to a community – not a target audience, not a demographic, but a community.” He sees this desire for community involvement as a core component of fanfiction. “You’re writing for an already receptive mind,” he says. “The hypothetical writer of ‘Diddy Kong In the Civil War’ was never after literary accolades.” Instead, Dean says, the writer was probably just looking for laughs or a nod from his or her friends. As far as he is concerned, fanfiction is written solely for the community that supports it. As for those who find fault with fanfiction, it wasn’t intended for them in the first place.
Romance, Angst and Slash
The image of communities penning “what if?” stories purely for the enjoyment of friends may be a little idealistic, however. It implicitly suggests writing quality is a secondary concern. But in fact, the writers I interviewed felt it was a major issue with fanfiction. “Most of the writings I have read are too laid back,” Tiut says. “They tend to be these short, pretty poorly thought-out stories that are just sort of done on the fly.”
This issue is actually a source of tension within many fanfiction communities. While some are writing merely to entertain their fellow fans and have little reason to care about literary standards, other writers seeking to craft something with more depth view this approach as lazy. Tiut wishes all fanfiction writers would treat their works like a traditional novel and expressed frustration that too many pieces are released in an unpolished state. “I have no problem with the writer’s desire to write about what they want, but I want to be able to read it, and I would enjoy it to be well thought-out,” he says. Andrew goes even further, claiming that fanfiction’s reputation for “abysmal tripe” was well-earned.
But the unique nature of fanfiction makes judging “quality” more subjective. The factors that define a “good” or “bad” piece of writing can be hard to pin down even with traditional literature, but Dean says relativism in the fanfiction community goes even further. “Some people enjoy [the] ‘bad,’ and some of that ‘bad’ means more to some people than simple critical value.” This suggests that many readers of fanfiction find value in works which would be viewed as flawed from a technical, critical or narrative point of view. Furthermore, says Dean, fanfiction likes it that way. “[It] doesn’t need to justify itself with examples of excellence; it doesn’t care for the judgement of those not involved.” If this is the case, attacking fanfiction on the basis of poor grammar or overuse of adverbs is somewhat pointless.
Klingon Rock Band
Though outwardly tolerant of all participants and protective of their work, fanfiction communities appear to be just as hierarchical as any other group. Andrew says that most fandoms tend to have other fandoms they look down upon, explaining that he himself had no time for manga fanfics “written by Anglophone teenagers.” Indeed, age seems to play a key role in how certain works are viewed. Andrew suggests that pieces written by teenage girls are automatically judged to be worse than similar stories written by adults. Likewise, certain topics and sources can be exhausted by their own popularity, resulting in authors who try to write more on the subject simply being dismissed. “Some fictions have been done to death,” Tiut says. “I try to give each one a fair chance, but some of them just end up ridiculous.”
Oddly enough, Andrew believes that inter-genre squabbles are actually more common than inter-fandom strife. “There’s something of a feeling among some quarters that drama and angst are more ‘proper’ than comedy and humor,” he says. Although writers of fanfiction are providing works for a self-contained community who will not necessarily enforce literary standards on them, it seems there is still a trend for passing judgement on the style of a work or its subject matter.
The other side of this division, though, is a strong sense of social unity through writing. “Fanfiction is … just, well, more friendly. People trade stories for Christmas, like a Secret Santa – ‘Dear Santa, I would like a story about Picard forming a Klingon Rock Band!'” Dean told me. “It’s goofy, often silly things like this that form the source of most terribad fanfiction that gets passed around outside of the community it was intended for.” There are, he suggests, a number of active fanfiction writers penning the worst stuff they can possibly imagine simply to mess with the heads of those not in on the joke.
Of course, it’s unlikely that every piece of poorly written fanfiction was written that way on purpose. FanFiction.net, a huge, organized fanfiction depository for readers and authors alike, is unmoderated, a decision which Andrew says naturally leads to the appearance of “everything from professional-quality writing to barely punctuated Draco/Hermione songfics.” The preponderance of unmoderated communities often entails a lack of editing and a complete absence of constructive writing advice, something that Tiut feels is a big problem. “There isn’t really a lot [of constructive criticism] in the internet writing community, and especially not when it comes to fanfiction,” he says. Tiut believes that writers should ask for criticism from their readers, but are often too afraid to do so. In Andrew’s opinion, the absence of constructive editing is also doing writers a serious disservice. “[Unmoderated sites] tend to strike me as less supportive than sites where you feel [they] really care about helping you develop as a writer,” he says.
That’s a pity, because my interview subjects told me there’s enough talent within these communities to help writers flourish. “Keep in mind that plenty of fanfic’ers write original works of their own, and a larger chunk of the professional writing community than you would think is in on the game,” Dean says. “It’s not uncommon to overhear talks of publishers and editing nightmares at a fanfiction convention.” Skilled editors, combined with community support and honest, constructive criticism, could make a huge difference. According to Andrew, some sites are already taking this approach. “Most of those [sites] don’t simply tell authors that they can’t write – they tell them how to improve, and that’s the key,” he says. Alongside all this external aid, it’s important to remember that writers can also help themselves. “[They] need to treat their fanfiction with the utmost care and take the time to make it the best it can be,” says Tiut.
But there is, perhaps, a danger in encouraging more fanfiction sites to take a professional attitude to writing and editing. By imposing those kinds of rules, they could easily lose their inclusive nature. Having to put stories through any kind of submission process would dampen the appeal for many people. But, as Andrew notes, “quality control doesn’t necessarily mean an all-powerful editor … it could simply mean fostering a community that encourages authors to take pride in their work.” This sounds like an approach that could benefit everyone.
Diverse and Disparate
The writers I spoke with reveal a number of forces at work within fanfiction, all pulling in different directions. The communities seem unconcerned with how they look from the outside, yet there are real concerns about writing standards. They recognize the medium produces a high volume of poor writing, but it’s tolerated and sometimes even cherished. In fanfiction, the concept of “meaning” (to both the reader and author) seems to carry more weight than the equally hard to define “quality,” almost certainly due to its strong social aspect. But this is at odds with a desire among some to see writers take more pride in their work.
So while it’s still easy to pull the trigger on Nemo and friends, perhaps we should keep in mind that the author of Donkey Kong’s Barrel: The Purge probably knows how goofy his story is. Writers of fanfiction seem well aware of the amount of bad prose created in the name of fandom, and they either don’t care, actively enjoy it or are taking steps to improve standards within their own circles. Mocking the more absurd and humorless entries at FanFiction.net will probably never get old, but it’s only telling the fanfiction community something it already knows.
Peter Parrish thanks Andrew, Dean and Tiut for their time and efforts. His Bratz Ponyz/Dark Messiah crossover-fic is still on hold.