Greed, entitlement and fan-fic; two questions for A. R. Yngve

I doubt it was a great surprise for anyone to see Cory Doctorow come out in defence of fan-fic in his latest column for Locus. Anyone who knows Doctorow’s name knows he’s the copyfightin’ man-o’-the-people type, and this is a prime example of him extending those attitudes into the world of genre writing:

“Much fanfic — the stuff written for personal consumption or for a small social group — isn’t bad art. It’s just not art. It’s not written to make a contribution to the aesthetic development of humanity. It’s created to satisfy the deeply human need to play with the stories that constitute our world. There’s nothing trivial about telling stories with your friends — even if the stories themselves are trivial. The act of telling stories to one another is practically sacred — and it’s unquestionably profound.”

I can see where he’s coming from with that – but not everyone does, of course. That said, I was quite shocked at the venom of A. R. Yngve’s response:

“A Certain Writer (I’m not going to link to his vile, loathsome, ass-kissing screed) has pandered to the “fanfiction community” with a column praising fanfic.”

Wheeesh. Those are strong words. He goes on to ask:

“Why do fan ficcers leech off NEW novels, movies and TV shows? After all, there are literally thousands and thousands of characters in the Public Domain to use instead — Dracula, Nicolas Nickleby, Don Quixote, Robin Hood, Robinson Crusoe, Hamlet, the Grim Reaper, Jesus (“The Passion Of The Christ” IS Jesus Fanfic), etc. etc. — various mythological figures all the way back to Gilgamesh and the first cave paintings…”

I had an obvious reply to that, but a commenter beat me to it – they write about the more modern characters because those are the characters they care about, the ones that they can relate to in one way or another, the ones that strike a fire in their hearts and minds.

And so instead, I would (with respect, and in an honest desire to understand the position being taken) pose a question – no, make that two questions – in response to Mr. Yngve’s.

  1. How does having fan-fiction written about your characters or worlds damage you, financially or creatively?
  2. How can someone spending a great deal of time and effort (regardless of the quality of the final work) trying to emulate or recreate what you have created be an insult to you?

To qualify the first question: how does the existence of fan-fic based on your creations lessen the chances of you selling more of the original work? Obviously, I can see that you’d not want people selling their fan-fic – that would be a step over the line, I think. But isn’t it the case that, the more fan-fic that exists based on your work, the more likely it is that further interest will be generated in the original work that inspired the tribute?

To qualify the second question: if someone cares enough about something that you have created and released for public consumption, and that they (let’s assume) have paid for (one way or the other, either by buying a copy, or reading it on an ad-supported site), that they decide to extend or tweak or re-imagine it, for no hope of recompense except for the respect of their fellow fans – where’s the insult? Where’s the theft there?

OK, let me flat out preempt the obvious response – no, despite my aspirations, I am not able to describe myself as a writer of fiction yet, so maybe it is the case that I “just don’t understand”. But I’d like to have it explained to me, because it seems counter-intuitive – and I’ll illustrate that with some sleight-of-hand that regular readers will recognise, by drawing an analogy to music.

Fan-fic is like cover versions, played live. They too are reimaginings, reinterpretations, spoofs, parodies, gestures of respect, flicks of the nose … and sometimes just plain simple “well, I’d have done it this way” jobs. For obvious and understandable reasons, recorded cover versions incur a royalties cost to the performer that goes to the copyright holder of the song – after all, the coverer (if that’s a real noun) stands to make some money off the kudos of the original piece.

Now, I’ve met a lot of musicians in my time, of varying levels of fame and success. And I can’t think of one of them that would feel insulted or stolen from if they heard that a young band were belting out one of their songs in a live set. Sure, they might flinch at the awful performance values, but they’d be flattered to know that they’d inspired some kids to pick up instruments and have a go themselves. Maybe they’ll just last a year, before moving on to day-jobs and recreational alcohol abuse. But maybe, just maybe, they’ll stick with it, keep practicing, polish their chops, write their own songs, find their own voice, and become proper musicians in their own right.

Now, I’ve not met all musicians, by any stretch of the imagination, and I’m sure there are some that would feel insulted or stolen from. But I’m willing to bet that they’re the minority – the Mariah Careys of the world, who think that being a singer makes them somehow superior to a guy who builds engines, or a woman who landscape gardens, or – sin of sins – someone who sings along to the radio for the sheer joy of doing so.

This is my problem with Mr. Yngve’s post, and his continued ire in the comments beneath it. Despite his assertion that fan-ficcers have a sense of entitlement to works that they did not create themselves, it seems to me that Mr. Yngve has the sense of entitlement – entitlement to the kudos and respect due an artist or a creator, without a portion of the genuine sacrifice that brings with it. Sure, the original act of creation is damn tough – I’ll not demean that, not with my poor track record at finishing what I start. But ask any mother what the most painful moment of having children is, and I’m sure she’ll give the same answer my mother always gives – the hardest part is watching them leave home and knowing that, apart from when they choose to return to you for help, they’re out of your hands forever.

In other words: I want to know why, if the notion of people building upon or re-engineering with your precious creations once you’ve finished with them (which, even were you to introduce legislation banning it on pain of death, is inevitable) is so nauseatingly unpleasant, why on earth do you bother publishing it at all? It sounds to me far less like theft or a sense of entitlement on the part of the fan-ficcer, and much more like the greed and egotism of the original creator. If you don’t want the world to corrupt your babies, you’d best keep them indoors forever.

To return to the music analogy, literature is about to go through what music went through in the late 80s and early 90s, thanks to the arrival of the sampler. It’s easier than ever for someone to write fan-fic and share it with other fans, and that promises to become even easier as time goes by thanks to the internet &c. The music industry wailed and gnashed its teeth, decrying people using samplers as the barbarians at the gate who were going to tear apart the very fabric of music as an art form. Then they got wise, and worked out how to use it to their advantage, and how to rake some profits back from it – and eventually, as has happened countless times throughout history, the barbarians became a part of the empire while thinking they had built a new one in its place.

To put it another way, fan-fic isn’t going anywhere, and there’s almost no way you could possibly prevent it from happening. So you have two choices – you can accept the inevitable with good grace, and enjoy the extra publicity and attention your work gets as a result (and bite your lip against your contempt for the lesser abilities of your imitators), or you can sit on your bitter throne like a soggy-shod King Canute and shake your fist at the uncaring sea that seeks only to lap at your feet for a while. I’m not saying either choice is more right than the other, because I don’t think there are any true moral absolutes involved – it’s a matter of personal choice, no more, no less. But I think it’s pretty obvious which is the more gracious and human response.

3 thoughts on “Greed, entitlement and fan-fic; two questions for A. R. Yngve”

  1. I loathe fanfiction. Hate it with the fury of a thousand suns. It’s absurd how strong my antipathy is, because I’m not an author, don’t write fanfic, and have no personal stake in the debate whatsoever. It doesn’t do *me* any harm (or good); it’s irrational that I should care. But I do.

    If you are a good writer, in my view, you ought to be writing something new and wholly your own; and if you aren’t, then you’re embarrassing yourself and the author by trying to puppet someone else’s creations. It’s much more personal than covering someone else’s song, I think. It’s more like trying to wear their clothes, imitate their voices, wear their perfumes. Embarrassing for all concerned, if not outright creepy.

    Would you write “fanfiction” involving real people under real names in real life, without their permission? No. Because it would be unutterably presumptuous to pretend you knew them that well, and quite a lot of them would be insulted. I feel it’s much the same with using other people’s characters. They aren’t yours; you don’t know them; you can’t possibly do them right, so don’t use them. To me, it’s that simple.

    And, of course, it doesn’t help that so much fanfiction is poorly written porn. If *I* were an author, and my lovingly written characters were being used in semi-literate slash porn… I think I’d be happier burning my manuscripts. Much, much happier.

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