Iâm congratulating myself for having given my students the chance to teach me âabout fan fiction. I know about this phenomenon academically, meaning that Iâve read academic work on it. Iâm not, however, a reader or a writer and, so, I delegated the task of instructing my Harry Potter class on the subject to those who know: eight wonderful girls students who gave us an exciting collection of presentations.
They covered plenty of ground: defining fan fiction as legitimate literary practice; discussing the thorny matter of copyright infringement; exploring its sub-genres, main themes and canons in general and in relation to Harry Potter; going into the murky depths of slash fiction; presenting other forms of fan production (musicals, vids, songsâŠ) and even teaching the basics of fan fiction criticism âfor, yes, fan fiction contains the abysmally bad but also the properly literary. All genres, as I always maintain, tend to form their own canons, as they confirmed. I contributed the word âacafanâ, Henry Jenkinsâs label to name the academic who has a fandom background, whether in community or in a more isolated situation.
So many ideas came up that itâs hard to select a few. Iâll start with the notion that fan fiction goes back to the beginning of the commercialization of culture and ties in with the later idea of copyright. As a student argued, Shakespeare was a fan fiction writer since his sources were never original and he did what fan writers do today: take someone elseâs material and elaborate on it. Also, the same student pointed out that, on the completely opposite side, Cervantes was motivated to write the second part of El Quijote by the publication of the anonymous sequel, known as El Quijote de Avellaneda, which he loathed. Recently I published a post here about Pratchettâs Dodger which, technically, is also fan fiction.
Charles Dickens cannot voice an opinion about Dodger but living authors have much to say about what others do with their characters and ideas. Their reactions to fan fiction are mixed: some tolerate it (Rowling), others hate it (Anne Rice). This is because of the Romantic worship of originality and the ensuing Victorian capitalist idea of copyright. In the oral tradition that the Industrial Revolution killed off, anonymity was the rule and, in a way, itâs tempting to argue that the current flood, for it is a flood, of fan fiction is a backlash against these three factors Iâve named.
The rule that legal authors impose is always that fan fiction must not generate any money. Those who eschew fan fiction usually argue that they are annoyed (and even disgusted) by the idea that someone else may freely manipulate what they have so painstakingly created and so painfully published. I wonder, though, whether what is really at stake is the fear that someone else does it better: think again of Shakespeare outdoing any of his sources, and imagine him reborn rewriting any of our current authors. Well, he would not be able to do that and make a living as he did in copyright-free Elizabethan theatre âthough, I know, he never published his plays worrying others might make an illicit use.
Iâm not against copyright (though I find the idea of copyright inherited by the authorâs heirs monstrous). I do want to keep the copyright of my own texts and limit other personsâ use of them to legitimate quotations. Yet, Iâm beginning to consider whether the very idea of copyright is not in itself an anomaly, particularly when, at the beginning of the 21st century the generalised impression is that few things are truly original, most culture is recycled. I even heard reputed Catalan designer Claret Serrahima recently declare on TV that art is spent and the avant-garde dead.
In this context, the authorâs wrangle with his/her own fans for only authorship and ownership may even seem fantastically narcissistic and even mercenary. After all, if I infringe Rowlingâs copyright, I would not even be sued by her but by omnipotent Warner Brothers to whom she has sold her rights (or part thereof).
The strangest anecdote that came up was the case of Marion Bradley Zimmer, who was sued by a fan for plagiarising the fanâs own Zimmer-inspired fiction for a novel. The fan wanted no money, just that Zimmer acknowledged the plagiarism (she never did, claiming it was a coincidence that both had thought of basically the same plot). He also wanted to be credited as co-author on the cover of the novel when it was eventually published. The author decided instead to leave the novel unpublished, in limbo. And this is just one of the stranger, and stranger struggles weâll see between authors and fans.
Finally, I enjoyed very much the manifest energy that fans put into theorising their chosen field. It is simply what we, academics do, with the difference that they receive no reward and are even mocked for their efforts (by those who fear to be called fans of Jane Austen or James Joyce).
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