I am writing this in the lobby of the Minicon hotel, known as the Radishtree, because it used to be a Radisson and is now a Doubletree. The lobby flat screens tell me the US is about to go to war with North Korea. I have spent my entire life in war or on the verge of war, but oddly unconnected with this endless violence. Life goes on in the US of A.
I was in graduate school at the University of Minnesota in the later years of the Vietnam War. It was a dark time, when young men my age lived in fear of getting drafted and dying in Vietnam. I had not a clue what I wanted to do with my life, especially in a society which seemed violent and unfair. Star Trek came to the rescue. It was science fiction with a humane and mostly happy view of the future. I survived the last two years of grad school by obsessing about the show. In this period, Ruth Berman and I wrote three Star Trek scripts. Then I left Minneapolis, moving to New York, where I hung around with Devra Langsam while she and Sherna Comerford put out Spockanalia, the first Star Trek fanzine. Back in Minneapolis, Ruth turned one of our scripts into a short story, “The Face on the Barroom Floor,” which appeared first in a fanzine, then in Star Trek: The New Voyages, a collection of fan fic published by Berkley Books in 1976.
My fannish creds are pretty solid, though I haven't written fan fic for more than forty years.
There are various arguments for fan fiction, slash or otherwise. It's a place to learn how to write. I had been writing for years before Ruth and I produced the three scripts, but I was still unpublished and still had a lot to learn. The scripts helped, especially in learning structure. Traditional TV—an hour organized around commercial breaks, with a crisis before each of the first two breaks and a resolution before the last—is all about structure.
Many writers learn in fan fic, then move on to become actual pros, and this is good. However, not everyone moves on, and some pro writers go back to fan fic. Why?
The first reason is pure love for a movie, TV show, book, or comic book series. I still become obsessed with shows. It's a good way to survive in a culture that is still violent and unfair. Recently, my obsessions have been movies and TV series based on Jane Austen novels and the TV show Sherlock. For me, this doesn't translate into fan fic, but I have friends who make the leap. It's a way to write when you are frustrated with your other writing, and it's a way to get feedback. Most writing is like dropping a stone in a well, then listening for a splash that never comes. Even when people love your fiction, they rarely write fan letters.
But the fans of fan fic do respond—at once, as soon as you post, and with enthusiasm. Believe me, that has appeal.
Popular shows have huge audiences. You have a ready-made group of people who love your subject and will enjoy what you write. This is important. A few writers—for example, Lois McMaster Bujold—have a community rise around their work. But most of us do not get passionate fans. I speak with feeling. No one wants to write fan fic about my stories. No one wants to dress up as any of my characters, even the ones with fur. I get thoughtful critiques and the occasional person at a con who says, “Er. Ah. I like your work.”
Given who I am, I would be made uneasy by passionate fans. So it all works out. But if you want a community of enthusiastic readers, fan fiction provides it.
In addition there is something that I'm going to call self-actualization. Fan fic allows people, pro writers and otherwise, to participate. Instead of being a group of individuals who passively watch and listen, they become a community which acts and interacts, extending and changing the stories they love. At this point, I am told, there are huge websites where people share their fan fic.
The chief argument against fan fiction is it's not professional. You can't publish it, because the material is protected by copyright, and most of it isn't very good. I actually got involved in a discussion (or argument) about this at Minicon. A friend, who is a science fiction reviewer, came down strongly against fan fic, because most of it is bad.
I'm inclined to think the chief differences between pro fiction and fan fiction are not aesthetic, but legal and social. Fan fiction is set in universes that are protected by copyright. If you want to make money from what you write, you had better avoid fan fic—or file off the serial numbers before you send your stories out.
People have changed names and sold fan fiction stories to professional markets. People have also written stories in universes that are out of copyright. Gregory McGuire's Wicked can be seen as a kind of fan fic. There have been all kinds of movies and TV shows about Sherlock Holmes, who is partly out of the copyright. (The early stories are no longer protected. The later ones are.)
There are books like John Scalzi’s Fuzzy Nation, a “reboot” of H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy series. In this case, Scalzi got permission from the copyright owners.
And there are the stories that are clearly about copyrighted material, but different enough to escape the lawyers. Everyone knows Scalzi’s very popular Redshirts is about Star Trek.
Since these are professional works, they are called continuations or “reboots” or parodies. But how are they different from ordinary fan fic, except legally—and by the fact that they are published commercially? You might argue that they are better written, but there is a wide range of quality in fan fic. The best is professional level.
To a considerable extent, you can blame The Mouse for fan fic. The big media companies, especially Disney, are fighting to keep their products out of the public domain. Copyright keeps being extended, and people who love media characters are forced into the fan fic community.
They have to write for reasons other than money, which is not entirely bad. If you take money out of the equation, the result is play. Play is important. Most pros begin by playing and dreaming. I had enormous daydream cycles when I was a teenager, and I used part of one as the basis for my novel Ring of Swords.
Then the proto-pro begins to sell. That turns the play into work. He or she has to deal with agents, editors, contracts, bookkeeping, the desire to go full-time as a writer, and the fear that he or she won't make it as a pro. At any moment, your career may hit a wall. The New York houses may decide you aren't selling well enough and drop you. Your ego is on the line. You need to pay the rent.
My issues are somewhat different, though I do have to deal with editors, contracts, and bookkeeping. I have never made a living from my writing. Nonetheless, I see myself as a pro. I want to publish my stories in professional markets and get at least some money for them. But there are days I wish I could play when I write.
I'm not going to suddenly devote myself to fan fic, because being a pro—and having control of my art—is so important to me. In addition, I am not a very playful person. But I have friends with publishing creds as good as—or better than—mine, who are playful and do write fan fic.
The other big difference is social. Pro fic is mostly solitary. The miserable pro sits alone in a room and writes. Fan fic is communal. At first the sharing was done through fanzines and at cons. Now we have the Internet. At this point, with the high level of interaction provided by the Internet, fan fic may be closer to gaming than to ordinary writing.
The appeal of fan fiction (I imagine) is how well you play by the rules of your borrowed universe or how cleverly you twist and transgress the rules.
It sounds wonderfully democratic to me. Good writers are recognized. Bad writers get feedback and encouragement and may improve. Even if they don’t improve, they are having fun.
There are a limited number of people in the science fiction and fantasy community who actually make a living from writing, art, game design, editing, or selling books or jewelry or swords at cons. The rest of the community plays. This results in wonderful costumes, Klingon drama in the original Klingon, filk songs, dealer rooms full of marvelous objects that do not earn a living for the dealer, and panels where people talk about the things they love. Maybe we should simply enjoy the richness of the community and not spend a lot of time worrying about who is or isn’t a real pro.