‘But fanfiction is so UNORIGINAL!’

One of the most frequent comments I encounter from people who are ignorant about fanfiction and other transformative works is that they are ‘unoriginal.’ They’re ‘based on someone else’s story.’ Creators are ‘just stealing someone else’s characters.’ These things are said with a sneer, intending to demean fannish people and the spaces they work in, and they’re usually followed up with a snide claim that transformative works are illegal because they ‘violate copyright[1. Not so; transformative works constitute fair use, and are not created for profit.].’ Many people in creative communities widely believe these claims about fanfic and other transformative works, criticising some of their best fans and the people who love their work so much that they want to stay there a little longer, play with the world a little more, sometimes, yes, to talk about how things might have gone differently.

I’ve been thinking a great deal this year about the entrenched anti-fanfic attitude in many communities, and I have a lot of thoughts about it, but today I really wanted to explore the idea that fanfic is ‘unoriginal.’ The claim as laid out is that even if creators of fanworks are creative individuals who might be good writers, vidders, singers, or anything else, their talents are misapplied to fanworks because what they are doing is not ‘original,’ and therefore has no value or validity.

Take a look at AO3, a huge collection of fanworks from around the world that includes pieces in very popular fandoms to the most obscure. It’s a complex, rich assortment of creative works, and one that makes a great basis for a conversation about whether fanworks are ‘creative.’

Does ‘creative’ mean that someone has the ability to tell a story, to create something that other people are interested in consuming for entertainment or pleasure? Because if it does, than fanworks are definitely creative. There’s a reason some members of fannish communities have huge followings, scores of devoted readers, and big networks of friends and supporters. It’s not just that they’re charismatic people, but that their work is good, and that their fans like consuming it; both because it’s good, and because it tells the kinds of stories fans want to engage with. Those same fans are sometimes also consuming canon work, too.

In that sense, fanworks are definitely ‘creative’ and ‘original.’ Structuring stories, artworks, video, songs, and other forms of fanworks requires creative thinking, the ability to organise, and many more skills, no matter the source of the inspiration. Not everyone has those skills, or the dedication to apply them. Not everyone is interested in applying them. That’s all well and fine; not everyone needs to be creative all the time, and part of the joy of creating things is sharing them with others and enjoying their responses. But to say that someone who has made a creative work is being unoriginal is a bit of a stretch.

What about the claim, though, that fannish people are ‘stealing’ stories, characters, and ideas from canon? This is perhaps one of the arguments about fanworks that I find most fascinating and bizarre; it neglects both the legal and creative standing of transformative works, which are most definitely not copyright violations, and do not deprive original creators of income related to their works. If anything, fanworks get people more engaged with canon; there are a number of things I only started reading and watching after I was introduced to fic and I got excited about the source material and wanted to learn more.

But let’s drill down a little deeper here, if you’ll indulge me: what is the difference between a fanwork and a retelling?

Why is The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (a Hamlet retelling) regarded as a masterwork of fiction, while Harry Potter fanfic is considered trashy? Retellings are rampant in fiction, in fact; retellings of Shakespeare, retellings of the Bible, adaptations of Bronte and Austen, and so much more. A huge part of modern-day creative work actually revolves around retellings and adaptations of existing narratives, with the same characters and plots! And we herald these works of fiction when they’re well-written by creative, strong writers because they’re good; thus, I enjoy Megan Shepherd’s retellings of Gothic horror novels because they’re creative transformative works.

Meanwhile, fanfic, especially slash fiction, is ‘unoriginal’? I’m confused here, because I’m not understanding the difference. Is it because fanfic focuses on modern creative works (many of which themselves are derivative)? Then what’s the difference between the fanfic of today and the derivative fiction that’s always been a part of the literary community? Are readers aware of how many ‘classics’ are derivative? That, for example, Shakespeare freely, ah, ‘borrowed’ from fellow playwrights of his (her, their) time?

I suspect that several things are responsible for the stigma that swirls around fanfiction. The first, of course, is that fannish communities tend to have more women than men, overall, which automatically puts them in a suspicious category as far as society is concerned. Not only that, but transformative works and their creators tend to be more open about sexuality and society, something that also troubles people, particularly with slash (especially LGBQT slash); people claim that fanfiction is making something dirty and impure of a treasured work, all because of those icky girls.

Fannish communities also defy the capitalistic sense that has always surrounded creative work. As long as artists have been creating, they’ve needed to feed themselves, which has required a certain about of sales acumen or a wealthy patron. Even today, writers, for example, write because they love to and they need to, but they also need the money from their books. In fandom, works are shared freely and widely, people are encouraged to adapt and play with work they like, and anyone can access fanworks. It’s a gift economy, a culture of free creative exchange, and that is also something that people may find frightening and alienating.

Giving art away? If it’s given away, is it still creative? I hope we all know the answer to that question, but it would appear that many people are struggling with that very issue.