Back in January, I attended Arisia, the annual science fiction convention at the Westin Waterfront Hotel. I was on several panels, including one about the proper uses of religion in fantasy and science fiction, and one of my fellow panelists invited me to guest blog!
The other panelist, E.C. Ambrose, writes historical fantasy centered around the intersection of medicine, magic, and history in a medieval London that's tantalizingly close to our own. Her Dark Apostle series, centering on 14th century chirurgeon Elisha Barber, is well worth the read, with plenty of fascinating information on medicine in those brutal, beautiful days. She was intrigued by my quilting research and invited me to guest blog on a gorgeous but annoying costume in a recent popular film, with a little piece called
Bilbo Baggins' Bathrobe Revisited.
Even better? E.C. has agreed to guest blog here in May while I'm getting ready for my annual jaunt to the Kalamazoo Medieval Studies Congress out in Michigan. So stop by her blog, take a look around, and say hello! I can't wait!
As for tonight's journey into the depths of Badbookistan, go below the Level .05 DKos Kaiju and find out....
I wrote my first novel when I was sixteen, and it was terrible.
Now, not everything I wrote in my teens was bad. A story I wrote for English class placed fourth in the legendary Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, meaning that I have at least that much in common with Richard Avedon, Truman Capote, Sylvia Plath, fellow Pittsburgher Andy Warhol, and Joyce Carol Oates. I had enough talent, and wrote an interesting enough analysis of an Emily Dickinson poem, to get into Smith, and long-time readers of these diaries know what happened next. I even mined an early short story for a recent professional sale, and yes, I'll post a link when it's available.
That I had a certain talent for putting words on paper was never in doubt, nor was it the reason that first attempt at a novel was so bad. Neither was the subject of this fledgling effort, which was also my first serious attempt at fan fiction.
"Aha!" I see you thinking. "No wonder Ellid's first book was so bad that the mere thought of it leaves her shaking, lamenting, and sweating so hard she needs to change her socks. Fan fiction! Bah!"
"Bah yourself," I says, says I. "Maybe it has a bad reputation today, but that hasn't always been the case! Some of the greatest literature ever written is fan fiction, you know."
"What what what? Come now, o Queen of Bad Books!" you respond after picking up your lower jaw from the floor of your knotty pine rumpus room/home office. "Surely you of all people should better!"
"No doubt of that," I say, thinking back to some of the works I've tried and attempted to finish over the years. "But consider this. What is The Aeneid but Virgil's attempt to graft the Julian dynasty onto a minor figure from the Trojan War? The Arthurian tales but a fleshing out of stories about a minor British war lord to satisfy the desire of French aristocrats to know what happened next?"
"Wait a minute. You're comparing fanfiction to acknowledged classics? "
"Indeed I am," I declaim, tossing my hair back and striking a pose that sends the Double Felinoid skittering off in all directions. "How many great works are nothing more than reworkings of other stories by earlier authors? Almost all of Shakespeare's non-historical plays took their plots from Holinshed or already popular Italian romances, you know. And how many brand new books about King Arthur, or Sherlock Holmes, or Dracula, are published even today?"
"When you put it that way - "
"Wasn't one of the most popular chivalric romances of the Baroque era, Amadis de Gaula, continued by nearly twenty writers over nearly the entire 16th century? How is that any different from the Star Trek Kraith stories?"
"Wait, that's not the same thing, one is literature and the other is - it's fan fiction! It's worthless!"
"Why? Some of the Amadis continuations are pretty unreadable today. Ditto parts of Orlando Furioso, which is a Renaissance take on the old French stories about Roland, or The Faerie Queene, which is at least in part an English recasting of Orlando Furioso to glorify Gloriana. Why are these considered literature and Kraith not?"
"Because those works may borrow, but they aren't actually set in the same universe the way fanfiction is! Someone else came up with the Enterprise and its crew!"
I put my hands on my hips and glare at you the same way I glare at the Double Felinoid when they drink from the toilet bowl. "Dude. Seriously. Gene Roddenberry based Captain Kirk on Horatio Hornblower. Not only that, he pitched the show as 'Wagon Train to the Stars.' Tell me again how original this is?"
You gulp. "But - but - "
"Didn't Geraldine Brooks win a Pulitzer Prize for a novel that is nothing more than a retelling of Little Women from the point of view of Mr. March?"
There is a pause. "Uh. You have a point," you mumble, and slink away before I go completely crazy attempting to keep this ridiculous conceit going way past its sell-by date. I stand triumphantly on the field, hair streaming back in the breeze, sword in hand, shield on my arm, and -
Wow. I really should have some coffee, shouldn't I?
Anyway, I was saying before my lack of mildly psychoactive liquid refreshment completely derailed this introduction, the mere fact that my first novel was fanfiction wasn't why it was terrible. The idea (what happens when a human overpowers and rapes a Vulcan), which arose pretty much whole and intact after I read Susan Brownmiller's Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, isn't intrinsically awful; I still haven't seen much exploring the idea of an alien from a planet with rigid gender roles and strictly regulated sexual activity having to deal with the aftermath of being sexually assaulted by a human, and I would love to see a Star Trek novel that actually took this on.
No, my book was terrible because I was sixteen, had no idea of how to pace or structure a novel, and was still emotionally frozen after my father's death a few years earlier. I wrote it as much because I needed an outlet to keep myself from thinking of that awful day as anything else, and it wasn't until much, much later that I had either the skill or the experience of life to write a novel-length piece without making a complete hash of it. Eventually I would heal enough, and write enough, and live enough, that I could write something that long that made sense, but my little fan novel wasn't it.
My first novel did have one virtue, though: every single word of it was mine. Oh, I may have borrowed the setting and the characters from Star Trek, and the plot may have been what they used to call "a dog's dinner," but the actual writing? The words on paper? All mine. It took me the better part of a year, and though I'm not sure how many words it was, at the end I had something that filled up several notebooks, contained eighteen chapters, and had a beginning, middle, and end.
And as I said, the writing, every single word scrawled in my terrible handwriting into a college-ruled notebook while my mother slept in the next room, was mine, all mine. For good or ill, the story was my work, from beginning to end.
That's more than some fan writers, including adults who should know better, can say.
For all that fan fiction has a long and surprisingly distinguished history, it is still subject to Sturgeon's Law: 90% of it is crap. The exact reason for this can range from lack of skill to using a trope that's been done to death to wrenching an element that works really well in one fandom and wedging it into one where it doesn't (Polyjuice Potion only works in Harry Potter, so please don't hand it to Man-Bat and expect it to do diddly squat, okay?), but most of the time it's simple lack of skill.
These are all understandable, and logical. A lot of fic writers are youngsters doing the equivalent of art students copying a Rembrandt or musicians warming up with five finger exercises. I'm more than happy to give these writers a pass, because God knows I'm one of them.
And then there are the plagiarists.
I'm not talking about the mere act of fan writers using someone else's characters and settings. We call that "playing in someone else's sandbox," which means that there's no attempt to claim that the recognizable elements in the story as one's own work for fun and profit; if I really did own Lieutenant Uhura, Remus Lupin, or Steve Rogers, let me assure you, at the very least I'd be driving a much newer car. No, I'm talking about fan writers basically appropriating someone else's work - original characters, plots, dialogue, descriptive passages - as their own, either in fandom or professionally.
The most notorious recent example of this is a woman who writes under the name of Cassandra Clare (originally "Claire" in fannish circles). She's hit and hit big for her original fiction, most notably the The Mortal Instruments series, but before that she was a Harry Potter fan writer who was best known for writing a witty trilogy about Draco Malfoy. This series, which began with Draco Dormiens, was extremely popular until word got out that the author had quoted many, many, many passages, scenes, and dialogue from TV series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Newsradio, or from the works of fantasy writer Pamela Dean. None of these "homages" was properly attributed until after the physical waste splatted into the ceiling fan, and the resulting fan war was the sort of epic battle that would have delighted the authors of Amadis de Gaula if only actual weapons had been involved.
Clare, who oddly enough lives in the same town where I work, did manage to power past this early setback; she rewrote much of the non-original work, got permission to use one segment from a professional novel, and learned how to cite her borrowings correctly. She also stood as a a warning, and an example, to other fan writers of how badly things could go wrong; Clare's nascent career was almost derailed by her wholesale appropriation of other people's words, but given that the impulse behind fan fiction is to create new stories about beloved characters, cribbing your dialogue, plots, and minor characters from a television series/book/movie actually doesn't make much sense.
It's particularly true now, when even the worst and weakest property has a fanbase and huge multi-fandom story sites like Archive of Our Own make it easy for Firefly fans to see what's happening with their buddies who write Blackadder fics, who in turn are just finishing up a crossover fest involving every actor who's ever played Sherlock Holmes, which of course leads to crackfic where the steampunk version of the great detective from Guy Ritchie's movies meets Tony Stark, and....
Ahem. Sorry about that. I clearly still need caffeine.
As I was saying, most fan writers tend to be pretty careful about their sources and inspirations, both because they don't want to attract the attention of a major studio's highly skilled and even more highly paid legal department, partly because, well, it's not nice. It's also a fine way to bring down the wrath of those top-notch attorneys, who might or might not be willing to confine their cease and desist letters to one or two authors once they start reading. Trust me, wrecking an entire hobby for thousands and thousands of people would destroy your fannish reputation in a way that would make the the eruption of Mount Krakatoa look like the merest geological burp.
Tonight I bring you two such examples. One, a professional editor who should have known better, offered her fan novel for sale in attempt to earn some actual cash money for herself. The second, who was young enough to get a pass ofr her misdeeds, nonetheless managed to combine extreme youth, extreme stupidity, and extreme borrowing to get her non-original work between covers:
Another Hope, by Lori Jareo - Lori Jareo should have known better.
The co-owner of WordTech Communications, a publisher company specializing in poetry, Jareo was a long time Star Wars fan who had written a fan novel called Another Hope. This book, which was basically a rewrite of Star Wars IV: A New Hope that focused on minor characters such as Princess Leia's parents, a technician on the Death Star, and other denizens of George Lucas's universe, had been offered as a free downloadable PDF on Jareo's personal website.
This is not an uncommon practice in fannish circles; a lot of archives offer writers the option of posting their work in formats like MOBI, PDF, or E-Pub so that readers can download favorite stories to their phones or e-readers. So far, Jareo, who'd been a professional editor and publisher since 1998, had done nothing any more noteworthy than any of her fellow fic writers.
And then, in an act that is pretty much the dictionary definition of "hubris," Jareo decided that since the book was "not a commercial project" and had been written for her own amusement, it didn't violate Lucasfilm's copyrights. And since people clearly were downloading and reading Another Hope from her website, why shouldn't she make a little money along the way?
She should have known better. She really should have.
Alas, Lori Jareo may have been a publisher, but intellectual property law was another matter entirely. Not only did she self-publish Another Hope...not only did she offer it for commercial sale on her company's web site..
She posted the book on Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and Powell's web sites.
This inexcusable blunder, which led to author/blogger John Scalzi anointing Jareo as the "stupidest fanfic writer of 2006," caused a media firestorm. The story was taken up by major media outlets including Publisher's Weekly, NPR, and the wire services, and it was no surprise to anyone when Jareo received a cease and desist letter from Lucasfilm informing her that she'd crossed the line from fair use/parody to copyright violation by offering her book for sale.
It was also not a surprise when fan writers, virtually all of whom had had it beaten into them as soon as they started posting fics that you never, ever, EVER ask for money in exchange for your work unless it's solely to cover copy and printing costs, collectively rose their wrath and ripped Jareo a new one. She had committed the cardinal sin of attracting media attention to her hobby, and with it the dangerous possibility of a major media property that had hitherto ignored fanfiction deciding that unauthorized fiction about Luke, Leia, Chewie, and their friends
much of it better than junk like the Star Wars Holiday Special could no longer be tolerated.
Needless to say, Another Hope disappeared from Jareo's website, Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and Powell's in short order. Jareo herself stopped writing fan fiction, or at least stopped writing it under any of her previous pseudonyms, and fortunately for Star Wars writers, Lucasfilm decided that this was good enough for them and let the matter drop.
Strangely enough, Jareo's publishing company has made a name for both quality and professionalism. Its authors include several state poetry laureates and other award-winners, with approximately forty titles coming into print each year. There is no hint that anyone connected with the company has ever even heard of fanfiction, let alone attempted to circumvent American copyright law to publish a fan novel.
To quote a character from another famous media property, "Fascinating."
Laura L'immortelle, by Marie-Pier Côté - this novel, published in Canada in 2007, had what was perhaps the story of the year. The intriguing tale of a woman who could not die except under very specific circumstances, it was an urban fantasy with a backstory even more interesting than that of its heroine, Laura:
Its author, Marie-Pier Côté, was all of twelve when she wrote it.
That's right. Twelve.
Now, it's true that most writers don't write for publication until they've actually gone through puberty (nor should they, rare exceptions like Daisy Ashford aside), but there have been very young authors who've produced good work. Mary Shelley was only nineteen when she wrote Frankenstein, after all. At the same time, Marie-Pier's talent, which had previously run to four or five page short stories, seemingly had vaulted directly from juvenilia to professional quality without the usual fumbling, bad first drafts, or rewriting. It was a truly remarkable situation, but since Marie-Pier's proud parents swore they hadn't written a word, the publisher accepted Laura L'immortelle at face value and publicized it accordingly.
Then someone noticed that the basic idea - a race of immortals walking amongst us, coming together or battling each other as necessary with the ultimate goal of only one survivor - was very, very similar to that of the Sean Connery film Highlander. "It's a little troubling," one editor was quoted as saying, which would have been funny if it hadn't been clear that not only had he not seen the film (or any of its sequels, or the long-running television based on it, or any of the tie-in novels or comics), not a single person on his staff had noticed that their little prodigy had basically submitted a fan story for publication.
Then, if that weren't bad enough, a male French computer engineer named Frédéric Jeorge read Laura L'immortelle and realized that not only was it based on Highlander, it was based on "Des cendres et du vent," a Highlander fan novel he'd written in 2001 or thereabouts.
Marie-Pier's parents and publishers, horrified, immediately questioned their little authoress. She readily admitted that her book was pretty much Jeorge's story, only with the names and a couple of minor details changed. She'd thought that this alone was enough to make the book her original work, and truly hadn't realized that she'd committed plagiarism until the merde hit le ventilateur.
Needless to say, the publisher immediately yanked the book from the stores, although a few precious copies can be found for sale from time to time. Frédéric Jeorge, who had been more bemused by the whole mess than anything else, received the equivalent of $4,500 as compensation, while the Côtés refunded the remainder of the $30,000 advance. I haven't been able to track down what Marie-Pier herself did for an encore, but given that she's all of nineteen or twenty, it's likely that she's either working or in university. Whether she's still writing or reading fanfiction is a mystery, but if she is, she's certainly not doing it under her own name.
Have any of your read fanfiction? Written it? Own a battered Star Trek fanzine from the 1970's? Seen one at a convention? We're all friends here, so don't be shy.....
Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule:
|DAY||TIME (EST/EDT)||Series Name||Editor(s)|
|SUN||6:00 PM||Young Reader's Pavilion||The Book Bear|
|2:00 PM||What's on Your E-Reader?||Caedy|
|2:00 PM||Bibliophile's Wish List||Caedy|
|Sun||9:30 PM||SciFi/Fantasy Book Club||quarkstomper|
|Bi-Monthly Sun||Midnight||Reading Ramblings||don mikulecky|
|MON||8:00 PM||Monday Murder Mystery||michelewln, Susan from 29|
|Mon||11:00 PM||My Favorite Books/Authors||edrie, MichiganChet|
|TUES||5:00 PM||Indigo Kalliope: Poems from the Left||bigjacbigjacbigjac|
|alternate Tuesdays||8:00 AM||LGBT Literature||Texdude50, Dave in Northridge|
|alternate Tuesdays||8:00 AM||All Things Bookstore||Dave in Northridge|
|Tue||8:00 PM||Contemporary Fiction Views||bookgirl|
|Wed||2:00 PM||e-books||Susan from 29|
|Wed||8:00 PM||Bookflurries Bookchat||cfk|
|THU||8:00 PM||Write On!||SensibleShoes|
|Thu (first each month)||11:00 AM||Monthly Bookpost||AdmiralNaismith|
|alternate Thursdays (on hiatus)||11:00 PM||Audiobooks Club||SoCaliana|
|FRI||8:00 AM||Books That Changed My Life||Diana in NoVa|
|alternate Fridays||8:00 PM||Books Go Boom!||Brecht|
|Fri||10:00 PM||Slightly Foxed -- But Still Desirable||shortfinals|
|SAT (fourth each month)||11:00 AM||Windy City Bookworm||Chitown Kev|
|Sat||12:00 PM||You Can't Read That! Paul's Book Reviews||pwoodford|
|Sat||9:00 PM||Books So Bad They're Good||Ellid|