The hack-and-slash fiction property market

Monday, 17 December 2007 — 8:17pm | Literature, Tie-ins and fanfic

Sarah Eve Kelly has written a fascinating post on fan fiction’s place in the literary economy—one that, for all its brevity, deserves some measure of attention. Sarah’s piece is a pointed refutation of an article entitled “Valuing the Work in Fanwork”, which makes the bold claim that fan fiction is a subversive means of anti-capitalist resistance—an assertion that is counterintuitive at face value, but worth dismantling anyway.

The substance of the original article’s argument is that the mainstream tends to dismiss fan fiction as an illegitimate activity, or a pointless waste of time, because it is locked into a capitalist mentality that cannot fathom why anyone would invest time in writing freely disseminated fiction they can’t sell. This is silly for a number of reasons, and it reeks of an ex post facto apologia for an activity whose supporters already found worthwhile from the start, but I’ll defer to Sarah’s observations before I lob my own handful of napalm on the pig-pile.

As Sarah correctly notes, “real” writers of original fiction aren’t in it for the profit either; in all but an infinitesimal selection of cases, fiction-writing is an immensely unprofitable activity, the quantitative and qualitative costs of which are grossly out of proportion to the potential financial return. More to the point, writers of original fiction deliberately choose not to post their work all over the Internet willy-nilly like fanfic writers do, because publication and property protection are actually (theoretically) achievable.

Furthermore, fanfic authors by and large don’t write for the end purpose of thumbing their noses at copyright law or the security that intellectual property protections offer the for-profit fiction market:

Beyond this, most people who want to write for a living want to write for a living. There are certain reasons for not wanting to pursue profit for fanfiction, even if such a pursuit were possible: I’ve spoken to people who enjoy the freedom to write what they choose, no matter how small the audience, to people who don’t want to feel the pressure of deadlines and quality control. But if copyright allowed, a market for fanfiction would exist. Who amongst its authors would actually turn the money down, given the option?

Okay, now it’s my turn.

First of all, I have no philosophical opposition against fan fiction, though I personally have little interest in reading or writing it. It would be quite hypocritical of me to oppose fanfic in principle: as a jazz musician, what I do all the time is participate in creating spontaneous derivations of copyrighted works. I’m just not allowed to sell them on records without permission. It’s a nuisance, but considering how much clout you need to press a commercial record in the first place, it’s not an issue. The classic jazz standards will live on as long as total strangers can get together and jam over tunes they collectively know, and I don’t see how fanfic is all that different, or how it is particularly threatened by the current state of copyright law.

With that out of the way: I find it utterly baffling that the author’s anti-property screed, along with its sycophantic responses, remain blind to the transparently obvious irony that fanfic communities only exist in the first place as the byproduct of a commercial entity. There wouldn’t be an audience for Harry Potter fan fiction, or a community of speculative writers to that effect, if the J.K. Rowling novels were not widely established in the popular consciousness as a shared basis of knowledge, a “canon” as they call it. And as much as I sing the praises of the Potter novels for the quality of their storytelling, it is the publishing business that made them popular—not the literary merit of the books, which is merely one variable in the publishing industry’s table of cost-benefit formulae.

Fan fiction only thrives on the widespread popularity of its source material. That’s why you don’t see fan fiction based on the novels of, say, Michael Ondaatje (and yes, I checked Google just to make sure). It isn’t because nobody wants to chronicle the Continuing Adventures of Hana and Caravaggio; it’s because Ondaatje’s fiction, while highly salable and widely acclaimed, doesn’t have the colossal market presence of a full-fledged franchise. And without an audience to validate his or her work—a community with a shared cultural literacy in its own internally consistent universe—the fanfic writer’s satisfaction will only ever be private.

(I’ll concede the air of a counterexample: Jean Rhys did write and sell Wide Sargasso Sea, which was effectively a Jane Eyre fanfic, if we are to put it crudely. The author of “Valuing the Work in Fanwork” belongs to a movement called the Organization for Transformative Works, which believes that fan fiction should be offered the same legal protection. Ethan Zuckerman provides a succinct digest which I don’t feel the need to supersede.)

That said, I can certainly sympathize with concerns about the overzealous enforcement of property rights, and I see no reason why fanfic need be suppressed. One could make the argument that the free proliferation of fanfic competes with licensed fiction, as when the Fleming estate commissions current authors to write “official” James Bond novels, and diminishes the profitability of that particular line of business. I think the marketing muscle of publishing companies more than compensates for any disadvantage in that arena: one only needs to look at the Star Wars Expanded Universe, which established an officially sanctioned extension to the continuity of the George Lucas films and sold well enough to earn a blind following of fans all too happy to write within its imaginative constraints, in spite of being almost uniformly terrible in quality.

It would be far too simplistic, however, to do away with serial rights in a single stroke. DC Comics doesn’t care if you put up a drawing of Batman on a personal website, but the sustainability of its core business depends on its exclusive privilege to restrict who has access to the commercial means of Batproduction. In comic books, as in McFiction, everything is farmed out to a licensed selection of individual artists (for better or for worse). But think of how low the quality of officially legitimized work would have to be for fanfic to pose a credible threat in the marketplace. I’m not sure it’s even possible.

But even if we accept that fan fiction constitutes fair use, as we probably should, it is especially haughty of the fanfic community to imagine itself as a merry band of revolutionaries. They depend far too much on the publishing superstructure to follow their ostensible upheaval to its dialectic conclusion.

Post scriptum: I confess to making a short-lived and abortive attempt at fan fiction in high school, as much out of ennui as a general disdain for the quality of the work derived from the Star Wars universe, officially licensed or otherwise. I won’t claim that I was any good either, but there is something quaint about my attempt to imagine Star Wars as written by William Shakespeare, a playwright about whom I evidently knew very little at the time:

LEIA
Darth Vader. Only you could be so bold
As to our diplomatic vessel hold.

VADER
Act not surprised so, my dear Princess.
A mercy mission this is not, confess.
Transmissions beamed aboard by Rebel spies
Art here. Now fill my ears not with more lies,
And tell me the location of the plans,
So they may be return’d to rightful hands.

LEIA
I am but here on diplomatic task,
In ignorance of what thou doth here ask.

VADER
Of a Rebel force, thou play’st a part;
A traitor, that is ev’rything thou art.

I recently discovered that Simon B. Jones independently stumbled upon the same idea. His execution is far truer to the Shakespearean flavour, though he begins with the Prequels, and takes the further step of translating Lucasian technology into the Elizabethan equivalents of the age of sail.

Although my own ambitions as a writer have long departed from the course of fan fiction (a trajectory to which I was never committed in the first place), I may revisit my little project one day, if only because of the following passage was rather promising:

[Enter ARTOO and THREEPIO.]

THREEPIO
How we are in this mess, I knowest not;
Of suffering, in life it be our lot.
I’ve got to rest before apart I fall
Or frozen shalt my joints become withal.
A desolation lies before mine eyes;
I thinkest not thy chosen path be wise
For rockiness impedes the road ahead,
The ease of which has little to be said.
Thou seeketh settlements beyond? I plea
That thou doth not get technical with me.
And what of thine alleged mission here?
Malfunction in a day thou shalt, O near
Of sighted scrap-pile! Let me not catch thee
For help thou shan’t receive, make a decree.
No more adventures! I’ll not go that way.

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