Memoir of a Life in Fandom Part 3: Fan Fiction- Worthwhile Hobby, or Waste of Time?

Part One | Part Two

After the frenzy of stupidness that followed my first few months online, I cooled my heels on fan fiction for a while. Like Fifty Shades of Grey, my first contribution to the world of literature was my own gratuitous fantasy, a piece of my soul, and being a total neophyte to my writing being read by strangers, I didn’t realize just how transparent a gratuitous fantasy it was. I think, to be fair, most if not all writers go through this phase in some way shape or form. For girls, it’s usually the Mary Sue who falls in love with (strong male character). For boys, they tend to write themselves into a sort of hero’s journey narrative (I’m looking at you, Christopher Paolini. And Linkara).

Although I laughed it off at first, the person who called me out on what unoriginal dreck my first fic was really did hurt my feelings, and I realized… yes. This is really bad. I deleted it. Besides, by this point the first Lord of the Rings movie had come out, and boy howdy did every single one of us, Antonella, Kristen, Angie and me, drop Phantom like a bag of half-masks. All of us, of course, except that Leroux snob Lisa, who I continued to talk to for some reason.

I was REALLY into Lord of the Rings.

Though I wish I could say the worst was behind me in terms of fan fiction, after deleting the Phantom Mary Sue fic, the first thing I put up was a fun, gratuitous romp where the four hobbits of the Fellowship got somehow thrown forward in time… and landed in New York City! Just like Enchanted! And then they made friends with three college girls at NYU!

…..yeeaaaahhh. I was totally out of my self-insert gratuitous fantasy stage. I think I must have realized how awful it was pretty quickly, cause that sucker got deleted well before the second Lord of the Rings movie came out.

My junior year of high school went considerably better than the previous two; I feel like now I can look back and admit that a large part of it was because I no longer reeked of neediness. I had my new awesome friends that drew group self-portraits as us as Phantom-loving Powerpuff Girls. Those new awesome friends made me feel worthwhile, and changed my attitude at school. Suddenly I wasn’t a toxic drain.

Spring break 2002 I talked my mom into taking a trip up to New York to look at NYU; while that was a legitimate goal of mine, the real exciting thing was meeting those New Awesome Friends that shared my interests and made me feel good and included and not terrible and awkward.

The day I met Antonella (in person)

This picture was taken the day Antonella and I met in person for the first time, March 24, 2002 in Times Square. I know this because I lovingly scrapbooked it; I used to do that back in the days of film cameras and effort. To my mother and Antonella’s parents’ credit, they were all very, very good sports about the whole thing.

I also met that Leroux snob Lisa on this trip. Not the best picture of either of us.

Antonella had another friend, we’ll call him Peter, who she went to high school with. He fancied himself a writer, but tolerated our fan-fictiony ways. I think he understood that we were hobbyists, not Serious Writers like him. Although Antonella might have had hopes and dreams to become an author one day, I didn’t. Hell, by that point I was still thinking I might go into musical theater.

HA.

But regardless of what career I might go into, I think by that point I had accepted that I did not have a future in writing if the best I could do was The Phantom of Mary Sues and Hobbits in Manhattan.

I think now that I’ve got some distance and perspective, it wasn’t fan fiction itself that I so often found off-putting, it was the culture that surrounded it. Once the initial novelty wore off, I didn’t really get involved in the social aspects of fandom anymore, and wouldn’t for many years.  I was much more content to watch from the sidelines. But I always had a toe dipped in the world of fan fiction somewhere. Never more than a toe, but a toe.

Fan fiction, familiar as it may be to we Internet dwellers, is extremely niche. Most people you meet out there in the Real World aren’t familiar with it, and if so usually only in concept. I’ve met people who consider this concept a sort of “people’s art.” Hell just the other day I met a guy at a bookstore who said he thought it was really cool that Fifty Shades of Grey was based off of some kind of fanwork. But on the other side, it’s more often considered a punchline, a thing that losers do when they don’t have the talent or inclination to do something better.

These days I read fan fiction so seldomly that if I make it past the first sentence, it must be pretty damn good! (This, my children, is why that first sentence is so important!) But, by and large, fan fiction is seen as a lower art than original fiction. It’s too gratuitous, too derivative, and, to bring that word back, a “shameful” thing that only losers and children do. Contrast the romantic image of the starving novelist, tucked in the furthest corner of his whiskey bottle, tortured by weeks of writer’s block, to the basement dwelling fan fiction writer, Mountain Dew (Code Red) in one hand and a bag of Cheetohs in her lap as she pounds away at her opus. Be ashamed, fan fiction writer. Be very ashamed.

The perception is that fan fiction writers are not looking to hone their craft, but seek comfort in an echo chamber; honestly, for many, I think that is true. It is much easier to find an audience writing fan fiction instead of original work, because you already have a shared interest. But more importantly, it is not a given that you want to improve; you may just want people to heap praises on you for depicting the thing they already like in a manner they prefer. For many, fan fiction is a form of validation and nothing more.

I found this dichotomy very frustrating in my later years, when I did start using fan fiction as a place to practice writing.

Because unlike other practice settings, fan fiction is not meant to be a workshop. Obviously this is not true for everyone, but so many fan fiction writers don’t do what they do to become better writers, they do what they do because they had a gratuitous idea about an established property and wanted to post it on the Internet, while enjoying heaps of praise for minimal effort in the process. Moreover, fan fiction is a hobby, and due to copyright reasons (in most fandoms, anyway), it can never be more than that. Since it can never be more than a hobby, it is looked upon as inferior to original fiction, regardless of quality.

This reinforces two attitudes about writing that I find deeply infuriating:

A) Ideas are invalid if it is expressly derivative of something else.

b) Writing (or anything) is a waste of time if you are not making money off it.

Blech.

Seriously, discard ideas like this right now, and ignore people who tell you this. Their opinion is not useful to you. This is not to say people in the creative arts should not be paid, but to infer that a hobby is inferior or a waste of time just because you don’t aspire to make money from it?

Fan fiction writing is not always a boon to one’s life; it, like many activities, can be all-consuming at the expense of your social life, your job and your future. But it can be an acceptable distraction, and can even help better the individuals in ways they don’t expect. Maybe someone doesn’t have aspirations to be a professional writer, maybe they’re no good at it and their ideas are banal and uninteresting, but as long as it’s not actively making their lives worse, who cares? I’ve heard many people (myself included) be able to say that it actively bettered their lives in some way.

And moreover, hobby writing can be a jumping board into professional writing; Naomi Novik and Cassandra Clare are both very open about this aspect of their lives.

People have very set ideas on what writing is and what it should be, who does it and why they should do it. While we’re on the subject, I’m going to post Amanda Palmer’s TED talk here, wherein she talks about the legitimacy of art and what can be constituted a “real” job.

“Get a real job!” screams the passer-by.

“This is my real job,” she thinks.

At the end of the day, the attitude about most is that fan fiction is not “real.” And, in fairness, for most big fandoms, it cannot be a “job” because the intellectual property is copyrighted. The best you can hope for is a Fifty Shades of Grey-type search-replace (which is a big thing now).

But the thing that has always bothered me the most about the culture of fan fiction is how restrictive it is with genre and labels, in some ways more than the publishing industry. When you buy a published book, you don’t see trigger warnings on the front, or promises for what your prefered gender dynamic (is it m/m, or m/f?), whether there is “hurt/comfort” or “noncon” (the worst term ever, by the way). People come in knowing exactly what they want, and often get all pissy if their expectations are subverted. People even label their endings, whether it’s a happy one or not! People need to know the ending before they start reading! I mean… what? I found that in ways like this fan fiction culture doesn’t encourage creativity, but quite the opposite. And don’t even get me started on “shipping.”

But hey, say some, if what you really want is to be creative, why in God’s name are you writing/reading fan fiction? And true, fan fiction is by its very nature expressly derivative, but that’s not to say it can’t be creative. Also, if it’s a truism for writers that “the first million words are practice,” where better to get in your first million words than in fan fiction, where you’re pretty much guaranteed that at least someone out there will read it?

Some fan fiction writers want to do lots of research, better understand the characters they already know, and become better writers. Others want to flick the bean to Cloud Strife discovering his passion for Sephiroth. But what I have discovered, from my dealings in writing and reading in all its forms, is that all fiction writing is gratuitous in some fashion. From EL James to James Joyce, all of it is gratuitous to the author. Sometimes you’re working with copyrighted characters, sometimes those characters are your own. But I would posit, what is the difference between the comic book fan who grew up to write professionally the same characters she idolized as a child? Money, and intellectual property. Profit and copyright.

What an arbitrary line in the sand to draw when deciding if something is worthwhile or not. Whether or not it’s shameful, whether it’s a totally waste of time, depends on what the individual makes of it.

I can’t remember when exactly I decided I wasn’t a good writer. It must have been a slow crawl, or perhaps it was something I always assumed in the back of my head because of comments I’d gotten on my writing when I was very young. Either way, I knew I wasn’t going to college for writing. Not fiction writing, anyway.

Todd says that as a lad, he applied to many schools, a dozen perhaps. One was even a women’s college he applied to by mistake. This is a thing many an aimless youth do, apparently. Aimless though I was, I applied to only one school, one of the most selective schools in the country. The story of how I convinced my parents to let me do this isn’t inspiring, fun, or even particularly deserved on my part (I was a real entitled shit.) I didn’t even have a backup, or a safety. I put all my eggs in this one basket.  In the end, I didn’t even need a backup.

Awwwwwwwwwwwww yeaaaah.

  • Ethan Prince

    Pity about the formatting (it ate all the quotations marks), I really like this one! Cheers.

  • Sam

    I always enjoy your writing, so the fact that you don’t consider yourself a good writer is a bit bemusing to me. If you’re referring to creative writing, then I truly feel your pain, but as far as effectively and efficiently relaying opinions to an audience goes, you’re quite skilled. Interesting read as always!

  • Disclosure: I write fan fiction in the DC Comic fandom … not as much as I used to because I have a lot of projects going and am working on an actual novel (yes, original characters and everything). I find the “if you aren’t creating the characters yourself, it’s not real writing” to be particularly ridiculous since I write for a fandom where (as you mention towards the end of the post) nearly all of the characters are being written by writers who didn’t create them. While there are other examples in literature, comic book characters in particular are molded and evolve over the years by various creators, many of whom started up as young fans. It’s not the same as fan fic, but it’s certainly similar in thinking about what makes characters what they are and how they are adapted by each new generation. So while I totally get the necessity of copyright, to claim that fan fic is automatically lesser writing for the two reasons you point out are bumpkis is … well, bumpkis.

  • Charles Phipps

    You’re actually a very good writer, Lindsay. Don’t ever think otherwise.

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