Thursday, May 6, 2010

I Write: A Response to Diana Gabaldon

A friend of mine directed me to this post by Diana Gabaldon, who I understand is a successful authoress, about her objection to fanfiction. Her main points boil down to the following: it's illegal, it takes control of the material from the original author, and omg-ew-yuck-what-are-you-doing-to-my-characters.

Fanfiction is not my first choice for entertainment. I find it incredibly difficult to sift though fanfics to find stuff I really enjoy, and I imagine it's like an editor's slush pile. (So, I let other more dedicated people than I do my work for me.) I'm also a fan of reading an authour for their own personal writing style, not just what was written, but how. I've got no guarantee this same experience will be reproduced when I read fanfic. I've written fanfic before, and while it's a pleasant exercise, I don't do it often for reasons of my own I'll explain later.

She brings up the International Copyright Law, which states that anything an authour creates belongs to them. Any derivative works, which fanfic is, are illegal. However, this is often ignored, especially by major industries, which allow fanfic to proliferate. Partly because since fan works are rarely commercial, and thus, the copyright holders lose no money through allowing them. Partly because fan works help promote the original work. Partly because it's a pain in the ass to have to chase down every fanfic authour, and let's face it: it'd be a form of bullying. So yes, derivative works are illegal, but they are so in order to protect the owners of the original source. I find it very difficult to believe that most authours require such protection.

There's also the argument that riffing off someone else's work implies a lack of creativity and insecurity in one's own work, that one is using the material as a crutch, rather than creating one's own story. This is true and not true. Personally, a few of my stories have started out as fanfic, and became so unrecognizable from the source material, I realized it would be ridiculous to maintain the same names, and changed them anyway. I wrote these for my friends, who were delighted to see what new and strange forms their favourite characters took in my stories. 

However, writing using source material and staying true to said source material is challenging for some. It is a great exercise in reading and grasping the nuances of a character from the original source, which in turn makes the best fanfic writers very good readers... and eventually very good writers. There is a world in place already; writing within that universe can be very limiting, but helpful in maintaining the discipline of characterization. Of course, not all fanfic does this, and much is gratuitously written to what the readers feel the universe should be like. I'll get back to this.

The most laughable parts of her argument involve comparisons to family members - writing fanfic about her characters is apparently like trying to seduce her husband. Receiving fanfic in her mail is like receiving a story from a middle-aged neighbour detailing what he would do to her twenty-one-year-old daughter. 

The problem with this analogy is that stories are not real people. If I were to flirt with Mr. Gabaldon, he has every right to reject me. A human being has that choice to walk away from being part of something they don't want to be. A story doesn't. A story cannot impose itself on a real person. 

Stories are meant for consumption. They are meant to go out into the world into the hearts of others, who will germinate them as they will, spreading themselves further. Perhaps it is a sign that the oral tradition is truly dead that authours jealously cling to their works and announce that no one else is  to change a single word without their permission.

At best, stories are our children. But we don't control what happens to our children as they go out into the world, get their own ideas, discover their own opinions, shape themselves into the human beings they will become. We just don't. To do so is to deny them the length and breadth of their humanity, the potential stretching beyond them. This doesn't happen to stories, though.

Stories change but not of their own volition, because they are not their own; they have makers and shapers. They are ideas condensed into accessible forms that can be processed and transmitted to others. Ideas change and shift with the times and with the peoples whose hands they fall into. 

When an authour writes a story, zie is creating. Building. Giving a work legs and wings. An authour has a responsibility to ensure that hir creation is a good one, because it is done for the world. When an authour has released hir stories out to the world, zie can only sit back and wait to hear back from the world. 

Art is transformative. Good art will transform the reader. Who may be inspired to transform the art in return. Who may transform yet someone else. The interaction between minds and art is a tenuous thread that nonetheless leaves behind a mark. It is changeable; it changes. And this is part of why we enjoy art.

Many such transformed and transformative works have been produced over the ages. Can we name who the first sonneteer was? No, but the form has persisted. If Petrach had been living today, he would be so rich, since he could patent the sonnet form named after him, and be paid royalties. Do we acknowledge Paradise Lost as capital-l Literature? Most schools certainly would, but it is essentially Bible fanfiction. So on, so forth, have works been thus changed, re-interpreted, re-released into the world for fresh eyes and times. 

But according to Diana Gabaldon, such transformations are immoral. A work is what it is; it is static and has a specific image, and re-interpretations will confuse would-be fans. As I've mentioned before, reading the source material and reading a fan's interpretation can be very different experiences... but it is hardly immoral.

If an authour wants to draw an arbitrary line on how readers can consume their work, that\s perfectly acceptable. If fanfiction makes an authour uncomfortable, all they generally have to do is say so. True fans would take note, and just not create any. But to claim it is immoral is a fairly hefty judgement call, and in this case, made with little knowledge of how fan communities work. It is heavy-handed to slap a denigrating label like that on whole groups of people who, for all intents and purposes, do not hurt anybody.

I think anti-choice protesters are immoral. I think tea baggers are immoral. I think many people in charge of great organizations immoral. Because their actions and decisions affect real people, in harmful ways.

Fanfiction writers... don't do this. Not even remotely.

Diana Gabaldon's main objection to fanfiction seems to be that she does not want people coming to her work through an interpretation of another; that she wants to preserve the original form of her work. That she's uncomfortable with fan interpretations - particularly of the pornographic kind. All of which are very fair reasons. I, too, am uncomfortable re-interpreting someone else's creation, unless there is room in canon for that (my most recent fanfiction have been "historical fiction" within the Girl Genius universe), and whilst I do write fanfic for gratuitous sex, I also work hard to flesh out the characters the best I can. However, I do end up creating huge spin-off works of my own that are better developed into their own stories. Fanfic possibilities are thus my stepping stone for other stories.

However, with the pronouncement of fanfiction as immoral, Diana Gabaldon has not only made her wishes clear with regards to her own work, but painted an entire segment of fans as criminal. 

Looking through the comments, I'm seeing variations of the Tone Argument held up against Gabaldon. I personally don't think Gabaldon comes across as whiny, but her comparison between fanfic writers and potential rapists is deeply insulting - to fans, to survivors, and to any decent person who can tell the difference between a regular person out to have fun and a sociopath out to hurt others. It minimizes their experiences, and trivializes the very real issue of sexual assault and rape. 

As of today, Gabaldon has yet to apologize for this comparison. If she really does believe that fanfic writers are a kind of rapist, and does not redact her words, and does not apologize... that is truly immoral.

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