Tuesday, April 3, 2012

On Fan Fiction

I alluded to this idea in a comment to a previous post, but I think it deserves some expansion. My gut feeling is that fan fiction is probably terrible and something Star Wars fanboys and fangirls do so they can satisfy their repressed sexual urges through depictions of gratuitous pornographic renderings involving Princess Lea and Jabba The Hut, scenes they write while sitting under the dim glow of a single bulb hanging from the ceiling of their parents' basement, their fingers caked with residue from the bag of Funyons they've devoured and sticky with Slurpy runoff, the Big Gulp-size, none of this medium stuff. Of course, this stigma—which let's be honest isn't something original or unique to me—applies not just to Star Wars geeks, but Star Trek geeks or Harry Potter geeks or Twilight geeks or Jurassic Park geeks or just geeks in general, because to be a geek (and I'm a HUGE geek for many geeky things) is to be slightly obsessed with something, and writing fan fiction, taking someone else's story and feeling compelled to expand it or turn its margins into a new narrative center, is itself a function of obsession, and necessarily so. You have to be obsessed with The Lord of the Rings if you write LOTR fan fiction. There's no way around it.

Artists don't fancy themselves geeks. They don't want to associate with geeks or even be lumped into the general class of Geekdom, along with these aforementioned fan-fiction geeks. How can they be geeks when they are busy communicating with higher powers, dancing with muses to create truly authentic works of emotional expression? Unless they're being ironic, in which case they can be as cheeky as they like because they're doing so earnestly to make some larger point about how absurd something is. For instance, I don't think there would be any debate over the artistic merits of a literary work that somehow used fan fiction in an ironic way—perhaps by creating a character that writes fan fiction or an author whose work is appropriated into fan fiction. Artists love being Earnest and Sincere, and for some reason, a reason I believe is tied to the caricature I earlier portrayed, fan fiction just isn't seen as being earnest and sincere. It is automatically relegated to the geek.

This, of course, is bullshit. There is nothing inherently inartistic about fan fiction. There is nothing that makes art inspired by other art necessarily bad.

The problem is that this type of work is perceived as being terrible. True, it is perceived this way because most of it is, by any reasonable standard, absolutely, mortifyingly dreadful. But not necessarily so. After all, how is fan fiction different from Run DMC sampling and appropriating Aerosmith? By sampling "Walk This Way," Run DMC wasn't dismissed as ruining the original intent of the sampled work and thus relegated to the class of shitty cover bands playing dive bars across America, a wasteland reserved for wannabe hacks with no talent, a place to which we automatically banish writers of fan fiction. Not at all. Run DMC tore up MTV and secured a place in American pop-culture history. Why, then, could a piece of fan fiction not achieve the same end? Why couldn't someone write a truly inspired and inspiring piece of fiction based characters created by someone else?

The answer of course, at least to me, is that fan fiction certainly could do these things. And if it could do them, then I'm hesitant to dismiss the entire form without considering the merits of each individual work. Some fan fiction will be good. Most of it will be bad. Just like every other form of fiction.

As long as we apply the same critical lenses to fan fiction as we apply to traditional forms, everything should be okay because the awful stuff will get filtered out while the good stuff will receive fair treatment.

I'm fairly confident I could write some killer fan fiction using the same techniques and craft tools I've cultivated in my pursuit of traditional literary fiction. In many ways I already do. Every sentence I write is somehow inspired by Philip Roth, or Sam Lipsyte, or Jack Kerouac, or David Foster Wallace, or any of the other writers I shamelessly crib in my day-to-day life as a writer. Fan fiction is just overt about the theft. The crime, however, remains the same, which seems to make it less criminal.

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