discussions genre stuff

Fan Fiction – Updates

Some extra coverage of all the fan fiction brouhaha.

Nick Mamatas declares George R.R. Martin to be wrong on Lovecraft:

Leaving aside the “issue” of fan fiction in general, Martin’s most egregious errors deal with Lovecraft. I’m sure other people will flense Martin about the tangled mess of his various claims, but I’ll step up for the old man. Martin’s tubthumping is bad enough without grabbing Lovecraft’s corpse by the ankles, giving it a shake and going, “Boogah boogah! Every time you write a Harry Potter fan fiction, God starves a racist to death!” (If only!) Martin’s errors are three:

a. Lovecraft did not “lose control” of his copyrights because he allowed other writers to make reference to characters in his stories.

b. Lovecraft did not die in poverty because of this loss of copyrights.

c. If anything, the unclear provenance of Lovecraft’s copyrights after his death (when they would have done him little good anyway) is what kept Lovecraft’s work in print and vital to this day.

Martin writes a general follow-up post:

A number of commenters suggested that I was wrong in my assertion that copyrights need to be defended, and suggested that I was confusing copyrights with trademarks. Perhaps so. This was raised often enough that it is obviously something I need to look into further. There were also posters who agreed with what I wrote, however, including some who identified themselves as lawyers or law students, so I don’t think the issue is as clear cut as the “trademark” folks are claiming. I’ll investigate this, and if I was wrong about this, I will come back here and say so (eventually, this is not my top priority in life). If I was right, I’ll come back and mention that as well.

ERB v HPL. I never said that allowing others to play with the Cthulhu mythos was the ONLY reason Lovecraft died in poverty. Actually, I am a huge Lovecraft fan, and not much of a Burroughs fan at all (though Melinda Snodgrass and I did once work on the screenplay for A PRINCESS OF MARS). I know a lot about HPL. His work has been hugely influential on modern horror. But my point stands. I could write a Cthulhu Mythos novel tomorrow, and I would not have to pay a dime to any Lovecraft estate (if such exists) or get their permission. I would never dare write a Barsoom novel, though surely PRINCESS is in the public domain by now. (The later John Carter and Tarzan novels may still be under copyright).

Speculative Horizons goes back to the core and declares fan fiction to be pointless:

If you want to be a writer, write your own material. A lot of people have argued they write fanfic to develop their writing ability, but I think you’ll improve much more quickly and to a greater extent if you’re creating your own characters. After all, characters are the heart of every story, and pissing about with characters that someone else has devised and developed isn’t going to help you develop a strong grasp of characterization. And yeah, perhaps by writing fanfic you can develop your skills in other aspects of writing – but you can do so equally well by writing your own original material.

As for the reading side of things, I just don’t get it. I don’t have enough time to read all the ‘proper’ books I’ve got sitting on my living room table, let alone time to trawl through countless poorly-written, ill-conceived fanfic. Furthermore, fanfic isn’t canon – so what’s the point? You’re reading stories about events that – as far as the original creator of the world/characters is concerned – never happened. So why bother? I just can’t see the sense of it.

No matter what angle I look at it, ‘serious’ fanfic just appears to me to be masturbation in prose form.

To be honest, the more I think about it, the less I care about the whole subject. It’s nothing I’m interested in doing myself, and people can do what the hell they want, even with homebrew RPGs perhaps. If it remains harmless, then that’s cool, it’s all part of continuing stories in people’s heads.

EDIT: Book Smugglers point to Cory Doctorow’s old article in praise of fan fiction.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

4 replies on “Fan Fiction – Updates”

What a strange fist fight being waged in the ethernet over this odd topic.

I think there is more than a whiff of juvenilia about most “fanfic” even as there is a tendency towards reactionary paranoia about it on the part of authors who are opposed to the practice.

I don’t agree that it is a gateway to learning how to be a writer. The comparison with artists who study and copy the masters in painting and sculpture is a poor one. A painter draws while learning his craft, from life, including still lives, architecture, and even from photos. A great work is just another example of this, but there has also always been a darker current as well to such practices.

Many of those artists who copied the work of other masters (not uncommonly in the workshops of the very same artists), were not necessarily innocent of passing off these lesser works of art as those of the original masters, both with or without consent. This was not simply a training exercise but a very lucrative trade both in antiquity and even today where it can cause much consternation among collectors. All in all, I’d say this is shaky ground on which to construct an argument favourable of fan fiction, as Cory Doctorow has done.

A writer draws from life as well as from the mind, and there are no shortage of such subjects without needing to plunder what others have already created in way of their own characters and settings.

The creation of characters and the worlds they inhabit, are the very brushstrokes and clay of which great writing is formed. Characterization is among the most important, as many others have already mentioned, and can make or break of story. To use someone else’s is akin to copying using a plaster mould not merely studying and recreating using eye and hand in the case of a statue of David. The sculptor must still make the form using his own skill, much as he would if he studied a live model to do so.

Like the other arts, there is a fine line as well between what is done for personal pleasure and what is done to rip off ideas from another, more creative artist. Dickens suffered this predation during his life, and bitterly complained that his stories were often “finished” by others and distributed for their own commercial gain (and at least as frustrating, at a much poorer level of competence, bringing his own name and creations into disrepute) before he had even completed them himself, a phenomena by no means limited to Dickens or even his age.

But even ignoring this worrisome aspect which clings to the unlicensed use of other’s literary creations, I always have found the urge towards writing myself into another’s world to be the stuff of childish diversion, rather than the mature output of one’s own creativity. Even shared worlds I freely admit, I eye with a mixture of benign suspicion: better to build your own sandbox than borrow another’s.

Of course we can all enjoy daydreaming about involving ourselves in the lives of our favourite characters and literary worlds -that’s what childhood is about to a great degree -who has ever read Treasure Island and not imagined themselves there in Jim’s place, but as writers, I think it’s generally a poor substitute for developing our own voices and our own stories. What I love most about writing is developing my own characters and worlds, in which my mind can not only roam but create out of whole cloth as I go. Perhaps not everyone feels this pull, but I can’t imagine writing something of worth without it.

Like those who champion fanfic, I frequently borrow from myth and fable, movies, and absolutely, from the stories and writing styles of other great writers who have picked up the pen long before me, and I weave echos of these things into my own stories, consciously and unconsciously. But these are nods and subtle tips of the hat, to cultural and literary references which allow a richer sub-text to be tucked into the original ideas which I am most proud of, not as something to take their place. It’s a fine distinction, true, but I would argue it’s an important one.

I would always urge those who wish to write, to write. Write about their own lives, write about their own worlds, and above all, discover what it is to create a landscape of original characters and stories which with hard graft come alive like no others. I think that this will improve a student’s writing, alongside voracious reading, like nothing else can in this world, or any number of imagined ones.


Seems like it’s always the writers of tedious sprawling serials that get the most worried/affonted by fanfic, although of course they’re the ones most likely to “fall victim” to it. By the time someone – even without pretentions of being a Proper Writer – has read five bricklike books of the same story/characters, they’re gonna feel like they might be able to write it themselves. You reap what you sow.

Perhaps if these authors weren’t as reliant on one universe or, more to the point, one set of characters, they’d not be as protective of them. “YOU LEAVE MY GOLDEN GOOSE ALONE, IT’S GOT A WHOLE TEN MORE BOOKS LEFT TO LAY!” OK, so perhaps I’m being a bit harsh but you get the picture.

It’s just a bit of fun, nobody’s trying to get paid from it, so don’t worry: the franchise is safe. Even if they start doing it better than you do.

Fanfic’s certainly not for me but it’s harmless enough. Yeah, it’s juvenile, yeah, it’s fandom taken to often cringemaking extremes, but let these folks have their fun.

Like I said over on Speculative Horizons, to the extent I think about fanfic at all (which is not often), my opinion is a simple and unsophisticated “it’s fine if the author isn’t bothered by it, but if the author says ‘hands off!,’ that wish should be respected.”

I’m personally in the “no fanfic of my stuff plz kthx bai” camp, but it’s not a problem I have to deal with and I can’t imagine it will be anytime soon, if ever. So I’m pretty detached from it all. It’s been funny watching people get really, really irate about this stuff — but I guess that’s what happens when possessive instincts on both sides get challenged. Tug of war!!

Anyway. Congrats on the starred review! I haven’t figured out the new PW online layout yet, but now have some incentive to do so.

ARGH. Still angry with GRRM. So basically, despite legal inaccuracy, historical inaccuracy and personal taste, he’s sticking to his initial assertions.

Fuck it. I’m operating on the same principles and declaring today to be a Saturday. If you need me, I’ll be at home, staring at a blank screen and pretending it is Doctor Who.

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