The Democratic Genre: fan fiction in a literary context – Sheenagh Pugh

For most people, John F. Kennedy Jr was a character in a play, a character in a story, just the way Sherlock Holmes was. When he’s lost, then people react very emotionally. Constantly rehearsing the details of somebody’s life and death shows that people are trying to continue the story. We always try to do that when the story ends before we’re prepared for the ending.

– Neil Postman, chairman of the department of culture and communication at New York University[1]

 

On the official Anne Rice web site[2] appears the following message:

I do not allow fan fiction.

The characters are copyrighted. It upsets me terribly to even think about fan fiction with my characters. I advise my readers to write your own original stories with your own characters.

It is absolutely essential that you respect my wishes.

Until relatively recently in the history of fiction, this would have seemed a very odd message from writer to reader.  For a start, the idea that there is some intrinsic virtue in using an “original” character or story would have puzzled most ancient or mediaeval writers.  They did do that sometimes, but they plundered the vast resources of myth and history just as happily – indeed there is a mediaeval convention of authorial modesty whereby writers routinely claim that they found the story they are about to tell in some ancient book.  Thus Robert Henryson, the fifteenth-century Scottish poet, tells how, one winter night by the fire, he read a book:

writtin be worthie Chaucer glorious,
Of fair Cresseid and lustie Troilus.[3]

And he tells us that when he had finished Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, which ends with Troilus mourning his faithless love but does not say what became of her, he took another book, in which he found

…the fatall destinie
Of fair Cresseid

This second book, of course, does not exist, though it will: he is about to write it.  The Testament of Cresseid is his sequel to Chaucer’s poem, using the characters both poets had borrowed from Greek myth and made their own, though neither would have thought to call them “my characters”.   However individualised by each successive poet who used them, they were still Troilus and Cressida, part of a resource that belonged to all.

History is another such resource and Shakespeare, his contemporaries and successors happily plundered classical, English and European history for plots and characters.  But they don’t seem to have regarded the “original” plots and characters of other writers as sacred either.   Sir John Vanbrugh did not, when in 1696 he wrote The Relapse, a response to Colley Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift in which he uses some of Cibber’s “own” characters and takes their story further. This is a sequel, in as much as it starts where the earlier play leaves off, but it is also a subversion of Cibber’s happy ending.  Cibber leaves us with a reformed rake vowing to be the most faithful of husbands; Vanbrugh plainly thinks this an implausible outcome and his sequel has a far darker ending.

Nonetheless, Cibber seems not to have minded, given that he acted the lead in Vanbrugh’s play.  Presumably he saw it in the context of a long tradition of writers responding to and developing on each other’s work. (Nor would this be the end of it: in the next century Sheridan, writing, he claims, for changed tastes, adapted The Relapse as A Trip to Scarborough (1777) and put the happy ending back.)

But nowadays this form of dialogue attracts the notice of lawyers.  At the end of 2001, in the wake of the Twin Towers attack, John Reed wrote an alternative version of Orwell’s Animal Farm called Snowball’s Chance [4] in which the exiled Snowball returns and turns the Stalinist collective capitalist.  This gives Reed the chance to explore whether a capitalist solution is any better than the one Orwell was condemning.  In an article in the online New York Press[5], John Strausbaugh outlines Reed’s position:

To Reed, Animal Farm represents “an outdated, hyperbolic allegory [.]. Right at the end of World War II, Orwell weighed in on interpreting the first half of the century.”  Reed believes that Orwell’s vision of the Stalinist Soviet threat to the West expressed in the book was very influential on the Cold War mindset.  In a real sense, Reed says, 9/11 marks the very end of that Cold War epoch; the realities, and enemies, have irrevocably shifted, rendering Orwell’s vision irrelevant and obsolete.

In Snowball’s Chance, Orwell’s famous slogan becomes “All animals are born equal – what they become is their own affair”.  The farm becomes a sort of Disneyfied theme park; conspicuous consumption and expansion create tensions with the neighbours and out in the woods the fundamentalist beavers eye the farm’s twin windmills with hatred which will soon turn violent.  Orwell’s estate was emphatically not amused by Reed’s use of Orwell’s original characters and setting, yet it is very hard to see how he could have written the book otherwise.  Part of his stated aim was to refute Orwell and what he saw as the simplistic, one-sided world view of Animal Farm which, like so many students, he had been fed in school and which he felt had long outlived any relevance it had to the modern world.  Any updated fairytale which satirised capitalism as Orwell had done Stalinism would necessarily have to engage directly with the earlier work, and in an earlier age it would have been expected to.

Anne Rice’s web site itself alludes to one reason that this state of affairs no longer obtains: the advent of copyright.  The earliest licensing acts, in the 17th century, were mostly concerned to protect the interests of church and government and the commercial rights of printers.  Only with the passing into law of the Statute of Anne in 1710 did the concept of the author as owner of copyright for a fixed term come into being – the notion, if you like, of intellectual property.  “The characters are copyrighted.”  To be strictly accurate this isn’t possible, though the embodiment of a character can be trademarked.  But the copyright holder, in this case the author, though it need not always be, has the right to control derivative works and it is the unauthorised creation of these to which Rice is objecting.  The way she phrased it, though, is indicative of the central point in her argument.  In her view “her characters” belong to her; they sprang fully formed from her head and only she has a right to play with them, to decide what they would or would not do and how they shall develop – even, indeed, whether they shall live or die.  There is of course a perfectly understandable commercial angle to this. Rice makes a lot of money from these characters and if anyone could legally write and sell books about them, her commercial interests could be badly damaged, both by the market being flooded with imitators and by substandard imitations being taken for her work

But these are not, interestingly, the reasons she gives for her hatred of fan fiction.  Indeed, neither could really come into play.  Fanfic authors don’t normally make money.  Fanzines (the magazines in which fan fiction is printed) do not pay their authors for contributions and are priced to recoup production costs: if a
fanzine should happen to go into profit, this tends to be hastily donated to some convenient charity to avoid this very accusation.  Nor do fanfic authors seek to be confused with the real thing: their stories bristle with acknowledgements that these are not their characters but the property of such and such an author, film-maker or TV company.  It is true that if writers are known to read fan fiction they can theoretically be accused of plagiarising it, and this has happened at least once.  But again this is not the objection Rice states.  Her objection is more emotional than commercial: it “upsets” her to think of “her characters” being manipulated by any other puppeteer.  It is a visceral reaction which many authors would share.  In fact some other authors, like the fantasy writer Anne McCaffrey, are equally averse to fan fiction and, like Rice, actively try to get it stopped, though as far as I can see, new web sites spring up as fast as the lawyers close them down.

Readers, however, have not always been content to play as passive a role as Rice would assign to them.  Most of us can recall feeling vaguely bereaved by the end of a book, wishing it could go on and continuing the action in our heads – maybe even on paper.  Or perhaps we have wished to change something about a book, feeling we actually understood a character better than the author did (presumably anathema in Rice’s mind).  One of the more amusing examples of this is an afterword by V S Pritchett to a Signet Classic edition of Vanity Fair [6].  Pritchett, who is plainly more than a little besotted with Becky Sharpe, states outright “It is apparent that Thackeray is wronging her, and . at three points he is actually lying”.  This is a fascinating concept.  Thackeray is, after all, lying throughout the novel, from the moment he pretends that Becky ever existed at all – as, at moments, he cheerfully admits.  He created her; she is, in his own words, the “famous little Becky Puppet” whom he, the puppeteer, will put back in her box when he is done with her.  Thackeray, by the sound of him, would have had no truck with “death of the author” theories; this is the Author as God.

But Pritchett, as reader, does not accept that she can be put back in the box.  Once created, she has her own reality, which her creator does not necessarily understand perfectly, or even better than a reader.  He has not, after all, created her out of air.  As we shall see in a later chapter, fanfic readers and writers themselves are sometimes disparaging of characters with an autobiographical element, and in her review of Colum McCann’s novel about Nureyev, Dancer (Weidenfeld 2003), Nicola McAllister alludes to a more widely held notion that creating “original” characters is somehow more of an achievement than drawing them from life: “Any notion that McCann’s fictional account of Rudolf Nureyev’s life is a novelistic shortcut, an easier task than creating an original character, is swiftly dispelled”.[7]

As indeed it should be, for how much actual difference is there in the two processes?  Even if a character like Becky Sharpe had no one real-life model, in what sense can she be “original”?  Thackeray cannot invent character traits for her that did not already exist in the world, any more than he can invent a totally new colour for her hair or dress.  He is stuck with materials that already exist in the world and all he can do is reassemble them in different combinations.  Becky will be partly himself perhaps, and people whom he has known; maybe she will even inherit something from fictional characters he himself has read about.

In fact it is possible for her creator, by understanding her imperfectly, to make her say or do something which goes against that reality, against the essence of herself, and thereby “lie” about her.  Pritchett’s fervour about this non-existent woman verges on the comical, yet most us have at some time thought “this doesn’t ring true” even when reading the best authors.  When Darcy has been accepted by Elizabeth, Austen has him at one point use the phrase “dearest, loveliest Elizabeth”.  I have never been able to read this without the words jarring: even allowing for unusual emotion, I cannot make the phrase sound right in his voice.

No doubt many would feel differently, just as many would disagree with Pritchett about Becky.  In a way, that is the point; it is also the greatest possible compliment to the writer’s trade.  That a writer can create fictional characters who come alive so fully that readers feel they know them, can understand their motives, predict their actions, continue their stories and grieve when they “die”.  That, surely, is as close to God as any author can come. But once that has happened, they can no longer be solely “my characters”.

When, in the December 1893 issue of the Strand magazine, Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes[8], he may have expected to cause some disappointment among the readership.  But he could not forecast 20,000 cancelled subscriptions, mourning bands worn on the London streets and hate mail beginning “You brute”[9].  Conan Doyle remarked “If I had killed a real man I could not have received more vindictive letters than those which poured in upon me” – but then, in the fans’ eyes, he had.  Nor should it really have come as much of a surprise, given that he had for some time not only been receiving letters addressed to Holmes as if he were real, but now and then replying to them and signing himself Watson[10].

Doyle, at the time he killed him off, was by his own account very tired of Holmes and ready for his story to end.  The fans were not, and some at least were prepared to continue it if he would not.  In 1899 the American actor William Gillette acquired the rights to a Sherlock Holmes play by Conan Doyle and extensively rewrote it, with Doyle’s agreement.  When he asked Doyle’s permission to have Holmes get married in the drama, Doyle replied by telegram “You may marry him or murder him or do whatever you like with him”.[11]

The play was massively popular – touring in it as Holmes kept Gillette in work for the rest of his life – and Doyle himself seems to have softened towards his creation, remarking that it was good to see the old boy again.  He would himself in 1901 write a new Holmes story set before the detective’s “death” (The Hound of the Baskervilles).  In 1903 he unequivocally brought Holmes back and cancelled his canonical “death” in the short story “The Adventure of the Empty House”[12].  Doyle continued Holmes’s adventures until 1927, three years before his own death.  It was perhaps significant that even when tired enough of Holmes to kill him off, he had not done so in a way that admitted of no resurrection: in The Adventure of the Final Problem there had been no eyewitness to Holmes’ plunge over the Reichenbach Falls.

Back in 1893, before Doyle’s attempt to kill Holmes, his friend J M Barrie had tried to cheer him up, after the failure of a musical comedy the two had co-written, by sending him a Holmes pastiche, The Adventure of the Two Collaborators. (Booth, p174).  In it he forecasts what Doyle was about to do to his creation  – perhaps Doyle had confided his intention:

Holmes grew less and less, until nothing was left save a ring of smoke which slowly circled to the ceiling.
 &n
bsp;         The last words of great men are often noteworthy. These were the last words of Sherlock Holmes. “Fool, fool! I have kept you in luxury for years. By my help, you have ridden extensively in cabs, where no author was ever seen before. Henceforth, you will ride in buses!”

It must be one of the earliest pieces of Sherlockian fan fiction extant.  Doyle loved it so much that he included it in his autobiography.

A fan fiction writer of my acquaintance once remarked, on an unarchived mailing list, that people wrote fanfic because they wanted either “more of” their source material or “more from” it.  The early Sherlock fans plainly wanted “more of”.  However many cases the great man solved, it would never have been enough for them; they would never have been ready for the story to end.  They did not particularly want Conan Doyle to do anything differently, just to carry on with what he was doing, and when his death intervened they stepped into the breach.  As Neil Postman remarks, they were simply trying to continue the story.

But that is not the only motive for fan fiction.  When fan fiction began, and how it is defined, are matters of debate, as we shall see in the next chapter.  But it is undeniable that a new era began in the late 1960s, with the first published Star Trek  fan fiction[13].  Obviously the emergence of TV shows with mass international appeal was a major factor in the 70s explosion of fanzines (fan fiction has no national boundaries; the nationality of the source material has far more impact on the writing style than the nationality of the writer).  But it is interesting that many of the TV shows which inspired fan fiction in the 70s and early 80s were science fiction and police shows – Star Trek, The Professionals, later Miami Vice, Starsky & Hutch, Blake’s 7.  It is even more interesting that though the fan base for such shows was traditionally more male than female, the fan fiction writers were nearly all women.

Other writers have discussed this issue at length, notably Camille Bacon Smith in Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth [14] and Henry Jenkins in Textual Poachers[15]. Since my primary interest in fan fiction is literary rather than sociological I don’t want to discuss it in depth yet again.  But to summarise very briefly, I think it is true to say, as these writers did, that though women found aspects of these series that attracted them, they also found much wanting.  Generalisation is perilous: among female SF and cop-show fans there are, as I know from experience on mailing lists, many practising scientists who are perfectly happy with technobabble about alien viruses and forensics (though they frequently complain that the writers don’t get the science right).  But by and large, what the women liked were the characters (at least the male ones, for back in the 70s female characters in such series tended to be awfully vapid) and the relationships between them.  What they wanted was the development of that; what they got from most scriptwriters was space battles, car chases and other assorted frenetic “action”.  (And there does seem to be a sex divide here, to judge by the discussions of the fan forum for the British police show The Bill.  This went through a stage of being purely crime drama, then became more relationship-based, a development which seems to have been far more popular with women than with men.)

This was, I think, a case of wanting “more from” rather than “more of”.  Some fans, often female, wanted the action to slow down enough to give the characters and relationships time to evolve; they wanted more overt emotion and personal interaction than the scriptwriters were giving them.  They wanted vulnerability in the characters too, so that they could feel with and for them.  And this has persisted – there was a filk song (see Glossary) in 1989, set to the tune of Try to Remember:

Those who seek action can stay with their faction

The same for hardware wars and monsters.

Give us dejection, rejection, compassion,

Attacks with guilt instead of blasters.[16]

And what they wanted but weren’t getting from official sources they invented for themselves.  In fact, they invented whole fanfic genres for it.  One was hurt/comfort (h/c), the point of which was to take some hero-figure, the tougher the better, completely apart either physically, emotionally or preferably both, before having him rescued and consoled by some other character. (It almost inevitably is a “him” in this scenario, both because fanfic writers tend to be more interested in male characters and because extreme h/c can feel uncomfortable for both reader and writer if it happens to a female character.)   There were “missing scenes” – ie scenes which could have happened in canon and sometimes must have, but which were not shown, generally because they would have consisted of characters talking or reflecting rather than rushing around zapping something.  And PWP, standing for “Plot?  What plot?” – because there wasn’t one.  This was the riposte to the frenetic action screenplay: a story, instead, in which little or nothing happens, but plenty changes – usually in a relationship.

The viewers who became fanfic writers had obviously decided that there was more potential in these characters and situations than met the eye of their original creators, and that given the chance, they could do as well or better. Trends in the TV series of the 70s, 80s and 90s would seem to support them.  Series did alter.  Star Trek: The Next Generation was far more relationship-oriented and thoughtful than its parent; tough cops who drove red Torino cars like maniacs were allowed to emote all over each other when not causing a traffic hazard (Starsky & Hutch).  Above all, the vapid female characters whom fan fiction writers loathed so much that they practically wrote them out of fanfic were replaced by the Buffys and Xenas of the 90s. I don’t mean to suggest that fan fiction writers brought this about, rather that they were more in tune with the zeitgeist than their official counterparts writing the scripts at the time.  I don’t doubt, though, that marketing men took note of what they obviously wanted – the development of Starsky & Hutch from pretty basic fights-and-car-chases in season 1 through to sustained angst-fests in later seasons does suggest some tailoring to perceived audience preferences.   And when audiences didn’t get what they wanted, they had quicker ways of letting the programme-makers know.  In an uncharacteristic lapse of 1999, one of the Hornblower TV films, The Frogs and The Lobsters, featured an irritatingly ineffectual woman called Mariette who captured the hero’s heart and duly died at the end of the episode.  She was widely vilified on the show’s fan message boards: “stupid French hussy” was the least of it.

And if there was awareness that audiences wanted stronger female characters and more emotionally vulnerable male ones, then the audience, as well as the official writers, directors and actors, had played some part in shaping those characters.  (So, of course, did the make-up department and the wardrobe mistress: even now, souvenir Starsky figures include his trademark cardigan).   These days, fans are far more aware of their power to shape ongoing series.  To quote a fan on the
unarchived mailing list Britslash, when a storyline in the TV series The Bill wasn’t progressing to the liking of some of the fans:

I say if they won’t give us the ending we want now, maybe they will give it to us when Luke leaves later in the year.  They won’t have filmed his leaving yet and if we make enough noise they might relent and give us the proper and right conclusion
-         Tracy

Whether or not the fans’ pester power could have influenced the eventual ending of the storyline cannot be known (at the time of writing, June 2003, it seems to have ended inconclusively, with Luke transferring stations but no indication of what might happen to him in the future).  What is interesting is the participatory, rather than passive, attitude to the fiction shown in this post.  If fans like this don’t get “the ending they want”, they will certainly go ahead and write it themselves.  So many people play a part in bringing a TV series or a film to life that it is hard to see who could speak of  “my characters”.  It is sobering to find, on an internet reviews site, a review of the recent TV serialisation of Pride and Prejudice “by Jane Austen and Andrew Davies”[17]. But the review’s author (Don Harlow) was surely right, in essence. For many who have read the book, Davies’ adaptation has added something to their understanding of the characters; perhaps Mr Bennett, in their minds, will forever have the face and voice of Benjamin Whitrow.  Sherlock Holmes, for very many years, had the face and voice of William Gillette, and has had others since (to echo the words of a current UK Gold programme trailer, “Jeremy Brett is Sherlock Holmes”) And for all Anne Rice wrote the screenplay for Interview with the Vampire (1994), even she doesn’t own the copyright on Tom Cruise’s face.

For those who have not read Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, or who read it after they saw the series, some of the purely Davies elements may well become indispensable to their vision of the story.  Who knows, perhaps one day in the far future, Darcy’s plunge into the Pemberley lake will, like Maid Marian in the Robin Hood stories, become accepted as canon.  Already some fans of the 1990s Hornblower TV series are sorely disappointed when, on reading the C S Forester books on which it was based, they find that the character Archie Kennedy does not, beyond a name and a couple of lines, exist in Forester.  (Though it is only fair to add that others, faithful to the book canon, always opposed the character’s presence in the TV version.)

This erosion of the author’s control over “her characters”, once they are out in the world, would probably horrify most writers; there are moments when it horrifies me.  But though a writer of books, especially one who does not get involved with film or TV adaptations, can more easily speak of “my characters” than most, I can’t help feeling that even he or she, in the days of widespread literacy, internet access and participatory culture, may have to come to terms with seeing these characters slip away from them and lead a life of their own.

After all, fan fiction has gone beyond fictional characters now.  There is a relatively recent category of “real person” fiction which uses real, named people as fictional characters out of reluctance to let their stories end. In the epigraph to this chapter, Neil Postman remarks that ” for most people, John F. Kennedy Jr was a character in a play, a character in a story”.  I have not, so far, seen any JFK Jr fan fiction.  But there is plenty of Princess Diana fiction, Beatles fiction, and Bill Clinton fiction.   Later I will discuss what is, I think, effectively the first Plath and Hughes fan fiction – but it will not be the last; once the film comes out, we should see an exponential increase in Ted & Sylvia fandom.  If people cannot keep complete editorial control of their own personalities these days, what price fictional constructs?

And if real people can become characters in a story, fictional characters can acquire a considerable degree of reality, via their fans’ belief in them.  If people can be consumed with interest in their lives, feel love and grief for them and find their own lives and actions influenced by them, then they are “not real” only in the fairly limited sense of having no physical presence. (Even that is not quite true in the case of TV characters, who have the face and body of the actors who portrayed them.)  The Hornblower character Archie Kennedy, referred to above, was eventually killed off in the TV series, in early 2001.  The message boards of A&E, the programme’s producers, were filled with anguished reactions – see the archive board[18], of which this from “Fluteface” is fairly typical:

I keep telling myself, you’re an adult, he was a fictional character, but it just doesn’t help.  I still find myself bursting into tears with absolutely no warning.

The consolatory rejoinder from “Avid” suggests that active rather than passive consumption of the fiction will help:

Here is one absolute truth; Archie does exist, in our minds. he will have only died for me if my mind makes it so.

“My mind”, not that of anyone with an author’s, screenwriter’s or producer’s claim to call him “my character”.   And “make it so”, the naval confirmation of a command, which, as Herman Melville once pointed out[19] implies an unusual degree of control of the universe:

It is not twelve o’clock till he says so.  [.]
Twelve o’clock reported, sir,” says the middy.
Make it so,” replies the captain.

And the bell is struck eight by the messenger-boy, and twelve o’clock it is.

Needless to say, fanfic writers have been resurrecting Archie ever since he died.  In fact a schism has occurred in Hornblower fan fiction between the mainstream fans, still writing to the now Archie-less TV canon, and the “Crumpeteers”, the specific Archie-fanciers, who in many cases have left to play and write in their own alternative universe where Archie lives on because their minds make it so.

NOTES

[1] Christian Science Monitor, 23.7.1999

[2] http://annerice.com 12.8.02

[3] Poems, ed Charles Elliott, Oxford University Press 1963

[4] Roof Books, 2002

[5] http://www.nypress.com/15/40/news&columns/publishing.cfm 27.11.02

[6] Pub. New American Library of World Literature, 1962

[7] Independent on Sunday, 12.01.03

[8] The Adventure of the Final Problem

[9] The Doctor, the Detective & Arthur Conan Doyle, Martin Booth, Hodder & Stoughton 1997, p190

[10] Booth, p180

[11] Booth, p243

[12]  First published in Colliers magazine and collected in 1905 in The Return of Sherlock Holmes

[13] In the magazine Spockanalia, 1967

="">[14] University of Pennsylvania 1992

[15] Routledge 1992.

[16] “Wallow”, Zen Nine Productions, http://www.fortunecity.com/tatooine /halojones/75/blakes/wallow.html  13.10.02

[17] http://donh.best.vwh.net/Esperanto/ Literaturo/Recenzoj/ pride.html/ 13.9.02

[18] http://www.aande.com/perl/wwwthreads/wwwthreads. pl?action=list&Board=Horatio 24.11.02

[19] White Jacket, 1850

 

Author Biography

Sheenagh Pugh is a published poet, novelist and Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Glamorgan, Wales.>She has been reviewing and writing critical articles for about 25 years, and has published 10 poetry collections, two novels and her current critical book The Democratic Genre: Fan Fiction as a Literary Genre is under consideration for publication. Further information about Sheenagh can be accessed at www.geocities.com/ sheenaghpugh/