On the Morality of Fanfic

Oh, yes, please, invite us to express our opinions on GRRMartin’s position on fanfic. Yes, Winter, this is an excellent topic of discussion!

Last week, George R.R. Martin said that he doesn’t want anyone but himself writing in the Song of Ice and Fire universe, which brought up earlier comments that he was “against” fanfiction. He’s stated some of his reasons before: he thinks fanfiction opens the door to potential legal and financial problems, and he dislikes it when people take characters he created and make them do and say things they wouldn’t do or say. Does he have a point? The Small Council discusses.

*squeal* Oh boy!

I’ve read GRRMartin’s thoughts on the moral value of fanfic, and I see his concerns. There was a situation with Marion Zimmer Bradley many years ago, in which she was seriously harmed by the unethical behavior of an especially ambitious fanfic writer. With that having happened, I can see why a lot of authors would be skittish about fanfic based on their work.

And, yet…as someone who values the is/ought distinction, I think the most feasible position for an author to take is basically: “I won’t ask, and you don’t tell.” Accept that there will always be some people writing fanfic, but insist that you won’t read it, so if any striking similarity happens to pop up between fans’ contributions and canon material, it’s strictly coincidental and the author owes you nothing. Draw a hard line in the sand between the author’s efforts and the fans’ interactions with the source material.

My thoughts on the matter are closest to Cameron’s entry in this discussion:

And that’s really the more important aspect about writing fanfiction: it’s an interpretation of a work, capable of the same depth and quality of criticism as a plain old essay about, say, “Representations of Women in A Song of Ice and Fire” or “Theories of Power and Game of Thrones.” Both sound like excellent essays, sure, but you can also voice your own pleasure or displeasure about something by writing fanfic that either addresses or fixes the issue. (Never have I felt this need more than when I was reading Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight.) And people are always going to want to do this, no matter what the original author’s wishes, so while Martin is perfectly entitled to his own ideas about fanfiction, the simple truth is that he can’t stop it from happening.

Some of you may have noticed I wrote an essay lately, about something in GRRMartin’s storytelling? Yeah, that happened, and the parallel between essays and fan fiction is a valid observation. In case anyone’s wondering: I have not written ASOIAF fan fiction, I have not read any, and I have no plans to do so, but that’s mostly a matter of how I spend my very limited spare time.

I have written fanfic about other works, I don’t regret it, and I’m really not sure how I would’ve responded if the original authors had asked us to stop doing that. If JKR had asked her fans not to write fanfic about Harry Potter, I think that I would have refrained from writing it, but I’m not so sure I would’ve refrained from reading fanfic written by other HP fans. If any of the writers employed by Marvel to write the X-Men and other X-teams’ canon material had asked fans to stop writing fanfic based on the X-teams, I’m sure I would’ve gone on merrily writing and reading fanfic while bonding with my X-fic friends over pointing and laughing in those writers’ virtual faces. The distinction is partly in the writer’s relationship to the source material; GRRMartin and JKR are both the original creators of their characters and settings, and they’re handling their stories from beginning to end. I see them as the first-last-only creators of their works, rather than one writer among many over a long period of time.

(We could, of course, flap our gums for a while on the relationship of the TV show to fanfic, but, ultimately, D&D are following GRRM’s lead, not the other way around, GRRM has given his official sanction to the TV show, and he is the sole author of the book series. It’s a qualitatively different arrangement from a comic book publisher employing dozens of writers to develop its settings and ever-expanding cast of characters over decades.)

Anyway. I don’t write or read fanfic based on GRRM’s works, I don’t expect to do so in the foreseeable future, but I did write an essay, and I think fanfic can be viewed in similar terms to essays. It is a way for fans to engage with the source material. If you want to discuss concepts associated with a work of fiction that you enjoy, one way is to write an essay focused on fun things like foreshadowing, character development, symbolism, the value of unreliable narrators, and so forth, and another way is to write fanfic. These stories are ways for fans to express ideas such as, “How would ABC characters respond to the following scenario?” or “Here’s what I think will happen to XYZ characters following the end of the series,” or, “If such-and-such circumstances were changed in a certain way, what would have happened differently in response?”, or maybe just, “Let me share my thoughts on why I love, hate, or love-to-hate certain characters.” It’s ultimately a conversation between fans, and they’re going to have that conversation with or without the original author’s blessing. Telling those fans they can’t express those ideas in that format is like stopping the tide with sandcastles. It’s not even a matter of whether the fans respect the author’s opinion; they have their ideas, and they will share those ideas amongst themselves even if they know the author is asking them to stop. Some of them may possibly move their stories to more obscure archives, but they will find ways to share their stories with their friends.

Finally: if I ever find my audience writing fanfic based on my novels, I won’t try to stop them.