fanfic, copyright, plagarism, cha cha cha

All the hoopla about Opal Mehta has resulted in some really good discussions about the nature of storytelling. Over at Making Light, Teresa Nielson Hayden’s comment (transmuted into a post) on fanfic gets to the heart of the matter:**

[…] In a purely literary sense, fanfic doesn’t exist. There is only fiction. Fanfic is a legal category created by the modern system of trademarks and copyrights. Putting that label on a work of fiction says nothing about its quality, its creativity, or the intent of the writer who created it.

The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year went to March, a novel by Geraldine Brooks, published by Viking. It’s a re-imagining of the life of the father of the four March girls in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Can you see a particle of difference between that and a work of declared fanfiction? I can’t. I can only see two differences: first, Louisa May Alcott is out of copyright; and second, Louisa May Alcott, Geraldine Brooks, and Viking are dreadfully respectable.

I’m just a tad cynical about authors who rage against fanfic. Their own work may be original to them, but even if their writing is so outre that it’s barely readable, they’ll still be using tropes and techniques and conventions they picked up from other writers. We have a system that counts some borrowings as legitimate, others as illegitimate. They stick with the legit sort, but they’re still writing out of and into the shared web of literature. They’re not so different as all that.

Fanfic means someone cares about what you wrote.

Personally, I’m convinced that the legends of the Holy Grail are fanfic about the Eucharist.

This really is a basic impulse.

Which brings me back to the discussion in the comments to my post Genre – Literature. I made some similar points regarding storytelling as a basic human impulse to de Rien, and now I’m thinking of A.S. Byatt’s essays on this subject. I can’t put my hands on the particular one that comes to mind, but I believe it’s in Imagining Characters, which is an attempt to capture in print a discussion about literature between Byatt and Ignes Sodre, who is a psychoanalyst.

de Rien asked me if I was saying that storytelling as a cultural good was primarily a vehicle for educating children and less relevant for adults. That’s a huge and really interesting question. My short answer: no, not just for children. A longer answer (or at least part of one) I’ll try to put together today.

Thanks to murgatroyd for the headsup.

4 Replies to “fanfic, copyright, plagarism, cha cha cha”

  1. You’re welcome. Thanks for posting it on the home page — I hope more people go and read the discussion. The original was also somewhat on the topic of plagiarism, about a Star Wars “fanfic” work that apparently was published and available on Amazon somehow. So the discussion meanders all over copyright issues and ancient works that might have been considered “fanfic” of other ancient works.

    Jack Zipes’ examinations of fairy tales take a close look at the uses of storytelling. I have just about everything he has written, and although the Marxian analysis may be off-putting to some (it’s not to me), I still think it quite clearly pinpoints how stories start to outline our lives as children and continue to influence us as adults. “Breaking the Magic Spell” is one of his best works.

  2. I regret I haven’t been following this discussion from the beginning – but your comment on stories to children made me think of how I re-tell stories from my childhood, of my childhood, to my children now. It’s like sending off a message to the future – my fondest hope is that they’ll survive me to re-tell the stories as best they can, to their children and so on. The re-telling is something interesting. How things change as they are re-told. Fascinating how the telling, in and of itself can change the story and make it new in repeat tellings.

  3. And so…with regards to fanfic, it’s true that it’s a re-telling of a story we’ve heard before, from a different point of view, and I’d vote for its validity as fiction any day.

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