I am not sure that a lot of us understand that Wattpad stories *routinely* clock multiple millions, sometimes tens of millions of reads.
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So carving off characters can be a way to comment on the original work—to expand on its themes, to examine what it erased, to update it, to teach folks about it, or just to enjoy it (and surely enjoyment is an important goal of lots of literature, not excluding the Sherlock Holmes stories). Interacting with literature and appreciating literature means, in no small part, talking back to literature. And a big way in which people talk back to literature is by dissecting it, reassembling it, and making it their own.
Again, that deconstruction can sometimes be ugly. Not every use of Sherlock Holmes is going to be pretty, or make the Doyle Estate happy. No doubt there’s X-rated Sherlock/Watson slash fiction out there that would make Conan Doyle rise from his grave, if he could manage it. But to say that it’s a crime against literature to reuse Sherlock Holmes is like saying that Doyle committed a crime against literature by turning Dupin into Holmes. Artists and writers always engage with and respond to other writers. That’s how art gets made. And that’s why it’s a good thing for culture, for literature, and for Doyle himself that it looks like Holmes will finally be completely free to be used, abused, and celebrated by everybody, free of charge.
This is not a review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, but I’ll share some impressions for context. Though it kept me entertained, I didn’t think it was very good. The story felt padded; the implausible action scenes lacked tension; the moralizing was often forced. But for all that, I’m glad the movie was made because it means that the narrative of Middle-earth is still alive.
Storytelling belongs to the public consciousness. All the copyright laws in the world cannot stop that being true. It is human nature to imitate: it is how we learn to talk, to dress, to be polite, to live in society. It is embedded in human nature to take in stories and breathe them out again. This is not to say there is no place for copyright. As long as we live in a nominally free market society, artists must be able to make money from their work for art to flourish, and copyright (ideally) gives them control over distribution of their work to prevent market saturation and grant them remuneration. But if copying must be restricted, the creation of art itself is naturally free: the mind flies to it as it flies to love, and no prison nor prison sentence can stop it.
One common complaint about derivative works is that they are often bad quality. And this is true. (It’s true of original works just as much.) I would argue that The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, despite a great deal of talent and effort, is bad quality in many ways. It’s a legal, licensed work, but aside from giving it a big budget, that doesn’t affect whether it’s good or bad art. Likewise, some still claim fan fiction has dubious legality, but that has no bearing on whether it is brilliant or painful to read. Art is speech, and democratic society has long understood that respecting freedom of speech exposes us to reams of stupid speech. That is a very small price to pay for the freedom to share thought and learn and grow as individuals and cultures.
I don’t doubt that Tolkien would be rolling over in his grave at the excesses of the Jacksonverse. In this particular movie, I suspect he’d find the Elf-Dwarf romance ridiculous, the sex joke appallingly inappropriate, the fight scenes mostly absurd and undercutting of the quieter narrative of Bilbo’s clever heroism—and that’s just for a start. I wouldn’t be surprised if his heirs have similar feelings. I have many of the same feelings myself.
Who cares? We don’t really deserve any say in how others choose to retell a tale. I mean this as a statement about natural rights rather than gracious conduct. A gracious standard of conduct might well choose to consult with a respected original author or their heirs, might make an effort not to bruise their feelings, might listen to critiques and revise accordingly. But a narrative belongs to the mind of every person it has touched. And no one has a right (regardless of the current law of the land) to tell any person not to re-envision that narrative however they wish.
Without such re-envisioning, The Hobbit is just a novel, a good novel, written in the 1930s in Britain, growing slowly more remote from the language, tastes, and customs of the new century. Without this re-envisioning, one day it will die. And so we create new versions, and they have women and more action and additional tie-ins to The Lord of the Rings and sex jokes and a younger, sexier Thorin and a scarier Ring. And out of what might be considered the mess of this particular version, out of the sloppy, poorly paced, bad taste et cetera comes a new perspective on an old story.
I liked the scarier Ring, the almost-heavy handedness in showing its immediate hold on Bilbo, the changes in his behavior when he fears he’ll lose it. I liked the general tone of foreboding, the sense of social breakdown among the Wood Elves and the Lake Men that presages the cataclysmic War to come in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien could not have done this for the simple reason that he hadn’t yet written The Lord of the Rings when he wrote The Hobbit. Whether or not he would have done it if he had already developed the full history of the War of the Ring is moot (as an Ent would say). The story left Tolkien years ago. It is our story now. It is Peter Jackson’s. It is mine. It is yours. And as the years pass and its iterations continue to ripple out—a cartoon here, a CGI-heavy trilogy there, a radio drama, a few thousand fan fics, and who knows what—it will be reshaped by the minds it meets, often badly but perhaps one day with hammer-blow of genius that will truly reinvent it. Perhaps Tolkien has yet to meet his Shakespeare. But the tale will always be reshaped to meet the changing world it continues to speak in. And it will keep living, as art has to if the human spirit is to thrive.
Submission by Arwen Spicer
I adore the way fan fiction writers engage with and critique source texts, by manipulating them and breaking their rules. Some of it is straight-up homage, but a lot of [fan fiction] is really aggressive towards the source text. One tends to think of it as written by total fanboys and fangirls as a kind of worshipful act, but a lot of times you’ll read these stories and it’ll be like ‘What if Star Trek had an openly gay character on the bridge?’ And of course the point is that they don’t, and they wouldn’t, because they don’t have the balls, or they are beholden to their advertisers, or whatever. There’s a powerful critique, almost punk-like anger, being expressed there—which I find fascinating and interesting and cool.
One of the weirder bits of news sailing through the Internet this week is Amazon’s acquisition, from the Vonnegut Trust, of the right to publish fan-fiction based on the, uh, Kurt Vonnegut universe. (…) Setting aside the question of whether or not anyone will actually make use of these rights, though, the very fact that this kind of licensing is becoming standard practice should raise eyebrows. The Vampire Diaries, Gossip Girl: those are clearly commercial literary properties. They were designed for merchandising and licensing and spinoffs. Vonnegut: eh, not so much. And the thing is, literary novelists have a long tradition of being, ahem, “inspired” by each other’s work. (…) Do we want “serious writing” to be a place where people must license characters from each other? Does that do a disservice to the way in which literature is, for a lot of writers, an ongoing conversation with their predecessors? How would postmodernist novelists, for example, be curtailed by such rules, since they often incorporate commentary on the characters of others? Forcing everyone to get a license would send chills down the spine of any novelist thinking of writing, say, a feminist novel from the perspective of, say, Holden’s girlfriend Sally Hayes, not just anyone who wants to engineer a meeting between Holden Caulfield and Serena van der Woodsen. Michelle Dean, Why You Should Worry About Amazon Buying the Right to Publish Kurt Vonnegut Fan-Fiction
Rebecca Tushnet is looking for academic works that talk about the uses of transformative works in education, for instance how various kinds of fanworks are used in classrooms, what skills and knowledge people learn from making/consuming fanworks, and so on. She’s especially interested in what the most well-known and authoritative sources on fanworks in education are, but any sources would be very welcome.
Suggestions? Thanks in advance!
Of course, fandom has never been isolated from market values, not least because it tends to respond to capitalist-produced media. But normatively, the counterpublic hailed by fan texts was a noncommercial one. This has given rise to contentions that Kindle Worlds is not really fan fiction, that E. L. James betrayed the fans of her Twilight fan fiction, and that both of these cases are not really fandom. In Karen Hellekson’s (2013) inimitable phrase, “if you define fan fiction as ‘derivative texts written for free within the context of a specific community,’ then this isn’t that. True, they are fans. And they write…fiction,” but who’s doing what alone is not enough to make it fan fiction in the absence of those norms of authorship and ownership. Indeed, “you could even say that Amazon is turning the term ‘fan fiction’ into fan fiction itself, lifting it from its original context and giving it a new purpose and a new narrative, related to the original but not beholden to it” (Berlatsky 2013). However, considering that fandom must be continually reconstituted through being addressed, and given this question of generations and fannish continuity, is there a critical mass of fan subjects who will feel hailed by industry’s invitation?
Mel Stanfill, Fandom, public, commons
Much of the literature on fan fiction sees slash fiction as transformative because of its imposition of a queer framework on heteronormative texts. While I do not disagree that this is one way fan fiction can be transformative, it is a mistake to believe that slash is inherently more transformative than het or gen fic just because of its queering of canon.Emily Regan Willis, Fannish discourse communities and the construction of gender in “The X-Files”
In translation studies, many of us are working on enlarging the field to not only include conceptualizations of translation that go beyond traditional, Eurocentric variations on literal meaning transfer. (…) Even if one doesn’t think of writing fan fiction as a form of translating, it’s hard not to agree that it constitutes a retelling.
Translation theorist André Lefevere (1992) argues that most people know most of what they know about canonical literature because of rewrites, not because they’re intimately familiar with the source texts. Lefevere includes anthologies, criticism, adaptations, and of course translation as rewritings. To this I would add fan fiction.
Shannon K. Farley, Translation, interpretation, fan fiction: A continuum of meaning production
Congratulations to the editors and writers! Links to all articles below. As usual, we’ll be posting some good quotes from these in the coming days, and you’re very welcome to submit your own.
Spreadable fandom - TWC Editor
Metaphors we read by: People, process, and fan fiction - Juli J. Parrish
Sub*culture: Exploring the dynamics of a networked public - Simon Lindgren
A Japanese media pilgrimage to a Tasmanian bakery - Craig Norris
Fannish discourse communities and the construction of gender in “The X-Files” - Emily Regan Wills
So bad it’s good: The “kuso” aesthetic in “Troll 2” - Whitney Phillips
Translation, interpretation, fan fiction: A continuum of meaning production - Shannon K. Farley
Fan/dom: People, practices, and networks - Katherine E. Morrissey
Fandom, public, commons - Mel Stanfill
“Genre, reception, and adaption in the ‘Twilight’ series,” edited by Anne Morey- Amanda Georgeanne Retartha
So if being online is so important to fanfiction, why has Amazon not adopted this central mechanism which could have drawn millions of views to its own online site? One reason may simply be that they are relying on sites like Wattpad to generate the traffic to Kindle Worlds. The other may have to do with content control. The plural “Worlds” in Kindle Worlds marks a clear separation between the different fanbases; there will be no boundary crossing here. For fanfiction, boundary crossing of various types is the point. Trying to constrain the unconstrainable is an inherent paradox in a model based on content control. Of course, one way to attempt to control content/text is to contain it in a book rather than have it online where control is always subject to slippage. However, the existence of Fanfiction itself undermines this attempt. Amazon and the licensors have a difficult balancing act. Most licensors would want to retain control over the content that appears online and therefore restrict official content, whether it be original or fan-generated, to their own fan sites; it might indeed be very difficult to keep the licensed Worlds separate in one online environment. So one could argue that the “form” of the ebook in this case, where online would normally be the “native” medium, answers primarily the needs of the licensors rather than those of the fans and readers. This is not to say that Kindle Worlds shouldn’t have ebooks; even in the fanfiction communities, people create ebooks of fanfics for free download. It is the fact that Kindle Worlds appears to be only about ebooks that is the issue in the context of fanfiction. Anna von Veh, Kindle Worlds: Bringing Fanfiction Into Line But Not Online?
I’m not as involved as I was and I miss it, but it can’t be forced. It’s a combination of things; I wrote myself out of Buffy, Stargate and then The Sentinel; when you’ve written hundreds of fics based on a set amount of episodes, eventually you run out of ideas or just feel you’ve said all you want to say. But nothing has piqued my interest the way those shows did. […]
Add that to the slowly shrinking pool of friends on LJ as people leave for other sites, and I feel that my door into fandom has narrowed to a crack. I can still get through, I still belong in there — but it’s somewhere I visit, not somewhere I live.
I’m looking for attacks on Jane Austen fanfiction – preferably online fanfiction – from the cultural establishment (scholars, critics, journalists, etc), perhaps denigrating fanfic in terms of its popularity, literary quality, etc. Do you know any of these?
I’ve found comments along these lines on Star Trek ff, not so on JA’s the general stigma on ff and popular culture as something of a “secondary” order. To my surprise, there does not seem to be much scholarly work on JA ff, whereas there’s quite a lot on Star Trek, X Files, Harry Potter, etc.
In Dickens’s own time, however, serialized novels were hugely controversial. Novels themselves were only beginning to find acceptance in polite society; for upper-class commentators, serialization was entirely too much. From our perspective, Dickens is a literary master, an icon of a now threatened culture. From theirs, he represented the threat of something coming.
Worse, the format seemed dangerously immersive. In 1845, a critic for the patrician North British Review decried it as an unhealthy alternative to conversation or to games like cricket or backgammon. Anticipating Huxley and Bradbury by a century, he railed against the multiplying effects of serialization on the already hallucinatory powers of the novel.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, as further advances in technology continued to bring down the costs of printing and distribution, books and periodicals evolved into separate businesses and book publishers gradually moved away from serialization. The threat of immersiveness moved with them, first to motion pictures, then to television. Books, movies, TV—all were mass media, and mass media had no mechanism for audience participation. But the reader’s impulse to have a voice in the story didn’t vanish. It went underground and took a new form: fan fiction.
Frank Rose, The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories, location 1308-1321
A large directory of pro writers’ policies on fan fiction, including mostly authors who write in English. The directory links to direct quotes or other sources that indicate the authors’ opinions on fan fiction about their works. The directory is somewhat outdated but still a very interesting resource, especially since it seems to include some authors who aren’t mentioned on Fanlore’s Professional Author Fanfic Policies page yet.
The owner of the Fanworks Inc. site has indicated in May this year that they may take the whole site down, so best grab the information on here soon if you need it.
The relationship between slash fan fiction and comics fandom is problematic not only because of the shift of medium from source text to fan text but also because of the shift of fan community. Comics fandom is often viewed as consisting of heterosexual white men and comics are often explicitly marketed to them, excluding and othering the rest of the audience. Comics fandom online subverts this expectation of audience because the majority of fan authors and creators are women. While canon plots privilege action and conflict, and the problematic depiction of women characters in them is so obvious it hardly need be discussed, comics fan fiction reverses these trends: stories privilege emotional arcs, and female characters are depicted as more recognizably human even when they are secondary to the male characters.
Comics fan works thus become completely transformative because of the shift in both fan space and fan audience: texts that are homophobic become homophiliac, authors and readers who are male become female, and that which had previously been other becomes the new norm. For these reasons, the fans are not just aware but indeed hyperaware of their own identity as subaltern and subversive practitioners.
My concern, as fans and acafans continue to vigorously debate the importance or continued viability of fandom’s gift economy and focus on flagrant instances of the industry’s attempt to co-opt fandom, is that the subtler attempts to replicate fannish gift economies aren’t being met with an equivalent volume of discussion or scrutiny.
There are a number of important reasons why fandom (and those who study it) continue to construct gift and commercial models as discrete economic spheres. This strategic definition of fandom as a gift economy serves as a defensive front to impede encroaching industrial factions.
Media producers, primarily through the lure of “gifted” ancillary content aimed at fans through official Web sites, are rapidly perfecting a mixed economy that obscures its commercial imperatives through a calculated adoption of fandom’s gift economy, its sense of community, and the promise of participation.
Inspired by the discussion around Amazon’s announcement of Kindle Worlds, here’s a preliminary timeline on Fanlore of notable happenings related to fandom and profit. Famous instances of commercialization of fanworks, of exchange of money in fandom, profit-related incidents between fans or between fans and professionals, and so on.
Any examples to add? Please edit the wiki page or drop the info here so I can edit it in. There’s a great deal still missing, especially about commercialization of fanworks besides fic (fan films, mods, fan translations etc), and I have vague memories of reading about many more profit-related incidents in academic works and elsewhere.
Yes, much of fanfiction revolves around romance and ‘M-rated’ stories (and there’s a whole book to be written about that). However, focusing only on the subject matter and traditional boundary issues obscures what fanfiction has to offer us as publishers: a model for community engagement, online interaction between readers, writers and publishers, and a new way of thinking about and doing business.
Anna von Veh, What Can Trade Publishers Learn from Fanfiction?
PaidContent reports that in June this year, Amazon will be launching Kindle Worlds, a legal publishing platform for fanfic. According to Amazon’s announcement, Kindle Worlds will start out by allowing fanfic based on Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, and The Vampire Diaries.
It’s not necessarily bad news that companies are trying to create options for “licensed” fanfic, and I’ll leave the in-depth analysis of the legal aspects of this to professionals. Legal issues aside, though, I certainly hope that Kindle Worlds won’t become a model for other attempts to legalize fanfic. This concept seems to repeat a lot of fan-unfriendly aspects of previous forays by companies into the weird world of fic monetization. Kindle Worlds would allow fic authors to sell works “without hassle”, as PaidContent says, but apparently also without many rights, and within the boundaries of extremely strict content guidelines.
The platform refers to fandoms as “Worlds”. Copyright holders can give Amazon Publishing a license to allow fic writers to upload stories about licensed media to Amazon Publishing, which will then offer the stories for sale. Since this is not a self-publishing platform, Amazon Publishing will be setting the prices:
The fan fiction authors get a royalty of 35 percent for works of at least 10,000 words, and a royalty of 20 percent on works between 5,000 and 10,000 words.
Amazon Publishing will set the price for Kindle Worlds stories. Most will be priced from $0.99 through $3.99.
Fic authors will get a monthly payout. Amazon will be paying an undisclosed amount of royalties to the copyright holders of the media the fics are based on, and presumably also keep an undisclosed amount of money for itself. In short, while fic writers will get some money, they have zero control over how much they might want to charge or how much of a cut they deserve, and no options to negotiate. Amazon can organize its business the way it pleases, of course. But this “you will take what we offer you or nothing” approach may offer a big clue to how Amazon believes the rights of all parties should be balanced out when fic writers and copyright holders try to share income from fanworks.
An ever-returning problem with “official” fanfic contests and corporate websites is that they tend do have content guidelines that are rather more restrictive than what many fans feel is sensible, and Kindle Worlds is no exception. The copyright holders who license their properties to Amazon to allow fanfic on Kindle Worlds will be deciding which content is allowed:
World Licensors have provided Content Guidelines for each World, and your work must follow these Content Guidelines. We strongly encourage you to read the Content Guidelines before you commit the time and effort to write.
It’s not immediately clear if this means that there will be different content guidelines for every fandom on top of the content guidelines that Amazon itself sets. But Amazon’s basic content guidelines are as follows:
Pornography: We don’t accept pornography or offensive depictions of graphic sexual acts.
Offensive Content: We don’t accept offensive content, including but not limited to racial slurs, excessively graphic or violent material, or excessive use of foul language.
Illegal and Infringing Content: We take violations of laws and proprietary rights very seriously. It is the authors’ responsibility to ensure that their content doesn’t violate laws or copyright, trademark, privacy, publicity, or other rights.
Poor Customer Experience: We don’t accept books that provide a poor customer experience. Examples include poorly formatted books and books with misleading titles, cover art, or product descriptions. We reserve the right to determine whether content provides a poor customer experience.
Excessive Use of Brands: We don’t accept the excessive use of brand names or the inclusion of brand names for paid advertising or promotion.
Crossover: No crossovers from other Worlds are permitted, meaning your work may not include elements of any copyright-protected book, movie, or other property outside of the elements of this World.
This is rather incredibly restrictive, but I can’t say I’m surprised. In other fanfic contests and corporate fic-hosting endeavors, media companies have also set content guidelines that prohibit sexual content or other hard-to-market things. (Also check out this thesis by Suzanne Scott and this article by Roberta Pearson for more discussion on this.) Last year’s MTV-organized Teen Wolf fanfic contest caused some amazement precisely because it wasn’t explicitly hostile to slash or porn.
Needless to say, these guidelines will be excluding a massive number of authors from legally monetizing their fic – from those who write smut to those who like to write some violence, have their characters curse, or just don’t manage to provide a good “customer experience”. I’m curious what Amazon will make of non-sexually explicit slash.
Some may also consider it an issue that there will apparently be DRM on the stories to prevent them from being read on non-Kindle devices and programs:
Stories will be available in digital format exclusively on Amazon.com, Kindle devices, iOS, Android, and PC/Mac via our Kindle Free Reading apps. We hope to offer additional formats in the future.
And then we come to where the copyright on the submitted stories will go:
Amazon Publishing will acquire all rights to your new stories, including global publication rights, for the term of copyright. (…) You will own the copyright to the original, copyrightable elements (such as characters, scenes, and events) that you create and include in your work, and the World Licensor will retain the copyright to all the original elements of the World. When you submit your story in a World, you are granting Amazon Publishing an exclusive license to the story and all the original elements you include in that story. This means that your story and all the new elements must stay within the applicable World. We will allow Kindle Worlds authors to build on each other’s ideas and elements. We will also give the World Licensor a license to use your new elements and incorporate them into other works without further compensation to you.
Exactly what this implies is best explained by a legal professional, and I have no doubt that the OTW’s lawyers will have some advice ready soon, as they did with earlier corporate attempts to solicit fanworks. However, it certainly sounds like Amazon acquires all publication rights and will give the copyright owner a license to use a fan’s contributions without any compensation in any further commercial media they publish. (Whether Amazon gets any additional income from this licensing to the copyright holders isn’t mentioned either.) I’m curious about whether, for instance, this licensing agreement with Amazon would permit a fic writer to still offer her story for free on another fic archive.
Regardless – since claiming all rights to fanworks is another thing that many “official” fanwork-soliciting endeavors from Syfy with Battlestar Galactica to the fic contests planned by the infamous Fanlib have been lambasted for, I’m not sure if this will go down well anywhere.
All this doesn’t sound like the Kindle Worlds was designed to take fans’ rights and concerns into account. The list that Amazon gives of advantages that Kindle Worlds offers to fic writers is tellingly meaningless:
Writers benefit from Kindle Worlds because:
- Amazon Publishing has already secured the necessary licenses to write about any Kindle World
- They can earn royalties writing about established characters and universes
- The Kindle Worlds self-service submission platform is easy to use
The first point seems to imply that fic writers need a license to be allowed to write fic at all, which is a contested idea at the very least; many legal scholars writing about fanworks would probably argue differently. The second point, earning money with fic, may be considered a good thing by some fic authors; I’ve argued in favor of fic writers considering commodification options, as have others, so I’d personally say that this can indeed be a legitimate advantage – although as mentioned earlier, the fact that fan writers would have no control whatsoever over pricing makes this a qualified “okay then” indeed. The third point, that Kindle Worlds is easy to use, is just silly. Plenty of websites where people can publish fic are easy to use. I get the feeling that they just needed a third point in there to match the three-point list of advantages for copyright holders, and couldn’t think of anything.
Again, I’m not against the idea of “licensed” fic in and of itself, and those who want to agree to Amazon’s terms certainly have the right to do so. However, something like Kindle Worlds can be only one option among many for licensing fic, and it definitely shouldn’t be a model for other “solutions” to the legal uncertainties surrounding fanworks. The only option for publishing fic legally can’t be a platform that takes or licenses away many rights, doesn’t give fic authors the option to set prices, and excludes large numbers of fans with its content guidelines. Hopefully, alternatives that strike a better balance between the rights of fans and copyright holders will emerge soon to counter this.