The Ancient Art of Storytelling Is Reborn
By John H. Leeper
Fan Fiction is the literary phenomenon of the Internet Age, and it is expanding faster than star clusters in the aftermath of the Big Bang. Called Fan Fic in the jargon of the web, it has begun to replace the old writers’ clubs once prevalent in towns and cities across America and also the publishing business known as “Vanity Press,” where authors pay to see their works in print.
Fan Fiction, by definition, is not-for-profit creative writing that employs popular television and film programs or well-known actors and actresses in its plots. The finished works, whether scripts, plays, short stories or novels, are posted exclusively on Internet sites.
The history of Fan Fiction is difficult to trace. When precisely the first "fan" of a Hollywood star or popular television program wrote an alternative script for dissemination to fellow fans on the Internet is a matter of debate. It is likely the genre began in earnest among fans of science fiction programs such as Star Wars, Star Trek and Babylon 5. These futuristic adventures have historically drawn avid followers with creative imaginations. Early on, fans began to trade online ideas regarding possible new story lines for certain characters.
It is possible to trace the history of lawsuits over copyright infringements as companies tried to stamp out, with limited success, unauthorized uses of their trademarked characters or names employed by fans. These appear to have begun in earnest about 1994. It could logically be assumed that Fan Fiction had its origin only a few years earlier.
Different companies have shown markedly different attitudes towards Fan Fiction. Some apparently believe it could actually boost their sales and so encourage the writing of Fan Fic. Others appear to be waiting for more business information and legal clarifications before making a decision. For example, Universal owns the rights to Xena: Warrior Princess and has yet to go after the numerous copyright violations involving what fans dub as the "Xenaverse." Some companies like Fox Television and Viacom, have resorted to harsh cease-and-desist letters against unauthorized Web site creations by fans of such shows as The X-Files, Millennium, and Star Trek. Usually, these are directed at the Internet Service Provider who, in turn, pressures fans to stop posting.
Threats of legal action aside, the genre has continued to grow in almost geometric fashion and Westerns seem to hold a particular appeal to readers and writers, even if Hollywood has all but abandoned the genre. There was a short-lived western on CBS called The Magnificent Seven - only 22 episodes. It has a Fan Fic site with more than 2,600 stories posted.
It is an old quandary for Hollywood. What to do with those pesky fans? They are feared, loathed and loved all at the same time - or, at least, their money is loved. The image of the "stalker fan" is so entrenched in the psyche of Hollywood that it borders upon urban myth. This can be readily seen in the film, Simone, starring actor Al Pacino, where fans of his digitally created "star" are uniformly portrayed as mindless, obsessive idiots.
But it would be difficult to describe the majority of die-hard Fan Fic writers as mindless or lacking in intelligence. On the contrary, many are professionals who use the genre as a unique avenue for personal expression. The Internet allows them to easily "self publish" for a well-defined audience without painful rejection letters or the need for agents. They can produce the film scripts they want to see, starring the actors and actresses they admire most, rather than walking out of a theater muttering to themselves, "Oh, if only so-and-so had been cast in the lead. The movie would have been so much better."
Two women manage a site entitled, "The Best of the West: Bonanza Fan Fiction," which is dedicated to the old television drama Bonanza, that first aired on Saturday, Sept. 12, 1959 opposite “Perry Mason.” They actually request or receive stories from writers for that popular Western, format them, design the site pages, and place them on the web, with no profit motive whatsoever.
Mardi Quinn is a criminal prosecutor who resides in rural California just north of Sacramento. Kylie Connor is an elementary school teacher who lives in Maryland near Washington, D.C. Separated by thousands of miles, they are joined by the Internet, their love of this classic Western television series and their belief that fiction writing should be open to all, not a select few.
Their site grew from the explosion of fiction that began pouring onto the net related to "Bonanza" characters.
"There's been a steady increase in the number of Bonanza Fan Fiction writers and posted stories on many sites since the internet made publication available to everyone," Quinn said. "A number of our friends had been complaining in the year or two prior to our establishment of the site that there were so many bad stories posted it was hard to find the good ones. Several of us had talked about how the fandom now was so large there was need of a site to archive the best stories, both to make them easier to find and to ensure they didn't get lost when an older fan site disappeared for one reason or another." There are a total of 58 authors who have produced works for the "Best of the West" site, and 15 to 20 new stories are added every other month.
Becky Sims, who lives in the Great Plains near the head of the Oregon Trail, is one of the writers on the site. In her professional career, she is the director of a military library. Like many Fan Fiction writers the struggle of getting published professionally through book companies is simply too daunting.
"I simply haven't wanted to take the time and effort to do it," she said. "It isn't that important to me."
She began publishing stories on an old Star Wars site, "but I eventually chose to have them removed when George Lucas and his lawyers were going through fits about Star Wars Fan Fiction."
She believes that some Fan Fiction is as good or better than what is published. "As a librarian I see a lot of books. Some Fan Fiction is absolutely terrible. I don't object too much to grammar and punctuation mistakes - hey, we're all learning - but I object strenuously to mis-characterization. Generally what happens is that authors will have issues in their lives that they are trying to work out, and they twist the show's characters to match the situation. The difference between Fan Fiction and professional fiction seems to be that the truly terrible stuff rarely makes it into print, but does make it onto the Internet. This means that you have to wade through a lot of dreck to find the good stuff online. And that is, I understand, how Best of the West came about - it's a place where you can find quality work."
Quinn agreed with Sims where it came to quality of storytelling on the Web. "We have many authors whose work equals or betters the work of many published authors in genre fiction. Quite a few of our authors could write quality scripts for movies and television. Their plots are innovative, exciting and introspective. Fan fiction can create stories that delve more deeply into the feelings, motivations and points of view of the characters than can regular series television. It can also tell stories on a scale that a television series could not afford to produce. For example, one of the older writers on our site, Gwynne Logan, once submitted a script to the "Bonanza" producers who told her they would very much like to use it but it would be prohibitively expensive to film."
And that would be the primary difference between the "business of writing fiction" and the "art of writing fiction."
In several of the licensing lawsuits against Fan Fiction sites the question had been asked, "Why don't the writers create original characters?" The answer offered was that the characters created on television often acquired mythical status and the Fan Fiction writers were merely elaborating on them as storytellers of old might have with a folk hero like Paul Bunyan.
Lissa Brown, a California writer whose "day job" is in marketing described it this way, "Fan Fiction tends to be as derivative a world as television - toss in an original idea and watch it ricochet from story to story almost instantaneously. But I think Fan Fiction is important for other reasons. There's something wonderful about watching so many people - all types, all ages - sit down and try to tell a story. Something active and creative, using their own imaginations to entertain and explain themselves and others, instead of depending on television or film or even books to do it for them. I think we are all storytellers at heart and I think that, good, bad, or indifferent, writing a story and posting it for the world to see takes courage. Following through takes effort and commitment."
It is conceivable that Fan Fiction could pose a threat to the mainstream business of Hollywood or book publishing. First of all, it is free of charge to the reader. Second, there is the matter of time outside of work. There are only so many hours in a day and when a reader goes onto the Web and begins to peruse scripts and stories there, it means less time is available to go to the movies or to a bookstore and purchase a paperback.
Can it be stopped? Can corporate America put the genie back in the bottle with cease-and-desist orders. The prospects for that don't look good. The genre is expanding at breakneck speed and human creativity has always proven difficult to throttle. There is even a question such actions would be counter-productive, turning fans off by appearing heavy handed and impacting market share.
Brown reflected, "Fan Fiction is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of owned by the folk. At the end of the day, I think that's what Fan Fiction writers are really doing - sitting around the fire, repeating old legends to each other about a collective group of characters, spinning off of the old stories, making up new ones, creating challenges for the heroes, to find out more about themselves and others; using them to inspire, to console, to encourage."
"My ancient ancestors told and retold and created and recreated stories about Cuchilann, generation to generation. Fan Fiction is nothing new. It's as old as man himself. Maybe for a little while we just forgot."
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