Is all art fanfiction?

thoughts orangutan

Last time, I talked about fanfic, I said I wasn’t going to go down the “all art is fanfic” route. Last time, I said I didn’t have a vested interest. Last time, I broached the topic, I lit powder keg. Well, *a lot* has changed in the two years since last time, so let’s see if we can have a conversation about this without things getting too explosive 😉

Now firmly in the age of reboots, remakes and retellings, I’ve found myself wondering where is the line between fanfic and art? Let’s look at the definition again:

fiction written by a fan of, and featuring characters from, a particular TV series, film, etc.

Disney pillaging its old animations and remaking them shot for shot… seems like fanfic to me. Looting the spoils of Marvel and DC… seems like we could call that fanfic. Buying off creators, like Lucas, and making derivative work… yeah probably fanfic (incidentally, many previous works have been relegated from canon, because of course only massive corporations have permission to make Star Wars stories…). Regardless of whether one likes these franchises or not, one could regard these “new” works as akin to a music cover, because they skirt around legal issues and (mostly) compensate the original creator (again, at the risk of going severely off topic, this does beg the question, why stop there?). Outside of the mainstream, I can see a resurgence of fanfic coming from disgruntled fans and critics, desperate to fix the decimated plotlines and endings for their favourite books/films/shows (*coughs* yes, this is a thinly veiled reference to Game of Thrones… *cough cough*).

game of thrones ending brienne meme

Additionally, art is conversation. I’ve long held the view that originality is overrated, since nothing is technically original to begin with. To return to Disney, I recently watched a few interesting discussions on Youtube about the origins of the Lion King. The gist of the debate is that Osamu Tezuka was inspired by Disney’s Bambi to create Kimba the Lion, which in turn Disney used to launch its own Lion King story (playing up its so-called originality in marketing).

lion king shock

While people have been quick to slam one side or the other, I don’t see this as a black and white issue. If you watch Kimba, you’ll quickly notice the visual and structural differences. Which pulls me away from looking at this as a controversy. Instead, it’s made me think about where we draw the lion (*ahem*) line on what constitutes transformative work. Once you consider whether its satire, if the characters are the same, if the storyline is similar enough, it might be possible to see a huge amount of creativity in fanfic. Not to keep using the same old examples, but there are plenty of success stories for fanfic-turned-mainstream, where all that needed changing before publication were the names.

Okay, so much of what I’ve said is in favour of the view that “all art is fanfic”. And indeed, these days I find myself much more sympathetic to that mindset. But I do still have reservations, because the statement is too much of an oversimplification of art. As much as art can be a response to other art and as much as all art will inevitably draw on its predecessors (as discussed in my piece on “intertextuality vs innovation”), they often diverge so much from the “original” that it can be hard to see the similarity. Take Legend by Marie Lu, inspired by Les Mis. Heck, take Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, which reflects on Paradise Lost. These works are so wholly different that I couldn’t reasonably describe them as fanfic. They have grown lives of their own, had adventures and rode off into the sunset. And, who is to even say where the original began? Or from what pieces the multifaceted novel is derived? To me, it is too complex an issue to be satisfied with the “all art is fanfic” refrain. As I’ve said before, if we water down the term “fanfic” it would cease to have much meaning at all. To me, it’s just art, with an asterisk that all artists are likely big ol’ fanboys and fangirls.

So, what do you think? Do you agree with me that all artists are fans? Or do you think that all art is fanfic? I’d love to hear your take!


43 thoughts on “Is all art fanfiction?

  1. Hi, nice to read this. As a reboot is often a reinvention of past stories, the satisfaction fans find in it, maybe, owes a lot to how the more familiar elements of the franchise are arranged,in light of the wealth of art that goes with something like a sci-fi trilogy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hmm, here is my take: All fanfiction is transformative work, but not all transformative work is fanfiction. I could maybe even agree with all art is transformative work because you are taking things you have seen and experienced and producing work by filtering it all through your own perspective. But I think fanfiction has a more limiting definition. A character type is not the same as a character, and allusions are not the same thing as plagiarism (not that I think fanfiction is plagiarism…I write fanfiction myself)
    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that’s a really good take on it all being transformative, but not all transformative art being fanfic. I do agree that it has more of a limited definition- I think that if we don’t use the existing definition and apply it to everything, it would cease to have much meaning, as I mentioned towards the end of the post. So yeah, I agree with you. Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I wouldn’t say that all art is fanfic, but fanfic is art. Fanfic has a bad reputation because there are some very badly written examples. But this is true of any genre. My hot take: Paradise Lost is a fanfic of the Book of Genesis. Incredibly well written fanfic, but it’s fanfic.

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  4. I think most art, if not necessarily all is fanfic. Nothing exists in a vacuum. I also think creating fanfic is a natural and valuable way to engage with art. I don’t think it’s something that should be discouraged. It can lead to some great extensions of the OG world or even unrelated but original-influenced storytelling.

    I do see the value in some copyright or trademark protections, both for the fans as well as the creator–it would suck to fall in love with a series only to waste money on a crappy knock-off sequel or something, so I think it’s important that fanfic always presents itself for what it is, or makes enough changes for it not to be confused as part of the original.

    But yeah, unless you’re doing journalistic or autobiographical creative non-fiction it’s probably impossible to not be at least a little derivative. Might as well embrace it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I get that- I think fanfic can be a very positive thing. It’s good for fans and can be a nice way to explore the OG universe as well.

      And yeah I agree with you on the copyright/trademark side of things as well.

      And absolutely true! I think everything’s bound to be at least somewhat derivative.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I like J. R. R. Tolkien’s approach where he saw his authorial work (and art in general, I think) as “sub-creation,” a way of emulating divine creativity with works that reflect His creation. I suppose that would make all art a sort “fan fiction” of the created cosmos?

    On a more conventional definition of written “fan fiction,” I think there can be a pretty blurry line between using someone else’s characters/settings/plot-points (definitely fan fiction) and writing characters/settings/plot-points that draw inspiration from the same archetypes (maybe not fan fiction?).

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I think that’s such a great way of seeing it and I especially like that considering how he made his work borrowing from other sources/folklore- it’s like a continuous cycle that grows out of creation.

      And yeah I do see that as well. I’d definitely see the distinction there too.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I consider something fan-fic if it is written/produced by amateurs and recognized by the creator/s as canon. And that kind of fanfic can go burn in heck. Reboots, etc I don’t consider them fanfics, I just consider them bad.

    For me, fanfic has nothing but a negative connotation and that label will kill my interest in something quicker than spit.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree that amateurish fanfics are cringey, but that’s also how a lot of people learn. Usually more fun to write them than to read them.

      Reboots aren’t always bad–the Battlestar Galactica Reboot was arguably better than the original, and the various iterations of Star Trek all have their own merits.

      There are many movies that are essentially repurposed every fifteen years, with varying degrees of quality between versions.

      Many of the more recent ones are indeed terrible, because they are banking on nostalgia and therefore end up being crappy self-referential fan service with no soul, whereas reboots that do well are often made with the hope that no one really remembers the original (i.e. A Star is Born, Scarface (nobody talks about the 1932 version), The Thomas Crown Affair etc.) and they are retold because the core story is good.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. It really depends on the boundaries of the definition of fanfic….and art….I think art is something that sparks conversation. So does fanfic spark conversation? If you say that fanfic sparks conversation then it’s art. Is it all art? Chicken/egg…..

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  8. Sure. The philosophy of story or the study of narrative is always fun to ponder. You can get really reductive with it, they say there’s only two stories: A man goes on a journey (character lead) or a stranger comes to town (situation lead) / the only stories being either David and Goliath and Romeo and Juliet (direct vs indirect conflict). I mean most fancy fanfic as a pejorative because it mostly recognized by the lifting of characters or settings instead of the natural homage of previous tales. Fanfics aren’t inherently bad though it’s up to the writers to write a compelling story that recontextualizes or reconstructs the characters or universes in desirable ways. Fan fics are just using other writers assets in your own story so in a technical sense you’re right. Thanks for the interesting read.

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    1. I agree! And that’s true- I’ve definitely heard the idea of a limited number of stories in the world. And yeah I agree with you there. I think a lot of fanfic can end up taking the ideas of the original in interesting new directions (and sometimes end up barely resembling the original at all). Thanks for your interesting comment!


    1. …I suspect they were pretty close to fanfiction in the 900s as well. And there’s an interesting component–before writing stories were shared orally, often with each teller adding or removing parts as they saw fit. Is that not in the tradition of fanfiction? So in a sense, the repetition and reformation of stories is part of how we have always interacted with them.

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  9. Oh, well this is an interesting thought. I mean, they do say that there’s nothing original, but I think that while most narratives follow certain paths, and utilize certain tropes, there’s still tons of room for originality. Fan fiction? Well, certainly some works are, but does that mean everything is? I don’t know if we can boil it down to something so simplified. 🙂

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  10. This post reminds me of the quote “good writers borrow, great writers steal.” Ironically, as I tried to track down who said this quote, turns out there’s no clear source. I had never heard that before about Lion King, and that’s really interesting. I sometimes think of Lion King as similar (or maybe light fanfic) to Hamlet, particularly because of the uncles as villains and Simba’s Hakuna Matata listlessness feels very similar to Hamlet’s existential dread. Cool post!

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    1. Ah I love that quote. I think I read it for the first time in goldfinch and Tartt attributed it to Picasso. Yeah it was interesting. I also thought it was Hamlet until really recently when I saw a lot of people talking about it when the new version got released (I still think of it as Hamlet with lions too though 😉 ). Thanks!

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  11. I think a good part of what we create is based on something we appreciated in the past, making us a fan of just about everything. As artists, we then try to create something original with everything we love and try a different formula every time. I’d only call fanfic anything written by an amateur who clearly presents many similarities with another work. Great post as always! 😀

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  12. If you believer that there are only so many stories available (hero’s journey, for example), then everything is inherently derivative. I don’t think it’s possible for authors to keep themselves away from all of society so there’s a good chance that what they product has been influenced by something, even if it wasn’t a conscious influence. Because of that, the line between fanfiction and not-fanfiction is hard to define. There are fanfics that I love so I don’t think fanfic automatically means bad writing and define them by that. It’s a tough question…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that’s fair and I definitely agree that there will be elements that are derivative. And I can understand that. I also ended up really liking books that have fanfic elements/originated as fanfic, so I definitely wouldn’t put them down as automatically bad writing (though I get why people have negative connotations as well)

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  13. As you said, nothing is original. When it comes to writing, stories are told using recurring literary themes, but I believe it’s the voice and style that makes it art. Every writer has their own voice and way of writing, separating them from others. It’s somewhat like songs. Take for instance Dolly Parton’s song, I Will Always Love You. When Whitney Houston sang it, it completely changed the feeling and the song. That’s kind of how I see the separation between fanfic and art. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah I definitely think that individual authors can lend something new and unique to their stories, even if there are similarities with other stories. Ahh that’s a great example! I think that makes a lot of sense- I’ve started thinking of it more as song covers in some ways as well 🙂


  14. Is it possible that both statements are true to an extent? Take Tarantino for example: As a huge fan of genres and classic movies, his movies are essentially monuments to what he loves. I would argue that as an artist he is a fan, and in being so his movies are works of fan fiction. I think Kevin Smith would be a great example of this as well. They take what they love, and create concepts and storylines based off what has piqued their imaginations.

    Great article. It has given me a lot to think about!.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it’s fair to see both sides to be honest- I think it depends on how you define fanfic/fanart (seeing the comments has made me realise how different everyone’s definitions are- and that explains why there’s a murky understanding of it- but personally I can see both points of view). I think those are both really good examples. Thanks for your great comment!

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  15. Some art is fanfiction. But mostly, when not only themes and tropes, but characters and WHOLE STORIES are rehashed, alas, that’s just cashing in on other people’s ideas and work. I may sound a little bitter, but for instance, I don’t see those TV shows who took Sherlock Holmes and plunged him into the modern world as homages or fanfictions…Being a fan means respecting the things that you like, which – to me – should prevent you from eradicating a character and his whole history from their time frame, and plunging them into a reality that it’s not the one their author imagined. Of course, there are modern or updated versions of everything these days – from Shakespeare to Charmed. And I can’t help but feeling sad and a bit angry about that. (That’s just me of course – I’m not passing judgement on those who like such things…).

    Great discussion!

    Roberta R. @ Offbeat YA

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ahh I can understand that. I think on that front I largely agree- but that might be because I am incredibly bitter about all the Disney remakes (though I didn’t say that in the post cos having a long rant about why the new Lion King never should’ve been made might’ve gone off topic… plus I’m saving up that rage for another post specifically about that someday 😉 ) I think that people are free to enjoy the endless rehashings but personally, I’d love fresh stories, or just new scripts and new franchises to be honest!

      Thank you!


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