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!

Fanfiction Vs Plagiarism – The Epic Battle (/Discussion)

Going into this post was a bit like staring down a can of worms that didn’t even belong to me. I had no business taking it, no desire to touch the thing and cracking it open will probably be considered grossly out of order. Because here’s the deal: I’ve no vested interest in fanfic. I don’t personally care whether people do or don’t write it and I won’t be branching into that territory any time soon. That probably means I should leave well enough alone and not try to discuss it, right?! WRONG! Cos I’m an opinionated SOB and I’m taking a metaphorical can opener to that can of worms right now- you have been warned!! (also- eww- why did I pick that metaphor?!)

So what even is fanfiction? Well for the uninitiated here’s a quick definition:

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

(Quite a loose definition- but for the purpose of this discussion, I’m not going to go down the “all art is fanfic” route. Let’s not stretch the term till it ceases to be useful here- savvy?)

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Alrighty then, I’m pretty sure that people already know that a lot of people are divided into the *love* and *hate* camps when it comes to fanfiction (and if you didn’t know that, welcome to the internet, where everything is tribalistic as fuck). Defenders of fanfic like to say “what’s the harm? it’s just a bit of fun!”- and for the most part I am inclined to agree- writing fictional things about an already fictional world is hardly something to get your knickers in a twist over. Plus- a lot of great (Mortal Instruments) and not so great (*cough* Fifty Shades of Grey *cough cough*) work started out as fanfic. Not to mention the fact that parodies, which in a broader definition might get included in this genre, would not exist without it. Would we want to be deprived of so much literature? Okay- I can already picture the people screaming at the computer screen “YES!” at the examples I just gave- but you get the idea. It has some upsides- so who is anyone to judge if this makes some people happy?

And yet… the detractors do make good points too. There is a major downside to fanfiction in that it is decidedly not original work. And therein lies the rub- because this so easily crosses into plagiarism issues and many not-so-easily-answered questions arise. At what point does the character become yours? Where does the original story stop and yours begin? What can you use this writing for?

For the last question there is a seemingly straightforward answer. Currently you are not allowed to sell/profit from fanfiction without the author’s permission. Pretty simple right? Well no. As we’ve already established from the other questions the lines are not so clear to begin with. And what makes it worse is that people have always and will always tiptoe up to these lines and try to cross them- like Cathy in Fangirl, unable to see that getting a good grade on her paper for work based on another writer could fairly be deemed as “profiting”. It doesn’t matter to her that universities have very strict rules about plagiarism- to encourage good practices and for you to think for yourself- this is an *injustice* and the professor just does not understand fanfiction (or *muh feels*).

Now here’s the kicker: plagiarism is not okay. I know that things tend to be oh so chill on the internet and we can’t always be responsible for remembering everywhere our ideas came from all the time- but man, wilfully taking a piece of work and passing it off as your own… Not cool dude. I’ve seen people flip out over someone pinching their artwork (and rightly so). I have personally gone a little bananas when a youtuber decided to pass off Roland Barthes work as her own (sadly she also decided to do the sneaky thing and delete all the comments pointing this out, rather than address criticism…). Plagiarism is theft- simple as that. Stealing ideas is a bit like stealing a piece of someone’s soul.

And this is where I have the most discomfort with fanfic. I cannot deny that fanfic is a grey area. Changing the names and tweaking the plot may not be enough- especially if there are lines directly lifted from the original (or in the case of Cassandra Clare, other works). Even for something as light-hearted as fanfiction, it’s easy to get lost in the dark. All I can do is offer a word of warning if you do decide to tread these murky waters: the line may not be so clear, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

So what do you think of fanfiction? Are you wary of plagiarism? Let me know in the comments!

Also: challenge for those with a good eye- since we’re talking lifting lines- who spotted the Shakespearean misquotation? 😉