So. Fannishness and fan culture. There’s liking a show or book or movie or whatever; people who do that might even consider themselves a fan of that whatever. But fandom is when people seek one another out to talk about that thing, squee over it (sometimes complain about it), create things (stories, vids, drawings, cartoons, podfics or podcasts), consume those fan-made things, write meta about themes and issues in their favorite source text, do good works within or outside the fandom community, get together to see actors in person at conventions, or get together to see each other at cons that have no celebrity component. Some even find themselves collected to seek advance degrees in media studies or popular culture, hyphenating themselves as Aca-Fans. I have been a solitary fan and a part of fandom, and I much prefer the community of fans. One of my closest friends got me into fandom as a way of life, but fandom as a way of life has also gotten me some of my closest friends. It’s so Escher!
One of my ways of interacting with my fandoms has been writing fanfiction. I’m absolutely no good at writing meta posts that explore every angle of a character or plotline, but I can write a story that shows those angles and goes even further than the source does. It’s just how I’m built. I started writing fanfic as an adult as a break from a very frustrating piece of literary fiction I was writing, and then I just didn’t quit. Because of the nature of fandom, I quickly learned that the things I wanted from a literary publication — people talking about my writing, people talking to me about my writing (I worked in publishing for 10 years, so I didn’t bother wishing for money or huge bestsellerdom because I knew too much about how things work) — those things are readily available to fic writers who are good writers. (And, actually, to some who are terrible writers.)
Despite the widespread belief that fanfiction is written by people who can’t actually write or by 14-year-old girls, there’s plenty out there to blow your mind, if you know where to look. We’re not all “practicing” or venting our frustrations with our sad, miserable lives. Henry Jenkins and other aca-fans point out that it’s a way of taking stories back out of the hands of multinational corporations, of engaging in dialogue or even criticism of the source texts we love. (And yes, there are plenty of times we fall in love with problematic texts. As Woody Allen said about being a dick and taking up with his lover’s daughter, “The heart wants what it wants.”) We explore, we “what if,” we fix. Some of us write steamy alternate universe fics where vampires and werewolves are dental hygienists or Formula One race car drivers, and some may even file the serial numbers off, as we say, and have NY Times bestselling trilogies.
A just about perfect introduction to fanfiction is last summer’s Time article by Lev Grossman, who really just got what it’s about. You can find that here, if you’re interested:
One of the things that’s great about fannish life is the gift culture that surrounds the writing and artwork fans create. It’s not just the legal ramifications of trying to sell stories about characters who are licensed and copyrighted up the yin yang. It’s that we write for the sheer joy of exploring the worlds and characters we love, and we’re delighted to share what we’ve made when we’re finished. Often people who read a story will respond with some praise and a “thank you for sharing this.” I wouldn’t consider otherwise (mostly), but it’s nice to hear. Sometimes you get offerings in return: an icon, a bit of art, a desktop image, a recorded podfic of your story. There are fic exchanges that are directly gifts, written to order, with random recipients hand-chosen or chosen by algorithm. Yuletide is one of the biggest, in which participants request stories in an obscure or tiny fandom, and write in another obscure fandom for their recipient. It’s kind of terrifying to sign up for these events, but kind of awesome too. (And the organizing of such events is also a big labor of love, done by fans for fans.)
I was telling all this to a friend who visited a few months ago, and she’d just come from an academic conference. She loved the “gift culture” phrase a lot — and said that at the conference, it was expressed as “gift economy.” She said the difference in words was hugely important. Nobody’s counting up, it’s more pay it forward than pay it back. I like that too.
One thing that has struck me as I’ve gone through Pinterest marking potential projects and reading tutorials from here and there. The crafting community seems to have a feel for the gift culture too. Tutorials have a feel of “I made this thing; let me show you how,” or “I figured out this neat trick to make this other thing easier.” Or sometimes it’s “I am not insane and am not going to pay $3200 for a handbag. Let me show you how to make something close.” I have to confess, I’m kind of okay with that. I don’t care about labels. I find it hard to believe there’s a handbag anywhere that’s worth that kind of loot. I think sharing those ideas and appreciating one another’s work is a cool thing about Pintersts and the blogs I’ve traveled because of a lead I got on a pinboard.
There is one thing that troubles me. That’s the pins/tutorials that show how to knock off a piece that’s something an entrepreneur came up with, who’s not charging batshit insane prices for it. Not everything out there is produced by a faceless corporation, and I think it’s important to be respectful of someone who has put their own creativity out there and taken financial risks to do so. I’ve only seen one example when I know this to be true, and it’s not a site selling the same design already made up, just a tutorial. But the tutorial that’s traveling around Pinterest uses the same name that the entrepreneur came up with to refer to the design. It does also link back to her shop, so it’s not claiming credit, and if you prefer to buy one from the originator, it’s easy to do. So I’m not condemning here, I’m just trying to work out how I feel, where I stand. I’m a fan of the remix, the hack, but that’s where I hit my own personal boundary.