Fanfic, Publishing, and Creativity

I wrote a post about fanfiction, Fanfic is a Helluva Drug, not quite two years ago. Which is really an alarming amount of time, but that’s neither here nor there.

My basic thesis there was that there’s literally no harm in writing fanfiction, regardless of the number of people who think it’s garbage, only about boning, or garbage only about boning. Because the rest of us know that’s not true.

One weird edge case that I didn’t touch upon is that rare occasion on which fanfic is publishable material. I call it an edge case, because it only ever happens under two conditions:

  • The story has diverged so completely from the original source material—or was so vastly different from the source material to start with—that it is able to stand on its own as an original work.
  • The story is fanfic for source material that is so old that it has passed out of the realm of copyright protection and into the public domain.

Box set of the Fifty Shades seriesThe first case, of divergence, is nowhere more thoroughly demonstrated than in the existence and runaway success of Fifty Shades of Grey.

Let’s get some things out of the way. Folks can enjoy the things they like. But I do take issue with Fifty Shades for reasons other than the fact that it started off as fanfic, mostly due to how it pathologizes an entire sexual subculture while exhibiting relatively little knowledge of said subculture. That is, in my tradition of grand understatement, not cool.

However, we’re here to talk about fanfiction that winds up published, so with all that having been said, we’re gonna stick to the subject at hand and leave the rest of our thoughts re: E.L. James and her novels at the door. Shiny? Shiny.

It’s well-acknowledged that Fifty Shades is a Twilight fanfic that’s been shifted a few feet to the left so it doesn’t infringe on Stephenie Meyer’s work. For a detailed breakdown of character parallels and events between the published novel and the original fanwork, there’s an entry on the Fifty Shades of Grey Wiki for the fic that started it all, “Master of the Universe”.

The fact that Fifty Shades got published at all is possible because you can’t copyright ideas, only the execution thereof. If “tumultuous romance” was a thing that could be copyrighted, we’d all be fucked. As a result, despite all the parallels (and even shared character names), it was an eminently legal thing to publish.

This means that Fifty Shades falls under the heading of what I once heard called “creative misunderstanding”: looking at an extant work or idea and going, “Yeah, but what if this?”, where “this” can be any number of alterations, minor or major, to the existing material. Creative misunderstanding is one of my favorite tools, and my two favorite questions to ask are “Yeah, but what if the primary romance was between two women?” and “Yeah, but what if giant robots?”

The second one is trickier. Giant robots call for some kind of plot-related justification (such as Minovsky particles or A.T. fields). Sapphic romance does not and never should require plot-related justification—for further reading on the subject, hit up Chuck Wendig (may I someday have a writer-beard so majestic) for his blog post “Return of the Gaysaber”.

Cover of Reanimators by Pete RawlikNow, for an example of the second type of published fanfiction: Pete Rawliks Reanimators.

This novel follows Dr. Stuart Hartwell, the unknown rival of Herbert West in the process of reanimation, and how his existence runs parallel to West’s own fumbling efforts at reanimating dead tissue. In doing so, Hartwell becomes, depending on your particular bent, either a Forrest Gump figure or a Rosencrantz/Guildenstern composite, stumbling in and out of probably a dozen major Lovecraftian narratives over the course of the novel. On top of everything else, the novel also manages to fuse the events of Frankenstein and The Phantom of the Opera into the overall course of the story, creating a wonderfully ghoulish goulash of gothic fiction.

Reanimators takes place in the elaborate world of H.P. Lovecraft and makes no attempt to hide it. While some fiction may make oblique references to creatures from Lovecraft’s work existing on the periphery of known reality, Pete Rawlik has no compunctions about putting you directly in the cosmically horrific shit.

Nick Nolte in Tropic Thunder
IN THE SHIT

In this case, all the stories on which the novel is based are thoroughly beyond the reach of copyright in the U.S., which is the only reason that Rawlik can summon up specters from Leroux’s Paris and Lovecraft’s Kingsport and Dunwich. It is fanfiction, and, as previously stated, that is in no way a bad thing. It’s wonderful to read, and I thoroughly enjoy it. But it exists in a world that was not of the author’s devising, utilizing characters created by others, knitting together disparate stories in Lovecraft’s cosmology while (at times) playing a bit fast and loose with the facts of the originals, citing that the tales as Lovecraft set them forth were dictated by unreliable narrators.

This is the very definition of fanfiction. And it’s further proof that there is nothing wrong with that type of fiction at all.

What Rawlik is doing is a more traditional example of fanfic, what might be called “constructive” creativity—an exercise that is functionally equivalent to the on-stage improvisational rule, “Yes, and…” It assumes that the baseline information presented by the source material is true and then seeks to use it as a foundation for further creative endeavors.

To sum up: it is possible for fanfiction to be published. It is difficult for fanfic of currently copyrighted intellectual property to manage it, but given sufficient sleight of hand and a bit more elbow grease on the author’s part, it is eminently doable. It is much easier to publish fanfiction based on material that is out of copyright protection (such as Lovecraft or Lewis Carroll or Bram Stoker or countless others) or that is based on material that never had copyright protection at all (see Grendel by John Gardner). And in order to publish fanfiction of either sort, you need to take drastically different creative approaches.

So what about you guys? Any thoughts on fanfiction and publishing and various types of creativity? If you got ’em, leave ’em in the comments!