Fiction and fandom

Lev Grossman over at Time wrote in 2011 about fan fiction. It’s an interesting article – a good overview of a fascinating part of the world of words.

He captures one of the central tensions -between protective authors and enthusiastic fans:

Do characters belong to the person who created them? Or to the fans who love them so passionately that they spend their nights and weekends laboring to extend those characters’ lives, for free?

… A lot of authors feel emotionally and viscerally that nobody else has any business using their characters. George R.R. Martin, author of A Game of Thrones, writes on his website, “My characters are my children … I don’t want people making off with them, thank you. Even people who say they love my children.” Ursula K. Le Guin, another giant of the fantasy canon, writes, “To me, it’s not sharing but an invasion, literally — strangers coming in and taking over the country I live in, my heartland.”

Grossman’s answer is mixed:

The confusing thing about this disagreement is that neither side is wrong. The contradiction lies in our culture, which supports both positions at the same time and hasn’t sorted out a good way to mediate between them. Up until relatively recently, creating original characters from scratch wasn’t a major part of an author’s job description. When Virgil wrote The Aeneid, he didn’t invent Aeneas; Aeneas was a minor character in Homer’s Odyssey whose unauthorized further adventures Virgil decided to chronicle.

… Today the way we think of creativity is dominated by Romantic notions of individual genius and originality, and late-capitalist concepts of intellectual property, under which artists are businesspeople whose creations are the commodities they have for sale. But the pendulum is swinging back the other way.

I can see merit on both sides. I think where the writing is derivative, and doesn’t add something new, it’s frustrating. But where a writer takes a world we think we know and explodes it into showing us a completely different one, I think that’s really exciting.

In thinking of fanfiction, I think But where is the lamb? is a beautiful historical study. It shows the thousands and thousands of interpretations that have sprung up around the simple, original story the sacrifice of Isaac. Perhaps because it is so sparse, there’s endless room for improvisation, in what I think it’s reasonable to describe as ‘fan-fiction’, and the world is better for it.


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