Fan Fiction and the Writing Workshop

Let me describe for you something that happens every semester I teach creative writing. Sometimes it happens openly; a smart, inquisitive student will raise their hand and ask what my policy is on fan fiction. Other times students don’t ask about my policy, and why should they, really? They have no reason to assume I have a policy – no reason to assume that there’s anything inherently wrong with fan fiction.

If they ask, I always say the same thing. You’re free to write whatever you like for this course, but I’ll be honest: I have limited experience with fan fiction, and I’m not always the best judge of its merits. 

I also tend to poll the class: how many of you are interested in writing fan fiction? The answer, usually, is quite a few. This surprised me a little, at first, which seems odd, in retrospect. It isn’t as if I was ignorant of the existence of fanfic before I started teaching – far from it. And I’m happy, anyway, when there’s a critical mass that understands the genre, because otherwise workshop can get very odd, very quickly.

This sometimes happens when a student submits fan fiction without checking beforehand. Reading such a story before workshop, I tend to start strategizing; how is the class going to handle the piece? Will they get it? How much prior understanding of the world that it references will they need to have, in order to properly evaluate it – or even identify it? What will the other students learn from its example, especially if they aren’t interested in fan fiction at all?

I try not to be a proscriptive professor when it comes to my students’ writing. I don’t believe that there are a fixed set of literary tenets to be passed down from on high, and I try to avoid teaching fiction as if it were a set of skills: this is how you build a “round” character, this is how you set a “dynamic” scene, etc. Although it’s certainly much easier to teach a workshop if you emphasize these skills, it also has a way of flattening the work, and excluding students who write or think differently, the ones who want to experiment. All of which is to say that I’d much rather have a difficult workshop than a boring one.

But fan fiction is a particularly difficult puzzle, for two reasons. The first of these is that fan fiction, by its very nature, works against some of the general principles I teach – and even if I don’t consider these principles hard and fast rules, it’s still strange to see them challenged so directly.

For example, one of my few clear preferences when it comes to student writing is specificity: I want my students to describe the worlds they create in great detail, and not assume that the reader understands them as well as they do. But with fan fiction, prior understanding of the world is the entire point: why go to great lengths to describe what the TARDIS is, when your readers are already fully familiar with the world of Dr. Who? Or, to put it another way — as more than one of my fanfic-writing students has said to me — why waste time telling people what they already know?

(Even though a large percentage of the class often doesn’t know, which is what makes the workshop a difficult place for fanfic.)

I struggle with this whenever I get a piece of fan fiction in the classroom. It exposes the inherent prejudice beneath my oh-so-tolerant exterior. Because the second reason I find fanfic such a difficult puzzle is that I just don’t like it that much. I have my prejudices, like anyone, but I have yet to enjoy a piece of fanfic as much as I enjoy a non fanfic story or novel, even while I recognize that the genre represents, to so many of my students, a vital space for creation and feedback.

*

It would be hypocritical for me not to recognize it, considering how close it is to my own experience. Coming of age in the early years of the internet, I spent my fair share of reckless time on all manner of unmediated websites and forums, including literary ones. I posted my early poems and stories for strangers to read and comment on them, and they did – not always productively, but what did I care; I was fourteen. It was the response that mattered.

My earliest works of fiction were the kind of elves-and-orcs-and-sorcery, pulled straight from the pages of Tolkien, that anyone with a background in fantasy literature would have produced. Even if they weren’t explicitly fan fiction, they were clearly pieces of fiction written by a fan: somebody trying to figure out how to build fictional worlds from models already provided. Most of us start that way – and, I would imagine, most people who write well learned how to do so from some sort of model. The idea of a truly original work of art is a risky one. Not everybody is brave enough to venture out into the world of art and risk total incomprehensibility, so we try to copy patterns we know. We apprentice ourselves.

This apprenticeship pays dividends, if done right. It’s no coincidence that the students who write fan fiction tend to be more proficient with the basics of scene-setting and dialogue than their peers, and also more receptive to feedback. They’re used to subjecting their work to scrutiny, to trying to understand the needs of their audience, to improving.

The difficulty comes from the fact that the audience they’re writing for is so insular, that it relies on so much prior knowledge that no matter how much they improve their work it still won’t appeal to anyone who doesn’t understand Dr. Who (or, in one example from this semester, Dr. Who, Sherlock, and Supernatural, which is a common triple-crossover subject, according to my students).

I understand the absurdity in what I’m suggesting. I don’t want my students getting into fiction writing for the acclaim, and the sorts of books I tend to like probably don’t appeal to anything more than .001% of the population. And, having done my fair share of posting to forums – as well as my fair share of publishing online – I understand the thrill of immediate feedback. Using a fanfic frame helps make sure you’ll get that feedback, that your work will be immediately understandable, that it will find a sympathetic audience. In comparison, trying to publish a piece of “literary” fiction can feel like pissing in the wind. Some stories get years of rejection before being published. Others never get published at all. And it isn’t as if the audience numbers are better; in fact, there’s a high chance that more people read the work published on fanfiction.net than read the literary journals that have published my stories.

But there is one thing that sets this kind of fiction apart from fanfic, which is that these sorts of novels and stories present the possibility of appealing to a non-select audience. Yes, there are many situations in which they won’t get read at all, but if they do get read, there isn’t anything inherent in their subject holding them back, besides a certain density of language and a cash-poor marketing department.

Because despite my understanding veneer, I do have some firm principles when it comes to producing fiction. I think that fictional narratives are at their best when they teach a reader about something they didn’t know before – when they contain the possibility of changing their audience somehow, of opening them up to new perspectives, new ways of thinking about language, or ethics, or behavior. And while I think the laboratory of fan fiction helps many of my students develop their confidence with form, it also limits their ability to step outside of these forms, to take larger risks with their subjects. It sets boundaries.

*

Last semester a student of mine asked me to read his novel. As always, I said I would, once the semester was over. He warned me that it was Pokemon fan fiction, and so I gave the usual caveat, mentioned above. The student was undeterred; like a lot of students who write fanfic, he was interested in whatever feedback I could give.

(When you work with students who have, shall we say, an emotional attachment to much of their work, this perspective can be extremely refreshing.)

So I read the book. The Pokemon stuff wasn’t all that interesting to me, and I confess that there were moments, during battle scenes involving electric robots and esoteric strategies pulled from some universe with which I have no familiarity, that I was a little bored. But the more I read, the more I realized that I was reading a skillful work of pop fantasy; the character relationships were believable, the dialogue crisp, the emotions earned. Provided I was willing to speed through some of the more Pokemon-centric aspects of the narrative I found myself really enjoying it – not analyzing it, or criticizing it, but just enjoying it. It reminded me of the time when I was a teenager, and I read fantasy purely for pleasure.

So I wrote the student back, telling him I’d enjoyed it, and asking a question which is easy to pose and difficult to consider: could he move this story out of the world of Pokemon, and into a more original setting?

In posing this question, I knew I was exposing my inherent prejudices. As many of my fanfic students make clear to me, there are plenty of excellent writers of fanfic who have strong followings on the internet, and who write extremely well. My student might very well find a devoted and committed audience, if he chose to self-publish his book as is, and maybe I was insulting his chosen genre by suggesting he change his setting, re-working his narrative to make it more understandable for people like me.

Maybe so. But I’m a person with biases, and one of them is for the ideal of general readership. Even at a time when culture seems permanently divided into tiny niches, I think good writing has the potential to transcend these niches, to cross-pollinate, and I think that my Pokemon student is too good a writer to avoid the risk of moving out of his comfort zone and attempting this sort of cross-pollination.

The student wrote me back to say that he was willing to give it a shot.

So I was pleased, a few weeks ago, to find an email from him in my inbox. He was re-working the narrative, building his original world, and he wanted me to take a look at it. And I’m excited to do so, once this semester is over, and I have some free time.

I don’t know if this student’s book will be as successful, now that he’s removing the frame. It may be that he decides, in the end, that he just likes using a frame, and connecting with a particular audience. Writing a novel requires a lot of labor; isn’t it nice to know that in the end at least someone will read it – and wouldn’t you want to do the best you can to ensure that it finds an appreciative audience?

I’m sympathetic to this. I know this kind of disappointment well, having several novels that have never been read by more than five people. But I think students grow as writers by taking risks, and trying to convince an audience that has no prior buy-in of the importance of their work. It’s an extremely difficult task, and it often leads to years of frustration, but it also strikes me as the most important goal of fiction: making a world out of nothing, and convincing an unsuspecting reader to live in it for a while.

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