Death of a Fan Fiction Snob
How Big Magic made me ditch my disdain for fan fiction
This week, all people on social media want to talk about is whether Twitter is dying. To me, it’s not as strong a conversion tool as it once was for driving eyeballs to content, but you can’t beat it for cultural conversation.
Take publishing. We’re lucky to be alive at a time when writers whose creative work has traditionally been ignored are speaking back to the establishment, demanding to be heard and represented. If you’re on Twitter, you can skulk hashtags like #weneeddiversebooks and #publishingsowhite and watch in real-time as the barriers created by racism, the patriarchy, classism, colonialism, and ableism start to fall to the wayside.
Like their Hollywood counterparts, agents, publishers and booksellers seem to be grasping that there’s money in creative work that includes a wider array of human experience than that produced exclusively by white guys for white guys.
Yet in the midst of all this change, people need stable rage points to cling to lest the whole frame of reference for literary exclusion and snobbery disappear.
Ergo: “Fan fiction is terrible.”
I mean, is there a more perfect literary scapegoat to kick as you smugly tell yourself: “I may not be crushing this draft but by God at least I’m not writing fan fiction?”
Which basically makes fan fiction the reality TV of the literary world.
Until recently, that’s exactly what I thought.
50 Shades of Think Piece
Last year, as Fifty Shades of Gray scrolled across e-readers everywhere, made truckloads of money at the box office, and spawned a thousand hot-takes, I wrote this essay arguing that commercial fan fiction’s rise is morally and creatively bankrupt.
I put a lot of effort into drawing lines between “real” adaptations and fan fiction; in reality, the pedigree for literary borrowing clearly flows all the way back to Shakespeare’s pen and beyond. Adrian Fridge, whose piece I was responding to, rightly called me out for that. In digital culture, it’s easier than ever to consume, remix, and share content in response to a piece of art. That doesn’t mean it’s new or unique to fiction. It’s equally rampant in music, visual art and other art forms.
Like everyone who wrote about fan fiction in 2015, I invested considerable effort in giving E. L. James the side-eye for commercializing fan fiction with Fifty Shades, took a few pot shots at its literary origin source (Twilight), and segued into bashing fans who want to express their love for a cultural product while running roughshod over the creator’s vision. I encouraged these misguided fools to create their own worlds.
You know, so they can be “real” writers.
When I read that essay now, I’m embarrassed by its arrogance and judgement. What I see in its self-righteous sentences is someone who is afraid.
Deeply, deeply afraid.
Perfectionism is elitism is “fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat”
Have you read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic?
You’ve probably heard of her most famous book — Eat, Pray, Love — in which she wrote about using a year of travel to Italy, India and Indonesia to rebuild her life after a traumatic divorce. A runaway bestseller, Eat, Pray, Love made Gilbert a household name, complete with appearances on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and a movie adaptation starring Julia Roberts.
I admire the book and love Gilbert’s Ted talks about creativity. So when I heard she was writing a book about creative living, I was on board. I’ve been recommending Big Magic to writing friends ever since.
It may surprise you, but Gilbert’s take on creativity in Big Magic is democratic. She doesn’t view it with elitist eyes nor does she treat it as analogous to marathon preparation: “follow THESE steps, would-be writers, and you’ll eventually produce something good enough for the gatekeepers.”
In Big Magic, Gilbert is blunt about the hard work, skill building, perseverance and luck required for any creative act to succeed on the scale some of hers have. Being a writer, she talks most about writing, but emphasizes that all creative people are beginners, even successful creators like herself. She’s also a lot more interested in how creativity enhances human lives, blunts our suffering and creates personal satisfaction, provided you don’t prematurely demand that it also pay your bills. Big Magic advocates for setting personal goals for a creative act that are separate from the finished thing’s future audience and reception.
Consider this passage where Gilbert describes why perfectionists often don’t begin, let alone finish, creative projects:
I think perfectionism is just a high-end, au couture version of fear. I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant, when actually it’s just terrified.
As a recovering perfectionist, let me say that in those two short sentences, Gilbert strikes my twitchy tribe exactly in her crosshairs.
At that point and others, she made me think a lot about what writing gets valued, particularly in the context of elitism: perfectionism’s snooty cousin who’s always lounging in some corner, smoking a cigarette as it stares down its nose at you and everything you love.
But she also points out — constantly and firmly — that when you create, you have no control over the response to your art. People create for personal reasons and to the best of their skills. If you value your work, no one can take that from you.
The flip side is: people can do with your creation what they want. And you can’t stop them.
Nor should you want to.
So if that’s true — and I deeply believe that it is — who am I to look down on fan fiction and the people who write and enjoy it? What makes what I’m doing any more valuable than what fans are doing to express their passion for a story or its characters?
Exposed by the spider on the shower wall
For whatever reason, fan fiction never crept into my genre love, though I have certainly loved stories that have spawned their fair share. From my teens, Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Wheel of Time come to mind. Later, I loved Battlestar Galactica and The Lord of the Rings films. But it wasn’t until the popularity and financial success of stories like Fifty Shades made fan fiction ubiquitous that I gave it much thought at all.
When I did, it was akin to what I feel upon spotting a spider in the shower: a strange, sickly discomfort of panic and exposure that has more to do with my nakedness than the spider or its business.
The longer I digested Big Magic, the harder it was to squirm away from this uncomfortable truth: that my disdain for fan fiction had more to do with crapping on someone else to avoid feeling uncertain about my own writing and its chances of success.
And as I read posts like “My Love Letter to FanFiction: Or, how fanfiction is the turducken of literature and a lot more important to (some) WOC than you probably think” and listened to people like @MarieMJS talk about what fan fiction means to them as a genre, I began to appreciate its power as a tool to open up wider spaces for inclusion.
Thinking as I did was punching down at people whose passion was no threat to me or anything I’m up to.
But if you write, it’s easy to feel threatened. Content creation in any medium is a tough game right now. Combine that with the publishing industry’s traditional model of exclusion and it’s easy to look at all these changes through the lens of scarcity. As Tom Scocca writes in “On Smarm”:
The old systems of prestige — the literary inner circles, the top-ranking daily newspapers, the party leadership — are rickety and insecure. Everyone has a publishing platform and no one has a career.
If you accept that and a book grounded in fan fiction like Fifty Shades breaks out, it’s easy to misread your longing or jealousy for similar achievements as contempt. It’s certainly much kinder to your ego than the truth.
I suspect Liz Gilbert would be the first to say that that’s no way to live: thanks to the rise of smartphones and platforms like Wattpad, there have never been so many voracious readers on this planet. And it’s never been as easy to put your stuff out there and possibly try to find a home for it.
As my Grade 8 teacher used to say to me (with no small amount of exasperation), “Live and let live, Liz. Live and let LIVE.”
That’s how you find the biggest magic.