I was lucky enough to be asked to participate in a roundtable discussion about non-linear fiction. We talked about tools for creating nonlinear fiction, how one decides what stories to tell, etc. At the end of the evening, I was asked for my opinion about fanfic.
To most people, “fanfic” is something written mainly by sad, nerdy teenagers who spend too much time fantasizing about their favorite fictional worlds, or by middle-aged women who have no lives apart from the quasi-pornographic books they consume in huge quantities. They write awkward, terrible prose about the character pairings they wish they could see, or the scenes they feel have been left out of their favorite books. But to limit your notion of fan fiction to those scenarios is to limit your understanding of what fiction is and how writing works.
The first stories people shared were of two kinds: recounting battles, or explaining nature. When talking about defeating enemies on the battlefield, or about hunting difficult prey, they gave their opponents glorious attributes so that their own victories sounded that much more impressive. These stories became myths and legends that many of us still recount today, and those myths and legends became the seeds of other stories. Before people developed the tools and the disciplines we know as “science,” they made up stories about the natural world to explain things whose origins or causes weren’t immediately obvious. Again, those stories became myths and legends, and went on to inspire generations of stories. The point is, these tales were created from observation of an actual event.
Later, people made up stories that were based on those original stories, rather than on the events in those stories. And more stories were based on those first stories. This was so common that the Bible itself says “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
Putting aside the notion of recycled plots, there is the notion of how we teach writing. One of the most important things any writer can do is to read the works of others. Reading critically, with an eye toward picking out exactly how authors achieve the effects that move their audiences, is the best way to make one’s own writing stronger. So, it seems a little disingenuous to tell people “study other writers” and then denigrate them for trying their hand at similar writing. There are great writers out there, like Lois McMaster Bujold, Meg Cabot, Neil Gaiman, and Orson Scott Card who started out by copying authors who came before them.
At the end of the day, the writing we deride as “fanfic” is often just fiction written by someone whose name you haven’t heard yet and whose literary influences are particularly identifiable. Does that make it unworthy of critical attention? Absolutely not! How are the great writers of tomorrow going to learn their craft, if not at the feet of the great writers of today?