Fanart and fanfiction is a cultural phenomenon far older than the World Wide Web, but since the 1990s with constantly more people getting access to the net the community has grown. While in the early days of fan culture people mostly found likeminded people in a close circle of friends, in pen pals or via message boards the internet has broadened the audience and – as a new development – is heading in the direction of professionalising fanart and fanfiction, with authors switching from fandom writing to original fiction and artists known for their fan work start selling their art via e-shops. The fourth wall dividing fandom from the actual object of their admiration was never a stable one but the cracks in its surface are widening, the one way stream of cannon characters and plot flowing into fan’s work suddenly starts to reverse: fandom work starts leaking into canon.
None the less some fans still seem to think themselves part of a closed community of like minded people, imagining fandom as a kind of safe bubble. But to be honest: It is one that easily bursts. Whoever publishes his or her work in the Internet often reaches a wider audience than anticipated in the beginning.
To be honest I have been writing fanfiction for some time whenever I am in the mood for it. I started during my time at university when a friend came up with the idea, afterwards I paused for a few years only to pick up the habit recently. For me it was always about improving my writing skills beyond my journalistic work – first writing in German, later in English. I published under a pseudonym, because in the beginning I was rather shy about publishing anything at all. As an author one has always to put part of one’s own personality and soul into writing. Therefore I can quite clearly understand how close to the heart these stories can become – even if they are not well written or follow a rather strange path of action. For many writing fanfiction is a first step into the light as an author.
But one should never underestimate how many people are actually reading these stories. One story I published a few years ago today has about 27,000 hits on fanfiction.net – a count that would have certainly terrified me when first publishing it. I am rather self-conscious about my writing, and so are many especially young fanfiction authors. Therefore the shock might be even bigger when the comfortable bubble of fandom suddenly bursts and the story (or painting, or comic, or…) suddenly finds its way into a television show or a Q&A panel with famous television actors.
To give an example I will firstly stick to a television series I adore and that is – due to the airing of the third series – widely discussed at the moment: Sherlock. When in his Big Chat for Comic Relief Graham Norton confronted actor Martin Freeman, playing John Watson in the series, with some fan drawing (some sexual ones with Watson and Holmes having sex) there was an outcry among fans – especially younger ones. How could he? How could he, indeed?! Because the result is actually quite funny:
Martin Freeman on Graham Norton’s Big Chat for Comic Relief (the interesting part starts at 2:40)
Fanfiction and fanart can actually lead to surprising and sometimes unwanted fame and a rouse that shakes the fandom. In December 2013 after a British Film Institute (BFI) screening of “The Empty Hearse” – the first episode of series three of the BBC hit television programme “Sherlock” – the journalist and bestseller author Caitlin Moran, leading the Q&A panel, asked Benedict Cumberbatch and Co-Star Martin Freeman to read from a fanfiction she had found in the web, later leading to a shitstorm on Twitter and Tumblr.
Fans leaked a video:
Fans really got furious about this, some not only blaming Caitlin Moran but threatened and insulted her. Here are some examples:
And if you have got too much time to spare, listen to this fan’s rant (who was not at the panel, does not know who Caitlin Moran is and what her connection to the BBC and the actors might be and probably misinterprets her intention):
One of the more harmless reactions could be found on blogs and Tumblr, reviews and later discussions of what have happened. The interesting part: Most of those infuriated and angry never witnessed the session and only had second hand information. Like this teacher who wrote an open letter to Caitlin Moran:
“True, fanfic can be found on public platforms, but that doesn’t mean it’s fair game. Contrary to books, which are actively promoted on publication and submitted to reviews and, yes, mockery, fanfic is written by fans and for fans. Fanfiction writers don’t seek to get the attention of the general public, and even less of the people involved in the source material. Basically, we just want to be left alone in our sandbox to play. I’m sure you know what you did wasn’t illegal. But what you failed to realise is that it was cruel. You were too lazy or sloppy to do your job properly, so you decided to take a piece of fan creation you knew would embarrass the actors and used their reaction to turn it into ridicule, because that’s what all the cool kids like Graham Norton are doing. You didn’t stop and think for a second of how the author of the piece would feel. Because that’s not what you do, Caitlin, is it? Up there on your Olympus of edginess and pseudo-intellectualism, you don’t give a flying fuck who you offend, and especially not the nerds sitting at the table near the rubbish bin in the cafeteria (…) It doesn’t matter how many followers we have, or how many people read our fanfic or look at our fanart, or how many of them will like it. We do what we do because we need it to express ourselves, and because we are unable to stay passive when we feel strongly about something. And it will be a cold day in hell before any self-satisfied celebrity journalist with a superiority complex can stop us.”
I give it to those concerned about a wide readership and are clearly terrified of sudden public interest: Many fanfiction readers are writers themselves and regard a certain code of conduct. Critics for example are welcome but since most reviewers are writers themselves the close circle most likely protects from being ridiculed, treated too harshly or laughed about. Whoever does not like a story at all will probably stop reading instead of investing time to write a review. That supports the feeling of publishing in a safe environment.
But whoever publishes a story, a painting, a comic on a website – might it be the own blog or a publishing platform like fanfiction.net or deviantart.com – should consider that there are no boundaries to whoever might detect the story.
A few years ago it might have been true that fanfiction most certainly stayed in said community, but since media and corporations like Amazon found interest in them, since former fanfiction authors became bestselling authors the fandom bubble is no longer safe. A professionalisation of fanart and fanfiction is on its way and with that comes the shocking realization that often enough mainstream media explores the impact of television series, movies or books on the building or existing fandom. What Caitlin Moran did was taking this a step further – and she is not the only one – bringing professional actors and screenwriters together with fan output. Fans reacted with an outcry: Moran had intended to mock the fandom, had breached protecting barriers between stars and fans and had tried to humiliate the author. But is this really the case? Others had a completely different view on the whole Sherlock-Fandom-Caitlin-Moran incident. A blogger who attended the Q&A at the British Film Institute wrote an analysis on his blog describing not only the actual reading (as can be seen in the video) but also tried to find a reason behind the outcry – apart from the Moran-blaming.
“Benedict then made a statement. And it is this statement which I feel has caused all the uproar against Caitlin Moran. If Benedict hadn’t said this, the backlash towards Caitlin would not have happened, I am sure.
Benedict’s statement was this: “It’s just a point, I mean the fans can do what they like, but there’s a point, we do what we do with it, and that’s the fun we have with our fiction of it, is to point out that that [a kiss between John and Sherlock] is ludicrous in our universe of this storytelling. So, sorry to be all ‘mmmmm’ about it…*adopts cockney accent* His nibs ain’t doing that”.
Caitlin at this point apologised, explained that she was very sorry, and throws it open to the audience. All is rosy again. This was lighthearted.
Benedict’s statement caused the problem. The issue we have is that Benedict Cumberbatch, the star of the show and the hero to the fangirls, has just stated openly and publicly that he doesn’t like fan-fiction. This causes a problem, because the fans are not going to turn on him, are they? No chance. They’re not going to turn on the rest of the cast and crew either. No, they’re going to turn on the one easy target – Caitlin Moran.
And so, this is what happened. Even though everyone in that room thoroughly enjoyed the whole event, through countless generations of Chinese whispers and misheard/misunderstood comments, the whole Sherlock fandom formed an army against Caitlin Moran, bombarding her Twitter with all sorts of unpleasantness. She’s been accused of going into that Q+A with an agenda from the outset, to use Benedict and Martin as pawns in her carefully planned attack on the fandom. And then there’s the other angle, that the whole thing was a direct attack on fanfics and through that, a direct attack on feminism. To paraphrase Benedict, THAT’S ludicrous. It’s nonsense. Utter, utter nonsense.
I will state at this point that I am aware of the other issues people have raised in relation to the event, such as ‘was it morally/legally right for this author’s work to be performed without permission?’ or ‘what about the breaking of the fourth wall (mixing up fan-fiction with the actual original canon actors)?’ but these are questions for other people to discuss and debate. I just want to put the actual unbiased facts out there, as it’s obvious that a great deal of misinformation has been fed to people through blogs and Twitter.
At worst, the introduction of the fanfic to proceedings was an error of judgement on Caitlin’s part. Simply that, a mistake. And I do have sympathy for the writer of said fanfic, who has stated that she never wanted the cast to read her work. But it certainly wasn’t torn apart like it’s being suggested it was.
For those who launched their tirades against Caitlin for ‘breaking the fourth wall’ and sharing fan-created material with the stars of the show, I’m reminded of a talk some time ago, where Martin Freeman was asked by a young fangirl whether he would wear ‘red pants’ for the show, to which the whole room full of fangirls shrieked with excitement, while Martin called them ‘dirty minded f**kers’. This was a direct reference to fan-made material involving artwork featuring John Watson in red underwear, and a direct request for the actor to wear said underwear in the show. Interesting then how this fourth wall opinion has now changed, simply because Caitlin Moran is someone in the public eye.”
That the clear boundaries, the so called fourth wall, do no longer exist between fanfiction and reality shows an incident Alice Teeple wrote about shortly after the Caitlin Moran bashing on Twitter and Tumblr started:
„(…) a few months ago, Moran herself was a character in a racy “real-life” fan fiction about Louise Brealey and Benedict Cumberbatch: not the characters they play, but the actual Louise and Benedict.
Someone called this to Brealey’s attention months ago on Twitter. Moran and Brealey handled it with a good sense of humour and gently joked around about the idea, but I imagine that when actors are presented with this sort of thing, it must be quite uncomfortable. It would make sense that Moran would find this ripe fodder for mockery, being thrown into someone’s strange fantasy about real, actual people – not fictional characters. You know why? IT’S CREEPY WEIRDNESS.”
Or as Louise Brealey, who plays Molly Hooper in the series, once put in a tweet.
So much for “The actors don’t know about…”
Examples for real life people becoming part of fanfiction can easily be found with a simple google search, the story’s summary for example points out: “Benedict asks Louise to be his date to the London premiere of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Sexy fluff ensues.“
Or this Tumblr stories dedicated to female characters getting laid by Benedict Cumberbatch in different variations:
The breaching of the barrier between fan culture and actual television was even acknowledged in the new series of Sherlock when the writers included theories of Sherlock’s fake suicide that beforehand had been part of fan speculation. The fans’ reaction to that varied from being thrilled and exited to feeling mocked by the authors.
It’s not a phenomenon limited to television series or movies, the internet is full of teenage dreams of One Direction, complete websites are dedicated to the British-Irish boy band like http://onedirectionfanfiction.com
Here is a small collection made by fuse.tv
Writing about non-fictional characters, actual living human beings, crushes those imagined barriers between fandom and reality to dust. I can only guess that – apart from being flattered by all that attention – for musicians or actors reading such stories must at least be a bit creepy. It is like looking into your fans’ head knowing some of them having wet dreams about you in the night, imagine you as a sex god, drug addict or a ruthless murderer while waiting for you to sign an autograph…
But it would be insufficient to speak about fanart and -fiction getting a wider audience than the close community of fanartists and -writers without mentioning approaches of professionalisation. Certain projects aim at a wider audience, breaking the barrier between fan made art and stories and professional publishing.
To remain at the example of Sherlock one has to mention the artist Alice X. Zhang, who first published extraordinary fanwork at deviantart.com, painting Sherlock motives as well as Doctor Who portraits and scenes.
To get a grasp of the artist’s beautiful work browse here:
What is even more interesting: Some of her works can now be bought in the official BBC-Shop making fanart part of an official merchandise.
Another attempt to professionalise fanart and fanfiction takes place on crowdfunding platforms like kickstarter.com. Fans for example raised money for a comic book project illustrating “The story of Sir Boast-a-Lot”, told by Sherlock villain Moriarty:
Based on that tiny little part of the television series 15 fans (some of them professional artists and illustrators) made a comic strip, financed as a crowdfunding project on Kickstarter they raised $32,000 of a $5,000 goal, 1,255 people backed the project. The money was used to lessen the price of the published book, which can be bought for 15$ including worldwide shipping costs (I ordered one to Germany but there might be some countries with shipping restrictions). And it is a price worth paying if you are into Sherlock because the illustrations and the paper quality are really good.
It is not the only fan based comic or book made, look for example at those made by reapersun:
Big Bang Press makes a completely different approach and raised money to publish original fiction written by (former) fanfiction authors. The independent publisher chose three original novels “ranging in genre from Young Adult Fantasy to Literary Fiction”. “If you take a look at some excerpts from their manuscripts, you’ll be able to tell that these guys are the real deal. We want to be able to share their work with the world, and prove that fanfiction writers can be as good as (or even better than) many successful mainstream published novelists,” is the project summarized on Kickstarter. And further down: “It’s true that mainstream publishing industry is slowly catching onto the fact that the fanfiction community represents a huge, untapped pool of writing talent.” But still many would not understand how to locate the best writers, a goal Big Bang Press claims to have achieved due to their knowledge of fan culture.
In a selection process the publishers from Big Bang Press chose 15 people from a shortlist of 30 novel length fanfiction writers and asked them to send in three chapters of an intended original novel. Three authors were chosen after a blind read.
1,174 people backed the project and raised $53,890 to publish three titles: “A hero at the End of the World” by Erin Clairborne, “Juniper Lane” by Kady Morrison and “Savage Creatures” by Natalie Wilkinson. The raised money is claimed to be used for advanced payment ($5000 for each author), publishing costs, Kickstarter fees as well as payment for editorial staff, web and graphic designer.
Excerpts of the original stories can be found on the publisher’s website:
There is money to make out of fanfiction and that is something small and big companies have discovered. With Kindle Worlds even Amazon has built a platform for fanfiction publishing and tries to invade the world of fanfiction story telling. Kindle World proclaims to give fanfiction authors a well deserved way to actually earn money with their writing. This might be true. But on the contrary Amazon is not a benefit organisation and therefore one has to assume that the wide readership and the possibility to gain access to new customer groups was far more a motive than simply being nice to authors.
Kindle Worlds Website:
Until now Amazon bought the rights to publish fanfiction only for a few franchises like “Gossip Girl” or “The Vampire Diaries” but it is anticipated that others will follow should the project run successfully.
And of course Kindle Worlds has other limits as well: There is an not unimportant part in fandom writing that is quiet descriptive sexual stuff. Especially slash fiction featuring two or more male characters in various sexual positions enjoy great popularity at the moment. And here fanfiction publishing on Kindle Worlds finds its first barriers. Or as it is put in the publishing guidelines: “Each World Licensor will have a different tolerance for mature content and a sense of what is appropriate for their audience. Their guidelines for each World are posted on the Kindle Worlds Self-Service Submission Platform. We’ll review your submission to make sure it is in bounds. If we have any questions during the review process, we’ll let you know. In general, we have a strong bias to give as much creative freedom as possible within each World.” For stories about the before mentioned “The Vampire Diaries” and “Gossip Girl” it is clearly stated: “1. Pornography: We don’t accept pornography or offensive depictions of graphic sexual acts.” Actually there is currently not one franchise on Kindle Worlds that allows porn. The same applies to crossover stories, crossing characters and storyline from different movies or books.
The other point is the restriction to licensed works. Fanfiction itself normally lives in a grey area of copyright issues – accepted by most authors (but not all) but actually not entirely legal. Kindle Worlds now gives the opportunity to push fan work over into an absolutely legal and safe area but at the cost that authors have to accept certain terms and conditions: While authors keep the copyright Amazon gets an exclusive license. Speaking for example about “The Vampire Diaries” stories this means Amazon can license the fanfiction author’s work to Time Warner (who runs the series) and some legal advisers argue that Amazon would not even own the writer any money for that. The guideline on the other hand states: “In order to avoid any questions about the origination of story ideas, Amazon Publishing and the World Licensors have reserved the right to create movies, TV shows, games, merchandise, and other derivative works based on the stories and new elements published by Kindle Worlds. If a movie, TV show, or game gets made based on your story or elements in your story, you will benefit from the ongoing royalties generated from sales of your work.”
Authors furthermore have to transfer Amazon an exclusive right: “Stories must be exclusive to Kindle Worlds and may not appear or be published in other places. If you would like, you can promote your story by making available up to 20% of your work for free on your website or blog. We recommend linking it back to your detail page.” And “once your story has been accepted and published in Kindle Worlds, we are unable to revert the rights”.
But is that acceptable to a culture that is used to do as it likes: Write and rewrite, publish bits and pieces or complete stories on blogs, Tumblr, various fanfiction publishing sites etc.? In fanart there are generally no rules, trespassing is not only allowed but cherished: Characters suddenly have wings, men are pregnant or characters change their sexes entirely. Sherlock Holmes meets Harry Potter or Doctor Who or both and dead Severus Snape is very much alive having sex with Hermione Granger. I would like to see that on Kindle Worlds…
In the end it is hard to say in which direction this professionalisation of fan made art and fiction is heading, if a professional money earning approach works or if it will lead to a fan boycott of professional websites like Kindle Worlds. Perhaps fans will continue to stick to the close spaceship called fandom that does not live from capitalistic approaches on earning money with writing but the idea of sharing: the sharing of thoughts, ideas and the love for certain television series, books and movies. A love an outsider will perhaps never experience in a way those do who are part of the community.
More about fanfiction: