If you haven’t read The Boy Who Lived Forever by Lev Grossman, the TIME article about the legitimacy of fanfiction, you should. It’s a good primer for the new, and a good reminder, if you’re a veteran, of why we fandom.
It touches on the origins of fandom (zines for The Man from U.N.C.L.E and Star Trek) and American slash (Kirk/Spock). It takes a brief foray into the ethics and legality of fanfiction (curse you and your ignorant view on fanfiction, Anne Rice, I say). And of course, it speaks to what is it today, and how it got there. Most importantly, though, is the discussion what it means to write fanfiction- that fic writers are not simply people who can’t cut writing their own original work. Professional writers indulge in writing fanfiction too. In fact, some writers write licenced “professional fanfiction” for a living.
It’s not about stealing, it’s about playing in the playground with the best possible equipment. Writers can explore a built world without having to build it themselves. The motivations for writing fanfiction are as diverse as the fics themselves.
It’s not just about fanfiction, but fanart, too. “Fanartists” take a lot of scrutiny for profiting off of another person’s intellectual property. While it is true that some artists sell their fanworks, that act does not define the act of making fanart. It is still the act of playing in the prefurnished playground, it provides characters, themes and narratives available to make art from. The alternative is drawing “original work.” This could entail writing your own narrative and characters in order to illustrate them, or illustrating characters with undetermined personality. But what if the artist is not a writer?
Remember that many of our favorite artists are, in a sense, professional fanartists. Adam Hughes is one of my favorite illustrators, well-known for his amazing comic book cover art of everything from Cat Woman to Wonder Woman and beyond. But those aren’t “his” characters, and he didn’t invent them. On technicality, he’s not a “fanartist” because he is doing the work officially, and for pay. He is then just an “artist,” whether or not he’s a “fan.” This is not to degrade him- he is a professional fanartist, and that is a career I envy.
So I think it’s unfair to berate authors and artists of fandom, because it’s unfair to assume that they want to create their own original works. Some do, and may also, or may eventually. Accomplished and well-loved original webcomic artist Elena Barbarich (known as Yamino online) has never been apologetic about her Avatar: The Last Airbender fanart.
And she shouldn’t. And neither should you.
But that Yamino is also a “professional artist” does not legitimize her desire to make fanart. It does not need legitimizing. Other fanartists are office workers, teachers, stay-at-home-moms and dads and everything in between, who do it for fun, and who have no illusions about making their hobby any part of their professional pursuits.
Fanworks are legitimate. That’s the bottom line. The whole idea that we should feel ashamed of or feel the need to apologize for making fanworks is ridiculous.