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On writing: part one: the nature of fanfiction: a modest suggestion - Wemyss's Appalling Hobby:
From the Party Guilty of Committing 'Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn'
On writing: part one: the nature of fanfiction: a modest suggestion

There has been of late considerable discussion – as there seems always to be – of fanfiction, what it is and how its writers approach the writing of it.


All, or almost all, of this has been very interesting indeed.  None, or almost none, of it has spoken to my own views and experience.


May I suggest that, in many ways, if not all, fanfiction – the creation of derivative works – is a sort of subgenre (on the wrong side of the blanket) of a perfectly respectable and well-regarded literary genre; that of historical fiction and allohistory (alternate / alternative history)?


The writer of historical fiction, including allohistorical fiction, confronts a ‘canon’ of facts and characters (and these as a rule already well-documented as to the entries that well-meaning polytechnic lecturers tell aspiring writers to put on index cards when creating a fictional character) already established – and established by some agency other than the writer’s own creative imagination.  The historical novelist makes the choice to write of these events and characters in accordance with ‘canon’ – bar perhaps inserting a fictional hero such as a Hornblower or a Sharpe to interact with the various Wellesleys and Picton and Collingwood and Nelson and all; the allohistorian makes the choice to take canonical events and characters in hand, and then to ask, What if the events of Quatre Bras or Trafalgar went the other way?  Yet both are dealing with a world and with established characters they did not create.  They are ‘filling in the gaps’ in a way that must be eminently familiar to the writer of fanfiction.  (At least this is true of those who write fanfic derived from printed works, and, I can only conclude, of those who write RPF; I cannot speak to fanfic deriving from the cinema and the telly.)


There is a sense, I confide, in which Michael Dobbs, say, in writing historical fiction centring on Churchill in the war years, is effectively functioning in the same fashion as does the fanfiction writer who sets his fanfic in Dobbs’s House of Cards universe.


What, after all, does fanfiction do?  It takes given events and characters – either those who are in the news or are celebrated, or those created by a published writer – and goes behind the ‘record’ to ‘fill in the gaps’, to ‘write what has not been written’; or of course it takes these events and characters and asks the allohistorian’s ‘What if?’ question, and writes out an answer.  This is precisely what historical fiction, including allohistory, does.  It is as foolish to sledge off fanfiction for taking an event or a character as a datum, a ‘given’, as it were to condemn historical fiction and alternat(iv)e history for writing ‘derivatively’ of its data.


For what, after all, does historical fiction do?  It takes given events and characters which and whom the author did not create, and goes behind the ‘record’ to ‘fill in the gaps’, to ‘write what has not been written’; or of course it takes these events and characters and asks the allohistorian’s ‘What if?’ question, and writes out an answer.  As function, as process, as means, as craft, as technique, is this not precisely what the writer of fanfiction does (or, it must be said, given the quality of much Vole-Pit-like work, at least means to do, if sometimes unknowingly and often poorly)?


It may be argued, perhaps, that Cornwell and Heyer and CS Forester and Robert Graves were writing at less of a remove from their sources than those who write fanfiction based upon the worlds created by others (although this argument, surely, breaks down for RPF fen, does it not).  Perhaps – although it could be contended, at least, that Robert Graves is in effect writing Suetonian fanfic in his Claudius novels at least.  But if Livy was the first writer of counterfactuals, perhaps Vergil was the first writer of fanfic.  Whether the source be historical events, unmediated, as in the case of a writer of historical fiction, or another writer’s universe as in the case of fanfiction authors, the salient fact remains that both are engaged in the same acts and use the same technique.


It’s quite respectable company, really, for the ragtag band we are – and it explains in many cases what draws perfectly respectable members of the former company, or actual historians and such small deer, into the surreptitious writing or reading of fanfiction, thus answering the question, Que diable allait-il faire dans cette galère?


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lily_fayline From: lily_fayline Date: February 15th, 2008 07:47 pm (UTC) (Link)
Pssst...George McDonald Fraser: Flashman did originate in Tom Brown's Schooldays! In other words: good point of view!
wemyss From: wemyss Date: February 15th, 2008 08:22 pm (UTC) (Link)

Indeed. How cd I forget?

(Well, other than my GMcDF tastes run to Pte McAuslan.)

Thank you.
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wemyss From: wemyss Date: February 15th, 2008 08:32 pm (UTC) (Link)

Ta, love.

I don't know that Claudius is, quite, a Sue. But it cd be argued he is, I suppose.

I gnash my teeth over anachronistic HF; I tend to be canon-reliant in FF, but not to the same extent - possibly because the canon is literary, already fictive. I'll want to think upon that more thoroughly.

I suppose all FF is a form of criticism, yes. Some tropes I employ consciously and with that intent, although largely in reacting to other FF I disagree with: there are those who have suggested that my HP fics, with their intentional refutations of certain HP FF cliches, are, really, 'one long Britpick', and I cannot fully rebut that claim. Yet overall, I think I write out of affection more than out of a quarrel, even a lover's quarrel, with the source or the fandom.
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From: tree_and_leaf Date: February 15th, 2008 07:58 pm (UTC) (Link)
Of course, there's the further point that originality, and indeed fiction itself, has been prized for a comparatively short period of the history of literature. Fanfic, as we now define it, in effect is the literature of the middle ages, and if it was in fact original, it had to pretend to be otherwise.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: February 15th, 2008 08:32 pm (UTC) (Link)

Oh, quite.

That's a very important point. Thank you.
sgt_majorette From: sgt_majorette Date: February 15th, 2008 08:01 pm (UTC) (Link)

ooooh... Heyer and Graves...

And what happens if the author of the "canon" is still alive to be berated by frustrated fanfic writers for "getting it wrong" and depriving them of their right to use their imaginations in continuing the stories?

That's the most bizarre feature of Potterverse fanfic. I blame the Internet.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: February 15th, 2008 08:34 pm (UTC) (Link)

The most bizarre of many such.

It's always my default position to blame the Net.

I admit to a certain distaste for the attitude you describe and that we both see all too often. And yet....
sollersuk From: sollersuk Date: February 15th, 2008 08:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
I've done a couple of posts on fanficrants on the aspects that historical fiction and fanfic have in common, so we are very much singing off the same hymnsheet here! What I was basically saying in them is that "canon is king" but if you do it properly you can tweak it, particularly by inserting OCs. But you do have to be careful.

I must say, I very much like your "wrong side of the blanket" comment!
wemyss From: wemyss Date: February 15th, 2008 08:35 pm (UTC) (Link)

Now all we want is a tenor and an alto.

Do send me the links to yr essays, won't you?

And I anticipate that we are in complete accord.
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fpb From: fpb Date: February 16th, 2008 06:34 am (UTC) (Link)
The proper question is: "What if Bismarck had died before he could manipulate the Ems Telegram?" It is not a crazy one, either: the man was hated and had already suffered at least one attempted assassination. The trouble with focussing on Napoleon III's health is that he had no control of events: once Bismarck's lies had infuriated French public opinion, the war was going to happen whoever ruled France, and in whatever condition his health was.
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tudorpot From: tudorpot Date: February 15th, 2008 11:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
Interesting essay. Thanks for the Micheal Dodds reference. I'm a serious Churchill fan. Have wishlisted his books on bookmooch. I wish Wm. Manchester had finished his books on Churchill.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: February 16th, 2008 05:00 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thank you.

As to Dobbs, you'll be glad you did.

As to Manchester je suis de votre avis.
fpb From: fpb Date: February 16th, 2008 06:31 am (UTC) (Link)
That would explain why I keep making up alternative histories in my mind (EG: what if the British Empire had never taken part in the First World War? What if Napoleon had not invaded Russia?) and also produce quite a bit of fanfic.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: February 16th, 2008 05:01 pm (UTC) (Link)

Indeed it would do.

Shocking number of historians dabbling in fanfic as a hobby, actually.
themolesmother From: themolesmother Date: February 16th, 2008 07:48 am (UTC) (Link)
As a lover of properly done alternative histories your argument rings a good many bells with me. I also shudder when confronted with historical novels laden with anachronistic characters and settings or fanfiction that completely trashes canon.

We are, as you say, practitioners of a literary form born "on the wrong side of the blanket" but we should still try and do the thing properly if we're going to do it at all.

Excellent essay, sir.

wemyss From: wemyss Date: February 16th, 2008 05:05 pm (UTC) (Link)


It's not much more than a century gone since the detective novel was in just these straits - when came along GKC, Mgr Knox, and Miss Sayers, with the Detection Club springing from their brows like Athena, dedicated to writing even potboilers in the best possible English.

We can but labour towards a similar standard.

I'm vy much obliged to you for yr kind support.
froganon From: froganon Date: February 16th, 2008 06:00 pm (UTC) (Link)

nice essay

Here I must interject that I believe that J.K. Rowling departed from her own canon when she outed Dumbledore after it was all over with.
I'd much rather have had her out Remus for after all the actor was directed to play the part as if.

My dead aunt was writing what she called a "faction" of her life-- a fictionalized account of how she came to be diagnosed with m.s. and the environs remaining pure as it were.

I think there is room to violate a canon provided the writers are well enough acquainted with the canon itself. It is those who attempt to manufacture reality out of whole cloth without knowing how to hold the scissors that is the unique problem.

And that turn of phrase the wrong side of the blanket I found decidedly delicious.

wemyss From: wemyss Date: February 16th, 2008 07:25 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thank you.

Although I'm not sure if in fact an author can violate her canon, although I quite take your point.

And the bit about whole cloth and the scissors is perfectly put.

Edited at 2008-02-16 07:27 pm (UTC)
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wemyss From: wemyss Date: February 17th, 2008 03:21 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thank you. my dear.

And of course you're quite right about earlier literature.

(Yr brother the classical man: he's a Tab, isn't he.)
redsnake05 From: redsnake05 Date: February 19th, 2008 04:16 am (UTC) (Link)
Here via metafandom...

Thank you for writing this. I have long been a fan of Heyer, and have wondered if she, perhaps, should be considered a BNF in Regency RPF. Particularly Regency Buck - her most wooden leading characters (IMO), with the most delightful portrait of Beau Brummell.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: February 19th, 2008 03:38 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thank you.

I think that's a very fair comment on Heyer. And it wd be equally accurate to describe Forester, O'Brien, and Cornwell as the BNFs of the fanfictional wars against Boney.
elspethdixon From: elspethdixon Date: February 19th, 2008 08:19 am (UTC) (Link)
May I suggest that, in many ways, if not all, fanfiction – the creation of derivative works – is a sort of subgenre (on the wrong side of the blanket) of a perfectly respectable and well-regarded literary genre; that of historical fiction and allohistory

I'd actually say that historical fiction was a subset of fanfiction -- or at least, alternate-history is the lovechild of fanfic and historical fiction. What are Harry Turtledove's books if not (endless, OMG, endless) Civil War AU fanfic? But yeah, word to fanfic and historical fiction operating on similar "fill in the gaps and extrapolate from canon" principles. In, say, HP fandom, the books are your canon, whereas if you're writing, say, a novel about WWII fighter pilots, or about the Gunfight at the OK Corral, or about what would have happened if the American Revolution had taken place in 1807 (to use some examples from my own former writing projects or lists of future plotbunnies), then your canon includes Richard Hillary's The Last Enemy and pilot manuals for the Supermarine Spitfire, or articles from the Tombstone Epitaph and biographies of Wyatt Earp, or massive volumes of historiography about the American Republic period. Either way, you're writing within the parameters of a pre-existing world that you only know through reading the canon.

My one foray into RPS was a college semester spent writing Wyatt Earp/Doc Holliday slash, which started out as Tombstone fanfic and quickly became AU historiocal fiction as my writing partner and I did more and more research on Doc, Wyatt, Bat Masterson, et al.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: February 19th, 2008 03:44 pm (UTC) (Link)


I think that's all of it spot-on. And I wd note that one thing that seems always to lift a fanfic above others is that its writer has begun by idly wishing to write about X and Y in situation Z, and clearly been drawn into Serious Research (which is not dropped as raw ore into the story but alloyed into it, mind), and thus Gets Thinsg Right.

Thank you very much for so obliging and well-reasoned a comment. (I am chuffed to see that I am getting nothing save excellent and sensible comments here, all-'round.)
undomielregina From: undomielregina Date: February 19th, 2008 09:36 am (UTC) (Link)
from metafandom

I may have something useful to say on this topic, but only after I'm done squeeing over the fact that you referenced House of Cards. I've only seen the miniseries (and yes, I'm aware they changed the end) and the 'verse is so little known that you made my night.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: February 19th, 2008 03:46 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thank you.

I want to bring my FU icon back, don't I.

Delighted to have been of service.
etrangere From: etrangere Date: February 19th, 2008 10:22 am (UTC) (Link)
That makes the fact that my first slash pairings were all historical homosexual affairs much more sensical in a way :D

Great point and well argumented.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: February 19th, 2008 03:47 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thank you, you're very kind to say so.

And it does make sense in this way, doesn't it.
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