Expect the Inquisition, and Get the Flying Circus
by Rana Eros
Let me start out with what I feel is a very obvious truth, but which often
gets overlooked in kerfuffles on this subject: I am a fan of fanfiction. I love reading it, I love writing it, I love talking about it, I love that it exists in this world, the product of character-love and universe-love and the fertile imaginations of human beings unafraid to get creative. Like everyone of my fannish acquaintance, I am not here because I would otherwise have nothing to do with my leisure time. Indeed, there are several other activities I forego because I choose to be here, and my love for fandom, fannishness, and fannish end products is so great that I have been known to cut into non-leisure time in order to pursue them more fully.
So, just to be absolutely clear on this point, I engage in fandom because I choose to, because I love it. My engagement in fandom includes, but is not limited to, writing fanfiction, reading fanfiction, discussing fanfiction, beta-reading fanfiction, editing fanfiction, and critiquing fanfiction.
Yes, I did just say that my critiquing of fanfiction arises from my love for fanfiction. If this surprises you, perhaps you should rethink your assumptions about the purpose of criticism, and the motivations of critics, in fandom.
Look, I love my fannish sources. My books, television shows, movies, comics, manga, and music are sources of great joy to me. I wouldn't bother with them if they weren't. For years, I enjoyed these things alone. Then I stumbled across fandom, and it tickled me to death that here were other people who enjoyed these things just as much, and--wonder of wonders—were also inspired by these sources to create their own works. I happily read said works, and happily engaged in discussion about them. I discussed which ones I felt were truest to how I saw the source. I discussed which ones seemed to deviate from the source, and how successful I felt that deviation ones. I discussed which ones I thought fell apart due to internal logic errors, poor research, or mischaracterization. I discussed which ones I couldn't really get into enough to judge for the above qualities, due to misspellings, typos, grammar issues, etc. Just as I was engaging in my own fannishness when I wrote fanfiction, or read it, so I was engaging in my own fannishness when I critiqued it.
Imagine my surprise the first time somebody accused me of critiquing fanfiction because I hated fans, or the fannish source, or other people being creative. Imagine my puzzlement the first time somebody accused me of critiquing fanfiction because I wasn't creative myself, especially since said somebody had just sent me feedback for one of my own stories not two days before. Imagine my confusion the first time somebody accused me of critiquing fanfiction because I had no life, because to me that's such a non-sequitir. Nobody accuses me of having no life because I love my husband. Nobody accuses me of having no life because I go to the beach. Yet non-fans have accused me of having no life for being involved in fandom (and how seriously do they expect me to take such accusations when some of them play golf?), and certain fans have accused me of having no life for how I am involved in fandom. If I had no life, people, I'd be occupying the ass-ugliest urn my best friend could find at a place of honor during my own wake, then my husband would hire a ferry to go scatter my ashes over the Pacific. As it is, I sometimes have too much life, and would happily trade some of it in for seaQuest DSV on DVD.
And while I'm dreaming, I'd also like to win the lottery.
At any rate, critical discussion is just another way for me to participate fannishly, and I am often left very non-plussed by the arguments against it. "It's just fanfiction, as in FICTION written by a FAN," for example. Well, yes, so it is. Believe me, I'm not going around assuming your story is just the facts, ma'am. I am well aware of what fiction is, though I sometimes wonder if those who make this argument are also aware. Just for the sake of clarity, a definition from Merriam-Webster Online, "1 a : something invented by the imagination or feigned; specifically : an invented story b : fictitious literature (as novels or short stories) c : a work of fiction; especially : NOVEL 2 a : an assumption of a possibility as a fact irrespective of the question of its truth <a legal fiction> b : a useful illusion or pretense 3 : the action of feigning or of creating with the imagination."
As for the "fan" portion of the equation, here's another definition, also from Merriam-Webster Online: "1 : an enthusiastic devotee (as of a sport or a performing art) usually as a spectator 2 : an ardent admirer or enthusiast (as of a celebrity or a pursuit) <science fiction fans>." Now, some might argue that certain stories certainly don't seem to be written by fans, especially when accompanied by author's notes in which the author says she hates Character X or dislikes a fannish source and only wrote the story because her best friend likes it. Some might also argue that it's hard to see the fannishness in a story where the only resemblances to the source are the names of characters and places, and the physical descriptions. Still, I'm inclined to believe that fanfiction is one of those things that's in the eye (or mind) of the writer, and that if you intended your work to be fanfiction, then that's what it is. It may not be successful fanfiction, however, and that's where criticism comes into it.
I have been accused of both "taking fandom too seriously" and trying to scare away authors with my "elitist meanie grammar nazi" ways. For the first, I take all my hobbies seriously, at least the ones I intend to share with other people. It's a character flaw, maybe, but I like to present my best face in public. And if my best face has a smudge on it, I'm not going to hold it against people for noticing. I mean, I cook as a hobby, but when I enter a cooking contest, I fully expect to be judged on my ability. I knit as a hobby, and if I knit a sweater and wear it in public, I do so with the understanding that someone may point out where I skipped a stitch and threw the pattern off. I swim as a hobby, and before I got the knack of stroke and breathe down, I didn't yell at my fellow swimmers for pointing out, "Dude, don't do it that way. You're going to drown yourself." Do you see where I'm going with this? If you do your hobby in public, you're going to get a reaction. In the case of certain hobbies that don't have to be done in public (like, say, writing), then doing them in public indicates that you want a reaction. You may not want every reaction you get, but then, I don't exactly want to get chlorine in my eyes. That's the risk I take with swimming, and that's the risk you take with posting your writing.
As for scaring people away, let me go back to my basic premise. I love fanfiction. I'd love to see more of it for the sources I enjoy. Absolutely, I'd love that "more of it" to be comprised of stories that fit my own personal preferences, but I'll settle for readable, with characters at least vaguely recognizable as those in the source. That's what I'm trying to achieve when I critique, the encouragement of authors in directions that will yield stories I enjoy. If you are scared away, that is your own choice. No, really. I personally would prefer you stick around and give some hard thought to the points I raised in the critique of your story. Then I would prefer you write another story taking those points into consideration. It's your choice whether you run away, or stick around and listen to me, or stick around and ignore me. At the end of the day, I'm just another schmuck with a keyboard, and I have as much real impact on you as you give me.
Also, and this is something a lot of authors seem to have trouble comprehending, not all of my critical discussions of your story are expressly for your benefit. I may be using your story as an example in a discussion about a literary trend I like or dislike. I may be using it to illustrate how certain narrative choices affect our perceptions of the characters. I may just be giving my gut reaction to someone asking if I've read it. It's conceivable for an author to benefit by reading discussions such as those I've listed, but in my own experience, that's not the point of such discussions, and the participants will only wonder what the hell you're on about if you burst into the middle of such a discussion of one of your own stories and start ranting about how unhelpful it is to you. It's like complaining to my grandmother that you can't eat the wax fruit she used to decorate her mantel. Of course you can't, that's not what it's for. Now, you might luck out and be at her house for Christmas, when she decorates her mantel with real clove-studded apples and oranges, and those you can eat, but that's still not their purpose. Their purpose is decoration, and whether or not you can eat them is beside the point. Such is the case with some critical discussions.
As an author who has had her work discussed thusly, my advice to you is to just sit back and stay quiet. Eventually you'll figure out if you'll get any use out of the discussion. If not, wander away. If so, keep watching, but resist the urge to participate, unless you really feel you have an insight into your own story that will contribute to the discussion. Such discussions are usually about reader response and interpretation, and authorial interjections will only derail the whole process, and leave you with a certain portion of your audience feeling rather resentful. This will often impact how your next story is received, so if you're a raving egomaniac who likes lots and lots of glowing feedback (like, say, me), then it's best to just bite your tongue and either take notes or walk away, if you find you have to bite too hard.
One last thing. There are few arguments quite so ineffective as accusing people of flaming while calling them "idiots," or accusing them of being mean while calling them "dingdongs." If you truly believe that criticism of fanfiction (or any other form of fannish output) is in itself an unconscionable activity, then I would recommend that you not stoop to the tactics of which you accuse its practitioners. It does nothing but make your own arguments look hypocritical, and founded in personal grudges rather than righteous indignation or reason. My advice would be to lay out your objections calmly and logically, refrain from ad hominem attacks, and also watch both your generalizations and your assumptions. If you feel strongly that a thing needs to be said, don't you want to say it in the clearest, most persuasive manner possible?
Of course, that's the question at the heart of fanfiction concrit, most of the time. Judging by some people's reactions, maybe clarity of communication isn't the point, after all. Not that this will stop me from pointing it out when you express yourself poorly.