What is Fanfiction?

This is partly a follow-up to my MZB vs. Fanfiction post from last week, and partly a response to a much-linked post at http://bookshop.livejournal.com/1044495.html which answers author criticism of fanfiction by saying, “You’ve just summarily dismissed as criminal, immoral, and unimaginative each of the following Pulitzer Prize-winning works…”  The post presents a list of works including the Star Trek: Strange New Worlds anthologies, the Tina Fey skits of Sarah Palin, Gaiman’s brilliant Holmes/Cthulhu story “A Study in Emerald,” and many more.

A recent (now deleted) post by a commercial fantasy author described works like Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, among others, as fanfiction.  Though when I asked about my princess novels (fairy tale retellings), she stated that they were not fanfiction.

I’m officially confused.  To me, this feels like a very broad definition.  I’m not going to try to argue that my personal definition of fanfiction is the right one … but it’s difficult — almost pointless — to have a conversation when you can’t agree on what the words mean.

Do we define fanfiction from a legal/licensing standpoint?  If so, anything published either with the legal permission of the copyright holder (Star Trek: Strange New Worlds) or based on public domain works (“A Study in Emerald”) would not be fanfiction.

Almost every fanfic author I’ve spoken to has explained that the culture of fanfiction strongly condemns commercialization of fanfic … if that’s so, then isn’t the bookshop LJ post violating that fundamental tenant by listing so many commercially published works?

For a much deeper legal analysis, see http://scrivenerserror.blogspot.com/2010/05/a528x.html

Or is fanfiction a matter of originality?  If so, my understanding of the term becomes so fluid as to make it almost meaningless.  What is a truly original work vs. one that takes inspiration from elsewhere?  Are my Goblin Quest books fanfiction because they riff off of Dungeons and Dragons tropes?  Is 90% of the fantasy genre nothing but Tolkien fanfiction?

I couldn’t find a fanfic definition on the Organization for Transformative Works site, but I did find this statement: “While some transformative works legitimately circulate in the for-profit marketplace — parodies such as The Wind Done Gone (the retelling of Gone with the Wind from the perspective of a slave), critical analyses that quote extensively from an original, ‘unauthorized guides,’ etc.—that really isn’t what fanfic writers and fan creators in general are doing, or looking to do.”

When I think of fanfiction, I think of two things:

  • Fiction written using another author’s (usually copyrighted) characters and/or world
  • Fiction which is may be shared, but never sold commercially (exceptions being quickly squashed by the fanfic community)

I also agree with scrivnerserror about excluding parody from fanfiction (the Tina Fey skits).  I see them as two different kinds of storytelling.  (Parody has its own legal definition as well.)

Like I said, I’m not saying my definition is the Right one, nor will I argue that it’s complete.  (It wouldn’t include the Scalzi/Wheaton fanfic fundraiser, for example.)  But it’s my starting point for understanding fanfiction.

What about you?  Do you buy bookshop’s claim that all of these works are fanfiction, or does that stretch too far in an attempt to defend fanfic?  Does commercialization really matter?  What’s your definition?