Hello and welcome to This Week in Fandom, the OTW’s roundup of things that are happening. It’s Copyright Week and appropriately enough, we have several stories for you that all operate at the intersection between fanfiction and traditional publishing. Buckle up!
First off, an article by Sian Cain for the Guardian on how Fifty Shades of Grey “changed our sex lives”. Focusing on EL James’s native country, the UK, Cain explores the ongoing legacy of James’s trilogy, ‘the runaway bestselling books’ of the 2010s. Cain’s account traces ripple effects across the publishing industry, the BDSM scene, and even the law. She gives space to the criticisms leveled at James’s work by ‘BDSM practitioners and domestic abuse campaigners’ and acknowledges its problematic effects, but she also finds some positive consequences from the international obsession with Grey’s story and sexual behaviors. In any case, it’s a thoroughly-researched insight into what is still online fanfiction’s most famous mainstream success.
Fifty Shades of Grey was published in 2011. In 2013, Amazon launched Kindle Worlds, a platform for authors to create and published licensed fanfiction relating to specific media properties. The writers shared profits from their works with the IP holders and with Amazon, and according to a recent article in Business Insider, some of them made a good deal of money doing it. However, as this piece by Travis Clark explores, this income was cut off abruptly in 2018 as Amazon announced that they were closing the platform.
Clark’s article, which includes commentary from OTW co-founder and copyright lawyer Rebecca Tushnet, examines some of the forces at play during the course of Kindle Worlds’ brief lifespan and looks at how the authors he interviews have moved on since the platform was shut down. Per his commentary, some of them have ‘borrowed a bit of the Kindle Worlds model’ in doing so, recruiting co-creators to write in a shared universe and continuing to distribute their work via Amazon.
Although the authors’ agile responses to the loss of a primary income source offer some suggestive ideas about possible publishing futures, Tushnet’s commentary focuses on the difficulties of writing fanfiction as a commercial proposition. Big companies depending on the labor of fans to turn a profit are always liable to shut down the project if it isn’t doing well enough; and even when it is, fans in this model are ‘raw material – resources to be exploited and data to be mined.’
It used to be the case that fanfiction was seen as embarrassing, amateur, and generally less worthy than original fiction. That has changed. For our final item this week, a pair of interviews with two successful science fiction writers who wear their interest in – and continued involvement with – fanfiction on their sleeves.
Michael Chabon, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (a novel about two comic-book creators in 1940s New York), is also the showrunner for Star Trek: Picard, the first episode of which will air on CBS All Access on January 23. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Chabon offers an entertaining account of his own history both as a Star Trek fan and a fan creator: ‘I wrote Sherlock Holmes fan fiction, Robert E Howard fan fiction, Larry Niven fan fiction, John Carter/Edgar Rice Burroughs fan fiction…’
Chabon, who has written episodes for previous Star Trek series as well as contributing to the script for Spider-Man 2, talks about the inherently fannish nature of writing for an ongoing franchise (describing one of his episodes as ‘pure fan fiction’) and about the particular pleasure of crafting lines to be spoken by Patrick Stewart himself. It’s a fun interview about what has to be a real fantasy for many fan creators: ‘To be empowered… to create canon’.
Meanwhile in the New Yorker we enjoyed a long interview with fantasy novelist NK Jemisin, giving an account of her unprecedented success (she received the ‘Best Novel’ Hugo award three years in a row for the three installments of her ‘Broken Earth’ trilogy) and of the challenges she’s faced as a black author working in the fantasy space.
At this point, Jemisin is turning down offers, rejecting an invitation to work for Marvel Comics because she had already signed on to write a Green Lantern spinoff for DC (Far Sector, the first issue of which appeared in November 2019). But as Raffi Khatchadourian’s piece explains, things weren’t always so easy, either for Jemisin herself or for the black sci-fi authors who preceded her (Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler).
Fanfiction’s space in this story is small but important. Khatchadourian describes how Jemisin ‘ke[pt] herself sane’ during the period when professional authorship seemed like an impossibility by writing ‘anonymous online fan fiction [sic]’ – and then takes a moment to acknowledge that Jemisin ‘still writes’ fic under jealously-guarded secret identities. There’s a lot more in this article including some really superlative insights into Jemisin’s creative process; but from our perspective, this interview sits alongside Chabon’s as evidence of the ways that fanfiction has crept into the mainstream and how it has nurtured and sustained some of our most significant creators.
Before we go, something we enjoyed about one more writer whose career in genre fiction subjected her to the criticism of her peers: Jo March. Tom Gauld’s comic offers a persuasive vision.
— Tom Gauld (@tomgauld) January 20, 2020
Good idea? What do you think? And what do you think, more broadly, about the issues we’ve highlighted today? We’d love to hear your insights. Let us know in the comments!