Ownership and Orality: Fanfiction in the Modern Literary Landscape

In the ancient world, narrative was a co-operative venture: today, it is something undertaken in solitude. The ancients did not concern themselves with narrative ownership, preferring community composition, and each variation of a story was as valid as the last – this is not a concept familiar to a capitalist society that treats original narratives as valuable individual property. Derivative works are not valid, but belong to the infamous sub-genre that is fan fiction and are cast into the literary gutter accordingly.

And yet, despite violating these modern conceptions of narrative ownership, with the popularization of the internet fanfiction has become a massive literary movement, with millions of stories being constantly produced worldwide. These works are created in community through processes closely resembling those of ancient oral poets. Fanfiction thereby represents a resolution of the conflict between the importance of narrative ownership in Western capitalist society and the ancient human drive to create cooperative narrative. As a bridge between these competing desires, fanfiction is a necessary part of modern literary culture. Today, when an author composes a story with her own set of characters, she owns them in the most literal way possible: they are her intellectual property, protected by copyright law.

This, to the Greeks, would have made little sense:

“The idea that there is some intrinsic virtue in using an ‘original’ character or story would have puzzled most ancient or mediaeval writers. They did do that sometimes, but they plundered the vast resources of myth and history just as happily – indeed there is a mediaeval convention of authorial modesty whereby writers routinely claim that they found the story they are about to tell in some ancient book.” (Pugh 2 “The Democratic…”)

Ancient authors constantly retold stories. The mythic canon existed to be reworked, and no single author could lay claim to its contents. Stories existed out there in the world, and the authors were the channel through which the Muses would relate them. Copyright makes this recycling impossible today; however, there is one genre which continues to operate on these ancient principles, even now. With the internet revolutionizing communication, fan fiction has become a vastly popular medium for writers seeking to establish themselves. No authoritative definition of the genre exists, although that of Sheenagh Pugh comes close: it is “writing, whether official or unofficial, paid or unpaid, which makes use of an accepted canon of characters, settings and plots generated by another writer” (Pugh 25-6).

The defining feature is usually an acknowledged reliance on another creator’s work, the “canon” (26) – or, the authoritative version of the story. As a genre entirely composed of derivative works, fan fiction is seldom considered a valid form of literature in the modern literary landscape. One fan fiction writer speaks angrily to authors and the literary community on the whole when she writes that “you think fanfic is ‘immoral and illegal’. You think fanfiction is just plagiarism. You think fanfiction is cheating. You think fanfic is for people who are too stupid/lazy/unimaginative to write stories of their own” (Romano “I’m Done…”). Fanfiction, despite often consisting of works of great length and depth – some stories are longer than the books they were based on –are not considered valid in the modern literary community, because they are not “original” works.

Retelling a story that the audience has heard before was once an art: one which fan fiction emulates. The genre shares many characteristics with traditional oral culture, despite its textual form. In fact, one critic, Terrence Wandtke, working from the theories of Walter Ong, posits that text-based works need not be excluded from the oral tradition merely for their medium. Omg suggests that the oral tradition was not actually defined entirely by its orality, but rather by a set of ideas about narrative which he labels the “oral state of mind” (Wandtke 36). By this definition, fanfiction has almost as strong a claim to oral culture as did ancient myth: the criteria Wandtke uses to define the ancient oral state of mind also describes fanfiction in its structure, communal composition, and relationship to the original story. These similarities are exemplified in the production of a contemporary fanfiction work, which typically goes as follows: an author will release a story onto the internet chapter by chapter. Some stories are uploaded all at once, but the vast majority are updated as the story is written, usually on some sort of weekly or monthly basis. This episodic structure (38) is what allows for creator-audience interaction (48-9), the first of Wandtke’s criteria. Members of the fanfiction site can submit a review of each chapter, or the story on the whole. Because the story is usually still being written upon receipt of this feedback, the plot is altered depending on the audience’s reaction, in what essentially amounts to the spontaneous composition of oral poets (48-9). Authors respond to their readers by inserting their comments in “author’s notes” before or after the story. This platform for creator-audience interaction allows these stories to be made in and influenced by the community (42).

These communities develop tropes specific to the genre through the “repetition, rearrangement, and redeployment of clichés” (49), as did ancient epic – these tropes form based on what kinds of stories matter in the community, thereby expressing an amalgamation of many cultural values that have themselves become a single cohesive culture. In the same way that oral poets were “working with a large catalogue of past information that caused them to structure stories in a way uniformly different from those of the literate world” (38), fanfictions also commonly feature flashbacks and time-skips relying on communal knowledge of the source work; various fanfictions focus on fleshing out parts of the canon in the same way a poet might backtrack to have Aeneas describe the fall of Troy. The approach to narrative is always open: authors often seek to retroactively adjust the mistakes of the canon work, or at least make the plot more palatable to a certain group of readers. Dozens of different authors can tackle the same events, with completely different results: and each time, as long as the internal logic is functional, the audience accepts the events. The occurrences in any story do not affect the veracity of any other story, even if it happens to be the canon – yet, as with myth, there is only a certain distance an author can push the bounds of the canon before she writes something deemed “OOC” – out of character.

This canon acts as an unalterable story much like the traditional myth a poet would use as a framework (41): within this, there is endless variation across fanfictions, just as there would be across songs (41). All this is possible because of the features unique to the internet: “given the rapidity of the exchange that now exists between author and reader, the dynamic of that exchange begins to look exactly like a storyteller addressing a large group of children…welcome to the global village. And the global village storyteller” (Odell “Fanfic”). Indeed, the medium of fanfiction is not an obstacle to its orality, despite its textual nature – it is precisely this widespread instant access to stories, which can be shared and discussed and altered as they are being composed, that brings the fanfiction community into the oral state of mind. It may seem, from this analysis, that fanfiction is a clear return to the oral tradition.

There is one major way, however, that fanfiction falls short of reaching the definition of an ideal oral state of mind. Although the countless versions of events told across a particular fandom are considered equally valid to one another, the idea of the “canon” overshadows all else – that there is one version of the story that is fundamentally truer than any other version, and that is the story that belongs completely to the original author. Although this does provide the unalterable story from which one may vary, the way the canon is handled now is completely different than it was in oral culture: in the ancient world, “even if one were to trace a song back to its creator and first performance, that creator would have had no special rights to the song, and that first performance would have no claim to authority as the original” (Wandtke 45). Greek myth does not have this sense that the original creator of a story somehow inherently owns that story: the traditional framework is just the way the story is. Modern literary culture, and therefore fan fiction, attributes this ownership freely.

In fact, this narrative ownership is so important to modern society that it is legislated. Copyright was instituted to protect the rights of the author against the tendency of “works of art to lose their authority…in an age of mechanical reproduction” (Kriegal 233). This is the principle behind any other form of intellectual ownership, such as patents or trademarks. In short, copyright treats stories as any other good in a market, and goods have possessors. There is a simple commercial logic to this: “living writers must be protected from the possibility of work being passed off as theirs, to the detriment of their own income and reputation…having invented a fictional character, they should be the ones to profit from him” (Pugh 232). This, of course, is the founding principle of capitalism. An author should profit from his work, in the same way any sort of individual labour should earn the labourer his due wage. Most importantly, derivative works do not set out to undermine this fundamental right; fanfiction supports this implicit societal rule, rather than rejecting it:

“Is it a part of a breakdown of respect for intellectual property and the authors’
interests? I think the answer is generally no…Fans acknowledge copyright owners’
legitimate economic interests, but maintain that their activities do not hurt and even
help revenues from authorized works, by increasing loyalty to and interest in the
official versions.”
(Tushnet 64)

By refusing to profit from derivation, or at least by compensating the original author for his contribution, fanfiction authors perpetuate narrative ownership rather than work against it. The community recognizes that individual ownership is necessary to allow modern authors to retain power over their narratives, so they can make money from their individual labour in Western society.

A tondo from a red-figure kylix depicting Persephone and Hades. Vulci, c. 440-430 BCE. (British Museum, London). Taken from https://www.ancient.eu/image/4739/

A powerful example of this modern necessity to emphasize narrative ownership exists in the community surrounding Receiver of Many by Rachel Alexander, a romantic retelling of the myth of Hades and Persephone. Although Alexander’s story relies on mythic characters and plots established thousands of years ago, and thereby recycles narrative, her characters are still treated as her intellectual property in the modern market. This allows her to profit from her creation, even though she has not “invented” the characters herself. Her story is able to inspire fan work of its own: The Sixth Equinox by Elaine Ho is a fanart comic book made and published exclusively under Alexander’s permission – the work has a disclaimer on the second page.




Taken from enveniya.deviantart.com

Fan depictions of Alexander’s Persephone are not just pictures of Persephone, but her Persephone. In turn, Ho’s artworks are considered fanart; although they are still recycling a set of characters taken from myth, because these characters were re-established by a modern author, this work is considered fanart rather than art in its own right. Ho openly admits her reliance on Alexander’s work, and consciously subordinates her own book by disclaiming all ownership – in doing so, her fan fiction perpetuates the modern perception of narrative ownership and works against the communal nature of the oral tradition. Despite itself being essentially a derivative work, Receiver of Many was not created in Ancient Greece, and thereby must take on the expectations of today’s readers, who are used to attributing ownership to authors.

Alexander is, of course, not the first to profit from this paradox. This constant recycling of myth while still receiving authorial credit has littered the English literary canon, from Chaucer to Shakespeare to J.K. Rowling. The disgruntled fanfiction author Aja Romano lists dozens and dozens of famous literary works, all of which could easily be considered “fanfiction” today, in that they all rework stories and characters that already existed (Romano “I’m Done..”). Alexander’s rewrite slots into this recycling mythic tradition that modern readers can understand and respect. And yet, when Ho retells the story, it somehow does not: the ownership Alexander holds over her iteration of these mythical characters is far more intense than Shakespeare his Cleopatra.

Dryden’s All for Love is an acknowledged rewrite of Antony and Cleopatra, yet still holds literary acclaim where The Sixth Equinox cannot. Something must be changing in the literary landscape which has allowed for this complete authorial ownership to develop, giving Alexander the full control of her classical characters that Shakespeare lacks. This same change is what has invalidated Elaine Ho’s claim to her version of the story, while Dryden retains ownership of his – thereby establishing fanfiction as the subculture genre it is today. Again, the answer lies in the free market. Because the modern market is saturated with texts in a way the ancient world was not, the stories must be more and more specific to gain the attention of the audience – and thereby, make sales. Each character must be individualized to such an extent that they cannot be mistaken for or replaced by any other in the increasing bank of popular knowledge. This opposes the tendency of ancient stories to rely on that communal knowledge to create additional meaning.

Today’s characters instead must have individualized and unique internal lives: as the Persephone of Receiver of Many does, as the Cleopatra of Shakespeare does less so, and as the Persephone of myth does not. Alexander’s Persephone has a personality, a tone, a certain demeanour, goals and ambitions – all of which are unique to her alone. She is defined so certainly that for one to read about the exact same character, one must read Receiver of Many – or a fan’s depiction of it. This is a self-perpetuating system: the more stories enter the market, the more specific they must become to attract and maintain a loyal audience. The more specific they are, the more the author owns them because they are so clearly their creation. This is not exclusive to stories. Any other product that can be trademarked has seen this same shift: “the more adept the West has become at making copies, the more we have exalted uniqueness” (quoted in Kriegal 233). Alexander’s Persephone has been individualized to an extreme, rather than moulded into a recognizable character type as her literary predecessors have been.

As this uniqueness grows more common, a derivative work becomes much more clearly derivative, and authorship over the copy cannot be so easily claimed. In a personal interview, Elaine Ho, in explaining why she considers her comic book The Sixth Equinox to be a fan work, stated: “I had very little insight into [the mythic Persephone’s] thoughts and feelings…I felt that Receiver of Many focused a lot about what she thought and felt…she felt more like a living, breathing person that made choices. [The Sixth Equinox] was wholly based on the specific story bits Alexander built to make the original myth more relatable today”.

This specificity is not a matter of failing to fit precisely into the definition of the oral state of mind, but undercutting everything it stands for. This does not mean that one way of developing characters is superior – one might consider Alexander’s version a far more rich and engaging story than the original myth, or prefer the immense cultural weight that lies behind a common archetype. What it does mean, however, is that there is no way for any fiction working within the confines of this mode of structuring narrative ownership to completely adhere to the oral state of mind.

If this is true, and narrative ownership is the golden principle underlying all modern fiction because of the economic structure of Western society, how is it that fan fiction became and remains such an appealing and popular medium? Fanfiction is done without hope of any more recompense than a few reviews: it must, therefore, fill some other sort of need that has been ignored by mainstream literary culture. I would posit that it is because the pleasure of the co-operative narrative is not lost in history. A tension exists here: we value original authorial ownership, and we value large scale co-operative narrative. These conflicting desires are brought together, somewhat uncomfortably, in fanfiction. Here we move both towards and away from the oral tradition. The fact that fanfiction is a sub-genre and rarely taken seriously proves how complete our notions of authorial ownership really are. Fanfiction authors themselves perpetuate narrative ownership by disclaiming any rights to their own stories. But as long as humans have been around they have been recycling narrative, and something about it is still appealing. Perhaps, as fanfiction writer Jane Mortimer puts it, “we are creatures meant to live in groups, and communicating with and understanding the people around us, building relationships with them, is necessary for our survival” (Mortimer “The Advantages…”), and stories help us do just that. The existence of fanfiction proves that we still have this drive to co-own narrative: to rework stories that mean something to us as if they were our own.

The genre borrows from the classical world by using many features of the oral state of mind, yet it is not a return to the oral tradition: it is founded on the principle of maintaining loyalty to a single original canon, something not found in the ancient world. In a Western economic system, complete adherence to the oral state of mind is simply not realistic – and perhaps not even preferable. Neither the ancient mode of thinking nor the modern one necessarily surpasses the other. Regardless, neither can completely satisfy a modern literary audience on its own: the prevalence of fanfiction proves that. Considering the way the ancients structured narrative presents an opportunity to remove our cultural blinders and acknowledge the value of cooperative narrative, even if it works against the flow of mainstream literary criticism. It also allows us to take pause to appreciate the specificity the move towards privileging original authorship has inspired. The modern literary landscape is complex and fluid, and will only become more so as the internet broadens and the market swells: when we condemn narrative that fills a need simply because it does not look like other narrative, we limit ourselves unnecessarily,and rob a massive and complicated genre of the nuanced examination it deserves.

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