Fanfic writers are not nutters or losers or lowlifes. A slash fanfic writer whose pseudonym is WPAdmirer (for "Walker Percy Admirer") told me that her circle of writers includes a lawyer, a linguist, a computer specialist, an insurance executive, and a mystery novelist. She, like most of the 20 other writers I interviewed, is well-employed. Many have spouses and children.
So why on earth do normal people spend their lives writing fantasies about TV characters? Almost all fanfic writers hide behind pseudonyms. They rightly fear ridicule, because fanfic invites mockery. Though the United States admires sports fans, it treats TV and movie junkies derisively. America's most famous movie fan: John Hinckley. Pop culture fans are pinned by caricature: Spock-eared Trekkers or loon-bird stalkers. Fanfic seems to confirm every stereotype about fans: They are obsessive. They can't separate fantasy from reality. Their lives are so empty that they fixate on banal TV shows. (What kind of loser writes story after story about Quantum Leap or The A-Team?) They don't even have the imagination to make up their own characters.
But this condescension misses the point. In his superb Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, MIT's Jenkins argues that fanfic represents a flowering of modern folk culture. For thousands of years, we have shared stories about mythical popular heroes, from Prometheus to Paul Bunyan to Brer Rabbit. Each storyteller embellished the tale, inventing characters, adding details, rewriting the ending. In the 20th century, however, folk culture has been privatized. The characters we share today are TV icons and movie heroes. Paul Bunyan has been supplanted by Xena. These characters don't belong to the public. They are literally owned by studios and producers, who run the character's "life" and expect us to accept their decisions gratefully.
Fan fiction rebels against the private folk culture, Jenkins argues. Writers reclaim folk heroes by creating new stories about them. They embellish the myth. Viewed through Jenkins' lens, a fanfic writer keen on Capt. Jean Luc Picard is no different from a 19th-century folksinger who paid tribute to John Henry. Fanfic writers assert control over a pop culture designed to be passively consumed. "I wanted to make the show mine," explains Kat of her Friends fanfics, echoing the battle cry of fan writers. By writing fics about Monica and Chandler, Kat is insisting that they belong to her as much as to NBC. Fan fiction puts the pop back in popular culture.
Writing fanfic, Jenkins argues, is an act of "fascination and frustration." Writers are fascinated by the characters but frustrated at the cavalier way producers treat them. Fanfic is a "way of repairing the damage done to the core mythology by producers who mess up. The fanfic folk culture pulls it back into realignment." When producers make a beloved character disappear or end a love affair that should continue, fanfic restores the mythology. "Even though I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there are times when the show doesn't go my way. So I use fanfic to create the outcome I want," says Buffy fanfic writer Carrie Cook. The actor George Clooney has left ER for a movie career, but fanfic writers adore his character, Doug Ross. They also know that Doug and Nurse Carol Hathaway belong together. So they write story after story about the characters' continuing romance. (The Clooney/Ross split highlights the first commandment of fanfic: Thou shalt not write about real people. Click here for.)
Fanfic also can be a political act, a way to elevate marginalized minority characters. Fanfic writers worship Lt. Uhura, the neglected black woman on the original Star Trek. In fanfic, she has been promoted, given her own starship, and made the mistress of a torrid threesome with Lt. Sulu and Ensign Chekov. ER's producers overlook crippled, irritable Dr. Kerry Weaver. Other characters lead glamorous, romantic lives. She goes home alone. But fic writers have corrected that with stories about her love life.
Fanfic seems odd in part because it defies modern convention about what writers do. In the individualistic United States, the author is supposed to be an untethered brain: Her ideas and characters and plots are her own. By this standard, fan fiction looks like a cop-out. Writers too lazy to invent their own characters rip off plot, dialogue, and ideas from the boob tube.
B ut fanfic turns writing into a communal art, as folk culture has always done. Writing and reading become collaborative. We share the characters and work together to make them interesting and funny and sexy. Write a short story about your crazy uncle and post it on the Web, and no one will read it. Write a short story about Dr. Who, and hundreds of folks will flock to your site. Fanfic writers meet at conventions ("cons"). Thanks to the Internet, writers communicate constantly on e-mail listservs. They invite e-mail responses and crave feedback. MedianCat, who writes Buffy fanfic, says he has heard from more than 400 people about his stories. Of the two-dozen-odd fanfic writers I e-mailed about their work, only one did not respond. (The Internet is also changing fanfic by opening it to kids. Click for how the Backstreet Boys became literary heroes.)
Having juiced fanfic, the Internet may now cripple it. Studios own the characters and shows that fanfic borrows, a fact that is never lost on writers. Every fanfic opens with a disclaimer noting Paramount or Fox or whoever's copyright and renouncing any intent to profit from the story. (All fanfic writers are amateurs by necessity.) But since fan activity has migrated to the Web, studios have grown anxious about trademark and copyright protection. (Trademark law requires holders to police their trademarks by preventing unauthorized use.) Sites hosting fanfics also usually have transcripts, audio and video clips, screen captures, and logos. Studios don't like this. Fox recently sent cease-and-desist letters to Buffy sites ordering them to remove show transcripts. Fox also warned Millennium sites to remove logos and clips. Lucasfilm cracked down on audio clips and logos from Star Wars, and Paramount has been similarly protective of Star Trek.
The studios have treated fanfic more gently, so far. No court has ever addressed the legality of fanfic but, unlike transcripts or clips, it could be protected as "fair use." A 1997 article by Rebecca Tushnet in Loyola of Los Angeles Entertainment Law Journal concludes that fanfic constitutes fair use because it is noncommercial—(no writers try to profit from their work)—because it sufficiently transforms the original work, and because it does not damage the market for the original work. (On the contrary, fanfic keeps viewers engaged during the six days a week the X-Files is not on.) Perhaps mindful of their dubious legal standing, studios tend to leave fanfic alone. Lucasfilm has suppressed Skywalker slash on the grounds that it harms the Star Wars image, but it allows PG-rated fanfic. Fox ignored fanfic when it went after the Buffy sites.
But fear is mounting among fans that the studios are getting too pushy. Lucasfilm lit a brushfire last month when it offered fans free pages on its cherished www.starwars.com site. Fans would be allowed to post all their Star Wars hagiography there, including stories, songs, messages to other fans, and essays. But the small print says that Lucasfilm retains all copyright to anything placed on the site. If I were to write a great story about how Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader and post it on my starwars.com fan page, George Lucas would own my idea.