Monday, August 20, 2012

"Mere" Fanfiction

I've often repeated that I see no reason why I, as a reader, shouldn't hold fanfiction to the same standards as original fiction.  But the fact is, most people do evaluate pony stories (or any derivative stories, for that matter) much differently than they would commercial fiction.  Why is this, and are these differing expectations fair to both author and reader?  My thoughts, below.

The fact is, most people don't expect a lot out of fanfics.  I'm not just talking about the non-fanfic-writing or -reading masses who look on derivative fiction with anything from bemusement to downright hostility, but about people who read fanfiction on a regular basis.  Glaring problems in writing, editing, and story construction which would be literally unimaginable in commercial literature are regularly accepted without comment by readers who would not hesitate to cast aside a paperback with a mere fraction of the issues plaguing the fanfic in question.

One of the reasons readers, as a group, tend to be far more forgiving of fanfiction than they would be of original fiction was recently discussed in this A.V. Club article discussing podcast reviews: fanfic authors work for free.  It's easy to look at a ponyfic author and say, "this guy's just writing in his spare time, it's not fair to expect him to write something great."  After all, you wouldn't berate a youth soccer team for not playing as well as Real Madrid, right?

That's true, insofar as it goes, but it misses what seems to me to be a crucial distinction: the author isn't the only person with expectations.  The reader's experience counts too, and it's the reader's experience that the reader should be primarily concerned with.  And in terms of my enjoyment of a story as a reader, it doesn't really matter how much remuneration, if any, an author is receiving; a good story is still a good story, and a bad one still isn't.  To pick the sports analogy back up, youth soccer is a great learning experience for the kids, but there's a reason the crowds at those games are mostly parents and other family members: people looking to enjoy watching the game (reading the story) generally prefer to see a top-tier team at work.

Another factor contributing to the lowered expectations is the tendency to compare within overly-restrictive sets.  When someone reads a fanfic, their natural inclination is going to be to compare it not to the books they've recently read, but to the fanfiction they've previously come across.  Since there's no barrier to entry with fanfiction (quite literally, anyone capable of stringing words together can present their story online if they wish), mediocre stories can seem disproportionately wonderful by comparison to the sludge around them.

But the fact is, fanfiction and commercial fiction both compete for the same resource from readers: time, and specifically time devoted to reading for pleasure.  Time spent reading fanfiction is time that could be spent reading "real" literature, so why waste it on something subpar?

I'm aware that, to this point, it probably sounds like I'm making a case against reading fanfics, but that's not true at all: I love fanfiction.  I love writing, I love reading, and I love doing both in regards to FiM.  I simply don't see why I should automatically love something because it's fanfiction, as so often seems to be the case among otherwise discerning people.  I expect any fanfic I read to be interesting, engaging, and to generally justify the time that I invest in it.  Any author who posts their story publicly (as opposed to writing for oneself or one's friends/family, which is a perfectly valid hobby, and one which does not require posting one's story to FIMFiction,, etc.) is implicitly asking that it be read, and I don't think it's unfair to ask of them as much as I ask of any author, commercial or not: don't waste my time.

In fact, I think it's a disservice to take the opposite approach: to "generously" expect less of a story simply because it happens to feature setting or characters from a previously existing work of fiction.  To do so discounts the possibility that a fanfic author could write anything worth reading on its own merits, and to disprove that idea is as simple as looking back at some of the stories I've reviewed for this site.  Refusing to hold flaws against a story because it's "merely" fanfiction at once discounts wonderful stories like Memories of Those Friends Who've Gone Before Us or A Cup of Joe.  

There is no inherent reason why a fanfic cannot be just as good, by any literary metric one cares to use, as a given piece of original fiction.  I think it's only fair to recognize that, and as readers to ask of fanfiction exactly what we ask of commercial literature.


  1. Overall, what you say Chris is certainly true, but I think there's one big area you miss when it comes to explaining the difference in standards of readers between commercial and fanfiction: the latter is about ponies. My reading of a lot of fans who do read fanfiction is that they wouldn't pass any harsh criticism on the show itself, and fanficts are their way of getting more of the same (maybe with a twist or two such as it being more violent or about a minor character). I think this is true of any fandom's fanficts; it's an extension something they love and wouldn't dare say mean things about. Replace Pinkie and Twilight with Jane and Sue, and let’s see how many Bronies are going to thumb up that fict, if they actually read it (I’m convinced that for some, fanfiction is there intake of literature).

    I also want to state another opinion, I think that people overrate the standards of getting something commercially published. Now admittedly, I'm coming from my experience with nonfiction, but I have lost count of the number of times where I was reading a book on old Hollywood and thought the writer wrote an interesting and as far as I could tell accurate piece, only to botch it when it came to animation. And given the amount crappy books about a number subjects I find interesting (animation again comes to mind) that made want to punch the writer in the gut convince me that standards aren’t as high as it seems when it doesn’t come to grammar (bad textbooks are also proof). I have no reason not think the same about fiction. Face it, if a publisher thinks it will sell well (or win some award), they will publish it. This is true with movies, with TV, with music, with comics, and it is true with books.

    I'll limit myself to just those for now; there are things in life more important than ponies.

    1. Eh. I'd say it's that fandoms are more like genres than anything.

      Take the broad category of science fiction, for example. You have your super hard sci-fi, and your alternative history, cyberpunk, time travel, superhero, post-apocalyptic, xenofiction, ad infinitum. Personally, I eat the vast majority of the stuff up like it's candy, but I go out of my way to avoid specific types of it - military sci-fi, and space opera, for example. I know people who are the opposite, and hate everything that's not a space opera, or think that anything but a space western or post-apocalyptic sci-fi (preferably with zombies) is too "nerdy".

      It's the exact same thing with the pony fandom. Some people don't want to read stories that are heavy with drama and gore, and some people actually seek those things out. Some people don't want to touch shipping, and some people will only read shipping. I'm willing to put money on a large part of the casual fandom only reading fanfics because the episodes of the show don't come out fast enough. They want to see more of the same, and they want stories like the episodes. (Which, imo, often doesn't work. Of the highly-rated "episodic" stories here, Memories of Those Friends Who've Gone Before Us is probably the only one that I can say that worked for me as an actual short story, and it was a little too introspective to translate well to animation.)

      Like that recent xkcd comic pointed out, human subcultures are nested fractally, and there are a lot of really subjective tastes in what types of stories are best. If you look at Fallout: Equestria, f'rexample, you get more side stories than you can shake a mongoose at, side stories that might have even spawned small fandoms of their own. (Project Horizons holy shit, man) Fallout: Equestria stuff has practically become a subgenre of pony fanfiction, which is only a genre of fanfiction itself, which is only a genre of literature, which is only a genre of storytelling, which is only a genre of human communication. And so on and so forth.

      Now excuse me as I go and feed my retro-game-glitching-using-plastic-straws-as-tools-on-an-assembly-line obsession. I'll get back to that whole dystopian-xenofiction My Little Pony fanfiction obsession later.

  2. "Since there's no barrier to entry with fanfiction (quite literally, anyone capable of stringing words together can present their story online if they wish), mediocre stories can seem disproportionately wonderful by comparison to the sludge around them."

    Goodbye, ego. It was fun while it lasted. :(

    The way I've seen it, fanfiction is just like any other kind of fiction writing, only with predefined characters and settings. Just like good original fiction, however, good fanfiction is something that takes a lot of time and effort. So it's always disheartening when a fic that has had a lot of love and attention poured into it is overshadowed by lesser works like My Little Dashie, Past Sins, or anything I have ever written.

    One thing that makes fanfiction interesting is the closer relationship between the author and his/her readers. Most fanfiction writing is amateurish in nature. We've all had those things we've written that we look back upon years later in shame. The only way to get over that hump, though, is to be told what you're doing wrong. For fanfiction, feedback is often instantaneous in nature, whereas a book has to wait until the reviews come in to get any sort of attention or feedback. It's up to the readers, therefore, to actually [i]say[/i] why they hated a story, or point out what kind of flaws it has. The writer can then act on this much more quickly, improving their work until they've reached the peak of their capabilities. Of course, you also have the ones that can't take criticism in the slightest, but if you can't take someone not liking your story about magical miniature equines, then you're going to have a very rough, lonely life ahead of you, buddy.

    And that's one of the reasons I love about fanfiction. I love that closeness with the community, which is something that is almost illegal nowadays given the litigious society we live in. It makes me feel like my contributions, as vapid as they are, still make some shred of difference. And if I managed to entertain someone, then my job is done.

    Still, readers need to be harsh. I don't mean they should hold every fic up to the likes of...well, whatever critically respected author we can use as an example without a thousand people screaming that High School ruined him/her for them. Even if a story is entertaining, they need to say why it is, or point out what they didn't like as well as the positives. When we read anything, we all become critics, and it is our responsibility to think deeply about what we're being presented, and offer an honest critique of the story.

    But this no longer has anything to do with your post, so I'll leave it here.

  3. Welcome to, like, early last year. <.<

    Readers having no standards is, I think, not something that one should really worry about. There will always be folks like yourself who hold fanfics to the same level of literary standard as published work, and neither sort of reader should be ridiculed or looked down upon for their views.

    It's when the authors have no standards for their own writing that we get issues. A lot of this stems from beginners who don't understand what it is they're doing, what telling a story is, what an audience is, what participating in the fanfiction arm of a fandom entails. So they come up with an idea, say, "I'm going to tell a story now!" and tell a story. Then when someone with the least critical eye comes along, whether it's to offer criticism or a simple "This is bad and you should feel bad", the response is, "But it's just a silly story about magical talking ponies! Don't take it so seriously!" This does a disservice to the author themselves, not to mention to fanfiction as a whole.

    The fact is, we should never use that excuse as a reason not to improve. Yes, some folks can't take criticism, but those people really should not be writing (or at least, not posting their writing online), at least until they've matured to a point where they can take it. Writing is a serious artform. Even if what you're writing about is magical talking lesbian ponies going on a wacky adventure full of fart jokes, there are methods to making that outing the best magical farting horsebian story ever written.

    To do otherwise, to not attempt to improve "because it's just fanfiction", is again to do a disservice to oneself. And a writer should always have themselves in mind first and foremost.

    1. Amen.

      I believe good ol' Moff has said it as well, but this really can't be reiterated enough:

      "Of all the varieties of irritating comment out there, the absolute most annoying has to be 'Why can’t you just watch the movie for what it is??? Why can’t you just enjoy it? Why do you have to analyze it???'

      [...] (Excess derision and profanity expunged.)

      "First of all, when we analyze art, when we look for deeper meaning in it, we are enjoying it for what it is. Because that is one of the things about art, be it highbrow, lowbrow, mainstream, or avant-garde: Some sort of thought went into its making — even if the thought was, "I'm going to do this as thoughtlessly as possible!" — and as a result, some sort of thought can be gotten from its reception. That is why, among other things, artists (including, for instance, James Cameron) really like to talk about their work.

      Now, that doesn't mean you have to think about a work of art. I don't know anyone who thinks every work they encounter ought to only be enjoyed through conscious, active analysis — or if I do, they're pretty annoying themselves. And I know many people who prefer not to think about much of what they consume, and with them I have no argument. I also have no argument with people who disagree with another person's thoughts about a work of art. That should go without saying. Finally, this should also go without saying, but since it apparently doesn't: Believe me, the person who is annoying you so much by thinking about the art? They have already considered your revolutionary "just enjoy it" strategy, because it is not actually revolutionary at all. It is the default state for most of humanity.

      So when you go out of your way to suggest that people should be thinking less — that not using one’s capacity for reason is an admirable position to take, and one that should be actively advocated — you are not saying anything particularly intelligent. And unless you live on a parallel version of Earth where too many people are thinking too deeply and critically about the world around them and what’s going on in their own heads, you’re not helping anything; on the contrary, you’re acting as an advocate for entropy.

      And most annoyingly of all, you’re contributing to the fucking conversation yourselves when you make your stupid, stupid comments. You are basically saying, 'I think people shouldn’t think so much and share their thoughts, that’s my thought that I have to share.'

      From what I've seen, this fandom is actually a lot better with criticism and all that other junk than many of the other ones I've loitered around in. (I have the higher standards of much of the fanbase to thank for that, I suppose.) Even with that said, it's not absolutely free of people who don't want to learn how to properly edit their stories, or hear any kind of analytical criticism. And to use the fact that it's just a fanfic as an excuse to not allow analysis... well. That's inexcusable.

    2. Oh man. Whoever said that, I love them.

  4. I see several problems here. The first is the most obvious: standards vary wildly even in normal literature. An awful lot of absolute crap gets published and does quite well, because it gives the readers what they want to get out of it. For fanfiction, that's predominantly more stories about characters they like. If you can deliver that, you'll do well in fanfiction even if you're not a terribly good writer.

    The second one is when people get nitpicky about things like grammar, sentence structure, and technical issues. To be blunt, most of the audience (and most of the public under a certain age) doesn't give a damn. If the text is legible, those details just aren't relevant to most people in any way whatsoever because they don't know (or don't care) that it's wrong. There's a lot of criticism of fanfiction that focuses on those issues, and a lot of the time it just annoys everybody else. (Now if the author is looking for feedback, then it's different.)

    But to me, the biggest issue is that a lot of fanfiction writers are also newbie authors. You can't hold someone writing their first story to the same level of judgement as a professional author. It'll never work, and you're just setting everyone up for a bad time. In the worst case scenario, doing so results in people shredding the story with criticism and you get an author who is so dejected they never write again.

    Yes, feedback is important and it can help people improve, but only when it's in the proper context. You can't judge a newbie author who spends two hours trying to write a story about little pink ponies by the same criteria that you judge someone who spent a year creating a novel and wants $20 for it and hope to accomplish anything useful.

    1. Actually, you absolutely can hold a new author to the standards of one who is published. If no one did, new authors would have no push to improve.

      The realistic way to go about it, however, is to offer feedback, and kindly if it's a first story, so that the new author is not simply floundering in a sea of "Why are you not immediately amazing?"

    2. My experience has been that every single harsh—and I'd like to say realistic—review that I have given on FIMFiction has been met with a positive response from the author; in some cases, there have even been private requests to review another author's material with an honest mind.

      Sure, there will be some who don't want that kind of criticism, but I don't think they're a valid reason not to offer it to those that do.


    3. If you've ever tried the same on, though... Boy howdy. Granted, the average brony is a bit older than the average yaoi fangirl, but still.

      I know one writer on there who, once a year, will leave 50k words worth of constructive criticism on other people's stories(NaReWriMo), and, well...

      There's this one story about some pokémon getting transformed into half-human hybrids (which is a rather played-out idea in the fandom - but it's usually done in the reverse). So the writer I mentioned before, the one who likes to do lots of reviews, she left a pretty positive comment on the story, but expressed a little concern about the fact that the hybrid pokémon have breasts (when they're not nursing) and are, impractically, wearing pants (they have big tails and stuff. You can't wear pants if you have a huge-as tail).

      Sacred shit on a sandwich, the guy who wrote that story went and got all his friends to go on her blogger and tell her she was wrong and stupid and how he was not pointlessly fetishizing them because HE IS SMART, and just because he can't take people seriously when they're wearing skirts, it doesn't mean he's got some serious issues about gender roles, and so on and so forth. I think there was one point in the fallout where someone accused the original reviewer of photoshopping a photo on wikipedia to try to "win" the argument. There were almost a hundred comments, and many of them were in reply to other ones. (That doesn't sound like anything worth noting, but with the commenting system she uses, some of those posts had a single character per line.) I just sat back and pulled out the popcorn.

      Ah, fimfiction. No matter how much drek and crap you're filled with, you're still much better than the alternative.

    4. *huge-ass

      Jeeze. I'm turning into Roxy here. Somepony stop me before I get my whore bible out.

    5. Two hours?! Anyone who cares that little about their writing doesn't deserve to have their feelings spared. Part of why I haven't written a fic is because it requires far more dedication than I'm willing to invest right now. The research alone...

      To avoid any confusion, I'm referring more to new writers, who need more time to develop their story. An experienced author may be able to churn out something acceptable - possibly even great - in such a short period of time, though I believe they could still benefit from spending more time on their work

    6. Oh, dear Lord, Silver-Mistyx90's comment on that Dragon Quill blog XD

    7. I, too, wish I could get a review that would eat my brains!

    8. Ah yes, I remember those kinds of authors... oh, why you gotta be so crazy sometimes?

      Thanks for the link, Sessalisk. That made for some, let's say, interesting reading.

  5. Part of the appeal of fanfiction for the writer is often that the characters and world are already defined for him. Such is the appeal for the reader as well. He already likes that world and those characters, or he wouldn't be in the fandom. So, as long as those elements (heh) are handled well, be it with a consistent treatment or by going off on a justifiable tangent, there's already some increased likelihood of enjoyment there.

    There are also plenty of very horrible examples of published fiction readily available to show that what gets produced in a fan environment isn't necessarily below average.

  6. As far as my stuff goes:

    For better or for worse, I put every bit as much effort into my giveaway Pony stories as I do into the stuff I'm sending out to the paying markets.

    I mean, this thing I'm working on now, An Infinite Number of Pinkies, I've literally been planning it out since the middle of March, 2011, a couple days after EqD posted my short story "Pinkie Pie's Evil Twin," and I realized it was actually the first chapter of a novel.

    It's taken me almost a year and a half to clear my schedule so I would have the two months I figure I'm gonna need to do it up right--a chapter every ten days is my goal--and whether it sinks of swims, well, that's not up to me. Just like with a piece of commercial fiction, that's up to the readers. All I can do is like you say: not waste my time making something that's gonna waste their time. And maybe have a little fun while doing it... :)


    1. Infinite Pinkies? I'm already hooked!

      Seriously, although you've already grabbed my interest with the title, I'll likely hold your story to higher standards because this is Pinkie Pie we're talking about. I look forward to reading your work

  7. I don't have much to contribute to this discussion. So much has already been said by other, more intelligent people. I'll give it a shot, though

    (Disclaimer: The ideas presented here are still unrefined. Read at your own risk)

    Critical analysis of any medium is largely based on certain virtues. These may differ between mediums, but they typically share certain commonalities- creation/release of tension, economy, etc. These are Classical virtues: those elements of a product which have universal or near universal appeal. This is not the same as appealing to the lowest common denominator - the foundation of low pop. It is my belief that the Classical virtues are not the mere product of coincidence, but purely objective facts about art, though that's beside the point

    People are diverse animals, however, and may find entertainment in non-Classical (let's call them "Romantic") virtues, and sometimes even judge entertainment as though it belonged to some other medium. For instance, some will critique a song solely based on the nature of its lyrics ("Who cares if the melody's bland? It's good because de la Rocha's telling us that Capitalism sucks!" "God Only Knows sucks because it doesn't have an important political message"). Such criticism cannot form a good foundation for artistic analysis, but they are valid - though sometimes ridiculous - for discussions about entertainment in general. That is, while a song's political content should not dictate how we evaluate it as art, it may affect how entertaining some find it and such considerations can be made in predicting how some will respond to other songs

    These virtues, both Classical and Romantic, can hold different weights even between people who share them. It's sort of a subjectivity (bleh!) built on an objective foundation. Sometimes a Romantic virtue can even overpower a Classical one. This is what happens with poor fanfiction. It's not that the Classical virtues hold no value or are even undesirable, but rather that some Romantic virtues - ponies, adorableness, wish fulfillment - are held to higher regard. I'll admit to being somewhat guilty of this. There's plenty of music in this community, dubstep in particular, which I wouldn't listen to if not for the ponies. I will say that I do think many of these are objectively better than non-pony songs in the same genres, and that I do not hold them in the same regard as truly great music like The Beatles or Carole King (It All Started With Your Smile is an exception)

    This is not to say that we shouldn't judge fanfiction differently. I believe we should and I largely do judge it on the same basis as regular literature (I can't even read half of the 6-star material, and don't read fanfics with any degree of regularity). I'd also like to take this time to - and I'm sorry if I've said this before, but it bears repeating - point out that this blog has shown me that fanfiction can meet those standards. The fact that you compared Cup of Joe to Memories means the former's getting moved to the top of my queue. I don't care if I sound like a broken record, MoTFWGBU is my Oedipus Rex

  8. First things first: I feel inclined to say that I have the tendency to shy away whenever MoTFWGBU receives brighter praise (such as it’s gotten here), but I guess not so much that I’d keep my trap completely shut. Perhaps that’s why I’ve waited until everyone’s moved on to newer topics before posting this. (Ain’t I a sneaky devil?)

    Seriously, though, I’ve said it before and will again: I do like the story myself. I consider it to be good. But I wouldn’t describe it as “wonderful,” and certainly don’t consider it worthy of being used as any sort of benchmark, especially not for rating the quality of other authors’ works. You can chalk that up to author self-depreciation if it floats your boat, but I still firmly believe that the story’s reputation is inflated. Just sayin’.

    On the subject at hand, there should be no reason for any reader of fiction, be “fiction” prefixed with “fan” or no, to justify their reception and perception of what they read. People read fiction for entertainment, and if they find they’re not entertained by a publicly-available work, no one should have a problem with them voicing the reasons why. In fact, if an author of a reviewed work is at all serious about writing, they should be grateful for any genuine feedback, even (or especially) if it’s not favorable. This is why this blog should be seen as an invaluable resource to any author whose work has been reviewed here: genuine feedback, carefully considered and expertly delivered.

    The trick is that, when it comes to fanfiction, a very large percentage of fic authors aren’t really serious about writing, even if they protest the idea that they’re not. Rather, they’re just looking to get some attention out of the fandom by contributing something, and writing fic is an “easy” avenue to turn down if one doesn’t have the skills of an artist or musician. It’s a very human thing to observe the praise others receive and want some for one’s self, and I’m not about to put myself above anyone who gets a boost upon receiving a compliment, but one who thinks this provides a convenient excuse for dismissing the opinions of readers who expect more out of fanfiction is sorely mistaken.

    Of course, this door swings both ways. There are plenty of fic readers who’re just looking to “waste some time” with what they read, and if they happen to get some entertainment out of what others consider to be drek, so what? There’s no reason to hold the tastes of such readers against them, and this doesn’t invalidate the opinions they pass back to the author. But this also doesn’t provide an excuse for dismissing unfavorable reviews for shining ones, so serious authors need to be careful about letting praise go to their heads if genuine flaws are pointed out. In my experience, mixed reviews are just as clear a roadmap to improvement as bad ones—you’re doing something right, but there’s more that needs doing—so accept your praise and work on the problems.

    On “Reader vs. Reader”-type debates, these always tend to spiral down into the same pointless bickering, so I’m just going to leave this little chestnut for consideration: There are two types of people in the world—you, and everyone else on the planet who is not you. You only have governance over what you think, say, and do, and you’re perfectly entitled to your opinions, as is everyone else. Learn to agree to disagree, and we’ll all be better off for it.

    1. Another chestnut:

      Goes something like, "All writers have to pump a million words out of their brains before they start hitting any worth reading." The only way to get better, in other words, is to dive right in and start stringing sentences together.

      And fanfiction, I've always felt, is the perfect venue for that process. Now, of course, in my early days--and, as I often say, I figure I've gotta be in the running for the world's oldest brony--there wasn't any internet. So all my "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH" and "Drangonriders of Pern" fanfic was never seen by eyes other than mine. And a good thing, too!

      Like you say, though, the idea of "fanfic as training ground" has the word "training" right there in the middle. Accepting the praise and working on the problems is what it's all about for me, too. Though, yeah, it might be that the reader and I disagree about what the problems actually are... :)


    2. Oh, man . . . now you’ve got me thinking about the Battlestar Galactica (‘78 incarnation, thank you) and Double McGuffin fics I wrote before I knew “fanfiction” was even a term. One of these days, I’m going to start digging through the boxes in my storage unit to see if they still exist, and if I can confirm it, spend a significant moment wallowing in my shame. ;-)