The latest issue of the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts includes John Kessel's Guest of Honor speech from the 2018 International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. Author of several "derivative works," most notably PRIDE AND PROMETHEUS, in which Mary Bennet from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE meets Victor Frankenstein and his Creature, Kessel talked at length about the issues surrounding fiction based on prior fiction. Derivative works include but aren't limited to fan fiction, since many professionally published novels and stories, including numerous acknowledged classics, are based on earlier works. Kessel cited the term "critical fiction," opposed to "mere fanfic" because the former engages critically with and comments on the source text. I'm dubious of this distinction, because many fanfic works deconstruct and comment critically upon their sources, often with complexity and depth absent from the original material. Not that there's anything wrong with playful speculation about "what happened next or offscreen?" and "what if things happened differently?" just for fun.
Kessel, needless to say, approves of critical fiction based on earlier works. He delivered a lengthy rebuttal to a speech presented at a past conference by Guy Gavriel Kay, who expressed disapproval of novels about historical persons—thus, by implication, disapproval of reworking other authors' stories—as lazy and exploitative. Really? Virgil's AENEID is essentially fanfic of the ILIAD and the ODYSSEY. If re-using previously existing characters and plots were always "lazy," Dante's DIVINE COMEDY and Milton's PARADISE LOST would have to be expelled from the canon. And what about Shakespeare? The vast majority of his plays derive their plots from existing sources. Kessel cites many other examples from more recent literature. "Originality" in the modern sense is highly overrated; in fact, authors before the Enlightenment and the Romantic era placed little or no value on it but typically borrowed from their predecessors. Kessel discussed the elements one should include if attempting to re-imagine or add to a prior work by another creator: Bring something new to the material; engage with, comment on, and deconstruct the source text; respect what makes the original good in the first place; "make sure your story can stand on its own." I'm not certain about that last point; some derivative works legitimately require knowledge of their source for full appreciation of the new story.
The English novel as we know it got its start in the eighteenth century partly through the fanfic impulse, which of course doesn't always spring from admiration. It can include negative reflections on the source texts. Henry Fielding reacted so vehemently against what he saw as the moral failings and hypocrisy of Samuel Richardson's PAMELA that he (Fielding) wrote a parody, SHAMELA, portraying the heroine as a conniving slut who traps her master into marriage for his money. Although a simple parody, SHAMELA still engages critically with its model, exposing (as Fielding saw it) the mercenary nature of the romance depicted in PAMELA. Fielding later wrote a more transformative novel, JOSEPH ANDREWS, giving Pamela a brother as pure-hearted and naive as Pamela appears in Richardson's novel. While SHAMELA depends for its effect on familiarity with the original, JOSEPH ANDREWS can stand on its own. How is the parodic SHAMELA not an example of fanfic? In THE INCOMPLETE ENCHANTER and its sequels, by L. Sprague DeCamp and Fletcher Pratt, a psychologist uses symbolic logic equations to transport himself and a companion into various worlds of literature and myth, such as Norse mythology and Spenser's FAERIE QUEEN. Why not classify this vintage work of fantasy as fan fiction? Solely because it's professionally published?
What about authors who write both commercial fiction and fanfic in the same series? Jean Lorrah's wonderful pair of authorized Star Trek novels about Spock's family, THE VULCAN ACADEMY MURDERS and THE IDIC EPIDEMIC, occupies the same universe as her "Night of Twin Moons" fanzine series. What's the justification for classifying the mass-market novels in a completely different category, despite the continuity among the novels and the short stories? The vexed question of the distinction between fanfic and professional fiction is pointedly illustrated by books such as the anthologies set in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover and Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar. The stories in these kinds of anthologies differ from high-quality fanzine (or, nowadays, fan website) stories only in being published commercially with the blessings of the authors of the source texts. Deborah Ross recently released a collection of her Darkover stories, most of them originally published in Bradley's Darkover anthologies. "The Death of Brendon Ensolare" re-imagines a classic Russian story transplanted to the Darkover setting, so it's doubly derivative. One of the stories, however, came from a fanzine. Of the three remaining, previously unpublished tales in the volume, the title piece, "A Heat Wave in the Hellers," is blatantly a fun piece of fanfic; it crams in all the items forbidden by Bradley's submission guidelines for the paperback anthology series. Does commercial publication automatically elevate the two last-mentioned works from "mere fanfic" to pro status? Does the difference between fanfic and professional fiction ultimately depend on whether the author gets paid?
Margaret L. CarterCarter's Crypt