Literary Babble

Uniting fiction and real life.

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Anne McCaffrey and Fanfiction, cont’d

It has been brought to my attention that, sometime in the 11 years between the events described in my last post and right now, Anne McCaffrey decided to allow fanfiction and posted a list of rules on her website.

I am very pleased to see this. 🙂

Our group abided by all of her rules, except the trademark symbol, which would have been easy enough to include if we had known.

Her list does bring up something I didn’t address in my last post, though: pornographic fanfiction. I completely respect her dis-allowing of pornographic fanfiction (which is called “slash,” for the forward slash in between the pairings — like F’lar/Lessa, to give an example from Pern). I have always found it somewhat disrespectful to take somebody else’s characters and make them do things that the original author might consider obscene.

I think Anne put it better than I could: “Please, as I have told my grandchildren, play nice” (©20?? (there’s no date on the post) Anne McCaffrey).

Thank you, Ms. McCaffrey.

Anne McCaffrey, Fanfiction, and Copyright

As you may have heard, Anne McCaffrey, author of the popular Dragonriders of Pern and Harper Hall series, passed away on the 21st of November. I usually mourn when a favorite author dies, but this time, I’m ambivalent. Like many others, I was intensely fascinated by the world she created: the high drama of protecting a planet from a mysterious and devastating force; the unique bond between a dragon and its rider; the medieval-esque society with its guilds and halls, juxtaposed against traditional science fiction elements of space travel and the colonization of new worlds — it was a mix of ideas that I had never encountered before.

I was so fascinated that I wanted to participate. When I was 11 years old, I created a new account on Yahoo! and joined a role-playing group for the Dragonriders of Pern. These groups were mostly made up of teenagers writing participatory fanfiction. Someone, usually the host of the group, would be the head of the “weyr,” and everyone else would write characters for the hatchings. The host would decide who wrote the most compelling characters, and assign the dragon colors according to McCaffrey’s hierarchy: the best female character would be matched with the gold and the male with the bronze, and so on down the line. (Imagine my delight when my character won the first gold dragon..!)

Unfortunately, Anne McCaffrey herself got wind of these role-playing games, and decided that they were in violation of her copyright.[*] She and her lawyers began sending cease and desist letters and reporting the groups to their various hosting sites (Yahoo!/Geocities and Angelfire were the big ones). Nearly every single group got shut down, and there were more than a few terrified kids left wondering if they were about to get slapped with lawsuits.

I am not a lawyer, but I know that we were not reproducing any of McCaffrey’s writing; no money was being exchanged; and, as far as I can remember, nobody was using her characters. If what we were doing was illegal — and the law is unclear — I fail to see how it could have hurt Anne McCaffrey in any way.

All of us were hurt and disappointed. Perhaps she didn’t realize this, but in a sense, we looked up to her. She was doing what we wanted to be doing — writing powerful, intriguing stories. But instead of giving us encouragement, or even leaving us alone to play our harmless games, she threatened legal action against some of her biggest fans and turned us off her writing forever. I will probably always remember her as someone who expended a lot of time and effort bullying kids who found her work inspiring.

I haven’t written any fanfiction in years — since that incident, actually — but I think it’s a useful endeavor for people who want to write but don’t yet have the maturity and experience to develop their own worlds. World-building is hard (especially in sci-fi/fantasy), and being able to borrow someone else’s for a time is a good way to learn some of the tools of the genre without getting bogged down.

And for that matter, stories are for sharing. I completely agree that authors should be able to protect their creative work. I don’t think piracy should be legal or accepted, because creating good fiction is work and people deserve to be paid for their work. But fanfiction isn’t piracy — if you’d like to see some truly excellent work that would probably be considered fanfiction today, check out this author named William Shakespeare. Troilus and Cressida is one of my absolute favorites, but he totally nicked the whole story from Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde — which I think Chaucer nicked from Boccaccio — who nicked it from Benoît de Sainte-Maure, who got the idea from Homer…

[*] Fans will know that Todd McCaffrey, Anne’s son, has been writing the Pern books for some time. I honestly don’t know who was behind the letters. This post is about “Anne” because they were sent in her name.

Edit: She did end up allowing fanfiction! Please read my update here!

Narrative

Today I’ll expand upon an assertion and answer a question from my first post.

“Humans are storytellers.”

For whatever reason, we try to make sense of events. It’s entirely possible that we live in an empty and godless universe full of causal chaos and background noise (hats off to Neil Gaiman for that delicious phrase), but most of us don’t live as though we believe that. Each of us has a basic framework of beliefs, and we organize our perceptions within those frameworks. In sociology, much is made of the way that different cohorts (or age groups) have different experiences based on the times in which they grew up, and those experiences shape their beliefs and their personal and political narratives. But there are other aspects of life that shape beliefs: upbringing is an important one, with religion tucked inside it; socioeconomic status is another; education is another. Personality also matters, though perhaps not as much as one might imagine (as personality is also shaped by the aforementioned forces).

The combination of your experiences and beliefs is what drives your story. We all seek meaning in our lives, and those who find it are more fulfilled, at least according to Victor Frankl (and he does make a compelling case). An example of this would be an atheist and an evangelical Christian examining the same archaeological findings, fossils of some sort. The atheist may conclude that several million years ago, completely different creatures walked the Earth. The evangelical Christian, who believes that the Earth is only 5,000 years old, may conclude that the Devil has placed false evidence to try and lead her soul astray. I think it’s important to realize that, regardless of what you actually believe/accept, both conclusions are stories about what happened on this Earth. The first story is well-accepted scientifically — it’s part of the dominant paradigm — so we don’t think of it as a story. But it was created the same way as the Devil story: the atheist looked at the evidence before her and used her beliefs and world-view to fill in “what must have happened.”

“Why would you study literature when you could be doing something practical, like communications or finance?

A common defense of the humanities is that they somehow contribute to the moral betterment of society. This is both vague and highly debatable: did Rudyard Kipling’s work make England more morally upright, or did it justify brutal conquest and horrific injustices against the Indian people? I posit the latter.

However, one thing that literature does allow us to do is shift perspectives, which is an immensely valuable tool. A well-written novel (or poem, or story) brings you into the head of someone you could never be. Native Son by Richard Wright is such a novel: it tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a black man living in America before the civil rights movement. He is clearly underserved, clearly oppressed (liberal college students love this stuff), and yet he is also a rapist and a murderer. It’s impossible to truly sympathize with this character, which is of course what Wright intended — but it’s also impossible not to see how brutality begets brutality, or to completely write off Bigger Thomas as an “evil” character, inherently malignant. Where does social responsibility end and personal responsibility begin?

It would be difficult to create a discourse around such events, were they presented as truth rather than fiction. Since Bigger Thomas isn’t real, and therefore never actually killed anyone, we are more at ease contemplating the questions of whether rage and violence is inevitable in an oppressed population; whether we can possibly be responsible for the violence of others. Listening to someone else’s story throws a wrench into our moral absolutes and presents information in ways we could never come up with on our own.

It may not be practical, but I hope you see why it’s important.

Please read Native Son, by the way. I am greatly beseeching you.

Post the First

I’ve decided to just make a first-post first post in order to relieve the first-post pressure. Hello. This is my first post!

Byron Katie, an extremely popular self-help guru, asks a question that I appreciate very much: “who would you be without your story?” Katie’s purpose is to get you to realize that the stories you tell aren’t “the truth” about the world, but I’m going to temporarily appropriate the question for a different purpose. People are storytellers, so much so that it’s nearly impossible to get people to stop telling stories. These stories may be constructed in order to explain events we observe, or they may be entirely invented, or they may be a mixture of both — but there is very little that can be said about humanity (or that humans say about anything else) that doesn’t involve stories in some way.

But I believe that stories have gotten a bad rap. They’re frequently seen as frivolous, wasteful, superfluous. Why would you read a novel when you could be reading a nonfiction book and learning something important? Why would you study literature when you could be doing something practical, like communications or finance?

So I’m going to talk to you about stories — specifically literature, although I may take a detour into other types of stories from time to time. I’m going to do it in a way that is, hopefully, non-academic. I’m going to talk about what they are and why they matter. I won’t be restricting myself to the English canon — there’s plenty to read about that anyway, if you’re so inclined. I’m going to write about what I find beautiful and compelling, in the hope that it will inspire you to think in new ways, read a little more, and maybe even create stories of your own.

I know it’s a tall order, but I’d love it if you’d join me.

(Oops, looks like I wrote a real post in spite of myself.)

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