April 2013

Arts & Letters

The cheap thrills of fan fiction

By Linda Jaivin
The slash pile

Ever imagined Paul Keating and Germaine Greer getting it on to the rhythm of Keating’s Redfern speech? Jennifer Byrne has. Brendan Cowell has done it with a bhang lassi–infused Aussie cricket team. Noni Hazlehurst, Toby Schmitz and I have done it too – written erotic fan fiction, that is. It’s all been at the instigation of Eddie Sharp, who regularly puts on adults-only storytelling nights.

Before Fifty Shades of Grey seemingly shot out of nowhere to streak victory laps around the literary arena, the world of erotic fan fiction, and indeed fan fiction itself, had scarcely made a blip on the mainstream cultural radar. Constance Penley, a California academic once said by Rolling Stone to possess “one of the eight most dangerous minds in America”, published a pioneering book on the subject, NASA/TREK, in 1997. She stumbled across the phenomenon in the mid ’80s, in the form of a well-established subculture of women who wrote “homoerotic, pornographic, utopian romances” set in the Star Trek universe.

Back then, writers laboriously typed up and pasted together their alternative histories of Kirk and company to create “zines”, photocopies of which circulated via the old-fashioned messaging service known as the post. The zines had names like Naked Times, Off Duty and Final Frontier, and the most popular type of story was called “K/S” – Kirk/Spock. “Slash fiction”, as it was called, and the “slashers” who wrote it, took their punctuation cues from Roland Barthes’ S/Z, which analyses the relationship in Balzac’s story ‘Sarrasine’ between the eponymous male protagonist and a castrato called Zambinella with whom he falls in love; Barthes asserts the potential for multiple readings of narrative text. 

If gay porn seems an odd obsession for straight female writers, it allows them, as Penley observes, to avoid “the built-in inequality of the romance formula, in which dominance and submission are invariably the respective roles of men and women”. In that sense, the Fifty Shades franchise belongs more to the tradition of retrograde romance fiction than that of erotic fan fiction.

I met Penley the year her book was published, when we shared a book-festival stage talking about women’s erotica. I recall how the other panellists and I dropped our jaws as we listened to Penley’s descriptions of this elaborate subculture of which we’d previously heard neither peep nor purr.

The kingdoms of slash grew in size yet remained relatively hermetic, K/S devotees not necessarily being drawn to S/H (Starsky/Hutch), for example. Then, along came the internet, transforming “fanfic”, with its discrete populations of ardent reader-writers, into an interconnected global empire. The mothership of FanFiction.net today features categories including anime, musicals, games, films, cartoons, books and TV shows. Each category unfolds to reveal an extraordinarily wide range of subjects. There is literary fanfic inspired by Anne of Green Gables and Atlas Shrugged along with the predictable host of fantasy, vampire and other genre novels. Under “plays/musicals” you’ll find entries devoted to Aida and Cirque du Soleil, as well as West Side Story and Les Mis. Among the more than a thousand stories listed under the rubric “Shakespeare” is “Springer Othello”. The writer, using the penname “thirteen”, imagines Desdemona accusing her father Brabantio of racism on the Jerry Springer Show; Brabantio protests that he only disapproves of Othello because of the age difference:


Jerry: You were both in the army?

Brabantio: Yeah, I’m retired but he’s still in it. So anyway we would drink and tell war stories and all the time he was hitting on my daughter. On my daughter! For god’s sake, he’s twice her age.

Audience: Boo!


Another entry, “Carol of Macbeth”, retells Macbeth “to the tune of ‘Carol of the Bells’”: “You’re not the same / Since the witches came.”

Once, nestled among such fluff were thousands of sexually explicit takes on original texts. Last June, in an act that the spokespeople for FanFiction.net said was necessary to retain the site’s US ‘Fiction M’ rating (which prohibits detailed description of sex or violence), it excised slash and other adult fanfic from the site. Approximately 8000 stories disappeared, some lost forever – their authors’ insouciance towards grammar and copyright apparently extending to the practice of backing up as well. Writing in the Huffington Post, Hannah Ellison frothed that it was only a “cultural hierarchy of taste” that meant apart from “a handful of Tumblr posts”, no one outside the fanfic world even noticed the purge: “Were a library filled with thousands of works of ‘legitimate’ fiction destroyed, it would make front-page news.”

FanFiction.net’s loss was a gain for less straitlaced sites such as archiveofourown.org (known as AO3), which crashed under the weight of all that new, engorged prose. Checking out AO3, I randomly clicked on a Harry Potter story by HarleyD, ‘Rough on You’. It begins with Harry Potter “fingering his wand” and chafing under the pressure to be good all the time. Enter his schoolyard nemesis, the magician-bully Draco Malfoy. Harry slams him up against a wall, slides Draco’s wand into his own back pocket, and suggests that Draco fellate him. When Draco resists, Harry responds, “Oh, you’ll suck me off if I have to put imperious on you.”

Potter’s mind-control curse is in fact spelt “Imperius”, but no one edits, much less proofreads, this stuff. Intellectual property lawyers, on the other hand, have been reading it closely. JK Rowling, along with many TV producers and popular writers, has no issue with the world of general fanfic. Others, like Anne Rice, have furiously attempted to prohibit fanfic based on their own work, although as English academic John Sutherland has put it, you might as well try to “catch sunbeams in a jar”.

Rowling, however, has drawn a clear line between “fan fiction written by genuine Harry Potter fans” and the kind of smutty wand-play quoted above. As her lawyers have argued in “cease and desist” letters from 2003 onwards, there is a “very real risk” that impressionable young readers of her stories will find their way to sexually explicit stories. They see no reason why online publishers should “consider themselves relieved of the responsibilities and legal obligations accepted by publishers in every other medium”, noting that courts in Australia as well as the UK are in agreement. In 2007, Ernest Chua concluded in Murdoch University’s eLaw Journal that “Generally, fan fiction can be argued to infringe copyright.” Joanne Teng, a solicitor with the Arts Law Centre of Australia, is of like mind, although she has written that prosecution is unlikely to succeed, particularly when there is no profit motive.

From the perspective of many in the fanfic world, EL James violated the scene’s amateur ethos when she took Fifty Shades into the commercial sphere. High-mindedness and perhaps a dollop of jealousy aside, enthusiasts worry that her success (tens of millions of copies have been sold worldwide) will have far-reaching implications. In 2005 the sci-fi writer John Scalzi foresaw a situation in which a fanfic writer publishing their work commercially would bring “screaming hordes of lawyers” down on the scene. Of course, Fifty Shades is technically not fanfic because, even if it’s more closely related to Twilight than anyone could possibly be to Kevin Bacon, it has gone through the prophylactic process known in the community as “filing off the serial numbers”: eliminating direct connections to the original by changing names and other giveaway details.

If authors and other creators are feeling sensitive about copyright, it’s understandable. The moral and property rights that copyright law protects are under siege. The unauthorised and uncompensated digitisation of works under copyright by the likes of HathiTrust and Google threatens the ability of writers and other artists to make a living from their work. The “copyleft” movement (“Content wants to be free!”), meanwhile, is championed largely by members of a generation known for not yet having moved out of their parents’ homes. If my rent and food wanted to be free, too, I’d consider they might have an argument.

I raised the question of copyright and fanfic with Eddie Sharp, host of the erotic fan-fiction nights. He dismissed my concerns: “I can’t think of anyone my age” – he’s 30 – “who would be upset.” He characterised the “attitude shift” towards copyright as “a generational thing”.

I’d met Sharp on the set of a TV special on erotic fiction. Later, he invited me to be part of an erotic fan-fiction night he was hosting in Sydney. He organised his first in 2006 as part of the University of NSW’s arts week. He wanted to see what would happen if “good writers, people I admire” got involved in a genre that he admits is typically of “pretty terrible” quality, and read their work in front of an audience. I happily accepted. I was in the grip of an obsession with the American TV series Breaking Bad. The tense, unstable bonds between the cold-blooded barbecued-chicken-and-drugs tsar Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and his Mr-Chips-gone-rancid meth cook Walter White (Bryan Cranston) provided classic slash inspiration.

That these readings had developed a cult following was obvious the moment three other writers and I followed Sharp, attired for the occasion in a diaphanous blue gown, onto the stage for the sold-out event. The crowd, predominantly young, hip and with a high proportion of GLBT in its alphabet soup, pumped enthusiasm. According to Sharp, ever since Fifty Shades, the scene has gone “bananas”.

My three co-readers had chosen to write about real people, a subgenre of fanfic that got its start along with the first boy bands. Arts writer Andrew Stone contributed a hot, funny fantasy about bedding the ideological disciplinarian Miranda Devine. Sunil Badami described the seduction of Justine Bieber (not a typo) by a hermaphrodite one might call “Ladyboy Gaga”. Health worker–comedian Annaliese Constable pitched in with ‘Your Mum’, a tale of Tony Abbott, rendered, with the help of quotations from the Opposition leader himself, as a cartoon of right-wing masculinity, making it with the eponymous protagonist in a surf-club tuckshop.

Later, Sharp commented of Constable, whose story portrayed Abbott as physically as well as ideologically repulsive, “She’s a funny, dispossessed lesbian who’s angry. I thought [her story] was excellent.” I asked him if such a story would have been acceptable were it written about Julia Gillard and read to an audience of Young Liberals. He said it was different because Gillard is a woman. Yet he acknowledged that Gina Rinehart had proved another popular subject for revulsion-based fantasies at his events. For my money shot, I prefer political real-person erotica that subversively evokes an uncomfortable attraction to the “enemy”. Not long after the 11 September attacks in 2001, for example, an American woman writer on nerve.com contributed an outrageous, erotic (and extremely funny) fantasy of exploring Bin Laden’s craggy, Afghanistan-like personal topography.

I enjoyed writing and reading my story, ‘Breaking Bad, But It Feels So Good’, which, as I later discovered, was just one more addition to a veritable trove of Gus / Walter slash. Still, I felt some moral discomfort in literally perverting characters created by someone else without permission.

Writers have been appropriating stories and characters from other works (not to mention real life) since well before Dante read Virgil and Shakespeare read Chaucer. John Birmingham, Matt Condon and I have dipped into one another’s character store: Birmingham borrowed Condon’s Icarus from A Night at the Pink Poodle and Jake and the alien chicks from my Rock n Roll Babes from Outer Space for his Tasmanian Babes Fiasco, and I scooped a character from Tasmanian Babes for my Miles Walker, You’re Dead. Quaintly, we asked one another’s permission first. It must be a generational thing.

Linda Jaivin

Linda Jaivin is an author and translator of Chinese. Her books include Eat Me, The Infernal Optimist and A Most Immoral Woman. Her most recent works are the novel The Empress Lover and the Quarterly Essay ‘Found in Translation’.

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