Andrew Shaffer writes about pop culture, philosophy and cult literary figures. He’s also been published in multiple fan fiction anthologies.
Pleading ignorance, I begged Shaffer to help me understand the fan fiction phenomenon. We ended up talking about copyright law, YouTube, Batman, the FOX television show Glee and our own childhood stabs at drawing Ninja Turtle comics. A portion of our conversation appears below.
Shaffer’s work appears in the upcoming Fic: Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World.
Jenn Frank: What’s the connection between cult writers, pulp lit and fan fiction?
Andrew Shaffer: I think that, you know, fan fiction has connections to all writers. And it actually has connections to people who aren’t even writers because when we’re kids, everybody is sort of their own fan fiction writer. If you have, ah, Barbie dolls, or G.I. Joes, or whatever, when you –
J.F.: Right, Ninja Turtles –
A.S.: Yeah, Ninja Turtles. When you play with toys, you are writing your own fanfic, basically. And so I think everybody has that sort of connection, that sort of playfulness, when they’re kids. And some people, if they’re writers, they sort of take that to the next level. But I think for a lot of writers, for a lot of fiction writers, fan fiction is a stepping stone. Now it’s becoming sort of a bigger deal, it’s becoming more than a stepping stone, it’s becoming its own sort of platform in the Internet era. And that presents a whole host of ethical questions, which is why we have a whole essay anthology to talk about this stuff now.
J.F.: Thank you for that because, right, that never clicked before this instant: You would not believe how many Ninja Turtle mythologies I created where April O’Neil was constantly rescuing all of the other main characters. Kind of like, uh, rectifying a plot line that maybe I enjoyed but disagreed with as a 10-year old.
A.S.: Yeah, well, it’s interesting; that was the first sort of “published writing” I ever did, was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fanfic. When I was maybe like 10, I wrote and illustrated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics – fanfic, basically – and they published them in, like, my second-grade elementary school newsletter. And it was serialized every month. So that was actually – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are huge again, which is crazy. They went away for awhile and now they’re back, and it’s, I don’t know, it’s interesting.
I haven’t looked at Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle stuff for a long time, but I mean, mine was very specific, mine was fanfic of the comics: There were comic versions, it wasn’t the original comics, it was a special… It was a comic adaptation of the cartoons.
So my comics were so far removed from the original comics, so as to be – it’s just very weird, how fanfic… sort of… it “mutates,” I guess.
A.S.: Which, we’re talking about mutants…! But anyway, it was very interesting, though, that I started off doing that. And then a couple of years later I started to – I got tired of just doing “what the characters would do” – and I started to write and illustrate parodies.
I did one of the Justice League of America, and it was called “The Junkie League,” and they were a bunch of drug addicts.
J.F.: Oh, God.
A.S.: And [laughs] instead of like the Green Arrow, it was, like, the “Green Needle.” And I think I was in fourth grade when I did this! And it became this amazing contraband that was passed around! So there was a very – there was this line where I started to create my own stuff outside of that. And then eventually I just went off to do my own thing and didn’t want to be restricted to the comics anymore, or anything.
J.F.: So, okay, you have written some stuff under the pseudonym “Edgar Allan Pole” [one of Shaffer's Perverted Poe stories is titled "The Telltale Hardon"].
J.F.: And I wanted to ask you, how much of fan fiction is parody? Is it taking the piss, so to speak, out of something you earnestly love? And, related to that, how much of fan fiction is an in-joke to other people who are familiar already with the literature, whether they’re fans of Poe or fans of a comic book?
A.S.: I think the second question is, you know, how much of it is an in-joke? And I think it’s all an in-joke, because it really relies upon knowledge of that original thing for it to have any sort of context. And that’s why fan fiction has evolved into these sort of fan fiction communities online, where you have the Harry Potter fandom, or the Twilight fandom, [which] are the two biggest for the past 10 years online. And so it really requires that knowledge; you can’t look at it from outside and look at a story, you might not understand any of the references, and it might not make any sense.
And that’s one thing, when I did these Edgar Allan Pole stories, which are a parody, a mash-up, of these Edgar Allan Poe stories: Unless you read the original story, you probably wouldn’t catch all the jokes that are going on in there. So I don’t know if I would consider that fan fiction, but I think it’s all sort of on a sliding scale, though. From fan fiction to original work, you’re always sort of building upon someone else’s ideas in some form.
But it’s just, how much are you twisting their ideas around and introducing new stuff in there? That’s why a lot of fan fiction, you can read it and say, all right, it reads like a parody almost. And so when I published a parody, Fifty Shames of Earl Grey, you know, it was actually sort of a parody of Twilight, as well –
J.F.: Right, this is what I wanted to ask you about, because 50 Shades of Grey has taken on its own life completely; it started out as Twilight fan fiction and now it’s a cultural phenomenon. People seem to enjoy it completely divorced from [Twilight's] original characters. So it’s a total opposite of an “in-joke.” It’s become this very mainstream thing. How does something like that even happen?
A.S.: Well, what’s important to understand about that particular fan fiction is, it was one of a number of different fan fictions of Twilight that was part of a subgenre of “office settings” –
A.S.: Which was, taking all the vampires out of Twilight – sometimes they might’ve had vampires in there, I don’t really read them all, but – but taking that element out, and placing Edward in an office, as a boss, and then Bella as an employee or an intern or something. Or a reporter, in the case of 50 Shades of Grey. So there was a whole genre of fanfic that was specifically devoted to this. It’s called “alternate universe” fanfic.
So you take the characters and the relationships and you twist them so far that they’re almost unrecognizable. Now, the writers, in their mind, they may think they’re writing fanfic. But it’s so unrecognizable, for some of them. Part of it is because they’re amateur writers, so what they’ve written, if you hadn’t told people it was Twilight fan fiction, they wouldn’t've really known that about 50 Shades of Grey.
I went to this, it was a musical parody, called Spank, of 50 Shades of Grey, which was hilarious. And I went to see this, and they have a couple of fanfic jokes in there. And no one in the audience got it, at all.
J.F.: Oh, wow.
A.S.: You know? They were like: what the hell’s fanfic; we don’t know anything about this; why are they making vampire jokes. It was so unrecognizable, what they’ve done, that it’s almost original. And I think that’s entirely on accident, which is kind of a genius thing, where you’re like, “wow, you were trying…!”
It’s like if someone tried to repaint the Mona Lisa but they were a terrible painter, and then it turned out to be, like, this Something that looks like Picasso, and it turned out brilliant! So there is definitely, the intention is there for it to be fanfic, but it really… I don’t know! It really blurs the lines. That’s why there’s this whole ethical question about scrubbing the serial numbers off, you changing the names in fanfic and then selling it; but if it’s not recognizable as fanfic in the first place, it’s, I don’t know where you draw the line.
J.F.: I wanted to tell you there is a really good book, published by Writer’s Digest, called Write Like the Masters: Emulating the Best of Hemingway, Faulkner, Salinger and Others. It’s a really good book. It also very much mirrors how my university’s writing sequence taught its students: We would actually write imitations of, specifically, Flannery O’Connor and David Foster Wallace.
But we never ended up sounding like the original writers at all. And I feel like, part of it was because we were just starting out and learning, and maybe we didn’t have the ear, a very cultivated ear for voice? And so it was difficult for us to write a really good imitation, or emulation, of the writer. But I also feel like that was really productive because, any discrepancy between your voice and the writer you were trying to imitate, I feel like you kind of found your own voice inside of how divergent – what you had constructed – does that make any sense?
A.S.: Yeah. “Emulating” your heroes, you know, is how you find your own style; you don’t just go off and find your own style. You have to emulate someone and then, you’re right, there’s sort of this gap between you and who you’re emulating that sort of emerges, and then maybe you focus on that and you change your style over time, and it becomes your own style. And you eventually can’t see any real remnants of who you were emulating but, I mean, it takes years and years for that to happen.
And that’s what’s happening with this fanfic is, some of it, they’re just trying to emulate it, but they’re just not good at it. And they end up getting their own style in spite of themselves. And that’s one thing I found the most fun about doing an Edgar Allan Poe mash-up is, I got to emulate Edgar Allan Poe’s voice, which is very distinctive, to the point of being almost illiterate, so [laughs]. So it’s a fun exercise, too, to try to do that. And that’s where everyone starts off at, I think.
You know, they try to write – well, I know I tried to emulate Chuck Palahniuk, when I first started writing, when I was in my 20s. Eventually I got away from that. But that was definitely like my style for a couple of years, was completely ripped off. And then I started to, say – you sort of wanna, at some point, to make a break from your “parents,” you know?
J.F.: This is an insensitive question, and I’m sorry, but: Why does so much fan art seem to include furries? Is there a single, concrete reason?
A.S.: Does it? Fan, like, um…
J.F.: Yeeeah! Yeah, it’s amazing, how many – I mean, speaking of, like, “alternative universes” – there is a parallel dimension where every piece of literature you love, you thought [you loved], has just like furry creatures in it.
A.S.: Like, the sexual? People who are into it, like, as a kinky thing?
A.S.: Yeah. I think, one of the things that fan fiction for adults – instead of kids making up their own characters – for adults, it almost invariably includes some form of sexual content. And it often is not mainstream. Because, you know, we get the mainstream sex in some of the movies and stuff [already]. But some of the first Star Trek – the first fan fiction of the modern era was in the ’60s and ’70s with Star Trek – and…
J.F.: And that’s where we got the expression “slash” from.
A.S.: Yeah. Yeah, because people wanted to see this, and it was written then by… like, 80 percent of it then was written by women, just as it is now. But it’s something that they weren’t getting from the “regular” stuff. And people really are like – like furries are, like cosplayers, or geeks…! If you’re a geek, you’re really into something. And it’s, it’s – the furry stuff, though, I don’t understand it? And it’s, like, really, it’s so difficult to talk about it, without sort of giggling? Or saying that it’s weird? Because, because it really is kind of strange to, you know, to dress up in a costume?
J.F.: Right. To me! To me.
A.S.: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So it’s such a hard thing to talk about.
J.F.: So okay, a lot of fan fiction – and this is very much my knee-jerk association I have with fan fiction – is not necessarily about innocent role-playing, but about actual slash. I think that’s because… I remember the first fan fiction I ever found, and I found it accidentally. And it was ‘N Sync slash? And I was so… dazed, and baffled, and upset, by whatever it was I had stumbled onto. I permanently, as a result, think of fan fiction as this thing you accidentally find when you are innocuously Googling something else.
J.F.: You know what I mean?
A.S.: Yeah. Yeah, I wonder how much of it is come across accidentally, because it seems that a lot of people are really actively searching for this stuff. And that’s, it – I can see how it might be kind of horrifying –
A.S.: But ‘N Sync! I liked ‘N Sync.
J.F.: So did this author!
A.S.: I probably would’ve read the hell out of that story. And there’s probably tons of – the problem is, now, there’s so much of any…! Anything you can think of is out there, and so it’s having to wade through the bad stuff to get to something that might be entertaining or whatnot. It’s really a tough task. And you really have to be sort of keyed-in to that fandom, to really know who the good authors are.
And some of them have hundreds of thousands of reads of their work! Which is pretty amazing. That’s something that any of us would want.
J.F.: Right! Any published author is hoping for that kind of readership!
A.S.: I know!
J.F.: How much fan fiction, do you feel, hinges on proving a sort of credibility, do you think? To the tribe, to a larger forum of fans?
A.S.: To prove how big of a fan you are, or how much of a geek you are?
J.F.: Yeah! “Geek cred.”
A.S.: A lot of the fanfic writers who have sort of “hit it big” really did not do so, I think, with the intent… They just wanted to participate in this culture, and participate with their fellow fans. And they really didn’t get into it with the intent of recognition or being sort of elevated above the other writers or anything. Which is why polling it to publish it, and introducing money into it, like with Amazon Kindle Worlds, is such a controversial thing. Because as soon as you start putting money into it, you just change that whole relationship. It was all about sort of sharing and engaging in this, and nobody’s better than anybody else.
But it really is a meritocracy: Some people rise to the top, just because their work was better. Or something. And so, I just don’t think they got into it for that reason? But I think it’s definitely changing, and that’s where a lot of the conflict comes from, now, I think.
J.F.: Uh. Conflict?
A.S.: Oh, conflict. [Laughs] Well, now that you’ve introduced money into it…! You know, Fifty Shades of Gray was the first Twilight fan fiction to hit big. And then publishers started coming after all the other Twilight fan fictions. And then you’d have someone say, “Well, yeah, they put Twilight in an office! But a lot of us did that!” You know? “Who did it first!” And so it becomes, as soon as you start introducing that, it becomes “who came up with the idea of putting Edward in an office?” And there are all these other stories out there. And some of these other stories, then, have gotten big as well.
J.F.: So that’s interesting: Other writers want to assume ownership of something no one had ownership of from the get-go?
A.S.: Right. They say, “Well, I came up with the idea of doing it that way.” It’s interesting, there was a big controversy with Glee a couple months ago with, uh, a singer-songwriter –
J.F.: They ripped off, right, not a song, but very directly the Jonathan Coulton version of a song?
A.S.: Yeah, so they ripped off his version of the song, and they did it a bit – well, obviously, they also ripped his own lyrics off, which was weird -
J.F.: Oh, yeah!
A.S.: They called him “Johnny C”!
J.F.: A serious mistake! Not just the arrangement, but the actual little tweak that he’d made [lyrically]…!
A.S.: Yeah, so that’s probably about as extreme as that could get, with the copying? But it’s sort of the same idea, where they’re like, well, who came up with the idea to do “Baby Got Back” as a laid-back, folksy song like that. And so the same thing with Twilight fan fiction: “Who came up with this [idea] first?” And that’s not something I want to touch with a ten-foot pole.
It’s interesting, though, yeah. I think as soon as money gets involved, that question of ownership comes up. And it just opens up a wormhole that you don’t wanna go down, because you don’t know where it leads. And, really, in the U.S. at least, copyright law is such that there are certain aspects of things that can’t be copyrighted, or trademarked or whatever. And so it, I don’t know, it really is just a mess.
J.F.: So do you think this has caused some injury to the fan fiction scene, that money is involved now? Is art better – “art” – is art easier to foster when the stakes are lower?
A.S.: Well, the answer is I think yes. I think that, when there are no commercial restraints at all, you definitely get different – you get different art than you would if there are commercial restraints, let’s say.
J.F.: More room to experiment.
A.S.: Which is good and bad, y’know? On one hand, now, you might have people writing with the intent to someday change their fanfic over to their own characters or something, and then it not be as crazy. And I mean, that’s one thing with a lot of fanfic, is that it goes places that commercial art might not always go. Not that there isn’t commercial art that breaks boundaries, but.
There’s also this “community” aspect there, and so there’s some sort of trust that’s being broken. Because in the Twilight community, if you have people reading your stuff, they’re also providing feedback to you, in terms of direction of the storyline, in terms of your writing…! And so you have a huge community of beta-readers, people who are reading your stuff as you’re serializing it, for most of these.
And as soon as you sort of publish that and then turn your back on these people, you know, you break their trust. And so there’s a trust aspect there now: are people going to be as trusting with their time, to say “I’m providing you with feedback because I want to help you make this a better story, but wait, are you just gonna sell this?” And cut us all out of it? So I think there are two things. One is, the monies, it might dilute the work in some way. But [money can] also break the trust.
J.F.: I did see some of the blowback against 50 Shades of Grey. Again, I don’t know how I ended up at a blog post where people were really angry, just at the book being published.
A.S.: Mhm, mhm!
J.F.: But I was very startled. I have no idea what I was Googling! Again! So I ended up seeing some of that, too.
That’s amazing, how much fan fiction has seeped in through the margins. Like, it’s so not an interest of mine, and I feel like that’s very a doth-protest-too-much thing to say, but I have seen it…!
A.S.: Well, you can see fan fiction everywhere. You know, basically every superhero movie – comics – they’re all fan fiction, fan fiction that’s authorized by corporations. And sometimes it ends up being very good! Like, when Warner Brothers gives control of Batman to Christopher Nolan, we get something that’s very good! And nobody questions that that is fanfic, you know? Because they’re like, oh well, this corporation told him it’s okay to write about this character that was created by someone else 80 years ago!
And so when it goes good, that’s a good thing, but then you can also say, when Warner Brothers gives Joel Schumacher control of Batman, we get a terrible product, Batman Forever, or whatever the movies he did – the ’90s were just terrible! And so you see it on a very large scale with movies, as well. The question is, is fan fiction a valid art? Can you use really use someone else’s characters to make art? We don’t really question it when it’s on a bigger scale like that, and when it’s “authorized” by someone.
J.F.: So, okay, I’m a newcomer to fanfic. What is a good resource for a reader like me?
A.S.: [Laughs] You know, there really, it’s really intimidating, actually! You would think something this informal would be a little easier to dip your toes into or something. There are a couple different websites out there that do stuff. One is called FanFiction.Net. Another is called Wattpad, and a third one is called Archive of Our Own.
A.S.: And in each one you’ll see, you have to find where your fandom is and then dip your toes into it. I’m sure there are other websites out there that curate this stuff. But it’s really sort of a wild thing – you just have to go read it, and if you want to participate in it, you have to read what is out there and…! It’s really a daunting task. Unless you are, like, super into it, I don’t know if there’s really a great “intro” to it. You know?
I mean, I wish there were something like a Best American Fanfic 2013, an anthology that you could just pick up and say, “Oh, well,” and read different stuff in it. Which has not happened for obvious reasons. But I wish there was stuff like that – I wish some of the legalities of fanfic were cleared up in the same way that you can do a cover of a song.
That’s sort of what fanfic is: It’s your own “cover versions.”