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The Robin Hobb thing - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
fernwithy
fernwithy
The Robin Hobb thing
Apparently, a writer named Robin Hobb doesn't like fan fiction. She has managed to re-depress me by stressing that what I do isn't real writing and is in fact the opposite of writing.

I've never read her books (in fact, this is the first I've heard of her) so this doesn't hit me quite as personally as when Orson Scott Card advanced similar views (in a less insulting tone of voice).

First, Ms. Hobb suggests that fan fiction is identity theft, because it attaches the author's intellectual property with ideas not the author's, and which may in fact be inimical to the author's. "This is what you did wrong," she hears it saying. "I'm going to fix it."

I find it difficult to argue with this as a problematic premise--as a writer (and I do write original stuff, Ms. Hobb, thank you very much), I don't like to be misinterpreted or re-written, and I do think fan writers should stick to fandoms where they like the original material enough to keep it faithful to the spirit of canon. That said, there's a quite a lot of fanfic out there that does exactly that. It's telling side stories that are rightly left unaddressed in the original, because they don't fit with the format (POV stories like Harry's) or are outside the scope of the timeline, or are simply not relevant to the immediate, tightly written story the author has chosen to tell. It's thinking out loud and wondering, "What's around that corner?" So while I agree with her that it's problematic to be "re-written," it's absurd to class fan fiction as a whole as something which is out to undermine the original.

As to the identity theft issue--that's a very odd analogy. I can see it with Real Person Slash or whatnot... that is actually using the identities of real people and making them behave the way an author wants them to behave. But just writing in a fictional universe?

I'm sorry, but isn't the point of creating a universe to make it so real to readers that they feel it has its own existence? Isn't it part of the natural life of a good story when it comes to life in the reader's mind, and inspires questions like, "What if that happened here?" or "What would happen if so-and-so had done such-and-such instead of thus-and-so?" How anyone can read a book--at least a book that s/he likes--and not turn over questions like that is a complete puzzlement to me.

Ms. Hobb suggests that these questions should be applied to creating a new world instead. We have a phrase for that: "Filing off the serial numbers." And people do it all the time... I rather suspect that a lot of bad knock-offs on the shelves are fanfic writers who have filed off the serial numbers and thus robbed their stories of the theme and character resonances that make good fanfic work. For myself, I prefer to be honest, because honestly... if I scraped all the serial numbers off of Father's Heart and just made it into a story about an adopted princess whose birth father is on the other side of a war and has some real impulse control problems, I'd give myself bleeding ulcers wondering when Lucasfilm would sue me for trying to sneak it by them. I'd feel very guilty and slightly dirty for being dishonest.

As to the assertion that fan fiction doesn't help with learning to write because it doesn't involve world creation or new ideas, I think that can be pretty much summarily dismissed. All writing helps to teach writing. It's arguable that fanfic is developing some strengths at the expense of others--I probably should put in some serious time practicing the world-creation skill set--but the notion that it's not real writing is patently absurd. Having written both fanfic and original fic, I actually think the characterization work in fanfic is more complex and layered, because you have to take into account not only the needs of your own story, but the canonical behavior of the characters you're using and the moral rules of the universe you're writing in.

World creation is a specialized skill-set, and one that I would like to work on strengthening, but it's not writing per se. Worlds are just worlds. Writing is what takes place when you get there. And plenty of pro writers never created a world in their lives--most "realist" fiction just uses the world outside the window the same way fanfic writers use Hogwarts or the GFFA.

Ah, I can hear from the anti-fanfic folks, but they're using their own ideas. Their own characters.

On the idea question... fanfic writers, clap your hands if you write without getting an idea?

:listens to dead silence in cyberspace:

Characters? This is where the difference in skill-set is. It's not a lesser skill to use someone else's characters, just a different one. I've often said it, but I'll say it again because I like to repeat myself: Fanfic characterization is a skill more related to the theater than to the page. We read our scripts, learn our characters, and then get called to the stage to improvise them in a new situation. And of course, you do create original characters in fanfic... but again, it's a more complex process, since they have to stand on their own, but also be so integrated into the canon universe that they don't feel jarring. This is very difficult and often not achieved, as is evident by reports on deleterius, pottersues, and the many other sites that tear out their hair over horrible OCs and bad stories.

I've written original fic, profic (licensed), and fanfic (unlicensed). Original fic is slightly different, but there is no difference in approach between profic and fanfic, so I'm not sure where Ms. Hobb comes off thinking that there's some huge qualitative difference between a Buffy novel and a well-written Buffy fanfic. Yes, there's a legal difference, and yes, the novels get bound up in a lot of rules that are made for marketing purposes (and to keep the universe from changing too much for the next writer), but the writing itself? The level of respect shown? Sigh. The real difference is that in the fanfic world, there's no vetting for quality, so more of the bad stuff escapes into the world... but I seriously doubt it's worse than what the publishers of these books get in the slushpile and send back to the authors unread.

Oh, well. I'll go back to not really writing "The Hidden Face" later.
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From: tunxeh Date: June 27th, 2005 02:53 pm (UTC) (Link)
I've never read her books (in fact, this is the first I've heard of her)

Perhaps you've heard of her under another name? She used to write as Megan Lindholm. Wizard of the Pigeons is a wonderful sad book about a magical homeless guy, and she also has a series under that name about some gypsy-like people.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: June 27th, 2005 02:55 pm (UTC) (Link)
Ah, yes. Okay, that one I know.
From: catkind Date: June 27th, 2005 03:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
I've seen a number of interesting responses to Robin Hobb's rant. If I were a writer I'd take it as a request not to fanfic her own books (which I've also not read), and that'd be fair enough. I know Le Guin also doesn't like being fanficced, and on the whole people stick to that.

Isn't it part of the natural life of a good story when it comes to life in the reader's mind, and inspires questions like, "What if that happened here?"

Absolutely. Particularly with patchwork universes like HP and SW.

On which measure, it was a good rant, because it inspired discussion?

And if writing fanfic doesn't help you learn writing, what on earth were all my school English Lit teachers playing at? At least half of the homeworks were writing what-happens-next essays, or other-POVs, or similarly fanfic-ish things.

But isn't it nice to see that a pro righter can also fall into the spellcheck trap!
persephone_kore From: persephone_kore Date: June 27th, 2005 03:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
You could always go read minisinoo -- career novelist who writes fanfic on the side. Actually, considering some of her essays, you two might get along, I don't know....
imadra_blue From: imadra_blue Date: June 28th, 2005 01:12 am (UTC) (Link)
minisinoo doesn't really keep people outside of her fandoms (X-Men, I believe) on her f-list. Well, at least she didn't use to. Good writer for X-Men, though.
humantales From: humantales Date: June 27th, 2005 03:04 pm (UTC) (Link)
The timing of this latest controversy is interesting. My aunt, a professor of writing and rhetoric, has just been introduced to fan fiction and is utterly fascinated with it from an academic, philosophical view. Your post is one of several on the topic I'm forwarding to her; issues of authorship are one of her areas of expertise.
ladyelaine From: ladyelaine Date: June 27th, 2005 03:08 pm (UTC) (Link)
I pointed to this a couple days ago, but in case you didn't see it, go look. It's by a Real, Live Author, who happens to have a quite positive view on fanfic.

Oh, and yes, see Minisinoo. "Why I write Fanfic" (from a professional author).
cynthia_black From: cynthia_black Date: June 27th, 2005 03:09 pm (UTC) (Link)
I agree with you on all points there, Fern (not that that's a surprise really).

I've read all nine of the books Robin Hobb has written under that name, as well as two Megan Lindholm ones (which were inferior to the Hobb ones). The Liveships trilogy in particular is really intricate and rich in characters - well worth a read if you get a chance. It's just a pity they lend themselves so well to fanfiction...
texasmagic From: texasmagic Date: June 27th, 2005 03:26 pm (UTC) (Link)
The rant you referenced struck me as an emotional response from a writer who doesn't like others to tinker in her world. So be it.

Your rebuttle was well thought out, and I think does great justice to motivations behind fanfiction. As a teacher of writing for young kids, I find it's often necessary to separate out the elements of writing. Fanfiction helps with that tremedously, as we can isolate a character, a time, or a setting, and focus on one thing. Need work with dialogue, go right a fight between the Trio and Draco and Co. Sequencing? Explain how Hermione brewed the potion required for their latest adventure.

The one valid point Hobb makes is that fanfiction can, and often does, de-evolve into a way to indulge in fetishes and explore themes that the author would rather not be associated with their work. Fanfiction admittedly provides very little control over this aspect and I can see how it would frustrate an author to see their world being used in this way. The only recourse they have, I suppose, is to make a public statement that they don't mind fanfic, as long a it doesn't.... in their world. Then they can only hope that the fanfic writers will respect their wishes.
lannamichaels From: lannamichaels Date: June 27th, 2005 03:42 pm (UTC) (Link)
Those are very good points. I love fanfic because it's a way of filling in the holes left by canon and exploring what isn't there. I read a lot of AUs, but generally speaking, that's not rewriting canon. It's playing with it, seeing where it can go. The worst AUs are the ones that throw characterization out the window and make it up as they go along. You have to base things in canon, iirc, for them to be good.

I really do think that you can tell a lot about a fandom by what kind of fic there is. During first season of smallville, I went trolling for any kind of fic and half of what I found was Clark/Lex slash. And that was on mixed or most-gen archives, too. There are things that are there or hinted about in canon that people want to explore, especially, when it comes to slash, when you know that it's never going to happen in canon. You tend to get a lot of fic in large universes, where you just know that there are things going on behind the screen or just to the left, that are never going to get written about. Take Lord of the Rings. There's just so much in canon and only four books. There are things to write about in Gondor, in Rohan, in Mordor, etc. And in Harry Potter, you have the whole world that Harry isn't seeing, that he can't see, because he's still in school. There's so much to write about, and I think that we write what we want to read, and, well, why not? I don't think fic harms anyone, and, frankly, I think that if it bothers people, they just shouldn't read it, not condemn it. As for ownership and all...I've never had anyone write fic with my OCs, so I don't know, but I'm used to writing fic. I'm used to sharing characters with the world. And when you write a book and people read it, isn't that what you're doing it? Aren't you letting the chracters worm their way into someone else's head and get them into the story?
marycontraria From: marycontraria Date: June 27th, 2005 03:45 pm (UTC) (Link)
Image hosted by Photobucket.com

Actually, a lot of her analogies struck me as just a little bit... off, which didn't add anything to the fact that basically her rant just feels like an overemotional lashing-out at something she doesn't like. Your rebuttal is rational, logical, and something I can agree with. (And I'm really looking forward to reading your new fic, although I might wait till I've returned from my trip next week to get really involved in it. :))
darreldoomvomit From: darreldoomvomit Date: June 27th, 2005 04:23 pm (UTC) (Link)
your mona lisa is so much better than the original. i finally understand what she is thinking! bless robin hobb for giving you such an inspired idea.
darreldoomvomit From: darreldoomvomit Date: June 27th, 2005 04:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
when i first heard about this, from a friend who adores her books, and so was really miffed at her comments, i thought, well good. i personally think that what she writes, at least under the name robin hobb, is crap. pretty much as stock fantasy-ish as you can get, with protagonists that you just hate and pretentious and annoying secondary characters, it just isn't good enough to have fanfiction written about it. but that doesn't mean i agree with her, in fact, i think you make many very good points that you've already made so i don't need to repeat any of them.
thewhiteowl From: thewhiteowl Date: June 27th, 2005 05:41 pm (UTC) (Link)
Couldn't agree more. I think fanfic writers who write young Leia and Alderaan (like us :-D) do get some practice at the world-building, because we don't know that much about Alderaan at all. (Although I totally admit to just bunging in the conlang I've had since I was about 16 for insta-realism.)
It's as much as most pro, set-in-contemporary-Western-society novels do.
From: isabela113 Date: June 27th, 2005 05:44 pm (UTC) (Link)
You make a number of excellent points, one in particular that caught my attention:

Fanfic characterization is a skill more related to the theater than to the page. We read our scripts, learn our characters, and then get called to the stage to improvise them in a new situation.

As someone who trained in theater, and now teaches it, this is very much how I approach fanfic. Taking in to account what is known, and what is reasonably surmisable, I create an interpretation of the character use it in my writing. I in no way consider my characters, or any scenes I may create superior or preferable to canon, just as I would never consider my interpretation of a dramatic character "definitive." It simply reflects a point of contact between me and the text.

I also strongly disagree with the idea that fanfic does not improve your skills as a writer. As someone who writes recreationally, with no real ambition to publish fiction, I use fanfic as a way of flexing specific muscles. I can focus on dialogue, or imagery, or what have you, and not worry about the creation of an entire original world.

It is disappointing to hear that Ms. Hobb feels so strongly against fanfiction, but it I suppose it is absilutely her right to do so.
From: (Anonymous) Date: June 28th, 2005 01:16 am (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, I also really agreed with that point you made. I do theatre too, and have always considered writing, especially fanfiction, to be related.
chocolatepot From: chocolatepot Date: June 27th, 2005 06:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
I love these responses to her rant. They're all so good.

I don't know whether she actually feels threatened by fanfic or whether she's just only seen the badfic. I don't know whether there are SQuesque RH sites, but if she saw them I hope that she'd change her mind.

At least she says that she can't be rational about fanfic. If she were trying to pass off her rant as a rational opinion (Lee Goldberg), then I'd be angry.

I'm just glad that Jo and Neil are so good about it. I mean, Neil Gaiman has said that there wasn't any Aziraphale/Crowley written into Good Omens, but there is far and away more A/C fic than anything else in the fandom -- and he doesn't tell people to stop. *wuvs Neil*
kelleypen From: kelleypen Date: June 27th, 2005 07:15 pm (UTC) (Link)
Card insulted you? Have you explained this all to him? I'm a huge Card fan. I'd love to take his workshop, but my friends who know him personally say he's a bit arrogant, so I've used my poverty as an excuse not to become disillusioned with him.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: June 27th, 2005 07:34 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh, not presonally. He just doesn't think all that much of fanfic. He's considerably nicer about it than Ms. Hood, though. I've met him a few times and used to be involved in Virtual Battle School, and he's always struck me a pretty nice man, for a celeb.
kikei From: kikei Date: June 27th, 2005 07:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
...

I kind of just wrote an essay in response in your comments. And then decided not to spam your lj and posted it to my own. Long rant short: *sigh*

and a WTF for good measure.

the entire text can be found here if you're interested.

-Kiks
cheshyre From: cheshyre Date: June 27th, 2005 10:20 pm (UTC) (Link)
Any chance of unlocking it? I'd like to read your essay, but can't access it.

Thanks.
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