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In Defence of What We Do by Narya

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I've already posted one old essay today, so I figured I might as well post the other and finally delete all my stuff from lotrff.com.

This one's also a round robin, so feel free to chip in!

NB - this was written in my first year at university - five years ago now (terrifying thought!). I no longer feel the same need to hide who I am, nor do I disdain the term "geek" any more. I appreciate, though, that not everyone develops the self-confidence and thick skin I've built for myself. I might be "out and proud" in fandom now, but I wasn't always that way, and I hope that others can benefit from this piece.

I hope it's OK to post it here. Publishing this for the first time was was an important point in my development as a writer - and, I realise now, as a person. As with my other round robin I haven't copied across any of the other contributions, though if you want to repost yours (or write a new one), please do feel free.
It’s amazing what time can do for your sense of perspective.

A few years ago, I published a story called “Unwelcome Additions.” It was a catty, cruel MST and I've long since taken it down; I wrote it mainly to get myself back into the habit of writing every day after a Christmas hiatus, and Elven_Fforestyd’s “Bad Beginnings” challenge over at lotrff.com seemed like a fun, interesting starting point. My inspiration? A particularly horrible Mary Sue tale posted on FF.net. I did feel slightly ashamed to be making fun (albeit indirectly) of what someone else had written, but I was sufficiently annoyed by the plethora of join-the-dots GIME plotlines permeating the majority of fan fiction sites to ignore my guilt for the time being.

A few weeks passed. “Unwelcome Additions” slipped from my mind. Then, thanks to the social revelation that is Facebook, I was able to get back in touch with a female friend I hadn’t seen in over four years. I was thrilled. This girl – let’s call her Miss M – and I were extremely close in our early years of secondary school , being the two biggest bookworms in the year as well as aspiring writers ourselves. When she suggested meeting up for coffee the next time we were both home from university, I naturally jumped at the chance; I couldn’t wait to catch up with her and see what she’d been doing with her life.

So we met in Starbucks, got the obligatory pleasantries out of the way (“How’s uni? Family OK? Any men in your life?” etc.) and fell to reminiscing about the good old days. Perhaps inevitably, this raised the subject of our writing – we giggled at the memories of our early efforts, and I eagerly asked her what she was working on at the moment.

“Oh, nothing,” she smiled. “I don’t really have time for all that anymore.”

I was surprised, but didn’t probe the issue. It had, after all, been four years since I saw her, and I didn’t want to come over as pushy or nosy. She duly asked me if I still wrote; I explained that I was working on a novel – and then I hesitated. So far I’d been extremely reticent about my fan fiction habit; a few of my friends knew that I read it, but I had’t told any of them that I wrote it as well. I could’t imagine anything more mortifying than people I socialize with in real life reading the stories I post on here. Still, Miss M was something of a special case, as well as being a fellow Tolkien lover – for all I knew, she might have an account herself. I told her that as well as my original work, I wrote quite a bit of fan fiction.

Her reaction was enough to convince me that I would never, ever again tell a friend about this particular hobby of mine. She pulled an incredulous face and said, “Oh.”

I raised my eyebrows, and she elaborated.

“Well, sorry, but...I always thought you’d do something a bit...better. I mean, fan fiction’s a bit geeky, isn’t it? And it’s not like proper writing, or anything...”

She blustered on in this way for a while, clearly having worked out that I wasn’t impressed by her reaction, until I switched to the safer subject matter of our university courses. The rest of the conversation went smoothly enough; we promised to see each other again soon, and hopefully we will. I wasn’t so drastically offended by her comments that I never want to see her again, or anything like that, but nevertheless I was still angry when I left – though no longer specifically at her. I was angry that I should have to be made to feel ashamed of something that I enjoy doing so much. Miss M’s reaction, after all, was not unique; in fact, it was very similar to that of my brother and sister when I told them about what I have come to think of as my guilty pleasure. Although bro and sis have since been converted to reading fanfic, I suspect most of my friends would simply laugh if I confessed (see? Even now I’m talking about it like it’s something to be ashamed of!). So, in true Carrie Bradshaw style, all this got me to thinking – what the hell is wrong with what we do?

After a bit of pondering, I’ve concluded that the short answer is “nothing,” but I feel I need to argue my point a little more eloquently. The fact is, a lot of people seem to think that writing Tolkien fan fiction (or fan fiction of any kind, come to that) is not an acceptable way to spend time. Why? Well, there are several possible reasons. Miss M, for example, is not alone in her belief that it is somehow “geeky.” This idea I refute utterly. My innate loathing of the term “geek” aside, it’s an accusation that makes no sense – when I searched for definitions of the word, most ran along the following lines:

“A derogatory reference to a person obsessed with intellectual pursuits for their own sake, who is also deficient in most other human attributes so as to impair the person's operation within society.”

This, I’m glad to say, is not me. Nor, I suspect, does it apply to the majority of users of this site – those whom I’ve had the pleasure of talking to all seem perfectly capable of holding a normal, coherent conversation. In a broader sense, I suppose “geeky” activities could constitute anything that eats into the time you could be spending socialising; I know that in my halls of residence at university, anyone who chooses to stay in when others are having a night out is usually deemed to be a “geek.” But then, by this logic, shouldn’t watching TV or training for a marathon (both fairly solitary activities) also be considered “geeky?” And yet how often do you hear the term applied to them?

Be that as it may, I realise that not everybody’s objections hinge on the “geek” factor. I cite the example of Miss M once more – there are those who believe that what we post is somehow not “proper writing.” Ridiculous. To begin with, this assertion is wrong on a very basic level; one of the site rules is that we obey the laws of spelling and grammar. Net and text speak are not allowed, so what we write has to be as “proper” as anything we would submit to a teacher for grading.

Somehow I doubt this is what Miss M meant – but then, what else does “proper writing” mean? Published work? Literary writing? If so, I’ve found more than one writer on here whose prose would stand up next to that of Ian McEwan, Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O'Connor...you name it. Of course this can’t be said of everyone who posts oin fandom; there are lots of young and/or inexperienced authors out there who may not be great writers at the moment, but who have the potential to develop into truly skilled storytellers, with the right guidance and encouragement. They will find both on this site. Writing and posting fan fiction allows them to hone their abilities in a safe, non-threatening environment, and who knows? The helpful reviews left by another author might be instrumental in shaping a Tolkien of the future.

But what of the dreaded Sues these younger authors seem so hell bent on producing? Well, this is where I feel an apology is due. When I first joined the fandom, I loathed Mary-Sues with a passion. However, after my conversation with Miss M, I suddenly developed highly protective instincts towards the entire fandom, Suethors included – after all, as Spiced Wine once wisely said to me, Mary-Sues are just a phase. Actually, having thought about it for a while, I’d go even further than this. I believe that (up to a point) Sues are a healthy form of self-expression. All a Sue is is an idealistic extension of oneself, and I know that my early teens were the most difficult years of my life so far. Sometimes, getting away from your everyday life is all you can think about – so why shouldn’t these girls (or anyone else) imagine themselves into Tolkien’s beautiful mythology? Why shouldn’t they dream about falling in love with Legolas? Too often, teenagers are told to grow up and live in the real world – and then we complain that the innocence of the younger generations is disappearing. Fan fiction provides an escape into a world they love and also gives them a chance to practice their writing. How can that be a bad thing?

Like I said, it’s amazing what a couple of months of reflection can do.

Anyway, whatever I or anybody else thinks of Mary-Sues, there will always be others out there who love them and obsessively read the stories that feature them – which brings me to another point. Every time I log onto this site, there are normally a minimum of seven or eight guests online, often more. These people log into the site purely to read; they cannot post, as they have no account. In writing fan fiction, we are supplying a demand from people who are not content with merely the books and films. They want to explore further. We, the authors, give them that chance.

Of course, there will always be the purists who tell us that what we are doing is arrogant, wrong, even sacrilegious. To them, I say bullshit. Tolkien didn’t just write a series of books. He quite literally created a world, an entire mythology in which there is plenty of room for everyone to play. He considered his works to be a history – and when was the last time anyone berated a writer of historical fiction for inserting their characters into, say, the English Civil War, or for presenting an unconventional portrayal of a famous monarch? Hell, Tolkien himself practically gave us permission - when describing his vision, he once wrote, "the cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama."

So, in short, there is nothing wrong with what we do. In fact, there are many reasons why we should be proud to be doing it. We are all helping each other by writing, reading and reviewing. We are providing entertainment and escapism for countless others. We are, in my opinion, keeping the Professor’s memory alive, and doing him the greatest honour of all in continuing to be inspired by his work. And for anybody who dares to argue that basing our work upon that of another author shows laziness or a lack of imagination, might I suggest the following:

1. Go to your local bookstore.
2. Pick up a copy of “Eragon” by Christopher Paolini. Supposedly, this is original fiction.
3. Read it.
4. Cross-reference it with Star Wars, LOTR and Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels.
5. Return to this site.
6. Read any or all of the following – “A Dawn of Many Colours” by Pink Siamese,“Not Fade Away” by Jael, "Dark Prince" by Spiced Wine, "Sons of Thunder" by ziggy, ...I could go on.
7. Compare these stories with Paolini’s.

Then you come and tell me which shows the most originality and flair. “Not like proper writing?” Sorry, Miss M – I have to disagree.

______________________________________________


A POSTSCRIPT

______________________________________________

I recently arrived home from university to discover that all my stuff no longer fits into my room. As such, I've been doing some tidying up, and today I came across a heap of old exercise books from my early years in Secondary School. Curious, I flipped through them - and noticed something very odd about my Year Nine English book.

The majority of the creative work it contained was derivative fiction, based on the set texts we'd studied that year. Among other things, I unearthed an alternate ending to DuMaurier's Rebecca, a sequel to Nina Bawden's Carrie's War, a diary of Magwitch's thoughts throughout Great Expectations and (sick buckets at the ready) a poem about Jane Eyre's love for Mr. Rochester. Understand that I hadn't actually chosen to create my work around that of other authors; I was simply completing the assignments I'd been set. Unknowingly, I'd spent a year writing what was essentially fanfiction.

Of course, I had no idea what fanfic was back then. I doubt my teacher did either. Mrs. B was one of those wonderfully English schoolmarm types - old-fashioned, technologically inept, terribly well spoken, as eccentric as they come and fiercely protective of her "gahls." She believed in giving knowledge for its own sake, not just for the sake of passing an exam. In all my years under her tutelage I never managed to out-argue her, and I never found a work of literature that she hadn't read. Fond memories aside, my point is this: not so very long ago, I was being encouraged to write stories based on other authors' work by a woman whom I consider to be among the wisest I've ever met.

Oh, and by the by...the re-discovery of my icky Jane/Rochester love poem jogged something in my memory. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. Ring any bells? Yep, that's the one that acts as a prequel to Jane Eyre, the one that tells Bertha's story (she was the mad wife in the attic in the original book). It's now widely acknowledged to be a classic in its own right; it's won multiple awards and been adapted for stage and screen; it's on the set reading list for many schools and universities. It's successful. It's respected. But what is it, in essence, when all is said and done?

That's right. It's fanfiction.