In this four-part series, we look at how the internet has affected the way we experience and enjoy entertainment like books, films and shows. Technological advances in the last few decades have transformed the way we interact with the world. But what does all that mean for traditional media?
Chances are, if you’re involved in fandom in any way, you’ve seen transformative works – a general term used to describe fanfiction, fan art, fanvids and fan music. For a lot of people, one or more of the above was the first contact they had with fandom; whether they doodled Mr Darcy on their Maths book, or wrote a 40,000-word alternative beginning to Star Wars. But right now, I don’t want to look at what those things actually are – although I can almost guarantee they’ll be covered in more depth later – because I want to focus for a moment on the impact of modern technology upon them.
“But wait,” I hear you cry, “surely fanfiction came about when internet forums became a big thing and people started sharing on there? Surely fanart sprung into being with the rise of art-sharing sites?” Au contraire, mon frère. Fanfiction dates back centuries – Shakespeare’s plays were frequently based on characters and themes from earlier works he’d enjoyed. Fanart goes back a long way, too – the fairly recent example pictured below is a painting of ‘La Belle Iseult’ – a character from Arthurian legend – by William Morris in 1858.
So does fan-created music – indeed, that was how most stories were passed down for centuries. Think of a ballad based on a legend, and you’ve found yourself some fan music, especially if it deviates from the original. Yes, fanvids are pretty new due to the relatively recent rise of film itself, but they still predate the internet. After all, what is the cartoon version of Basil of Baker Street - The Great Mouse Detective - if not a loving animated homage to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Adventures of Sherlock Holmes?
So, the internet didn’t create transformative works. But has it affected them? Well, for the most part, it’s made things easier. It’s easier to make some styles of art – photomanipulations, for example – due to the proliferation of resources available. Fact-checking your fanfiction or finding a reference for your sketch of a Quidditch game, for example, has never been so simple thanks to the multitude of screencaps, synopses and clips online – regardless of copyright ethics, they’re up there and they’re pretty useful when you can’t quite remember how many strides it takes for Sherlock to cross the living room at 221B Baker Street, or work out where Draco Malfoy’s hands should be positioned as he goes into a dive on his broomstick.
It’s easy to share your stories and art, too. From forums and Facebook to dedicated fanfiction archives, there have never been so many ways to get other people looking. If exposing yourself as a creative fan – for some reason, that seems to be considered a Bad Thing, much to my confusion – on Facebook seems a bit scary, there’s always Tumblr, where things get bumped around so quickly that everyone can see your art before the paint’s dry.
Part of the joy of creating transformative works is that there’s a captive audience, especially in a small fandom – that is, a whole bunch of people who are predisposed to like your work exist. The internet has made it incredibly easy to find those people and show them what you’ve done. I’m sure back in the 1800s, loads of women were sitting and writing Mary-Sue fanfics in which Colonel Brandon swept them off their feet and rode away with them on his horse, or embroidering samplers with their own personal mental images of Emma, but it’s unlikely they’d ever share them with anyone. Even if that sampler made it to the wall, who’d know what it was of?
These days, you simply find the appropriate group, make sure to tag everything properly, and hey presto! There it is, your work, being read and appreciated in the context it was written in. People can respond to it very quickly, and it’s easy to find encouragement and feedback. From an audience point of view, it’s easy to find what you want to read or look at, and collaborations frequently form (between specialists in different fan media forms). For example, the Big Bang initiative deliberately pairs writers and artists within their own fandoms in order to produce an illustrated story. Given that these creative pairings are formed at random, it’s a great way to shake up the fandom and get some really amazing stuff produced. Of course, collaborations also form organically, and some readers of fanfiction get so excited about a particular story that they make art about it – and vice versa.
The existence of fanfiction has become much better known in recent years; whereas before there was a general lack of awareness of fan-created works, and the people who made them, most people are now aware that it exists. Whether they sneer about the lacking social lives of those who commit themselves to providing new stories for their fandom, or enthusiastically extol the virtues of people who write, draw and create for the sheer joy of it, rather than for monetary reward. As a result, countless people have realised they can write, or draw, or record, and they can do it well enough to bring happiness to others who see it. Who knows how many fanfiction authors will eventually publish books of their own, or how many fanartists will make their way to art school on the strength of the confidence they’ve acquired through transformative works? Look at Nina Matsumoto’s story, for example. She drew a picture with the sole intention of ‘scaring her friends’ and it won her a job with Bongo Comics, as well as the opportunity to create her own graphic novel. Without that online sharing capability, these occurrences wouldn’t be possible.
The internet has also, in a sense, divided fanfiction from the rest of literature, and fanart from the rest of art. After all, those Shakespeare plays – and Thomas Malory’s book of stories based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s earlier accounts of King Arthur – are literary classics in their own right. The William Morris painting above hangs in a gallery alongside paintings of fields and storms and all sorts. They were never really seen as derivative, or transformations of earlier work – they were just seen as art inspired by something already known.
The internet encourages us to pigeonhole transformative work into its own little sections, hidden away in plain sight. Very few people come to appreciate a fanfiction without first understanding and enjoying its parent work, and while that’s not a bad thing in itself, the proliferation of dedicated fanfiction sites encourage fans to post their work as fanfiction without considering its potential merit as a stand-alone piece. I’ve seen complex Alternate Universe fanfiction that barely shares enough characteristics with its original canon to be a copyright issue, but those stories will never be published because they’re marked as fanfiction.
Of course, there are exceptions – as we’ve recently learnt, writing a Twilight fanfiction and then changing a few names is a completely valid way to write a novel – but for the most part, the talented writers and artists of fandom are being marginalised by accident. Fanfiction isn’t a genre – it comes in all shapes and sizes and covers a multitude of tones, moods and forms. Until people start reading without prejudice about where the work’s derived from, a large chunk of the population are going to miss out on some fantastic horror stories, romances, and crime novels. The detail on a painting of a waterfall becomes no less impressive for being set on Avatar’s Pandora, and the narrative flow of a video isn’t harmed by the fact that it’s stitched together from existing clips. Equally, you can have a really powerful rock ballad featuring the word ‘TARDIS’ and there’s nothing to stop a song about catching the Golden Snitch being a fantastic pop tune.
Fortunately, the existence of sharing sites like Tumblr, where things all get jumbled together, means that the creative output of fandoms is beginning to be seen by those who weren’t specifically looking for them, and who may never have otherwise realised what they were missing out on.
Vast online galleries and libraries are beginning to form around fandom, too – galleries and libraries where everything is free, as opposed to the kind of online ‘library’ offered by, for example, eReaders. There’s certainly a growing feeling that fanart is worth storing, cataloguing, archiving and preserving, and the internet is making that a lot simpler – both to organise, and to navigate later.
Transformative works, then, are here to stay, and the internet can help us to find our favourites and share our ideas with the world. And maybe, one day, it’ll go back to being so mainstream hipsters won’t touch it.
Next issue, we’ll be looking at how Social Media is changing the way films and shows are made and enjoyed, so don’t miss it!