There used to be a hard-and-fast rule. There was “them” and then there was “us.” “Them” was made up of artists—the people who created TV shows, books, films, music and visual art. “Us” was the group of people who consumed what they made. “Them” was set apart from “us” because “them” was creating material that was then disseminated, on a larger scale, to “us” out there in the real world. “Us” could enjoy “them” and their work, but “us” could not contribute to the creations we loved in any appreciable fashion.
But then something interesting happened: the Internet took over the world, and this hard-and-fast rule slowly began to disintegrate. All of a sudden, “us” was able to horn in on “them” and their creative process in a vey public way—most notably in the form of fanfiction.
All lowercase letters.
I have a weird perspective on the subject.
I am an actor, sometimes.
And I once played a character who’s a fanfiction favorite.
I hear she/I does a whole lot of “slash-ing” … wait, that’s not the proper use of the word. This might be better: I hear there is a lot of slash fanfiction about her/me on the internet. Which is kind of sad because this means the fanfiction version of her/me is getting a lot more action than the real me.
Before I get started, I should clarify exactly who/what I am. If the name in the byline is unfamiliar to you, you might recognize the title of the show I appeared in, or the name of the character I played in that show: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Tara Maclay, respectively.
Just FYI, I had to go online and look up whether or not the “c” in Maclay is capitalized. You would think from the amount of time I spent pretending to be this fictional character (three years), I would know how to spell her last name properly. But the truth is, there are a lot fans out there that know way more about her then I do.
And some of these more knowledgeable fans write fanfiction.
I try not to read fanfiction about her/me. I think it would be awkward and I’d forever be left wondering why she/I am so much cooler on paper/the Internet than I am in real life. I am also leery of reading anything about her/me because I really don’t want to read about my pretend-self doing naughty things with characters/people that I may or may not be attracted to in real life.
When I was on Buffy (this was many, many moons ago), not looking at Buffy fanfiction was another hard-and-fast rule. People are litigious, so anything written by a fan and sent in to the writers/producers was not supposed to be read. I have retrofitted this rule to fit my own needs—mostly because of the not-wanting-to-think-about-me-doing-naughty-things-with-fictional-characters worry—so just know that when I see you at a science fiction convention and you hand me your fanfiction about Tara/me, I will smile and take it, but I am probably not going to read it if Tara/me is being a dirty-birdy.
I have been known to read fanfiction about other things, things I have no creative/personal stake in. I might even read Buffy stuff you write, unless you have Tara Maclay giving cunnilingus to Counselor Troi (who is, by far, my father’s favorite Star Trek Betty). If you hand me something like that then I am probably going to take a pass.
I must preface all of this with a disclaimer: I have co-written (along with Christopher Golden) a few Willow/Tara comic books. There is a difference between writing these comics and writing fanfiction and it comes down to two things: the storylines for the comics are carefully vetted by Dark Horse Comics/20th Century Fox, and there is no cunnilingus in them. (Well, at least none that ended up on the page. Maybe some dirty bits were excised before the comics went to print… and now you’ll forever wonder if I was just pulling your leg or if there really was excised cunnilingus in those comic books, right?)
I think we can all agree there’s something meta about my situation, something Adaptation-like about the layer upon layer of weirdness. Well, let me just tell you that, though you may think my creative life is meta, it’s nowhere near as meta as the creative life of my friend, Javier Grillo-Marxuach.
Be prepared. This might knock your meta-socks off.
My friend Javi is truly one of the kindest, most gifted writer/producers I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. And he possesses two qualities I very much value in other creative individuals: He treats the business of show like a team sport, and he has a genuine interest in helping others … unlike a lot of the people I’ve met in Hollywood.
Oh, and there’s a third thing, too.
He’s an honest-to-God Fan.
With a capital “F.”
So, to just point out the blurring lines here, Javi is not just an artist, he is also a fan. Where he is concerned, the words artist and fan are synonymous.
A few years ago, Javi created a brilliant television show for ABC Family called The Middleman. (To up the meta-quotient, The Middleman was a comic book before it was adapted for television.) The Middleman had (and still has) a dedicated fan following—especially for its plucky, intelligent female heroine, Wendy Watson (played by actress Natalie Morales). So, needless to say, there were a lot of frustrated fans when the show was pulled of the air after only one season.
And one of those fans was Javi himself.
Three years later, he did something about it.
In the ultimate meta-fanfiction crossover, Javi wrote a fanfiction piece about his own show … and Doctor Who.
You can go to The Middle Blog over at LiveJournal and read his fanfiction story in its entirety. I really think you should. It’s quite brilliant, weaving together the best of The Middleman with Javi’s passionate love of Doctor Who—but what was so intriguing to me was not the piece itself (as cool as it is), but what it represented about the blurring of lines.
I realized that as much as we try to put a divide between the two worlds (“them” and “us”), there really isn’t one anymore. Not with the advent of transmedia, the rise of creator-owned content on the Internet, the domination of Twitter and Facebook. Not when Twilight fanfiction becomes a bestselling series of erotica novels. Not when the guy who made The Middleman decides to write a fanfiction piece about the television show he created because he’s still interested in telling stories about his characters.
All of these components have created a perfect storm that will forever knock down the wall of separation between artist and audience.
Would it be crazy to postulate, then, that with the blurring of the lines, the words “artist” and “fan” have become interchangeable in some ways? Just because you created a character, it doesn’t mean you get to tell the whole of their story—especially if you sell your characters to studios/television networks/comic book companies. Suddenly, these conglomerates own your creative content and they get to decide its fate. Making you, for all intents and purposes, just another fan off the thing you happened to create.
This had been going on in the comics world forever. Poor comic book superheroes get passed around like hookers at a gangbang—they’ve always got someone new writing about them, drawing them, adding to their mythology.
So, by the same token, when a fan writes fanfiction, one might equate them to just another writer for hire on a project—they’re just not getting paid in money for their work. For them, the payment is sheer joy of writing for characters they love. They are no longer just a “fan.” Now they are an “artist.”
I’m going to insert myself here again because I’m still trying to figure out where I fit in all of this.
As an actor, I gave my voice and face to a character that someone else created and wrote the dialogue for. When someone sits down to write fanfiction about my character, they are envisioning and often describing that same face and voice, which happen to belong to me, but which I lent to the character when I played the part.
Working on the Willow/Tara comic books as a writer, I wrote about/for the character I played on Buffy. At that point, I became an artist who was using my own face and voice to give continuing life to a fictional character I played on television, but did not create.
See? It’s all very confusing.
Then add in how accessible everything is via the Internet—which is a huge tool when one wants to go about “blurring the lines”—and it’s even more troubling. On Twitter, am I just me, Amber Benson? Or am I an actor who played a character named Tara Maclay? Or am I only seen as Tara Maclay, the character from that television show you loved to watch, who for unknown reasons likes to go around calling herself Amber Benson?
Also, am I somehow creating fanfiction when I interact with people on the Internet—adding to my real-life, personal continuing storyline and to the now-defunct storyline of the character I played on television? This makes my head spin, and does nothing to answer the real question: If we can’t tell who the “artists” are, and if the “fans” are just as hard to categorize, then where does that leave us?
I actually think that—barring my own existential identity crisis—it leaves us in a very good place. Fanfiction has pried open a door, allowing fans a chance to participate in the continuing storylines of the characters they love. The Internet has given these fans and their fanfiction a high-profile stage so that the world can find and enjoy their artistic endeavors. It has also given “artists” a chance to create outside of the system—like Javi and his Middleman fanfiction—and to address questions, comments, and suggestions from their “fans” directly and in a creative way.
For better or worse, it looks a though the lines have been forever blurred. I just wish this essay had given me a little more personal clarity. Maybe I’ll just follow Javi’s example and go write some fanfiction. Maybe a little Amber/Tara slash fanfiction—so I can really confuse myself.
— Amber Benson, from Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World, by Anne Jamison.