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The curse of fanfic

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In what must have been a first for any writers workshop in the country, last summer’s Ateneo de Davao Writers Workshop featured stories from the genre of fanfic. As the screener for the applications, I take responsibility for the ensuing misadventures; but I confess I also found much amusement in the resulting collision of cultures between the panel and the fellows.

Fanfic, if you’re not aware of the term, is short for fan fiction. Its writers take characters from juvenile books, TV series, video games, and anime and cobble together new stories around them. Because of this lack of originality, the genre doesn’t get much respect. But because of the popularity of the source material, many young people gravitate to the genre, either as readers or writers.

For our panel of award-winning Davao writers, fanfic was a new and confusing — and perhaps also mildly unpleasant — experience. The fanfic stories in the workshop drew heavily from Final Fantasy, a Japanese video game, and Gossip Girl, a scandalous American teen television drama. While the language was competent, the final product came out awkward, stilted, and inauthentic. Quoting one panelist, the poet Don Pagusara: “Why are you writing this?”

Despite the reaction I like to think that both sides came out better for the exchange: for the panel, a view into the popular culture and the sources of inspiration for today’s youth; and for the fellows, explanations and illustrations of just why fanfic is so bad.

And just why is fanfic so bad? Some of my views as gleaned from the discussions in the workshop:

     1. Fanfic bespeaks of laziness and lack of imagination on the part of the writer. Instead of creating their own characters and settings, they merely appropriate what others have built.

     2. Because they use characters and settings which are, within their sphere of readership, already well established, fanfic writers do not take care to fully flesh out these elements. Readers unfamiliar with the source material are left high and dry.

     3. Moreover, characters from TV and cartoons do not translate well into the page. On the screen, the frenetic action may hide their flatness and one-dimensionality; when put into prose, which demands greater introspection on the part reader, these faults come to the fore.

     4. Likewise, character development is almost nonexistent in fanfic stories. Because they do not own the property, because they may be careful not to offend other fans, or simply because they love the characters too much, fanfic authors do not push the boundaries of their protagonists.

     5. Characters in fanfic stories do not have flaws. In the minds of their writers, the characters are perfect; in fact, too perfect to properly describe in words. In the prose medium, which relies on words, this is a fatal flaw.

     6. Worse still, some fanfic writers may actually be infatuated with the characters they write. This is so common that it even has a name within the fanfic community: the Mary Sue syndrome. Not only does this make for unbearable reading, it is downright creepy.

     7. Even if well-written, fanfic stories cannot be published professionally because the characters and settings are owned another author. At best, they are limited to the dark corners of Internet forums; at worst, they may be subject to lawsuits for copyright infringement.

Fanfic authors will claim that it was never their aim to publish these stories in the mainstream, that it was done simply for fun. But that also exposes its inherent weakness of fanfic: if fanfic writers don’t take their craft of writing seriously, why should anyone?

From a creative point of view, writing fanfic is a barren endeavor. Fanfic writers only play in an imaginary world created by another. The offspring cannot be truly called their own. The effort might have been better spent in birthing new characters and settings that could grow into something bigger, or at least something different.

In a way, the appeal of fanfic is nigh irresistible. They sources from which they draw are popular and their fan base dedicated and, well, fanatical. Their wild and colorful worlds provide escape from dreary realities. But there is a point when escape becomes abandonment.

In this regard, fanfic writers abandon the responsibility they have to their own communities: instead of drawing from the people and the places around them they dwell on foreign situations, attitudes, and mores. This responsibility weighs all the more heavier for writers from a culture like ours that exists only in the literary margins of the world. If young Filipino writers prefer to write about other America or Japan, who will write about the Philippines? Quoting panelist Mac Tiu: “Leave America to the Americans.”

In any other workshop, fanfic would never have made the cut. To be honest, I’m not sure I want to experience in future workshops. Like fanfic, the novelty wears thin pretty quickly. I did draw one important lesson from the exercise, though, and that’s the urgent need to reach out to the young. Perhaps by making genuinely Filipino literary works more appealing to young writers, we can do our part to rouse them from the solipsism of fanfic.

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