Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Lee Goldberg's war on fanfic

The February edition of Reason has my column on fan fiction, "The Fan Fiction Phenomena: What Faust, Hamlet, and Xena the Warrior Princess have in common," in which I discuss fan-written stories based on television, film, and book characters. (As I mention in the column, I myself have been writing Xena: Warrior Princess fanfic for the past six years.) I also discuss some of the critiques directed at fan fiction. One of those critics, writer Lee Goldberg, now argues on his blog that I misrepresented his position.

Here's what I wrote in my column (for context, I give the full paragraph):

The concerns that anti-fanfic hard-liners express about the appropriation of their characters are understandable. But Hobb’s idea that readers may mistake Robin Hobb fan fiction for her own work borders on the paranoid, and some arguments advanced by fanfic’s foes make little sense. Thus Hobb exempts from her scorn professionally written Star Trek novels licensed by the copyright owner—even though the license comes from the corporation, not the creators of the characters. (Corporate-licensed works are also hobbled by content restrictions that favor blandness.) The vehemently anti-fanfic writer Lee Goldberg, who blogs at, is the author of several authorized novels based on the TV shows Monk and Diagnosis Murder—a contradiction he defends on the grounds that he does it only for the money.

Says Goldberg:

I have written extensively on my blog about fanfiction, particularly my view that the practice of publishing it in print and on the Internet infringes on the original author's creative rights (not to mention the trademark and copyright issues). I've argued that fanfiction writers should get the permission of the author or rights holder before distributing their work. If the original author or rights holder has no problem with fanfiction based on their work, then I don't either. I have also said that licensed tie-in fiction, which I have written, differs significantly on ethical and legal grounds from fanfiction because it is done with the consent, participation and supervision of the original author or rights holder. At no point have I *ever* expressed the views that she incorrectly (and I have to assume deliberately) attributed to me.

Now, I assume the views I have allegedly misattritubed to Goldberg are, (1) that he is vehemently anti-fanfic, and (2) that he has defended his authorship of tie-in novels on the grounds that he only writes them for the money.

On the first count, I think that a read-through of Goldberg's blogposts on fanfic will suffice to prove my case. While Goldberg does in fact state in a number of posts that in his opinion, fan fiction violates copyright and intellectual property, he devotes far more space to jeering at the moral degeneracy and weirdness of fanficcers, focusing on such fringe phenomena as kiddie porn fanfic, a fan who surfs the Web searching for masturbation fic, male pregnancy fanfic, one fan's fantasies about Roy Orbison and cling-wrap, real-person slashfic in which actors, singers, and other celebrities are depicted in homoerotic sexual situations, and the like. (By the way, it's hard not to notice that Goldberg seems especially incensed by gay-themed fanfiction.) He constantly engages in gross generalization; a post about a self-professed Harry Potter smut aficionada is entitled "The Fanfic Mind." If Goldberg has ever said anything positive about fanfic writers in fandoms where the copyright holders and creators have explicitly allowed and even encouraged fan fiction -- such as Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Harry Potter -- I have found no evidence of that on his blog. I have, however, found such statements as:

Money and copyright aside, what an incredible waste of creativity. Why toil on characters you don't own in a world that's not your own? It's not even literary masturbation. It's more like the literary equivalent of having sex with an inflatable woman who looks like Halle Berry.

In another post, mocking an email correspondent who asks him for a link to some fanfic he has mentioned, Goldberg says that it's "sort of like asking a Jew to direct you to some really rocking anti-Semitic screeds." Wow, Mr. Goldberg. Tell us how you really feel.

It was not my intent in my column to extensively discuss Lee Goldberg's views on fan fiction, or the debate about fanfic and copyright/intellectual property laws (an issue I briefly mentioned in my discussion of fantasy writer Robin Hobb's attack on fan fiction). I would say, however, that "vehemently anti-fanfic" sums up Goldberg's stance pretty well.

Now, on to the second part. Did Goldberg ever defend his tie-in novels on the grounds that he only writes them for the money? Sure he did, on the very same blog where he now claims to have been misrepresented. In fact, he devoted an entire post to this point on June 16, 2005:

[S]omeone asked what the difference is between someone who writes tie-ins and someone who writes fanfic... beyond the fact that tie-ins are written with the consent of the author/right's (sic) holder.

There's a big difference.

I was hired to write DIAGNOSIS MURDER and MONK novels. It's something I am being paid to do. It's not like I woke up one morning with a burning desire to write DIAGNOSIS MURDER novels, wrote one up, and sent it off to a publisher (or, as a fanficcer would do, posted it on the web). The publisher came to me and asked me to write them.

I would never write a book using someone else's characters unless I was hired to do so. It would never even occur to me because the characters aren't mine.

Given a choice, I would only write novels and TV shows of my own creation. But I have to make a living and I take the work that comes my way...and that includes writing-for-hire, whether it's on someone else's TV show or original tie-in novels based on characters I didn't create. Ultimately, however, what motivates me as a writer is to express myself...not the work of someone else.

That's the big difference between me and a fanficcer.

Given a choice, fanficcers "write" fanfic.

(The numerous italics are all in the original.)

More recently, Goldberg returns to this theme in a September 20, 2006 post, "Am I a Fanficcer?" While he does stress that his TV show-based novels are published with the consent and involvement of the owners, the "I'm only in it for the money" defense rears its head again:

What I do isn't comparable to fanfiction -- which is using someone else's work without their consent or involvement and distributing on the Internet. I don't do it as my personal artistic expression -- it's a job, one that I do to the best of my ability.

Like a fanficcer, I am writing about characters I didn't create and that are not my own. But, as I said before, unless approached to do so, I would have absolutely no interest or desire to write about someone else's characters. Why? Because...and let me repeat this... the characters aren't mine. I didn't create them. They don't belong to me. I much prefer to write totally original work and if I could make my living only doing that, I would.

In fairness to Goldberg, I should have said that he defends his tie-in novels partly on the grounds that he only writes them for the money. I singled out this argument because I found it particularly bizarre -- it's the first time I have seen paid hackwork held up as morally superior to an unpaid labor of love -- and because I had already mentioned the "fanfic is intellectual theft" argument in my comments on Robin Hobb. If that gave a misleading impression of Goldberg's views on fanfic, I will readily offer my apologies. However, I certainly did not put any argument in Goldberg's mouth that he did not repeatedly make on his blog.

Since we're on the subject, I will answer a question Goldberg poses in his September 20 post:

What I have yet to see any fanficcer explain why they won't to ask the creator or rights holder for permission before posting and distributing their work. Or why fanficcers adamantly refuse to follow the expressed wishes of creator/rights holders (for example, Rowling has approved fanfiction based on Harry Potter as long as it's not sexually explicit...but that hasn't stopped thousands of people from writing and posting Potter slash, disrespecting her and her wishes ).

I know the answer, of course. Fanficcers are terrified of officially being told NO... and identifying themselves in case they decide to blithely violate the author's wishes anyway.

On the second point: I and most other fanfic writers and readers strongly disapprove of Harry Potter (or any other) fanfic featuring underage characters in sexual situations. I also personally believe that the wishes of any writer who has asked people not to write fan fiction based on his or her work -- or has set specific guidelines for such fan fiction, like Rowling or Anne McCaffrey -- should be respected. (Since a pro-Goldberg blogger indicts me for "absconding with characters" created by others, I will mention that the producers of Xena actually hired one of my fellow intellectual thieves, fanfic writer Melissa "Missy" Good, to write scripts for the show.)

On the first point, I can only say: Is Goldberg kidding? He knows perfectly well that his "ask for permission first" requirement would mean the end of fan fiction, and NOT because copyright owners would say no. Would original fiction writers be willing to spend hours every day answering emails asking them if it's okay to post a fanfiction based on their work? With movie- and television-based fanfiction, the situation would be far more complicated. Does Goldberg expect studios to hire a staff just to field requests for permission to post a fanfic? And to whom should the request be directed anyway? The corporation? The creator of the characters? What if the characters have multiple creators? (In the case of Xena: Warrior Princess, it was apparently unclear at one point who owned the rights to the characters, holding up a possible big-screen movie project.)

Furthermore, both writers and studios or other corporations which have no objection to fanfiction based on their characters and settings may well be skittish about actively granting their permission for the publication of specific stories. "Authorized" stories would appear to have the writer's or owner's imprimatur. Moreover, the writers or the studio personnel would have either to read the stories submitted -- which would be not only incredibly time-consuming but legally problematic -- or to authorize them unread.

I do think that it would be an ideal resolution to the legal dilemma of fan-created works if the authors or creators/copyright holders were to state upfront that they do not object to non-commercial fan endeavors -- be it fiction, art, or music videos -- and, if they wish, to stipulate rules by which they want the writers and artists to abide. (Or, if they do object, to issue a "no fanfic" directive. The vast majority of fans will respect it, for both ethical and legal reasons.) In the absence of such explicit statements, given that the widespread existence of fan fiction is by now no secret to anyone, I think that silence may be presumed to equal consent.

Finally, since we're on the topic of misrepresentation: In a post on October 12, 2006, Goldberg suggests, on the basis of a New York Times profile of fanfic writer-turned-pro Naomi Novik, that Novik has revised her previously "liberal" views on fanfic and copyright now that she is a commercially published author herself. As some of his commenters point out, Novik has in fact specifically said that this is not so. Goldberg has yet to issue a retraction in the body of his post or even to acknowledge his error in the comments, despite having posted in the comments thread several times.


Anonymous said...

Dustin, all slash fanfiction involves sexual relationships between characters, usually of the homosexual variety. It's the defining trait that makes slash slash. As to why, who knows? Why is yaoi such a popular genre of manga in Japan, when its fans are almost exclusively heterosexual women? Everyone has their preferred taste in entertainment, and reason rarely enters into it.

Anonymous said...

Actually, Dustin, that's a really good question--I've seen a lot of different answers to it, ranging from assertions that it's easier to write two men in a relationship of equals, to the assertion that by writing male/male relationships, women authors can get away from stereotypical dynamics of heterosexual relationships, to the simple assertion (and the one I find most convincing) that it's similar to why men supposedly like girl-on-girl action: if one man is hot, two men together are hotter.

I suspect there is no one single answer, but I find it a really interesting phenomenon.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Cathy: Found your blog through LJ and have been following the Reason articles on fanfiction.

What didn't get mentioned by Goldberg were characters and story scenarios based on historical books (Huck Finn, Phantom of the Opera, Pride and Prejudice) where the original work is no longer under copyright. I'm sure the producers of "Big River" would be amused to know that they were really the dreaded "fanficcers."

I agree that "silence gives consent" is probably the best thumb-rule for material still under copyright.

Thanks for an interesting series of articles.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Congratulations, you've made Fandom_Wank!

I read your Xena fic long before I knew you were a columnist. I am a bit surprised that you don't maintain anonymity in fandom. Has that ever caused problems for you professionally?

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