The fanfic straw that broke this reader’s back

by Sunita

I’ve had trouble finding romance that I want to read these days, but I recently read a short story featuring a trans character that I liked quite a bit. So I thought I’d keep branching out. I’ve been meaning to read f/f, so I surfed around for recommendations and then downloaded a bunch of samples that were recommended and/or made some year-end Best Of lists.

I started with a contemporary that was well reviewed and recommended by a number of readers. It has a 4+ star ranking at Goodreads. The writing was smooth and the opening was promising: a 20-something librarian who just split up with her husband is packing her car to move to a temporary but long-term position as a librarian in a small town. On the way she blows a tire, and who should turn up to repair it but a tall, beautiful woman. Who turns out, a few pages later, to have returned to the same small town to take over her father’s medical practice after his unexpected death.

OK so far. But then, as I read on, I noticed that the author was using a lot of words to describe very little action. The librarian starts setting up the town’s new library. She runs into the GP again and goes over to her beautifully-appointed house for dinner. They drink fancy red wine and fancy coffee. The kitchen appliances are noted by brand, and the house is described in detail. The two women bond over classical music. They have a discussion about the relative merits of Bösendorfer v. Steinway grand pianos. And so on.

I checked the number of locations in my Kindle sample. 1600+. For the sample. This meant the book was 8-10 times that long. What the hell was going to happen in it? More kitchen appliance descriptions? More wine?  A long-delayed consummation of the longing glances? I didn’t think I had the fortitude to find out. Given that nothing had happened so far (except for a broken ankle, that dinner, and the town BBQ), I was at a loss to know what could possibly provide the conflict to propel 400 pages of story. I decided to Google some more and see if I could figure out anything about the author and the book. And boy, did I. The book is a barely-transformed uber-Xena fanfic.

I had forgotten that Xena fanfic existed. I had to look up how “uber” was being used in this context. It turns out to be fanfic “that takes the ESSENCE of the characters in XWP and places these in another time, another place, another reality.”

Aha! So that’s why Lesbian A is tall and dark-haired and gorgeous, while Not Yet Lesbian B is short and blond and adorable. That’s also why the characters were depicted with minimal description (as opposed to so much else in the sample) and nothing happened. Everyone knew what they were reading, and the reading experience was about immersing oneself in the Xena-Gabrielle world, in this case an AU in which they were upscale, highly educated women who bonded over wine, classical music, and a gorgeous house.

Why is this the final straw for me? It’s not because the author tried to fool me, or Pulled to Publish. To the contrary, the original fic is still available on the fanfic site where it was first posted. The author does not hide the connection; she even thanked a reviewer for the shout to that particular community. As far as publishing fanfic goes, this seems as honorable a way to publish as can be imagined (setting aside the argument that no fanfic should ever be published for profit).

There are two reasons why I describe this experience as the last straw that has led me to give up trying authors I don’t know and books with a provenance that’s not immediately apparent. First, this book has the classic flaws of fanfic. It was unsatisfying to me in exactly the ways that fanfic is unsatisfying to me (and pleasurable to many devotees). I don’t want to read about Xena and Gabrielle. If I want to spend time with them, I’ll watch the series. When I read a book, I want characters that the author of the book has created, not characters that someone else has created. I want to read original fiction. That’s why I read. Your mileage may vary, but that’s mine.

Second, as a reader, I’m tired of having to stop and check to see whether a recommended book is barely transformed fanfiction. In the romance genre and especially in the GLBTQ end of the pool, if a reader assumes that books published by small presses (or self-published) are original fiction, she will be wrong. A lot.

In this case it’s my own fault for not paying more attention when I checked reviews of the book on review sites, because a couple of them mention the fanfic site and refer to reading or writing “lesfic.” But I wasn’t familiar with the site by name and I thought lesfic was an abbreviation for lesbian fiction, not lesbian fan fiction. And to be honest, I wasn’t thinking that hard, I just wanted to read a good book.

And that’s the crux of the problem for me. There is definitely transformed, published fan fiction that meets my criteria for a good romance: fully developed characters, a complete story arc, well-plotted, with a satisfying romantic journey. But there is a lot more being published that sticks to the fanfic traditions of sketchy characters (because we know them already from the original), a series of vignettes rather than a story arc, clumsy plotting, and romantic scenes that don’t serve to propel the relationship forward to a satisfying HEA/HFN.

I want to reiterate that I’m not complaining that this fanfic was published, and I’m not blaming the author for my mistake in picking up the sample. There are a lot of people who enjoy reading fan fiction, and it’s certainly easier to read it in an ebook format, so it makes sense that more is being published. But before, if you wanted to read fanfic, you went to a fan fiction site. If you wanted original fiction (including substantially reworked fan fiction), you bought a book.

We’re not going back to those days, but I would really appreciate an acknowledgment in the front of the book, or in the publishers’ and retailers’ descriptions, that notes when the work has been previous released in another form. Honorable publishers and authors tell readers when they’re republishing a previously released book or issuing an edited version of an earlier novel. If fan fiction authors and publishers were to do the same, I’d go back to reading “debut” authors that are new to me. But until then, I’m sticking to the known quantities. Yes, I’ll miss some wonderful new discoveries. But at this point, I’m more than willing to make that sacrifice.

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