For a long time, I've held such a strong bias against fan fiction that I've felt it had to be irrational. Fan fiction has never done me any harm, so why does it make me cringe? Because so much of it is wall-to-wall bad writing? Sure, that's part of it, but there's more. So first, I'll explain my personal bias against fan fiction, then I'll show how I've come to appreciate fan fiction as a great tool for learning how to write better. (Seriously.)
FanFiction.net holds, thoroughly classifies, and cross-indexes over four million pieces of fan fiction, nearly none of which would qualify as well-written enough for On The Premises even if we accepted fan fiction, which we don't. (The exact number of stories is difficult to determine; see this article if you're interested.) And that site holds only the fan fiction that would be rated "R" or less if it were a movie. I can't figure out how to estimate the number of X-rated fan fiction pieces there are on the Web, but I'd be willing to be there's at least one X-rated piece for every piece that isn't.
I've started reading a few of these stories. Generally I get about three sentences into them before the editor in me cringes.
That's a reason to dislike individual pieces of fan fiction, but a terrible reason to dislike fan fiction itself. That's like saying all TV is garbage because you were repelled by one episode of one show. Fan fiction is a medium unto itself and to say "I don't like fan fiction" is like saying "I don't like novels" or "I don't like jazz." Surely there's some example of the medium I'd like?
Well, sure. Good writers trying hard to write well and choosing to use pre-existing characters in a pre-existing fictional world can produce stories I admire. I've seen a few.
I used to be a serious jazz saxophonist, which means at one point I was a total beginner. I remember thinking even as a little kid in fifth-grade band that it was silly for adults to come listen to me and my bandmates play in our first ever live performance, because by any objective standard we were terrible. In other words, even back then, I was embarrassed at my lack of skill. Years later, I felt a lot better about playing for audiences when I knew I could produce music that adults didn't have to make apologies for. ("They're just kids! Clap, dear.")
Anyway, the point is, I've always demanded high quality output from myself and it grates on my nerves that so many fan fiction writers don't. They don't care, their (quite small) audience doesn't care... it bugs me. At least when I was a terrible writer, at some level, I knew I was terrible and I wanted to get better. Everybody starts out terrible, but no one has to stay that way, and I have issues with people who are proud to stay that way.
But that's my problem, not theirs. Furthermore, I've come to believe that fan fiction can be a tremendous tool for teaching those serious few how to improve their writing skills, because in fan fiction, a lot of what's hardest about writing fiction is done for you. That'll be the subject of the next couple of posts. In the meantime, I welcome feedback from people who are true fans of even the worst-written fan fiction, because I enjoy hearing from smart people who disagree with me.