Some of the anxieties that fans feel about their fiction and its relationship to fandom canon are expressed in Neil Gaiman’s short story ‘One life, furnished in early Moorcock’, in which twelve-year-old Richard begins an Elric fanfic, creates fanart, and worries about what would happen if he tried to share or sell ‘his Elric story’:
Sometimes he’d sit and draw Elric, trying to get him right. None of the paintings of Elric on the covers of the books looked like the Elric that lived in his head. He drew the Elrics with a fountain pen in empty school exercise books he had obtained by deceit. On the cover he’d write his name: RICHARD GREY. DO NOT STEAL.
Sometimes he thought he ought to go back and finish writing his Elric story. Maybe he could even sell it to a magazine. But then, what if Moorcock found out? What if he got into trouble? (Gaiman 1999, p.248).
The processes by which Richard deceives but rejects deception – steals the exercise books but worries about getting in trouble for stealing the idea of Moorcock’s book, steals Moorcock’s descriptions of Elric but warns against anyone stealing his own images of Elric – depict the fan in relation to the questions of copyright and intellectual ownership that some would say are central to the concept of fan fiction. The commodification of text as saleable object also places it in a moral economy whereby the circumstances of ownership can be seen as right or wrong. In Richard’s case, his inability even to pay fully for the Moorcock novels he sends away for lead to a feeling that his ‘right’ to read the texts is compromised, even as he struggles to understand the process by which they were created, and fantasises about kidnapping Moorcock in order to find out ‘the secret’ which explains it (p.260). The frustration and alienation felt by the reader when faced with fixed, closed, ‘valued’ texts (even from stories which are much loved and enjoyed) which leads to rewriting them in the form of fan fiction is here played out. Richard is the marginalised, disempowered child in need of a world in which he can play the hero, but unable to control the access to it which he requires. Elric is the character through whom he wishes to take control of the ways in which he experiences daily life. But Elric is someone else’s character, and cannot be manipulated without undoing some of the stories which Richard enjoys.
Richard’s fledgling fanfic subverts all ‘received wisdom’ about the processes of fan writing: it not only presents a scene verging on the hilarious (‘‘That’s okay’ said the princess and with that she ripped her flimsy gown and bared her chest to him’ p.247), but one which rewrites Moorcock’s highly sexualised narrative as subtext to an entirely innocent adventure story. Rather than ‘exemplifying new, and preferably “subversive” developments in gender politics and the relation between media, identity and desire’ (Driscoll 2006, p.82), Richard’s fan fiction presents gender as merely a function of role; the chest-baring princess is wearing her ‘flimsy gown’ simply because that is appropriate attire for princesses, and bares her chest solely for the purpose of a swifter and more efficient death. There is no room for desire, either of Richard or Elric, in this narrative; it is only the adult reader (or an older, more knowing Richard himself) who can read sexuality back into the scene. Richard is a fan whose appropriations of Elric are concerned with his attempts to identify and shape an identity for himself; his appropriations of Moorcock’s characters become bound up in a process of fantasy which makes both his proposed adult life (as a wolf!) and his developing awareness of sex into something impossible and unattainable.
Gaiman’s short story overall, however, represents a kind of refusal to write fan fiction; it was composed ‘for an anthology of Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories’, and arose out of Gaiman’s doubts ‘that I could say anything about Elric that wasn’t pastiche’ (p.27). Presumably he means pastiche in the sense of parody – and arguably Richard’s fanfic is verging on the parodic – but he wished nevertheless to acknowledge the role of Elric in his own reading past. Thus the piece does not arise out of a desire to write any kind of Elric fic in the present: Gaiman is not concerned with creating back story, missing scenes or AUs for Elric. Nor does he appear to be engaged with the body of Moorcock fans or fanfic writers who do; as one of them writes, ‘Come on, don’t tell me you never wanted to give the poor guy a happy ending?’ (here, accessed 30th March 2011). Instead, Gaiman writes about writing fanfic as a process of simultaneous appropriation and misunderstanding – a process in which the fanfic author is frustrated at his inability to find his own OC, or rather, to access a perceived source of OCs rather than a source text or canon. By the end, Richard’s need not to be derivative prevents him even from voicing a desire to be creative: ‘it would seem like he was copying’ (261).
But what about the ‘real’ Moorcock, an author whose fictional presence in Gaiman’s story is disrupted by the quotations from interviews which are inserted at times into the story? Gaiman’s clips depict a foul-mouthed, drug-ridden author whose apparent boorishness provides good reason for Richard’s fears as well as his respect; Richard’s desire to control the author – to stalk or kidnap him – is thus justified. Outside of the text, however, Moorcock himself seems to have mellowed into a somewhat gentler frame of mind, and has even stated ‘I have no problems with fan fiction as long as it doesn’t become commercial’ (here, accessed 30th March 2011). Indeed, he responds calmly to all enquiries as to reuse of his characters as long as his copyright is protected. He has actively supported the ‘Elric anthology’ mentioned above. His site Moorcock’s Miscellany hosts fora for members’ writing, and the 2010 Enclave Challenge prompted them to “write a story using a character named by Michael Moorcock in any of his writings so long as that charcter has not been the principal subject of any published work by MM” (here, accessed 30th March 2011). So it would appear that the ‘real’ Mr Moorcock would not have been troubled had Richard completed his fanfic and shared his story with MacBride (or most of the internet community, come to that). The issue would have come if Richard had indeed tried to sell his story. At that point, the lawyers get involved. Since Moorcock’s cosmos is founded on the struggle between law and chaos, perhaps we might be permitted to view that as all in the scheme of things; the creative chaos of fanfic authors rewriting one’s characters is in constant tension with the law which constricts and commodifies those characters but also allows the author to profit from them. Can we still imagine a world in which stories did not have price tags attached but circulated freely? Perhaps something like this might be heard: ‘Have you heard the story about the angst-ridden dispossessed emperor with the vampiric sword? No? Oh, that’s a good one. Now, let me see, where to begin…’
Works Cited :
Driscoll, Carol (2006). ‘One True Pairing: The Romance of Pornography and the Pornography of Romance,’ in Karend Hellekson and Kristina Busse, eds. Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, Jefferson & London: McFarlane
Gaiman, Neil (1999). ‘One Life, Furnished in Early Moorcock,’ Smoke and Mirrors, London: Headline
Moorcock, Michael. Moorcock’s Miscellany http://www.multiverse.org/ Accessed 30th March 2011