owlmoose: stack of books (book - pile)
KJ ([personal profile] owlmoose) wrote2017-06-14 11:19 pm

Creativity and capitalism: a few thoughts from a fanfic writer

It's E3 time, and although I haven't been paying super-close attention, a few things have broken through. One of the harder stories to miss is the controversy over The Last Night, a side-scrolling platformer in a cyberpunk setting. Among other issues, the game seems to be set in a dystopia designed to be a critique of socialism (in contrast to most cyberpunk, which tends to be anti-capitalist). I'd seen a number of takes on the issue, but the one that broke through and inspired me to write my own thoughts was this Twitter thread by [twitter.com profile] petercoffin (the thread and replies are recommended reading, both up and down):



I retweeted it a couple of days ago, with a promise to come back and say more, and here we are. My thoughts are going to be less about capitalism vs. socialism and the many issues with this specific game (Peter and the rest of the Internet have that aspect amply covered) and more about the economics of creativity, specifically the economics of fandom, which is where my creativity has lived for the past decade and more. I said in my tweet that I have "literally never" been paid in money for creative work; there are some hairs to split (I've written freelance a little bit, mostly advertising copy, and [community profile] ladybusiness launched a Patreon about six months ago), but I think it's fair to say for the creative work that's personally meaningful to me -- fiction, fannish meta, book reviews, essays like this one, etc. -- I have never received renumeration. I consider this to be choice, because I have immersed myself in fandom, writing fiction of a type that I legally cannot sell. I've chosen not to write original fiction, or file the serial numbers off my fic; I've chosen not to pitch essays or reviews to paying venues; and I've chosen not to set up a personal Patreon or any kind of tip jar. Within my corner of fandom culture, we mostly accept that we're creating for the love of it, and for the personal satisfaction of sharing our creations with others.

So I look at a sentiment like the one that Peter describes, and it's alien to me. Many years ago, at my first FogCon, I got into a brief debate with a professional author during a panel about fanfiction, and why anyone would put time into writing something you couldn't sell. (Perhaps ironically, it was a panel about cyberpunk and other "-punk" genres.) Although my comments were well-received in the moment, the pro who raised the issue admitted that he still didn't really get it; he offered to continue the discussion over email, but I was too shy to take him up on it, so it ended there. I still think about it sometimes, though. There are plenty of people who undertake creative pursuits with no expectation of making them into a career: crafters, home cooks, musicians. I've never made money off music, either -- I actually pay for the privilege of singing in my chorus. Amateurs often create for love, in all kinds of fields. Why should writing be any different?

Fandom has an economy, of course. Most often it's described as a "gift economy", meaning that you publish your work as a gift to the community, with no expectation of receiving anything in return. Another, in my experience more accurate description, is the "attention economy". Instead of money, creators get "paid" in attention: likes, kudos, clicks, reviews. Both of these models are somewhat limited, and the "attention economy" frame in particular is still rooted in the paradigm of capitalism, but I think there's something worthwhile in both descriptions. One of my favorite articles on the subject is The Economics of Fandom: Value, Investment, and Invisible Price Tags by [personal profile] saathi1013, which goes into detail about the "work" it takes to be in fandom, and the different ways in which we value and/or are compensated for that work.

On the other hand, there are signs that this may be changing. In this respect, there's always been a disconnect in fandom between fanfic and fanart -- unlike fanfic, there's a long tradition of selling fanart: at comics conventions, for example, or via commissions. In professional comics circles, there's an expectation of sorts that artists will cut their teeth on fanart and perhaps even include it in their portfolio. And increasingly, fanfic authors have been questioning why they can't benefit from selling their work, too. I've known fanfic authors to take commissions, or set up Patreons. And the practice of "filing off the serial numbers" has gotten more transparent with the success of authors like E. L. James and Cassandra Clare. Everyone knows that 50 Shades of Grey was originally a Twilight AU, and that Clare was offered a book contract on the strength of her following in the Harry Potter and LoTR fandoms. As IP holders have grown less likely to bring down the hammer on fanfic authors, fanfic is coming out of the shadows. Can a growing commercial acceptance be far behind?

To me, maybe it doesn't matter. Although I certainly appreciate no longer living in fear that I'll receive a cease and desist letter someday, I don't know that I would try to sell my fic even if I were given the opportunity. Essays and reviews might be a different story, further down the road, but for now I'm happier where I am, in (what feels to me) like the lower-pressure environment of fandom, where I can write for the love of it, and in the hopes of finding fellow travelers who will love what I love with me.

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