Imitation, the Highest Form of Creation?

In writing, imitation is not necessarily the highest form of flattery. It is, arguably, a contributor to the highest form of creation.

If properly executed, parody remains one of the most beloved methods of creative mimicry. It elucidates the dramatic and the ridiculous in writing, film, and performance art; combining impression with a rather loving form of criticism.

Writers of parody rise as stars of their respective worlds. In fact, the most popular film parody franchises can earn upwards of 4 million dollars in U.S. box offices.

This kind of comic pastiche is a reasonably well-respected art in its own right. Caricaturist-inspired artists and writers begin their work on the basis of another person’s accomplishments–tweaking character and setting to create a new story.

If the initial writing process of this satirical form seems familiar, it’s because these identical first steps simultaneously contribute to another form of alternative writing that’s continually undervalued.

Where parody represents an exaggerated and amusing imitation of a particular creative style, fanfiction exists as its cousin of sorts. While the two types of writing are vastly different and are not technically considered similar, they bleed together in a few respects.

“Something can be both parody and fanfiction,” says New York literary assistant Sam Wekstein, a seasoned professional reader and previous fanfiction writer. She spends much of her work week reading both published and unpublished works through her agency.

Wekstein clarifies parody as an attempt to establish a commentary on its subject material, while fanfiction typically represents a “serious take” on another writer’s original work.

So, where does that leave parody’s eager young relative? In the gutter, according to the Copyright Act of 1976, which states that parody falls under fair use while fanfiction does not.

Under this law, the copyright holder gains protection from any “intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification of that work which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation.” Exceptions to this rule include works of commentary, criticism, and parody.

Fanfiction can distort and mutilate an original work, but fanfiction writers argue that they write their stories with the highest respect for authors and intend only to create a form of pastiche honoring beloved characters and settings.

Some popular published authors including Rainbow Rowell and Neil Gaiman support the creation of fanfiction, stipulating that writers must differentiate their unaffiliated work from the original author’s material and recognize that the characters and settings do not belong to them.

“As long as people aren’t commercially exploiting characters I’ve created, and are doing it for each other, I don’t see that there’s any harm in it,” said Gaiman, “but I’d hope you’d see it as a privilege and not a right.”

Additionally, the process behind penning such homage offers many benefits to both fledglings and well-versed practitioners of the craft.

Rowell, who read fanfiction before selling her first novels, explains that it directly influenced the conception of her best-selling young adult novel “Fangirl.” She wondered about growing up amongst a wealth of readily accessible fanfiction, and the story began taking shape.

Authors and fans aren’t the only readers who would readily list the benefits of writing fanfiction; some publishing employees also consider it a healthy writing practice.

“The more you write, the better you get,” says Erinn Pascal, who began reading fanfiction at a young age. She’s now an editorial assistant at a “Big Five” publishing company in New York City and graduate of Emerson’s Writing, Literature, and Publishing department.

Pascal stresses the importance of practice in the development of writing skills, highlighting the added bonus in criticism and comment, wherein writers receive “instant feedback” from readers, and can “hone their craft” through this connection.

Meanwhile, she stresses, the ease at which a writer can step into a pre-existing world allows them to focus on improving their own wordplay abilities and other personal strengths, without reserving excess time for the progression of plot and character.

Rather than waste energy on “worrying about coming up with an original plot or sparkling characters,” says Pascal, they can instead devote more time to dialogue and action.

If not spotted in the early stages of their career by an observant agent scouting for clients, unsure fanfiction writers may gain the confidence to begin posting their work elsewhere on the Internet and then eventually pursue mainstream publication.

Wekstein points to Sarah J. Maas, a now published author who began a career in writing by posting her original fantasy series to a website called Fiction Press.

Fiction Press is, according to Wekstein, a “sister website” to a popular fanfiction site where “a lot of young writers start posting after they’ve written some fanfiction.”

Wekstein and Pascal have both come across gems while perusing these sites, and believe that the more popular stories encourage young readers to venture into the world of writing.

Pascal in particular posits that the availability of good fanfiction “can also be inspiring for the aspiring writer,” who observes the process of feedback and criticism essential to building skill.

Surprisingly, while critics of the fanfiction community exist across a variety of occupations, many still tend to agree that the practice sharpens necessary tools.

Online writer Robert Smedley called fanfiction “a temporary indulgence,” in that, eventually, a fanfiction writer will have to step back from another person’s characters and “play with” their own original creations.

Interestingly, while Smedley debates the necessity of fanfiction and the ethics involved in its existence, he does praise fanfiction as a “useful” vehicle for writers wishing to warm up their hands before delving into original work.

“It’s a different way to get the creative juices flowing and it works. Trust me, I tried it.”

Smedley explains that he gained a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction after experimenting with a short fanfiction story, just through the act of flexing his writing muscles.

“Forget about the subject for a second and fanfic is good writing practice,” he wrote.

Wekstein’s professional opinion supports that statement, as she believes the talents of many writers stem from their roots in fanfiction.

“If I thought someone’s fanfiction had some truly amazing writing,” she says, while referring to the process of hunting for new clients at the agency, “I wouldn’t shy away from asking them if they have original material that isn’t fanfiction.”

Perhaps the process behind writing fanfiction and its built-in system of workshop-style feedback redeems this style as an improvement tool for writers, if not necessarily an art form that parallels parody.

Feature image courtesy of Flickr user Kate Ter Haar.