Fanfiction and Ethics, or: Why I Wish I Hated City of Bones

Hey humans and gentlefolk, and welcome back to Weekly Reads.

This week I read City of Bones. I’ll get to why in a minute, but first I want to talk about Big Name Fans who have become bestselling authors, or in particular, Cassandra Clare and the infamous E.L. James.

Before I get into that bathtub of rattlesnakes, let’s start with a disclaimer. I love fanfiction. I’ve written it, I still read it, and I’m still a lurker in some fandoms. My intention is not to dump on people having a good time with characters and worlds they love.

So let’s take a minute to acknowledge that not every author who makes this transition provokes a lot of controversy. Certainly, Clare and James were more scrutinized because of their status as Big Name Fans and because they used their fandom readership as a launching point for their book careers (and, as I’ll talk about, I think they deserve the flack they get). But consider authors like Marissa Meyer, who you can check out on FF.net. (She used to write Sailor Moon fanfiction.) While her fanfiction shows her interest in reworking fairy tales, it’s not the source material for her professional writing career. (I’m sure there are plenty of other examples, so let me know about your favourite fandom-to-pro authors in the comments.)

But on to the meat of the issue here: fanfiction authorship and ethics. It’s a morally grey area in the first place, I suppose: fanfiction is basically plagiarism. But it’s not plagiarism being handed in for a good grade, or to make profit (or at least, the authors don’t profit directly). And while some original authors are absolutely incensed by the very idea, many are tolerant, amused, or even supportive of it. (It probably helps that some original authors have now risen through the ranks writing fanfiction themselves.)

But even if us fandom folks accept a certain amount of copying as the status quo, there are lines that you don’t cross in fandom. Like plagiarizing almost word-for-word other sources that aren’t part of the work you’re writing fanfiction for. That’s the line Cassandra Claire (at the time) crossed, and she kicked up somewhat of a fandom civil war in the process, because her work (The Draco Trilogy) had such a huge readership. It’s a long story, but start here if you need a primer.

Fanfiction authors (or the majority, anyway) also aren’t about making a profit off of their not-original work, which is the line E.L. James crossed. Have you ever heard of alternate universe  (AU) fanfiction? It’s a trope where the author takes the characters from a certain world and plops them in another setting. This is very commonly used to take characters from genre works and to toss them into “the real world.” (I may or may not know this on account of the many, many college/university AU The 100 fanfics I have personally consumed.)

That was the premise of E.L. James’ Master of the Universe, which was a popular AU fanfic in the Twilight saga fandom. Alternate universe fanfiction is an interesting grey area because of how it takes characters out of the context that the original author created; however, if you consider a set of characters to be the intellectual property of the original author, then you’d still recognize an AU fanfic as, well, what it is: fanfiction, not original work. But E.L. James took that fanfiction—which cribs not just Bella, Edward, Jacob and co., but also the basic plot structure of the Twilight saga novels—and made a few name changes to publish it as the now record-smashing Fifty Shades series. Add insult to injury: the BDSM smut in Fifty Shades isn’t even good by fandom standards. (I’m a little confused as to why it was initially popular in the fandom, but I don’t know the relative quality of most Bella/Edward smut. Fanfiction is only as good as the fandom authors who write your preferred pairing, and some pairings are definitely blessed compared to others.)

Both E.L. James and Cassandra Cla(i)re no longer have these fanfics up on the Internet; allowing that concrete proof of their bad conduct to be so obvious would probably be shitty PR. However, you can find and read them for yourself if you doubt the truth of the (easily Googled) allegations.

Okay, so back to City of Bones. Maybe Cassandra Clare, now sans “i,” plagiarized in her Harry Potter fanfiction, but she published an original book. Why drag her fandom life into her professional career? She’s not like James who just find-replaced her fanfic to make profit. Right?

Well, there are two ethical issues surrounding City of Bones. The first is that Clare used her online readership as a springboard to create her professional career. She maintained her recognizable online writing handle (with one letter changed to try to prevent folks finding her past bad behaviour; very tricky!) and promoted her book with it. On its own, that move is…not necessarily out of line. If one of my favourite fanfic authors said they’d be launching a book tomorrow under their fandom handle, I’d go buy it and not think anything of it, although I’m sure personal feelings on it will have a lot to do with your attitude towards fanwork generally. But I think if you create your Internet standing by plagiarizing—not as in “filling in subtext between Harry and Draco,” but by straight-up ripping paragraphs of another book to fill in your Harry Potter fanfic—then using that standing for profit seems ethically iffy from any angle.

The second ethical issue surrounding City of Bones and Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series in general is that characters, situations, and even snippets of writing seem to be recycled from the Draco trilogy. Jace seems suspiciously like her Draco; Clary is her Ginny, and so on. (For more on this, see the source above, or just Google similarities between the Draco trilogy/Draco Dormiens and City of Bones.)

Granted, Clare’s interpretation of these characters stretched the boundaries of Harry Potter canon in the first place. (Part of why I wasn’t into Draco Dormiens back in the day was because it was very fanon; it strayed a lot from the canon versions of the characters and incorporated common tropes from other fanfics/pop culture in general.) So the level of remove between her characters and J.K. Rowling’s is certainly a reasonable distance, and City of Bones has a different plot than Draco Dormiens, with different dynamics between the characters. Still, when your original book’s twist is that the Draco/Ginny, or, um, Jace/Clary you expect turns into more of a Draco/Harry dynamic (spoilersmaybe?), and bits of backstory and writing get reused, the déjà vu is just a little too real.

So why did I read City of Bones? Well, I have to say I was relieved when the movie flopped; I was vaguely part of Harry Potter fandom during the original Draco trilogy controversy, and it struck me as a little bit of karma, honestly. But now that the Shadowhunters will be back in TV form, I just had to know what the allure of this book series was.

city-of-bones

I love the movie tie-in cover because it reminds me how badly this movie flopped.

But honestly, I didn’t hate City of Bones.

wanted to hate City of Bones, and really I’m still disappointed that I didn’t. I don’t feel the need to recommend it; it’s still messy as heck, with some pointed “upcycling” of ideas, character bits, and writing from Draco Dormiens. But it’s not boring in the ways that it’s messy. If you were here last week, you might remember that I was complaining a bit about another recent read in the same supernatural fantasy YA genre, Anna Dressed in Blood. That’s a book that definitely pulls from the playbook of the TV show Supernatural, and it’s also messy writing, but it’s messy writing that’s also boring.

Both books feel a little like a lot of scenes strung together without much connective tissue or planning. Sometimes the characters throw some witty dialogue at each other, which is fun, but happens too rarely and never hits home with anything novel; the lines feel recycled. (In the case of City of Bones, they probably are, and they’re probably the less interesting lines from Draco Dormiens, because the best dialogue from that fanfic was yanked from TV.) The worldbuilding in both cases feels haphazard and the conflicts and developments between characters are predictable. Action sequences are passable; descriptions are okay. (They’re both better in City of Bones, but not by a lot.)

But unlike Anna Dressed in BloodCity of Bones has a plot twist or two up its sleeve, and though it’s not much better at describing things, it does come up with some more interesting things to describe. While the lore of Shadowhunters was handed to us piecemeal and begged more questions than it answered, it provided more scope than “ghosts and magic are real but the protagonist doesn’t really care about their logic really so lol neither should you.” It throws a lot at the wall and assumes it’ll come together in the end, but the mess that ensues is, at the very least, not snore-inducing.

City of Bones also cared slightly more that it was set in New York than Anna Dressed in Blood cared that it was set in Thunder Bay; the idea of a supernatural underbelly in New York was generally underused, other than a somewhat charming supernatural restaurant, but it didn’t feel as pointless as setting something in a unique locale just to…mostly ignore it. It also cared a bit more about showing the feelings of its characters rather than stating them outright, so I was slightly more willing to buy into their feelings, although everyone in City of Bones is pretty oblivious, self-centred, and gullible in service of the plot. (Everyone in Anna Dressed in Blood has absolutely no personality, though.)

Honestly, I’m still disappointed with myself for not hating City of Bones. But it’s a little like it was way-back-when with the Draco trilogy. A lot of people found out about the plagiarism and just didn’t care, because they still enjoyed reading Cla(i)re’s story. I know this is disjointed because a lot of it is recycled material, and I know there’s a lot of missed potential here because of a deep-seeded laziness in Clare’s writing that has always existed—but to some extent, I’m willing to set it aside because I’ve read a lot this year, and this, at least, is messy in a way that doesn’t exhaust me.

Does it still piss me off that she rode to acclaim by straight-up plagiarizing? Absolutely. And I would never support her directly by buying or recommending her books. But if I’m going to review, I’ve got to be honest, and if I’m going to be honest, I’ve read worse this year.

So those are my (complicated) feelings on the read(s) of the week, and thanks for stopping in. Until next time!

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