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George R.R. Martin: Fanfiction Is Bad Except for the Stuff I Wrote

Except for when he used to write it himself.

George R.R. Martin

In October, George R.R. Martin was the recipient of the Carl Sandburg Literary Award at an annual gala sponsored by the Chicago Public Library Foundation. After receiving the award and giving a shoutout to his alma mater, Northwestern, he participated in an extensive question and answer session with NPR Saturday host Scott Simon.

The interview is around forty minutes long and covers everything from Martin’s time at Northwestern, and his childhood love of comic books and paperback science fiction novels, to organizing chess tournaments in order to supplement his income. (Imagine living in a decade where organizing chess tournaments made you enough money to pay rent!)

He also addressed the importance of finishing A Song of Ice and Fire, noting that he doesn’t want it to become his Mystery of Edwin Drood (Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel) and that he wants “to finish it strong, so people look at it and say, ‘This entire thing is an important work, not a half-finished or broken work.’ I know some of the more cynical people out there don’t believe that, but it is true.”

And then, good old Grandpa George had to go on a rant about fanfiction, because we can’t have nice things. He started by explaining that he got his start as a young writer by writing fanfiction for the fan write-in sections of his favorite comics and magazines, and that it was important training for his voice because it gave him the necessary confidence in order to branch out and write more original works.

However, he clarified that, in his youth, fanfiction—while still written by amateur writers—meant something a little different than it does today. He considered it “fiction written by fans” who would create their own characters (even if heavily influenced or inspired by their faves) as opposed to what it means today: fiction that uses characters and worlds invented by other authors.

And then he flip-flopped:

“I don’t think it’s a good way to train to be a professional writer when you’re borrowing everybody else’s world and characters. That’s like riding a bike with training wheels. And then when I took the training wheels off, I fell over a lot, but at some point you have to take the training wheels off here. You have to invent your own characters, you have to do your own world-building, you can’t just borrow from Gene Roddenberry or George Lucas or me or whoever.”

The bike riding analogy is what really baffles me. How does one learn how to ride a bike WITHOUT training wheels? Aren’t they a necessary part of the process? And isn’t it hypocritical to first describe your history of writing fanfiction (even if you quibble over the definition) as an important part of your development as a writer to then turn around and say that other people shouldn’t follow the same process? I agree that if someone wants to make the leap from fanfic to “professional” writing (which most fic writers aren’t even interested in doing) the training wheels will have to come off, but that seems extremely obvious.

Fun fact: Even Twilight itself—E.L. James’ fanfiction of which famously became the Fifty Shades series—could be considered fanfic, because Stephanie Meyers has said that each book was her interpretation of a classic piece of literature (Twilight was Pride and Prejudice, New Moon was Romeo and Juliet, etc). Hell, most fantasy fiction as we know it could be considered fanfic of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series! Is what separates fiction from fanfiction merely the names of the characters and locations in the story? What about using the same plot lines and thematic elements? (Actually sincerely curious about this delineation.)

Maybe it’s just Martin being a cranky and cantankerous old coot (he is 71 years old, after all) who is feeling the pressure of his fans to finish A Song of Ice and Fire. Maybe he’s just jealous of the speed at which fanfic authors can churn out their stories. At any rate, it does feel hypocritical of him to condemn a process that led him to becoming one of the most successful authors of all time.

(Photo: Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

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