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Rhetoretician -- Fiction etc.

Meditation on the Ethics of NC-17 HP FanFic

Meditation on the Ethics of NC-17 HP FanFic

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Good Morning Sunshine
This may be a little provocative...

First, two personal notes:  (1)  I have no objection to reading erotica generally (no matter how explicit), although (a) I think that Porn Without Plot is generally a waste of time, and (b) brutality and cruelty is always a turn-off for me.  (2) I probably never will write anything NC-17 myself, in any genre, because I get so self-conscious and embarrassed.

That said, I want to speak/ask about NC-17 sexuality in Harry Potter fan fiction generally.

My understanding is that Jo Rowling, in giving her general permission to fans to write fan fiction based on her stories, made only three stipulations: (1) that no one else try to make money off it; (2) that proper credit be given to her; and (3) that it be suitable for young readers, i.e., not pornographic.  Nearly all fan fiction writers have been scrupulous about stipulations #1 and #2.  But quite a few, including writers I respect and admire greatly (including some on this flist), have disregarded stipulation #3.  Or rather, they have re-interpreted it to mean that Jo is asking that any NC-17 writing based on HP be segregated away so that young readers would not be able to access it.  That is not, however, my own reading of the request -- I think she asked that no NC-17 writing at all be based on her characters.  Indeed, I think that even much of what passes as PG-13 and R (or "Teens" and "Young Teens") on a number of the sites probably does not fit into the "suitable for young readers" stipulation.  (Even my scene at the very end of While You Tell Yourself the Truth / Learning to Breathe Together (which my office-mate said she wouldn't let her daughter read) may have pushed beyond the boundary Jo set; I fretted about it quite a bit, and I'm not sure I did right.)

Remember, please, that there is some truly admirable writing of this variety, and that there are some topics that can't fully be explored without venturing into some of the facts and mechanics and sex.  I have no quibbles with the quality of the writing, of its artistic integrity, or of the good intentions of the authors -- or at least, of the authors I read.

But all of these authors profess to be -- most of them genuinely are -- admirers of Jo Rowling who wish her well.  What I have trouble understanding, therefore, is how they justify disregarding a clear request, by someone they claim to like, concerning the use of her property.  By stipulation #1 and #2, they all acknowledge that Harry and his friends belong to Jo; they're hers, and we write with them by her suffrance.  Even if you don't believe in the concept of intellectual property, even if you think (as I do) that copyright is probably an outmoded concept that needs to be replaced by a new model, here we're talking about the wishes of someone we respect, concerning something she made herself.  It strikes me as at least inconsiderate not to respect those wishes.

Since I've already admitted that there are certain topics that can't be fully explored without sexual writing, I am implying that it may be that, ethically, these topics cannot be fully explored at all using HP characters.  This is infuriating to a creative mind, because you want to be able to explore whatever's at hand using whatever tools there are available.  (How would I feel if there had been a stricture against long-lasting regret over tragedy, or against Harry dying?)

Hopefully I've stirred up a frightful hornet's nest and you'll all have opinions.  Have at it!

  • I wasn't aware that she had made such a stipulation only that she is happy to let others write fanfiction (as I don't write fanfiction, it isn't something I need to worry about). Knowing that she has said this will effect how I read, however. I don't read much that would cross her line, usually only if it is slipped in to a story rather than one where it is the whole point, but this will change how I feel about reading it.
    • That's a fascinating reaction, Bel. I've been happily reading NC-17 material from writers I admire up to this very month -- because it's good, meaningful writing with compelling characters, and says important things.

      For me, it's less a question of how I feel about reading it than how I would feel about writing it. Is it unethical to read something you'd feel wrong to write? Is it unethical to praise it? I've done both.
  • I was surprised to read about any stipulation from her. For some readon I always though Jo kept mum on the topic of HP fan ficton. Having said that, I'm very uncomfortable reading anything NC-17 in the Harry Potter fan fiction world. There are several outstanding writers who do this, and I still can not bring myself to read them. I guess I'm too inhibited to read this. I still consider it a children's book, even though the kids are teens now. When there are teenagers, of course you can't ignore sexuality. I think gratuitous smut is simply pointless whether involves a kid's series or an adult book. So, I accept sexuality if it's part of the story or even the heart of the story, but any other part of the story...out it goes or I won't read it.
    • What I'm calling "stipulations" are the messages she's sent, through both her agent (Christopher Little) and their lawyers when addressing sites such as The Restricted Section. They've said that JKR is "flattered" by fan fiction and doesn't object to it except when there's a commercial angle, when the author tries to pass his/her work off as JKR's or where it's "pornographic or sexually explicit material clearly not meant for kids."

      If she hadn't made that request then I don't think I'd have any objections. And, as I say, I do read the stuff the good writers put out.
  • I didn't know she'd said that either. I just thought she'd vaguely acknowledged the existence of fanfic and indicated that she didn't plan on suing anyone.

    So, I'm not a lawyer and I'm sure you're right about what the situation ought to be. This is just my waffling about characters and imagination and writing fanfic.

    For me, the distinction comes between those pieces I think of as real stories, which just happen to use characters and settings from another work; and those which are just the sort of imaginings that any good work of fiction will leave the reader with. The latter (imo) should never really need to be published at all, and if people want to have their own NC-17 imaginations at work, no one can legislate against that. But the former - well, now that's tricky. Because although they are JKR's characters and settings, once they appear in a work like the New Zealand Chronicles (for instance) they sort of become St Margarets' too. Or in your stories, Ken. And sometimes those stories do become darker, or more sexually explicit. And I've never had a problem reading stories like that. Especially if they feature adult versions of the characters. One of the features of the HP books is the way that as the characters have aged so has the nature of the storytelling. So maybe that's partly why it feels right for them to be continued into adult literature.

    Hmm. I don't know really.

    This is probably now going way off topic, but I remember seeing Philip Pullman interviewed once and he was asked about the underage sex in his books, which are also aimed at the YA audience. He claimed he 'hadn't let his imagination go there'. The problem I had believing that, was that he actually has a place in his book where one of the characters is explaining how she'd got some information. She says that she went to Lord Asriel's room. And then the narrator tells us that she didn't say any more because all the adults listening knew exactly what happened next and none of the children did. Anyway, my point in that, is that sometimes content is determined by the reader. And I wonder what JKR's comments would say to that? If she as an adult understands something to be going on which a younger reader wouldn't, is that appropriate or not?
    • Hi, Ros. (Why aren't you revising?) ;)

      I sort of tried to keep the "lawyer" part of me out of the conversation. I couldn't help bringing up copyright, just for the sake of pointing out that the ethical argument would exist even if the law were different.

      When Mary gets explicit she does it for very good thematic or character reasons, and it's beautiful. And as I've said before, if marriage is her topic then sex must be one of her devices; no way 'round it. The question for me is whether JKR's wishes matter in this regard, especially when the use of HP characters and settings is a creative choice that is truly optional. (Roger and Lisa, I think you agree, needn't have been fan fiction at all; it was essentially entirely original. The same, I think, is true of about 80% of NZC.)

      The last question you raise is an interesting one, and of course there are clearly scenes in GoF, OotP and HBP where more is going on sexually than the text tells us. But the point is, she doesn't tell us. And as for Pullman -- wait, isn't there a moment in the third book where they are obviously having sex?
  • This is about my latest chapter, isn't it?

    I also was not aware that she'd made this stipulation; it makes me feel even more self-conscious about writing the scenes that I have than I did before (although they're a far cry from NC-17 I do think they're firmly planted in R territory). Given the things that I was reading at 12 (The Mists of Avalon being the first of many novels with sexually explicit or implied scenes) with my parents' encouragement and approval I guess I have a more liberal view of what's "appropriate for children" than most folks. My parents' philosophy and the one I will use with Meg is basically that if you're mature enough to understand the concepts in context, you're probably mature enough to be reading the material (of course barring deviant sexual behavior descriptions, which are a whole other kettle of fish).

    I can certainly tell from JKR's writing where she considers the line to be, and I know that I've crossed it with my fanfiction. I'm not really sure how to feel about that, in the context of what you've brought up. I respect Rowling as an author and as a creator of this wonderful universe in which we all play, but I'm not sure that it's disrespectful to write things with her characters that go beyond what she herself is comfortable with. What I ask myself when writing something is, does it contribute to the story and what I'm trying to convey? Since the main theme of my story, if it could be said to have one, is the growing intimacy between Harry and Ginny and what that means in terms of "the power the Dark Lord knows not," I feel that when you've got a 16-year-old girl and a 17-year-old boy who are becoming more and more intimate emotionally that sexual activity is an integral part of that, regardless of what the morality police would like us to think.

    I feel that if you're going to deviate very much from canon in your portrayal of characters then you should just write original fiction - what's the point of calling your character "Harry" if he doesn't talk, act, or think anything like the Harry we've come to know over the course of six books? My feelings about "adult" material in the Harry Potter universe are pretty similar - as long as it's a natural extension of the characters' canon behavior I don't think it's disrespectful. I saw a Harry/Ron explicit comic by Really Corking the other day, and despite the fact that I really like her art I was pretty annoyed by it because I felt that what she had the two characters doing was not in line with anything we know about either of them. Her depictions of Harry/Ginny and Ron/Hermione, on the other hand, despite their being just as graphic, don't bother me at all because they're in line with what Jo has told us about those relationships and it's logical to deduce that they would engage in that sort of behavior eventually even if it's not something Jo herself would tell us about.
    • Darn it - I had fake HTML tags jokingly labeling that first statement as paranoid ego but apparently LJ interprets anything inside that sort of bracket as valid HTML and discards it if it's not. So please consider that first line tongue-in-cheek.
    • (no subject) - rhetoretician - Expand
  • An intriguing discussion, Ken. I wonder how many people have written more racy stuff than JKR would approve of, but out of ignorance of her feelings on the matter, rather than outright disregard?

    However, the main thing I get from it is a reinforcement of the feeling that has been growing stronger and stronger in my mind and that is that HP fan fiction is too limiting. I have nothing but gratitude to JKR for letting me play in her universe - I have learned SOOOO much about the craft, and I could never repay my HP writing friends for the fun and knowledge I've gained out of doing this - but I'm tired of worrying about canon, and I'm tired of being embarrassed to admit (or at least feeling compelled to explain why I've written it) to people out of the fandom that I've written fan fic, and I'm tired of being confined to someone else's universe or rules, and I'm tired of not having anything that is COMPLETELY mine.

    That said, it sure is a hell of a lot more fun to write with a built-in audience than to toil away at something original that nobody else cares about but me. But that is a whole other subject, isn't it?
  • I'm fairly conservative in my tastes and generally steer clear of the X-rated stuff, unless there's a good reason - particularly good writing, an engrossing story that's reeled me in, or a quality author I can trust to make my slogging through the sex worthwhile. But generally I reckon the same punch - the same amount of drama, the same emotional payload - can be delivered without any need for an NC-17 level of detail.

    As to the guts of your hornets nest - how can the authors justify going against JKR's explicit wishes/constraints - you'll be able to ask a convention full of people that question in just a few days time, won't you? You lucky sod. And if you think that writing fan fiction is rude or pushing JKR's envelope, what do you say about a *convention* which has streams titled 'Characters, Sexuality & Fan Interpretation' and 'Slash Studies' as well as sessions labelled 'Siriusly Celibate', 'Weasley is our Queen', 'Slash - What is it and Why do you write it?' and 'Snapeslash and its fans'?!

    How 'official' is Phoenix Rising? Has JKR okay'ed it? The corporations which manage her property? I'd imagine that the convention organisers have approached the proper people - they're showing the movies as well as discussing the books, et cetera. But if writing pornographic (or homosexual, I'd say that JKR would frown on that as well?) stories is going against JKR's wishes, a convention full of people discussing same might be even more flagrant in its disobedience?
    • Interesting point, Brad. If she objects, why hasn't she done anything about it? She has made an effort to stop The Restricted Section and one or two others, but (so far as I know) nothing's been sent to various well-known LJ lists, or to other sites that have NC-17 or R rated stories. Perhaps she doesn't really object?

      But shouldn't I take her at her word? If she says she objects to something, should I wait for her to act on it before taking her seriously? Using my argument from above, if Joia asks me not to use her truck to help Democrats, then should I do so unless she actively tries to stop me?
  • I'm not sure when JKR said - somewhere between GOF (2000) and OotP (2003) I think. She's been a tad inconsistent in this wish/permission/invitation (whatever you call it) since she said it. In 2004 when she launched her website, the first trophy she awarded to a fan site was to Immeritus, which, as I understand it, is a fan site for the Marauders and leans heavily toward Remus/Sirius slash. She specifically praised the artwork (not the fan fic) and she said she felt guilty for killing off Sirius when she realized how fangirls he had. It's on her website, still if you want to read her comments on the scroll.

    I think a lot more has changed between when she made that statement and now.

    First - canon has grown up with the kids. In HBP both Ron and Hermione are of age and JKR touches upon the sexual feelings of her (underage) protagonist. How "young children" appropriate is that? And how do you determine the age limit? Characters swear directly - "damn" "effing owl" in OotP and Ron has been swearing indirectly for many books now.

    Second - the movies. A lot of kids only know the story because of the movies. The actors are growing up and doing other projects (Rupert in Driving Lessons and Dan in Equs). JKR supported these kids in their other projects. No, it's not the same as her characters doing these things - but the woman is no prude. It will be ineresting to see how Warner Brothers plays with these less-than-innocent themes in OotP and in HBP. And you wonder how distorted the characters have become from JKR's original vision and how she really feels about it.

    Third - the fandom. It's becoming increasing more obvious that the fandom is not nine and ten year-olds. Teenagers read my stuff and I'm glad they do. I would have loved to have read a realistic` depiction of sex and relationships when I was that age. I've also kept my characters age appropriate - that is - Hermione isn't off having sex with Snape in her sixth year, etc . . .

    Fourth - as Brad points out - there are a lot of people making money off the HP phenomenon. From the conventions to the artists who sell there work to the "analysis and prediction" books by John Gardner and the rest. Fan fic. writers never will make money until JKR's copyright runs out or she starts allowing fan fiction to be sold and published just like George Lucus did with his Star Wars characters.

    And someday, JKR's copyright will run out and the characters will be in the public domain (and in this sense I think they already are) I don't take bread out of JKR's mouth by writing fan fiction and certainly respect her characters. So my conscience is clear. If she really wanted to crack down she certainly could.
  • I sent this to you in an email, but thought that I should post it here as well...

      I've always assumed that those 'stipulations' came mostly from the lawyers, and, in the way of such things, that everyone was playing a huge game of be-nice-but-cover-your-rear. There are authors who send out VERY clear No Fanfic warnings. JKR doesn't seem to want to do that, bless her heart. But she (and her representatives) also have to set some clear boundaries in order to a) protect her copyrights and b) make sure that her name is not connected with things that do not represent her own views or that would be detrimental to to her financial interests. But she doesn't seem to have clearly said, "No hanky panky in Harry Potter fics."

      At least, as I understand it.

      It seems to me that she's made much clearer 'stipulations' concerning shipping Hermione with Harry or Draco, or Luna with Neville (:sniff:), and yet people write fics with those pairings all the time.

      If there's a clear directive that comes from JKR and her representatives, I'll respect it. But while the message that I'm getting is more about legal rear-covering than actual legal notice being given.

      Then again, I write NC-17 Harry Potter fics. So I guess that serves my purposes. ^.^
    • I've always assumed that those 'stipulations' came mostly from the lawyers, and, in the way of such things, that everyone was playing a huge game of be-nice-but-cover-your-rear.

      Ouch! You know, we're really not supposed to represent that various sentiments came from our clients unless they actually did. We can get in biiiiig trouble for that.

      In October of last year, as I was starting to write a lot of my own fan fiction, I suddenly worried about what was & wasn't allowed and so I e-mailed the Christopher Little Agency and asked whether they'd ever put out a public statement on the matter. I'm on the wrong computer at the moment to give you the full text of their reply, but the gist of it was, "We've said, with regard to online fan fiction, that Ms. Rowling doesn't object to fan fiction so long as it's not commercial, is appropriate (not pornographic) and doesn't claim to have been written by her." The 2002 and 2003 letters (available on the web) to The Restricted Section and the other site (shadow-something-or-other) were in accord with that view, demanding that all explicitly sexual material be removed, period.

      Lawyers generally don't generate letters like this on our own; usually it's the client who asks for them, and they want us to write them in such a way that they won't get themselves into more trouble than they were in before. The impetus for this almost certainly came from JKR herself.

      Anyway, an evidentiary debate over whether the request was genuine, while interesting, doesn't really move me. I'll cheerfully admit that I don't have all the facts. It's much more interesting (to me, anyway) to wonder whether the request has any moral force if we assume that it is genuine. Bel thinks it does; Mary thinks it doesn't. Me, I'm still vacillating.
  • Meh, JKR is not the boss of me. I really just want her to shut up and write. But then sometimes I am in the minority on these kinds of things.
  • Good point well made.
    May I 'friend' you? I'd like to follow your thinking further as it appears?
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