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Marta's Mathoms

Being a Collection of Fanfic, Political Musings, Memeage and Asundry Goodies

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To AU or not to AU?
(This is in response to juno_magic 's fabulous post, which is in turn in response to an SWG thread. But I have written it as a mini-essay on the different types of canonicity, so you shouldn't need to know the former discussion to understand it.)

Is "AU" a pejorative label? It's a question that seems to come up every so often. Certainly, for some people AU means badfic, and some people use it more widely than I think they need to.

But before I can even begin to answer that, I need to define what AU is for me. It's one of those terms that (like Mary Sue) seem to take on different meanings for each reader.

Juno correctly pointed out in her post that if you want to read something truly canonical, go read the original author. We have over 1,000 pages in LOTR + appendices, never mind The Hobbit, Silm, and all the pseudocanonical stuff (*eep* HoME! UT! And the list goes on....) It's enough reading material to last anyone for a long, long time, and if you're like me by the time you get to the end you want to begin re-reading again.

But we all come to fanfic, and I have to imagine that for at least some poeple it's because you want more than the original text can offer. You want ot know about Boromir's torrid love affairs, Feanor's and Nerdanel's courtship, Aragorn's childhood growing up in Rivendell. Maybe you even want to know about events hinted at in canon but never fleshed out, like the driving of Sauron from Dol Guldur in _The Hobbit_. In any of these cases you want to *add* to the original canon material. That means at least two key facts are true:

  • You want to write something that isn't already addressed in the canon
  • What you write won't itself be included in the canon.

That means (*drumroll*).... all fanfic is non-canonical! Seems like not such a big jump, maybe, but it's important to remember. If you aren't adding anything to canon, then you have to wonder why you're writing. Even if you're telling a canonical scene from a new perspective, hopefully you're bringing something new to the table. Because writing fanfic takes effort, and if what you're writing is absolutely 100% canonical (as in: not adding anything to what Tolkien wrote), then why are you bothering?

However. I think we can draw an important distinction between stories that flesh out canon and stories that tell an entirely different tale from what Tolkien wrote. To take LOTR as an example, I approach stories that are gapfillers or alternate perspectives of scenes in the book, or stories set in that same time period in lands not covered by the book, in a very different way than I do stories where the characters are from canon but the events aren't even hinted at by Tolkien.

Newsflash: There is nothing wrong with telling stories different from what Tolkien wrote. These stories aren't less worthy or anything, just different. You will attract your readers for different reasons.

I'd call these stories extra-canonical. They're stories outside of canon.

Then there are stories that actually break canon. They either aren't consistent with what Tolkien wrote, or you would expect something about them to be mentioned in the canon if the factoid had been true. A really good example of this type of story is a tenth walker story. I know a lot of people look down on tenth walker stories, but some have been done really well (Juno's Lothiriel jumps to mind). The thing is, these stories necessarily change canon. It's not just some event that happens before or after canon, adding to the story but consistent with it. Here there is an added element beyond what Tolkien wrote, or you take away something that Tolkien wrote.

I'd call these stories uncanonical. They break canon in some regard. This still doesn't make them bad stories, but you have to draw my attention in some important way. I can think of several reasons connected to the canon why people read fanfic.

  • they are intrigued by the events of the original canon
  • the characters or cultures connect with them
  • the themes of the authors seem relevant and worth exploring
Anyone might be disappointed if they're looking for the third; there's no guarantee fanfic writers will write about the same issues that were important to the original authors. Extra-canonical fanfic also departs from the first possibility. So if you're writing extracanonical fanfic, the only one of these three possible motivating factors you have left is the first one: the reader liked the original author's characters and cultures, and wanted to read more stories about them. If you also make it uncanonical (which usually means changing the cultures or characters, sometimes significantly and sometimes not so significantly), you run the risk of losing the second possible motivation as well. And if you do that, you'll need a reason to make me keep reading.

There may be lots of reasons. Perhaps your readers like the communal nature of fanfic, the possibility to discuss an author's work with them as or soon after it's being written. Or maybe they know they like you from your other more canonical stories and are won over by your general writing stories. Fanfic can function as damned good fiction, never mind the fan part. And as a reader I'm more likely to read something by an author I've had a good experience with in the past than with someone I've not read in the past. I'm more likely to check out Dawn Felagund's or Juno's or daw's original fiction, than I am some book I pick up in the book store. Heck, I started reading Harry Potter fanfiction because celandineb started writing it, and vulgarweed did the same thing for Good Omens, and tanaquisga for SGA. It can be done. I read good fiction by people I know will present good fiction, even if I don't know the canon.

My point is, I read stuff by authors I know, for reasons other than that I like the fandom they're writing in. If I read such stories it's for some reason other than that I liked the canon of the story.

But here's the catch: if you're going to write fanfic, and it's not going to be about the characters and cultures and events that drew me to the fandom, then I'm going to feel a tad let down anyway from the beginning. I expect those things when I come to fanfic. I'll read stuff that has not been through the vetting that is the publishing process (and yes, I know a lot of substandard stuff can still get published but there's some QC...), will put up with the frustration of reading off my computer rather than curled up in the sofa - because I want more than just good writing, I want those same characters. If you want to keep me reading, then it won't be because it's fanfic; and if you didn't warn me that the story is uncanonical so I was prepared going in, then you'll have to overcome my initial surprise

Now this doesn't mean you can't do a creative re-interpretation of the character or culture. My OTP is Boromir/Theodred, for pete's sake. I like subtext and rage against the man, and all that jazz. But there's a world of difference between stretching the canon and completely disregarding it. You can give Boromir a secret passion for Haradric poetry, and Denethor could have been a renowned opera singer in his youth - and if you sell me on the idea, more power to you. You can even make Boromir a homosexual. You can make Faramir like men, too, if you can reconcile that with his attraction to Eowyn. This is all certainly extracanonical because these are all things Tolkien didn't write into his work. But is it uncanonical?

Not if you aren't contradicting what Tolkien actually wrote. And here's where two main key points come in.

  • It's not uncanonical because it contradicts your personal interpretation of a character. Even if you really, really believe that's how Tolkien meant that character - if it doesn't contradict something Tolkien wrote, it's still canonical.
  • It's not uncanonical if it breaks a fanon. "Study, to show thyself approved," to borrow a phrase. It's unreasonable to expect every author to work in those little fannish inventions that you think are so believable you can hardly imagine the books' events without them. If you're going to tell someone they're wrong or be disappointed, make sure you actually understand the canon yourself.
Canon is what Tolkien wrote. Not what you personally think, not what you think he wrote -- what actually came out of his typewriter.

Also, even if a story is uncanonical, this doesn't mean it's a sin against Tolkien. The man is dead, he doesn't feel any more pain. And even if he would blush, fanfic is the production of the fanfic author's mind and imagination, not that of the original canon's author. It doesn't make it a bad story in other respects just because it doesn't completely follow canon. It can still have good characterizations and good plot; those things just don't happen to coincide with what Tolkien wrote.

So having said all of that, I think I'm (finally!) able to talk about that AU question. I don't write a lot of AUs myself, but I was the one that wrote up most of the FAQs for the Middle-earth Fanfiction Awards, and as part of that I had to write up a description of our category for Alternate Universe stories. As part of that description I wrote

For the purpose of the Middle-earth Fanfiction Awards, an alternative universe piece is one that deviates from its source material (whether the story or movies) in some important respect. Pieces describing something that might have occurred but are not specifically said to occur are not necessarily AUs.

That's actually a pretty good description of what I think AUs are. They are stories that deviate from the express canon of that fandom. So using my division above they are not extracanonical; they are uncanonical.

But there's more. Not all uncanonical stories are AUs. AUs are a specific subgenre of writing. They change some detail of the universe, usually a fairly constrained change that has a lot of ripples that affect a lot of other issues. A good example is Dwim's novel Lie Down in the Darkness, Rise Up From the Ash. In this story, Gollum dies escaping from Mirkwood, and the Quest has to change to accommodate this fact. An AU concept that occurred to me fairly recently is how the Quest might have unfolded differently if there had been a king in the North.

I've also seen AUs where Faramir goes on the quest instead of (or with) Boromir; Galadriel takes the Ring; Boromir lives past Henneth Annun; and any other number of topics. The basic point is that there is one specific fact changed. The characters still are basically consistent with what Tolkien wrote, and if anything else changes, it is because the purposeful change made forces that subsequent change.

Really, a good AU is like a surgical incision. A story where the author breaks with canon out of carelessness or lack of knowledge feels more like being cut with a machete. The affect of an AU's change is steady, exact, and its affect is predictable and used to good affect. In the latter, it can get messy, and the change is usually not under the author's control. As a result the reader usually feels like they have lost a canonical story and often not gained a lot in return, as far as canonicity is concerned. (A good AU can tell you as much about the themes and other elements of the canon as a canon-compliant one does.)

So AU in itself is not pejorative, or at least it doesn't have to be. It is sometimes misused by authors who are trying to excuse not doing their research properly. (In a good AU, an author often knows the canon very well and is purposefully choosing to change it. That makes a difference.) It is also misused by readers to label something they don't like, don't think Tolkien (or whomever) would have intended, etc. But Tolkien is long dead and all we can really know is what he's told us. This is just what I said it was - a mis-use of the term "AU."

Even "uncanonical" does not have to be a pejorative term. If an author does not care so much about canon and wants to focus on other parts of the writing, this is okay. I think there will always be readers for a well-told story, and there are people who care more about how well a story excels in other aspects than its canon-compliant. This is just one thing people look for in a story, and there are many others - beautiful language, good pacing, exciting plot, thought-provoking themes, believable characterization, and so on. For some people canon is important, and if you choose not to focus on this aspect, you will lose some readers. But this is true for any aspect of the writing process. So while some people may criticize you for being uncanonical, you could probably just as easily criticize them for not doing as well as you'd like in some other important aspect of their writing.

A long answer to a short question, I know! But it's allowed me to explore some interesting topics and share my opinion on canon and how it intersects with fandom, a topic very near and dear to my heart. I hope you've been enriched for having read this far, even if we don't agree on every point.


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Wow! What a really thought-provoking post this is. I think I'm going to have to re-read it several times to appreciate all the great points you've made.

But I wanted to just say that on the first couple of read through I really like your distinction between extra-canonical and uncanonical, and your comments about a good AU being like surgery.

And *blinks* I didn't realise you'd read any of my SGA fic, because I didn't think you were into SGA fandom. Thanks for sending me off with warm fuzzy feelings. {{{hugs}}}

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I saw your comments over there, and they made a lot of sense. I think how a person relates to canon is a pretty personal issue. The most I (or anyone, I think) can do is look at the broad issues involved and decide their personal stance. There's a lot of room for personal opinion in what you're comfortable reading/writing, and what you're not.

Come back to this whenever you have the energy, or don't; it's not going anywhere. Thanks for reading it in any regard.

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I came here through satismagic and I have to admit that well-reasoned, carefully written posts like this are why I haven't given up on fandom completely (yet).

It may not mean much, but hats off to you. I know -I- have been enriched for having read the entirety of the post. My thanks. :)

You made me blush. This absolutely means a lot to me - thank you for reading, and for your kind words.

A very thoughtful essay. Thank you!

Thank you for reading. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

After the discussion at the SWG... this one made me cheer too. Still it saddens me to see AU being served off as badfic.

In your long post/essay, this caught my attention specifically:

It's not uncanonical if it breaks a fanon. "Study, to show thyself approved," to borrow a phrase. It's unreasonable to expect every author to work in those little fannish inventions that you think are so believable you can hardly imagine the books' events without them. If you're going to tell someone they're wrong or be disappointed, make sure you actually understand the canon yourself.

Very true, but except for the history of the Hobbit, I read it all, that still is no guarantee whatsoever that I remember everything or that after having done a topic/event or character study, I get the cann exactly down. Within the Tolkien canon (and even the archive of the professor has much more we haven't read yet), you simply can't know it all. Either a detail slips your mind...

I just love your definition of your breaking canon. That had me nodding with a smile :)

I've only been skimming that thread because I've been pretty busy. I didn't intend to bget pulled in. ;-) But after I saw Juno's post I started to comment, and then I just kept typing. The ironic thing is, if I hadn't been so worn out I probably would have given up - the whole thing was very zen. :-)

I get your point re: not remembering anything. I think this is where humility comes in. If you came to me about something in my story you thought was a canon mistake, I'd either provide my reasoning (using quotes as ammo), or ask you for your reasoning for why what I had was wrong (expecting quotes from you, where possible). And if I was wrong, I'd be willing to acknowledge it, fix it if I could or at least adding a note saying I'd realized the mistake belatedly. And I'd avoid the mistake in the future.

I'd hope other people would be as flexible - I think two reasonable people can work things out or at least see that canon's inconclusive, if they want to. If they're using the canon as an excuse to fight over something else (i.e. they don't like mpreg or slash or movieverse or whatever, and are trying to make the author feel bad, that's a different problem altogether).

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This whole idea is very strange to me -you know I've written AU like gangbusters, and I've never gotten any flak over it from Canon Extreme!Enthusiasts. Heck, the very first thing I submitted at HASA was AU, and even anonymous reviewers didn't say anything brutal (and you know how the anon reviews can sometimes be) It's never crossed my mind that AU would be a pejorative term.

Now there was one particular story that some people didn't like because they thought it was too AU, but they didn't jump all over ME about it -I just happened to stumble across their discussion. And to be fair, I completely understood what they meant by "too AU", because it was an extreme AU, it was meant to be.

But it was a perfectly civil discussion as well, no flaming of me in a place I didn't frequent - am I lucky or just oblivious? Because I don't think I've ever encountered the "OMG AU IS A DESECRATION OF ALL WE HOLD DEAR" attitude.

I've gotten the "OMG you desecrated characters and ruined LOTR!!!" comments. And general criticism (not flames) for writing AU. Never about my actual writing -- they always seem to start with "You're a good writer, but..." -- but just the fact that I deviated from canon and took the characters into directions Tolkien probably never would have considered. Which always makes me wonder why they bothered reading a clearly-labeled AU in the first place, but there you have it.

This is very true.

all fanfic is non-canonical...

I think when people realize that they might relax on the canon thing a little bit and let their hair down.

I have to look at this a little closer but you make some salient points.

Edited at 2008-03-08 01:59 am (UTC)

This essay will be here, if/when you get around to looking at it more closely. But I'm glad you thought I was salient so far. And yes, I absolutely agree on that all fanfic is non-canonical thing. I think it's important to relax a little, and also to realize that there may be valid reasons to read fic even if the authors don't keep canon perfectly.

Anyway.... thanks for reading.

I write mostly AUs, so I love this topic. :-D

I look at canon as "guidelines more than rules". I follow it when it fits the story and I deviate from it when it fits the story (though I still try to make everything make sense within the framework of Tolkien's world). That's the point of fanfic for me, to explore characters or things in the world, even if it means going off in weird directions. If I want strict canon, I'll read the original.

It's not uncanonical if it breaks a fanon.

Hehe. Yeah. I've gotten criticized for writing Diamond as "OOC", even though she only appears in canon as a name on a family tree. ;-)

I personally tend to write pretty canonical and enjoy the same, becauswe of why I came to fanfic (to find more Middle-earth-esque stories) and because I write shorter stuff which in my reading tends to be more canon-tied. But I think some people have some odd senses of entitlement when it comes to how other authors should only write things within canon. *tskes*

That was actually part of why I wrote this essay - to explore what canon compliance is a bit, and not just bash authors.

I'll have to read this again, definitely, but on a first readthrough I think I agree with most if not all of what you say.

Of course, I do like AUs, and the mere question 'what if?' is enough to make me veer off into wild nuzgul territory; most of the answers are not solid or interesting enough to build a story on, but even the speculation itself is fun.

And what makes an AU (within your premise that any fanfic is implicitly AU)? Does it make a story AU if I give Halbarad (to name an example) a wife and children? Not necessarily, since there is nothing in that addition that has to affect the story as it unwinds in the book. Does it make a story AU if I have Halbarad survive the Pelennor? Unfortunately, *sniffle*, yes. Is it AU if I slash Halbarad and Aragorn? My answer would be yes, others might argue about it.

Anyway, any plotbunnies that result from musing (heh) about this essay of yours will be firmly blamed on you;-)

I can live with "most, if not all," definitely - that's about the most I ever agree agree with an essay. I'm glad you agree with a lot of what I wrote.

I think your Halbarad examples are spot on. As for the slash one, I'd have to know the specifics (like pre-Cerin Amroth or post), and really read the story. I suspect a story like that could *maybe* feel at least somewhat canonical if the author did a good job to address the Arwen problem, but it would definitely be an uphill battle.

And my muses love to spread the misery. I'm happy to take any blame, honestly. >:-E

What a great essay, in particular your thoughtful definitions on the canonical, extracanonical and uncanonical.

So while some people may criticize you for being uncanonical, you could probably just as easily criticize them for not doing as well as you'd like in some other important aspect of their writing.

I'm reminded here of a Tamil (South Indian) proverb: "When you point your finger in accusation at another, your other fingers point back at you." (paraphrased obviously)

Now on to canon and AU...

I have to confess that your comment pertaining to recommending one of my pieces, e.g.,

"It actually is Tolkien fanfic despite the summary, and a very clever and canonical meditation on the relationship of technology and morality."

...made me smile when I read it. For one, I deliberately wrote the summary in a very succinct fashion with the idea that the combination of that, the title and the date ought to inform an interested reader - sort of like leaving clues - as to the content. I'm not so sure about "canonical" since my interpretation is less based on orthodox canon (LotR, The Hobbit) and rather on JRRT's letters and world views as expressed in those "pseudocanonical" works (The Silmarillion, HoMe). Still, my overarching commentary is expressed via a Tolkienian framework, but in a decidedly AU setting.

And yes, your treatise was definitely enriching! It's always a pleasure when you "take off" on these subjects. :^)

Edited at 2008-03-08 05:11 pm (UTC)

That proverb sounds familiar. We used to say in my house that when one finger points out, four fingers point back - to the point that my brother would sometimes point out with all of his fingers, not just the one. *g*

The point is, yes canon draws some readers because there's a reason they're reading fanfic verses original fiction; and yes there are practical considerations that if your readers expect a certain timeline and you diverge from it, that's a surprise and perhaps disappointment you have to get past; but no, that doesn't make your story less worthwhile.

The distinction between canonical and pseudocanonical is a whole other ball o' wax. I can't even hard and fast distinction between books, because I think there's a world of difference between a story draft, private comment, and unpublished essay.

Anyway, thanks for your comment - glad you enjoyed this essay.

This is a really interesting essay to read - I love your definitions of canonical and uncanonical and extra-canonical and AU, it all makes perfect sense.

*grins* Thanks, Nic - glad it made sense.

Late arrival here. It's been great reading such a thoughtful analysis and discussion of canonicity. Which I don't have much to add to, except I was struck by the initial premise of AU getting a bad rap. I never realized that. One of the very first stories I ever fell in love with was Plastic Chevy's "The Captain and the King", which is the classic Boromir Lives story. Another favorite is Dwim's LDID, which you've already mentioned. Stories like PC's and Dwim's, with a single point of departure from the canon timeline, don't conflict with canon at all, in my opinion. Many canon-loving readers find that kind of story intriguing not only for its entertainment value but because it sheds light on how and why Tolkien himself made the decisions he made. Why did he decide to kill Boromir? What would have happened if he hadn't? How would the story have ended up? Dwim's story is another great example. What if Gollum had died? Would the Quest have been doomed from the start? Fascinating stuff to think about. That kind of story is what I usually think of when I see the term "AU."

I realize the term AU has much broader applications, but personally I avoid using it as a catch-all for playing fast and loose with canon. You wanna play fast and loose, no problemo. Aragorn and Legolas get married, Tinkerbell comes along on the Quest, hey, whatever rocks your boat. I don't really think of that as an AU, though.

Excellent points about the difference between AU like you described it, and just playing fast and loose. I think the confusion of those two things is why AU gets a bad rap. Many AU authors (like the ones you mention, and others besides) know canon really, really well and have made a conscious choice to a fact or two and see how that would make things unfold differently.

I'll admit I don't read a lot of AU, but that's mainly because I prefer shorter stuff and AUs tend to be long. I certainly don't avoid a piece because it's labelled as AU, though if the premise is too far out there for me to accept it, I may not make the time for it. Willing suspension of disbelief only goes so far. :^) Still, I've found I've really enjoyed some AU stories, and don't think it needs to be a negative label.

This is a truly great post and I agree with you on the classification system, and especially on a good AU being like a very precise surgery (don't ask what takes up the most research and thinking for my A/B AUs...right, the "thinking through the ripples" part.)

But that is also what makes writing good AUs fun! :)

Interesting page..

Amazing page!, bro

Re: Interesting page..

I'm glad you liked it. Thanks for telling me so.

I'm a very late visitor from the link in Tanaqui's LOTR journal. This is well-written and excellently laid-out, particularly your different gradations of "canon". Most importantly, you led me to more firmly flesh out my own opinions about this topic, which were at best half-formed prior to reading your post.

they are intrigued by the events of the original canon; the characters or cultures connect with them; the themes of the authors seem relevant and worth exploring

Yes! Those three reasons are exactly why I love to read Tolkien fanfic, though I’d never really broken it down that way. Establishing this greatly helped me to understand why I tend to avoid AUs: I’ve never thought of them as all-bad, but of the three reasons, #2 is the one that speaks most strongly to me as a reader. I am very character-driven, and whether a story is a gapfiller or extra-canonical doesn’t really impact me – but I have to feel these are the characters I love. Not that they can't change or have many unexplored nuances, not that unusual circumstances can't have them react in unexpected ways, but I still have to feel a strong connection to the original Tolkien characterization, or you’ve lost me. As you said: If you also make it uncanonical (which usually means changing the cultures or characters, sometimes significantly and sometimes not so significantly), you run the risk of losing the second possible motivation as well. While I've found AUs that maintain characterization and I have really enjoyed, for a long while it seemed that most did not, and with limited reading time I reacted by generally avoiding them unless I already knew the author.

Like other commenters, I really appreciate the breakdown between all fanfic being non-canonical, extra-canonical and uncanonical: very precise and logical divisions. Your two points about what is NOT AU are also excellent, as is AU being a subgenre of uncanonical.

Loved this:
Really, a good AU is like a surgical incision. A story where the author breaks with canon out of carelessness or lack of knowledge feels more like being cut with a machete.

I also think that the "AU" label is overused, although I can understand why it would be employed over-defensively, if the anti-AU flames are as prevalent as some authors have noted.

Thanks for taking the time to write and post this. It definitely contains lots to mull over. In fact, at the end I was thinking that it would make a very good published essay. :)


Hi Denise,

I'm really glad you stopped by, and that you enjoyed the essay - in fact, the fact that it's belated just makes me enjoy it even more. *g*

I think the question of what is canonical is a very complicated, and a very personal, question. I mean, there are some facts that obviously contradict a certain canonical source, but different readers will have different thresholds of canonicity that they're comfortable with. If my framework helps readers think through what they expect from fanfic stories, then I've done my job. :-)

It's a shame that AU is something of a negative term, because I think it's a perfectly good descriptor of a story some readers might actually prefer to read, because a good AU requires real imagination to write. Plus, I'm all for giving readers information about a story so they can decide what to read, and adjust their expectations accordingly. I know that when I read an AU story, if I'm not surprised by the AU-ness I can enjoy it a lot more. And if some authors prefer to avoid that.... well, helping reviewers make the most of their reading time can only help everyone.

I think I will publish this as a stand-alone essay. Thanks for the suggestion.

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