Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Fan Fair? - Cathy Butler


If the citations in the Oxford English Dictionary are any guide, fan fiction is a relatively new phenomenon: the earliest use of the term dates only from 1944.

You know what I mean by “fan fiction”, right? I’m referring to stories featuring existing fictional worlds and characters, but written by someone other than the original author. The Internet is awash with Harry Potter fan fiction, Doctor Who fan fiction, Twilight fan fiction, Star Trek fan fiction, and so on. As that list suggests, it’s a practice that flourishes particularly in the genres of science fiction and fantasy, but it’s by no means confined to them. Just think of the people who’ve written books about Jane Austen’s characters (P. D. James is the latest, in Death Comes to Pemberley), or new adventures for James Bond (Kingsley Amis and Sebastian Faulks, amongst others). Indeed, there are whole genres that have no original. Every writer of Arthurian stories, from Geoffrey of Monmouth and Sir Thomas Malory right up to Katherine Roberts (whose Sword of Light, about Arthur’s daughter Rhianna, was published at the beginning of this month) is a fan fiction author of a kind.

However, the term “fan fiction” is usually applied to the work of amateurs. That word need not imply any lack of quality, by the way: I use it here in its older sense, of a person who does something for love rather than money. (That’s the only concession to St Valentine in this post, by the way, so make the most of it.) Fan fiction writers are people who love a world or a character so much that they want there to be more of it, and if the author is inconveniently dead or has perversely lost interest, why then, they will do it themselves! What began with mimeographed fanzines in the 1960s has proliferated into a huge and dynamic literary culture, largely because the World Wide Web has allowed fans to publish widely and read voraciously. Not that the professional/amateur distinction is quite as impermeable as it used to be. Some writers have a foot in each camp. The publishers of the Doctor Who novels are said to have talent-spotted at least one of their regular authors from amongst the ranks of Who fan fiction writers; while the YA author Cassandra Clare cut her teeth writing Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter fan fiction.

I don’t have a dog in this fight. I’ve never been tempted to write fan fiction myself, and I’m not famous enough to have had it written about my books – but I wonder how I’d feel if it had been? I know one fairly eminent fantasy writer who’s dead set against fan fiction treatments of her world. She sees other people using her material as a kind of theft. Worse, it sullies that world, confusing readers between canonical and heterodox stories.

On the other hand, there are published writers who feel fine about fan fiction – or even enthusiastic. Imagining new stories is a legitimate form of readerly pleasure, they argue; and once the book has been bought by a fan, it’s theirs to do with as they will. And, of course, it’s flattering to think that people like your imagination enough to want to spend more time there.

So, what about you? Are there any fan fiction writers or readers here on ABBA? Or authors whose books have been ficced? How do you feel about it?

11 comments:

Katherine Langrish said...

I suppose I was a fan fiction writer myself at the age of ten, when I wrote 'Tales of Narnia' in an old blue notebook which I still have, so you could say the process of fan fiction was a catalyst for me. I had a shot at an Alan Garner style book as well, a few years later. I didn't inflict them on the public, though - only on my mother. I think it's harmless enough and for a writer can be a practice like art students copying Old Masters (id they still do?) - you learn something, if only that writing well is harder than it looks!

Elen C said...

I'm with Kath - as a child, I wrote the further adventures of Darrell from off of Malory Towers. I hated that she grew up and left school, so I made her my puppet and kept her in the third year for years. Poor girl.
I think it's a compliment - a reader just hasn't had enough yet and the author can't write fast enough (or is too dead) to meet the demand.

Yvonne Coppard said...

I was at an event where PD James was launching 'Death Comes to Pemberley'. She said how much she detested the thought that someone might use her work in this way or even finish her novel if she couldn't. Her PA apparently has instructions to destroy anything unfinished when she dies. She did have the grace to admit that this was an appalling cheek, given what she's done to Jane Austen, but even so...

Nicky said...

I found one story on the net about my characters Dan and Ursula - it was lovely and I felt enormously flattered that the characters were real to somebody beside me. Once a book is finished it is over and any life it has is always in other people's imagination.

Penny Dolan said...

When does "writing under the influence" become fan fiction? Do you mean it has to be a conscious choice not just the echoes in your head of another writer's phrasing or setting or attitude?

I came across an old US Creative Writing textbook, poss from 60/70's, called "Read To Write" by Donald M. Murray. It's definitely based on writing models. Wonder if this approach was the origin of "fan fiction" as a named genre?

Rather than privately & personally driven "writing because one wants more of a loved story" that Kath and Elen describe. One model taught, one model inspired?

Penny Dolan said...

fyi, via google, Murray's book was published in 1993, and he's Professor Murray, University of New Hampshire.

Catherine Butler said...

Yvonne - That's interesting about P. D. James. I think finishing unfinished books is a rather specialized form of fan-fiction, but I'm rather surprised she was so against it. Perhaps she disapproved of what Jill Paton Walsh did with Dorothy L. Sayers?

Penny - I don't think writing under the influence is enough to make someone a fan fiction writer, or every writer who ever picked up a pen would be one! To my mind, at least, it requires the use of pre-existing characters and/or a fictional 'world' (e.g. Middle-earth).

Catherine Butler said...

I don't know Murray's book - but I shall certainly check it out!

Carole Anne Carr said...

My fans are children, so no problems there :0)

Nicole MacDonald said...

I quite enjoy reading some fan fiction and as long as the authors aren't trying to make money off someone elses creations, I'm not bothered by it. Really it's just another form of creative writing.

shackleton said...

great