In middle and high school, when my friends and I weren’t studying or listening to angry music, we wrote fan fiction. We could fill whole notebooks in a matter of days from writing fan fiction stories with each other or trading “plotbunnies,” or story ideas. We wrote fictions about the Tolkien universe, the Harry Potter series, manga, and even real-life rock stars that we idolized, and posted them to the once incredibly popular fanfiction.net. In our minds, the characters we read about and people we looked up to took on their own lives and essentially become our own characters. But when we talked to our English teachers about the stories we were writing, they would say, “But why don’t you be really creative and write stories and characters of your own?”
There is no mistaking that fan fiction is often seen as the annoying little brother of true creativity. Fan fiction, by nature of using copyrighted or otherwise pre-existing characters and universes, lends itself and its writers to stigma as being somehow less than the authors who created the original. Hence, numerous fan fiction communities, like those on Tumblr, have grown on the internet in the past few years out of a desire on the part of writers to keep their identities clandestine and tuck this aspect of their lives and creativity away.
I will be frank — a lot of fan fiction is really bad. I don’t think I could say how many Sherlock/Watson erotic fics have made it onto my Tumblr Dashboard, or how many dozens of Teen Wolf slash fics — reading them really brings me no joy. A few months ago I dug up some fiction I wrote when I was fifteen, which was honestly wince-worthy. Of course, fan fiction does not aim to be high fiction most of the time, but actually, does the internet need another story devoted to Legolas or Thranduil’s flowing hair?
That said, the legitimacy of fan fiction has been thrust into the spotlight a great deal lately. There’s the undeniable example of Fifty Shades of Grey, which finds its origins as a repurposed erotic Twilight fan fiction. Recently, I read an article in Wired about independent publishing presses like Big Bang Press who seek out fan fiction writers whose work can be repurposed into original fiction, which may foreshadow the possibility of fan fiction eventually going mainstream.
However, I am not sure the primary question is whether we can eventually push fan fiction into the publishable mainstream. I think the internet has drastically subverted what it means to be the original “owner” or “creator” of a certain piece of art in the past couple decades. The ability to create and recreate what is put in front of us has been largely democratized, and in this age of technology we have to revisit what creativity really is.
Historically, a lot of great art and literature has been built on the repurposing of other pre-existing stories and histories. If you put aside the Fifty Shades of Greys of the world, you do not have to look far to find a classic author who has not somehow been inspired by another pre-existing work. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a recreation of a poem by Arthur Brooke called “The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet,” who in turn based his work of that of Matteo Bandello, who wrote a piece called “Novelle” about a pair of lovers from feuding families who eventually commit suicide to be together. Shakespeare also spent much of his career taking motifs and themes from his own plays and reweaving them into other plays — star-crossed lovers also feature prominently in The Tempest and Cymbeline.
And if you want to look further into the canon of English literature, John Milton’s magnum opus Paradise Lost is essentially fan fiction about Biblical events. Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea gives a backstory to the mad Mrs. Rochester in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is a fantastic reimagining of the English War of the Roses. And that is all just to name a few.
The reality of making things is that those things eventually take on their own lives. I think the concepts of copyright and mainstream publishing do not take into account that ideas are fluid, and cannot be held like material possessions. And with the rise of the Internet, as with the invention of the printing press, we are being forced to confront that fluidity and define the lines between copying and recreating. And eventually, copyright corporations and the publishing industry will have to accept that stories also belong to those who absorb and digest them, not just to their creators, or those with the appropriate “rights.”
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go write my Lord of the Rings/Doctor Who crossover fic. Because clearly, Gandalf is a Time Lord.