Imagine you one day receive a Facebook friend request from one of your fictional characters. Do you
- A) Decide to ease up on your wine consumption while writing?
- B) Consider getting a few more hours of sleep per night?
- C) Do some internet sleuthing and then call your agent and publisher?
My friend, to whom this happened, chose B and C. She found Facebook profiles for many of her bestselling series’ characters, freaked out and then called her publishing people. They told her they would monitor on her characters’ online activities, but recommended she do nothing as long as nobody was trying to gain financially on her creations.
Diana Gabaldon probably wishes she’d also received that advice. The author of the bestselling Outlander series, now also a TV series, blogged in 2010 about how she found fanfiction immoral and illegal. She was immediately bombarded by angry fanfiction writers and readers. She at first responded to the criticism by posting several more blogs and responding to comments. Eventually the dialogue broke down, as it often does on the internet and the author condensed her thoughts into a fanfiction policy where she said she was flattered but ultimately uncomfortable with fanfiction and requested that nobody writes it, send it to her, or publish it. But it was too late: the anger fall-out lasted for years.
Ms. Gabaldon is not the only author who strongly opposes fanfiction, others include Anne Rice, Ursula Le Guin, and George RR Martin who has famously said “No one gets to abuse the people of Westeros but me.” Now that the HBO series writers are veering off from the books’ storylines, there are other abusers. And the thing is that although authors can protest against fanfiction, they can stop people from writing stories involving their characters or their worlds. This has led some authors like Jim Butcher and Mercedes Lackey to change their original strong stand against fanfiction and instead ask their fans to follow the guidelines for derivative, noncommercial fiction under the Creative Commons umbrella.
Author Charlie Stross expressed the importance of the word “noncommercial” when he in his fanfiction policy included:
“I am not a precious sparkly unicorn who is obsessed with the purity of his characters — rather, I am a glittery and avaricious dragon who is jealous of his steaming pile of gold. If you do not steal the dragon’s gold, the dragon will leave you alone.”
JK Rowling seem to feel the same way. Her Harry Potter books have inspired more fanfiction than perhaps any other fictional world. The author embraces these super-fan writers as long as their stories are aimed at young children. (In 2002, she politely asked a writer of X-rated fanfiction to please remove the story since he couldn’t adequately block minors from accessing it.) But in 2008, Ms. Rowling sued the creator of a Harry Potter reference website when he signed a publishing deal for a book version of the lexicon. A federal judge ruled in her favor, stating that the reference book copied too much original content from the books.
Authors are often inspired by other author’s work. Some famous examples include: Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, which is a retelling of King Lear and the winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize. And Nobel Laureate J.M Coetzee’s novel Foe, which is woven around the plot of Robison Crusoe to explore issues of power and colonialism. According to a 2012 Guardian article, fanfiction has been around for as long as legal authorship. In other words, since the 18th century. Jane Austen based Wickham in Pride and Prejudice on “The Rake” from the lore tradition. Ms. Austen’s own published fanfiction first appeared in 1913: Sybil Brinton’s Old Friends and New Fancies — an Imaginary Sequel to the Novels of Jane Austen. Since then, Austen’s fanfiction canon has grown substantially. The Jane Austen Fanfiction Index keeps track of over two hundred thousand works and the Goodreads site lists 242 books derived from Austen’s stories.
From the 1930s to 50s, most fanfiction writers wrote in the science fiction genre. Isaac Asimov belonged to a fan club called the Futarians. Its members were obsessed with communism and later fascism, as well as science fiction. Many of them went on to become authors and editors, shaping the science fiction genre. From then on, like so many other pop culture phenomena, TV is to blame for the global spread of fanfiction. One of the most famous fanfiction novels based on a TV show is Jennifer Guttridge’s 1968 story The Ring of Soshern. In the novel, Star Trek’s Kirk and Spock find themselves on a deserted planet. Spock goes into “pon farr,” the Vulcan mating heat, and Kirk sacrifices his body to save Spock’s life.
Much of fanfiction is a sexual in nature, whether the original story is or not, which of course brings us to the most popular fanfiction novel of all times: Fifty Shades of Grey. Author EL James based her story on Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, but changed the characters names, moved them from Forks, WA to Seattle, WA, and added a whole bunch of brown-chicken-brown-cow. In 2012, Meyer was asked about James’ novel and replied “I haven’t read it. I mean, that’s really not my genre, not my thing… Good on her—she’s doing well. That’s great!”
In an interesting twist of fanfiction written about fanfiction, EL James may have been beat to the market by her own fanfiction writers. On June 18 she released Grey, a retelling of the original book, but this time from Christian Grey’s point of view. In the dedication she writes, “This book is dedicated to those readers who asked … and asked … and asked … and asked for this.” And the fans had been asking, but had also found the story told in Grey’s words almost as soon as they closed the cover of the original books. Fanfiction writers were posting them online. According to a New York Times article, one of the blogs has been viewed more than fourteen million times with readers in 187 countries. Its owner has posted the equivalent of five novels, around 3,500 pages. And some fans say they prefer her writing to El James’s.
Since that initial contact from her character, my friend has received messages from other characters and from imaginary (hopefully) people who insist they too live in the world she created and want to know when she’ll write their story. She politely answers that she is flattered, but won’t commit to any particular storylines because she doesn’t want to limit her creativity.
I understand these super-fans of my friend’s work. She’s an awesome writer, and who hasn’t been so enamored with a story that we wish we could spend more time with the characters and in their world after we finish reading? After all, that’s why sequels and series are so popular. As a reader I often close a book with a sense of loss, but perk up when I find more books in the series. And when I write, I sometimes become so engrossed in my story that I talk to the characters in order to work out a tricky plot twist. So far, they haven’t answered. If they do, I’ll chose “D) None of the above” and definitely increase my wine consumption.