By now many people outside the peculiar world of fandom know there exists something called fan fiction—that there are reams of reader-generated stories floating around the Internet based on characters from TV, movies, and books. Fanfic has been around for a long time, but it has attracted an unusual amount of media attention in the last three or four years. Several major papers, including The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and The Wall Street Journal, have devoted articles to the phenomenon—though no one seems sure whether to treat it as a literary genre or a quaintly amusing hobby.
Fanfic's stigma seems to be receding: Some fan writers have snagged lucrative contracts, either for original works or for books based on older literary classics not protected by copyright. At least one well-known mainstream author has "come out" as a fan writer: Meg Cabot (The Princess Diaries) has disclosed that as a college student she wrote stories based on Anne McCaffrey's fantasy novels. Still, fanfic remains a bastard child in the literary family, its very right to exist still in dispute in some quarters.
For the last six years, I have both read and written stories set in the Xena: Warrior Princess universe, and I have read fiction generated by other fandoms as well. This influences my reaction when people dismiss fanfic as akin to scribbling in a coloring book, as the fantasy writer Robin Hobb did in an anti-fanfic diatribe posted on her website in 2005.
Hobb's indictment made the standard charges against fan fiction, from intellectual theft to intellectual laziness. Deriding the idea of fanfic as good training for writers, Hobb wrote, "Fan fiction allows the writer to pretend to be creating a story, while using someone else's world, characters, and plot.…The first step to becoming a writer is to have your own idea. Not to take someone else's idea, put a dent in it, and claim it as your own."
There are, to be sure, fan stories that do little more than "fix" a particular scene to the fan's liking. Yet Hobb's sweeping generalization is wrong. Fan writers may borrow others' characters—though often adding new secondary characters, or fleshing out a character who makes only a brief walk-on in the "canon"—but they certainly create their own plots.
Take Solo for the Living by Tanya Golubchik (a 27-year-old Australian molecular biologist who writes as "Tango"), a work in progress that is currently a hit in the Phantom of the Opera community. A novel-length sequel to the 2004 film that unfolds against the backdrop of the Franco-Prussian War, Solo features an original and sophisticated story that develops the film's characters in an entirely new direction as well as a vividly depicted and carefully researched setting that rivals any published work of historical fiction. (Full disclosure: I am the novel's "beta reader," the fandom term for editor.)
Further rebutting the charge of slavish copying, many fan stories are set in alternate universes. In Ann Walsh's Harry Potter–based "Living with Danger" series, the boy wizard is raised not by his uncaring, narrow-minded "muggle" relatives but by a far friendlier adoptive family. Xena fandom has pioneered the "uber" genre in which the show's heroines are reborn under different names as cops, foreign aid workers, or other modern-day figures.
As many defenders of fanfic have pointed out, much classic literature would fail the kind of originality test Hobb wants to impose. Goethe's Faust retells a medieval legend previously adapted by Christopher Marlowe. In a recent Newsday story on fan fiction, Battlestar Galactica producer (and former Star Trek fanfic writer) Ron Moore conceded that "Shakespeare wouldn't like a lot of the incarnations of Romeo and Juliet"—an ironic comment considering that Romeo and Juliet was itself adapted from an earlier story.
Respectable modern-day literature has no shortage of derivative works: What are Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead or John Updike's Gertrude and Claudius but Hamlet fanfics? The Idaho librarian Pamela Morgen, whose three-part series based on Pride and Prejudice has been acquired by Simon & Schuster after a debut on a fanfic website, is widely cited as a fanfic author crossing over into "real" publishing. Yet no one slapped the "fanfic" label on Sally Beauman's Rebecca's Tale, a revisionist take on Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, when it was released by a major publisher in 2001.
The concerns that anti-fanfic hard-liners express about the appropriation of their characters are understandable. But Hobb's idea that readers may mistake Robin Hobb fan fiction for her own work borders on the paranoid, and some arguments advanced by fanfic's foes make little sense. Thus Hobb exempts from her scorn professionally written Star Trek novels licensed by the copyright owner—even though the license comes from the corporation, not the creators of the characters. (Corporate-licensed works are also hobbled by content restrictions that favor blandness.) The vehemently anti-fanfic writer Lee Goldberg, who blogs at leegoldberg.com, is the author of several authorized novels based on the TV shows Monk and Diagnosis Murder—a contradiction he defends on the grounds that he does it only for the money.
Despite such griping, fan fiction is clearly here to stay. Their work's legal status may be a bit precarious, but fan writers are generally left alone. J. K. Rowling's decision to welcome Harry Potter fanfic undoubtedly has helped boost the genre's legitimacy, and recently even some anti-fanfic writers have softened their stance. McCaffrey, who once threatened legal action against fanfic sites, now permits them with the same stipulations as Rowling: They must be noncommercial and nonpornographic.
So is the growth of Internet-based fan fiction a cultural development to be wholeheartedly applauded? Not quite. The good news about the Internet is that, in a world without gatekeepers, anyone can get published. The bad news, of course, is the same. Much fanfic is hosted on sites such as fanfiction.net, where authors can get their work online in minutes—which means that professional-quality stories coexist with barely literate fluff, and reader reviews will sometimes congratulate an author on good grammar and spelling. Even sites that prescreen fanfic and encourage authors to use beta readers and a spell checker tend to be quite lax with quality control, and only a few fan fiction archives are genuinely selective.
For the more sophisticated fanfic lovers, the high crap-to-quality ratio can mean a frustrating search for readable stories. The real problem, though, is that less experienced readers may develop seriously skewed standards of what constitutes a readable story. It is frankly disturbing to encounter teenagers and young adults whose recreational reading is limited to fanfic based on their favorite shows, and there have been moments when I have felt like telling some of my own readers to put down the fanfic and pick up a book. It is even more troubling, as far as educational experiences go, that a teenager can wantonly butcher the English language at fanfiction.net and get complimented on a "well-written story."
Golubchik thinks that such concerns are exaggerated. "If anything," she says, "I think that fanfic teaches kids to be more discerning. The quality stuff does tend to percolate to the top; it gets recommended and popularized." Indeed, while the worst of fan fiction can make a Harlequin romance look like Charlotte Bronte, the popular stories are at least no worse in quality—and sometimes far better—than, say, The Da Vinci Code.
The mainstreaming of fan fiction is likely to raise standards further, bringing more educated people into the arena and perhaps encouraging some voluntary gatekeeping, such as contests with input from professional writers or editors. This is already beginning to happen: FanLib, a "social media" company, has been co-sponsoring online writing contests with Showtime and HarperCollins.
Perhaps, as with other cultural products often dismissed as intellectual junk food, the answer to bad fanfic is simply better fanfic.