Fan Fiction: The Work of Literature in the Age of Digital Reproduction

Fan fic: not for kids anymore, if it ever were.

Fan fic: not for kids anymore, if it ever were.

Even those people who do not write or read fan fiction increasingly feel its presence, especially as Internet 2.0 makes cultural consumption more interactive and less dependent on start-up capital. I sketch a few notions here about how fan fic will increasingly become a model for mainstream publishing and literature.

• Fan fiction is like Jacksonian democracy: it puts (free) work directly in front of the masses via the Internet for their appraisal. Some work sticks, some doesn’t. Publishers and literary agents can eschew untested authors and instead see what cheap/free new work gains notice and then pick up popular stories for publication and promotion (e.g., Fifty Shades of Grey). Genre authors, especially, seem to be enjoying new clout. Then again, Virginia Woolf and friends basically self-published. We can all be our own snake oil merchants.

• Fan fiction operates with “community,” not “audience.” Community implies a much more stable, coherent, and interactive (if closed) entity than audience. That change has implications for authors. Some authors self-publish before they can sign a traditional deal, some self-publish after their fame has created a market that no longer requires a traditional publisher. Some authors hybridize. Yet increasingly, authors are in charge of peddling their own work. The cheapest way to do this is the Internet. The easiest reader to recruit for new work is the reader who enjoyed your last piece ten minutes ago and just has to click another link on Amazon. To keep up with the community and keep costs low, authors have to produce new work at a faster pace. Everyone gets less editorial support. Trilogies—or longer—become the norm as momentum and a familiar brand become paramount. Printing is cheap enough that we no longer have to serialize by chapter; we can do it by book.

• Meanwhile, fan fiction doesn’t just organize communities of readers; it produces new work based on reading. Authors can also expand into their own worlds with spin-offs, backstories, encyclopedias, etc. (e.g., Pottermore). I once interviewed a construction CEO who said, “We can make more money by selling more buildings, or by owning more of every building we well.” When authors use their own characters and worlds in side projects, they own more of their own buildings. They, in some sense, cut into or co-opt their own fan fiction production. Like the need for momentum and a brand, this co-option gives us trilogies but also the short story based on the cut scene, the novella based on the minor character, etc. Maybe this is Yoknapatawpha County on a grander scale, perhaps with more consistent characters cast in more multifarious genres.

• With fan fiction, nothing disappears or is left unexplored. Hence, alternate realities rather than the one we inhabit tend to become more popular for communities, as these worlds permit more manipulation and exploration while retaining a stable anchor for the community’s interests. Besides, I suspect it’s politically and socially less risky to argue about vampires or the world 20 years hence or in a different galaxy than it is to argue about what Danzig/Gdansk meant to Grass in his trilogy or what Mississippi meant to Faulkner. However, the alienation effect does not operate much despite unreal or undead aspects. “Relatability,” the fellow traveler of YOLO, seems a dominant litmus test for the reader.

So much for the sketch. Maybe I’ll go look for some crayons.