A few years ago one of my relatives sent me a story she’d written. I was the family’s published author. What did I think?
‘Good story,’ I said. But I had to explain that it would have been better if the characters had names that weren’t Harry, Hermione and Ron. And better again if it had been set somewhere other than a wizards’ school in a magic castle. ‘You need to make up your own characters and settings,’ I explained. Which she then did – the next story was completely original, and also very good.
The thing is, even the Harry Potter pastiche was a good story. Fan fiction is often part of the learning curve for starting writers. But it must always remain that. Apart from obvious points about copyright and plagiarism, authors who simply use the characters and settings of the latest best-selling book or sci fi TV have, to my mind, failed at Step 1 of the creative process. Even if the plot is otherwise original, even if the writing is competent, and even if the work otherwise meets every test that usually defines ‘good’ in a literary sense.
What drives people to write fan fiction? It seems to me the issue isn’t lack of imagination; it’s the intersection between the emotional response of a fan to the work they like and their imagination. Fan fiction is an attempt to extend and explore the sense of satisfaction, reward – and, quite often, sense of completeness – that the book, show or movie inspired.
That explains a lot of the ‘Mary Sue’ plots – you know, the ones where a character proxies the author in a succession of wish-fulfilment fantasies with TV characters of the author’s choice. It seems to me that some of this stuff amounts to therapy for the writer involved. Or escape. But that doesn’t translate into good reading for an audience.
Some fan fiction does work well – however, that doesn’t get away from the fact that it’s using somebody else’s original creativity. Some authors allow it. Others don’t like it. Don’t forget - strictly speaking, fan fiction is plagiarism. And even in a novel where the plot, setting and names are changed to create a new work, it seems to me there’s always going to be that niggly thing about where the original came from.
So what about that other genre - new stories about Sherlock Holmes and other old literary heroes? Should we call it fan fiction? Strictly, maybe. But these don’t pivot off the latest pop trend, or rip off the imagination of a living author, or act as a device for the author to act out their wish fantasies. These books are inevitably by an established author giving an original spin to one of the stories that have become integral to our culture. They always have that Step 1 creativity point – the author’s own original input on the concept.
Tom Stoppard showed us how that is done with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which could be called Shakespearean fan fiction, except Stoppard simply used the bard’s master-work as background to a play of his own, with his own thoughts and ideas. And as for sensitive new age vampires? Back in the early 1970s Fred Saberhagen took Bram Stoker’s 1897 thrller Dracula and turned it upside down. Sheer genius, and very funny. The book was called The Dracula Tape. Read it and giggle. At the same time, Anne Rice was working on Interview with A Vampire. Everything else of that genre has followed in their footsteps.
What’s your take on all this?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012