Fan fiction: it often inspires derision of the most scathing kind or admiration for its democratic principles.
On this wet, dreary day, it inspired dedication from a group of festival-goers who streamed into the Philharmonia Studio for the Fan Fiction panel, featuring Amanda Hayward of The Writer’s Coffee Shop, novelist Lauren Beukes, and our very own Joseph Brennan and David Large.
One glance around the room revealed a mostly female audience. As the room began to fill up, a woman secured one of the last seats near us. “What are we in?” she asked. She had noticed the line outside. Her curiosity seemed to reflect the general sentiment surrounding fan fiction these days – its recent explosion has piqued the interest of aspiring writers and the wider reading population alike.
So how much did E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, which has enjoyed wild success upon publication, have to do with the rise of fan fiction? “Everyone has left the canon,” Hayward said of the publishing phenomenon. Her independent publishing company, The Writers’ Coffee Shop, originally published James’ first instalment as an e-book before it was acquired by publishing giant Random House.
Hayward spoke of the twelve-month effort it took to convince James to publish her salacious story, which had evolved from the writer’s own fan fiction for the Twilight series. She discussed the stress of the legal work that went on behind the scenes, and when Random House eventually bought the rights to the series, Hayward recalled “We were literally not sleeping.”
For Lauren Beukes, fan fiction is a way to discover unique voices and new insights into the worlds created by writers. As an established author herself, she appreciates the diversity of fan fiction and is excited by the idea of readers engaging with her work in new ways. For some, she said, it is a launch pad from which to grow. “All writers start out writing fan fiction… it is how you discover your voice.”
But fan fiction isn’t just about the writing – it is also, at its core, about the community that drives and nurtures it. Brennan, who is currently completing a PhD on slash fiction in the Department of Media and Communications at the University of Sydney, said that fans are part of “the building of the archive”.
Large, whose research focuses on intertextuality and allusion in twentieth-century fiction, agreed, calling it a “democratic space for people to write”. For fans, readers and viewers, he said, it is a chance to expand the canon and fill in the gaps. Fan fiction offers new representations of sexuality, race and gender not seen in canonical works.
But where do you draw the line between fan fiction and plagiarism?
“Fan fiction and plagiarism are strange bedfellows,” Large mused. The legal and ethical issues of the practice complicate the already ambiguous distinction between fan fiction and ‘literature’.
But then, some would argue that fan fiction has always existed. As one audience member aptly put it, “We’re all riffing off each other.”