Fan fiction did not begin with Harry Potter or the internet. According to Lev Grossman’s article, “The Boy Who Lived Forever,” in the July 18, issue of Time, xeroxed fanzines appeared after the premier of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” in 1964, and really took off with “Star Trek.”
In the broader sense, telling original stories with borrowed settings and characters is nothing new at all. Homer did not create the Trojan War, Achilles, or Odysseus. Shakespeare did not make up either King Lear or Henry V. But with the internet and Harry Potter, fan fiction has exploded. There are more than 2 million pieces on fanfiction.net and more than a quarter of these are based on Potter – everything from short stories to full length novels.
Grossman explodes most of the stereotypes of those who write and read these tales. One 38 year old writer and actress says it’s like character improvisation. A best selling fantasy writer whose novels have been optioned by Peter Jackson says, “Fanfic writing isn’t work, it’s joyful play.” This raises the key question of why writer’s of fiction write. Joyful play, a platform, and an appreciative audience are there – and it’s not like many creators of “original” stories get to leave their day-jobs.
Well known authors fall on both sides of the unanswered copyright issue. J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer encourage new fiction based on their characters and worlds. Orson Scott Card, Anne Rice, and George R.R. Marin, author of A Game of Thrones do not, and threaten lawsuits. It may or may not be coincidence that the authors Lev Grossman names as supporting fanfic are more recent and write for a younger audience than those who are in opposition and write for adults. So far, all cease and desist requests have been honored, so there are no legal precedents in the world of fiction, though court cases involving music have been liberal in their interpretation of what constitutes “fair use.”
This begs the interesting question of who a character or world belongs to. Groosman says that until recently:
Writers weren’t the originators of the stories they told; they were just the temporary curators of them. Real creation was something the gods did…Today the way we think of creativity is dominated by Romantic notions of individual genius and originality and late-capitalist concepts of intellectual property, under which artists are businesspeople whose creations are commodities they have for sale.
Personally, I have always loved the poet’s invocation at the start of The Odyssey: Sing in me, muse, and through me tell the story…
In my experience, the “I” does not invent worlds or characters. Whether you call it the muse, the gods, or the collective unconscious, fictional worlds and imaginal people come from somewhere else. With a bit of luck and humility, the “I” may get to witness what happens, and may even get adept at finding new rabbit holes. To me, the idea of “owning” a “product” of imagination smacks of hubris.
There is no real data on whether fanfic hurts an author economically. Intuitively, I can only imagine it benefits Rowling and Meyer. I hope so. Creativity is creativity, regardless of what spark ignites it. I’m thinking of dropping by some of the sites to see what these authors are up to. For those who write for the joy of it, I wish them a lot more.