The truth about fan fiction

Fan fiction and the Internet have revolutionized literature.

Brian Reinken

I say fan fiction, you say — what? Not long ago, there was a powerful stigma that surrounded fan fiction. Its writers were stereotyped as bizarre and introverted, and its products were considered to be, well, pornographic. But there’s far more to fan fiction than meets the eye, and popular opinion may finally be changing.

From quizilla to fanpop, there are dozens of fan fiction websites. The largest and most recognizable, fanfiction.net, ranks as the 562nd most popular website in America. Relative to the population of other sites, an extremely high number of fanfiction.net users are women. A disproportionately high number of users are undergraduate students or lack a college education, reflecting the youth of the site’s audience.

So what’s the big deal? First of all, a huge number of stories have been written about every conceivable topic. That these stories’ concepts aren’t wholly original shouldn’t be a cause for concern. Some of the greatest authors in history — Virgil, Dante and Shakespeare, to name a few — have drawn inspiration from previously written stories. Fan fiction is just a way of keeping that tradition alive.

More importantly, the way we think about literature is being completely overhauled. Fan fiction is a perfectly competitive industry into which anyone, regardless of age, sex, or economic status, can enter and in which anyone can prosper. The Internet makes it possible to instantly share stories with anyone who’s online. Publishers and contracts can be eschewed, leveling the playing field. And of course, the stories written online have the potential to survive beyond their owners.

Ours, then, will be the first generation in history to have a durable literature written by the common individual. Until extremely recently, authors were predominantly rich, educated males with leisure time to write and enough money to be published. Books and written texts, expensive and rare until modern times, were transmitted and preserved only if they contained messages that would somehow benefit the status quo — the others were either forgotten or actively destroyed. This, combined with such narrow authorial qualifications, has stymied creative flow for centuries.

Fan fiction, for better or worse, will one day be studied alongside Homer and Dickens. The rise of cultural studies classes suggests a change in academic focus, but this is only the beginning. Historians will be able to look back on our time and see the interests of everyone, not just a select minority.

There are a few downsides to the proliferation of fan fiction, of course. The sheer quantity of stories online makes it difficult for any single text to stand out. Also, many of the texts are pornographic, which, when taken in conjunction with the availability of our writings to future historians, should make us all a little bit uncomfortable.

Nevertheless, a few detriments should not outweigh the truly revolutionary nature of fan fiction, which is rewriting — pardon the pun — the books on literature. With such abrupt and significant changes, it’s difficult to predict how the field will look in 10, or even five, years.

Make no mistake: Fan fiction is becoming mainstream, and it isn’t going away any time soon. E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades” series was originally written as a fan fiction inspired by Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” franchise. When published as independent novels, the books shot to the top of best-seller lists in both the United States and the United Kingdom, where they stayed for months.

So what comes next? A film version of “Fifty Shades of Grey” is in pre-production, and fanfiction.net is home to literally millions of original titles. Thanks to movies like “The Dark Knight” and “The Avengers,” what was formerly considered to be the realm of the geek has been opened to everyone. Film, television and literature are beginning to blend, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between “high” and “low” art.

Societal trends have a startling inertia. When something begins to pick up speed, it can be difficult to make it stop. Fan fiction might not be a perfect art, but nothing ever has. For the moment, we should embrace and celebrate its accessibility and its potential. November is National Novel Writing Month. What better time to grab a pencil — or a laptop — and get to work on what just might become the next best thing?