My daughter reads a lot, and I mean a lot, of ‘fan fiction’. That it doesn’t always sit well with her idea of the characters’ (boy band members mostly, but there are other themes) personality and ‘story arc’ is obvious from the expostulations that emerge from her as she slams her phone or ipod down in disgust at the latest bizarre twist. Mainly I suspect when some manchild she likes swoops another female (usually the ‘author’) into his stringy arms.
I can’t be too snotty. I used to write ‘fan fiction’ myself once upon a time. It was a very long time ago and I didn’t call it ‘fan fiction’, the term not yet having been coined. I also didn’t inflict it upon the general public, although had the internet been around in 1965 no doubt I would have tried. As it was, there were about 100 computers in the world, mostly owned by governments and taken up with plotting the destruction of someone or other with thermonuclear blast. Even if a ten year old from the North of England had persuaded them to use a bit of spare capacity to store his latest Man From UNCLE masterpiece on one of them no-one had any means of reading it online. There was no online. A blessing to us all no doubt.
As it was, Mr Worthington had to put up with my weekly instalments from the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement’s annals. He was my junior school teacher and he was almost the sole beneficiary of my efforts to relate the work of Ilya Kuryakin, Napoleon Solo, Guy Farrish and whichever of my friends was sufficiently in favour to accompany us into the realms of fighting international crime.
He, Mr W that is, put up with this for a remarkable length of time until one week the composition (which is what ‘creative’ writing was called at Christ Church) returned with its mark (very good still) and a note, in red pen, never a good sign. ‘Very entertaining but can we have another topic next time.’ No please.
I think I essayed one more such story after a brief change of tack for a couple of weeks but the lack of further such stories suggests that the request turned into an order, in very short order indeed.
I sympathise with his reaction now. Fan fiction is written for the writer not the reader. Maybe all fiction ultimately is written for the writer not the reader but the subterfuge is not even wafer thin in the case of fan fiction. It’s all about ‘me’. How ‘I’ want the story to go. And if the author or the boy band puppet master hasn’t got it right for my selfish needs I’ll jolly well write it myself. The trouble is how many times are my selfish plot twists going to satisfy a wider audience? Not many if my daughter’s harrumphing and Mr Worthington’s red pen are anything to go by. And they are. Some ‘fan fiction’ is just about readable but the vast majority is like 99% of juvenile (all?) poetry, best left in a sealed box in the author’s bedroom. Of course that was where most of it stayed, as a weird dead end in most people’s cases, or an early practise for those who became authors ‘proper’. No comment about my own efforts.
Now anything and everything has a platform for dissemination of course and this democratisation of publishing, of ‘getting it out there’, is hailed as a renaissance of the creative soul. It isn’t. I am sure there are pearls of genius out there. But how do you find them amongst the millions and millions of words seemingly strung randomly together? You don’t. It’s not just ‘fan fiction’ of course. The irony is that this drivel is contributing to the morass of stuff people have to sift through to find what they want in this democracy of the mediocre. Is this mediocre? Very probably. I’d be happy to read it in a literary magazine or the Guardian but then I would wouldn’t I? Would anyone else? Well we’ll probably never know.
The world is so swamped with people who ‘have a book in them’ (they don’t – honestly) that publishers have run from even trying to find good stuff in the tidal wave of material washing over them. Why spend hours, months, years wading through ‘stuff’ that may be the next Ulysses or da Vinci Code (we’re talking money here not necessarily literary merit) when you can hook a ‘celeb’ name on some old tat and make enough money at Christmas in Tesco’s to keep the hedge fund managers at bay for another year? I don’t blame them. At one end they are beset by digital publishing undercutting them, supermarket discounts slashing margins and big companies who bought them up in better times looking for a profit or the exit. At the other they have millions of people trying to peddle ‘the book wot I wrote’ to them because their mother ran off with a one legged matador who beat them whilst singing Bee Gees hits incessantly at them all night long (actually that would probably sell quite well).
So everyone is a writer now. Maybe the boot should really be on the other foot. After all if readers are the commodity everyone is seeking, perhaps all we writers should be paying publishers to produce books and they should be paying the few readers out there to read the books. It sometimes feels as if we are almost there already.