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Column What is Fan Fiction – and why is it making people nervous?

It has become an internet sensation over the last decade, but not all is as it seems in the world of Fan Fiction, writes Stephen Downes.

WHAT IS FAN FICTION? And why is it making traditional publishers and writers very nervous?

Fan Fiction or FanFic can be defined in many different ways. There is no single agreed genre, so to add to the melee here is my own definition: FanFic is any work which embellishes, alters or rewrites the work of another (usually a published author) with new storylines, characters, alternative endings, beginnings and substitute sets of morals, ideals or sexual politics.

FanFic has become an internet sensation over the last decade, replacing or augmenting the Gamer subcultures that had grown-up around such titles as Dungeons & Dragons, WarHammer and Magic: The Gathering. FanFic numbers are staggering; the posts on dedicated websites for FanFic in general or Fan Fiction of a particular series of books, films or games, number in their millions. And it is not exclusive to the English-speaking world; Harry Porter Fan Fiction can be found in Hindi, Russian, Japanese and even in the made-up language of Harry Potter’s world, Parseltongue.

Neither is it unique to J K Rowling’s teenage wizard school – Star Wars, the most multigenerational franchise, is by far the most popular FanFic topic to-date, Star Trek, Twilight, Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons also feature highly on the list of most popular topics, with posts and readers numbering in their millions.

Even gender-split

FanFic is split evenly between the genders, with just as many girls as boys engaging in writing (unlike the Gamer subculture which was dominated by boys), although popular topics are largely split between sci-fi-fantasy (boys) and erotic-paranormal-fantasy (girls).

More obscure and unlikely candidates for Fan Fiction can also be found. To name but a few here: the films of Disney, Manga Cartoons (from Japan), comic book heroes (from modern pseudo-heroes such as Preacher to classic heroes like Superman), the works of Jane Austen, Sonic the Hedgehog, Doctor Who, Bollywood Heroes (India), countless novels of Erotic Paranormal Fiction, and even characters from the Bible.

Those of us of a certain generation will remember loving Star Wars and if you loved Star Wars you might read some of the many official spin-off novels, you might collect the toy models, trading cards and comic books. As a fan you might even play the Star Wars D&D-like game, in which you assume the role of one of the lead characters for a few hours of gameplay. Haven’t we all done it at some stage as a child – assumed a character from our favourite show, film or book? But how many of us have brought that playground fantasy world into our adult lives? One million hits a week from adults on FanFic’s most popular websites suggest many of us have done so.

Now, with the inexorable rise of internet forums and unbridled mass ePublications, fans of blockbuster franchises don’t just pay homage to the story and the characters in their gameplay, they continue writing the story. They create prequels, sequels and parallel universes where they can be the hero alongside Harry, Luke and the hot teen vampire kid (insert name from any vampire book written in the last 15 years here).

FanFic has become more than gameplay for adults, it has become a serious financial and creative engine driving the movie, literature and television business rather than being driven by it.

What’s the problem?

So what’s wrong with all of this, I hear you say (in whatever parallel universe I have the power to do that)? Books such as Twilight and Harry Porter have created an entire generation of readers, and, as you can see from the scale of FanFic publication and internet activity described above, an entire generation of writers on a completely new and developing format.

But I would urge caution before we sweep aside this fad into the same pigeonhole as D&D games and Star Trek conventions; not all is as it seems in the world of Fan Fiction.

I see two bigger issues with FanFic which give me cause for concern. The first is the separation of young people from their own lives into the virtual lives of FanFic. One 13-year-old FanFic author I spoke to, in person, described himself as alienated at school; he was ignoring school work, shunning friends and all to produce vast amounts of FanFic for a particular site.

The wordage produced by some young FanFic authors/contributors is staggering. To give you some idea, an average published novel is 95,000 words, a saga novel can be twice or three times that and can represent three years’ work for a professional author. It is not uncommon for dedicated FanFic writers to produce 300,000 words of FanFic a year. Truly, 300,000 words is a monumental amount of time and effort, and sadly most of it is wasted as the vast majority of FanFic authors will not go on to write in any professional sense.

Additionally, the cost to their private lives, their social development and their social interaction skills outside of internet forums can only be detrimental, not to mention the diversion from study, which could have a huge effect on their college and career prospects.

My second concern also involves younger writers, who of course make up the majority of FanFic users; the sexualisation of fictional works written originally for children is currently one of the most popular genres of FanFic.

Explicit heterosexual, homosexual and violent sexual versions of books such as Harry Potter, Alice Through the Looking Glass, films like Star Wars and The Hobbit, as well as TV shows from sitcoms to Star Trek are all being shared in the fantasy world of FanFic. There are no controls as to who can read this material and also no controls as to who can write it; children are learning age-inappropriate terminology from reading each other’s work and the work of older, largely anonymous, authors.

Positives outweigh negatives – for now

Unlike the pornographic sites on the internet, FanFic sites are regarded as ‘literature’ and parents either cannot block them or are unaware of the sub-thread genres they may contain (not all FanFic sites contain explicit material, and some have recently banned erotic work, but they are a minority).

FanFic is a complex web of millions of contributors, readers and critics and I believe its positives only just outweigh its negatives at this moment in time, but that will not stay the case. As FanFic becomes more and more influential on the mainstream, legal and moral battles may mar it beyond its original form. FanFic’s impact on young people, in particular, is slowly rotating from the positive to the negative, as young readers stop reading, watching and learning from mainstream mediums and begin to solely enjoy and mimic FanFic.

It’s a strange notion, don’t you think, that teenage authors are now writing FanFic homages to other FanFic writers; it will be an interesting journey to see where we end up when the author of a story featuring Captain Kirk has never seen Star Trek!

Steve Downes is an Irish contemporary poet, historian and novelist, currently living and working in Ireland. Steve is the author of The Botolf Chronicles, WarWorld and several collections of poetry including Urbania and the Pagan Field.

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