Like most denizens of the internet, I cringe whenever I come across the words “fan fiction.” That phrase conjures up images of poorly written adventures and anatomically erroneous erotica. And, quite frankly, a majority of fan fiction falls into one of those two categories. But then again, so does a majority of fiction in general. I was thinking about writing a post on fan fiction, prompted by the release of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” I ran into a problem from the outset: I couldn’t define fan-fiction. I tried. My first definition was “a work of fiction that is based on and uses the characters from one or more previously existing sources.”
This was a seemingly fit catch-all until I thought of Jason Bourne. I haven’t read any of the novels written after Ludlum’s death, but there have been several. Are they fan-fiction? It certainly fits the definition. As do the post-Flemming James Bond novels. And the Star Wars novels. So I changed my definition to require works to be non-canon. Then I thought of Tom Stoppard.
Tom Stoppard wrote a play titled Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (which was adapted into a great film starring Timothy Roth and Gary Oldman), which uses only characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Clearly this fell into my new definition for fan fiction. I also recently read a very funny book by Christopher Moore called Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, which uses biblical characters in the setting of ancient Jerusalem. If that’s fan-fiction, so is Milton’s Paradise Lost. How can I justify being against something when I can’t even define what it is I’m supposed to be against?
As I tried to reconcile my gut feelings with my rationality, I started considering another aspect: story. James Joyce’s Ulysses adapts the Odyssey to be about an average person, all the obstacles are changed from fantastic to mundane. If using a pre-existing character in a new storyline is fan fiction, is using a pre-existing storyline with a new character also fan fiction? I don’t know.
Is there a lot of shitty fan-fiction out there? Sure. But I think it’s worth wading through the oceans of crap to find the half-digested piece of corn that is a good story (and that’s officially the grossest metaphor I’ve ever written).