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Bookish | Matthew Gilbert

Fan fiction: a world of what-ifs

Fan fiction has a fan in J.K. Rowling, whose spokesman once said “she is very flattered by the fact there is such great interest in her Harry Potter series and that people take the time to write their own stories.”

Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press/File 2012

Fan fiction has a fan in J.K. Rowling, whose spokesman once said “she is very flattered by the fact there is such great interest in her Harry Potter series and that people take the time to write their own stories.”

What if meth superstar Walter White on “Breaking Bad” brought his son into the business, while Jesse Pinkman retired to upstate New York, got married, and had three wonderful kids? What if Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse from “Emma” and Lizzie from “Pride and Prejudice” became BFFs? What if Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were lovers?

Go ahead, write it up and post it on one of the countless fan-written fanfic — or fan fiction — websites. Put Holmes and Watson in the 1970s, if you want, in San Francisco in bell-bottoms, if you so please. Give Mr. Spock multiple stud earrings.

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Fan fiction is the place to get your what-ifs out, to write up your very own version of any of the TV shows, books, and movies you love. It’s an online playground for fans who like to write and who are so steeped in a particular world — in J. K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter”-verse, or George Orwell’s “1984” dystopia, or the LA of “The L Word,” or the New York of “Rent” — that they want to add their own story lines to it.

Fanfic writers are too fervent and independent to be passive viewers or readers; they’re inspired to be creative by the visions of Stephen King, Shonda Rhimes, Julian Fellowes, Rowling (whose books are the most fan-fictioned of all), and countless other creators. They find joy in expanding plots only hinted at, joining together characters from different sources, and sometimes, correcting what they see as flaws or oversights in a story they otherwise value — it’s all a kind of folk art. To truly be fan fiction, though, the stories cannot be commercial ventures.

The best known fanfic writer may be E.L . James, whose “Fifty Shades of Grey” began its life as online fan fiction for Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” (her fan fiction handle: Snowqueens Icedragon). Ultimately, to publish her “Twilight”-based stories, James changed the names and other details for copyright reasons. Fan fiction is generally considered acceptable under fair use rules, if fans don’t profit from it and if the fiction doesn’t have an impact on the market for the original work.

Some authors smile on the practice, including Rowling, Meyer, and Neil Gaiman. In 2004, Rowling’s spokesman said, “Rowling’s reaction is that she is very flattered by the fact there is such great interest in her Harry Potter series and that people take the time to write their own stories.” Her only objection would be to any pornographic twists.

Other authors, such as Anne Rice, George R. R. Martin, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Nora Roberts, disapprove, both for personal reasons — they think of their characters as their children, in a way — and for copyright-blurring fears. Martin, in a passionate anti-fanfic entry on his website, notes that fan fiction is no longer just a series of zines passed around at conventions: “Now tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, can read these. . . More than ever, we need some boundaries.”

The best known fanfic writer may be E. L. James, whose ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ began its life as online fan fiction for Stephenie Meyer’s ‘Twilight.’

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Most fanfic sites refuse to post stories derived from the products of naysaying creators.

Martin is right about the scope of the fanfic community. Fan fiction writers share their work with — and get edited by — a gigantic group of fellow fans, many of whom hang out at the over-4-million-served FanFiction.net and the by-invitation-only ArchiveOfOurOwn.org, which currently has some 236,600 registered users.

It’s no longer a fringe activity for sci-fi geeks; it’s mainstream in the way fantasy sports leagues have become de rigueur and San Diego Comic-Con has evolved into an essential entertainment event. Yes, of course, geek-tastic “Big Bang Theory”-based stories thrive — there are some 31,000 on FanFiction.net right now; but even Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” has sprouted branches of new story line.
“Moby-Dick” has inspired 11 works at ArchiveOfOurOwn.org, also known as AO3.

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

E. L. James, author of "50 Shades Of Grey."

“At this point,” says Sara Rosenbaum, a senior editor at Boston magazine and a fan fiction writer and supporter, “if somebody isn’t aware of fan fiction or is confused or squeamish about it, they’re like someone who doesn’t know what sushi is. Ew, you eat raw fish!”

Rosenbaum compares the rising visibility of fan fiction since it hit the Internet to gay culture: “Being gay used to mean you needed to know the right places to go. There was this underground culture — the hanky code, if it even existed!” Some fan fiction writers are academics and published authors, including S. E. Hinton, who currently writes fan fiction about the CW series “Supernatural.” “They were afraid of being found out and thought their reputations would be destroyed,” Rosenbaum says. “Now it’s everywhere. You can tell your parents about it.”

The goal of writing fan fiction, Rosenbaum says, is not to make great art, even while some fanfic is well done and she and other practitioners have used it to learn to write more gracefully. “The end is to give somebody an emotional payoff rather than an intellectual or ideological one or any of the other things that high literature presumes that art is for.”

The growth of fanfic in the past decade parallels the growth of fandom in general, as we interact with TV series more than ever, something “Lost” producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof pioneered with their unprecedented exchanges with rabid “Lost” fans. When we love a piece of entertainment now, we often want to take our love further, to have a dialogue about it. Movies become interactive video games, and so, oddly enough, do books. Last week, an online role-playing game set in the world of Jane Austen fiction got enough funding on Kickstarter — more than $100,000 — to move forward. Soon, with “Ever, Jane,” Janeites will be able to create their own stories of snubbing and gossip-mongering — when they’re not reading “Pride & Pyramids” (the Darcys in Egypt) and “Mr. Darcy’s Bite” (yup, he’s a werewolf), that is.

“More and more people — not just creators but producers — are realizing that fandom and fan fiction are great for business,” Rosenbaum says. “The more people create stuff of their own, the better. If someone is making their own T-shirts, they’re buying yours. You’re not losing market share. You’re gaining it.”

Some fan fiction is made for money, naturally, and sanctioned. The late Tom Clancy’s publisher, Penguin, is currently considering hiring writers to continue Clancy’s famous Jack Ryan franchise, to follow in the footsteps of franchises such as Ian Fleming’s James Bond, Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne, and Robert Parker’s Spenser and Jesse Stone. The A&E series “Bates Motel”? Fan fiction. “Sleepy Hollow,” Fox’s new hit? Fan fiction.

But Rosenbaum, who has written “Lord of the Rings” and Sherlock Holmes stories, says that part of the joy of writing fan fiction is that it’s done for free, for love. “You wouldn’t ask a bunch of guys playing pickup basketball, ‘Why aren’t you doing this for money?’ It’s almost irrelevant. Maybe someone playing pickup basketball would be really good and end up playing for the NBA, and that would be awesome. But there’s no reason people would stop playing pickup games because of that.

“You do it because it’s fun.”

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.
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