Friday, 14 June 2013

All literature is fan fiction...

Writers of genre or commercial fiction can often be heard complaining about snobbery towards their work from writers of literary fiction and bemoaning that they are never recognised for literary prizes. For their part literary fiction writers can be heard bemoaning the huge sales figures of certain genre writers.

Yet both cohorts will unite in their scorn towards writers of Fan Fiction. Yet fan fiction is a well-established and successful (in terms of garnering significant numbers of readers) literary phenomenon. Other authors have no right to criticise it. As I said it is successful in its own terms, provides material that readers want to read and poses no competitive threat to writers of genre or literary fiction, as indeed neither of them pose a threat to each other. Readers will find and read what they choose to read, so writers (and marketers) cannot be tribal about these things and try and close off options for readers). If authors don't care to read fan fiction themselves, then simply don't read it. There is no need to rag on the literary form. I don't read fan fiction because I don't watch any of the shows or films that are usually the inspiration for them and if I have seen the odd movie, I don't tend to have the undying devotion to the characters or the actors in it. But I would still fight to my dying breath for the right of other writers to draw on those characters and scenarios in their own fictional output.

But the snobbery is not only misguided from an etiquette or self-interested point of view, it's also hypocritical.  All writing is a form of fan fiction. Any author might (or perhaps should) ask themselves what made them want to be a novelist? Chances are it was either some books or particular authors which inspired them. Read an interview with them and they'll offer up their favourite books. There are very few authors who come to writing without having first read formative works of literature, whatever their canon. We are all dwarves squatting on the shoulders of giants, for the novel has not changed significantly in its form since the first novels started appearing.

So when literary prize short-listed author Lloyd Jones calls his book "Mister Pip" which draws on both the character and plot of Dickens' "Great Expectations" we are asked to applaud its literariness not decry it as posh fan fiction. Or when Jasper Fforde writes his novels playing games with classic texts, we are asked to play spot the literary reference, not moan how derivative the characters feel. How many versions of William Burroughs or Charles Bukowski's works have you read in the fiction that followed them? Not intended as homages or pastiches, but as the outpourings of writers under their sway for their own literary education.

I have always felt that musicians are much more up front about their creative influences and how they draw on them in their work. It seems that the literary writers draw just as heavily, but far more furtively on their literary heroes, because rare is it that they openly acknowledge their sources, preferring instead to embed them and leave for literary detectives to discover. At least Fforde and Jones are explicit in acknowledging their source texts.

So next time a writer is sat at their keyboard, poised to slam the practitioners of fan fiction, take a breath and have a think about which writers you have drawn on in your own work and honour your fandom of your predecessors.


Katherine Hajer said...

Thank you for this. I read across genres (though not much fan fiction, I'll admit), and get very tired of the tribalism -- great word for it. If I can't read comics and SF and literary add I please, I don't want to be in anyone's wordsmithing revolution.

Sessha Batto said...

Excellent post - read everything, hate nothing is my personal motto.

Victoria said...

Excellent, I couldn't agree more.

Sonia Lal said...

I agree, I do, I do. Also, I have recently discovered fan fiction myself.