Lev Grossman has written a fascinating introduction to fan fiction, i.e., “stories and novels that make use of the characters and settings from other people’s professional creative work”, as well as the various questions — artistic, ethical, or otherwise — that it raises.
Nobody makes money from fan fiction, but whether anybody loses money on fan fiction is a separate question. The people who create the works that fan fiction borrows from are sharply divided on it. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer have given Harry Potter and Twilight fan fiction their blessing; if anything, fan fiction has acted as a viral marketing agent for their work. Other writers consider it a violation of their copyrights, and more, of their emotional claim to their own creations. They feel as if their characters had been kidnapped by strangers.
You can see both sides of the issue. Do characters belong to the person who created them? Or to the fans who love them so passionately that they spend their nights and weekends laboring to extend those characters’ lives, for free? There’s a division here, a geological fault line, that looks small on the surface but runs deep into our culture, and the tectonic plates are only moving farther apart. Is art about making up new things or about transforming the raw material that’s out there? Cutting, pasting, sampling, remixing and mashing up have become mainstream modes of cultural expression, and fan fiction is part of that. It challenges just about everything we thought we knew about art and creativity.
The article also dispels some of the common myths floating around re. fan fiction and those who write it:
There are a lot of misconceptions floating around about people who write fan fiction and why they write it, so let’s knock off a few of them right up front. Fan-fiction writers are not pornographers. (This perception is so pervasive that in order to avoid confusing their friends and colleagues, many of the people interviewed for this article declined to be identified by their real names.) There’s plenty of sex in fan fiction, but it’s only a small part of the picture. Fan-fiction writers aren’t plagiarists who can’t come up with their own ideas, and they’re not all amateurs. Naomi Novik, whose Temeraire novels are best sellers and have been optioned by Peter Jackson, who directed the Lord of the Rings movies, writes fan fiction. “Fanfic writing isn’t work, it’s joyful play,” she says. “The problem is that for most people, any kind of writing looks like work to them, so they get confused why anyone would want to write fanfic instead of original professional material, even though they don’t have any problem understanding why someone would want to mess around on a guitar playing Simon and Garfunkel.”