Thursday, February 20, 2014

Culture Shock 02.20.14: How fan fiction took over entertainment

At this moment, someone is probably writing "Sherlock"
fan fiction, which makes it fan fiction about fan fiction.
As production gears up for the next "Star Wars" film, the first under the Disney banner, experts are combing the vast expanse of "Star Wars" novels, comic books, video games and cartoons. They're deciding what to keep and what to discard.

What survives will be the official "Star Wars" canon — official in the sense it has Disney's OK. The remainder will be out of continuity and taking on, for practical purposes, the same unofficial status as the fan-written stories on the Internet.

Yet the new "Star Wars" trilogy will be fan fiction, too, in the dictionary sense. Disney has handed Lucasfilm's centerpiece to J.J. Abrams, a fan of "Star Wars" since childhood. Many of us Abrams' age have imagined the "Star Wars" sequels we'd like to see. He gets to make his.

It's a fine line between fiction and fan fiction. It's so fine that major entertainment companies have turned an amateur's hobby into a business model. And almost no one lining up for movie tickets or queuing up Netflix gives it a second thought.

Fan fiction has a poor reputation, and anyone who has read much of it knows why. When he was at the website Topless Robot,'s Rob Bricken had a feature called Fan Fiction Friday. It was a weekly mocking of the worst of the worst. He took the column with him to io9, but it didn't last long there. Some things are too awful even for a Gawker Media-owned site.

But amateur-produced fan fiction is just the start. Look at the term "fan fiction" and what it literally means: fiction written by fans. That describes much of our entertainment.

Sherlock Holmes is the perfect example. Arthur Conan Doyle died in 1930, yet the Great Detective's adventures continue. Fans of the character have come up with their own takes, usually with the blessing of the Doyle estate, which demands only respect and a piece of the action. That has led to Nicholas Meyer's "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution" (Holmes meets Sigmund Freud), films that turn Holmes into an action hero, and two television programs that reimagine Sherlock in the present day.

The entertainment giants who stride the present landscape will turn almost any intellectual property into a franchise. They prize name recognition above all else. And long-lived franchises are bound to fall into the hands of people who grew up with them.

Most comics published by Marvel and DC since the 1980s qualify as fan fiction, and that has had a stultifying effect on the art. Marvel Comics wished away Spider-Man's marriage to Mary Jane Watson because the publisher's then editor-in-chief wanted Spider-Man to remain the young, bachelor Spider-Man he grew up with.

That happens when fans call the shots: Nostalgia beats growth almost every time. Yet if the fan happens to be Alan Moore, then he might write a couple of the best Superman stories ever, which is exactly what Moore did in the 1980s.

Moore made a career of fan fiction. His "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" is based on characters from Victorian novels that have fallen into the public domain. And Moore is neither the first nor last to raid Victorian literature. Kim Newman's "Anno Dracula" novels do it.

So, too, does Showtime's upcoming series "Penny Dreadful." The nice thing about public domain characters is you don't need anyone's permission to use them in your fan fiction.

That said, permission is getting easier to come by. has struck deals allowing writers of fanfics set in certain fictional worlds to sell their stories, with the rights-holders getting a cut. Want to write and sell your own "Vampire Diaries" stories? Now you can, if that's your thing.

There's a temptation to point to the rise of fan fiction as a sign of artistic decline or even the death of originality. But fanfic has been around thousands of years. The ancient Greeks may have invented it.

Consider a story that lumps together all your favorite heroes and sends them on a perilous voyage. You might call it fan fiction. The Greeks called it "Jason and the Argonauts."

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