A new hobby has taken wing these past two decades, and it has come to roost on the internet: fanfiction. Fanfiction is a generic label used to group together a variety of stories based on movies, television shows, and books—stories written by fans. The phenomenon is so pervasive that students have even written papers on this new genre of literature.
Although the characters who come to life in these stories—such as Mulder and Scully of the X-Files—are often the property of others, movie and T.V. moguls have largely been willing to turn a blind eye to the intellectual property infringement; after all, it promotes their shows and films. Yet if writers want to turn a hobby into a vocation and publish their fanfiction in print, then the easiest course is to choose characters who reside in the public domain. This may account for the predominance of published sequels to the books of the Regency era author Jane Austen.
It is sheer devotion, however, that explains Austen's undying presence on the internet. Site after site has existed, at least in part, to continue Austen's classic novels. Fans of Austen's subtle writing hunger to see their favorite characters continue their relationships. When I stumbled across a website for Jane Austen fanfiction seventeen years ago, I never thought I would one day be publishing my own sequel to Pride and Prejudice. Nevertheless, my little hobby of turning out short stories in a dull moment took on a life of its own. I was waking up in the middle of the night and sneaking into the study to pound out my ideas. Finally, in 2004, Conviction found its way into readers’ hands.
Had my hobby become a vocation? Not exactly. I wrote the work because I could not help but write it—because the scenes playing in my mind would not allow me to sleep. I initially self-published the novel with little expectation of doing more than breaking even, but it quickly sold over a thousand copies and was soon picked up by a small commercial publisher. Double Edge Press brought the book out in a second edition, and it became—and remained—the small publisher’s best-selling title. That opened the door to publication of An Unlikely Missionary (my second Pride and Prejudice sequel) and, eventually, my original novel When the Heart Is Laid Bare. Double Edge Press eventually fell on hard times and closed its doors, but the publisher has reverted all rights to the authors, and I have since re-published all three out-of-print novels in inexpensive Kindle editions.
When hobbies do become vocations, respect is often difficult to earn. When pastimes give birth to professions, people will inevitably doubt the value of the calling. Fanfiction certainly lacks literary respectability. One problem with fanfiction is that it is, in one respect at least, wholly unoriginal. The author inevitably rides on the coattails of another writer. Of course, original plots, new characters, and unique ideas can be introduced in these continuations, but fanfiction will be slow to gain respectability precisely because of its initial act of robbery.
Yet the novel was once considered a low-brow genre, too. Any respectable writer wished to be known for his or her poetry. Fanfiction now bears the same stigma the novel once endured. Will it, too, one day emerge as a respected and major form? Only time can provide the answer to that question; so, while you're waiting, why not read a resolution to one of your favorite tales, or write one of your own?
[A version of this article was previously published in Small Press Review, volume 36, issue 7.]