Literature Meets Fanfic

Earlier this week, I talked a little about literary adaptations and making sure they can stand as their own stories. Today, let’s take a look at the adaptation’s less-respected but close cousin, the fan fiction. With all the flurry around 50 Shades of Grey, fanfic is getting a lot of attention. Obviously 50 Shades was changed for publication (it’s not longer about Bella and Edward in an alternate universe), but it’s still raised questions about what fanfic is to readers, to authors, and where the line is drawn between fanfic and adaptations.

The Wall Street Journal recently looked at this issue, touching on famous author reactions to fanfic inspired by their works. JK Rowling is totally cool with it, while George R.R. Martin and Anne Rice hate it. Although I can understand being concerned about your work and how it’s managed in the public, I’m more inclined to side with Rowling. From what I’ve seen, fan fiction is writing because the writer loves the original work. They love it so much they think about what happens to the characters outside of that story and want to participate in the experience.

The article also points out famous and literary novels that are very closely inspired by other famous work, like Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (about Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre) and Ursula LeGuin’s Lavinia (about Aeneas’s wife in the Aeneid). Other examples I can think of are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard and Grendel by John Gardner. These are all so closely connected with their source material that it’s hard not to classify them as fanfic. I think what separates these works from being considere fanfic is a) a level of literary skill (these are already well-respected authors), b) using literature in the public domain, and c) like in any adaptation, focusing on making the new story unique and essential in the larger literary landscape.

Whether it’s called fanfic or adaptation or retellings, I’m a fan of stories. If it’s a way for a fan to engage with a work they love, great. If it’s a way for great writers to give us compelling and original takes on classic stories, awesome. I just want to read a good story.