When considering the future of fiction, many speak somewhat disdainfully of “fan fiction” and other less original or artistic works. But Slate contributor Hugh Howey believes fan fiction is actually a classically respected literary genre:
Lovers of the new and immutable novel may fear the end times, but ironically the end times themselves were a work of fan fiction. The four Gospels were written well after the times they describe, and each has its own take on similar events. (It used to bother me that the Gospels disagreed on so much. But then I discovered Batman comics and saw how often the Caped Crusader’s origins and backstory also changed over time.) Shakespeare made a career out of fan fiction. Wealthy patrons would request a new stab at a familiar story, and the Bard would comply. Or he would draw upon historical facts and people to make fiction from the real.
Thus, those who believe fan fiction is discreditable to the arts must accept the fact that it’s a historical form. Howey argues that fan fiction books are not easy stories—though the ideas used to shape the books may be “used,” he writes, “Ideas are cheap. Stories are dear … We are all telling the same story with slight variations.”
There’s another intersecting perspective one might bring to bear on the increasing popularity of fan fiction. Although we all aspire to literary greatness, it is not easy to write brilliant material. Few of us will ever write something of considerable originality. For most of us, our best work will be written “on the shoulders of giants,” to borrow a phrase from Russell Kirk. Some of us must content ourselves with mediocrity, if that mediocrity will enable true genius to shine through our weak yet willing hands.
Front Porch Republic author James Matthew Wilson excellently explains this idea of aspirational mediocrity in a Sunday post:
To keep alive a tradition, to continue to produce mildly good poems, and reasonably memorable concertos, capable of rousing the ear and the mind to attention, thought, and pleasure — these things are good in themselves. To perpetuate a traditional practice enriches the storehouse of being while also stitching together the eternal society of the dead, living, and those still unborn in such a way that past, present, and future remain habitable places, where human voice can still hear and answer human voice. It keeps words, habits, and techniques in common, it cultivates, tempers, and preserves a climate of opinion, whatever the other storms of history.
Few authors, writers, and journalists will admit their work is mediocre (whether fan fiction or otherwise). At root, we want to write classics. But perhaps our mediocrity will help transmit a tradition, as Wilson writes: “To live within and participate in a tradition is, again, to keep something alive and to draw things and persons together, across time, in a community of knowledge and love.” Does fan fiction accomplish this? Not always; but within its diverse and sundry works, nuggets of a valuable literary tradition can flourish and grow.