Notwithstanding a dash of satire, the Fifty Shades spin-offs are positively staid compared to the stories based on its predecessor, the Twilight series. While EL James herself found a devoted online following, followed by commercial success, by turning Stephenie Meyer’s angst-ridden vampire into a businessman with a penchant for handcuffs, others have taken wilder liberties. Edward Cullen, the fanged schoolgirl-pleaser, has been reimagined in fan fiction as, variously, a soldier in Afghanistan, a cutlass-stealing “notorious pirate”, the lead singer in a rock band, and a baker.
These offerings represent just some of the churning maelstrom of fan fiction, a thriving online sub-culture in which enthusiasts look to anything from Gone with the Wind to the Pokémon video games to fuel their own writing. It’s a world with many aliases and few limits, where Hilly tries to kill Skeeter in an imagined follow-up to The Help, and Elizabeth Bennet is reinvented as an Amish bride. The web has provided both a platform and a close-knit community to people who push that deep connection readers often feel with a much-loved character, that reluctance to let go once you reach the final page, further than most.
Needless to say, the practice divides opinion. In the memorable words of C Coville, writing for the website Cracked.com, fan fiction is seen as “pretty much the text-based equivalent of pirating someone else's music, remixing it badly and then shouting your own inferior lyrics over the top.” As with any unfiltered online content, it’s easy enough to find a smorgasbord of solecisms and ludicrous lines to support this view - but that’s far from the whole picture. Various mechanisms allow good story-telling to float to the top, while, as the author Damien Walter persuasively argued, mainstream writers sneer at the notion of loyal, engaged “fandom” at their peril. What’s more, from a 12-year-old Ray Bradbury writing
his own sequel to Burroughs’s The Warlord of Mars to PD James’s recent Austen homage, Death Comes to Pemberley, the literary establishment doesn’t always keep fan fiction at arm’s length.
Whether or not another Fifty Shades-style success emerges from the fervent imaginings on online forums, for most fan fiction writers, the practice will probably remain an addictive, quirky creative outlet. For many authors looking on, meanwhile, I suspect I’m not alone in feeling both horror at the idea of anyone meddling with the characters I created, and tooth-grinding envy at the thought of being popular enough to inspire such devotion.
Ceri Radford is the author of A Surrey State of Affairs, published by Viking