Staring at the title of the book, he turned hot and cold, cold and hot. Here was just what he had dreamed of, what he had longed for ever since the passion for books had taken hold of him: A story that never ended! The book of books!
He had to have this book – at any price.
From The NeverEnding Story (Die unendliche Geschichte) by Michael Ende
My parents rented The NeverEnding Story on VHS when I was four. The film, a 1984 adaptation of Michael Ende’s classic German fantasy novel, is sentimental and poorly acted, with the special effects you’d expect from the era – one critic called the dragon ‘an impractical bathmat’. Ende labelled the film ‘revolting’ and sued its creators. It was the greatest film I’d ever seen, and I became a fan for the first time.
The film loosely follows the first half of Ende’s novel. A schoolboy, Bastian, evades bullies by hiding in a bookshop. Its proprietor is reading an exquisite tome, The NeverEnding Story; in the film he tells Bastian, ‘This book is not for you.’ Bastian can’t resist – he steals it, skips class and reads by candlelight in the school attic. Within the book are the hopes and dreams of humanity, in the form of a world called Fantasia. This world is being destroyed and only Bastian can save it. How does he succeed? By reading, by imagining, by creating.
I identified with Bastian: I was the kind of child who would have stolen the book. And a decade after I first watched the film, with no stern voice saying ‘This book is not for you’, I discovered my own NeverEnding Story in a high school computer lab. Looking up spoilers for a TV show, I saw a link: ‘Fanfic’. What did that mean? I clicked it. I’m still not sure exactly what it means. Short for ‘fanfiction’, fanfic is difficult to define in relation to other fiction – more difficult than people tend to assume. A friend and published author told me that fanfic ‘is responsive, an imaginative response to the object of the fan’s passion’. But all fiction is an imaginative response to something the author is passionate about. Is fictionalising Thomas Cromwell so different to reinterpreting Buffy Summers?
The main factor that sets fanfic apart from other fiction lies in how it’s created and distributed. Copyright law means that much of it can’t be for-profit. Fanfic is produced by members of a community known as fandom, which pre-dates the online realm. Fandom is a modern word for what is, essentially, people sitting around a campfire, sharing and recycling folktales. So while commercial fiction is (usually) edited by paid professionals, fanfic is either unedited or edited by unpaid fans. They aren’t necessarily amateurs, just as fanfic authors aren’t necessarily unpublished or never-to-be published – bestselling authors Cassandra Clare, Naomi Novik and Joanne Harris have all written fanfic.
Fanfic authors use their source material in myriad ways. Trying to define all the genres and subgenres would take up the rest of this piece. But to generalise, some stories are set within the universe of a work of fiction (Middle Earth, for example), while others place the work’s characters in an alternate universe (perhaps Frodo and Sam are college students). EL James’s Fifty Shades series began as an alternate universe story with characters from Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, as did Tara Sue Me’s Submissive trilogy, published by Penguin North American Library, and Beautiful Bastard by Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings, published as part of a five-book deal with Simon & Schuster.
Fandom’s creative works aren’t limited to fanfic. There’s A Very Potter Musical, a production that racked up millions of YouTube views and launched the career of Glee star Darren Criss. There’s podfic, the equivalent of audiobooks. Other fanworks include tea blends, puppet shows and iPhone cases. For the uninitiated and curious, a good place to start is the Fanlore wiki. It’s one of many projects – including a peer-reviewed journal – run by the non-profit Organization for Transformative Works, established in 2008 ‘to serve the interests of fans by providing access to and preserving the history of fanworks and fan culture’.
Transformative works is another name for fanworks. ‘Nothing is lost,’ says a character in Ende’s novel. ‘Everything is transformed.’
In the late 1990s it seemed that no one spoke about fanfic ‘in real life’. Fans were afraid of being ‘outed’, a desire for privacy that often stemmed from the popularity of sexually explicit fanfic. Although curious about these stories, I feared an IT teacher might spy on my internet history. Could fiction count as porn? I’d borrowed Jean M Auel’s Earth’s Children series from the school library (and learned the meaning of the words ‘burgeoning manhood’), but sex in fanfic seemed taboo. It hadn’t been run through the proper adult channels of publishing houses and libraries.
Only when I was given my own computer did I feel free to sample everything. Like Bastian, I would light a candle and read until late. I was cocooned from my daily life as an anxious teenager, but I was also an explorer, striking out into the wilderness of the imagination. I was investigating other lives and ways of living, and the endless ways a story could be told and re-told.
When I first started coming out as a lesbian, fandom was my safe space. Fanfic about queer relationships belongs to the popular genre called slash, which Fanlore defines as ‘a type of fanwork in which two (or more) characters of the same sex or gender are placed in a sexual or romantic situation with each other’.
In a Monthly article published earlier this year, ‘The Cheap Thrills of Fan Fiction: The Slash Pile’, Linda Jaivin correctly identifies Star Trek fans as the inventors of the term slash – it originated with the virgule in Kirk/Spock. Jaivin, the author of published erotic fiction, goes on to incorrectly describe slash as ‘gay porn’, and refers to ‘slash and other adult fanfic’ when slash isn’t inherently adult.
Although Jaivin ‘enjoyed’ writing a slash story for an Erotic Fan Fiction Reading – an Australian comedy event – she ‘felt some moral discomfort in literally perverting characters created by someone else without permission’. Does ‘perverting’ refer to the explicit sex, the queerness, or both? In fandom’s pre-internet days, there was a legitimate fear that slash zines were breaking obscenity laws. That level of legalised homophobia is a thing of the past, but I’ve encountered discomfort, even from close friends, about what they see as ‘turning’ fictional characters ‘gay’.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that slash is the product of an underground queer movement: in fact, it was created and is still dominated by straight female fans, or so it seems. The question of why these lady fans are interested in dirty queer relationships has often been asked. Jaivin tries to provide an answer:
If gay porn seems an odd obsession for straight female writers, it allows them, as [the academic Constance Penley] observes, to avoid ‘the built-in inequality of the romance formula, in which dominance and submission are invariably the respective roles of men and women’.
But why pander to anyone who sees a female-dominated form of storytelling as an ‘odd obsession’? Let them stew in their assumptions and prejudices. And if you’re going to make an attempt, a one-size-fits-all explanation won’t cut it.
More understandably, there have been mixed reactions from the queer community to slash. Some object to a subset of straight fans who fetishise queer relationships. On the other hand, slash has been celebrated by the popular queer sites AfterEllen and The Backlot.
I started reading slash around the time I started coming out. In the twenty years it had taken me to realise I was gay, I’d spent a lot of time immersed in fiction about straight people. When I finally started to accept myself, I binged on queer fiction. I read Sarah Waters and Alan Hollinghurst; I watched Queer as Folk; I even flipped through the yaoi or ‘boy love’ manga at Borders – and those are just a few examples. It wasn’t enough. Slash provides me with more stories than I can read, of every flavour I could ask for. It’s the equivalent of what mainstream culture provides to straight people. I love the enthusiasm of slashers, straight and queer, as they turn subtext into text for our mutual enjoyment.
There’s a rebellious power to slash. It flips the bird at the conservative judgement that straight love is pure, romantic, deserving of happy endings, while ours is unsettling, pornographic and tragic – that straights can’t identify with queers, and vice versa. This sense of boundary-breaking empowerment reminds me of a quote from Angela Carter’s short story, ‘The Bloody Chamber’:
The puppet master, open-mouthed, wide-eyed, impotent at the last, saw his dolls break free of their strings, abandon the rituals he had ordained for them since time began and start to live for themselves; the king, aghast, witnesses the revolt of his pawns.
‘The Bloody Chamber’ is the eponymous work in a collection inspired by folktales. Carter wanted to ‘extract the latent content from the traditional stories’. In a different context and medium, many slash authors accomplish something similar.
Last year I came across a Wall Street Journal article, ‘The Weird World of Fan Fiction’. I stared at those words. ‘The Weird World’. As though there really were two worlds that I loved equally, Earth and Fantasia: one of publishing houses and literary journals, and the other widely perceived as childish and bizarre. Of course, there were never two worlds: there’s the pre-internet way to publish and the way that’s been pioneered by communities like fandom. The publishing industry is finally catching on, while the e-book self-publishing industry is booming.
In June this year, Amazon launched Kindle Worlds: ‘a place for you to publish fan fiction…and earn royalties.’ The first words of the animated trailer could double as the tagline for a NeverEnding Story reboot: ‘Imagine being transported to an incredible world where adventures never end. A place where you expand the story.’
Kindle Worlds has been discussed in a range of print publications, including Time and The Guardian, as well as by hundreds of online commentators. One of the main questions has been: can officially approved, for-profit stories really be considered fanfiction? Many commentators have argued convincingly that Kindle Worlds is a clever way to publish tie-in novels (traditionally published alongside popular franchises) without paying established authors to write them. At best, fans can profit from their work in a heavily regulated, porn-free environment with a limited range of ‘Worlds’ to choose from. You can’t get to Fantasia through Kindle Worlds, just as you can’t get to Narnia through an Ikea closet.
In the time I’ve been reading it, fanfiction has morphed from the barely discussed product of an embarrassing subculture to a newsworthy term co-opted by a publishing behemoth. Is the industry stooping to a new low, or is it acknowledging that the way we create and consume fiction has irrevocably changed?
The Institute for the Future of the Book is ‘a small think-and-do tank investigating the evolution of intellectual discourse as it shifts from printed pages to networked screens’. Its co-director, Bob Stein, was interviewed by Ramona Koval in 2009 for ABC’s The Book Show. He spoke of how the ‘gold standard of human expression’ is changing ‘from what it is today to something we can’t even imagine’:
The 300-page novel, the five-chapter academic monograph, these have their roots in print…and they’re going to go away as we start to become familiar with the affordances and the possibilities of the new electronic technologies… [W]hat we call a writer and what we call a reader today, my guess is that the boundaries between those two are going to start to blur.
What strikes me about these predictions is Stein’s mingling of the outmoded and the newfangled. The idea of a ‘gold standard’ seems hidebound, and the boundaries between writers and readers have always been blurred. But, of course, the notion that printed books will become extinct is a relatively new and alarming one.
Will the real-life NeverEnding Story put an end to exquisite tomes? Is this the price we’ll pay for the limitless diversity of online storytelling? I hope not. I don’t own an e-reader and my apartment is crowded with beloved books. But onscreen fanfic has helped shape me just as much as printed words, and I’m far from the only member of my generation who can say that. What I’ve come to accept is that freedom and innovation always come at a cost. Eventually, it will be paid.