Amazon’s recently launched Kindle Worlds programme is an endorsement of the popularity of online fan fiction. But will the distinction maintained between the original story and the new instalments simply fade away? David Mattin reports
Who is an artist? For a while during the 20th century, that question had an easy answer. The gates to creative success were guarded by large organisations – publishing houses, TV companies, movie studios – that selected a tiny, elite group of people to create content. Those people were artists, and the rest of us weren’t.
Today, we live in a very different world. The rise of online culture has unleashed a tsunami of creativity of a kind never before seen. It has greatly diminished the power of the gatekeepers, by putting the power to reach millions in the hands of anyone with an internet connection. Today, we can all be artists if – and when – we want.
One powerful manifestation of that change has been the rise of fan fiction. That is, original stories set in an established fictional world – the world, say, of Harry Potter, or Star Wars, or Twilight – written by fans of the original work. Fan fiction is one of those genuine, ground-up movements that has prospered on the fringes of the internet.
Media and entertainment gatekeeper organisations have watched in dismay, arguing that authors of fan fiction are guilty of copyright infringement.
But that hasn’t stopped the movement: the most popular fan-fiction forum, FanFiction.net, has more than two million users. Now, fan fiction is stepping away from the fringes. Last week, Amazon launched its Kindle Worlds programme, which allows fan fiction writers to create new stories, sell them on Amazon, and share revenue from those sales with the creators of the original works. Amazon has arranged deals with the rights holders, including Warner Bros, for popular franchises such as Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, The Vampire Diaries – and more deals are in the works.
It amounts to a wholehearted gatekeeper endorsement of fan fiction that few were expecting. And pushed to its logical conclusions, it has potentially major implications for the way the creative industries work, and, indeed, for what we mean by “fiction”.
As fan fiction comes into the mainstream, it’s possible to envision a future in which popular novels become only the first instalment in an ecosystem of further stories. And over time, will the great distinction we maintain now between the original work and the fan fiction simply fade away?
Currently, our idea of the creative process, and of “art”, is tightly wound up with the idea of a single author – this is the idea of the creative genius, given to us by the 19th-century romantics – but in this networked age, perhaps that conception of art is finally losing relevance. Instead, we may come to 0see art as the aggregated efforts of a number of networked people: a creation of the global brain, not a solitary author.
Of course, there is much to lose, as well as gain, from changes such as those. Hamlet, Bach’s Brandenburg concertos and The Godfather were not, after all, the product of the global brain, but of individual authors with a creative vision. If 10,000 authors had jumped into the world of the Prince of Denmark, rewritten it, added 500 further instalments and posted a cat version to YouTube, would it still herald Hamlet as the greatest play in the English language?
We’ll find out what fan involvement is set to mean for the art we make in the 21st century. In the meantime, Gossip Girl fans should clear their schedule: a whole lot more reading is about to come their way.
David Mattin is the lead strategist at trendwatching.com
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