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Trendspotter: Mash-up literature

Debate rages as to whether or not the creators of literature should be protected by the law or if their works should be in a constant state of flux, open to reader edits.

Among the ideas left to us by the 19th-century romantics, the cult of artistic originality is perhaps the most significant. Before the romantics, good art meant imitation of classical models. After them, it meant innovation. A true artist, said the romantics, must use his unique genius to create something entirely - and radically - new.

It was an intellectual shift that helped create the modern world. Today, the romantic conception of original creation sets the terms with which we talk about art. But artists themselves have long pointed out that creation is rarely so simple. Pablo Picasso is credited with the often-repeated: "Good artists borrow, great artists steal."

Now, a rising literary movement is seeking to re-imagine that idea for a digital age. Mash-up literature is about combining two existing works to create a third, Frankenstein's-monster-like new work. Proponents say it points the way towards a reinvigorated future for the novel; critics say it debases the literature it claims to champion.

Mash-up literature had its first taste of the mainstream in 2009, when the American writer Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies - a Jane Austen/zombie fiction mash-up - stormed the bestseller lists. Its real origins, though, lie in the online underground, on sites where fans post original stories about the fictional characters they love. Fan fiction has become an online phenomenon, and Amazon is now full of e-reader titles such as Twilight Hunger Games: A Mashup Parody and Shakespeare vs Lovecraft. Indeed, it's no secret that the fastest-selling paperback of all time - EL James's Fifty Shades of Grey - started as Twilight fan fiction.

So is mash-up literature really the future of the novel? At the heart of the movement are connective technologies that make texts easy to edit and allow any writer a potential audience of millions. Why, in such a world, should books have only one author and remain unchanged once published? The new digital publisher Coliloquy (www.coliloquy.com) - which publishes e-books that update according to reader choices - envisages a future in which novels are endlessly in flux, open to edits and re-edits by their online, connected readers.

But opponents of the mash-up movement warn that it threatens to destroy fundamental ideas that make the novel possible: respect for the intentions of the author and intellectual property laws that ensure writers can make a living.

Really, then, the mash-up literature controversy is just one version of a far wider argument. It's an argument that's raging between those who believe we need more protection in law for creators and those who believe we need less. The results will affect not only the kind of art we consume, but the devices we use, the games we play, the lives we lead. Can Apple really hold intellectual property in the "slide to unlock" gesture that kick-starts the iPhone? They say they do and have sued other mobile manufacturers around the world to protect it.

But creativity, surely, has always meant recombination: a truth that students of literature should find hard to deny. In 1599, Shakespeare took the legend of Amleth, preserved by the 13th-century chronicler Saxo Grammaticus, and mixed it with Elizabethan sources to create Hamlet.

OK, for now we have only Fifty Shades. But history tells us it would be madness to shut down contemporary mash-up culture before we see the method in it.

• David Mattin is a senior analyst at www.trendwatching.com.

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