The Books Briefing: How Fan Fiction Reimagines the Writing Process

The entire enterprise is deeply collaborative, resulting in works that are shaped by the original author, the fan, and online communities of readers: Your weekly guide to the best in books

illustration of a lightsaber piercing a book
Getty / The Atlantic

When The Last Jedi came out, some viewers had déjà vu: Certain aspects of the movie’s plot were strikingly similar to the events in several popular stories on the fan-fiction site Archive of Our Own. The coincidence may seem strange, but in many ways it’s unsurprising that the people who were thinking most deeply about a franchise—its creators and devotees alike—would come to the same conclusions about each character’s fate. That alignment might be seen as a testament to both the series’ deep world-building and its fans’ insight.

Similarity with an original text, of course, isn’t the only way to find success. Much of the best fan fiction is also the most subversive; since its advent in the 18th century, the genre has been defined by smart readers who question an original text’s presentation of gender and sexuality. Early famous writers partook in the fun, including the poet Alexander Pope, who composed some lusty verses from the point of view of the abandoned wife in Gulliver’s Travels. More recently, the romance-author duo Lauren Billings and Christina Hobbs jump-started their long-term collaboration after jointly entering a Twilight-themed short-story contest governed by one simple rule: Their story had to discuss Edward’s foreskin. The pair went on to write dozens of novels together, including Beautiful Bastard, which was also inspired by the vampiric saga.

Although not all writers make their collaborations so explicit, an interdependent approach to creation is common in fan fiction. In online communities, the number of voices informing a work grows as readers comment on one another’s posts and learn together, a phenomenon the professors Katie Davis and Cecilia Aragon explore in their book Writers in the Secret Garden. Anna Todd, whose One Direction–inspired Wattpad novel, After, became a sweeping success, uploaded only a chapter at a time to the online writing forum and monitored feedback between posts. Audience reactions then steered the course of her next installment. In this way, authors such as Todd are reimagining not only their source material but the entire writing process.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

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What We’re Reading

still from "The Last Jedi"

Film Frames Industrial Light & Magic / Lucasfilm

The fan fiction that predicted a big Last Jedi storyline

“The fact that well-read fan writers and Disney’s professional writers came up with such similar stories is, among other things, a testament to the ways Rey and Kylo Ren represent something fundamental—as well as vitally new—about Star Wars.”


illustration

Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, published in 1726, marked the beginning of the modern fan-fiction movement. (Culture Club / Getty)

Fan fiction was just as sexual in the 1700s as it is today

“Fan fiction’s reputation as an ‘unserious’ form has in this very way made possible the deep dives and often moving explorations of human sexuality and romantic love that permeate the genre, even as fan fiction itself becomes less artistically stigmatized.”


illustration

Wenjia Tang

The fan-fiction friendship that fueled a romance-novel empire

“We have two relationships. We have to talk about money, and then we have the friendship.”


man working on a laptop

Carlina Teteris / Getty

What fan fiction teaches that the classroom doesn’t

“In these online communities, writers of all ages and skill levels—from adolescents still refining their grammar to professional adult authors such as [N. K.] Jemisin—are learning and teaching others how to write, and write well.”


illustration of Anna Todd holding a smartphone and sitting atop her successful novel "After," which is being carried by a legion of fans

John Cuneo

The One Direction fan-fiction novel that became a literary sensation

“[Anna] Todd demonstrated the uncanny ability to consider the opinions of an amorphous mass of followers as she made decisions.”


About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she’s rereading next is Walden by Henry David Thoreau.

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