A certain style of novel is on the rise. Let’s call it “literary fanfic.” Before describing this hybrid form, we should first understand its components. What is literary fiction? Answers will vary: fiction that concerns itself with style above plot; fiction that arises from, and is taught in, MFA programs; fiction that defines itself against “genre fiction.” (Of course, literary novels have their own generic conventions. My wife has come up with a Mad Libs for this kind of writing: a sad young BLANK travels to BLANK where he is betrayed by BLANK and discovers that BLANK is not all that he thought it was.) But we all know, or think we know, what literary fiction is when we see it. Jonathan Franzen and Louise Erdrich, yes; Sue Grafton and Stephen King, no.
Fanfic, or fan fiction, or simply fic, is fiction written by, well, fans: fans who take characters either real (Harry Styles) or imagined (Rey Skywalker) and create new stories, even new existences, for them. These stories are then shared online for free. Want to know what Frodo and Smaug would be like if they were in love? You can find that pairing—actually, dozens of versions of that pairing, ranging from the kid-friendly to the XXX-rated—on Archive of Our Own, the web’s best fic resource. Like any genre, fanfic has its share of duds; a story about Barack Obama’s imagined crush on Vladimir Putin is even less appealing than it sounds. But it also has gems that work in their own right and refract back upon the source text. (Jane Austen fic is especially rich.)
Looked at from a certain angle, fanfic isn’t new. T. S. Eliot wasn’t on Tumblr, but he did know that “no poet, no artist, has his complete meaning alone.” Stories come from other stories, and they always have. What distinguishes fanfic is more a matter of sensibility and style. Fanfic is written by amateurs. By that I mean both that it is written by non-professional writers, though there are exceptions, and that it is written by lovers, enthusiasts who create out of affection—complicated affection, often, but affection nonetheless—for the source text. Writers of fic are emotionally invested in what they’re writing on; they want it to keep going, to never end. Media scholar Henry Jenkins argues that “fan fiction is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of owned by the folk.” This reparative work can be seen in how often fic centers on queer romance, taking a character or storyline from the margins of a text—say, the erotic charge between Emma and Harriet in Emma—and pushing it forward. Sometimes, this can be clunky, a contemporary sensibility grafting itself onto an old story. Sometimes, it can be generative, revealing how the desire to reproduce and redress shapes our reading and writing.
Fanfic tends to have a distinctive style: heavy on sentence fragments, emotionally expressive actions, and one-sentence paragraphs; filled with italicized phrases, syntactical repetition, and present-tense verbs. These stylistic features arise from the genre’s particular demands. In fic, the writer’s task isn’t to create a character named “Han Solo” or “Barack Obama.” It’s to convince the reader of this particular instantiation of a character they already know. Backstory and general habits of mind can be excised without much loss; elements that intensify character presence and readerly identification—strong emotions and bodily descriptions—are emphasized. The result has a particular staccato rhythm. Everything, from syntax to narrative perspective, stresses immediacy.