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Fan Fiction in a Literary Context

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Fan Fiction in a Literary Context

For most people, John F. Kennedy Jr was a character in a play, a character in a story, just the way Sherlock Holmes was. When he's lost, then people react very emotionally. Constantly rehearsing the details of somebody's life and death shows that people are trying to continue the story. We always try to do that when the story ends before we're prepared for the ending.

- Neil Postman, chairman of the department of culture and communication at New York University[1]

On the official Anne Rice web site[2] appears the following message:

I do not allow fan fiction.

The characters are copyrighted. It upsets me terribly to even think about fan fiction with my characters. I advise my readers to write your own original stories with your own characters.

It is absolutely essential that you respect my wishes.

Until relatively recently in the history of fiction, this would have seemed a very odd message from writer to reader. For a start, the idea that there is some intrinsic virtue in using an "original" character or story would have puzzled most ancient or mediaeval writers. They did do that sometimes, but they plundered the vast resources of myth and history just as happily - indeed there is a mediaeval convention of authorial modesty whereby writers routinely claim that they found the story they are about to tell in some ancient book. Thus Robert Henryson, the fifteenth-century Scottish poet, tells how, one winter night by the fire, he read a book:

writtin be worthie Chaucer glorious,

Of fair Cresseid and lustie Troilus.[3]

And he tells us that when he had finished Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, which ends with Troilus mourning his faithless love but does not say what became of her, he took another book, in which he found

...the fatall destinie

Of fair Cresseid

This second book, of course, does not exist, though it will: he is about to write it. The Testament of Cresseid is his sequel to Chaucer's poem, using the characters both poets had borrowed from Greek myth and made their own, though neither would have thought to call them "my characters". However individualised by each successive poet who used them, they were still Troilus and Cressida, part of a resource that belonged to all.

History is another such resource and Shakespeare, his contemporaries and successors happily plundered classical, English and European history for plots and characters.
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