If these are the end times for literature, then we must be traveling in circles, for the death of storytelling looks an awful lot like its birth. The novel itself isn’t all that old. Sure, we can find a handful of examples going back thousands of years, but you have to stretch your definition of novel the further back you go. Really, the idea of an immutable and unchangeable text dates only to the printing press. Before that, every scribe tasked with producing a tome thought he was an author. Like movie producers dabbling with plot, it was difficult for the hand-copiers of text not to make a tweak here or there. Books were ever-changing. Stories evolved. And that was the way things were until Gutenberg’s time.
Fast forward to 2012, where 1 out of every 5 books sold was part of the 50 Shades of Grey series. Originally a work of Twilight fan fiction, the monumental success of 50 Shades of Grey turned a spotlight on the shadowy world of fan-generated literature. Soon, publishers were seeking out other popular works of fan fiction and signing authors to mega deals. Then Amazon announced its Kindle Worlds program, which commercialized fan fiction and opened up licensed worlds for exploration. To purists—who mix a love of history with a thin understanding of the past—the sanctity of the written word was in jeopardy. It was raining frogs. The volcanoes were angry. These lovers of the very modern novel clamored for a return to our roots. And yet—that is precisely where we are heading.
Although no written account remains (writing wasn’t invented yet), it is safe to assume that fan fiction was invented about five minutes after the first story was told. A cave echoed with a riveting account of a great beast felled, and someone in the audience was already thinking of an improvement or a twist. These twists became part of the story as it moved through time and space; original storytellers relied on their imperfect memories, which promoted the flow and evolution of tales and allowed each one to be shaped to its audience. The oldest stories we know of, like Homer’s The Odyssey, were likely written by the collaboration of many and were the end result of thousands of varied retellings.
Lovers of the new and immutable novel may fear the end times, but ironically the end times themselves were a work of fan fiction. The four Gospels were written well after the times they describe, and each has its own take on similar events. (It used to bother me that the Gospels disagreed on so much. But then I discovered Batman comics and saw how often the Caped Crusader’s origins and backstory also changed over time.) Shakespeare made a career out of fan fiction. Wealthy patrons would request a new stab at a familiar story, and the Bard would comply. Or he would draw upon historical facts and people to make fiction from the real.
How is historical fiction, for that matter, different from fan fiction? After all, any hack can borrow the known world—whether historical or contemporary—and write a quick masterpiece. But of course it isn’t so simple. The writing is still the hard bit. Whether an author takes as their inspiration the life of Henry VIII or their own traumatic childhood or Batman’s traumatic childhood, they still have to fashion an engaging plot, realistic dialog, and pleasing prose. That’s the challenge, not the original idea. Ideas are cheap. Stories are dear.