Nabokov burning

Ben du Preez casts his eye over rich patrons, poets in peril and a masterpiece that may never be rea

Gongs dominated the literary world this week, as the much-touted Glaswegian AL Kennedy won the Costa Prize with her WWII-epic, Day. The chair of judges, Joanna Trollope, described the part-time comedienne as 'an extraordinary stylist' and compared her to James Joyce. But there was also news that the Nestle prize for children's fiction is no more.

With the ongoing grind of Arts Council cuts, it seems like artists will rely even more heavily on the generosity of wealthy benefactors. Take, for example, the £5million facelift Randy Lerner, owner of Aston Villa football club, has graciously donated to the National Portrait Gallery. Villa fans are said to be livid. Lerner's not complaining, though; the ground floor galleries will be named after him in recognition.

Elsewhere, a Burmese poet was arrested for a cryptic message inside a love poem which, when read vertically, the first word of each line formed the sentence: "Power crazy Senior General Than Shwe." Less arcane was the release of Jonathan Yeo's official portrait of a 'mellow, bouncy' Tony Blair as prime minister. For many, however, to burn or not to burn was the question which dominated the week as Dimitri Nabokov, the sole surviving heir of Vladimir Nabokov, hinted he would burn the author's unfinished novel, The Original of Laura, as stipulated in his will. Referring to it as "the most concentrated distillation of [my father's] creativity" has not helped matters.

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Harry Potter and the Minotaur’s Rage: how fanfiction got me into writing

My fanfiction was almost uniformly awful, like most of the things I did or liked when I was becoming myself.

The source of the noise was clear. Some kind of monster was emerging from the wood.

"Easy, Harry," counselled Hagrid, "Easy.”

Nervously, the bespectacled wizard approached the hulking beast cautiously. What was it? It had red leather skin, like a sofa, was bigger even than Hagrid and had a pair of cruel horns.

You may not recognise the above passage from any of J K Rowling’s seven entries in the Harry Potter series. That’s because it’s not by Rowling at all, but is taken from Harry Potter and the Minotaur’s Rage by awideyedwanderer, the alias under which I, with the addition and subtraction of a few dashes and underscores depending on the platform, wrote fanfiction from 2000 to 2006.

To deal with the obvious questions, no, it was not about the Labour party, and no, I don’t think anyone ever had sex, except perhaps very briefly towards the end of the story. (As such, it was a fairly accurate reflection on the life of its author during that period.)

Fanfiction often gets a bad rap, in my case deservedly. One former editor of the New Statesman used to say of one of his staffers that he was “the Fred West of prose”, and my fanfiction was not much better. I hacked my way through the universes of Harry Potter, Doctor Who, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Final Fantasy and Star Trek. I also perpetrated my own, highly derivative “original” fiction, featuring a character called Mr Jones who was basically Doctor Who with a gun.

My fanfiction was influenced by whatever novel I was reading and whatever the current state of my politics were, which meant that as the Noughties wore on it became increasingly dominated by thinly-veiled allegories for the excesses of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq.

What got me started? Well, it’s all J K Rowling’s fault. I was an early adopter of the Harry Potter books, and though the first three books came out every year, there was a three-year gap between The Goblet of Fire and The Order of the Phoenix. So without a new book, Potter fans had to write their own, of which Harry Potter and the Minotaur’s Rage was one.

At this point in this sort of article, it’s usually customary to defend fanfiction by pointing out that some of it is actually very good, while some of it has made a great deal of money. My fanfiction was neither good nor financially lucrative, but I always think this misses the point a bit. Very few people think they are producing high art when they write fanfic – people are doing it to have a good time, to expand a world they’ve enjoyed.

My fanfiction was almost uniformly awful, like most of the things I did or liked when I was becoming myself. (In its defence, I think my fanfiction has aged better than Evanescence, a band which provided the soundtrack and most of the chapter titles to my fic.) But I had a great time writing it, and if nothing else, it taught me never to begin a sentence with “nervously” and end it with “cautiously”.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.