Anna Todd's fan fiction about One Direction has earned her a six-figure book deal. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The truth behind that six-figure deal for Harry Styles fan fiction

A One Direction fan’s writings have earned her a huge publishing deal – and kicked off a whole new round of missing the point about fan fiction.

It all feels a little familiar: a work of fan fiction with a massive online following; a six-figure book deal; a slew of media coverage riddled with misconceptions about the nature of fanworks. “If you’ve ever wondered why anyone would spend their spare time writing fan fiction, you better think again,” one outlet writes. A similar message, albeit more of a gentle joke: “Apparently, it really pays to spend your free time writing about your favorite teen stars. Take that, parents everywhere!” But some got straight to the point. One article that begins: “Gone are the days when fan fiction was the best kept secret on the internet” continues: “SIX. FIGURES. Christ we need to pack in this jounalism [sic] malarky [sic] and start writing fan fic, pronto.”

And then yesterday, a Guardian piece surely intended as pure snark that managed to hit the same old nerves. “Fan fiction is big business”, the mock-Q&A asserts. “So this is how you get rich? Write in a stream of consciousness style about celebrities having sex with an impressionable young woman and wait for the money to roll in?” All of this is, of course, about one particular work of fan fiction. The celebrities in question are the members of One Direction, especially Harry Styles; the “impressionable young woman” is Tessa, a stand-in (in fandom, what’s known as a Mary Sue, or the more euphemistic “self-insert”) for the author, 25-year-old Texan Anna Todd; the money rolling in is six figures for her trilogy After, which she’s been publishing on the story-sharing site Wattpad. With nearly 300 chapters between the three installments, After has been viewed more than 800 million times. Todd signed a deal with Simon and Schuster, with whom she’ll work to, as the cliché goes, “file off the serial numbers”: the proper names will have to be changed (and all those chapters will be whittled down to three regular-sized novels, too).

Fifty Shades of Grey wasn’t the last Twilight fanfic to lead to a major book deal, and After isn’t the first 1D work to lead to one, either. But these are the two series in this realm that have received the most press in the past few years. They share some elements – say, their eroticism, or their female protagonists, or source material that’s equal parts ridiculed and beloved by the general public. (A quick pause here to say that After is RPF, real person fic, a practice that often sits on its own, sometimes even ostracised or misunderstood, in the broader fan fiction universe. Bandfic is a perennial winner in the RPF world, and right now, perhaps unsurprisingly, One Direction is king.) But both Fifty Shades and After prompt questions, within fan communities and without, about what it means to write fan fiction now that the practice has been thrust into the public eye, and now that a select few are raking in enormous profits from the practice.

What is the purpose of fan fiction? There is no single correct answer. It can be a way to critically engage with the source material – a rewriting of a plotline, a reexamination of a scene from another angle, a what-if twist that alters the entire thing. It can be a way of fulfilling a fantasy – say, when you write that your favorite singer has fallen in love with an ordinary girl. It can be pure, sugar-spun fun; it can be more challenging, emotionally or intellectually, than the works that inspired it. It can be an enormous dialogue, inter-fandom and intra-fandom, sharing tropes and themes and methods of experimentation. It can be a way to just spend more time, in whatever way you prefer, with characters or a world that you find compelling. It can be a space that exists wholly outside the pressures of commercial writing – a story can have a million followers, or just one, and it doesn’t make a difference. But then, if a story has a million followers, is it hitting that commercially-publishable note – and can you fault the publishers, or the writers, from cashing in?

Maybe that question is changing – it even feels as if it’s changed since the last round of press for Fifty Shades of Grey. It might be easy to forget that a little more than a decade ago, Warner Brothers was yanking down Harry Potter fan sites without warning, particularly those that “sent the wrong message”, like speculating that a character could be gay. Now media corporations are actively trying to create the kind of spaces for fan engagement that mimic the volume and enthusiasm of what’s historically been built from the bottom-up – organic celebrations of (and critical space to examine) a book or movie or television show or band. Now we’ve got “official fan fiction partners” of a book or a movie, and even corporate-sponsored incentive – rewards, like access to special content, that sort of thing – to create more content in their spaces. We’ve got Kindle Worlds, Amazon’s officially-sanctioned fan fiction venture, in which the writer gets the royalties from the book and the official-sanctioner gets the rights to all the new ideas she created.

Enter Wattpad, the site that hosts After, and a confusing space for someone like me, growing up thinking of fan fiction as something wholly separate from original fiction – at least where you go to read it, anyway. It’s described as “the YouTube for books”; like YouTube, it’s enormous (40 million stories and at least 25 million users) and messy (I mean, just try to find your way around on the first go) and for a few that can break through the noise, profitable. There’s a lot to slog through, but there are certainly great writers on the site. (For all the commenters in all the After articles moaning about the “death of literature”, and I saw a lot of you out there, please keep in mind that a wildly popular book does much more good for more writers – essentially puts more cash in the hands of the publishers – than not.) The most fascinating Wattpad stat, for me, is that 85 per cent of views are from mobile devices; by a similar token, After’s “warning” includes a note from Todd: “I also wrote a lot of the story from my phone so you will find typos and other errors-please excuse them.”

Fan fiction is published side-by-side with original fiction, and this is where I see things, particularly for younger fans, getting increasingly murky – the phrase “content creators”, and all of its implications, springs to mind. Who owns what, and who will own what in the future? I got in touch with Anne Jamison, whose marvelous Fic:Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World spends most of its time in the pre-Wattpad era. In recent months, her publisher has excerpted the book on the site; Jamison herself is serialising a novel there, partly as a way to research the dynamics of the platform. She said via email: “In addition to hosting and ultimately profiting from fan fiction content like After, Wattpad has clearly scrutinised fan fiction practices and is looking to monetise these as well, as with their new program to charge for ‘bonus’ chapters (the outtakes and alternative points of view long featured by fan writers). The question I would have is what Wattpad’s profit-sharing agreements on these deals are. I hope the site’s young and newly-successful writers read all the fine print.”

The question of monetisation of fan fiction is clearly shifting: Fifty Shades of Grey was noticed by the big guys because it was published by a small press first – one that emerged from fandom, in fact, and was quite controversial upon its founding. But with more and more platforms like Wattpad, the rules are changing. I celebrate fan fiction as a (relatively) egalitarian space, and as a powerful tool against the dominant narratives in our popular culture. But those stories, the weird, challenging ones, the queer rewritings, the unconventional kinks, all the jokes you might make about fan fiction never having read a word of it, all of that feels absent in the fanfic-to-traditional publishing game. I don’t feel that potential in the new platforms that are emerging, under the watchful eye of publishers and movie studios and the editorial discretion, in some cases, of the platform itself. And it’s fine – a different ethos, a different set of incentives, but it’s fine. But I’ve loved fan fiction for a long time, and none of these new developments make me want to pack in this journalism malarkey and start writing fanfic pronto.

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.

Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism