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

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain