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.

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis