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Does Fan Fiction Really Make Us More Creative?

I always enjoy reading Clive Thompson’s columns at Wired, so it was fun to see him defend fan fiction in those pages this week:

Why would worldplay make you more creative in your career? Probably because, as the Root-Bernsteins point out, it requires practical creativity. Fleshing out a universe demands not just imagination but an attention to detail, consistency, rule sets, and logic. You have to grapple with constraints — just as when you’re problem-solving at work.

This is why I’m so bullish about our teeming world of participatory fan culture. We live in a golden age of paracosmic play. As fandom scholars like blogger and USC professor Henry Jenkins have documented, today’s young people routinely build off their favorite cultural universes — writing new stories, creating game mods, shooting fan videos. It’s not sui generis creativity — they’re working with preexisting worlds — but it exercises the same creative muscles. I suspect society will reap the benefits in decades to come.

I’m of several minds about this. There’s no question that fan fiction’s been a valuable platform for authors like Cassandra Clare, whose Mortal Instruments fantasy series is about to be a big-budget movie, or E.L. James, whose Fifty Shades of Grey started out as Twilight fan fiction and has become a smash that’s headed for a film adaptation of its own, to cut their teeth before putting their work up for sale. Like most of us, I get a lot of joy out of mashups and supercuts and remakes, which can be acts of analysis and criticism as much as they’re works of art. And I’ve read After the End, a novel-length sequel to the Harry Potter franchise more times than I am actually willing to admit publicly.

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But I’m genuinely curious about the effects of creating a world as opposed to playing in a world created and governed by someone else. Does the impact of the kind of creative work Thompson is talking about come from playing with the characters, or creating the boundaries and rules and keeping track of them yourself? Is there a difference between the maintenance of a private universe that you have to sell other people on, and participating in an established fandom where everyone is on board with not just the rules of the world but the broad riffs on it that most people participate in? I think it’s silly to denigrate people who write fan fiction or read it, but I’m also curious about it as a specific phenomenon, how it intersects with the rise of self-publishing and the decline of book editors, and what it means that we want to spend so much time in these fictional worlds not of our own creations.