Fan Fiction versus Historical Fiction

I posed this question on a group I belong to, but got no response, so I thought I’d post it here in hopes of getting one.

There are many novels featuring characters who first appeared in classic novels. Jane Austen’s works, particularly Pride and Prejudice, seem to have spawned the most progeny. John Updike tried his hand at this in Gertrude and Claudius, which ends immediately before the action of Hamlet begins, and Sidney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities has his own book, A Far Better Rest, by Susanne Alleyn. I’ve enjoyed the Updike and Alleyn books, and I’ve also enjoyed some of Joan Aiken’s Jane Austen sequels. In fact, I’ve tried my own hand at this with Romeo and Juliet. (My short novel, which I’m shopping around, concerns Mercutio’s life before his fatal duel with Tybalt. Inquiries are welcome–just don’t overload my in box, please.)

So are these novels historical novels or fan fiction? They seem to meet the criteria for fan fiction, as stated in Wikipedia: “written by people who enjoy a film, novel, television show or other media work, using the characters and situations developed in it and developing new plots in which to use these characters.” Yet somehow I can’t picture John Updike saying to himself, “Well, I guess I’ll check Amazon to see how my Shakespeare fan fiction is selling today.” Is the difference just in the quality of writing? Or is it just having a publisher’s ISBN number that transforms a work from fan fiction into historical fiction? I’m curious to hear what others think.

(While you’re at it, Mr. Updike, could you write another Rabbit book? Pretty please? Even if you have to call it Rabbit Remembered Redux.)

3 thoughts on “Fan Fiction versus Historical Fiction”

  1. Good question. I’ve often wondered why the Jane Austen sequels/prequels/same story from other character’s point of view aren’t classed as fan fiction. Several possibilities come to mind:

    a) I’ve heard an alternative definition of fan fiction that’s something like ‘work that cannot be legally published’ because of copyright. Jane Austen and Shakespeare are way out of copyright, so by this definition they don’t come under fan fiction.

    b) Fan fiction has an additional layer of meaning as a derogatory term, so it couldn’t possibly be applied to ‘proper novels’ written by proper authors like Updike. (This is related to your comment on ‘quality of writing’ – except that some fan fiction [admittedly quite a small proportion] is actually quite good).

    c) Much fan fiction (because of (a) above) is given away free on the internet by its authors. So fan fiction has acquired the additional definition that it must be free, therefore novels you have to pay for can’t be fan fiction. This might be related to your point about having a publisher’s ISBN number.

    I’m sure there are lots of other reasons.

  2. Interesting debate. I would say they are not really ‘historical fiction’ though they are set in a historical time period. And I’ve often wondered how an author can get away with using someone else’s character to spin off another story. (Unless of course it’s a true historical character in which case you can interpret them as you wish for historical fiction.)

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