The Boy Who Lived Forever

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Collage by Jo Lynn Alcorn; photograph by Jamie Chung

J.K. Rowling probably isn't going to write any more Harry Potter books. That doesn't mean there won't be any more. It just means they won't be written by J.K. Rowling. Instead they'll be written by people like Racheline Maltese.

Maltese is 38. She's an actor and a professional writer — journalism, cultural criticism, fiction, poetry. She describes herself as queer. She lives in New York City. She's a fan of Harry Potter. Sometimes she writes stories about Harry and the other characters from the Potterverse and posts them online for free. "For me, it's sort of like an acting or improvisation exercise," Maltese says. "You have known characters. You apply a set of given circumstances to them. Then you wait and see what happens."

Maltese is a writer of fan fiction: stories and novels that make use of the characters and settings from other people's professional creative work. Fan fiction is what literature might look like if it were reinvented from scratch after a nuclear apocalypse by a band of brilliant pop-culture junkies trapped in a sealed bunker. They don't do it for money. That's not what it's about. The writers write it and put it up online just for the satisfaction. They're fans, but they're not silent, couchbound consumers of media. The culture talks to them, and they talk back to the culture in its own language.

Right now fan fiction is still the cultural equivalent of dark matter: it's largely invisible to the mainstream, but at the same time, it's unbelievably massive. Fan fiction predates the Internet, but the Web has made it exponentially easier to talk and be heard, and it holds hundreds of millions of words of fan fiction. There's fan fiction based on books, movies, TV shows, video games, plays, musicals, rock bands and board games. There's fan fiction based on the Bible. In most cases, the quantity of fan fiction generated by a given work is volumetrically larger than the work itself; in some cases, the quality is higher than that of the original too., the largest archive on the Web (though only one of many), hosts over 2 million pieces of fan fiction, ranging in length from short-short stories to full-length novels. The Harry Potter section alone contained, at press time, 526,085 entries.

Nobody makes money from fan fiction, but whether anybody loses money on fan fiction is a separate question. The people who create the works that fan fiction borrows from are sharply divided on it. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer have given Harry Potter and Twilight fan fiction their blessing; if anything, fan fiction has acted as a viral marketing agent for their work. Other writers consider it a violation of their copyrights, and more, of their emotional claim to their own creations. They feel as if their characters had been kidnapped by strangers.

You can see both sides of the issue. Do characters belong to the person who created them? Or to the fans who love them so passionately that they spend their nights and weekends laboring to extend those characters' lives, for free? There's a division here, a geological fault line, that looks small on the surface but runs deep into our culture, and the tectonic plates are only moving farther apart. Is art about making up new things or about transforming the raw material that's out there? Cutting, pasting, sampling, remixing and mashing up have become mainstream modes of cultural expression, and fan fiction is part of that. It challenges just about everything we thought we knew about art and creativity.

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