In the mid-nineties I wrote an X-Files Cthulhu Mythos cross-over as a present for a friend, which I rediscovered in the depths of a folder while setting up a more rigorous back-up schedule. I did not think it was great – but did not think it was terrible either – so set myself a challenge of rewriting it using the benefit of my (hopefully) greater skill. The result was, in my opinion, much better. Sharing this tale provoked an interesting debate in one of my writing groups on whether author’s are seen as less competent if they reveal they write fan fiction. While I was expecting different opinions on the copyright issues of using fan fiction, I was surprised at the difference in implicit definitions of fan fiction in various comments.
Both the debate on copyright infringement and the discussion of whether my story was potentially equally skilled as an original universe work were focused entirely on the X-Files elements; one person even explicitly stated I could avoid the issues by replacing Mulder and Scully with two other FBI agents. So a story that features characters created by Chris Carter is seen as fan fiction, whereas one that features characters created by Howard Phillips Lovecraft is not. As many famous authors, Neil Gaiman among them, have written Cthulhu Mythos stories without permission from HP Lovecraft, each of which are considered real as opposed to fan fiction, the difference cannot be in whether a story is accepted into the official canon by the creator.
Indeed, one thread of the debate was whether any fiction set in someone else’s universe is ever as worthy as that set in an original universe. Certainly there is an argument that some tie-ins, especially those that are part of long running series, might not be subject to the same level of quality control as the target market is buying for the name not the prose alone. However, no one is accusing Poppy Z. Brite or Simon Clark of putting less effort into their Mythos stories than their other work.
I have spent several days considering other derivative works. There are many other examples of works based on past characters that are not seen as fan fiction, such as Robin Hood and King Arthur, but they are all traditional tales. Is it actually that the Mythos is unique in both being new enough that it is still associated with its creator and in having a creator who not only permitted but actively worked toward other authors creating in his universe?
Or is it that, once you are a famous enough author anything you publish is real fiction? This raises the, frankly absurd, possibility that an author could write a high-quality story early in their career, which is dismissed as fan fiction, and then republish the same story without any changes after they were famous as real fiction.
With some readers openly saying they would not read fan fiction even if it were on the personal site of an author they like, the division is more than just a product of an aversion to winnowing the good from the bad on fan fiction sites, but what is it? So far, I am still without an answer.
If you divide fiction into fan fiction and real fiction how do you do it?