5. The Daily Telegraph
By Sam Leith
(Filed: January 3, 2004)
It was Christmas at Hogwarts, and Dobby the House-Elf was more excited than Harry had ever seen him. More excited, even, than when he had first been granted his freedom.
"Six socks! Six socks, Harry Potter!" Dobby piped in his loudest whisper. "Six socks, six socks!" he sang. With five long rugby socks on one foot, and three overlapping on the other, and one long dangly sock on either of his long dangly ears, Dobby capered wildly from foot to foot in the shredded remains of the wrapping paper from which the six new additions to his collection had emerged.
I settled into my chair. I was getting quite absorbed by this. What would happen next?
Eventually, excitement, and his inability to feel the floor through his thick, uneven woollen club feet, got the better of Dobby, and he pitched forward into the fire that was roaring in the dormitory hearth, scattering chestnuts everywhere.
"Waarrrgh! Dobby is on fire, Harry Potter!" he screamed. "Dobby's head is on fire, Harry Potter! Oh, Harry Potter, it hurtsithurtsithurts! Oh, help, Harry Potter! All Dobby's socks will be ruined!"
Dobby tried to lift himself out of the fire, but he tripped as the hot chestnuts underfoot rolled away, and fell face-first back in among the kindling. By now, his right ear, crisping up nicely, was starting to show through the charred tatters of the rugby sock which he had put on - needlessly, now - to keep his ears warm.
Has dear old JK Rowling discovered in herself a hitherto unimagined streak of sadism? Has The Telegraph, in defiance of the majesty of the law of copyright and the monstrous anger of Bloomsbury, obtained an extract from a closely guarded sixth book: Harry Potter and the Slaughter of the Innocents? No such luck. The above mixture of juvenility and nastiness is all my own - an early attempt at writing what aficionados call "fanfic".
Fan fiction is an internet craze probably invisible to the average adult reader of this newspaper, but which has millions of people in its grip. It's responsible for billions of words of prose, poems and plays - some of which, like my own, are just plain silly. Many are barely literate. A fair few are pornographic.
Others are impassioned, well-written, slow-wrought works of the imagination. So if your 16-year-old spends all day locked in his room playing on the internet, he's not necessarily surfing for pornography. That might, in fact, be a metaphor you can hear him polishing.
The idea is this: you take the characters and situations from a play, film, television series, comic or even - whisper it - book, and write your own story about them. It might be a fourth book of Lord of the Rings, a quidditch match in which Hufflepuff wins, a Buffy episode in which the Slayer falls into the Hellmouth or - if you are my brilliant colleague A N Wilson - a novel in the style of Ivy Compton-Burnett.
This is not to be mocked. What is Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys's novel about the first Mrs Rochester - but a bit of fan fiction? Fanfic isn't just an internet phenomenon, but the internet has democratised it.
And how. The Big Read might have encouraged people to watch telly and, a few of them, to read fiction. But fan fiction must be considered a self-starting, celebrity-free Big Write. And not only are these people writing imaginative stories, they are also encouraging each other to post reviews of their work alongside them on the net. The standard review takes the form of a few lines - i.e.: "I really enjoyed this: when will you be posting the next chapter?"
Well, why not, I thought, when I first heard about the phenomenon from a colleague whose 14-year-old daughter has written a Harry Potter novel and posted it online. I always wanted to be a writer - here's my chance.
The set-up is simple. You visit one of the sites that hosts fan fiction (I went to www.fanfiction.net). You sign up, giving yourself a nom de plume (in honour of a friend who writes for The Spectator, I chose "The Questing Vole") and a password. And then you start uploading your stories and hoping for reviews. Readers can browse an enormous archive of stories, many of them the size of a long book.
Even on Christmas day, when I last checked the "Just In" board, the fictioneers weren't taking a break. There was Kashiichan's "Not Just A Massage", a Digimon fanfic. There were some seasonal jollies at South Park. There was Oriana47's romance story based on the sitcom That 70s Show. And a smattering of the flavours of the month - Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.
Fanfiction.net is essentially self-policing and includes a set of sensible guidelines: you're expected to give your work a certificate, and nothing X-rated is allowed. You're asked, quite firmly, to do your readers the courtesy of spell-checking your work, and so on. The members of this sprawling literary community seem, in the main, to observe the rules with some seriousness.
Of course, the characters and settings for almost all fan fiction remain in copyright. The site, therefore, carries prominent disclaimers. In most cases, this seems to suffice – the authors and television executives concerned accepting fanfic as tribute rather than threat. A handful have objected - but the site mentions their names and asks that their wishes be respected.
I started with a controlled experiment - something done straight - a moody and rather overwritten (well, you can scarcely do worse than Tolkien, I reckon) Lord of the Rings knock-off. "The air in Mordor is dense and clammy in the lungs and always still..." I began.
It had barely been up for 15 minutes when my e-mail inbox pinged to announce the first review. I started to imagine being catapulted to stardom in the world of fanfic. (And there are stars - you should see the number of followers the prolific and articulate Aine Deande seems to have gathered.) The review was complimentary, and helpfully pointed out a duplicated phrase.
Shortly afterwards, one Kali Shan submitted a more gnomic contribution: "col..." Col? Weren't my 1,000 words even worth a second "o"? That was when I set Dobby's head on fire in a fit of pique. That'll show them, I thought. The Potter fans responded to "Death of a House-Elf" with what I fancied was a shocked silence but was, in all likelihood, slightly pitying indifference.
Most of my other efforts got reviews - including one from "a 24-year-old college graduate with a BA in English language and literature". Anyway, I had the bug. Shocked to be unable to find any PG Wodehouse, I tried a short one in the style of Plum. It involved aunts. Then, in tribute to the cheesy grandiloquence of the comics writer Chris Claremont, I had Wolverine from the X-Men drinking in a bar and saying "bub" a lot.
I wrote a Philip Pullman tribute in which Lyra accidentally insults the armoured bear, is killed, and discovers that God has left the singer Morrissey in charge. (OK, I know that was silly, but I couldn't figure out how to end it.) There was a topical Turner Prize story about Harry Potter turning transvestite potter in the manner of Grayson Perry.
The more facetious offerings (and I think this speaks well of the seriousness with which the contributors take the business of writing) went largely unreviewed, though I hit a nerve with a story set in the aftermath of the Battle of Pellenor, in which I ventured into the world of "slash" - a special subset of fan fiction that teases out the homosexual subtexts.
Legolas sheathed his last arrow and let his bow fall. Gimli huffed and broke into a run, casting his warhammer aside.
One foot trod on the head of an orc, and then, suddenly, he was at Legolas's feet, his beard nuzzling the elvish bowman's thigh, ticklish through his Mithril chainmail. Leaning down, Legolas reached under the little warrior's arms, and hoisted him to his face, smothering his beard with kisses.
"Ho, stupid elf, stop that!" grumbled Gimli, who was sensitive about being picked up. "Stop it, you hear?"
One reviewer - Gollum Girl - was disturbed: "That is kinda wrong the hole leggy gimli kissy stuff...," she wrote. "er. well, whats with leggy, tell me please." Cheysuli, apparently a veteran writer of slash with a particular enthusiasm for Legolas/Gimli pairings, disagreed: "This was sweet. Will there be more? Oh, who is Gumlit? I thought Gimli's father was Gloin."
I hadn't bothered to check, and had identified the wretched dwarf as "Gimli of the stout beard, son of Gumlit, grandson of Thoreson and bearer of the Mithril hammer", which got me in all sorts of trouble with Daemon Woman: "Gimli wields an ax. And his father is Glóin and his father Gróin and his father is Farin. Tiny carnival hands?
O.o Gimli could be anywhere from 4 and a half to 5 feet tall. Which isn't too short, unless you're pushing 6 feet yourself. And being a dwarf, strong and stout and all and a craftsman, I would presume that he would have rather large broad hands. If he didn't would he be able to wield this Mithril hammer you invented? I doubt it... this is too odd and out of place to enjoy or understand."
That was my longest review, and it was the least complimentary. I started to look around. Look, she's got hundreds of reviews. And they're nicer than my reviews. What do you mean, her stuff made you cry? That nonsense? No! Come and read my work, you bastards.
Thus ran my trains of thought. And, I dare say, it won't be long before a peeved Questing Vole - yet one still hopeful of success - returns to the field.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.