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In defense of fan fiction, and ignoring the 'pretensions of polish'

An ode to the joy of fan fiction.
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Getty Images
An ode to the joy of fan fiction.

Fan fiction may not command the same respect as other literary pursuits, but it's a rich mode of expression, says one author who mounts a passionate case for the style.

Who is she? Esther Yi is an author whose latest book, Y/N, examines obsession for the modern age.

  • The book tells the story of a Korean American woman living in Berlin who works as a copywriter for a canned artichoke heart business.
  • In this otherwise mundane life, she finds spiritual, romantic and intellectual awakening in her devotion to a K-pop superstar named Moon.
  • The book's title, Y/N, stands for "Your Name." It appears in a type of fan fiction that allows readers to insert their name into that slot and imagine themselves as part of the story, Yi told NPR, "Which, of course, usually involves a romantic encounter or story of some kind with the celebrity or the fictional character in question."
  • Esther Yi says she respects that fan fiction is a product of a compulsion.
    / Sharon Choi
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    Sharon Choi
    Esther Yi says she respects that fan fiction is a product of a compulsion.

    What's the big deal? What is considered "good literature" is an evolving, subjective and generally pretty fruitless debate. Even so, it's a fair generalization to say fan fiction isn't at the top of the literary hierarchy.

  • So let's start with a definition of fan fiction: It's the process of someone taking an existing movie, book, play, video game etc. and writing their own story using the same world and characters.
  • It's not a new concept, and while there are plenty of examples of far-fetched or frivolous versions of fan fics, there's also recognition of the important role it can play in how fans interact with popular texts.
  • Big screen productions are using fan fiction as source material more and more these days. 50 Shades of Grey is famously based on a Twilight fan fiction.
  • A 2021 research paper examined the Harry Potter series and the "worsening relationship between [J.K.] Rowling and her fans" and highlighted how fans have used, "their collective power to undermine Rowling's gender politics through fan fiction."
  • There is also evidence that reader habits have been changing in recent years, focusing less on prestige and more on what they just enjoy. Overall sales of print copies of books declined in 2022 for the first time in three years, yet at the same time, romance novel sales surged 52%, according to Publishers Weekly.
  • For Yi, this intersection between a literature obsession and finding a way to interact with her objects of desire lead her to become an author.
  • Who decides what "good literature" is?
    Kiran Ridley / Getty Images
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    Getty Images
    Who decides what "good literature" is?

    What does Yi say about fan fiction? The short answer: it's something to be celebrated.

    I find fan fiction especially a really interesting and really rich mode of expression that, of course, a lot of people look down on because it lacks a certain literary polish. But I respect that about fan fiction. I respect that fan fiction is so much the product of a compulsion, of a yearning, that it almost forgoes all of these pretensions of polish, of quality, of sophistication. And in that sense, for me, there is something that's revealed at the heart of fan fiction that I think is essential to all great literature, which is this desire to put yourself in the same space as the transcendental, to almost touch the hem of it without really quite grasping it.


    Want to hear more from Esther Yi? Listen to the full conversation on her book Y/N by clicking or tapping the play button at the top.


    So, what now?

  • The rise of fan fiction coincided with the rise of the internet, and shows no signs of slowing. Rather than put the genie back in the bottle, some researchers are now concerning themselves with how to define it, so as to protect both fan fiction writers and the authors of the work it is based on.
  • Yi's book Y/N published this week.
  • Read more:

  • The intense sting of 'Swarm' might be worth the pain
  • Here are the Books We Love: 400+ great 2022 reads recommended by NPR
  • 2 novels to cure your winter blahs: Ephron's 'Heartburn' and 'Pineapple Street'
  • Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.