Here’s a little perspective on all the marketing hype and debate surrounding Amazon’s Kindle Worlds fanfic platform: Some of the most significant and successful subgenres of recent decades have been evolved through a process close to fanfic, which to that extent is a latecomer to the game.
“In 1928, a young man, Conan creator Robert E. Howard, wrote a fan letter to Weird Tales magazine praising H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu,” which had recently appeared in the magazine’s pages. Howard described the story as “a masterpiece,” which he was “sure will live as one of the highest achievements in literature.” So writes Ross E. Lockhart in his introduction to the 2011 Night Shade Books anthology of Mythos stories he edited, “The Book of Cthulhu: Tales Inspired by H.P. Lovecraft.”
Howard went on to become a member of the ‘Lovecraft circle’ of writers, also including Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, Frank Belknap Long, Henry Kuttner, and Fritz Leiber, who corresponded, collaborated, and swapped and traded the names of invented deities, demons, and grimoires, creating the Cthulhu Mythos.
“interlinked tales of tentacles, madness, and terror created by Lovecraft, but expanded upon by his contemporaries and correspondents—the so-called ‘Lovecraft Circle.’ And the circle has gone on expanding ever since. The Cthulhu Mythos story cycle has taken on a convoluted, cyclopean life of its own, as further posthumous collaborations continue to expand the scope, scale, and ultimate interpretation of what is perhaps the most diverse shared fictional universe ever created.”
What’s more, Lovecraft himself used the same approach, inserting coinages and whole invented mythologies from living collaborators and dead exemplars into his canonical stories—Lord Dunsany’s Bethmoora, Robert W. Chambers’s Yellow Sign, Howard’s Unaussprechlichen Kulten. The process was consummated after Lovecraft’s death by his executor and publisher August Derleth, who either consecrated his legacy, or overlaid and distorted it, depending on your point of view.
So how does this differ from today’s fanfic?
Well, for one thing, the Lovecraft Circle writers were authors: paid contributors who had to get past the editorial bar at Weird Tales or wherever. That speaks to the digital disruption of the boundary layer between professional writer and amateur hobbyist, and also to the primacy of distribution over content. The moment that amateur writers got a means to publish themselves, their status became equivalent at least potentially to professionals. Now it’s just a matter of degree.
So if every reader is now also potentially a writer, why and how would they want to write themselves into somebody else’s world? If you’re a fanfic reader looking for a fresh fix of your habit, is it just the long list of names you need to get you off? Or is it the same mood, spirit, ambience you want, which could be embodied in completely different trappings? Because if all these worlds are is a string of proper nouns and stock characters, then who even needs the fanfic authors, if a few algorithms could do the job just as well? Would readers care or even notice how good or bad the writing is, so long as the right trigger points are there? But they’re great as marketing franchises.
Fanfic commercialization may be the latest expression of the worst ills of genre writing, but it has one more new dimension to it. Lockhart explains:
“My personal discovery of the Cthulhu Mythos came in 1980, maybe early 1981. I received the Dungeons and Dragons cyclopedia, Deities and Demigods, which included a section … detailing the Cthulhu Mythos pantheon.”
Much modern fanfic is a by-blow of role-playing games, or other gaming franchises such as Warhammer and World of Warcraft. For the Cthulhu Mythos, it’s Call of Cthulhu, one of the most successful RPG franchises of all time. There, players and gamemasters have been spinning their own shared narratives for decades.
For any literary pundit looking for the Internet to foster a new tradition of communal collaborative storytelling like the ballads of old, well, it has already happened. Amazon, commercially savvy as always, is just the smartest platform to work out how to effectively monetize it.