From: Guardian, Tuesday December 9 2003, G2 supplement.
The plot thickens Remember that bit in Lord of the Rings where Aragorn gets it on with Legolas? No? All right, so Tolkien didn't write it, but the story is all over "fan fiction" websites.
From Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Shakespeare, fan-fiction writers subvert the plots of books, comics, TV programmes, feature films, and even songs. Anyone can have a go: just borrow your characters from whatever you're reading or watching.
Let's start with the basics: the vocabulary. "Fanfic" has three main categories. "Gen" stands for general fanfic, where you rewrite the plot. So in your version of Harry Potter, Sirius Black might not die. "Het" (for heterosexual) means that you add a dash of straight romance - think Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley. Then there's the immensely popular "slash" fiction. Hergerbabe, one slash writer who loves Smallville, describes it as perceiving a "homo-erotic subtext and turning it into text".
"Smell. That's what it was, the way Lex smelled. The musk of his aftershave combined with his own unique essence made Clark go weak at the knees. Well, OK, everything about Lex made Clark go weak at the knees."
Slash is almost exclusively about man-on-man fictional relationships. But interestingly, most slash fiction writers are straight women, writing about gay male relationships - for straight women.
But the crux is that it is make-believe. Many of the writers see fan fiction as a way of learning the conventions of writing, experimenting stylistically with ready-made characters and situations."What if...?" they ask, rather like a school assignment to "write a suicide note as Romeo might have done in Romeo and Juliet".
Kira, one fan-fiction writer, says that most of her fellow mailing-list contributors are in their mid-to-late 20s, graduates with good jobs, who simply want to "write character pieces about characters they admire".
But is fan fiction a legitimate literary genre or is it just plagiarism? Well, it is not a prerequisite, but many writers add a disclaimer before posting their stories on mailing lists. They don't own the characters, nor the plot.
Yet JK Rowling's literary agent, for instance, has asked some internet service providers and website operators to remove any pornographic fanfic based on Harry Potter, simply because children would be able to access it. But this is an issue about internet policing rather than the act of writing itself. In fact, a representative for Rowling's agent states that "the general feeling is one of flattery" - as long as it's clear that the author isn't JK Rowling.
Whatever you think of it, although fanfic was once a subculture, it is now pretty mainstream. It connects people and forms communities. And it says something about our celebrity-obsessed society that we escape from it only to idolise fictional characters.
And as to literary merit, well, when you trawl some of the stories on the net, you'd think that Mills & Boon need never go out of business. But there is also a lot of talent out there - people too shy to go to publishers with their own material. However, while they might be getting good at stylistic exercises, a distinctive authorial voice is surely the key to good writing.