Is it just me, or should we stop using 'fan fiction' as a catch-all putdown?

At a time when low-performing sequels have been heavily criticised, even three of the biggest follow-ups of the last 12 months haven’t been immune. Two dominated cinemas, the other owned theatres. But one thing links Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Captain America: Civil War and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: they’ve all been accused of peddling ‘bad fanfic’.

You don’t have to look too closely to see that the criticism does fan fiction and the stories in question a disservice. First up, if you take fan fiction to mean fans’ self-pleasuring, under-plotted variations on characters, and stories by real authors, the movies/play above mount plenty of resistance. 

True, The Force Awakens ‘echoes’ A New Hope and Cursed Child brims with Potter-world references. But both are continuations of previous stories rather than reboots, so some echoes are inevitable and necessary. Besides, both incorporate these echoes with thematic cogency. You could call them 'fanfic with a budget', but the question then becomes: so what, if it works?

The twist, of course, is that they aren’t fanfic in the literal sense. Fanfic is DIY-based, written by fans without resources – and there’s more range and value to it than one definition or dismissal admits. Sub-genres are numerous, and they can offer young people (often young women) an open means of expression. And it isn’t all soft-porn, contrary to opinion.

E.L. James’ Twilight-riffing Fifty Shades of Grey gave fanfic a bad name for many people, but fanfic’s quality is, arguably, not intrinsically more variable than pro-fic’s quality. And plenty of big writers have embraced fanfic culture. Naomi Novik (the Temeraire series), Cassandra Clare (Mortal Instruments) and others have written it; Neil Gaiman has defended it.

Arguably, Doctor Who offers a special fanfic case. After the TV series hit cancellation street in 1989, spin-off novels and audio-plays helped keep it alive. Fans wrote these - and many of them later wrote for the post-2005 reboot-as-continuation. In other words, fanfic isn’t easily reduced to one simple meaning. And it certainly means too much to be routinely trotted out as a dirty neologism. Or is it just me? 

Each month Total Film magazine argues a polarising movie opinion and gives you the opportunity to agree/disagree/tell us we’re mad. Let us know what you think about this one in the comments below and read on for more. 

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Freelance writer

Kevin Harley is a freelance journalist with bylines at Total Film, Radio Times, The List, and others, specializing in film and music coverage. He can most commonly be found writing movie reviews and previews at GamesRadar+.