Being Modern: Fan fiction

To begin, an apology. Yes, we're raising the subject of Fifty Shades of Grey again, as if it needed any more publicity. But, then, if the British public didn't keep buying the darned thing…

Anyway, it has been rammed down our throats (oo-er missus) that the book began its life as "fan fiction"; specifically, a blog that appropriated characters from the Twilight novels. EL James's triumph has, in turn, led to cultural commentators dashing about in fright, asking whether this means the end of literary invention.

And the answer? Of course not.

Fanfic has, after all, been around for a while. The troubadours of the Middle Ages, for instance, who would put their own spin on age-old tales, didn't exactly hold back the printed word. Not that they helped it much, either…

Anyway, the point is, fan fiction is as old as time. Or at least as old as papyrus. From the turn of the 20th century, when Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes was ripe for reinterpretation, to the 1960s, when Star Trek inspired many a wannabe Sulu to pen adventures for their own favourite, underappreciated trouper, fanfic has grown in strength – but rarely has it been stronger. And not just because of Christian Grey's exploits.

The advent of the blog and ebooks means that all and sundry can now "publish" their work for all to see, everything from slash fiction (involving male-male relationships – who knew how many people wanted Harry Potter and Ron Weasley to get together?) and crossover (what would happen if the Ewoks took on the Hobbits?) to alternative universes (and boom, suddenly Paddington Bear is back in darkest Peru. OK, we're going to stop giving you ideas now).

And will fanfic's rise mean publishing is no longer commercially viable? Highly doubtful. And why? Because for all the love poured into it, all too often fanfic is derivative and badly written. And if it looks as though it'll be a success at all, why, those publishers will be only too quick to snap up the author. Isn't that right, EL James? Robert Epstein

'I've made friends with some crows on Wimbledon Common'