The Death of the Novel

Who said the novel was dead? It has a lot of competition, for sure. In the week when yet another film adaptation of a Jane Austen novel hits the big screens in Britain, and when the Man Booker Prize seems to be narrowing its sights on a coterie of in-favour big names (with the odd newcomer thrown in for balance), you might be forgiven for thinking that novels may be good for business, but are not necessarily the business any more. In the case of the Booker, which deep in its dark corporate heart is a marketing exercise anyway, not much is new. Publishing a book with the major publishers has been getting harder over the years for anyone who isn’t already either a proven good bet, or young and good looking.

Enter fan fiction. The Internet has given millions of fans of everything from Harry Potter, to Star Trek and–for all I know–Denby tableware the chance to tell their own stories about their heroes. In the past adaptation went only one way, from novel to film; now it goes the other way too. Rumour has it that George Lucas had to be very careful when making the later Star Wars movies not to copy an idea from a piece of fan fiction and be sued for breach of copyright. He doesn’t like it and wants the fans to stop, but he has a different excuse: “I don’t like fan fiction written about Star Wars. This may cost me money because some people may read fan fiction instead of buying official stories licensed for Star Wars. I would prefer if you would all refrain from writing stories based on Star Wars.” I wonder, had she been alive today, if Jane Austen would have been quite so worked up about Jane Austen Fan Fiction.

Of course the corporate interests are in on this too, but while most fan fiction appears only online, spinoff novels from movies and even video games are on sale as regular books. This article from Wired explains how novels based on video games have begun to occupy a small, but presumably profitable, part of the publishing market. It’s unlikely that an adaptation of Halo or Resident Evil will make it onto the Booker shortlist any time soon, but it’s funny how centuries-old book technology turns out to complement the electronics.

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