If these are the end times for literature, then we must be traveling in circles, for the death of storytelling looks an awful lot like its birth.
The novel itself isn't all that old. Sure, we can find a handful of examples going back thousands of years, but you have to stretch your definition of novel the further back you go. Really, the idea of an immutable and unchangeable text dates only to the printing press.
Before that, every scribe tasked with producing a tome thought he was an author. Like movie producers dabbling with plot, it was difficult for the hand-copiers of text not to make a tweak here or there.
Books were ever-changing. Stories evolved. And that was the way things were until Gutenberg's time.
Fast forward to 2012, where one out of every five books sold was part of the "50 Shades of Grey" series. Originally a work of "Twilight" fan fiction, the monumental success of "50 Shades of Grey" turned a spotlight on the shadowy world of fan-generated literature.
Soon, publishers were seeking out other popular works of fan fiction and signing authors to mega deals. Then Amazon announced its Kindle Worlds program, which commercialized fan fiction and opened up licensed worlds for exploration.
To purists — who mix a love of history with a thin understanding of the past — the sanctity of the written word was in jeopardy. It was raining frogs. The volcanoes were angry. These lovers of the very modern novel clamored for a return to our roots.
And yet — that is precisely where we are heading.
Although no written account remains (writing wasn't invented yet), it is safe to assume that fan fiction was invented about five minutes after the first story was told. A cave echoed with a riveting account of a great beast felled, and someone in the audience was already thinking of an improvement or a twist.
These twists became part of the story as it moved through time and space; original storytellers relied on their imperfect memories, which promoted the flow and evolution of tales and allowed each one to be shaped to its audience.
The oldest stories we know of, like Homer's "Odyssey," were likely written by the collaboration of many and were the end result of thousands of varied retellings.
Lovers of the new and immutable novel may fear the end times, but ironically the end times themselves were a work of fan fiction. The four Gospels were written well after the times they describe, and each has its own take on similar events. Shakespeare made a career out of fan fiction. Wealthy patrons would request a new stab at a familiar story, and the Bard would comply. Or he would draw upon historical facts and people to make fiction from the real.
But of course it isn't so simple. The writing is still the hard bit.
Whether an author takes as their inspiration the life of Henry VIII or their own traumatic childhood or Batman's traumatic childhood, they still have to fashion an engaging plot, realistic dialog, and pleasing prose. That's the challenge, not the original idea. Ideas are cheap. Stories are dear.
My own involvement in fan fiction came about in a peculiar way. When my series "Wool" became unexpectedly popular, and fans got in touch to ask if they could write in this world I'd created, I was taken aback. But I agreed.
Last year I sat down to write my first piece of fan fiction. I chose Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five," as this was a world newly opened for exploration and a novel very dear to me.
I had read "Slaughterhouse-Five" in high school and didn't really get it. And then a few years ago, I studied the work again, and the story had not just meaning but special meaning. I saw the author working through personal trauma by writing about it obliquely.
Vonnegut's didactic work helped me through a similar trauma. With my first work of fan fiction, I chose to use his example of writing about the bombing of Dresden in order to confront my 9/11 experiences — an event I've long avoided discussing directly.
And what I discovered surprised me. Fan fiction is difficult. More difficult than the dozen or so novels I'd previously written.
Before composing "Peace in Amber," I used to liken fan fiction to writing with training wheels. The idea was that one could learn to pedal and balance and eventually discover that they didn't need the extra wheels anymore. The writer could take them off and create their own worlds.
This analogy is still partly true, but what I found while writing my work was that the training wheels get in the way more than they help. They catch on lampposts and bushes. They make it so the writer can't lean and steer the plot where it needs to go. The original work limits with its history and its established facts.
"Peace in Amber" was the hardest thing I've ever written, and only partly because of the subject matter. What made it difficult also made it rewarding. I was crafting an homage to one of the greats. I was also coming to grips with my pain much as Vonnegut must have.
What we are approaching now is a return to the storytelling of old. We are marching back to a world of stories in the ether, a world where bards speak once again to a live audience and are able to gauge their reactions, a world where we may learn and adjust our craft on the fly.
We are getting back to a time when the audience and the storyteller enjoyed a symbiotic relationship, when a fan could become an artist, when the listener might go on to speak for themselves.
This is the story I see unfolding before us. I see a return to campfires and caves and sharing. I see stories that will grow and become timeless not because they were stamped in a press but because they bear the stamp of us.