Web Fiction Is Changing The Writing Game

Christopher Fowler
My agent and I agreed the other day that publishers are not listening to teen readers who turn to the largely free and vast resource of online fiction. After all, how do you begin to get a handle on it? Noël Coward, judgemental arch-snob, bullied his performers about preserving the clarity of language. He is well and truly buried now, his bon mots choked off by an avalanche of new writers for who the written word is not so sacred. Few print books are read in the UK compared to the number dedicated fan-fiction readers out there. They're happy to find themselves represented by online writing that's aimed squarely at them.  But I'm not here to vilify them. Rather, I think we should praise the fact that fiction is being nurtured from its roots. Publishing is accused of becoming calcified while web fiction opens up peer-to-peer dialogue for young readers who don't feel represented by David Walliams and 'Lord Of The Rings' fantasy reboots. There's been much pearl-clutching at the thought of the classics being abandoned for Chinese time-travel romances, but who connects with the likes of dreary Anthony Trollope anymore? Most of the new web-fiction stories are new wine in very old bottles. A magic ring conjures a kingdom, a young girl uncovers her secret destiny, nobody told a boy that his family are all powerful warlocks, and so on. I was going to list the top ten web novels - usually delivered in episodes, just as Dickens did - but they change places with quicksilver speed. The majority of web-reads are (at my advanced years) painfully direct, with little subtext or style, but we all need to start somewhere. I've written quite enough about my own reading origins in 'Paperboy'. How long does it take to reach the level of reading sophistication that shrugs away Richard Osman or EL James? The steps of thought are cut shallow, then deepen over the passing years until you become so sophisticated that nothing interests you anymore. Which brings us back to poor old working-class-lad-made-good Noël. In 'Blithe Spirit', it may be that the guilty frustrations of stalled writer Charles Condomine conjure the ghostly image of his dead wife. Whatever the cause, the original is a diamond-sharp comedy about mortality, creativity and sex. In the recent appalling British film remake with Dan Stevens and Dame Judi Dench, Condomine shows his frustration by hurling his typewriter through a closed window and poor Madame Arcati is dropped her head from a great height. Fan fiction of a kind, if you will, but driven by idiots greedily eyeing the US market. Critics tore it apart, but happily the original will survive as a piece of fine writing. Does publishing need to reset its parameters and look more carefully at what its readers are downloading? Reading goes through stages and web-fiction fantasy is merely a stopping off point on a reader's journey. It's absurd that we were made to read Trollope at the age of twelve. For now, it's not so much a matter of burying Jane Austen and Lord Byron now as setting them aside until later - when the time is right for full appreciation. And if the lovers of web-fiction decide to try their own hand at writing, or simply discover strange new authors who intrigue them, how wonderful that would be.


Gary Locke (not verified) Thu, 10/11/2022 - 20:35

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

How does one find these bon mots? I haven't found good resources.

Christopher Fowler Thu, 10/11/2022 - 21:50

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

It's trial and error but I've found some real gems amongst the junk.

Anna & Keith (not verified) Fri, 11/11/2022 - 09:23

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Of course it's all technology these days... There's an "ap" for that...
The need to have bookshelves with those editions one has come to love & cherish are dying like those of us from a seemingly past generation.
Who needs a bookshelf with tired dusty editions when a tablet or mobile can hold the world at ones finger tips and take up hardly any space at all.
At the end - when all said and done - these books will end up in a "second hand book shop" (a rarity these days even around Charing Cross Road) or the local "tip" for composting in landfill.
After all - with life ticking away, at great speed, one starts to see what surrounds them and what the hell - no one will ever want these precious momentos collected during a lifetime.
Even the tablet / mobile phone or any other piece of technology will go the same way.... or recycled in some African country..
Guess those books will remain in the ether - although are they books...? when they are just words and no physical presence.?
Our favourite characters, Bryant & May, will eventually turn to dust as current & future generations are unable to relate to those wonderfully depicted characterisations.... Maybe a a crumpled bag of Pear Drops might inspire a new generation..?

davem (not verified) Fri, 11/11/2022 - 10:38

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

wow did not know this existed ... so much to trawl through

Roger (not verified) Fri, 11/11/2022 - 11:20

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Anthony Trollope isn't dreary, I think, but like other writers - Henry James, most obviously (and very differently), aspects of Jane Austen, Thomas Love Peacock - he's best appreciated by the middle-aged and elderly. I'd also guess that Bryant and MAy have a more aged readership than some of your other books, Admin. We more... er ...mature, let us say... readers have the great advantage for writers that we are more choosy, prefer actual books and are likely to buy them rather than look for them on the net. I wonder whether fan-fic fans read much except other fan-fic.

BarbaraBoucke (not verified) Fri, 11/11/2022 - 14:07

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I remember when the first Harry Potter book was released. I was going down the escalator in one of the Tube stations, and looked across at the "up-stairs" and saw an adult with the book open in front of him - engrossed in the story. For me, the feel of a book in my hands, the turning of the pages, putting in a bookmark until I continue reading, being able to go back and reread a passage - fiction or non-fiction - matters.
However if someone wants to write, and the internet gives them the platform to do this - whether or not they've got the ability to be adept at it - then I am all for that. I've got enough to read piled up in my house without looking at the computer screen as well. But who knows - there could be another Christopher Fowler out there just waiting in the wings.

Brooke (not verified) Fri, 11/11/2022 - 14:25

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

"...publishers are not listening to teen readers..." Industrial publisher are not listening to readers--full stop.

Findng web fiction. I recently did an exploration for a troubled parent-friend (afraid to actually ask the teen what he was reading. Try Good Reads first; like any profit driven entreprise, Good Reads hopped onto listing and rating web fiction. But it includes works that are Kindle. There are other "best of" sites, which help you distringuish among fanfic, web serial and short stories. I also like Patreon; but stories are paywalled. And finally, just ask a teen, young urban adult, etc.

A Holme (not verified) Fri, 11/11/2022 - 19:41

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Two Harry Potter recollections. Early 1997, my partner who worked as the children's librarian in Oxford library brought home a book and said " read this, it's pretty good," and it was. I thought it was James Bond for kids wrapped up in a 'magical world'. Years later, shopping in Tesco on the day the last HP book was published I saw kids sat down in the store reading the - heavily discounted! - book, whilst their parents did the shopping. We do indeed 'all start somewhere'.

Roger (not verified) Fri, 11/11/2022 - 22:19

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

"She writes because she must,
My gifted daughter Ann."
How nice. Let's not pretend
She writes because she can.

- William Plomer - a semi-forgotten author.

Hazel Jackson (not verified) Fri, 11/11/2022 - 22:45

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I like real books but as a lifelong insomniac I also have a Kindle for reading in bed in the small hours and a Kindle unlimited account on Amazon, (essentially a paid for library subscription.) I like mystery novels with a flavour of the supernatural and Ben Aaronovitch's Urban Fantasy series, Rivers of London, propelled me further along this path. Kindle Unlimited contains an endless supply of this genre, as multiple book series. (Plus of course there are plenty of other genres to explore.)

A lot of Urban Fantasy fiction is self published and aimed at a specific readership. As a result there s a good deal of dross about young lady witches tangling with handsome mages, vampires and were creatures. And mature lady witches with their talking pets solving murder mysteries. If you prefer male heroes, it has a good supply of Philip Marlowe style slacker wizards, fighting seriously violent supernatural battles with evil creatures seeking world domination. All escapism of course. But sometimes that's what you want.

There are also some nuggets in there. Steve Higgs has an engaging series about the Blue Moon detective agency, dedicated to proving crimes ascribed to supernatural actors, actually have natural causes. And if you must go for the slacker mage model, you could do worse than the Montague and Strong series by Orlando Sanchez. His two protagonists are subjected to the usual agonising rituals and fierce battles of the genre but the author is well read and there are lots of cunning asides to spot. All come as multi book series.

The key thing is you can read unlimited multi book series online for the price of a Kindle Unlimited monthly subscription (£ 7.99 in the UK,, watch out for free trial offers.) . OK you wouldn't want to buy them outright. But when you are awake yet again in the small hours, or engaged kn a long journey, there is a certain attraction in being able to read untaxing multiple book series, in the form of a Kindle.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Fri, 11/11/2022 - 23:37

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I have a terrible memory for names so I always have to check. I just did and now will have to read The Clown Service (Guy Adams) again. There is a whole genre of espionage/aliens that I wasn't aware of until Mr. Adams came along. I still restrict myself to physical books but there doesn't look to be a shortage of material any time soon so I'm not worried about shifting to e-reading. You're right about generational shifts in media forms, though, and that is a good thing. If the upcoming readers find new formats then publishers either go along somehow or go under.
As for a degradation of language, that has been happening since the 1500s and possibly before. did you give us "for who" up there on purpose or is it just the inevitable loss of precision in the English language? My German teacher warns us against using old dictionaries because you'll end up sounding old fashioned. We don't say that about English but we have finally accepted that English is not really a latinate language and we may do such things as split infinitives without necessarily sounding like an uneducated oaf.

Jo W (not verified) Sat, 12/11/2022 - 06:52

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

As a reader of “proper” books, I was thrilled to have found a copy of The Bureau of Lost Souls in paperback and yesterday it arrived, so this weekend- do not disturb!
Btw, how are your bruises Chris? Take it steady, because despite what was said earlier, there will never be another you.X

Mike (not verified) Sat, 12/11/2022 - 10:09

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Hazel, have you tried Phil Rickman's Merrily Watkins series?
Perfectly matches your criteria for mystery with a hint of supernatural.

BarbaraBoucke (not verified) Sat, 12/11/2022 - 13:04

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Jo W - I didn't mean that the way it sounded. My analogy was off kilter. I just meant that online writing might give a potentially really great writer a chance for his/her voice to be heard. I'm probably not even explaining this very well. I think maybe I'd just better return to my cubbyhole.

John H (not verified) Sun, 13/11/2022 - 11:17

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

'According to Publishers Weekly, booksellers sold 825.7 million books in 2021, up from 757.9 million in 2020. A huge increase in fiction units sold led the way, with young adult fiction sales jumping 30.7 percent, adult fiction up 25.5 percent, and children's fiction up 9.6 percent, respectively.'

No doubt this post won't appear, but it appears your agent doesn't follow trends as closely as they think.

Liz+Thompson (not verified) Sun, 13/11/2022 - 18:12

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I buy books. Hardback, paperback, pamphlet. Brand new, second hand, barely adequate (if unobtainable otherwise). But I also read ebooks and listen to audibles. With the latter, I do listen to the sample first - some narrators just shouldn't. Ebooks are useful when travelling, when in a waiting room, A&E, the dentist, the supermarket queue. I recently joined Kindle Unlimited when I realised just how many books on my never-ending wish list were included. Audible membership reduces the cost to £7.99, or £18 for 3, and are a way to wind down before going to sleep. One additional plus for ebooks is the 14 full book cases in our 3 room back-to-back house, leaving no space for a 15th one. This year, so far, I have read, using all 3 types of book, 363 books, mostly fiction, but including poetry, folklore, politics, and linguistics. (I was aiming at 300, but got carried away).
I've even started buying graphic novels and non fiction. Why limit myself to one type of book or one genre? Something for every reading opportunity, and every mood.

Christopher Fowler Sun, 13/11/2022 - 20:42

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

John H,

I think you have to take into account the gigantic effect on the whole industry that the pandemic has had on reading.

Hazel Jackson (not verified) Sun, 13/11/2022 - 23:17

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Congratulations, Liz. I thought I was doing well at around 243 books read in 2022. Still some way to go to catch you up I see.

Jan (not verified) Mon, 14/11/2022 - 07:45

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Is fan-fiction short for FANTASY FICTION?
Or am I getting mixed up and it's literally fan tribute type fiction written to emulate the writers favourite author?

Sorry not getting on here much @ present. Snowy I didn't discover your reply to another thread till yesterday. Apologies.

snowy (not verified) Mon, 14/11/2022 - 12:59

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Don't worry duck, I'm not sure it was worth reading.

'FanFic' is stories written by fans about characters from their favourite books/films. [Not to be confused with 'SlashFic', which is stories written by fans about characters from their favourite books/films doing mucky things with each other - and there is quite a lot of it - see also Rule 43].

Erik Deckers (not verified) Mon, 14/11/2022 - 16:57

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

All fiction is fan fiction, when you get down to it.

Gabi Coatsworth (not verified) Tue, 15/11/2022 - 22:48

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

One thought about reading Trollope and the other Victorians at an early age - it did teach us how to read a long sentence and keep track of the meaning, which required concentration. Younger people today aren't taught to do that, which may account for the rise of ADHD, since those synapses have to be laid down by concentrating. In the same way, cursive writing is rarely taught anymore - that was another training device. Print letters only mean focusing on a single letter at a time. I believe there's evidence for this, but don't ask me to quote it.

The Changing Faces (not verified) Sat, 19/11/2022 - 09:33

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[…] bit on the questions of the the changing faces of […]

Wayne Mook (not verified) Sun, 20/11/2022 - 06:37

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Gabi - at my daughter's school they are taught joined up writing, they even have to win a penmanship award to use an ink pen, biro or cartridge pen, and it's just a local juniour school.

There is a whole world of web fiction, the creepypasta is one I read from time to time. I too have been guilty of it and have sent of a story to a publisher, I doubt it will be published but it was fun to try.