L.J. Smith’s newest book, , is a work of fan fiction. It’s based on the characters from The Vampire Diaries, the books that gave rise to the TV phenomenon. As with all fan fiction, it’s set in a world to which Smith has no legal right.
But one unique quirk sets Smith’s work apart from most fanfic. She is the original author of the series, now banished from officially contributing. So she is finishing the series by means of a new enterprise: Amazon’s Kindle Worlds, the world’s first corporate venue for fan fiction.
Smith’s authorship lends her new work an unusual and hard to comprehend status: It’s the first work of unofficial-official canon.
Gray areas like this could elevate the respectability of fanfiction itself, a medium that, depending on whom you ask, desperately wants to be elevated to respectability—or doesn’t want or need your goddamned approval to be considered legitimate.
Lisa Jane Smith, Vampire Queen
Lisa Jane Smith is famous for her young adult novels about witches, psychics, and, most of all, vampires. She’s also noted for her candid fan correspondence (and some outdated-looking author photos that make her look like a fabulous 1970s country singer).
L.J. Smith fans claim her as the progenitor of the smoldering young adult vampire phenomenon. Anne Rice’s gothic novels aimed at adults were resurgent in 1990, when vampires were on the wax again after a brief wane. Around that time, HarperCollins turned to a book packager called Alloy Entertainment to hire someone who could churn out an upscale vampire series aimed at teenage girls. Smith, then a young and hungry novelist, took the job, but she didn’t invent the series out of thin air. Most likely “The Vampire Diaries” was a title and a marketing campaign before Smith came on the scene—she just fleshed out the middle part. You know, the setting, characters, story, rules for the entire world? That sort of thing.
If you aren’t already hip to “The Vampire Diaries” phenomenon, it’ll sound vaguely like Twilight but a little less dour. A small town girl, Elena, finds two vampire brothers named Stefan and Damon. They vie for her affection, and a town full of teens is pulled into an exciting supernatural world of romance and intrigue.
The part about being more fun than Twilight may be an accident. Smith takes this material just as seriously as Stephenie Meyer, and the books really don’t share the TV show’s seemingly deliberate campiness. Also critical to your understanding of Vampire Diaries fans: The actors who play the TV versions of the vampire brothers are the objects of that very particular and intense brand of Internet worship.
But back when The Vampire Diaries were just four dishy books rattling around the backpacks of teens—the first three books were published in 1991, the fourth in 1992—a parallel tale of intrigue was unfolding in Smith’s professional life. By her own accounts, Alloy hid Smith’s name in a tiny corner of the original cover. Because it was so successful, the packager commissioned a different series from her, but literally laughed in her face, Oliver Twist-style, when she asked for more money. After the fourth book, which fans begged for, was published, Smith took a long hiatus from the series. Fan fiction carried the torch for her while she was away.
Varieties Of Fanfictional Experience
By my count, no fewer than one hundred Vampire Diaries stories were uploaded to fanfiction.net during the series’ publishing hiatus from 1992 until 2009, when the TV show and the new books appeared. No doubt others were uploaded elsewhere, or never shown to the world. They seem to average roughly 15,000 words. Many feature “Mary Sue” characters, a fanfic term for a surrogate, created for the author to insert him or herself into romantic situations with the characters. Some are pretty crudely sketched: “The sounds of rampant sex weren’t doing anything to aid his sleep, and frankly he didn’t need it rubbing in his face that he just wasn’t getting any…” and others are evocative: “Watching the bowl slowly fill, she noted the subtle twitching of her hands and cursed quietly, clutching the rim of the sink until her knuckles turned white.”
Few had Tolstoyan aspirations, but there they were. If you craved stories about sexy vampire brothers with the same names as the ones in the book series you liked, you had options. But often the stories bore messages at the top such as “Disclaimers: VD, Stefan and Damon belong to LJS.” Fans were showing deference, but were not, legally speaking, providing proper attribution.
By 2009, Twilight had happened. Since Alloy is very good at what it does—around this time, Rebecca Mead of The New Yorker called them “the teen entertainment factory”—and since they controlled the property completely apart from Smith’s desires for the characters, in addition to re-imagining the whole TVD universe as a TV show, the books were dusted off and reprinted with fancier covers. Soon they were flying off shelves.
And after a short time, out popped the first entry in a new trilogy, the L.J. Smith-authored The Return: Nightfall, perhaps the oddest 608 pages ever marketed to young girls, even giving the nutso Twilight: Breaking Dawn and its werewolf-in-love-with-a-baby-that-chewed-its-way-out-of-its-mother storyline a run for its money.
Smith called it the worst book she’s ever written, saying she may have been “rusty” when she wrote it. Fans generally agree. Perhaps more displeased than anyone were the executives at publisher HarperTeen, who were hoping for something that matched the TV series.
But even if Nightfall had stayed on the rails, the books and TV show could never actually gel canonically, and that was no fault of Smith’s. Elena as played by Nina Dobrev was too tough and assertive to be the delicate flower from the novels. The character Bonnie was more of a witch than the psychic she was in the books. A possible Stefan and Elena coupling always seems possible on TV, but in Smith’s last official book, Midnight, she wanted to bring them further apart. Midnight was number one on The New York Times bestseller list—but L.J. Smith herself had become disposable.
After what Smith calls “The Call That Changed My Life,” an Australian fan receiving a response to a complimentary email may have been one of the first members of the public to hear the bad news: “…I have been fired from writing the Vampire Diaries,” she wrote. “Midnight is the last book you will ever see by L. J. Smith in this series. I even wrote the next book, Phantom, for the book packagers and my publishers, HarperCollins, but instead of sending me edits, they sent me a letter addressed to the anonymous ghostwriter who will be taking over the Vampire Diaries series.”
Phantom—the first in the next Vampire Diaries trilogy—was ghostwritten, perhaps completely, and released in 2011. On the fan wiki, where devotees catalogue the minutiae of the TV show, and, to a lesser extent, the books, the article carries a warning: “Before buying this book be aware that it was NOT written by L. J. Smith but by an anonymous GHOSTWRITER.” She has a name: Aubrey Clark. Clark has soldiered on; Unseen, the middle of yet another trilogy, was a bestseller hitting shelves last May. That was just six days after Amazon’s announcement of Kindle Worlds.
And then, on January 15th of this year, L.J. Smith issued what in her profession amounts to a surprise press release: an update on Goodreads. It was the first official notice anyone had received that a new L.J. Smith Vampire Diaries book was on the way, and it left readers with just one week of frenzied anticipation. It also provided some context about Amazon Worlds: “The Vampire Diaries is one of the series that Amazon has obtained the license to include in their Worlds. This means that I can continue to write my version of The Vampire Diaries.” And it also provided some much needed story chronology: “The Evensong arc will pick up more or less where Midnight left off and takes place in an alternate world from the official books that follow Midnight.” The fan fiction writer would now overwrite the canon.