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What is fanfiction, anyway?

Once, calling a published, original work “fanfiction” would have been meant as an insult. As the term has gained credibility, so definitions have blurred.

A few weeks back, Stephenie Meyer pulled a Beyoncé: with virtually no advance warning, she released her latest title into the world – and set off a firestorm of conversation. Even the publishing industry was caught off guard by Life and Death, a new full-length novel written in honour of the tenth anniversary of the Twilight series. Any book from Meyer would have made headlines, but this one was especially surprising: Life and Death takes Twilight, the first book of the four, and swaps the genders of its protagonists. Meyer has battled criticisms about outdated and harmful gender roles for years, and the switch, a romance between female vampire Edythe and male human Beau, is meant to address that. She begins the book by writing:

“Bella has always gotten a lot of censure for getting rescued on multiple occasions, and people have complained about her being a typical damsel in distress. My answer to that has always been that Bella is a human in distress, a normal human being surrounded on all sides by people who are basically superheroes and supervillains. She’s also been criticised for being too consumed with her love interest, as if that’s somehow just a girl thing. But I’ve always maintained that it would have made no difference if the human were male and the vampire female – it’s still the same story. Gender and species aside, Twilight has always been a story about the magic and obsession and frenzy of first love.”

The same day Life and Death was published, Rainbow Rowell’s newest novel Carry On was released – and by contrast, not only did people know this one was coming out, it was one of the most hotly-anticipated books this autumn. Carry On’s origin story is unique, too: its protagonist, Simon Snow, the “worst Chosen One who’s ever been chosen”, originated in Rowell’s 2013 celebrated YA novel Fangirl, about a girl who writes fanfiction about the Harry Potter-esque Simon Snow series. Carry On is a self-contained (and utterly magical) work, but it also sits side-by-side with two other texts about Simon Snow: the “canonical” excerpts in Fangirl by the “original” author Gemma T Leslie and the fanfic written by Fangirl’s protagonist, Cath.

Like Life and Death, part of the pleasure and intrigue of Carry On lies in these intertextual relationships. But when Life and Death and Carry On have been mentioned in the same breath these past few weeks, it was most often to call them works of fanfiction. It’s undeniable that both books employ techniques that are popular with fanfiction writers, who do things like gender-bending or filling in gaps all the time – if you’re fanfictionally-inclined, you’re always looking for another way into a story. And they’re doing what the best fanfiction does: engaging in a conversation with another work, or a whole host of other works. I wrote about this regarding Carry On upon the book’s release, and even though Stephenie Meyer has declared Life and Death “not a real book” (which is confusing but she can call it what she wants?), it’s still a text written in relation to another text, a critical tool even if it’s meant as a response to her critics.

But these books are not fanfiction: an author can’t write fanfiction for her own work, even if she’s a fan of herself. And that distinction might seem like splitting hairs, but it’s actually at the heart of some of the major tensions that have been playing out over the past few years, as fanfiction has been exposed, mainstreamed, and – to some degree – accepted. In the past, someone calling a published, original work “fanfiction” would have been meant as an insult – this kind of claim is usually aimed at female authors and female readers, suggesting their work is derivative or self-indulgent or full of the sorts of tropes for which fanfiction has historically been maligned, like privileging emotional dialogue, or romance before (or in addition to) action. People still lob this comparison as an insult, no matter how tone deaf this sort of thing looks these days. “This reads like bad fanfiction” doesn’t have a lot of weight when it’s clear that the person issuing the claim hasn’t so much as looked at a fanfiction archive in his life.

But we’re increasingly seeing people call things “fanfiction” as a compliment, meant to lift up both fanfiction and the work that draws the comparison. Some of this is grounded in historical precedent: when we reference famous works of literature that play fanfiction’s games, we work to ground our modern practices in the “seriousness” of literary history. Sometimes we talk about bigger ideas of influence and retelling – like, say, much of Shakespeare’s work – but sometimes our examples get as specific as the tropes that fill the best fic. Two of the most famous modern examples, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, both take minor characters from famous works (Hamlet and Jane Eyre, respectively) and twist the stories from their perspectives. The first piece I ever published about fanfiction, during the explosion of 50 Shades of Grey and the resulting media narrative that painted the vast world of fanfiction as a tawdry black hole, was explicitly meant to draw these comparisons, to suggest that fic deserves just as much intellectual praise as “real” literature.

But I’m not sure I could write that piece today. Is Shakespeare is fanfiction? On some level, sure. On another level, not even close. There are a few arguments at play here. When it comes to literature, drawing arbitrary lines between “influenced by” and “something like fanfiction” is a dangerous game: every single book has been influenced by other books, since no author springs fully formed out of the womb. Fanfiction writers approach their texts with the intention of writing fanfiction. It’s not just saying, “I love this work so much, I’m going to do something more with it.” It’s calling the act “fanfiction”, and entering into the community of people who write and read it. And often times joining a fanfiction community is as simple as reading a few stories; the vast majority of people who like fanfiction just read it, and often quietly, without participating in the free and instant exchange of feedback between authors and readers.

The trouble with the “it’s all fanfiction” argument is it’s not all fanfiction. That’s partly due the intent of the writer – who she chooses to write for, the kind of text she chooses to create, and how she chooses to share it – and it’s partly due to the imbalance of power between the people who write and read fanfiction and the people who create the source material for those works. Between fan and creator, it’s a deliberately one-sided exchange – at least, until people start to show showrunners or actors fanworks (please don’t!) – that’s integral to the dynamics of modern fanfiction communities. The multi-sided conversations that happen between fans, readers and writers alike, make fanfiction unique in the landscape of modern literature.

But it’s also about who gets to write the stories that we play with. We are a culture obsessed with reworking and retelling and rebooting. Our stories can feel stale as they’re hashed out again and again, but there’s also a thrill in the variation, in the way that each new comic-book adaptation or film remake has the potential to shift our perspective lens into the story and illuminate something new. And there’s an increasingly popular narrative that our reboot culture is just fanfiction with another name. Steven Moffat alternates his time between Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Who fic. The Marvel Cinematic Universe does the same thing that Marvel fanfic writers have done since the dawn of comics. J J Abrams is writing in a new fandom now – and the trailer for his first Star Wars fic looks awesome!

I appreciate these comparisons – but they frustrate me all the same. Big-budget reworkings of beloved stories are almost universally helmed by men; no-budget fanfiction universes are overwhelmingly helmed by women. And these female-authored texts partly exist to shift the text away from that default perspective, the one that usually pens and directs the source material, populated largely by men (and by straight, white men in particular). I regularly see someone arguing that Steven Moffat is writing Sherlock Holmes fanfiction, and I can’t agree: he is writing an adaptation for television, with all the cultural limits and benefits that that affords. He is playing the same game as millions of fanfiction writers, but he’s in a different stadium.

It comes down, as it often does, to money. Because money, and a lack of it, is at the heart of long-held tensions about fanworks. Fanfiction is overwhelmingly the product of unpaid labour, millions and millions of words given freely, whether for legal reasons or community norms. Because it isn’t compensated – and because it is so often done by women it is devalued, as an art form and as a way to spend one’s time. When money is added to the mix, whether in giant pull-to-publish book deals or, increasingly, fanfiction contests and authors sponsored by television networks and Hollywood studios, the place that fanworks occupy in the vast sphere of adaptation and reworking begins to shift. And not always for the better.

The mainstreaming of fandom – and, perhaps grudgingly, of fanfiction – could very well put an end to the maligning of the practice, to fic as punch line or fic only as some kind of training wheels for reading and writing “real” literature. Maybe we won’t feel the need to call original, published texts “fanfiction”, because most people will understand the complexities of the practice, and the value of these works. (This is a pretty exciting and possibly unrealistic vision of the future.) And money helps move this along, for better or worse, though admittedly it’s a bit grim to say that if you’ve spent a lifetime valuing fanworks for the pleasure they bring, and appreciating their non-commercial nature.  

The greatest help to the disparity between these practices will be to see more women – way more women – in the role of creator as well as fan. If fanfiction has partly developed over the years to subvert the male gaze, then we need a media landscape where that gaze isn’t so prevalent – one where it isn’t the default perspective. Where a female-authored Sherlock Holmes adaptation gets a prime spot on BBC One – because if we’re all playing the same game, why should only a privileged few get a spot in the stadium?

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.

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Former MP Bob Marshall-Andrews: Why I’m leaving Labour and joining the Lib Dems

A former political ally of Jeremy Corbyn explains why he is leaving Labour after nearly 50 years.

I’m leaving home. It’s a very hard thing to do. All of my natural allegiances have been to Labour, and never had I contemplated leaving the party – not even in the gloomy years, when we were fighting Iraq and the battles over civil liberties. I have always taken the view that it’s far better to stay within it. But it has just gone too far. There has been a total failure to identify the major issues of our age.

The related problems of the environment, globalisation and the migration of impoverished people are almost ignored in favour of the renationalisation of the railways and mantras about the National Health Service. The assertion that Labour could run the NHS better than the Tories may be true, but it is not the battle hymn of a modern republic. It is at best well-meaning, at worst threadbare. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life talking about renationalising the railways while millions of people move across the world because of famine, war and climate change.

The centre left in British politics is in retreat, and the demise of the Labour Party has the grim inevitability of a Shakespearean tragedy. Ironically, history will show that Labour’s fatal flaw lay in its spectacular success.

Labour is, in essence, a party of the 20th century, and in those 100 years it did more to advance the freedom and well-being of working people and the disadvantaged than any other political movement in history. The aspirations of the founding fathers – access to education, health and welfare; equality before the law; collective organisation; universal franchise – have all to a large extent been achieved. The party’s record of racial and religious tolerance has been a beacon in a century of repression. These achievements have been enshrined in the fabric of British society and reproduced across the world.

The success brought deserved, unprecedented power and created political fortresses across the industrial heartlands of Britain. But with power, the party became increasingly moribund and corrupt. The manipulation of the union block vote at party conferences became a national disgrace. The Labour heartlands, particularly Scotland, were treated like rotten boroughs, and were too often represented by union placemen.

Instead of seeking a new radicalism appropriate to the challenges of the age, New Labour sought to ambush the Tories on the management of market capital and to outflank them on law and order: a fool’s errand. It inevitably succumbed to another form of corruption based on hubris and deceit, resulting in attacks on civil liberty, financial disaster and catastrophic war.

The reaction has been to lurch back to the status quo. The extraordinary fall from a massive majority of 179 in 1997 to a political basket case has been blamed on the false dichotomy between Blairism and the old, unionised Labour. Both have contributed to the disaster in equal measure.

I believe desperately in the politics of the 21st century, and Labour is at best paying lip service to it – epitomised in its failure to engage in the Brexit debate, which I was horrified by. The Liberal Democrats are far from perfect, but they have been consistent on Europe, as they were in their opposition to the Iraq War and on civil liberties. They deserve support.

But it’s a serious wrench. I’m leaving friends, and it hurts. Jeremy Corbyn was a political ally of mine on a number of serious issues. We made common cause on Tony Blair’s assaults on civil liberty and the Iraq War, and we went to Gaza together. He has many of the right ideas, but he simply has not moved into addressing the major problems.

To be blunt, I don’t think Corbyn is leadership material, but that is aside from politics. You need skills as a leader, and I don’t think he’s got them, but I was prepared to stick it out to see what happened. It has been a great, gradual disappointment, and Brexit has brought it all to the fore.

Frankly, I was surprised that he announced he was a Remainer, because I know that his natural sympathies have lain with a small cadre within Labour – an old-fashioned cadre that holds that any form of trade bloc among relatively wealthy nations is an abhorrence. It’s not: it’s the way forward. Yet there are people who believe that, and I know he has always been sympathetic to them.

But by signing up and then doing nothing, you sell the pass. Labour was uniquely qualified to confront the deliberate falsehoods trumpeted about the NHS – the absurd claims of massive financial dividends to offset the loss of doctors
and nurses already packing their bags – and it failed. Throughout that campaign, the Labour leadership was invisible, or worse.

At present, there is a huge vacuum on the centre left, represented in substantial part by an angry 48 per cent of the electorate who rejected Brexit and the lies on which it was based. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. There is no sign from Labour that the issue is even to be addressed, let alone actively campaigned on. The Labour leadership has signed up to Brexit and, in doing so, rejected the principles of international co-operation that Europe has fostered for half a century. That is not a place I want to be.

The failure to work with, or even acknowledge, other political parties is doctrinaire lunacy. And it will end very badly, I think. The centre left has an obligation to coalesce, and to renege on that obligation is reneging on responsibility. Not to sit on the same platform as other parties during the Brexit debate is an absurd statement of political purity, which has no place at all in modern politics.

The Liberal Democrats have grasped the political challenges of the 21st century as surely as their predecessors in the Liberal Party failed to comprehend those that faced the world a century ago. For that reason, I will sign up and do my best to lend support in my political dotage. After nearly 50 years as a Labour man, I do so with a heavy heart – but at least with some radical hope for my grandchildren.

Bob Marshall-Andrews was the Labour MP for Medway from 1997 to 2010.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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