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21 October 2015

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.

By Elizabeth Minkel

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 Meyer has battled criticisms about outdated and harmful gender roles for years, and the switch, a romance between female vampire Edythe and male human Beau, is meant to address that.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.

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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?

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