In 1850, William Makepeace Thackeray was one of England’s most celebrated authors, thanks to his 1848 novel, Vanity Fair. He was, in his own words, “all but at the top of the tree.” It was from this perch that he published Rebecca and Rowena, a satirical novel motivated by his dissatisfaction with the ending of another book: Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. Thackeray had never been able to stomach Ivanhoe’s choice of bride—specifically, his rejection of the intrepid “Jewess” Rebecca in favor of “such a frigid piece of propriety as that icy, faultless, prim, niminy-piminy Rowena.” And so he wrote his own sequel to Scott’s story, determined to set things right by getting Ivanhoe together with Rebecca, where he belonged.
Thackeray, remarks Anne Jamison at the beginning of Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World, was “obviously a total shipper”—that is, a reader who objects to the way a story’s author has paired off its characters romantically, and feels compelled to rewrite things. Thackeray didn’t know he was a shipper, of course, because the term didn’t exist in the 19th century. It’s a relatively recent invention, coined not by literary scholars or critics but by members of the fan fiction community, a vast network of people—mostly amateurs, mostly women—who read and write stories using characters and settings created by professionals.
"When someone tells a fanfiction writer that they’re 'not a real writer,' I say to that person, 'You don’t have the slightest idea of what it means to write a scene and a character in the English language, with images and words chock full of received meaning.'"
Fan fiction in its current form was born in the late 1960s, in the pages of mimeographed science-fiction fanzines. But it has flourished in the Internet age. On FanFiction.net, the genre’s largest (though far from only) online gathering place, you can peruse millions of stories; the most popular Twilight fan fiction has more readers than many New York Times best sellers. Most fan fiction—just “fic,” to the initiated—borrows its ingredients from particularly magnetic franchises, or “canons”: Sherlock Holmes, Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Star Trek, Harry Potter, The X-Files, Twilight. (If you’ve heard just one thing about fan fiction, it’s probably that E. L. James’s blockbuster Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy began life as a reimagining of Twilight.)
There’s a saying: “If it exists, there is porn of it.” The same might be said of fan fiction, whose creators and fans have cooked up a whole lexicon of slang to describe its many sub-genres and recurring motifs. Depending on your pop-culture fluency, you may have heard of “slash,” one of fic’s oldest recognized categories, in which heterosexual characters from the canon, usually men, are depicted in homoerotic romances. Think Han Solo/Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter/Ron Weasley, Starsky/Hutch. The ur-couple of slash is Star Trek’s Kirk and Spock; in one of Fic’s many fascinating moments, contributor Jacqueline Lichtenberg, a novelist, remembers first hearing of this surprisingly widespread fantasy in the early ’70s, at a party convened to hand-collate Star Trek zines.
Besides slash, there’s “mpreg”—stories in which a man becomes pregnant—and “RPF” (real person fiction), a variety of slash starring people who actually exist, usually famous musicians. And don’t forget “brony”: stories by the sizable community of teen and adult males who love the animated series My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.
Jamison, a professor of English at the University of Utah, has taught fan fiction in her courses and even written some herself. Fic is catnip to the cultural-studies wing of literary theory, which is ever on the lookout for ways that pop culture and the people who love it can be viewed as “subverting” social norms. Fan fictions fit the bill perfectly, not just because of their content, but also thanks to the ways they’re composed and distributed. Fic sites and forums aren’t just online story warehouses; they’re a not-for-profit creative ecosystem where writers post narratives in serialized chunks and readers offer feedback and editorial suggestions along the way. Jamison excitedly calls it a new “model of authorship.”
Given the collaborative ethos of the fic world—and the many turf wars, controversies, and feuds that rage within it—Jamison is at pains to stress that she doesn’t think fan fiction can be “represented by a single voice, least of all mine.” So Fic includes several essays by and interviews with fic authors (and a handful by Jamison’s fellow scholars) recounting their experience in the genre. One hoped to redeem the most unpopular character in The X-Files, an agent named Diana Fowley, who threatened to interfere with the bond between Mulder and Scully. Another, a prominent fic author named Katie Forsythe, imagines life inside the head of a Sherlock Holmes who is what Jamison calls “neuro-atypical,” a label preferred by many people on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Her story has a literary quality that belies fan fiction’s reputation for mawkish teenage-crush scenarios rife with misspelling and cliché:
God had it entirely backwards, didn’t he, all the things in the world, all the useless, petty, undusted, uncared-for, forgotten, overlooked things in the world, it’s an utter sham isn’t it, the way there are so many individual things with their individual smells and textures, and half of them warped and cracked, and green and teal being so different and there being a thousand varieties of blue at the minimum, I ask you do we need it all, and God probably doesn’t exist anyway, but if He did, that would be a joke, wouldn’t it, leaving someone alone here who can see all of it at once and knows that pink tastes different from vermillion in a certain way....
Jamison loves “the ways fanfiction blurs a whole range of lines we (mistakenly) believe to be stable: between reading and writing, consuming and creating, genres and genders, authors and critics, derivative and transformative works.” She’s also drawn to fic’s potential to make pop culture speak to a greater range of experiences—to explore, for example, “the possibilities of love as experienced by neurological or physical disability, mental illness, and addiction, as well as through gradations of asexuality, bisexuality, demi-sexuality, and other forms of queerness.” Or simply the desires of women to see favorite male characters overcome by emotion and enjoyed as erotic objects.
If you’ve heard just two things about fan fiction, the second is probably that it’s not very good. The male-dominated world of science-fiction fandom, in particular, takes obvious pleasure in heaping contempt on fic for its “soapy” preoccupation with the emotional intimacy and sex typically left out of sci-fi adventure tales. Another common criticism holds that fic is just too derivative to be of literary merit.
In fic’s defense, Jamison points to the long history of adaptation, collaboration, and appropriation in Western literature, from the stock phrases in Homer to the stories Shakespeare borrowed for his plays to the long literary pedigree of unauthorized retellings and sequels like Rebecca and Rowena. She scores a great quote from the literary novelist Jonathan Lethem, who extolled the collage tradition in a celebrated Harper’s essay:
When someone tells a fanfiction writer that they’re “not a real writer,” I say to that person, “You don’t have the slightest idea of what it means to write a scene and a character in the English language, with images and words chock full of received meaning.”
Yes, yes—but is fic any good? Mostly not, as even its fiercest partisans will admit. A random dip into FanFiction.net will almost certainly yield something terrible. Then again, the same is probably true of this year’s crop of stories written for graduate creative writing workshops. Most fic authors don’t pretend to be doing much more than playing and sharing. For some, it’s therapy. “I write to scrape ugly feelings off my chest,” says Forsythe, the Sherlock Holmes fic author, “and then I put them on the Internet and run away.”
Jamison quotes a few promising passages from her own favorite fan fictions that suggest there is a body of compelling work out there. But it will take a well-curated anthology to clinch the argument on the genre’s behalf. Can fic enchant readers who haven’t read the original, and don’t have a pre-established interest—inspired by other, better storytellers—in whether Spike and Buffy ended up together, or Harry married Hermione? Ultimately, the work itself must answer that question. There’s truth in the tip every beginning writer hears, whatever her genre: Show, don’t tell.