Throughout my arts degree I’ve encountered many fellow students who, if I tell them I read fanfiction, respond in similar ways: some with solidarity; others with incredulity and thinly veiled disgust; but the most frequent response is condescension. Although I can understand the responses, I certainly don’t agree with them. There’s a widespread view of fanfiction within the literary and publishing world as something lesser – something disrespectful and shameful; almost taboo. The thought of someone borrowing from another’s work, modifying it, reshaping it, putting it up on the internet for millions to read – for free – and then potentially profiting from it can be a hard pill to swallow.
But what if I were to tell you that fanfiction is not a recent invention? Bronwen Thomas explains that the origins of fanfiction have been linked as far back as to oral and mythic traditions, but the most prominent tracings of fanfiction can be found in science fiction magazines from the 1920s and 1930s (2011). Not to mention, some of the best pieces of literature are works of fanfiction, such as Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys and The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood.
However, the ‘antis’ of fanfiction often assert their distrust of the practice: their arguments can be anything from ‘fanfiction is just slash fiction’ to ‘the writing is borderline illiterate’ to the ever popular ‘but what about the mortality of it?’ No matter what reasons people have for opposing fanfiction, there is one thing that is undeniable: it is popular and it isn’t going away.
Before the advent of the internet which allowed fan communities to come together, fanfiction was a fairly ‘underground’ activity (Thomas 2011). Now, fans have the ability to read as much content as they can stand through such websites as fanfiction.net and archiveofourown.com (AO3). The beauty of these websites is that they allow people to share their interests with others, publish their writing and get almost instantaneous feedback. This works as a free mentorship, to an extent, allowing hundreds of thousands of writers to hone their writing and editing skills. Fanfiction defies the invisible boundaries between author and readers by giving a voice and a platform to budding writers through popular and beloved forms of media: books, movies, TV shows, podcasts – you name it. It challenges the existing beliefs of narrative and storytelling, and questions whether the creator is the only person who has the right to tell a character’s story.
Fanfiction is a form of fiction that publishing companies should be keeping an eye on. It can be a way for a fan to celebrate their favourite work of fiction, but it is also a response to what the reader feels is ‘missing’ or repressed within a pre-existing work, or ‘canon’. It’s why the practice is so popular within marginalised communities and why a large portion of fanfiction – on any website – is dominated by queer communities. Take the Sherlock fandom, for instance – both the original book series and the BBC TV series; many claim that the BBC Sherlock is Stephen Moffat’s own version of fanfiction – an alternate universe (AU) – and thousands of fans have taken to their internet fan platforms to pen their own fanfics of John Watson and Sherlock Holmes as lovers. To give credence to how popular a ship they are within the fanon, I searched for stories about them on AO3 and here’s what I found:
Over 55,000 ‘Johnlock’ works on one website alone, with twice the amount of readers and commenters. These fan writers have taken a story they love and have remade it into something they wanted to see in the canon. They have become their own storytellers and the internet has given them the tools to do so.
It would be remiss of a publishing company to ignore the online fan world. If a writer of a piece of fanfiction has already captivated and drawn in a considerable audience, then half the publisher’s work has already been done – establishing an author brand. Fanfiction fans are loyal: if one of their favourite fanfiction authors has acquired a publishing deal, they will support that author and their future works. These fan spaces have opened up new and cheaper channels for publishers to acquire stories and authors – not to mention, the book’s publicity and advertising plan is already half fulfilled, due the author’s popularity on fanfiction platforms.
Some established authors started their careers by writing fanfiction. Meg Cabot, author of The Princess Diaries series, used to write Star Wars fanfiction and said: ‘[Fanfiction] is a good way for new writers to learn to tell a story. The good thing about writing fan fiction is that the characters and basic plot are already set up, so new writers can concentrate on dialogue, or further plot development’ (Kovach 2016). Cassandra Clare, author of The Mortal Instruments series used to write Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings fanfiction. Andy Weir, author of The Martian, also wrote a fanfic called Lacero of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, which was later dubbed as canon by Cline and published in a new version of the novel as extra material.
The online fan community is a powerful and rich source of great writers with established fan bases just waiting to be taken advantage of by publishing companies, either through being offered the chance to write their own original work or to rework an AU of theirs. An AU story is a piece of fanfiction that takes the characters from a source’s canon and alters all the other elements. It’s a complete reimagining of a story: often the resulting work is almost unrecognisable from the inspirational source. The most popular AU story is E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, which started as a Twilight fanfiction. E.L. James produced a completely new story, transforming everything about the original source she was inspired by to the point where many readers would be hard-pressed to find similarities between her books and the Twilight ones. To a point, AU fanfic authors are writing what they originally wanted to see in the story. They’re not so much as interpreting the original work as they are growing something new from what they found the story was missing. A publisher can look at AUs to publish new stories (albeit one that has to be worked around very carefully to avoid any copyright infringement). Most importantly, AUs give publishers the chance to look at why these fan stories are so popular, and to recognise what sort of books readers really want to read.
If a publisher is looking for an author to write the Next Big Thing, it is a worthwhile idea to look into fan spaces and uplift new voices. Fanfic writers have the ability to create entirely new stories based upon a tiny element of canon – imagine what they could do if given the option to write, and then publish, their own original fiction?
Antis: A person who is opposed to something.
AU: Stands for alternate universe, a fanfic where a majority of the elements in a piece of media – save for the characters – are completely altered from the original.
Canon: Another word for ‘official’, used to distinguish between a piece of media’s storyline and a fan’s fanfiction. E.g. Sherlock and John are crime-solving partners.
Fanfic: An individual story written by a fan of a piece of media, about the characters, setting or world.
Fanfiction: Fiction about the characters, setting or world of a piece of media (book, TV show, movie, etc.) written by a fan, without the original creator’s permission.
Fandom: A community of fans.
Fanon: The ‘canon’ of fandom. Ideas accepted by fans and written about in fanfiction but were not in the official canon. E.g. Sherlock and John are lovers.
Slash fiction: An online term for fiction or forms of media that depict characters in a sexual, homosexual relationship.
Ship/shipping: Supporting a romantic pairing between characters in fiction. The romance is usually, but not always, created by the fans, opposed to the canon.
Ship names: The combining of two shipped characters names. E.g. Sherlock and John = Johnlock.
Laura Cesile is currently completing her Master of Publishing and Communications at the University of Melbourne. She works as an editor and writer for a start-up fitness company. When she’s not glued to her laptop editing fitness manuals, she’s attempting to read every book in existence. Laura is working with Grattan Street Press this semester.