What follows is not so much a rant as an observation. For the past couple of years I have been meaning to write something concerning ‘fanfiction’, but time and general writer’s block had kept me from writing more than a couple of words on the matter. While I will still leave the in-depth analysis of fanfictions (questions about whether it is a literary genre, whether it should be even classes as ‘literature’, its parafictional implications to literature, etc) to the future, I wish to make share some recent observations here regarding what is fanfiction.
Fanfiction, as defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, are: “stories involving popular fictional characters that are written by fans and often posted on the Internet —called also fan fic.” This definition is too short, slightly unhelpful and mostly inaccurate. In fact, while the large portion of fanfiction involves ‘popular fictional characters’, many involve unpopular, minor, fictional characters. In addition, as I will mention farther down, not all is posted on the internet; a lot of it gets published (check out the sci-fi shelf on your local bookstore for proof). Moreover, this definition does not explain what fanfiction does or where it comes from.
The Oxford Dictionary definition is not any better: “fiction written by a fan of, and featuring characters from, a particular TV series, film, etc.” Again, it focuses on the wrong bits. Yes, it’s fiction written by fans, but it doesn’t say fans of what, and it’s not that it ‘features characters from series and films’, but that it takes ‘storylines’ (characters and all) from other works. Also, to limit it to TV and film (even though it says etc) is to completely ignore the much larger literary source material.
Wikipedia, on the other hand, offers a much more accurate definition, although it still could use a little work. It explains that fantiction is a “broadly-defined term for fan labor regarding stories about characters or settings written by fans of the original work, rather than by the original creator.” In other words, they are extensions, revisions, and new-takes on original works, written by fans of those original works. In the same Wikipedia entry, Lev Grossman from TIME magazine is quoted as saying:
“Fanfiction is what literature might look like if it were reinvented from scratch after a nuclear apocalypse by a band of brilliant pop-culture junkies trapped in a sealed bunker”
Now, I’m not sure I agree with this sentiment, specifically because we’re talking about fans. In the event of nuclear apocalypse, if a band of pop-culture junkies needed to ‘restart’ literature from scratch, they would probably do it quite accurately. Between the literature-junkies, the film-junkies, the TV-junkies and whatever other nerds happen to survive the end of civilization (probably thanks to the fact that we seldom go out of our nuclear-proof bunkers anyways), I am certain we’d be able to reproduce culture easily and effectively, precisely because we’re fans. As a fanfiction writer, I have to be up to date with the canon, know the original work quite well before attempting to write extensions of it. Fanfiction, on the other hand, is more a ‘what if’ of original work, a fan’s ideal or dream, what they wish they had read/seen. That is not to say fanfiction writers write what they would actually want to happen in whichever novel/movie/show. Instead, it’s more ‘wish-fulfillment’ than anything else.
Henry Jenkins, renowned media scholar, has this to say about fanfiction:
“[…] they introduce potential plots which can not [sic] be fully told or extra details which hint at more than can be revealed. Readers, thus, have a strong incentive to continue to elaborate on these story elements, working them over through their speculations, until they take on a life of their own. Fan fiction can be seen as an unauthorized expansion of these media franchises into new directions which reflect the reader’s desire to “fill in the gaps” they have discovered in the commercially produced material.”
What strikes me particularly ironic about fanfiction is that while it seems to be a contemporary phenomenon, born out of the internet or ‘nerd culture’, it is actually a very old concept in practice. What is Euripides’ Medea but his take on the Argonaut’s myth? What is Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream but a fan’s imaginings of Theseus ‘crossovered’ with English lore? Or his historical plays? Isn’t T.H. White’s The Once and Future King a type of fanfiction of Arthurian legend? Another quick glance at the entry on Wikipedia (that wonderfully benevolent evil overlord of knowledge), reveals a quick mention other of ‘precursors’ to fanfiction, such as the unauthorized version of Part II of Don Quixote, and the various parodies, revisions and sequels to Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and more famously, to Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.
Indeed, the piece of ‘fanfiction’ that got me thinking upon this topic once again came from a parody story of Sherlock Holmes. If you have read my previous blog entry, then you are aware that I am a Holmes’ fan. That said, I am also very strict about what I read, and as such I generally shy away from the various contemporary novels that have sprung since ACD’s death in 1930 (although I will read fanfiction, because it somehow feels more ‘unofficial’; internet fanfic writers seem to me more honest about what they do than published fanfic writers, but that’s mere preference on my part). However, after I finished reading Memoirs at the beginning of January this year, I encountered a piece of ‘fanfiction’ in the appendix section of my book, and imagine my surprise upon discovering it had been written by none other than the wonderful Sir James M. Barrie!
I love Sherlock Holmes fanfiction, and have read hundreds by now; I think that fanfiction in general possesses the capacity of uniting fans very deeply and personally, so I was immensely delighted to discover that I shared an ‘obsession’ with one of my favorite writers. In 1893 Barrie and Doyle collaborated to write an operetta called Jane Annie, which was unfortunately a huge flop. Fortunately though, their friendship remained unaffected, and sometime after Barrie wrote a Sherlock Holmes parody titled ‘The Adventure of the Two Collaborators’, in which the two authors visit the great detective to inquire about why their play was such a disaster.
The story is incredibly funny, particularly because it exaggerates Holmes’ powers of deduction (he deduces that the two visitors must be failed playwrights from the way they ‘angrily fling Durrant’s Press Notices’ as they walk, and he deduces what they’ve come to ask from their shirt-studs), as well as Watson’s eager reactions to Holmes’ deductions. The story also possesses many metafictional properties, particularly the notion of creator and creation arguing with each other (i.e. Doyle and Holmes). All in all, it’s one of the best spoofs I’ve read, and it should really be no surprise, as it was written by a superb author.
If these authors can write their versions, whether serious or fanciful, based on original or past works, what makes modern day fanfic writers any different? They are just as dedicated, if not all as talented (indeed, some are an affront to the written word), but many are as good, and sometimes better than the original work. Perhaps it is because they are so prolific, by which I mean, there are so many of them. If it was just one writer, or a handful of writers, spread out across different genres and media, then it wouldn’t seem quite as ‘fan-centered’ as it does. On the other hand, maybe literary critics should start paying more attention to Fantiction.net and LiveJournal.com, the next literary revolution may well come from this enormous and popular throve of amateur writers.
Share your thoughts and comments! Until next time!
Barrie, James M., ‘The Adventure of the Two Collaborators’, [accessed 31 January 2012] <http://thenostalgialeague.com/olmag/barrie.html>
Grossman, Lev, The Boy Who Lived Forever. http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,2081784-1,00.html [quoted from the Wikipedia entry]
Jenkins, Henry, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (Studies in Culture and Communication), (New York: Routledge, 1992) [quotes from the Wikipedia entry]
Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, ‘Entry on fan fiction’, [accessed 31 January 2012] <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fanfiction>
Oxford Dictionaries Online, ‘Entry on fan fiction’, [accessed 31 January 2012] <http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/fan%2Bfiction?q=fanfiction>
Wikipedia.org, ‘Entry on Fan fiction’, [accessed 31 January 2012] <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fanfiction>