Updated: Mar 3, 2020
Let’s be honest: everyone has been a fangirl/fanboy at one time or another. Maybe you haven’t written it down in eloquent language, but you have to admit you’re guilty of creating alternative story arcs in your head. Who hasn’t shipped Katara and Zuko in The Last Airbender, for example, or bewailed Sirius Black’s death as a travesty? (In fanfic lingo, “shipped” refers to matching characters up and rooting for their romantic relationship). Many Janeites would give a good deal to see Marianne Dashwood get together with John Willoughby rather than Colonel Brandon, or suggest alternative settings for The Hunger Games. The only difference is that fanfiction writers actually bring their fantasies to life.
What is fanfiction, exactly? Generally, it’s a work that uses popular characters in already established works (dubbed the “canon”) to create new stories about them. Ever since its advent, fan fiction has been a controversial genre. It has been accused of unoriginality, as fanfic writers are using characters and worlds that have been painstakingly created by their original writers. To what extent is fanfic plagiarism, and is it snobby to insist that the original creators, who have lived with their characters for a long time, truly know them best? Distressing anecdotes from the perspective of professional writers also abound. For example, one writer complained about letting a fanfic community use her characters, only to find that one writer had written a sequel for her book using an idea she had already been working on. When she contacted the fanfic writer about this predicament, the fanfic writer insisted on receiving payment in compensation for “using” his “original” idea. These knotty issues have made many professional writers wary of having their works re-used extensively for fanfic: writers such as Anne Rice and George R. R. Martin actively discourage the genre.
There are also, of course, copyright issues. In 2009 the US District Court banned the publication of a book by Ryan Cassidy, in which Holden Caulfield (from The Catcher in the Rye) is portrayed as a 76-year-old man. J. K. Rowling has been a vocal supporter of fanfic, but her publishing company has also sued the Harry Potter Lexicon, which tried to publish an encyclopedia of supplementary information about the Harry Potter series without transforming enough of the material to be seen as a different creative work in its own right.
Some critics voice more personal concerns. Many fanfic writers expend all their energy on writing online, often at the cost of their offline lives; unfortunately, the enormous quantity of their writing is seldom published professionally. Others have raised moral concerns about the explicit sexuality of fanfic, and how younger writers could be exposed to age-inappropriate violence and sexuality.
In defense of fanfiction, however, it is also a vibrant, democratic, interactive space, where creative writers can experiment with new ideas and nonconventional structures. Writing is often prompted by the encouraging presence of readers, and the fanfic community offers exactly that: warm, devoted followers who will send writers fan art, ship characters excitedly, and provide immediate, emotional, and voluntary feedback to their writing. This is a far cry from the publishing industry where you often receive a reply months after sending in your work, or you simply don’t receive a response at all. Fanfiction also provides a gateway for writers who don’t often have the resources to pursue professional writing at the moment—you don’t need an agent, or a formal education, or an extensive background in writing workshops and literary rules. Anyone who is able to participate, can.
The content of fanfic offers the same promise of inclusivity as its community of authors. Unconventional relationships abound in the fanfic world, breaking ideas of what is “normal” in life or in literature. Bending the race or gender of certain characters also invites us to question underlying ideas and revisit the way such factors impact our reading of the original story. In doing so, it destabilizes the elitism of the literary world and allows experimentation in untrammeled creativity.
What do you think? Is fanfic an infringement on the creative labor of professional writers, or does the genre have strong literary merit in its own right? Should the professional literary world uphold its current rigorous standards, or should we accept the inclusive possibilities and avant-garde ideas that fanfic can sometimes present? Is there a whiff of ageism or snobbery in the way we frequently look down at fanfic as lesser than paid and published writing? In any case, whether we like it or not, it seems that fanfic is here to stay. And as long as it is, there will be myriads of devoted fans to read it with love.
About the Author: Esther Ra is the author of book of untranslatable things (Grayson Books 2018). Her work has been published in blue moon, The Scriblerus, and Consequence Magazine, where her poetry has received the 2017 Women Writing War Poetry Award. Born in Seoul, Republic of Korea, she is deeply interested in grappling with the quiet beauty in the ordinary, the price of courage, and the space of ambiguity between different cultures.