Every so often, some major newspaper or magazine does a think piece on fanfiction. One day it’s Forbes, the next it’s The New Yorker. The supposed-author of the infamously-bad Harry Potter fic My Immortal coming out of the woodwork made headlines in The Guardian (quick summary: the author who claimed she is “Tara” isn’t the real author, nor is the author she thought was claiming to also be the author, but is a different author who steals other creators’ works. So there’s that.), and celebrity rags occasionally peek at real-person fanfiction in an effort to see how romantic (or how awful) they really are.
Taking a different tack
Most of the time, these publications seem to poke fun at the concept of fanfiction, its readers, and its writers. In August 2017, Stephanie Burt wrote “The Promise and Potential of Fan Fiction,” a decidedly more positive take on the activity. In it, she didn’t tread the usual path of trying to psychoanalyze fanfiction writers (after a lengthy definition of what fanfiction “is or isn’t”).
While Burt did utilize the tried-and-true media powerhouses of Star Trek and Twilight to relate fanfiction for those unfamiliar with the term (they arguably made history, with Kirk/Spock fanzines originating the term “slash,” and Twilight fanfiction getting turned into a bestselling novel and film series in the form of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades books), she didn’t waste space trying to define it: Archive of Our Own founder Francesca Coppa’s new book The Fanfiction Reader actually does a good job with that, narrowly defining it as “creative material featuring characters [from] works whose copyright is held by others.”
Plenty of other articles like to nitpick what fanfiction is and isn’t solely to determine whether or not the people doing it are violating some sort of law. The problem is, plenty of pieces of classic literature are essentially fanfiction (whether or not copyright existed back then, the concept is the same): many of the Greek epics like the Aeneid, countless Sherlock Holmes and James Bond stories, even the “licensed fanfiction” you see in the form of “in-between” or “prequel” books and comics, like Star Wars: Aftermath.
Defining fanfiction means defining canon
Part of the problem with attempting to define fanfiction is that it means making it clear when something is official canon and when something is an unofficial fanwork. There are plenty of “unofficial” books on various topics (The Unofficial Harry Potter Spellbook: Wizard Training is one such example); it doesn’t stop them from getting published.
Contrary to popular belief, most fanworks don’t take away from the original source material at all (in terms of revenue); rather, the people most likely to read fanfiction are those who are already avid fans of the original work, and see fanfiction as a supplement between episodes, chapters, or releases of an official work (assuming the official work isn’t completed, in which case people might not want to leave the world and its characters alone). Once a media property gets big enough (cf. Harry Potter), it doesn’t make much sense for its copyright holder(s) to try and sue people who create “unofficial” works, printed or otherwise: instead of these unofficial works biting into their bottom line, it pads it. People who don’t know Harry Potter aren’t likely to buy The Unofficial Harry Potter Spellbook, and people who do buy the Spellbook are unlikely to buy it in place of an actual Harry Potter novel.
So if fanworks act as a supplement to the existing canon, how do you know where canon ends and fanwork begins? Is J.K. Rowling’s statement that Dumbledore is gay part of canon, even though it was never once mentioned in any of the Harry Potter books? When an author or artist revises their work, or another creator takes up a storyline that they started, what happens to the original? Is it somehow “less” canon than the new stuff?
Defining canon is a very personal act –not something that copyright lawyers will argue over in an effort to protect their client’s intellectual property (read: wallet). In fact, it’s not creators or lawyers at all that define canon, it’s fans. Some fans believe that the Buffy the Vampire Slayer canon ended when the television show had its series finale; others count the ongoing comic book “seasons” as part of the canon, even without the same show writers, producers, or actors involved.
Creating a world –especially one brought to life on screen, whether on film or television– is not a solo act. To continue the Buffy example, there are far more people involved with the creation of Buffy‘s canon than just Joss Whedon; there’s Sarah Michelle Gellar, who played Buffy; there’s a given episode’s writers and editors; there are individual producers, directors, and even makeup artists who all contributed to the show feeling like a world unto itself, where several interesting stories unfolded.
With books and stories, on the other hand, there are usually only one or two people involved. But they still have no control over how people will interpret their stories upon release, or even years later. As much as they might give interviews, release behind-the-scenes ephemera, or create guidebooks, they’re still not the sole arbiter of what “canon” is.
Books on fanfiction gain traction
Coppa’s The Fanfiction Reader is both an academic text and an intro to fanfiction. In it, Coppa cites Anne Jamison’s Fic: Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World, another great read on fanfiction that proves fascinating for both the uninitiated and the veteran fanfiction reader/writer. There are more published books on, about, or tangential to fanfiction than ever before; there’s the meta-novel Stranger Than Fanfiction from Chris Colfer, the bestselling author who wrote fairy tale fanfiction in the form of The Land of Stories series; there’s Transformative Works and Cultures cofounder and editor Kristina Busse’s Framing Fan Fiction: Literary and Social Practices in Fan Fiction Communities; and there’s Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On, clearly inspired by Harry Potter but predated by Fangirl, where the main character writes fanfiction for the fandom she ended up creating for Carry On. Meta, huh?
I read Jamison’s book some years ago when it was first published, and Coppa’s Reader more recently, and I thoroughly enjoyed both, despite not being familiar with many of the fandoms in either book. Coppa’s book brings together stories from several recognizable media powerhouses: Star Trek, Supernatural, Doctor Who, The X-Files, and others. I found myself laughing along with a great Star Trek story that I never would have read otherwise; while I enjoy the franchise, it’s never sparked my interest enough to read fanfiction. The accompanying essays in Coppa’s book shed light on unique aspects of fandom and canon: where else but Star Trek could one set a canon-compliant, slice-of-life school story wherein sex is an everyday, open act and eating is instead the cultural taboo that a first-year student has to work around?
Now, this might make anyone reading this who isn’t a fanfiction reader or writer stop and think “Wait, so all fanfic really is about sex?” No. Just like all anime isn’t porn, it’s possible for writers to talk about sex without being graphic or explicit. It’s also possible to write a relationship that wasn’t highlighted (or even came up) in the source material, from awkward dates to intimate moments. Fanfiction doesn’t just touch on the in-between moments, it tackles the awkward “before” (as in that Star Trek fic in Coppa’s Reader, “Lunch and Other Obscenities” by Rheanna), the twisted middles, and the complicated “after.” It’s paying homage, rather than taking something away from the original source.
Fandom from within: readers advisory from other fans
The New Yorker article is where I first stumbled across Elizabeth and Gav’s Rec Center, a multi-fandom email newsletter that touches on fanfic, fandom, fanart, and much more.
Rec Center then led me to Fansplaining, a fabulous podcast about fandom from Elizabeth and her friend and fellow fan Flourish. Between those two things, you’ll end up learning a ton about fandom and discovering a whole lot of amazing authors, artists, and thinkers. When it comes to figuring out what to read next, it’s often best to trust your fellow fans, and many of them are quite prolific and varied in their interests.