Boiled down to its base elements, fanfiction is the ultimate audience participation experience. All of us have imagined ourselves in our favorite fandoms, or imagined our favorite universes with a few narrative tweaks. Fanfiction writers take those daydreams a step further, realizing those universes and sharing them with fellow devotees. They’ve changed the literary and culturally landscape, making terms like shipping a part of the zeitgeist. And while fanfiction has grown in popularity and accessibility, it still doesn’t get a lot of recognition outside of its particular niche fandoms.
So, is fanfiction its own genre?
To answer this question, I think we first have to determine how long fanfiction has existed. It certainly blossomed into a cult phenomenon relatively recently. The term fanfiction was popularized in the 60’s and 70’s, thanks to the popularity of Star Trek: The Original Series. Trekkies birthed fanzines, filled with stories expanding on Roddenberry’s original vision. Most would be categorized as alternate universe fanficton, i.e. a universe other than the canonical one. It’s important to note that 90% (!) of these stories were written by women. It’s still true that fanfiction is dominated by marginalized groups, many scholars citing a need for these fans to be able to reshape their favorite universe in order for it to include them, or people like them. Spockanalia, the first Stark Trek fanzine, ran for three years and produced five issues. They were anthologies of art, poems, fiction, and nonfiction articles. Roddenberry himself contributed letters to the popular fanzine, and even shared copies with his staff.
Beginning in the 90’s, the internet changed the course of fanfiction, making it much more available and popularizing it. According to some estimates, as much as one-third of all book-related content online is fanfiction. Sites like Fanfiction.net make fan-produced works of fiction readily available to the masses. And of course, it is such communities that produced some of the most popular modern fanfiction to date, including 50 Shades of Grey, an erotic series by E.L. James that was originally Twilight fanfiction. The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare also began as Harry Potter AU fanfiction before becoming a copyright-friendly series.
Whatever your opinion on these titles, it is impossible to deny their success. All of the works mentioned above grew into media franchises popular enough on their own to command legions of independent fans who were often unaware of the original works, films, and, yes, even more fanfiction.
So, does having a huge library, widespread success, and an army of both fans and creators qualify something as being culturally significant enough to be its own genre? Not really. While the existence of fanfiction is well-known, it’s rare to find a bookstore with a section dedicated to it. Instead, 50 Shades of Grey is simply listed as a romance novel, and The Mortal Instruments as YA fantasy. While they are undeniably the aforementioned genres, they are also fanfiction. Isn’t it strange that booksellers and publishers are often hesitant to advertise that information, even resistant to it? Despite its overwhelming popularity, fanfiction is often banished to the realms of trash writing, with only a select few rising above to the “legitimacy” of other genres. It might be different if there were classic titles associated with fanfiction to validate the category…
Oh wait, there are actually loads.
Prior to copyright law, it was incredibly common for writers to “borrow” from each other, or even straight-up copy, with impunity. William Shakespeare penned several plays that would qualify as fanfiction nowadays, most famously Romeo & Juliet. The classic romantic tragedy that every high schooler has pretended to read was based on an Italian story that was translated into verse by Arthur Brooke titled The Tragedy of Romeus & Juliet. This story was retold in prose in Palace of Pleasure by William Painter nearly thirty years before Shakespeare finished his play. He borrowed heavily from both titles, and the primary changes he made were additional characters like Paris and Mercutio. Other Shakespearean titles that were based off of previous works include Othello, As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, and A Winter’s Tale.
And if we’re talking about fiction before copyright law, we absolutely have to talk about Paradise Lost. John Milton’s seminal work is one of the thirstiest pieces of medieval literature to ever exist. Milton paints Satan as a beautiful, emo anti-hero who probably just needs some love. It explores the nuances of the fall of man and attempts to justify God’s methods. The first part is dedicated to Satan’s story, and the second to Adam and Eve’s. It is the ultimate piece of Biblical fanfiction. Except maybe Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, which attempts to explain the Christian afterlife through narrative and self-insertion (another popular subgenre of fanfiction).
In fact, the more you look around, the clearer it becomes that fanfiction has existed much, much longer than the terminology. Does knowing that these pieces of classic literature weren’t born of the void make them less legitimate? It shouldn’t. Inspiration and creativity come in myriad forms. As a culture, we tend to accept works like The Mortal Instruments as being “more acceptable” or “higher quality” because they’re different enough, as in different enough from the original work. But one of the great things about fanfiction is the expansion of a beloved universe. Much like the Trekkie fanzines of the 70’s, many of us just don’t want the story to end, or want the story to be more inclusive, or wonder what Star Trek would be like if it was a bit more thematically like Ridley Scott’s Alien.
Maybe fiction doesn’t have to be a creative island to be special. And while artists tend to question the difference between homage and theft, maybe we should start looking at the line between homage and fanfiction and asking, “what’s the difference?”