How the digital age brought fanfiction into the mainstream
Welcome back! It’s the last day of 2018, and here at Fantasia, we are incredibly excited for the new year to bring you even more content and discussion! For today, however, we’re discussing a rather infamous facet of fandom: fanfiction. In this post, we are discussing how fanfiction began, some parameters of its definition (which are wobbly), and how the internet has brought fanfic into the mainstream consciousness.
What is Fanfiction?
For the unaware, fanfiction (or ‘fic’) is fictional written work, often prose, written by fans that takes some inspiration from a source text that the author is a fan of. In the simplest terms, at least.
If you saw our history of fandom series, you might remember some facts about fanfiction, how it began to gain prevalence in fan circles and widely shared during the mailing list period in the late 20th century, and one of the most famous instances of this is Star Trek zines. Fans would compile fanzines, curated bits of fan content (art, fanfiction, discussions, articles), and post them (yes, through the actual postal system) to other fans that they knew. This may have been one of the first instances of fans actually sharing their fics with each other in a crude version of what we have now, on the Internet.
What separates fanfic from the rest of ‘fic?
To really go back to the very beginnings, or the origins, of fanfiction, is difficult. To know the line where works are classed as original, or derivations of other work, is one that may never be truly defined. In many ways, everything ever written down had to come from inspiration somewhere. Whether that’s real-life events or other works that have adapted.
In Connie Glynn’s video on the history of fanfiction, she begins her timeline at the very very beginning: the origins of human language (about 100,000 years ago), and even compares the New Testament to fics (in a respectable manner). In Jill Bearup’s similar series, fanfiction is described as a type of ‘derivative work’, which, as mentioned, could be considered to be… everything, really.
But Glynn also mentions her belief that, for fanfic to exist, a staple piece of canon must exist for a piece of fan work to exist on the back of, and this staple piece of canon must be a published, known work, with a known fan-base. Which makes it slightly easier to define. She states:
“Fanfiction is written for fans, by fans, in fan community spaces.”
The Digital Impact on Fanfiction
It’s easy to be aware of fanfiction now, in the age where the click of a mouse of the touch of a screen can bring the world of fanfic to our doorstep (or our desktop). It’s talked about by creators of source texts and celebrities, it’s shared on social media and can be seen by anyone in the world at any time. Compared to how fanfiction used to exist, only for the eyes of the initiated, the fans themselves, and in secret shame (many fans and non-fans didn’t, and still don’t, consider fic to be a valid use of time or personal expression), the loud and extroverted way fanfiction now exists is somewhat of a shock. As Booth and Kelly mention in their journal article: the “mainstreaming of fan identities” through the emergence of digital technologies has made the concept of fandom more visible and, by extension, more prevalent, and a more acceptable cultural identity.
The digitization of fandom and, as an extension, fanfiction, has not only created a higher volume of space and more depth to the accessibility and prevalence of fanfiction in fan communities but has even allowed the expansion of fanfiction into the mainstream.
And yes, we’re talking about Fifty Shades of Grey.
Into the Mainstream
If you don’t know, Fifty Shades of Grey, the incredibly successful erotic romance book trilogy by E.L James (that has also been followed by film adaptations and a spin-off book) was originally a fanfic.
The fact that this is considered general knowledge in today’s world, to us, is crazy. It’s common knowledge, to millions around the world, that one of the best-selling series of books in history was originally written as Twilight fanfic, and that the name of the series originally was Master of the Universe.
Published originally on sites such as Fanfiction.net and her own website, James (under her screen name ‘Snowqueen’s Icedragon’) changed the names of the characters and a few minor details before publication. However, if you read just a bit closer, it’s still easy to connect the two series from the details.
Fanfiction seems, from our eyes, to have come from a place of secrecy and shame, to a place of awareness and shame, to now awareness and acceptance. From passing around zines under tables at conventions and the controversial introduction of slash as a genre in the 1970s (think Kirk/Spock) to antipathy towards young women exploring the world of fanfiction online in the late 2000s, to today. And it is today that we find ourselves in a place of high awareness of fanfiction. It is, without a doubt, there, in existence. But a level of acceptance has been reached by all involved that no matter what, where source material exists, where fans exist, there will be fanfiction.
There is also a high level of acceptance to the fact that a lot of fanfiction is, actually, very good. At Fantasia, we have certainly read pieces written by young fans that were completely worthy of immediate publication, as exhibited by Fifty Shades.
There are fanfics that should be counted as modern literary classics. https://t.co/0WTpaPI9Xk
— Tasha Suri (@tashadrinkstea) December 22, 2018
So, is fanfic still as taboo as it used to be? We don’t think so. There are still exceptions, of course. Real-person fic is still considered to be “too far” and many still can’t stomach the thought of fanfiction about real people. And the infamously adult nature of a lot of fanfiction is still met with some contention outside of those fan spaces (and still inside them). But nevertheless, it has absolutely become an accepted part of fan culture by many and is especially a part of fan studies that needs more investigating.
Thanks for reading! If you want to discuss anything in this post, write us a comment, or follow us on Twitter for more fan content and discussion! ‘Til next time,
Glynn, C., 2018. One Direction, Harry Potter, & BDSM: A Brief History of Fanfiction
. UK: Connie Glynn. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_q98da3d35k&t=1s [Accessed 29 December 2018]
Bearup, J., 2016. Virgil Was a Homer Fanboy | History of Fanfiction 1
. UK, Jill Bearup. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lAkvQr_lVpE [Accessed 29 December 2018].
Booth, P., Kelly, P., 2013. The changing faces of the Doctor Who fandom: New fans, new technologies, old practices? Participations: Journal of Audience and Reception Studies [online], Volume 10 (Issue 1). Available from: http://www.participations.org/Volume%2010/Issue%201/5%20Booth%20&%20Kelly%2010.1.pdf [Accessed 29 December 2018].
Romano, A., 2013. When celebrities discover fanfiction… about themselves. The Daily Dot [online], 1 January 2013. Available from: https://www.dailydot.com/culture/fourth-wall-tyler-brown-duncan-jones/ [Accessed 29 December 2018].