Books Columnist Zuzanna delves deep into the history of literature through a particular lens – that of fanfiction.
Canon. Shipping. Ship wars. AU. AO3. Headcanon. OTP. Sex – a lot of it. No, I am not talking about Pirates of the Caribbean. In fact, if you’ve heard the above terms you’re probably no stranger to the good old concept of fanfiction. And by old, I mean old. For those of you who don’t have the slightest clue what I’m talking about…
What is fanfiction, you ask? Well, it’s a retelling of a given story by people who don’t own the copyrights. It’s content created by the fans and for the fans. It ranges from drawings to video edits, songs, and stories which could fill up an entire trilogy, if not more. It uses the original story as a base, and attempts to satisfy the fandom’s curiosity when questions are left unanswered, or when writing is simply disappointing. After another anticlimactic TV show finale (I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones), fanfiction is always where I head to soothe my sorrow. There’s just something so deeply engaging about fanfiction, how it answers questions left by its unfulfilling original content, that makes it so satisfying to read. Nevertheless, for many people fanfiction still remains a guilty pleasure. That’s why such websites as Tumblr, which allow you to stay anonymous, have become the cornerstone of fanfiction.
Despite its potential for fostering creativity, or maybe because of it, fanfiction has faced numerous troubles and controversies in regards to copyright law. With such legal propositions as Article 13 endangering sharing of ideas that the internet was originally created for, creativity faces a barrier it’s never encountered before. However, what people who spark negativity around fanfiction seem to forget is that this concept isn’t an invention of the contemporary, fan-centred artistic environment. In fact, it’s been around for a while.
Let me ask you a question — could you tell me what literary works I’m describing below?
A man kills his brother, marries his wife, and then tries to kill his nephew. No, it’s not Hamlet. Or actually, it is. But it is also the story of The Lion King.
Or another one — two young people from warring families fall in love and in order to be together they have to overcome their families’ prejudices. Yes, I’m talking about Romeo and Juliet. But also West Side Story.
Of course, I realise the difference between fanfiction and adaptations, or the fact that Hamlet was part of the public domain at the time that The Lion King was created. I also realise the legal implications of exploiting someone else’s work for your own profit. And I do stand by writers and their rights to decide about their own works. My point is just that fanfiction is not a new concept at all. In fact, it has been around ever since the beginning of literature. Some of the most renowned European literary classics could be said to belong to the fanfiction family. The Chronicles of Narnia, Paradise Lost, or Dante’s Inferno, for example, are what I would call biblical fanfiction. Fanfiction even infamously extends to William Shakespeare, with his most famous work — Romeo and Juliet — retelling an Italian tale, The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet. Additionally, numerous contemporary movies are modern adaptations of classical literature: Clueless is based on Emma by Jane Austen; The Scarlet Letter was adapted into Easy A; Avatar is the story of Pocahontas in the modern world.
What the above contemporary works seem to be doing is reinvigorating outdated literary works and updating them in accordance with the issues of the contemporary world in order to uphold their relevance and appeal to new audiences. The same happens with fanfiction. It’s just that social media has redefined creativity in a variety of ways, both more and less sophisticated, by providing an international space for sharing content and discussion. Contemporary digital systems and the connectivity they ensure is redefining who can publish, what they can publish, and on what scale, for other people to read.
Fanfiction has always been around, although maybe not on such a scale as it is today. Some of it may not be the best quality, yes. But sometimes quality isn’t the point of the writing process. Rather, humans have an innate need to tell stories and see their own self reflected in these stories. Storytelling is thus a fundamental act of self-exploration. That is what fanfiction can offer, and has offered for generations.