Defying The Canon: Fanfiction As The New Literature

May 2, 2016 | Anahit Behrooz.

The history of literary fandoms is long and varied. Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther is often credited as the novel which produced the first literary fandom in the modern sense. The so-called “Werther Fever” spread over Europe – capturing the imagination of even Napoleon Bonaparte – and inspired hundreds of young men to copy Werther’s fashion, travels, and purportedly even his suicide. A few decades later, Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly novels had a visible impact on Scottish tourism, while Sir Arthur Conan Doyle received hundreds of fan letters and even real crime documents addressed to Sherlock Holmes, asking how he would solve them. In the twentieth century, J.R.R. Tolkien commented on the overwhelming fan interest in his The Lord of the Rings novels, saying: “Botanists desire more accurate descriptions of the mallorn…historians require more details about the social and political structure of Gondor…and the generally inquisitive wish to be told more about Drúadan, the Wainriders, the Dead Men…and especially the missing two wizards (out of five).”

However, it is with the age of the internet and new, community-based networks that fandom has reached its zenith. Building on the fan-based zine culture which started in the 1930s, communities such as LiveJournal and Tumblr provide a platform for fans of literature, film and television to immerse themselves in what they love in a public space. Fascinatingly, these websites, as well as dedicated sites such as fanfiction.net and An Archive of Our Own, allow not only for a passive but also an active engagement with works through the creation of fanfiction. Fanfiction writers materially reconfigure the one-way relationship between a work and its fans, demonstrating instead a symbiotic relationship between the original text and its readers. The reader thus becomes responsible for contributing to a work’s meaning and interpretation in the cultural narrative through the new content and perspectives that they add to the original “canon” text. Fanfiction builds on the reader response theorists of the 1960s in destabilising the original author’s agency, while at the same time giving the amateur author agency to rewrite the narrative.

Moreover, fanfiction not only argues for the flexibility of the original canon work, but also has its own innate flexibility. As Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse argue, fanfiction is characterised by its open-endedness. Many fanfics are works in progress, while even those that are complete remain open to immediate engagement and reworking. Furthermore, although print-based fanfiction undoubtedly offers openness, digital media provides perhaps the best platform on which fanfiction can perform. With an accessible, online text: “fans can engage with an open text: it invites responses, permits shared authorship, and enjoins a sense of community”.[1] Fanfiction, and particularly digital fanfiction, thereby corresponds to Barthes’ distinction in S/Z between readerly and writerly texts: readerly texts are “closed”, traditional works, while writerly texts are defined by their plurality, the responsibility of the reader to create meaning, and their infinite, incomplete nature.[2]

This incompleteness also distinguishes fanfiction from rewritings and adaptations such as Jean Rhys’ The Wide Sargasso Sea (from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre), Gregory Maguire’s Wicked (from Frank L Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz), or Seth Grahame Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (from, unsurprisingly, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice). While works such as these bear many of the hallmarks of fanfiction (some of which are discussed below), they nevertheless lack the immediacy and openness of digital fanfiction. Moreover, the difference also lies in the commercial, as well as the artistic presence of these adaptations. As published works, texts such as Rhys’ and Maguire’s are permitted, if not a position in the canon, then at least the possibility of someday entering it. Fanfiction, meanwhile, is rarely considered by the literary industry and is denied the descriptor of “literature”.

One of the unique abilities that fanfiction has as a result of its pluralised nature and its exclusion from the mainstream literary industry, however, is its ability to vocalise marginalised narratives. Fanfiction writers will frequently rewrite mainstream and popular works using often ignored perspectives such as non-white, queer, and feminist, in order to reclaim non-representational, mainstream works for a minority audience. This is seen in fanfiction that writes in ethnic minorities in Harry Potter, in particular the popular depiction of a black Hermione Granger. This depiction originated in fanfiction and indeed even entered mainstream portrayals with the recently announced casting of Noma Dumezweni for the role of the adult Hermione Granger in the upcoming play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. The original fanfiction writing of a black Hermione critiques the lack of diversity in J.K. Rowling’s novels, while simultaneously righting it.

The most popular marginalised narrative in fanfiction, however, is without a doubt the slash fic: a fic which depicts a queer relationship. These are almost always based on works where the queer relationship isn’t canon, such as Kirk/Spock in Star Trek, or Buffy/Faith in Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Slash fic is also notably popular for overtly masculine and heteronormative works, such as the “Destiel” pairing in the television show Supernatural, a show known for its macho themes of power, violence, and womanising. Through fanfiction, the audience can realign the narrative in order to subvert the show’s strictly traditional representations of gender and sexuality. The opinion of certain scholars such as Patricia Frazer’s and Diane Vieth’s,[3] who argue that slash fiction is a displaced, idealised representation of a heterosexual relationship, demonstrates the continued marginalisation of the queer narrative both in popular culture and academia, and the overriding need for a forceful rewriting of the status quo.

Although an oft-derided genre, fanfiction is nevertheless clearly a powerful medium for breaking down the boundaries between text and reader, and for amplifying voices which are often rejected from mainstream literature and media. Fanfiction allows readers to reject the dictatorial social norms pervasive in art, and instead to imbue the work with their own meaning through the active act of writing. Never before has fan engagement been so widespread, or so subversive.


About Anahit

I’m a first year PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh, by way of Oxford and St Andrews. My research explores representations of medieval literary tradition and manuscript culture in J.R.R. Tolkien’s works. When not in Middle-earth, I’m interested in depictions of the monstrous and supernatural in literature and art, from marginalia to Marvel and everything in between.

Article edited by Niki Holzapfel.

Works Cited

1. Fan fiction and fan communities in the age of the Internet: New essays. Ed. Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse. London: McFarland and Co, 2006: 6.

2. Barthes, Roland. S/Z. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.

3. Frazer, Patricia and Diane Veith, “Romantic Myth, Transcendence, and Star Trek Zines”. Erotic universe: Sexuality and fantastic literature. Ed. Donald Palumbo. New York; London: Greenwood Press, 1986.

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