The Weird, Wonderful and Slightly Warped World of Fanfiction
I first discovered Fanfiction whilst trawling Lord of The Rings-related sites in the early 2000s. On most forums, there would be a section called “Fanfiction”. I dipped my toes in, read a few paragraphs, and quickly retreated: the idea of other people messing with Tolkien’s original work was blasphemy. What I did not realise was, that Fanfiction was actually a well-established, widely followed underground ‘pop’ genre.
Although the origins of any cultural phenomenon are often blurry, most sources agree that Fanfiction first emerged in the 1960s within the Star Trek fandom; in those pre-World Wide Web times, stories were circulated by means of home-produced fanzines which were swapped or sold at cost price at Sci-Fi and Comic Conventions. What was initially just a natural expansion of the Star Trek storylines, would soon, however, take a rather more interesting direction with the arrival of “slash” fiction. Slash, whose name originates from the use of the (/) symbol to refer to the “Kirk/Spock” pairing, focused on sexual relationships between (generally) male characters, such as those played by Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner. As you can imagine, this rather unconventional approach did not go down too well with a large part of the original fanbase, but no amount of geeky debate stopped the proliferation of slash, which soon began to cannibalise content from other highly popular TV shows of the time. A few decades later, Fanfiction is going stronger and stronger.
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It’s not surprising; if such an amateur art form had managed to emerge at a time when home printed fanzines were the only vehicle of distribution, it seems inevitable that with the advent of the Internet, Fanfiction was just going to get even bigger with a multitude of online communities of writers and readers proliferating under every possible fandom. Now, with social networks and easily accessible blogging platforms, it has never been easier to read or, indeed, to publish Fanfiction. There is something for everyone: from “het” (strictly heterosexual pairings) to “slash” (male/male), to “femslash” (female/female pairings), to the more controversial “RPF” – Real Person Fiction, written about famous people: actors, musicians, entire bands – if you can think of them, the chances are that somewhere in cyberspace they are the unwitting protagonists of their own Fanfiction.
Unsurprisingly, RPF presents a whole new range of complications: if breach of copyright and occasionally atrocious prose are the main points of contention by Fanfiction’s detractors, consider an entire literary sub-genre built around the fictitious lives of real people. These ‘real people’ become puppets in the hands of fans with a flair for story-telling and an extremely active imagination, their idols’ public personas providing instant, ready-made characters to be ‘paired up’ in a variety of ways – because ‘pairing’, of course, is central to most Fanfiction. Without sex, or at least romance, there would be very little to write about.
Free from the burden of having to stick to the truth, RPF allows fans’ most unlikely fantasies to co-exist with reality such as in the case of the hugely popular J2 slash based on the TV show ’Supernatural’. In J2 the two male lead actors, Jared Paladecki and Jensen Ackles, are not only a couple but are also frequently involved in BDSM and even cross over into other fandoms. Back in the real world,
Jensen Ackles and Paladecki, are said to find the whole thing rather amusing. But if some of the ‘protagonists’ of RPF Slash are so good-natured about it, things get more twisted when it comes to “cest”, a further spin on the genre which, taking creative liberties to a whole new level, features incestuous relationships between famous siblings. “Cest” is often more popular than the original Fanfiction it spawns from and is even specifically named according to the fandom it belongs to. Take the case of Hanson; under the umbrella of “Hanfic”, the three brothers have been inspiration for both Het writing and the imaginatively named “Hancest”, with its tales of more than just brotherly love between the three (in all their possible combinations). By comparison, the My Chemical Romance-inspired “Waycest” – which pairs up My Chemical Romance’ brothers Gerard and Mikey Way, seem so restrictive, with, after all, only two brothers available. Understandably, the bands in question aren’t too happy about being the objects of such fantasies.
One could be forgiven for thinking that only a certain kind of bands appeal to the consumers of Slash and RPF, but in the surreal world of fandom, nobody is safe, not even the members of heavy metal groups like Metallica and Megadeth. My suspension of disbelief was pushed to its limits when I discovered Metallica Slash featuring singer James Hetfield¹ ‘paired’ with former bassist Jason Newsted ² . Forget multi-sibling incest, my reaction was, this kind of stuff is totally outrageous. Why would Jason sleep with Hetfield?? I wonder if Metallica is aware of the fact that the Masters of Puppets are actually their own fans and what is stopping the notoriously litigious band from suing Fanfiction writers, Napster-style? The answer probably lies in the word ‘Disclaimer’ which inevitably precedes the opening paragraph of any RPF, and which basically says ‘Before you reach for your lawyer’s phone number: NONE OF THIS IS TRUE’. And as Fanfiction (not just RPF) can never be commercially distributed, as it clearly infringes copyright and probably every intellectual property law, nobody makes any money from it ³.
You can’t sell it, you can’t buy it, but thousands of people write it and an even larger number of people read it: there has to be something more to Fanfiction than just porn. Should it be dismissed as trash and placed at the bottom rung of the literary hierarchy, lower than even the worst self-published, straight-to-Kindle ‘indie’ writing? I am not so sure anymore. Standards vary enormously and, granted there is some really bad, actually, diabolically bad stuff out there, whose sole purpose is to give fans an opportunity for self-insertion in a fantasy involving their idols (this, in Fanfiction-speak, is called doing a “Mary-Sue”). But there are also plenty of well-crafted stories, some of them successfully serialised across several months and even years, with believable characters, elegant prose and plausible dialogue. And more often than not, the authors are university-educated women⁴ who are using Fanfiction as practice towards original writing. They put out their raw, unedited work for others to read and comment on, and learn their craft in the process. If it wasn’t happening online, this ‘learning by peer review’ path wouldn’t be so different from what happens at a Writers’ Group.
That confirms my suspicions that Fanfiction, as a literary phenomenon, is really nothing new. Throughout the centuries, every conceivable art form has, at some stage, delved into existing sources, in a tradition which can be traced as far back as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey; the Greek poet most likely borrowed his famous heroes and heroines from the story tellers of the time. Consider also the legend of Don Juan, which, since its first written appearance in the late XVII century, went through endless permutations, among which are Byron’s eponymous epic poem and Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni. And shall we talk about Keats’ Hyperion and Endymion, whose subject matter is entirely lifted from classic mythology? In fact, my Fanfiction-o-meter is going into overdrive just at the mention of the Romantic poet, since Keats’ own life was indeed given the full RPF treatment in Dan Simmons’ sci-fi novels Hyperion and Fall of Hyperion: Simmons’ Keats is a cybrid who falls in love with a woman named Brawne Lamia; Fanny Brawne was Keats’ real life fiancé and Lamia is the title of one of his poems. And if that wasn’t enough, Hyperion is also based on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, down to the frame story structure and the pilgrims’ stories.
Confused? Welcome to the world of Fanfiction, where everything is possible; a world in which characters from different TV shows intermingle and where Frodo and Sam go out on dates; a world which bears little resemblance to the original content and is actually more like an alternate universe of its own. And, ok, it is also a slightly warped dimension in which it is perfectly acceptable for brothers to sleep with each other, and where pretty much everyone is gay. But, as Bethany – one of the most prolific writers of Hancest – stresses in the disclaimer section of her website, “absolutely no money is being made from this story; it’s all just good, angsty fun”.
And I, for one, am inclined to agree.
¹ Undoubtedly the most obnoxious rockstar of all times
² He can do better than Hetfield
³ With the notable exception of the 50 Shades of Grey Trilogy which originally started as a Twilight Fanfiction.
⁴ According to most sources, most Fanfiction writers are heterosexual women with university degrees.
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