Excerpted from Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World by Anne Jamison (footnotes omitted). Copyright © 2013 Smartpopbooks.com. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.
A Prehistory of Fanfiction
“It’s writing, Jim, but not as we know it, not as we know it, not as we—” LOL my bad. It’s totally writing as we know it. We just don’t know we know it.
—Mashup: “Star Trekking” and my internet persona
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher who theorized that art was primarily an imitation of nature. (He had a lot more to say, and his theories are readily available all over the internet, but that’s the soundbite version.) Dionysius of Halicarnassus was a Greek historian and rhetorician who came a few hundred years after Aristotle, and he saw things differently. He held that art—at least the art of writing—was more truly a matter of imitating other good writers who’d gotten it right before you. But that’s the way of the world. Writing communities and the way they see their work change. We might say that writing is a community whose only constant is change, but then we’d immediately have to amend our cliché to include the constant wank—a term that’s recently evolved to designate irritable and strident discussion—that the constant change causes. (But don’t worry. We don’t get to that particular sense of wank for a couple of millennia.)
Anyway, Dionysius (not the wild, sexy god, but the historian) saw good writing as imitatio, and this understanding all but totally replaced the Aristotelian conception, mimesis, among Latin writers of the day. In fact, Dionysius’ theory held sway for a lot longer than most people today have any idea of. This conflict between imitatio and mimesis plays out with greater or lesser intensity until right this very minute, where on a blog near you an Edward/Bella fic writer is taking down a Rob/Kristen fic writer with something akin to extreme prejudice.
It could get down and dirty in the eighteenth century, too—as we see in debates surrounding the work of Charlotte Smith, who appropriated lines of Shakespeare and others into her influential sonnets. Was she engaging in the elegant tradition of imitation? Or was she plagiarizing?
Writing. The community whose only constant is the extreme glee with which one writer tells another writer, YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG. It’s what Plato told all the poets, after all.
Del CHEVALIER DE LA CHARRETE
Comance Crestiens son livre;
Matiere et san li don et livre
La Contesse, et il s’antremet
De panser, si que rien n’i met
Fors sa painne et s’antancion
Here Chrétien begins his book about the Knight of the Cart. The Countess furnishes him with the source material and overall spin she’d like him to give it, and he undertakes to think how to put it all together. All he’s really adding is his own hard work and some ideas about context and narrative.
—Chrétien de Troyes, approx. 1171; writer’s note to Lancelot de la Charette from the “Arthur material” kink meme, my translation
The well-known medieval romance The Knight of the Cart announces itself as a fill for Countess’ prompt, apparently a request for Arthur/ Lancelot/Guinevere with a cart (the exact wording of the request has been lost). There’s some evidence to suggest Chrétien added the whole adultery plot, which has since become canon. There’s no evidence, however, to prove Chrétien didn’t invent the request to begin with (a request from a countess makes you look pretty important, after all). Chrétien plays down his own role, as is expected of fan writers, and pays plenty of deference to his source and The Powers That Be. But, as sometimes happens, it seems that Chrétien’s version was more compelling than its source, if we are to judge by longevity. It’s hard to judge on merit, since Chrétien’s source has been lost. As we all know in the age of the internet, it happens all the time; texts just explode. Natural causes.
My own translation (transposition?) from the Old French into a contemporary global fanfiction English is incredibly free. Like, way. So free, in fact, we might consider it fic for the original—but then, translation is what we call it when very serious people rewrite and generally mess with other people’s words in another language, which makes it all very respectable. We even talk about the difference between faithful and free translation in a way that maps handily onto discussions about canon (the story as told by the original author) and alternate universe (AU) in fanfiction. My version of Chrétien is most definitely AU, but isn’t that true of all contemporary readings of Chrétien? A thousand years is a long time, and none of us has a TARDIS.
Sometime around 1600, give or take, William Shakespeare wrote fic for the Ur-Hamlet. But, again, as sometimes happens, it seems that Shakespeare’s version was more compelling than its source—hard to judge, though, since his original has been lost. As we all know, in the age of the internet and apparently in other ages, too, it happens all the time; texts just explode. Natural causes.
We say Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. When I call that into question just a bit, it’s not to suggest that some other guy wrote it, as the conspiracy theorists who are invariably seated by me on planes and at weddings like to argue, but rather that Renaissance dramatic authorship was a more porous and collaborative affair than we imagine. Recent research points to how Shakespeare’s plays incorporated the innovations of actors and others involved with his company, the King’s Men, as well as multiple sources, including histories, romances, and other plays. No one really minded because you didn’t make your money as a playwright by selling copies of your own written intellectual property (if that had been the case, figuring out exactly what makes up the text of any of Shakespeare’s plays wouldn’t be such a complicated affair). If anyone was making money selling copies of plays, it was the stationer. You made money as a playwright by having your entertaining plays performed—so the more entertaining you could make them, the better. For that reason plays were (and still are) amended after early performances, adjusting for audience reaction.
Shakespeare was and is a brand, then, a name that indicated a certain standard and style of entertainment, but also the guy who did most of the heavy writerly lifting and thus deserves the most credit. It works this way in a lot of industries today—all kinds of labor goes into writing a film script or a television show, but typically only one or maybe two writers get the credit.
In 1614, Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda (a sock for some unknown writer) wrote a sequel to Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. This sequel may or may not have helped inspire Cervantes to write his own continuation. In his dedication of that continuation (whatever its inspiration), the real Cervantes claims that the real Quixote is “‘with his spurs, and on his way’... so as to dispel the loathing and disgust caused by another Don Quixote who, under the name of Second Part, has run masquerading through the whole world.” That’s pretty much how Anne Rice feels about fanfiction, too.
On the other hand, as the internet commentator “Berk” argues, “I wouldn’t call [the ‘dodgy’ Quixote] fanfic, even jokingly—I think the guy’s main idea was to cash in on the popularity of Cervantes’s masterpiece, not to pay homage to characters he loved or anything like that; that’s the impression I remember getting from the notes to the versions I read at least.”
In the late sixteenth century, though, writing based on another writer’s work wasn’t necessarily homage; it was just, as we’ve seen, standard practice. What sets this “False Quixote” apart is that Avellaneda was publishing his work as the real sequel—not as an alternative version, an explicit parody, or homage, as Quixote himself was doing with the romance tradition. Had copyright law existed in those days, Cervantes probably could have sued, but it didn’t, so he had no choice but to write his own, better sequel, in which the real (fictional) Quixote discovers and mocks his imposter. From a literary perspective, this solution worked out better than a lawsuit anyway.