Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World

by Anne Jamison

13 December 2013


Cutting One’s Teeth on the Worlds of Others


In 1748, a lady fan calling herself Belfour writes to Samuel Richardson about his novel Clarissa, concerned about the fate of his characters— she is worried about spoilers, having “heard that some of [Richardson’s] advisers, who delight in horror… insisted upon rapes, ruin, and destruction.” She pleads for a better end. As it turns out, this fan’s main concern is not with the heroine, but with her potential rapist: “but you must know (though I shall blush again), that if I was to die for it, I cannot help being fond of Lovelace. A sad dog! why would you make him so wicked, and yet so agreeable?”

Another constant: we love bad boys, but also love to imagine that they are actually good on the inside—maybe so we don’t have to blush so hard. Belfour rewrites Lovelace accordingly: “He says, sometime or other he designs being a good man… and, in excuse for my liking him, I must say, I have made him so, up to my own heart’s wish: a faultless husband I have made him.” She takes a characteristic that Richardson teases, and runs with it. As Joss Whedon later advised—perhaps in similar circumstances— if you don’t like the way a scene goes, rewrite it yourself.

Like many a fangirl, Belfour would prefer that canon worked out her way, and she has strategies other than pleading: “If you disappoint me… May the hatred of all the young, beautiful, and virtuous for ever be your portion! and may your eyes never behold anything but age and deformity!” Ageist curse notwithstanding, Belfour would also rather not be associated with the wrong demographic: “Perhaps you may think all this proceeds from a giddy girl of sixteen; but know I am past my romantic time in life, though young enough to wish two lovers happy in a married state.” Middle-aged fangirls of all eras hate to be mistaken for teenagers—at least, on the basis of their reading and writing.

Thus begins a lengthy correspondence, because Richardson is smart enough to be flattered by such intense engagement with his story. He takes this correspondence with an anonymous female interlocutor who threatens to curse him extremely seriously. He expresses regret for the pain he’s caused, acknowledges that he feels it himself and that she is not “particular” in her desire for “a happy ending, as it is called,” but he nonetheless proceeds to explain why he has decided to give his audience not what they want, as Whedon would later put it, but what they need. Richardson confesses that it has been a matter of surprise “and indeed of some concern” that a character he set up as so very wicked from the first letter “has met with so much favour from the good and virtuous.” This same concern, he says, helped convince him of the “necessity” of the “catastrophe” he in fact wrote.

How, Richardson argues, could he set up a rake like Lovelace to rape and seduce virtuous young women to his heart’s content throughout his youth, and then, when he had the luck to meet the Chosen One a paragon of peerless virtue, reward him with her, and reward her, even more unfairly, with him? Indeed, “there cannot be a more pernicious notion, than that which is so commonly received, that a reformed vampire rake makes the best husband. This notion it was my intent to combat and expose.”

Still, Richardson the author really doesn’t want Belfour to flounce his novel. He is “discouraged and mortified” when she says she won’t accept “the volumes when completed, if the catastrophe be not as [she wishes].” He sends the next volume anyway—she reads, she regrets, she berates. The correspondence continues, and takes a heartbreaking turn; when the ruin of Clarissa is accomplished, Belfour announces she’s flouncing again, and Richardson writes, essentially, that he can’t be expected to put too great a premium on earthly happiness when he himself has lost six sons, a wife, and two daughters. Clarissa is going to Heaven. Isn’t that enough?

Point taken.

Richardson also wants to make it clear that he sees himself as an advocate for women, a defender of their worth against those who would dismiss it, and that it really bothers him that he’s inadvertently created a bad, bad man who nonetheless attracts them. He probably wasn’t the last male writer to be so perplexed.

Ultimately, Belfour—the Clarissa fandom identity of one Lady Bradshaigh—settled for the same remedy that so many Fic contributors did: she rewrote the damn novel so she liked it better. So, as Elizabeth Judge explains, did Lady Bradshaigh’s sister, Lady Echlin, with whom Richardson also corresponded but whose preference for a slightly less tragic ending he likewise resisted, although he “jokingly wrote the latter that Lovelace may as well have been made governor of an American colony.” (Which is, for that matter, exactly how he would have ended up, if Richardson had lived a century later and been called “Dickens,” whose works were likewise parodied and pastiched.)

Judge, a scholar of intellectual property law who also holds a literature PhD, has written more extensively on these and other instances of eighteenth-century fanfiction, and goes into greater detail on Richardson’s and other authors’ responses to character “kidnappings.” As courteous as he was to “Belfour” and other fan correspondents, Judge explains, Richardson was tremendously displeased with the many bawdy rewritings and continuations of his first novel, Pamela. In fact, his distaste at seeing his earlier heroine so ill used led him to kill off his next. It’s a lucky thing, then, that he never lived to see the most notorious “fanfic” for Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded: the Marquis de Sade’s Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue. In comparison, Richardson might have been happy to settle for any of Belfour’s alternate comic happy endings, which Justine decidedly doesn’t get. As an erotic fic writer on a roll can tend to do, @TheDivineMarquis let his fic (Justine/Everyone—NC-17, NSFW, warnings for every single thing you can imagine and then some) go on for hundreds of thousands of words.

By that point in history, authorship was growing to resemble something closer to what we understand it to be today. The beginnings of copyright had been in place since 1710’s Statute of Anne; literacy had increased exponentially, creating an expanding popular audience; circulating libraries and periodicals had brought down the costs of reading; and intellectual property was something you (or the publisher you sold to) might profit from by circulating copies of your work. Whether Richardson (if he’d lived that long) could have sued the Marquis de Sade for infringement is debatable, but highly unlikely—the emerging standard established by British case law was developing a notion of fair use that argued more on the basis of labor put into a particular book than on the originality of said book. (Plus, not only was Richardson dead, but Justine was published in revolutionary France in 1791, at which time England and France had issues to sort out besides international copyright.) A copyright lawsuit would have made little difference to Sade’s ultimate fate, in any case. He had already been imprisoned (he wrote Justine.  In the Bastille before the Revolution), released, and would ultimately be rearrested and committed as insane on the order of Napoleon Bonaparte. The Emperor had heard about Justine. In fact, he called it “the most abominable book ever engendered by the most depraved imagination” and ordered it destroyed. (Unless I’m confusing that with what some outraged women’s advocates said about Fifty Shades of Grey before they held their book burning. People can get so testy  about erotic fic. If Simone de Beauvoir concluded we didn’t need to burn Sade, though, I doubt she would have had much time for burning Sade lite.)


In an epigraph to a chapter of Middlemarch, her much-adored and near-perfect novel, George Eliot tells a story about two child readers we know to be based on herself. It’s a familiar story—at least to many fic writers. These children fall in love with a book, its world, and its author, whose name “rose on their souls and stirred such motions there” and “[made] the little world their childhood knew/Large”—large not just with new, wild landscapes, but with “wonder love belief/Toward Walter Scott.”

In other words, long before Mary Ann Evans became George Eliot, one of the most respected, serious literary novelists of all time, she was a historical romance fangirl. But the poor thing had fallen in love with a borrowed book! It was returned before she could finish it! What’s a baby novelist to do? Finish it herself, of course, “in lines,” she tells us somewhat opaquely, “that thwart like portly spiders ran.”

That’s right. George Eliot fangirled, and then she wrote fic.

It wasn’t all that good, she suggests. We’ll never know; those spiders ran clear away from us. George Eliot’s early fic is gone. And like Naomi Novik, the author and former historical fiction fanfic writer (for the Master and Commander series), I feel that this lost fic is an important part of literary history, and I wish it had been preserved. To avoid this spidery fate for future fanfiction, Novik helped organize the nonprofit Organization for Transformative Works, which not only provides an independent and stable archive (Archive of Our Own), but also informs fan writers about their legal rights regarding their fanworks. Of course, many writers continue to do everything they can to erase their fanfiction origins.

It’s OK. We still have fourteen-year-old Jane Austen’s pastiche of the sentimental novel and the Brontë children’s Duke of Wellington stories to go on with.

Is this, then, the story of fanfiction, its path to legitimacy and respect? The literary apprenticeship of young novelists learning their future craft, cutting their teeth on the worlds of others until they grow up and stand on their own two feet? A number of writers in this volume still see their early fanfiction careers in this way: a phase to be passed through, a childhood playground—or sandbox, as the convention goes (fanfiction authors’ notes often explain they are playing “in another writer’s sandbox”).

It’s actually not that simple—not in the nineteenth century, and not today.

A novelist colleague of George Eliot’s—one well into adulthood— had similar designs on Sir Walter Scott’s characters. Like many, many readers, William Makepeace Thackeray was unsatisfied with the romantic outcome of Scott’s beloved novel Ivanhoe. Thackeray knew he had company; everyone wanted the hero to pick the plucky Jewish heroine, Rebecca, and not the boring blonde. So Thackeray wrote for like-minded fans, and specifically addresses them in an author’s note: “Well-beloved novel readers and gentle patronesses of romance, assuredly it has often occurred to every one of you, that the books we delight in have very unsatisfactory conclusions, and end quite prematurely with page 320 of the third volume.” Thus Thackeray succumbs—and only partly tongue in cheek—to the siren call for “more” that has motivated so many generations of fan writers. “More,” to be sure, but also, “more of what I want.”

Thackeray had loved Rebecca since childhood—but this continuation was no child’s apprenticeship. Like S. E. Hinton today, who has been a respected, published novelist since the age of seventeen but is known to write fanfiction “outtakes” and missing scenes for her favorite TV show, Supernatural. Thackeray wrote fic after the publication of his best-known work, Vanity Fair (whose famous heroine, Becky Sharp, is another Rebecca). Thackeray wrote for a set of reasons familiar to fic writers—a combination of wish fulfilment, criticism, parody, and fun. Like so many fic writers I have read and taught, Thackeray had several serious points to make, among them dissatisfaction with his own genre. He was frustrated with the novel’s conventional end at marriage and with the dearth of any heroes and heroines over the age of thirty: “I would ask any of you whether it is fair to suppose that people after the above age have nothing worthy of note in their lives… Let us have middle aged novels, then.” He goes on to lament that so many of his contemporaries abandon their most interesting and admirable characters when they are still “mere chits,” and hopes that those writers still living will agree to give readers more themselves.

But Walter Scott is dead, and Rebecca has always been one of those characters readers want to hear more of. Thackeray also can’t “believe that such a woman… could disappear altogether before such another woman as Rowena, that vapid, flaxen-headed creature, who is, in my humble opinion [IMHO], unworthy of Ivanhoe, and unworthy of her place as heroine.” William Makepeace Thackeray was obviously a total shipper. But Thackeray, like his Kirk/Spock, Johnlock, and (in the early years) “Sculder” descendants, must confront the sticky problem of canon: “After all, she married Ivanhoe. What is to be done? There is no help for it. There it is in black and white at the end of the third volume.” Are readers really forced to accept that their beloved Ivanhoe could “sit down contented for life by the side of such a frigid piece of propriety as that icy, faultless, prim, niminy-piminy Rowena?”

Not if Thackeray has anything to say about it. Rowena, in his continuation, knows full well that she was outclassed by “the Jewess,” and as a wife “she was always flinging Rebecca into Ivanhoe’s teeth.” The pious Rowena becomes an anti-Semitic shrew, a nag—in fact, a stock character in fanfiction, almost a template for the kind of punishing characterization generations of fan writers have inflicted on the hapless (if often canonically successful) rivals that threaten their One True Pairing. I’ve read this character—this same character, with minor adaptations—as Angel or Buffy, Bella or Jacob, and even, in slash fic, Scully—again, and again, and again. Thackeray insists he’s writing a “middle aged novel,” but here he sounds every bit the teen fangirl. Not—and I really mean this—that there’s anything wrong with that.


None of these earlier literary practices are exactly the equivalent of what we understand as fanfiction today. The reasons for this difference are, I hope, clear from the examples themselves as I’ve explained them: our understanding of the key relationships—those that exist variously among writer, written, reader, publisher, object published, and source—changes over time. What doesn’t change, or rather, what never disappears, is the writerly habit of writing from sources. Writers have always entered into and intervened in familiar stories and styles and collaborated on authorship through discussion or other forms of influence. Despite this multiplicity of source and process, we have long given (or ceded) credit, ultimately, to a single authorial name—and fanfiction, with all its collaborative glee, continues that tradition. We talk about work by Ivy Blossom or Nautibitz or tby789 or Snowqueens Icedragon, even though these writers were always incorporating suggestions and drawing from a body of other writings—like other writers do. Fic just doesn’t hide it.

Today, some of these historically established practices are called “fanfiction,” others “adaptation,” “sampling,” “appropriation,” “inspiration,” or “homage.” Differences in nomenclature have to do with copyright, ownership, authorial attitude, and final product. These names can suggest important creative as well as legal differences, and I don’t want to ignore these, although I don’t find them reliably distinguished by these words. Like many of the contemporary works that could be described by these more neutral, familiar terms, the historical instances I’ve discussed are related to what we understand as fanwriting (and there are many, many other examples; I would go so far as to suggest that there are as many examples as there have been writers in history). What we call fanfiction today is something else, though: it’s no longer just writing stories about existing characters and worlds—it’s writing those stories for a community of readers who already want to read them, who want to talk about them, and who may be writing them, too.

Anne Jamison is Associate Professor of English at the University of Utah. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Princeton and is the author of Poetics en passant (Palgrave, 2009), a forthcoming book on Franz Kafka and Czech culture, a number of essays and articles, and a lot of tweets (as @prof_anne). Her work on fanfiction has been quoted in publications from The New York Review of Books to The Wall Street Journal to Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch. She lives happily in Salt Lake City in a house full of children, basset hounds, and an avant-garde poet. And yes, of course she’s written fic.
Read more about Fic: Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World and see a full list of the contributing fan and professional authors at SmartPopBooks.com

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