Let’s Articulate #19: Is Fanfiction Real Literature?

Fanfiction is essentially original fiction written using non-original characters, settings, or world-building concepts. That might be a Harry Potter fic using the ‘next generation’ characters and the setting of Hogwarts, but with an original spin on the challenges they encounter. It might be a crossover between characters of two different TV shows, such as Sherlock and Doctor Who, as if they were set in the same universe. It might be a ‘daemon au’, using the characters and setting from one fictional universe, and applying the concept of daemons from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials to it. Or it might be one of the novels on your university course list.

”Remember how Wide Sargasso Sea used the character of Bertha from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre as the central character?”

Sorry, what? Yes, you read that right – fanfiction is regularly studied at universities, including Nottingham, usually without being identified as in the ‘fanfiction’ genre. If you did Studying Literature in first year (and did the reading), you read fanfiction. Remember how Wide Sargasso Sea used the character of Bertha from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre as the central character? Fanfiction. Remember how Paradise Lost is essentially a retelling and embellishment of the events in Genesis, using the same characters and settings? That’s fanfiction.

Dante’s Inferno is a self-insert fic exploring the concept of Hell as described by other writers, bringing in real people and characters not previously present in that universe. Greek plays such as Oedipus Rex are creative depictions of stories well-known to the audience – the writers giving a new form to a previously-existing tale, creating fanfiction from myths and legends. Same goes for new-perspective adaptations of fairy-tales – Maleficent is fanfiction of Sleeping Beauty. The Relapse is a successful Restoration play and a satirical sequel to Love’s Last Shift – written by a different author. It’s fanfiction.

What is literature? It’s writing, often fictional, that requires craft. There is a certain level of talent, effort, and artistic skill that goes into creating literature. By this definition, it is hard to see how fanfiction could not fit into the realm of literature. It certainly takes artistic skill – the imagination to come up with a storyline or get into a character’s mind, especially when not a character of the writer’s making, is certainly creative, and often very skilfully accomplished. And the best fanfictions, whether a few hundred words of a well-thought out scene, or a few hundred thousand of a novel-worthy story, take serious craft to develop.

”Not all fanfiction is good, but then not all fiction is good”

Of course, there’s degrees to everything. Not all fanfiction is good, but then not all fiction is good. There are many published books not considered ‘literature’, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that there are also works of a similar genre, a comparable premise or theme, even from the same publishing house, that would be considered literature. It doesn’t matter how or where the work is published, whether that’s on a fanfiction website or by a branded publisher – it is the quality of the work that makes it literature, and that can be found wherever good writers are.

Any further argument against fanfiction being called literature from this viewpoint would just be prejudice against fic authors. The idea that fanfiction writers are somehow inherently poor at writing because they are using other people’s characters or worlds is clearly without basis – the use of a particular idea has nothing to do with how the story around that concept is written. The same character in five different stories could act consistently in each, yet be crafted far better in one than another, because of the quality of the writing itself.

Also, fanfiction authors and fiction authors are increasingly becoming the same thing. There are writers getting agents and having their work traditionally published, who started out writing fanfiction (and some, apparently, still do…). Does this mean their free, online work is of a lesser quality than the writing they are making a living from? Even taking into account the editing process associated with traditional publishing, it seems unlikely.

”There are countless adaptations of stories like Frankenstein and Sherlock Holmes, many wildly different from the source material”

Originality is about coming up with your own ideas, creating a story that is new and interesting, crafting scenes and conversations that haven’t been done in the same way before. But not everything has to be completely new for that to be the case, otherwise the concept of tropes wouldn’t exist. Hundreds of Hollywood movies can be boiled down to the same essential plotlines. There are countless adaptations of stories like Frankenstein and Sherlock Holmes, many wildly different from the source material. And yet, these can all still be ‘original’, because it is what you do with the story, it is how you use the characters, it is the specific way you write that makes it original, not the basic similarities.

One final note: some people might say fanfiction cannot qualify as ‘literature’ because it is not being marketed, sold, or put up for any awards. Again, barring those fanfiction works already mentioned that have been, this is still untrue. Literature is not premised on its ability to make money, it is based solely on the quality of the writing. Besides, past the period of copyright, you can’t earn money on writing anymore, which is why you can find Shakespeare for free online. Does the fact it’s free mean that Shakespeare suddenly isn’t classed as literature anymore? No? Oh, okay. I guess publishing writing based on previous stories for free on an online platform still means something can be literature then. Who knew.

Isobel Sheene

Image Credit: Taryn via Flickr

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