Annie Proulx got ficced. In a recent interview in the Paris Review, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author confessed that she wishes she’d never written her most famous work, the short story “Brokeback Mountain,”about the star-crossed romance between two cowboys. Having fans is a good thing, especially for authors of quiet, spare realism — not exactly a cohort with a healthy surplus of readers. But in the last few years, writers, filmmakers, and other artists have seen fans seize control of their creations and reimagine them as fanfiction, or fic, as its aficionados like to call it. Proulx first got ficced when a whole new audience came to “Brokeback” after the Academy Award–winning film adaptation was released in 2005. Less reverent than her typical reader, these fans have busily set themselves to producing what Proulx has termed “pornish” fiction based on her story’s two main characters, Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar. “Unfortunately,” she said, “the audience that ‘Brokeback’ reached most strongly … can’t bear the way it ends — they just can’t stand it. So they rewrite the story, including all kinds of boyfriends and new lovers and so forth after Jack is killed.” The resulting stories, Proulx grumbled, “just drive me wild.”
Proulx is far from the only mainstream artist being dragged unwillingly into a new, fan-dominated world. Once exiled to obscure corners of the internet, fanfiction — amateur fiction based on characters from preexisting works or real-life celebrities — has lately become a force driving popular culture. As Proulx realized, fans these days aren’t satisfied to just sit back and consume. They want to participate. They want to create. And they don’t want to wait for anyone else’s permission to do it. Millions of fanfiction stories have been uploaded onto vast online archives where other fans read, rate, and comment on them. Romances, often torrid, between ostensibly straight male characters like Harry Potter and his onetime nemesis Draco Malfoy are especially popular, and there’s an entire category of fanfiction, called mpreg, in which beloved male characters and celebrities (e.g., One Direction singer Harry Styles) are able, bizarrely, to get pregnant. Fandom’s untrammeled imagination is also colonizing the wider world. E L James’s Fifty Shades of Grey started as Twilight fic. And what are J. J. Abrams’s Star Trek and Star Warsreboots — which take the original source materials (called “canon” in fic circles) and shape them to new ends — if not examples of the fanfiction spirit when enabled by hundreds of millions of dollars?
Although human beings have been stealing and reworking each other’s stories for millennia, fanfiction as we now know it began back in the days of Star Trek fanzines, on whose mimeographed pages female Trekkers wrote of Mr. Spock swooning in the arms of an ardent Captain Kirk. For decades, fanfiction communities — soon to migrate en masse to the web — functioned as a subset of science-fiction and fantasy fandom, where they were treated, by the mostly male nerds who ran things, like a younger sister best banished to her room whenever company came by. The internet changed all that by ushering in the era of the networked fan, often a girl who sampled her first taste of fic in Harry Potter fandom. Like it or not, the once-Olympian creators of the canon — known among fic writers as TPTB, or “the powers that be” — now have little choice but to listen to them. Robust, established online networks of Harry Potter and Twilightfans played a significant role in making The Hunger Games books into best sellers and, after that, blockbuster films.
Fanfiction (just one word, or you betray yourself as a noob) is the real Cinderella in this story, raised from the scullery by a fairy godmother named E L James. James’s erotica, originally titled “Master of the Universe,” reimagined Twilight’s Bella Swan and her vampire boyfriend, Edward Cullen, as, respectively, a gawky ingénue and the handsome, bondage-loving billionaire who seduces her. Such stories, in which the characters are essentially the same despite significant changes in their circumstances, are called AU, or “alternate universe” scenarios.
James isn’t the only fic writer to make the leap from fan to pro: Others include the historical-fantasy author Naomi Novik and YA star Cassandra Clare, creator of the Mortal Instruments series. But James proved that fic could become an entertainment juggernaut to rival the original properties that inspired it. The movie version of James’s fic raked in more than $400 million internationally in less than two weeks, so literary agents and movie producers are looking for more of the same. Last April, a military wife named Anna Todd signed a lucrative contract with a Simon & Schuster imprint to publish, in multiple volumes, an epic erotic romance about a demure college freshman’s relationship with a tattooed bad boy named Hardin Scott. When Todd’s After was first posted in installments on the online reading-and-writing community Wattpad in 2013, however, the hero’s name was Harry Styles. In the author’s original AU, the puckish singer is just another foreign student at Washington State University, albeit a fetchingly dimpled and brooding one. After, although clearly patterned on Twilight, is an example of “real-person fiction” (RPF), in which celebrities are cast as characters in concocted scenarios. Todd’s work garnered more than a billion views on Wattpad, and Paramount Pictures recently bought the screen rights.
While fic labors under a (well-justified, it must be said) reputation for fostering an ocean of bad writing, it has also proved itself capable of producing accomplished and intelligent genre voices like Novik’s. It’s only a matter of time before a writer that the literary-fiction crowd acknowledges as one of its own emerges from such fertile ground. In fact, given that most fic writers are pseudonymous, it’s quite possible that one already has and that the talent responsible for a first novel well reviewed by the New York Times is also tinkering with Sherlock “shipping” — the creation of new romantic relationships between previously unlinked characters — on the side. (Established authors like Lev Grossman and S. E. Hinton have dabbled in fanfiction.) Though fans’ efforts aren’t limited to the written word—YouTube is a trove of elaborate fanmade live-actionBatman films — it is written fic, as the Fifty Shades phenomenon proves, with its capacity to speak to the desires of a neglected female audience, that has the most potential to break out — and make some serious money.
Online fic communities don’t just assert the fans’ right to make up their own stories about other people’s characters; they offer writers an unprecedented degree of input from their audience, whose comments often lead to strategic rewrites. This prospect tramples on the cherished icon of the artist as a unique genius producing singular work. That ideal, however, is a relatively recent one, instituted by the Romantic movement in the late-18th and early-19th centuries and carried forward to the present day by the mandarin creed of modernism. Fanfiction proponents often point out that for most of its history, literature has been a tissue of borrowings and adaptations, from the Plutarch histories that Shakespeare reworked into his plays to the stock phrases and legendary figures used by Homer. In The Discarded Image, his book on the aesthetics of antiquity and the Middle Ages, C. S. Lewis wrote, “I doubt if they would have understood our demand for originality or valued those works in their own age which were original any the more on that account … Why make things for oneself like the lonely Robinson Crusoe when there is riches all about you to be had for the taking?”
One reason is the objections of those you take it from. Some authors — George R.R. Martin, Anne Rice, and Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series, among them — protest fic’s appropriation of their creations and ask fans to refrain from writing it. FanFiction.net, one of the oldest and largest online repositories of fic, has a policy of taking down stories when TPTB request it. Other creators, such as J. K. Rowling and Twilight author Stephenie Meyer, don’t object to fic based on their work. But tamping down the fanfiction explosion is effectively impossible. In the global village that the internet has facilitated, all of pop culture has become a kind of folklore whose mix-and-match components can be passed from storyteller to storyteller, ad infinitum.
Since the vast majority of fic is written without any expectation of recompense, copyright remains an open question, but fear of legal consequences had made many fic writers shy of public attention. Both James and Todd changed the names and some identifying traits of characters in their fics before publishing them professionally, a practice known as “filing off the serial numbers.” But now that fic holds out the promise of a significant payday, major players have entered the scene. In 2013, Amazon launched Kindle Worlds, a program in which fans could write and sell fic with the permission of, and according to, guidelines set by the original creators or copyright holders. Any sales are split three ways between the fan, the brand owner, and Amazon. Kindle Worlds is widely considered a bust, partly because the participating properties are not very enticing. Myriad restrictions imposed by the rights holders and stifling contractual terms were also growth deterrents, along with the absence of any meaningful community. Amazon has since launched an invitation-only beta program called WriteOn, which allows members to upload and share writing and to comment on each other’s work, much like Wattpad, currently the preferred fic hub for younger fans.
Yet even Wattpad, which reports the uploading of more than 14 million fics in 2014, has an uncertain business model. For many longtime fic writers and readers, theirs is fundamentally a gift economy, and the success of writers like James has prompted a predictable identity crisis as well as a lot of upstart pride. Fans who used to keep their hobby a secret have come out of the closet to defend their community from ridicule. Last fall, when Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch, in an interview with Out,made dismissive remarks about erotic fic portraying Holmes in torrid clinches with Martin Freeman’s John Watson, outrage ensued. Elizabeth Minkel in Britain’s New Statesman wondered, “Does it matter that … middle-aged men with very large platforms were sitting at a table pathologizing teenage girls’ sexuality — and making a whole load of potentially harmful assumptions about a topic they know literally nothing about? Absolutely.”
The jabs are all the more irksome because Sherlock is itself a form of AU fic, in which Conan Doyle’s original characters have been transposed to contemporary London. Like Abrams’s science-fiction reboots, Sherlocksometimes seems to differ from fic primarily in the level of resources devoted to realizing its creators’ fantasies. Of course, the fantasies themselves are another matter, which is why it was important to mention the age and gender of Cumberbatch. Articulate fic advocates like Minkel champion the opportunity fandom provides to explore “(mostly) female desires.” Aja Romano, who writes on the topic for the Daily Dot, argues that “fandom is subversive. If a canonical worldview is entirely straight-white-male, then fans will actively resist it.”
Not all fic is erotic, by any means, but a 2013 survey of Archive of Our Own, which is maintained by the fan-run nonprofit Organization for Transformative Works, found that 45.5 percent of the fics in its repository were categorized as “M/M,” that is, focusing on relationships between male characters. Why are fic’s predominantly female writers and readers so enthralled with this theme? There are lots of theories. One holds that male-male relationships allow female fans to imagine a version of romantic love free from the power imbalance between men and women. Others attribute it to a “queer” identity common to all fandoms, outsiders whose desires are viewed as peculiar by the mainstream. Neither of these ideas, however, can easily accommodate phenomena like Twilight and Fifty Shades,whose fandoms have embraced some pretty retrograde visions of sex and romance by thrilling to the pairing of a virginal heroine with a rich, libidinously accomplished, and controlling older man — all with the gold ring of marriage and a nuclear family at the end.
At the risk of stating the obvious, what most fic testifies to is that its authors are really, really interested in men. The prevalence of unconventional sex, homoerotic passion between hitherto straight characters, and outlandish scenarios like male pregnancy are attention grabbers and also create the false impression that fic is primarily about sex. But the undeniable signature of a writer’s fic orientation isn’t eroticism but confession, the frank and extended discussion of emotions. If porn offers men the vision of women whose carnality is neither elusive nor mysterious, fic offers its mostly women readers men whose inner lives are wide-open books — not so easy to find in popular culture. Whether these imaginary Spocks or Justin Biebers are straight or gay, theirs is a love that not only dares to speak its name but will happily go on talking about itself for thousands of words at a time. This is what the straight Christian Grey (“I have spent all my adult life trying to avoid any extreme emotion. Yet you … you bring out feelings in me that are completely alien”) has in common with the fic Sherlock, who looks at the long-suffering Watson and felt something unfurling within him, something he’d kept ruthlessly tucked away for a very long time. When the love story involves two men, you have twice as much opportunity for the unfurling and untucking of tenderness and desire, double the number of guys wearing their hearts on their sleeves.
It is always the apparent hard cases like Sherlock and Spock or the ultimately unknowable celebrities like One Direction who inspire the most fervent and abundant fanfiction. They represent a challenge, the toughest nuts to crack, and a blank surface on which to project our dreams, but they also personify what could reasonably be called the mystery of the masculine: What the hell is going on in there? Please tell us it bears more than a passing resemblance to what’s going on in here. And while you’re at it, can you please just give Jack and Ennis their happy ending? Because if you don’t, we will. ■