Last night a high-powered panel of experts discussed fan fiction and its uneasy relationship with traditional media, moderated by Anne Jamison, author of Fic, and oft-quoted academic expert on this phenomenon. (She teaches the fan fic class I’m auditing at Princeton.) Fan fiction, in essence, is taking existing characters (from Elizabeth Bennett to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, sometimes both at the same time) and creating new plots and storylines for them. One of its fundamentals is that people write it for love of the characters, not for money. On the panel were New Yorker tv critic Emily Nussbaum, Jamie Broadnax, creator of the website Black Girl Nerds, commentator Elizabeth Minkel of The Millions and The New Statesman, and intellectual property attorney (and fan) Heidi Tandy.
Traditional media often treat the huge and hugely diverse fan fiction universe in what the panelists observed is a mocking way, as if it were made up solely of young women who want to write about male-on-male sex. That trope is called “slash,” it is alive and well, and it really got going with Spock/Kirk fan fic. Now there’s a huge Johnlock (John Watson/Sherlock Holmes) fandom. (Find some well-written Johnlock material here.)
By contrast, the X-Files spawned a lot of het (heterosexual) fic written by people who really thought Scully and Mulder should get together. And, of course, the runaway financial success 50 Shades of Grey began as E.L. James’s fan fic based on the Twilight series.
Though sex is an important component in some fan fiction, and though a lot of it is written by young women, it’s a much more diverse field than commentators typically acknowledge. Meanwhile, there’s something unseemly, panelists agreed, about highly paid stars and showrunners snidely critiquing the writing of people who are doing it for free.
Interestingly, some tv shows are courting the fan fic community, counting on its obsessiveness to uncover Easter eggs in the story and faint clues and parallels and arcane references. Sherlock (though Benedict Cumberbatch has run afoul of the fan fic world for some of his critiques of it) uses many fan fic tropes, and the first episode of Season 3 included a group of fan fic writers as characters, creating their explanations for how Sherlock was not dead, even after the fall witnessed at the close of Season 2. Panelist Minkel has covered these developments nicely.
The Sherlock showrunners draw on many sources—not just the “canon” of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories—but all the movies, books, and other derivative works about Holmes that have been created subsequently. Fan fiction, the practice of live-tweeting shows, and other possibilities are cracking open the tv screen, and, in the future, popular programs will likely exist both within and outside their scheduled allotments.
Fan fic is a great big and raucous world, and if you’re at all curious, here are some places to start exploring or toe-dipping: Archive of Our Own (AO3), which reports it contains almost 18,000 fandoms, has more than a half-million users, and 1.6 million works; and the FanFiction Network, which used to be the most popular fan fic site, but is being outrun by AO3.
The tagline of Jamison’s book is the possibly aspirational “Why fanfiction is taking over the world.”