Fan Fiction Was Just as Sexual in the 1700s as It Is Today

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News Media Commentary
Title: Fan Fiction Was Just as Sexual in the 1700s as It Is Today
Commentator: Shannon Chamberlain
Date(s): February 14, 2020
Venue: print, online
External Links: "Fan Fiction Was Just as Sexual in the 1700s as It Is Today". Archived from the original on 2020-02-19.
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Fan Fiction Was Just as Sexual in the 1700s as It Is Today is a 2020 article in the magazine "The Atlantic." It has the subtitle: "Before tales about Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter, people wrote bawdy or gross stories about Gulliver’s Travels." The author is Shannon Chamberlain.

Some Topics Discussed

  • "Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in 1726 marked the beginning of the modern fan-fiction movement."
  • Fanfic began with hundreds of works where writers extended the 1726 Gulliver's Travels with additional stories, many sexual or scatalogical. Some fiction mentioned:
  • There was a great deal of het slash written around the 1740 novel Pamela, where the chaste heroine of the novel becomes dramatically less chaste.
  • "Like [J.K.] Rowling, most 18th-century authors made their peace with fan fiction, as long as the creators shared it freely and didn’t attempt to make money from it."
  • There is a direct connection, in style, justification, and sexuality, between 18th and 19th century fanfic and modern fanfic.
  • writing fanfic as an act of bravery and pushback
  • Archive of Our Own and its Hugo Award
  • J.K. Rowling, Reylo, Draco/Harry
  • fan fiction is becoming less stigmatized
  • the debatable assumption that reading fic makes the reader "become" that character for a while
  • fan fiction as a way of exploring feelings and situations

Some Links Within the Article

See the original article for the link placement.


Once upon a time, writing and sharing fan fiction on the internet carried a distinct stigma. Extending other people’s universes or characters was widely seen as an outlet for the uncreative, the unsocial, and the sexually frustrated.

Those days are coming to an end.

Last year, the fan-created and curated website Archive of Our Own celebrated 10 years of collecting and organizing more than 5 million stories and other works of art in every conceivable fandom. In November, AO3 — as the site is known — earned a Hugo Award for its contributions to science fiction and fantasy. A number of recent academic books have made strong cases for fan fiction’s ability to teach writing through online communities built on the shared love of a particular work. Well-known authors such as Meg Cabot and Naomi Novik now proudly admit to getting their starts in the field.

As the literary scholar David Brewer points out, an essential part of most expanded 18th-century universes was the unwieldy, enthusiastic, and self-selecting community of readers that they created throughout Europe — essentially, the AO3s of their times. Although instantly sharing and commenting on fan work weren’t quite as easy then as they are now, the 1900s did see a rise in literacy among the middle class, thanks in part to the Industrial Revolution making printing cheaper and postal-delivery systems more reliable. Most of the earliest novels were epistolary, which gave readers a more direct sense of communicating with their favorite characters. Some of these stories even went mainstream. Fielding was the E.L. James of his day, his breakout success supported by thousands of readers, most of them young women — not to mention quite a few men who weren’t willing to publicly cop to reading books about maidservants.

Like Rowling, most 18th-century authors made their peace with fan fiction, as long as the creators shared it freely and didn’t attempt to make money from it. In the late 1700s, the new discipline of economics provided a readily available argument for anyone who wasn’t already on board: Fictional universes, fanfic writers argued, aren’t a zero-sum game, but a self-multiplying abundance. No publicity is bad publicity, and fan works only increase interest in the original books and characters.

Something about 18th-century novel characters seemed to particularly invite these abundant reinterpretations. Until recently, academics thought that what the 18th-century novel invented was “realism”: writing about the lives of common people in great detail, instead of about the heroic exploits of the nobility or royalty. But more scholars are concluding that the Anglophone novel’s real innovation is something more complicated: characters who the reader knows aren’t real, but who seem like they could be. Their plausibility makes it easy to try them on for size. For example, when readers imagine Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy as romantic partners (by far one of the most common fanfic scenarios), they’re vicariously experiencing new forms of being or feeling.

Modern fan fiction’s version of this exploration comes at a time when liberalization around sexual preferences, practices, and identities likewise makes it useful for auditioning socially costly decisions and roles in less risky environments than real life. Slash, the form of fan fiction in which writers take characters who weren’t sexually involved in the original work — often but not always of the same sex — is one of the most popular manifestations of the form. Writers can be Draco or Harry for an afternoon, or a player in a Fifty Shades–style sadomasochistic sex game, but retain the right to say, “Oh, it was only fiction.” Fan fiction’s reputation as an “unserious” form has in this very way made possible the deep dives and often moving explorations of human sexuality and romantic love that permeate the genre, even as fan fiction itself becomes less artistically stigmatized.