What is fanfiction, anyway?

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Title: What is fanfiction, anyway?
Commentator: Elizabeth Minkel
Date(s): October 21, 2015
Medium: online
External Links: What is fanfiction, anyway?, Archived version
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What is fanfiction, anyway? is a 2015 essay by Elizabeth Minkel for "The New Statesman."

"Once, calling a published, original work “fanfiction” would have been meant as an insult. As the term has gained credibility, so definitions have blurred."

Topics Discussed

  • what is fanfic?
  • fanfic written by fans vs "fanfic" written by TPTB of their own works
  • Twilight and Life and Death, works by Stephenie Meyer
  • Fangirl and Carry On, books by Rainbow Rowell
  • the imbalance of power between the people who write and read fanfiction and the people who create the source material for those works
  • is all fiction fanfiction?
  • fandom and profit
  • gift culture


A few weeks back, Stephenie Meyer pulled a Beyoncé: with virtually no advance warning, she released her latest title into the world – and set off a firestorm of conversation. Even the publishing industry was caught off guard by Life and Death, a new full-length novel written in honour of the tenth anniversary of the Twilight series. Any book from Meyer would have made headlines, but this one was especially surprising: Life and Death takes Twilight, the first book of the four, and swaps the genders of its protagonists. Meyer has battled criticisms about outdated and harmful gender roles for years, and the switch, a romance between female vampire Edythe and male human Beau, is meant to address that.

But these books are not fanfiction: an author can’t write fanfiction for her own work, even if she’s a fan of herself. And that distinction might seem like splitting hairs, but it’s actually at the heart of some of the major tensions that have been playing out over the past few years, as fanfiction has been exposed, mainstreamed, and – to some degree – accepted. In the past, someone calling a published, original work “fanfiction” would have been meant as an insult – this kind of claim is usually aimed at female authors and female readers, suggesting their work is derivative or self-indulgent or full of the sorts of tropes for which fanfiction has historically been maligned, like privileging emotional dialogue, or romance before (or in addition to) action. People still lob this comparison as an insult, no matter how tone deaf this sort of thing looks these days. “This reads like bad fanfiction” doesn’t have a lot of weight when it’s clear that the person issuing the claim hasn’t so much as looked at a fanfiction archive in his life.

I appreciate these comparisons – but they frustrate me all the same. Big-budget reworkings of beloved stories are almost universally helmed by men; no-budget fanfiction universes are overwhelmingly helmed by women. And these female-authored texts partly exist to shift the text away from that default perspective, the one that usually pens and directs the source material, populated largely by men (and by straight, white men in particular). I regularly see someone arguing that Steven Moffat is writing Sherlock Holmes fanfiction, and I can’t agree: he is writing an adaptation for television, with all the cultural limits and benefits that that affords. He is playing the same game as millions of fanfiction writers, but he’s in a different stadium.

It comes down, as it often does, to money. Because money, and a lack of it, is at the heart of long-held tensions about fanworks. Fanfiction is overwhelmingly the product of unpaid labour, millions and millions of words given freely, whether for legal reasons or community norms. Because it isn’t compensated – and because it is so often done by women it is devalued, as an art form and as a way to spend one’s time. When money is added to the mix, whether in giant pull-to-publish book deals or, increasingly, fanfiction contests and authors sponsored by television networks and Hollywood studios, the place that fanworks occupy in the vast sphere of adaptation and reworking begins to shift. And not always for the better.

The greatest help to the disparity between these practices will be to see more women – way more women – in the role of creator as well as fan. If fanfiction has partly developed over the years to subvert the male gaze, then we need a media landscape where that gaze isn’t so prevalent – one where it isn’t the default perspective. Where a female-authored Sherlock Holmes adaptation gets a prime spot on BBC One – because if we’re all playing the same game, why should only a privileged few get a spot in the stadium?