This weekend, I’ll be on a panel about fanfiction at Readercon. Here’s the official panel description:

Fanfic as Criticism (Only More Fun). Fanfiction is being produced online at a rate of millions of words per month. Fanfiction can expand on a shorter work, change a work’s themes, or even attempt to “fix” things the author is felt to have done “wrong” (e.g., provide a backstory to explain otherwise undermotivated behavior). These dynamics are not unheard of outside of Internet fandom communities — Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway attempts to “fix” James Joyce’s Ulysses (which itself retells Homer’s Odyssey). In what ways can fanfiction be a valuable part of the criticism of a text? Can it appeal as criticism to readers outside the fanfiction community? If so, how can they find the most interesting works?

The first of the description’s three questions is the central one, I think, and as is probably clear from the fact that I’m doing the panel, I do think fanfiction can be a valuable part of the criticism of the text. Valuable to whom, and in what ways are trickier questions, but let’s start with the basics.

What Is It?

I’m not very interested in taxonomic disputes, but for the purposes of this post and the upcoming panel, here’s my take.

Fanfiction is a subset of a larger group of artistic responses to works of art—a group that includes such works as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Wide Sargasso Sea, Finn, and Night of the Day of the Dawn of the Son of the Bride of the Return of the Revenge of the Terror of the Attack of the Evil, Mutant, Alien, Flesh Eating, Hellbound, Zombified Living Dead Part 2: In Shocking 2-D.[1. I'm open to other definitions of fanfiction except for the one that recapitulates a common conversation about SF: "If it's good, it's not fanfiction." AKA "Frankenstein isn't science fiction, it's literature" or "I'm Margaret Atwood and it's not SF because I say so." This dumb little hopping dance lets readers whose investment in mainstream-as-good makes it impossible for them to consider seriously the virtues of non-mainstream lit define genre fiction as bad by eliminating its founding texts and best examples. Finn and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Wide Sargasso Sea work in exactly the same ways as fanfiction, and the fact that they're really quite good doesn't make them a different species—it just makes them some of the best examples of the form. (They're all based on public domain source texts, of course, because most serious writers aren't going to set aside a few years to write a novel or play based on a source text that's still in copyright, because they couldn't then sell the resulting work.)]

Fanfiction also:

  • comes with its own subcultural connotations, expectations, and contexts that affect the reactions of those who read and think about it.
  • is generally written by adolescent girls and adult women who aren’t professional writers.
  • exists in a grey area of copyright law, and is thus typically published online.
  • includes several highly visible subgenres that center on romantic and sexual relationships, queer and otherwise.

It’s possible to consider fanfiction as a separate phenomenon from the larger body of art that responds to and criticizes other works of art. It’s also possible to consider the responsive and critical functions of fanfiction within the larger body of work, rather than as a separate category of literary production. Both perspectives are interesting, but that it’s important to be clear which one is under consideration at any given point.

In any case, fanfiction, even narrowly defined, encompasses forms that go well beyond pastiche or simple “missing scenes” stories. Many “alternate universe” stories maintain some features of the source text while introducing new settings, characters, plots, and themes. These range from stories in which most of the source text’s characteristics are maintained to those in which almost none of them are. An example of the latter might include a story about two adults in a nonmagical world who interact in ways that have nothing to do with the source text’s plot or themes, but who are nevertheless intended to be read as shadows or echoes of characters from the Harry Potter series. Or Lust Over Pendle, which is the first of a series of very funny golden age detective novels and short stories in which some of Rowling’s characters co-exist with many others. Or “Corridors of Power: Being An Originally Intermittent Account of the Political (Mis)Adventures of the Viscount Northallerton, Lord Malfoy of Wimbledon; and the Rt. Honourable Harry J. Potter, Member of Parliament for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Liberal Democrat).

Other stories exhaustively develop characters or subplots that are only briefly alluded to in the source text. “Dust is Gonna Settle,” for example, is a short story about a couple of brilliant people who happen to meet at Los Alamos in 1945. Nothing in the story itself suggests that it’s fanfiction, and the characters are developed from scratch, but the details gain additional resonance if you know it’s intended to depict the meeting of Tony Stark’s parents (that’s Iron Man for you non-comics-readers, bless your hearts). And then you have crossover fiction in which you have, for example, Sherlock Holmes appearing in a Dracula story, or Hermione Granger as a vampire slayer.

What’s It Do?

A few propositions:

  • Most fanfic, like most of everything else created by human hands, is terrible. Bad fan stories are interesting to me for social and cultural reasons, but not really for literary ones.
  • Some fanfiction is beautifully written, but doesn’t function as literary criticism.
  • Some fanfiction accomplishes a great deal of critical work. Of this subcategory, some are clumsily written and characterized, while others are quite good.

Here’s an example: In the Harry Potter books, a Slytherin character named Gavin Montague bothers “good” characters Fred and George Weasley, and they shove him into a vanishing cabinet, which is a device that will later be involved in a major plot point. Montague shows up some weeks later, trapped inside a toilet, having been zapped around through physical space all that time, and he’s so psychologically traumatized that he’s considered mad and sent home. And none of the “good” characters involved are punished, or even found out. Moreover, readers only see the world from the good characters’ perspective.

But there’s a story on Livejournal about Montague losing his shit in terrifying ways and making a sort of military/sexual alliance with Draco Malfoy to get his revenge. So that’s a great example of a story doing things that are clearly critical, questioning the ethical framework of the book’s world and depicting the disintegration of an adolescent’s personality while also providing interested slash readers with an erotic charge re: the sexual relationship and suggesting a whole new alternate future for the series’ plot.

The story’s prose isn’t particularly refined or subtle, but it has the potential to change the way in which readers approach the source text, and perhaps make them more likely to question some of its moral assumptions and so on. (It won’t be read by people who are uncomfortable with slash, and the story’s author and fans are fine with that.)

Range of Motion

Plenty of fanfiction doesn’t function as criticism in any way that I can spot, but some of it does. And when it does, it can:

  • raise all sorts of interesting questions about a source text’s underlying assumptions (moral, sexual, etc.),
  • criticize plot or character developments that don’t seem to have been properly introduced and grounded (importantly, this is not limited to tacking on happy endings — it’s often quite the reverse),
  • complicate characters in interesting ways by carving out backstories that make their behavior in the source text more interesting, or explain oddities,
  • retell a source text’s story for a new audience (Harry Potter with sex and drugs in, “Snow White” as an echo of the Persephone myth, just about anything as pornography),
  • reveal new aspects of a work by isolating certain of its elements and examining them in a different context (AU, crossover),
  • reveal thematic or plot connections between two disparate works, and
  • train readers to think about authorial choices in more active ways.

I tend to think that that last one’s especially important.