I’d wager that a lot of us were fans before we had even heard of such a thing. You might have been one, too. I wouldn’t be surprised.
I spent the summers of my late childhood years catching fireflies to whispers of lumos. Casting myself as green-eyed Isabelle Potter–Harry’s twin sister–was an instinctive means of self-insertion into the Potter text. Like all children, I craved the power to determine my own destiny. I did what I could. I wrote it down.
My best friend and I worked it out over the phone. It was a Potter story, to be sure; the characters were all there, along with the basis of a highly original plot that grew more ridiculous the faster we talked about it (at one point, everyone stripped down to “lacy little bloomers”–I never said it was a good story). Of course, my friend and I were the main characters. During the long summers between book releases, we’d repeat the process for The Chronicles of Narnia and His Dark Materials. Sometimes, we’d even write crossovers, though I doubt we really understood the irony of coupling the two series.
I didn’t hear the term “fanfiction”* for another five years, and when I did, I didn’t associate it with the reams of collaborative effort lying on my closet floor. It wasn’t until I wrote my “first” fanfic in 2009 that I connected the familiarity of the process with my childhood writings.
Fanfiction. It sounds so postmodern–the extension of the boundaries of a text to reveal further possibilities. But it didn’t start with the Star Trek fan magazines of the 1970s. Rabbi Rachel Barenblat presents a compelling link between Jewish scholarship and fanfiction; tying the two together with the metaphor of black fire/white fire found in the Midrash Tanchuma: “the Torah is written in black fire on white fire; the “˜black fire’ can be understood as the plain text and its basic meaning, while the “˜white fire’ is found in our interpretations, the ways we creatively read between the lines.” Just as Jews offer a multitude of possibilities for any particular text, she writes, fans become active participants in consumer culture. “We respond and re-purpose, turning and turning all kinds of stories to see what might be found inside. Often what we find there–what we foreground, or what we add–says as much about us as it does about the book or movie at hand. That’s part of the fun.”
Fanfiction has the potential to be subversive. The acclaimed novel Wide Sargasso Sea, for example, gives a voice to Bertha, the deranged first wife of Mr. Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Unlike most present-day incarnations of fanfiction, Jean Rhys’ novel has been published and awarded the accompanying privileges of literary approval and prestige, allowing its anti-colonial message to be embraced as a valid extension of Bronte’s novel. Most fanfiction never gets published, apart from on fan sites, like the ever-popular fanfiction.net.
For many fans, publishing isn’t the goal. Fanfiction, in the age of the Internet, is exquisitely democratic. Anyone with an account at a fan site can post, and a system has been set up at the fan-run site Archive of Our Own to warn readers of potentially triggering material, making the fan experience safe and consensual for all involved. Queer fans like me will mine the original texts for inexplicit sexual tension and use it to write slash, a form of fanfiction that features a same-sex paring usually given little to no representation in the authorial composition (think Lupin/Sirius, to whom only potential support in the Potter cannon is given with Dumbledore’s urging Sirius to “lie low at Lupin’s” for a while. Four words, probably more than four thousand fics).
The fan community combines the passion and ingenuity of culture jamming with the collaborative focus of open-source technology. Hundreds of thousands of people are writing fics every day, and they can be brilliant and they can be terrible and they can even be both. That’s not the point.
Fans are engaging with our top-down consumer-driven culture, and they’re changing it from the bottom up. It was a comfort to me as a child–and it still is–that stories are malleable. That writing doesn’t glue ideas into place. That we still have a chance to change not just the ending, but the beginning and middle, too, and the spaces between.
For a one-time child, that freedom is everything.
*A recent article in Time Magazine can serve as an excellent and relatively comprehensive Fanfiction 101 for the purposes of this article.