In Defense of Fanfiction, by E.M. Storm-Smith

In Defense of Fanfiction, by E.M. Storm-Smith

I write Fanfiction.

Almost exclusively Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice based Fanfiction. My stories range from very close to cannon, to taking significant artistic license with Austen’s characters, themes and settings. I also consume massive amounts of Fanfiction in a variety of fandoms. There is a big debate right now, driven in large part by the recent, unexpected, commercial success of certain content that started as Fanfiction stories (50 Shades of Grey was originally Twilight Fanfiction available for free on several popular websites), about whether these kinds of stories are morally or culturally valuable. Also, the increased access to the internet and ease of making a website dedicated to your favorite fictional universe has some authors and original creators crying foul. But is Fanfiction new? Will the increased number of Fanfiction writers and internet spaces dedicated to the distribution of such stories kill traditional publishing and stifle original creation?

Short answer is no. And there’s plenty of evidence for this stance.

Fiction stories based to some degree on the works of other creators (fanfic, fan fiction, ff, sampling, alternative fiction, alt-universe fiction, continuation fiction, Mary Sue fic, …) has a storied and venerated history. Most literary historians agree that some of William Shakespeare’s most adored plays (including Romeo&Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, and As You Like It) were based on the characters and plots of contemporary works previously published by other authors.

If we just want to take a moment to trace Romeo&Juliet backwards from Shakespeare it would look something like this:

Shakespeare based Romeo&Juliet (which first premiered at the Globe in 1597) on Arthur Brooke’s 1562 poem The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet – yes “tragical” – which was itself an English translation of a French novella by Luigi da Porto published in 1524, where the main characters were called “Romeo” and “Juliet”, which was in turn a retelling of the earliest version of Romeo and Juliet, published in 1476 by Italian poet Masuccio Salernitano. So, Shakespeare “sampled” the characters (including their names), the plot, and the Italian city setting for his most famous play from a 121 year old Italian poem.

However! That’s not even the whole story. The original tale of “star-crossed lovers,” kept apart by their parents’ feud and who kill themselves in successive suicides stemming from a mistaken belief that their

lover was already dead, is a roman tragedy called Pyramus and Thisbe. It was written by the Roman poet Ovid (43 BCE – 17/18 CE) and first published in 8 CE. But even Ovid wasn’t the first person to tell this story. He adopted an existing etiological myth from Babylon about the metamorphosis of a man into the Ceyhan River (originally called the Pyramus River) and its lover, a nearby spring called Thisbe.

Now, I’ve exhausted what I can get from Wikipedia and free articles on Google Scholar, so if there are any real literary scholars reading this, I apologize for all the missing pieces to this two plus millennia old story. If you want to drop links in the comments to more in-depth research about the history of this saga, I’d love more of the nuance.

Back to our regularly scheduled rant – Fanfiction is NOT evil. It’s not even new.

From personal experience and deep conversations I’ve had with other writers in and around the Fanfiction space, one big point in Fanfic’s favor is how accessible it is, especially to new writers. I know that season writers, even people who have award winning books, continue to create in Fanfiction spaces purely for the enjoyment of it, and that’s great; but I think the advantages to young or inexperienced writers are more important than almost any of the supposed evils it creates. Using well established characters and scenes is freeing in a way. It makes writing your story less intimidating. That young writer who feels like an imposter and is worried about building their own world can hone their craft in a familiar space. The reader doesn’t have to keep track of too many extraneous details because the whole world is already known. The choices that characters make don’t have to be fully justified if they are well inside that character’s established norms.

Simply put writing Fanfiction as an inexperienced person helps the writer prove to themselves that they are good enough to do it.

That accessibility creates another incredibly important virtue for Fanfiction – representation. There are countless articles, academic analyses, and pearl-clutching exclamations discussing the history, evolution, moral ambiguity, and general cultural value of Fanfiction. If you are interested, a quick google search for “history of fanfiction’ will take you on a great journey. (Did you know that Jane Austen based fiction is considered the largest genre of fanfiction in the world?) What I really want to talk about today is why I believe there is such an explosion of Fanfiction and how I, and many of my close friends who are big consumers of Fanfiction, relate to these stories.

Let’s start with a quote from some people who actually formally research this kind of thing:

“Transformative fiction (also known as fanfiction, fanfic, or, most commonly among those who write and read it, fic) offers an alternative form of both close-reading and contextual criticism when applied to premodern writers, just as it does for contemporary media properties, and in many ways allows for the inclusion of otherwise marginalized voices.” (emphasis added). [1]

This tells the whole story for me. Fanfiction is a way for people who are marginalized, in one way or another, to find themselves represented in valuable, inclusive, and complex ways.

I am a cis-gendered, white, heterosexual woman. I have a traditional education (4-year university + university graduate school), a traditional job (attorney), a (mostly) traditional marriage to a cis-gendered white heterosexual male husband, and a cis-gendered white heterosexual male child (as far as we can tell – he might change is mind as he grows up). I have one gay uncle and one gay first cousin, but other than that, even my extended family is very majority heteronormative. I have always seen myself and my family represented in media. Representation and inclusiveness have never been a question or a thought in my mind since it’s very hard to see things that you don’t know you’re missing.

As I left my small-town childhood and moved on to college, then full-time work in another state, then graduate school, I have significantly expanded my social circles to include people of color, non-heteronormative individuals, and other marginalized voices. Once I started thinking about the people represented in traditionally produced media, it was eye opening to see how extremely narrow the range of views shown in TV, movies, books, and everything in between.

My first introduction to Fanfiction was during graduate school. I was looking for some free outlet to help increase my reading speed and keep it up during school breaks. A good friend of mine who is a lesbian suggested Archive of Our Own as a place to start looking for stories I might enjoy in about 2012. But it came with a warning. Knowing I was a pretty vanilla person, she told me that there was a lot of LGBTQIA+ content on the site and I should pay attention to the tags if I wanted to steer clear of that kind of writing.

It was innocent enough of a warning, and at the time I had just starting my own journey as an ally. I didn’t even know what being an ally was, I’m not really sure that “ally” had become a widely used term by 2012. There wasn’t any TicTok or Instagram yet. This was even still a whole year out from the Obergefell v. Hodges SCOTUS case codifying marriage equality in the US Constitution.

Looking back now, I’m sad that she felt like she HAD to give me that warning. I hope I’ve made big strides in my own growth in the last decade.

So, when I started reading Fanfic, I shied away from the tags that specified certain types of relationships, certain voices. But over time, I found creatives that I really liked, whose stories were wonderfully woven, and included representations of marginalized people and relationships. It also probably helped that I was starting in the Doctor Who TV show fandom which, since it’s reboot in 2005, has not been shy about non-heteronormative relationships between characters. Especially one character, Captain Jack Harkness (played by John Barrowman) who is actively portrayed as pansexual.

I started following stories that were by authors I really liked, even if they were in fandoms or genres that I didn’t typically seek out. And you know what I found, if the story was good and the main characters compelling, it didn’t matter to me what letter of the alphabet soup the relationship belonged in. The tags became just tags. I stopped filtering for certain kinds of relationships and expanded even deeper into the world of really well written Fanfiction and was really happy for it.

I don’t think that reading Fanfiction is what made me an ally for the various marginalized communities I encounter. I still have had to do the work of learning about the trauma our society inflicts on BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ and other marginalized people. And I’m still doing that work every day. But I do firmly believe that Fanfiction was a significant part of my journey into seeing other people represented in the ways they wanted to be represented, not just the way that majority voices have chosen to incorporate marginalized people into media. A lot of Fanfiction is written by the people who belong to those communities, who get to tell their own story in their own words.

No editors, no publishers, no producers, no sensors.

So, whether or not certain high-profile original creators of very popular fandoms fear that Fanfiction is “tainting their brands,” its value is incomparable.


I’d love to connect with you! Come find me in all the usual places:

[1]      Finn, Kavita Mudan, and Jessica McCall. “Exit, Pursued by a Fan: Shakespeare, Fandom, and the Lure of the Alternate Universe.” Critical Survey, vol. 28, no. 2, 2016, pp. 27–38. JSTOR, . Accessed 6 July 2021.

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October 12, 2021 3:56 PM

Enjoyed the post and could relate to a lot of what you said as I have had similar experiences.

Riana Everly
October 10, 2021 8:06 PM

I so agree with you. The line between “fan fiction” and “inspired by” is very thin. Hamlet wasn’t an original story, and no one derides The Lion King as being derivative, despite it really being a Disney-ized Hamlet. And yes, by exploring other angles of our favourite literary works, we can spread our imaginations and our wings and create a wider world than what was first on the page.
Thanks for a fascinating and thought-provoking post.

Elaine Owen
October 10, 2021 7:42 PM

A very interesting post. I never knew Romeo and Juliet were *that* old!

I think fanfiction enhances the original authors writing. When we take Austen’s characters and dare to do something new with them, we inevitably draw in new readers and, eventually, new writers. But we all draw our inspiration from the original.

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
October 10, 2021 3:02 PM

Everything I was going to say… Glynis beat me to it. I also was surprised that R&J was that Old? In the movie Midsummer Night’s Dream, there was a cast of actors that performed the play about Pyramus and Thisbe.

I’ve mentioned this before but my very first foray into JAFF was our very own Regina Jeffers with her Darcy’s Passions. Wow! I never turned back. After I retired I started reviewing books and someone invited me to check out Goodreads. My goodness, I was overwhelmed with authors, and books, and reviews, and discussion groups, … yeah, it was awesome. I finally found people that didn’t roll their eyes when I started talking about Jane Austen. That was so invigorating.

I later wandered onto the various fandom sites and discovered a plethora of unpublished fanfiction. Man, it was unlimited what I could find right at my fingertips.

This was a fun post. Thanks for sharing your research with us. I love reading about the history of stories. I had read hints that Shakespeare used older stories but didn’t have anything definitive to say for sure. I certainly enjoyed this informative post. Blessings on all your hard work.

October 10, 2021 9:30 AM

Romeo and Juliet that old?? Also Shakespeare used the names Pyramus and Thisbe in Midsummer Night’s Dream! Fascinating!
As for fan fiction? I never really thought about it until 2014 when I found my first continuation of Pride and Prejudice and was so enraptured! Since then the majority of my reading is stories of Darcy and Elizabeth! As long as they are well written and not too obscure I love them.

Linda A.
Linda A.
October 9, 2021 7:50 PM

And there is nothing new under the sun 😉

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
October 9, 2021 7:11 PM

Interesting post. Cool facts about Romeo and Juliet!

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