Most of the time, people regard fan fiction as somewhat “lesser”—as though the act of borrowing characters or settings from someone else negated everything else about it and made it less worthwhile than so-called “original” fiction. I admit, I used to feel the same way. To be fair, that was largely because the only fan fic I’d come across was the sort that 11-year-olds write about Harry Potter … and the public in general is divided between that and the highly sexualised graphic fic you’ll find rated “E” on archives as their go-to stereotype of what fan fiction actually is.
Over and again, fan fic writers are told that what they’re writing isn’t worth anything, just because they write it for free on the internet as an expression of their love for a book or a film. Although that’s not all it is—it might be the utmost flattery to the writer that somebody loved their concept or characters enough to borrow them, but they’re also saying that they want more, that they want something different, that they’re not quite satisfied with what the writer gave them.
So rarely does fan fiction cross the public radar in anything other than a negative context that when it does, it’s usually in disguise.
It’s funny, really, this hang-up we have about originality. It’s only recently that it’s even become a concern. Shakespeare borrowed all his plots from folk stories, history and mythology. Hamlet, for example, was based on a Danish tale of prince Amleth. You don’t have to take my word for it, because I’m not the only one who’s talked about this:
Homer wrote historyfic and Virgil wrote Homerfic and Dante wrote Virgilfic (where he makes himself a character and writes himself hanging out with Homer and Virgil and they’re like “OMG Dante you’re so cool.” He was the original Gary Stu). Milton wrote Bible fanfic, and everyone and their mom spent the Middle Ages writing King Arthur fanfic.
Characters were recycled and reused. As it’s been said: “People were like, why would I wanna read something about some dude I’ve never heard of? There’s a new Sir Gawain story out, man!”
Now let me tell you about a book called The Song Of Achilles by Madeline Miller.
There is no other way of describing it: it is published fan fiction. The author, a teacher of Greek and Latin, was looking at the Iliad, and at Plato and what he wrote about it, and was like, “Dude, Achilles and Patroclus were totally a couple.” And spent ten years writing this book.
It has all of our favourite things about fan fiction: the alternate perspective (it tells us the pre-Iliad story, plus the Iliad stuffs, from the point of view of Patroclus), the angst (oh the angst), the fluff (some of it was totally adorable), and the smut (beautifully written and literary, but still smut). But it also has all our favourite things about books, like pages and a cover and good editing and lots of newspapers calling it literary.
See, that’s the difference, isn’t it? You write well-researched fic about Achilles and Patroclus and the critics call you inventive—oh, and “original”. Yep, one of the actual reviews inside the front cover calls it “an original page-turning homage to the Iliad”.
But any fic you write and post on the internet (no matter how well-researched it might be) is immediately dismissed because fan fic is a “starting point” and we value “original fiction”.
I have friends in fandoms from the Iliad (Achilles and Patroclus, mainly) to Hamlet (Hamlet and Horatio, and Gertrude murdered Ophelia) to Les Miserables (Enjolras and Grantaire because that’s basically canon), and they write fantastic fan fiction. It’s pure poetry in language. It’s in-character and well-informed and even, despite having been a labour of love and not money, well-edited. But apparently, it’s not worth as much as a book.
I think society’s attitude to fan fiction is changing, and I think that’s a good thing (up to a point). These days we’re so pretentious about what is and isn’t original, yet there is so much potential to explore old stories and fairy tales, to look at classic works and say, “I see something more than friendship there,” or, “I don’t think it should have ended like that”.
I’m not slating The Song Of Achilles because I think it’s nothing more than fan fiction. I loved it. I had SO MANY EMOTIONS about it—and it almost made me like Achilles enough to take his side in the essay I have to write this afternoon, although not quite. I’m pointing out that if things like that can be longlisted for the Orange Prize, why do we still look down on all the enthusiastic young writers exploring their skills through fic on the internet?
What do you think about fan fiction? Do you write it, read it, abhor it, like it from a safe distance?
And do you ship Achilles and Patroclus?