Ah, fanfiction. Constantly derided, gleefully parodied, snidely dismissed. Even some creators are opposed to it (most famously Anne Rice, but also George R.R. Martin and Diana Gabaldon), preferring that fans refrain from writing fanfiction of their works.
I could argue about how sneering over fanfic tends to have a misogynist bent, as fanfic is generally seen as the realm of teenage girls. I could also point out that this dismissive attitude has tinges of homophobia, as most fanfiction is characterized as “slash fiction” (sexual relationships between same-sex characters generally not explored in the original canon), which is accordingly chided as ridiculous. However, in this post, I will stick to examining examples of fanfic produced by well-known creators, who seem to escape the stigma by virtue of being established authors. These authors nonetheless create fanfiction for the same reasons that ordinary teenagers do: to explore the unexplored, and to express love for the source material.
Fanfiction has existed for a long time. Virgil’s Aeneid is arguably fanfic of the Iliad, and is an example of a work that explores the unexplored, showing the other side of the Trojan War from the perspective of Trojan warrior Aeneas.
Pastiches often examine hidden perspectives and bring them to the forefront, frequently casting the original works in a new light. The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood puts a twist on the Odyssey by exploring the perspectives of Penelope and her twelve maids. Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea acts as a prequel to Jane Eyre, telling the story behind Mr. Rochester’s doomed first marriage and giving Bertha much-needed sympathy and humanity. Wicked by Gregory Maguire retells The Wizard of Oz from the viewpoint of the villainous Wicked Witch of the West, explaining the reasoning behind her decisions. Geraldine Brooks’ Little Women fanfiction March places much emphasis on slavery, an institution that defined the social and physical landscape of mid-19th century America but is left unspoken in Little Women. These examples show that beloved stories are still capable of revealing new discoveries.
Not all fanfictions make changes to their source material, and there are many that seem to have been created for the sheer pleasure of engaging with a beloved work. Sherlock Holmes pastiches have existed since Arthur Conan Doyle’s days (and he cared little about what these creators did with his intellectual property). Even established novelists have participated in the Holmesian fun. Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald” is actually a fanfiction of TWO works, H.P. Lovecraft’s universe and Sherlock Holmes, and serves as a love letter to both.
The persistence of Holmesian fandom, still active nearly a century after Doyle’s last Holmes story was published, shows how much audiences love Sherlock Holmes. We want to continue to have adventures with him, even if that means making our own adventures.
If professional authors can write fanfiction to great acclaim, why do we deride teenagers, just learning how to stretch their literary muscles, for doing the same? Seasoned authors have played in other creators’ sandboxes. Let emerging writers do the same.