Once upon a time, writing and sharing fan fiction on the internet carried a distinct stigma. Extending other people’s universes or characters was widely seen as an outlet for the uncreative, the unsocial, and the sexually frustrated.
Those days are coming to an end.
Last year, the fan-created and curated website Archive of Our Own celebrated 10 years of collecting and organizing more than 5 million stories and other works of art in every conceivable fandom. In November, AO3—as the site is known—earned a Hugo Award for its contributions to science fiction and fantasy. A number of recent academic books have made strong cases for fan fiction’s ability to teach writing through online communities built on the shared love of a particular work. Well-known authors such as Meg Cabot and Naomi Novik now proudly admit to getting their starts in the field.
Though fan fiction has a freshly burnished reputation and new avenues of distribution, the practice has been around for centuries. Some of the greatest literary classics are technically expansions of earlier characters and narratives. As entertaining as it may be to think about Dante’s Inferno as Biblical fanfic (#christianscriptures author-insert, rated M for Mature audiences), recognizably contemporary fan-fiction writing really got its start, at least in the Anglophone world, in the 18th century. Outside of academic circles, this historical background isn’t discussed much. But almost as soon as people started writing modern novels, readers began to find ways to continue the adventures of their favorite characters and share those stories with other enthusiasts.
Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, published in 1726, marked the beginning of this movement. Not long after its publication, readers started to imagine its hero, Lemuel Gulliver, in circumstances that either were only briefly alluded to in the text or they themselves invented; the more shocking the revisions, the better. Many stories took the form of what was essentially “fan art.” For example, the famous engraver William Hogarth provoked and amused with a graphic representation of Gulliver getting a Lilliputian enema. Though outrageous, Hogarth’s rendering was consistent with Gulliver’s character, a play on the original hero’s delight with the size of his own excrement in contrast to the miniature world of the Lilliputian people. From the start, artists were using the form to explore social taboos and sexuality.
Hundreds more fan-authored works followed, including a touching if bawdy series of poems by Alexander Pope in which the shipwrecked adventurer’s wife—barely mentioned in the original—complains that her husband is never at home to do his duties by her. When Gulliver returns from his final adventure, he has become so disgusted with the human race that he hides from his family. The fan-written Mary Gulliver was, understandably, put out by her husband’s newfound abstinence.
In the 18th century, as now, fan fiction was usually more explicitly sexual than its source material. There was plenty to set the imagination on fire in Samuel Richardson’s 1740 classic novel, Pamela, about a lady’s maid on an isolated country estate who resists the overtures of her boss. But readers also liked to envision scenarios where she gave in wholeheartedly. One reader who was particularly obsessed with reconceiving Pamela Andrews as unchaste was Henry Fielding, Richardson’s fellow novelist. Critical of Richardson’s puritanical overtones, Fielding resolved to imagine his own Pamela, who was only pretending to be a shrinking violet to increase the desire of her lord. In Shamela, Fielding constructed an alternative set of letters where, in true sexy-supervillain fashion, Pamela and her mother lay out their plans to entrap the squire of the manor. Apparently unsated, Fielding went on to write Joseph Andrews, a full-length gender reversal in which Pamela’s naive brother resists the seduction attempts of an older, landowning lady, the original squire’s sister.
As the literary scholar David Brewer points out, an essential part of most expanded 18th-century universes was the unwieldy, enthusiastic, and self-selecting community of readers that they created throughout Europe—essentially, the AO3s of their times. Although instantly sharing and commenting on fan work weren’t quite as easy then as they are now, the 1900s did see a rise in literacy among the middle class, thanks in part to the Industrial Revolution making printing cheaper and postal-delivery systems more reliable. Most of the earliest novels were epistolary, which gave readers a more direct sense of communicating with their favorite characters. Some of these stories even went mainstream. Fielding was the E. L. James of his day, his breakout success supported by thousands of readers, most of them young women—not to mention quite a few men who weren’t willing to publicly cop to reading books about maidservants.
In time, the original creators started trying to elbow in on these communities to exploit their commercial potential. Richardson, for instance, engaged in exhaustive correspondence with readers and even sometimes incorporated their commentary into future volumes. Arguably, this was an attempt to rein in audiences and their interpretive flights of fancy. Long before J. K. Rowling sued over the fan-fiction work James Potter and the Hall of Elders’ Crossing, authors tried to use public shaming and the law to prevent others from profiting off what they regarded as their sole intellectual property—with very little success. (The first recognizably modern copyright law—the Statute of Anne in 1710—gave authors instead of publishers the right to their own work for a period of 14 years. But it failed to address whether that protection extended to more nebulous concepts, such as characters and fictional universes.)
Like Rowling, most 18th-century authors made their peace with fan fiction, as long as the creators shared it freely and didn’t attempt to make money from it. In the late 1700s, the new discipline of economics provided a readily available argument for anyone who wasn’t already on board: Fictional universes, fanfic writers argued, aren’t a zero-sum game, but a self-multiplying abundance. No publicity is bad publicity, and fan works only increase interest in the original books and characters.
Something about 18th-century novel characters seemed to particularly invite these abundant reinterpretations. Until recently, academics thought that what the 18th-century novel invented was “realism”: writing about the lives of common people in great detail, instead of about the heroic exploits of the nobility or royalty. But more scholars are concluding that the Anglophone novel’s real innovation is something more complicated: characters who the reader knows aren’t real, but who seem like they could be. Their plausibility makes it easy to try them on for size. For example, when readers imagine Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy as romantic partners (by far one of the most common fanfic scenarios), they’re vicariously experiencing new forms of being or feeling.
In the 18th century, the need for flexible but realistic characters arose from the changes to marriage that the Industrial Revolution brought about. Upper- and middle-class marriages had been primarily about consolidating land and influence, but new professional jobs and routes to prosperity for men liberalized marriage and gave young people a larger degree of control over their choices. But with these choices came risk: Cads, rubes, and bad matches in general were the subject of many an early novel, including Richardson’s Clarissa. Richardson’s preface to the 1748 book lays out his point very clearly, which was to counter the (in his view) mistaken but widely held belief that a reformed rake made the best kind of husband to a proper young lady. Whom to marry was a complicated social, economic, and even moral choice, and one with lifelong consequences. Writers were happy to depict every aspect of that decision at great length, and readers were eager to argue with them that they’d made the wrong call (as many of Richardson’s readers did when they wrote alternate endings in which Clarissa and her partner made it work).
Modern fan fiction’s version of this exploration comes at a time when liberalization around sexual preferences, practices, and identities likewise makes it useful for auditioning socially costly decisions and roles in less risky environments than real life. Slash, the form of fan fiction in which writers take characters who weren’t sexually involved in the original work—often but not always of the same sex—is one of the most popular manifestations of the form. Writers can be Draco or Harry for an afternoon, or a player in a Fifty Shades–style sadomasochistic sex game, but retain the right to say, “Oh, it was only fiction.” Fan fiction’s reputation as an “unserious” form has in this very way made possible the deep dives and often moving explorations of human sexuality and romantic love that permeate the genre, even as fan fiction itself becomes less artistically stigmatized.
Fan fiction’s role in litigating the boundaries of relationships is one of its most enduring purposes. Only recently did some fans complain about and rewrite the ending of The Rise of Skywalker, the franchise’s latest mega-blockbuster. The conclusion satisfied neither those who wanted Rey and Kylo Ren to get together, nor those who deplored any possibility of the two hooking up. Where these twain meet, though, is in their sense of an imperative to rewrite better conclusions for their favorite characters. Fan fiction’s role as a collective project in popular ethics was ultimately what the 2019 Hugo Award acknowledged: AO3 may have officially earned the honor, but so did every writer who had ever been bold, brave, or foolhardy enough to share their work with the internet.