In Defense of Fanfiction
August 3, 2022
Ask the average reader how many Harry Potter books there are and they’ll tell you "Seven!" without a second thought. A more passionate fan who thinks this might be a trick question may inflate that number, taking into account some spin-off publications. But, if by "Harry Potter Novels", we mean published narrative texts of more than 40,000 words set in the world of Harry Potter, the real answer to the question is far closer to 70,000 than it is to 7.
We might dispute the use of the word "published", which conventionally means printed by a traditional publisher, appearing in all good bookstores, and so on. What I mean by "published" in this case is something more generic, merely that someone has put it somewhere where it can be accessed by the public. These works, over 70,000 are accessible online and for free. They are a prominent example of what is normally called "fanfiction".That it is free availability is one of the most interesting facts about fanfiction, in showing how far capitalism has developed and what it can offer to us. Yet, it also how in the end how nothing can escape from the commodity regime within it.
Fanfiction is a form of literature written in fictional worlds by people other than the copyright holder and those approved by the copyright holder. Some of these works are very close retellings or alternative narratives. For instance, one example might follow the same plot as the original text but have the protagonist as a girl rather than a boy. Other examples are known as expansions, for instance, filling in the story of a background character that was only sketched in distant detail in the copyrighted works. Sometimes, fanfiction publications are highly divergent works, classic examples of which would be publications that retain the characters but change the world they live in nearly entirely, or where the world is retained as is but a whole new set of characters play out their stories in it.
The legal status of fanfiction is generally ambiguous, with some authors being firmly set against fanfiction, while others are relatively welcoming, but a basic principle is that you cannot profit from making fanfiction. You cannot sell it, and you cannot do any kind of nearby activities. This fact, its inherent decommodification, has not dampened the creation of these works at all. Since 2008 Archive of Our Own, a non-profit set up to promote and defend what they call "transformative works", has archived over 9,000,000 stories, with an even larger number on fanfiction.net.
The idea that some entity, human or otherwise, can own not just a story, but a character, a world, is something we now take for granted. But, as with many things we take for granted, this is not an eternal or natural fact. In reality, this only became the way things are done and the form of how things are enforced in the past few hundred years. As it came to be, at some point this system will come to an end, and fanfiction is an indication of this potential future.
I don’t want to shock you dear reader, but Homer, the father of literature, didn't own a mite of intellectual property - although as a legendary figure himself perhaps someday someone will own Homer, and perhaps Greece will sell him, possibly as an NFT. Homer did not own Achilles, nor Odysseus. If someone retold his stories, verbatim, or altered them in various ways, for profit, or otherwise, he would have had no legal recourse. We could wonder how he managed to make a living. The model of retelling, expansion, and nigh original works which would still use the characters or setting of another work, was once simply how storytelling worked. Homer’s characters did not spring freely from Homer’s mind, but to one degree or another, they were taken from and developed out of the oral tradition he inhabited.
The fact that we can speak of an oral tradition here is significant. Oral retellings of stories were the main method of human storytelling up until the industrial revolution, with most professional storytellers acting more like a cover band than a contemporary striding titan of "original literature". In short, storytellers were expected to focus on playing the greatest hits to the best of their ability. This began to change with the advent of mass literacy but was initially held back by how expensive books were, and we had to wait until industrial production caused a mass cheapening of books in the nineteenth century before oral retelling was really pushed to the margins.
For a publishing house to print a book, they had to pay the author for the manuscript. But trouble emerged because once the manuscript was acquired and printed, everyone willing to pay a tuppence has the manuscript. Nothing stopped another publishing house from taking the book and publishing it themselves, cheapening the product further as they did not have to pay the author, and even outcompeting the original publisher on the market. Laws had to be passed to stop this. What was to stop another publishing house from taking the manuscript of a popular book, which had an expensive to hire author, and getting another cheaper author to rewrite the story in such a way to produce a manuscript which is not the same, but uses the same setting, the same characters and so on. More laws had to be passed. In this way, as retelling was the handmaiden of oral storytelling, "original fiction" is the handmaiden of published literature.
Originality and Capitalism
We should also question how original "original fiction" is and what the concept of originality means in this context. Literary fiction, non-genre fiction, is normally set in a world modeled on the one we actually live in, rendering it in some sense very original. Is a great work of literature like The Unbearable Lightness of Being a "fanfiction" of mid-century Czech history? I expect we would find it impossible to invent a definition that excludes such work and includes highly divergent fanfictions without relying on a definition of originality based on capitalist rights. Within genre fiction things are often not much different, much of it is again set in contemporary times in a country a reader would find familiar, but that the author has added in a well-worn concept (for instance vampires). In genres like fantasy we do see "new worlds", but they are often stereotyped versions of Medieval Europe (with other times and places on earth being the stereotype less often) with Elves and magic tacked on, and normally bear large-scale similarities to each other. Each incantation of an alternative universe borrows from the ideas of the last. "Original fiction", genre or otherwise, is not normally very "original". This is no criticism, and the fact that all these stories are related to other stories, bound up in the history of our world and its imagination, is exactly why they are successful. Any truly "original" work would be cold, alien, and disorientating, the point is simply to surrender at the door our fetish for the "original".
At the same time that fanfiction has emerged as a real force, we have seen expansion, and increasing domination, of the media landscape by franchises. In 2021 Marvel, just one franchise accounted for 30% of box office revenue. In 2018 the majority of top-grossing movies were sequels, remakes, or installments, rather than "originals". These days one cannot just sell a book, sell however many copies, and be content with it. Now any moderately successful author will have movie agents knocking at their door offering money for the film rights to their book, and these rights will often earn new authors more than they did on actually selling their first book.
The norm has become constant reproduction and rebooting. It is no longer sufficient to simply present the story of "Harry Potter". Instead, we need a whole "Wizarding World" of which the books are just a jumping-off point into the infinite proliferation of profitable products.
If we follow this mainstream logic, any accusation that fanfiction is inherently derivative and unoriginal in comparison to non-fanfiction rings rather hollow. Both are derivative, one just has copyright. The difference between The Crimes of Grindelwald and The Cursed Child and similarly named things you find on Archive of Our Own is merely a matter of money and rights.
Franchise and Fanfiction
The quality of fanfiction is widely derided. This is not unfair, but the same is true for original media. The difference is that fanfiction has a much lower barrier to publication, and so we see a lot more bad fanfiction, while the bad original fiction is more likely to stay in the unread emails of a publishing house. But this also is changing. Via Amazon, it has become entirely trivial to publish ebooks, and there are more innovative websites that allow for more direct aping of fanfiction in "original fiction", for instance by facilitating serialized works with utterly enormous word counts which are popular in fanfiction. Genres like "hurt/comfort" were codified within fanfiction communities and are now massive in self-published fiction. It should be made clear that we are not talking about a tiny enterprise here: self-published books represented ⅓ of all ebook sales on Amazon in 2020.
We can also see similarities in form between franchise and fanfiction. "Crossovers" are a very popular form of fanfiction, where the author jams together all their favorite characters from different fictional worlds into a single piece of literature. This same form has become the culmination of franchise media - first release a Batman movie, then make a Superman movie, then make a Spiderman movie, and then jam them all together in one big movie which brings all these story threads together. While fanficers can slam together whatever characters they want, within the franchise new characters must be captured through aggressive capitalist maneuvering. Fans of superhero movies can be entertained online not just by the news that X character is going to appear in Yy film, but by legal updates on their attempts to capture or retain character. Disney is currently engaged in a battle to retain its rights over many Marvel Superheroes, being contested by those artists who actually created the characters. Once new characters have been acquired, they can be placed within these grand and exclusive cabarets, providing consumers with reasons to watch these films instead of others.
So on one hand we have convergence, between small-scaled commercial fiction, in terms of self-published fiction, large-scale commercial fiction in terms of the franchise, and non-commercial fiction in the form of fanfiction. This convergence exists regarding the textual form as well as a re-legitimation of the idea of continual retelling versus "original fiction". But there is of course a grand clash here also, franchise exists in its highest form through the vicious acquisition of rights, while fanfiction in and of itself questions the significance of rights holding.
Post-Scarcity and Socialism
While the gap between fanfiction and franchise is vast, the gap between self-published fiction and fanfiction is not. There are various websites in which authors can publish serialized fiction in semi-commercial form. For instance on the website "Radish" there are "Premium", "Freemium", or "Wait to Unlock" models for publishing work. In the Premium model, the reader has to pay a small fee to see every chapter (somewhere between 12p and 60p). With Freemium the chapter will "unlock" some days after it has been published and become freely available. And finally "Wait to Unlock" is a personal hell version of Freemium, where instead of waiting from the actual publication date the wait time is from whenever the reader personally reaches the start of that chapter. As a modern innovative "prosumer" company, Radish also turns its authors into fee payers. The main way to promote your work is to pay Radish to place it on its "front page" where it will be shown for a certain amount of time.
In fanfiction, we can see clearly that the human drive to create art exists beyond a commercial impulse. This drive is evident across the internet, from those who modify video games for free to meme communities, YouTube content creators, and other "free laborers". But there is always going to be a limit here. Much fanfiction is produced by teens, precisely because they do not have to work for a living and have a great deal of free time. Many fanfictions die or slow down once their authors are thrown into the world of work. It’s not – of course - that fanfic authors don’t sell their works because they are all communists committed to the idea that literature should flow freely Rather it is simply illegal for them to sell their product. Those who wish to transition from writing as a hobby to writing professionally must become a "proper writer", either publishing traditionally or in the self-published and serialized fiction world.
We have in recent years seen music become "post-scarcity", in the sense that we can consume as much music as we want, for free. This does not mean that music can escape from commercialization, as its production requires money. In music, this has led in fact to a greater generalization of commerciality, even if it is around the margins instead of selling CDs. In the early days of the internet, people would release music for free online, but it was not possible to legally access mainstream commercial music for free. Now both mainstream and underground music are released on YouTube, Spotify, and other platforms, through which they are commercialized in the exact same way, via users being served ads and encouraged to buy subscriptions, with a paltry share of profit going to artists.
Something similar could easily happen with fanfiction. It could be integrated into mainstream capitalist flows via a revenue-sharing system. An author would link their fiction to a certain fictional world which whatever company owns the rights, and this work would then be able to generate revenue, perhaps in a comparable way to the "Radish" website. The vast majority of the money would go to the rights holder, with the smaller share going to the host website and a few pennies on the pound going to the writer. The vast majority of fanfic authors would be unable to make a living for their work, but would be forever strung along with the promise they can be part of the tiny minority that can, as is the norm in all creative enterprises in our current moment (eg. YouTube itself). Certain parts of the capitalist economy can reach a point where production and distribution are so rapid and low-cost that the cheapening strategy that wins out is the one where the consumer can access the product itself for free, and bizarre strategies of commercialization must be pursued in order to make money, but these areas can as easily escape capitalism as any random person can. We have to wait until socialism until these parts of a system (which are ready to go in productive terms) can be freed from the chains of commodity production.