What is fanfiction (fanfic, fic)? It’s actually a good question, and one that is not as easy to answer as you might think. There are debates within fandom and fan studies about what constitutes fanfiction and what distinguishes it from other derivative works.
In a blog post, Henry Jenkins, the father of fan studies, defines fanfiction as “original stories and novels which are set in the fictional universes of favorite television series, films, comics, games or other media properties.” This definition is pretty broad, but it does predicate an emotional attachment to or engagement with the source material. Fan fiction stories are not set in the universe of any old television series, film, comic, or game, but specifically “favorites.” The emotional attachment that Jenkins presupposes is in keeping with his assertion in Textual Poachers that fans tend to “appear to be frightening out of control, undisciplined and unrepentant, rogue readers,” who bring a degree of intensity and subjectivity to their reading and writing that seem at odds with traditional academic and bourgeois practices, which privilege distance and objectivity (18).
Other definitions tend to be even more restrictive. Wikipedia defines it as “fiction about characters or settings from an original work of fiction, created by fans of that work rather than by its creator. It is a popular form of fan labor, particularly since the advent of the Internet.” Merriam Webster’s definition is similar: “stories involving popular characters that are written by fans and often posted on the internet.” These definitions are notable for their foregrounding of fan authorship, asserting that fanfiction is necessarily the product of fans. The focus is just as much on who is doing the writing as what is being written about. While Jenkins alludes to fan authorship in his recognition that these stories are often written about “favorite” texts, Wikipedia and Merriam Webster offer a more assertive categorization of the authors as fans. Interestingly, these definitions are written for non-fan and non-fanstudies audiences: Jenkins is writing for the teachers, attempting to convince them of the merits of using fanfiction as a critical and educational resource and Wikipedia and Merriam Webster are for the most general of audiences.
In contrast, Pugh, whose monograph, The Democratic Genre: Fan Fiction in a literary context, is likely for fans or fan-studies scholars, offers a much broader definition of fanfiction: “Myself, I would go along with those who define fan fiction as writing, whether official or unofficial, paid or unpaid, which makes use of an accepted canon of characters, setting and plots generated by another writer or writers” (25). In this case, fanfiction is not limited to the work of fans, but speaks to larger practices of derivative writing.
Pugh’s definition invites us to trouble the sematic distinction between “fanfic,” derivative fiction written by fans for free, and “profic,” derivative fiction written by authors for profit (Pugh 11). Part of the trouble in defining fanfiction comes from the fact that it is participating in a long historical practice of authors drawing on preexisting characters and stories to tell their own. The literary canon is full of examples of authors “plunder[ing] the vast resources of myth and history” (Pugh 13). For example, Geoffrey Chaucer, Robert Henryson, and William Shakespeare all wrote stories about Troilus and Cressida (13), two side characters in the Iliad who had no interaction in Homer’s epic. What these writers are doing, then, is expanding and recontextualizing the original text by giving the characters their own story—something that fanfiction writers do all the time. So, what makes profic different from fanfic?
Pugh suggests that it isn’t. She finds presumptions about supposed quality of writing unsatisfactory and the monetary distinction unsubstantial (11). Instead, she suggests that fanfic and profic writers are, in fact, writing in the same literary genre of derivative works. Instead of focusing on who is doing the writing and how much they are getting paid, she argues, it might be more helpful to think about how the writing is relating to the source text. Pugh
asserts that fanfiction writers “wanted either ‘more of’ their source material or ‘more from’ it” (19). In the former case, stories can extend the canonical work, reaching into the past or imagining the future, filling in gaps in the original. In the latter, stories take on new perspectives and challenge the ideological messages and constraints of the originals. Profic or fanfic, the stories are rhetorically doing the same thing and the relationships between texts follow the same patterns.
This assertion helps to elevate fanfiction, which is often derided as amateurish and pornographic. For example, take this definition submitted, by the user ~souba~, to Urban dictionary: “1. Put bluntly, fiction by the fans. Created by fans of any particular fandom, 50% of fanfiction is crap, 24% is non-crappy smut, 25% fits into the category of crap and smut, and the remaining 1% is some pretty good stuff. 2. Something English teachers don’t like.” While Urban dictionary does have many more positive and more objective definitions archived on site, some written by self-identified fic readers and writers, this one does a good job of encapsulating the stereotypes about fanfiction. Pugh rejects these stereotypes, and positions fanfiction within the larger literary canon. Her definition suggests that the works of fan writers are performing some of the same rhetorical and literary functions as texts like Wide Sargasso Sea (which gives a voice to Bertha/Antoinette, the mad (and silenced) wife from Jane Eyre), Foe (a retelling of Robinson Crusoe that challenges its patriarch and colonial discourses), and Ulysses (an AU (Alternative Universe) version of the Odyssey set in Dublin in 1904). In each of these cases, the derivative works are not simply a regurgitation of the source text, but function as interpretations of the original. Which is the same thing that fans are doing when they write their material. Maybe these profic authors are fans of works they are drawing from (based on their writing though, in many cases I suspect they are not), but their active and critical engagement should not be segregated from the work of fans.
~souba~. “Fanfiction.” Urban Dictionary. 18 November 2018, Date Accessed 26 August 2018.
“Fan Fiction.” Merriam Webster n.d. 19 August 2018, Date Accessed 26 August 2018.
“Fan Fiction.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 3 August 2018. Web. Date Accessed 26 August 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fan_fiction.
Jenkins, Henry. “How Fan Fiction Can Teach Us a New Way to Read Moby-Dick (Part One).” Confessions of an Aca-Fan: The Offical Weblog of Henry Jenkins, 11 August 2008, http://henryjenkins.org/2008/08/how_fan_fiction_can_teach_us_a.html. Accessed 2 February 2017.
—. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. Routledge, 1992.
Pugh, Sheenagh. The Democratic Genre: Fan Fiction in a literary context. Poetry Wales Press, 2005.