As a writer and reader of many categories of literature—including fanfiction—I’ll admit I’m biased on how to answer this question: is fanfiction really literature, or is it just play-acting off of the “real thing”?
Based off the historical practice for variation storytelling which set several precedents for fanfiction being accepted within the accepted canon of “classic” literature, I’m going to answer YES, it can be.
Wait? Hold up! What ‘historical practice’? Isn’t fanfiction a fairly recent phenomenon? Something found in fan-magazines from the mid-20th-century, and then circulated farther and faster with the introduction of the internet?
No. Fanfiction is far, far older than our modern memory serves. I could even argue that the knack for it generates from age-old practices of oral tradition and the tendency of storytellers to embellish and alter familiar tales for novelty’s sake, even as their audience enjoys the well-loved repetition of the older tale on which the embellishment takes shape. But it might be impossible for any modern scholar to pinpoint the earliest occurrences of “fanfiction” in this case, or even to specify the occurrences, as oral tales robustly overlap in the retelling.
Written literature may guide us better, since there, we have a paper trail. In looking over past works, we might be able to identify the fanfiction-like practice of story variation built upon what Linda Hutcheon in A Theory of Adaptation calls a phenomenon of “adaptations as palimpsests”—meaning new works of writing that hold traces of the original work while imposing intertextual elements of alternate viewpoints and plot. These feel much like what we experience when writing words on a literal palimpsest, which is a used writing surface on which the imprint of what has already been written before is still visible or perceptible as an imprint on the surface, even as one writes down something newer over it.
A few examples of this might be helpful. Some of the most easily recognizable works of adaptation-based fanfiction in Western culture are those which pull variants from stories and themes from the Bible—which is the most widely read literary source-text of all time. Consider Dante’s Inferno, with its fresh representation of Hell, which pulls many of its imaginings of the infernal realm from Virgil’s Aeneid in addition to the frightening visions in the Book of Revelation and the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in the Gospel of Luke. In this first part of his Divine Comedy spent in Hell, Dante even presents himself as a sort of “Mary-Sue” (as fanfic writers call it) by adding himself through self-insertion as a character. He then entertains guest appearances and interactions in what fanfic writers would call a “cross-over” by featuring characters from the stories of Virgil alongside a pantheon of well-known Greek heroes and philosophers, all alluding to their own histories and storylines, which the audience recognizes as retold within the new Hellscape setting.
Consider also John Milton’s fresh take on the Fall of Creation in Paradise Lost, an epic that attempts to retell the creation story of Genesis 1-3 while working to layer in, and then to fill in the “gaps” left in the scanty biblical narrative to explain the presence of evil (taking form as the serpent) in Eden. To do this, Milton pulls key plot points from the prophecies in Ezekiel 28 and Isaiah 14, which scholars and church traditions have long considered symbolic retellings of Satan’s fall after a war in Heaven. As Milton writes imaginatively in and around these biblical narratives, the characters grow more fully sketched, with more “screen time” given especially to Satan, who portrays a kind of anti-hero. Through Milton, Satan’s story is finally fleshed out, and with it, the “gap” in the narrative as to why he came into Eden to betray mankind, and therefore the Creator, is better understood.
While today’s fanfiction is not accorded the literary honors of Dante’s Inferno or Milton’s Paradise lost, the creative drive they embody is the same—this need to fill in or even to explore and alter the “gaps” of a well-known story. This “gap”-filling pattern is something that essayists Nora Nachumi and Stephanie Oppenheim observe that Jane Austen’s particular breed of fanfiction writers capitalize upon because the “gaps” in Austen’s original narrative are so striking, so inviting, and are gaping with wide-open emotional space:
In Pride and Prejudice, we argue, the narrator manipulates the reader’s perspective to reveal gaps between the protagonists’ thoughts and emotions and how they can express them. These gaps generate tensions, which are often erotic, that require release. . . . the sexual tension in Austen’s novel springs from repression. It exists in the gap between the characters’ thoughts and emotions and what they can say or do about them given the mores of the society in which they live. These gaps create the urge for disclosure, a process that sometimes requires the assistance of others.(Nachumi & Oppenheim, “Sex, Love, and Austen: Was It Good for You?”)
This need for “assistance” in exploring the emotions of Austen’s characters is most often fulfilled by the active imagination of the reader. This reader might, say, read a line in Chapter 31 of Pride and Prejudice in which Elizabeth teases Mr Darcy for approaching her as she is playing the pianoforte at Rosings (“You mean to frighten me, Mr. Darcy, by coming in all this state to hear me?”), and decide for themselves what her motivation might be for speaking to him in such provoking way. Perhaps it is simply irritation mixed with a subtext of flirtation, one might guess—because, of course, Jane Austen does not say, precisely, what Elizabeth is thinking at that very moment beyond giving us the clue that she wore an “arch smile” as she turned to him and spoke.
These gaps of emotional omission on Austen’s part are very skillfully done. By leaving invested readers in the dark during these fascinating interactions, she invites readers to reach farther into the text with our own emotions than perhaps a more overtly descriptive book might merit as we attempt to fully understand the scene. Indeed, if Austen’s readers are to be satisfied with such teasingly vague interactions between Elizabeth and Darcy as this one, they must engage the text at this level of emotional speculation in order to feel the characters as fully bodied entities.
And here is where we find lively room for Austen fanfiction: it presents a space to meet the shared need for this kind of emotional exploration and fleshing-out, guided by a reader-writer of Jane Austen who has invested themselves in the original (the prior impression of the palimpsest) enough to competently render bright emotion in the characters in a new, exciting way in a variation story.
As a form of participatory literature, that’s exactly where we find fanfiction’s value: it feels familiar, but so enticingly new, and by re-layering the tale with twists and turns, it teaches us something altogether different than the original.
Jane Austen. Pride and Prejudice. Project Gutenberg, 2019, Ch. 31
Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation (London & New York: Routledge, 2006), 8-9
Nora Nachumi and Stephanie Oppenheim. “Sex, Love, and Austen: Was It Good for You?” Persuasions Online. 38.1 (2017)