In Defence of Fanfiction
With mentions of Circe by Madeleine Miller
One way of engaging with an author’s work once you’ve finished reading it – a way which appeals to me as both a writer and a reader – is to write fanfiction. I’ve recently learned that the longest piece of fiction in the English language is a fanfic: a 5 million word epic set in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. It took five years to get this far, and the story is still going.
Here’s the thing: I love fanfiction. I rarely write it, but I love reading fanfics of works I enjoy. I’d find it the ultimate form of flattery if someone deigned write a fanfiction about one of my books – and, if that were the case, I’d want to read it. Out of curiosity, and to share the love.
But I recently learnt that, as a rule, authors were discouraged from reading fanfiction of their work. As I researched the reasons why, I found there were two causes: one is the stigma associated with fanfic, the other is fear that authors will be sued for exploiting their fans’ work if it resembles what they write. (Say, if an author writes a sequel and a fanfic writer claimed they stole their ideas.) I understand the copyright argument, and the risk of either being unfairly persecuted as an author – because it’s often hard to prove where an idea comes from – or being unfairly exploited as a fanfic writer – which would be a horrible thing to happen to anyone, being exploited by the creator of the world you love.
I don’t want to delve into the copyright laws right now, so instead I’ll tackle the (relatively) easier subject. Why is there a stigma against fanfic?
Some people believe fanfiction is limited to pornographic rewritings of 'serious' characters. Although some fanfiction is this, it can be a lot more. The other argument people level at fanfic writers is that the work isn’t original. I’d like to argue that isn’t a valid criticism: rewritings are a form of storytelling, and some very successful, very beautiful books are rewritings of an official canon which pre-existed them. For example, Circe by Madeleine Miller relies on similar story structures as fanfiction does. This is because Circe, like most fanfiction, assumes the reader knows – and is a fan of – the canon. In this case, the canon was written by Homer in the 8th century BC, but the point still stands.
Often fanfiction will choose a secondary character which the canon isn’t much interested in and will develop them, choosing to put them at the centre of the story. This is what Miller does when she decides to tell Circe’s story from her POV, rather than from the POV of one of the multiple heroes who, at times, land on her island. Circe is a particularly good choice, because she appears in a lot of other people’s stories, always as a secondary character.
Through Circe, we get to meet people we are familiar with – the Minotaur, Odysseus, Dedalus, etc. Miller assumes we know these people, or at least are familiar with them, because she doesn’t tell their whole story, only bits and pieces of their tale, letting us piece the rest together. She gives us a different insight into, say, the Minotaur’s story, letting us see his birth, which we’ve never seen in fiction, rather than his demise, which is a story we’re all familiar with. She glosses over the sections of the story we probably know, telling us quickly what happens, and spends time on parts of the story we haven’t seen before.
She also gives us origin stories for secondary characters: for example, readers might be familiar with the monster Scylla, but meeting her as a young nymph, before she became a monster, is an interesting way of playing with readers’ expectations. It also gives us an explanation for how she was transformed into a beast. Or Miller teases us with foreshadowing: Circe gets to meet Medea when she is young and in love. For anyone who knows how Medea’s story ends (a lot of blood is involved), this scene works because the reader knows something the character doesn’t, something the writer doesn’t need to explain.
Another thing fanfiction might do is modernise certain characters. Fanfic writers might interpret a character as neurodiverse, or change their sexuality, or rewrite a more feminist version of a secondary female character who doesn’t get a chance to shine in the canon. They might write the groups who get excluded from the mainstream into the story. To a certain extent, Circe does this, creating a feminist version of the witch living alone on her rock and changing men into pigs. The story gives us an insight into the violence suffered by women which is all-too common in Greek myths, from the POV of the women, rather than the usual focus on their sons or fathers or husbands.
A lot of texts don't suffer from the stigma of fanfic, despite being inspired by other stories (myths fall into this category, of course, but so do rewritings of classics, stories inspired by Cthulhu/Lovecraft or, say, Sherlock Holmes). I don’t know why some stories are considered ‘legitimate’ fanfiction, and some aren’t. There’s an argument for quality – Miller’s prose is beautiful and well-mastered. And, I suppose, the passage of time – if the author is long dead, as for Lovecraft and Doyle, then maybe fanfiction finds a more natural place for itself to exist in.
Madeleine Miller isn't pretending to be Homer, nor to have the final say on Greek myths. She isn’t saying this is the only version of Circe’s story, only that it’s her version. Maybe that's the key. Stories are not always one set canon, and they belong to anyone who decides to add to them and play with them and explore them. Everyone should be allowed to write their version, to add to the richness and variety of the world which has been created. I think writing is, by essence, this game of rewriting and answering other stories – a conversation between creators.
14 Feb. 22