In 1966, three things happened that changed the way we think about fiction.
First, Jean Rhys published Wide Sargasso Sea, her feverish reimagining of the story of Bertha Mason, Mr. Rochester's first wife, from Charlotte Bronte's novel Jane Eyre. That same year saw the first performance, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which expands and improvises upon the brief lives of two hapless supernumeraries from Shakespeare's Hamlet.
The third thing that happened that year was the premiere--on September 8, 1966--of Star Trek. It would run for only three seasons, but Star Trek was one of the first shows to attract not only an audience but a fan community, a group of people who collectively discussed it and analyzed it and criticized it and obsessed over it. Eventually the Star Trek fandom became so intense that the canonical fabric of the show itself was no longer enough for it. The fans needed more than the show's creators could give them.
So they staged a revolution--they seized, as revolutionaries do, the means of production. They began publishing and circulating mimeographed zines about Star Trek, with names like Spockanalia and T-Negative (it's Spock's blood type), containingÑalong with articles, essays and editorials, and fan art--fanfiction: original, unsanctioned stories about the characters from the show, set in the world of the show.
It's unlikely that Jean Rhys or Tom Stoppard would have been much tempted to contribute to the pages of Spockanalia, had they even known it existed, but in a way they and the Spockanalians were engaged in very much the same project: the breaking down of a long-standing state of affairs that made stories and characters the exclusive province of their authors, and that locked readers and viewers into a state of mute passivity. In Spockanalia the fans dared to raise their voices and speak back to the TV screen--in the TV screen's language, the language of narrative--just as Rhys spoke back to Bronte and Stoppard spoke back to Shakespeare. They turned reading and viewing from an act of silent consumption into one of active conversation.
In doing so they changed our whole relationship to story. They were coming at it from opposite directions--Rhys and Stoppard were tunneling through from above, as it were, via high culture, and the Star Trek fans were working from below--but the goal was the same. Like Wide Sargasso Sea and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, fanfiction asserts the rights of storytellers to take possession of characters and settings from other people's narratives and tell their own tales about them--to expand and build upon the original, and, when they deem it necessary, to tweak it and optimize it for their own purposes.
Not that they were the first to do it. They had plenty of forerunners. Fans have been engaging in illicit, unsanctioned interactions with other people's characters and stories since at least the nineteenth century. Jane Austen's niece once wrote her a letter addressed to Georgiana Darcy. In 1893 no less a fan than J. M. Barrie wrote a story starring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Holmes was a particular focus for early fanfiction: when an American actor named William Gillette wrote a stage play about Holmes, he contacted Arthur Conan Doyle asking for permission to marry Holmes off. Doyle replied, accommodatingly enough, "You may marry him or murder him or do whatever you like with him."
Not everybody is that enlightened about fanfiction. The mainstream understanding of it, to the extent that there is one, is that it's (a) slavishly adoring of its subject matter and (b) pornographic. We'll get to (b) in a second, but it's even more important to correct the record about (a). It's not about simply churning out more and more iterations of existing characters and worlds, or rather, it's not just about that. It's about doing things with those existing characters and worlds that their creators couldn't or wouldn't do. It's about boldly going where no man or woman has gone before, because oh my God, who would even have thought of that?
There's a famous work of Star Trek fanfiction called "Visit to a Weird Planet," by Jean Lorrah and Willard F. Hunt, that sends Kirk, Spock, and Bones back to Earth (via "a multi-parallel space-time inversion"), and not just to Earth but to the set of Star Trek, where they meet the actors who play them on the show, who are in fact busy filming an episode of Star Trek. Misadventures and misunderstandings ensue, in a vein that can only be called Stoppardian, but the point is, fanfiction isn't just an homage to the original--it's subversive and perverse and boundary-breaking, and it always has been: "Visit to a Weird Planet" appeared in 1968, in Spockanalia #3. It's about twisting and tweaking and undermining the source material of the fanfiction, and in the process adding layers and dimensions of meaning to it that the original never had.
Hence also the porn. "A Fragment Out of Time," the founding document in slash fanfiction, appeared in 1974 in a zine called Grup (short for "grownup," a reference to a Star Trek episode about feral children). As the first depiction of a love scene between Kirk and Spock, it wasn't just hot; it was a way of making visible the hidden thread of attraction that runs through the complex bond between the two characters. It elevated subtext to text. In doing so it gave rise to an entire writhing, sweating universe of romantic and sexual pairings. But slash isn't just about making porn out of things that weren't already porn. It's also about prosecuting fanfiction's larger project of breaking rules and boundaries and taboos of all kinds.
At this late date, fanfiction has become wildly more biodiverse than the canonical works that it springs from. It encompasses male pregnancy, centaurification, body swapping, apocalypses, reincarnation, and every sexual fetish, kink, combination, position, and inversion you can imagine and a lot more that you could but would probably prefer not to. It breaks down walls between genders and genres and races and canons and bodies and species and past and future and conscious and unconscious and fiction and reality. Culturally speaking, this work used to be the job of the avant garde, but in many ways fanfiction has stepped in to take on that role. If the mainstream has been slow to honor it, well, that's usually the fate of aesthetic revolutions. Fanfiction is the madwoman in mainstream culture's attic, but the attic won't contain it forever.
Writing and reading fanfiction isn't just something you do; it's a way of thinking critically about the media you consume, of being aware of all the implicit assumptions that a canonical work carries with it, and of considering the possibility that those assumptions might not be the only way things have to be. It's what David Foster Wallace was getting at in his famous speech, "This is Water": "Learning how to think . . . means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed." Fanfiction is about exercising this choice. It helps us not to get hosed.
In doing this, fanfiction is breaking new ground, but it's also trying to retake ground that was lost centuries ago. Before the modern era of copyright and intellectual property, stories were things held in common, to be passed from hand to hand and narrator to narrator. There's a reason Virgil was never sued by the estate of Homer for borrowing Aeneas from the Iliad and spinning him off in the Aeneid. Fictional characters and worlds were shared resources. For all its radically new implications and subversions, which are masterfully theorized in the pages that follow, fanfiction also represents the swinging back of the pendulum toward that older way of thinking. When Star Trek fans published Spockanalia, they weren't just discovering a new way to tell stories. They were helping us all to remember a very old one.
Lev Grossman, August 2013