What happens when Yuyutsu, the sole son of Dhritarashtra to survive the war against the Pandavas, returns to Hastinapur? He must face a sister who is grieving the loss of the siblings he betrayed, make peace with the living and try to make his voice heard in a Pandava-ruled dynasty. This is a tale of the Mahabharata, but not one from the epic as we know it.
“Pravilabhate”, the story of what Yuyutsu’s life might have been after the war, is, in fact, a work of fanfiction found on Archive Of Our Own (AO3), one of the largest repositories of such writing on the internet.
“I find it interesting to engage with these works of fiction by either focusing on a less-explored portion of the story and expanding it, or by changing a key element and exploring how that might have a ripple effect across the story,” says Kolkata-based Rhea, the writer of “Pravilabhate”, who goes by the penname toujours_nigels. Rhea began writing at 13 after she came across the Harry Potter website MuggleNet, where fanfiction thrived. “I was amazed to find out that you could interact with a world you loved in that manner,” says the 29-year-old.
Fanfiction as a form implies the creative response of fans to any work of fiction. To put it in another way, fanfiction is about asking a “what if” question of a fictional work and responding to it: What if, instead of being raised by relatives who neglected him, Harry Potter was brought up by a Jedi or Sith Lord from the Star Wars universe? What if — as so many viewers of James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) have said exasperatedly over the years — Jack had just climbed onto the wooden plank with Rose instead of freezing to death? These and a million other questions have been answered through writing, fan art, podcasts, videos and other formats.
One of the highest-selling books in modern history sprang from a piece of fanfiction. In 2008, when a British mother of two, EL James, watched Twilight, the first film based on the vampire novel series by American author Stephanie Meyer, she turned to the books and read them over and over again. The idea of a sequel began to emerge in her mind, and she wrote Master of the Universe, a story that was published episodically on a Twilight fanfiction site from January-August 2009. Writing under the nom de plume Snowqueen’s Icedragon, her stories featured the original characters of Meyers’s books but were criticised on the site for their erotic content. She removed them from the site, changed the names and plot and began to write what soon became Fifty Shades of Grey (2011).
Fanfiction, as we know it today, is inextricably linked to the rise of the internet, growing from small groups on the peripheries to large communities and dedicated websites such as AO3 and Deviantart, that have millions of users. Perhaps, that is why 2019 will be remembered as a landmark year for fanfiction — it is the year when it finally shrugged off its tag of being an also-ran as AO3 walked away with a Hugo Award in the Best Related Works category. Arguably the most prestigious award for science fiction and fantasy, the award has, in the past, gone to giants such as Ursula K Le Guin and Isaac Asimov.
Community is key to fanfiction. At the Hugo Award ceremony in Dublin last month, Naomi Novik, one of AO3’s founders, said, “All fanwork — from fanfic to vids to fanart to podfic — centres on the idea that art happens not in isolation but in community.”
Tanvi (who like Rhea doesn’t use her surname), began reading fanfiction soon after she fell in love with the Harry Potter world around the time the fifth book was released. “I would get up early and wait in line with my parents at the book store every time a new book released. I would read the book at breakneck speed because I wanted to finish it the same day,” she says. Afterwards, there would be endless discussions with friends on possible afterlives of the characters.
Now a Kolkata-based freelancer, Tanvi, who goes by the name Tanya in fanfiction communities, says she was fond of stories in which the characters Draco Malfoy and Hermione Granger were paired romantically. “This was before the sixth and seventh books had released, when Draco hadn’t done anything terribly evil and Hermione hadn’t started dating Ron. There was a lot of potential to imagine what might happen if the two got together,” she says.
The Harry Potter series is undoubtedly one of the biggest gateways to fanfiction. But what stands out in the genre is the sheer variety of voices and the issues they highlight. Aside from exploring the source material, they also serve to critique unfavourable elements, and to expand on original works in its portrayal of genders, races and sexualities.
Delhi-based lawyer and Hugo Award nominee, Gautam Bhatia, says fanfiction gives readers a sense of participation when it comes to the worlds they love. “It’s an exercise in world-building that makes fans feel a kind of ownership and lets them engage with these works in a deeper way,” he says. Bhatia, who is on the editorial board of Strange Horizons, a speculative fiction magazine, says his own experiences with fanfiction started in 2004 and lasted for two-three years. “There would be online spaces for RPing (roleplaying) based on Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, which I would frequent. It was a vast series and there was a lot to explore in terms of the characters and the world they lived in,” he says.
The notion of corrective writing plays into the idea that fanfiction offers people an opportunity to go from being passive consumers of art to active participants, and to push back against narratives they consider harmful. One famous example is what Neil Gaiman termed “the problem of Susan”, an essay in which he questions CS Lewis’s treatment of the character Susan Pevensie in The Chronicles of Narnia series (1950-56). Susan is denied entry to Aslan’s “real Narnia” in the final book of the series for reasons which have since been disputed by Gaiman and other prominent authors such as Philip Pullman and JK Rowling. Another such example can be seen with the works of British writer Enid Blyton, who is widely read around the world, especially in former British colonies. Fanfiction of Famous Five or Secret Seven, for example, seek to integrate characters of colour in an otherwise entirely whitewashed world.
When Suraahi started exploring fanfiction at the age of 13, it was to fill a void she found in fictional works. “I began writing because as a queer woman I couldn’t find any representation in literature. Just the fact that I could be gay in this space is what mainly kept me going,” she says. Suraahi, who started by reading feminist and queer writing around characters of the cult TV show Vampire Diaries, adds that she is active in the Harry Potter, Game of Thrones and Ocean’s 8 fandoms. “There are no binaries in fanfiction. The question of genres is something that is very fluid. Most importantly, unlike traditional publishers, fanfiction communities have nurtured and accepted everyone regardless of their caste/gender/sexuality/class,” says Suraahi.
Fanfiction communities have also gained a reputation for being safe and open, which stands in contrast to many other parts of the internet that are often less diverse and accepting. AO3, for example, is praised by many as an accepting space in which female and LGBTQ+ readers and creators make up a significant number. In a 2013 survey of AO3, 54 per cent of respondents identified as a gender, sexual or romantic minority, and more people identified as queer than male. About 38 per cent identified as heterosexual.
While fanfiction has boomed over the last couple of decades, its actual starting point could be traced to the 1960s, the 1800s or even the 1300s, depending on which theory you subscribe to. It can, for example, be argued that the Divine Comedy by Dante was essentially fanfiction of Christian mythology and texts. According to a book titled Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over The World (2013; by Anne Jamison), the 1800s reportedly saw documented instances of fanfiction, with Jane Austen and Arthur Conan Doyle’s works spawning groups of “Janeites” and“Holmesians”.
When Conan Doyle attempted to conclude his character’s tale with “The Final Solution”, angry readers held protests. Eventually, the author found ways to write new tales featuring the sleuth. The 1960s, of course, saw the birth of two juggernauts of science fiction and fantasy, Star Trek and Doctor Who. Both have since spawned countless fan clubs, magazines, fiction and art. In India, the retelling of mythologies — Amish Tripathi or Ashok Banker’s modern interpretations of the Ramayana, for instance — could also be interpreted as fanfiction.
Popular global fiction apart, in India, a major area of fanfiction has remained Indian films, celebrities and television. For Saswata and Susruta Mukherjee, 25-year-old twins who are illustrators and filmmakers from Kolkata, fan art has been part of their process ever since they were children. “Our first fan art used to consist of stick figures, which we would claim were Shaktimaan in different poses. It gradually moved to Tintin, Asterix and Pokemon — we used to sketch comics of Pokemon when we were 10 years old,” they said over an email interview. The brothers, who mostly publish their fan art on Instagram, say they try to choose subjects that will inspire conversations. “For example, Hannah Gadsby’s standup on Netflix, Nanette, blew us away and our art came as a reaction to it,” they said.
The internet still remains the most popular domain to house fanfiction. Chetana Holla, 30, a former HR professional in Karimnagar, Telangana, says she found a lot of people expressing their love of fandoms by sharing art and merchandise. “I made a few Harry Potter bookmarks and put them up on Instagram and quite a few people liked them. This led to making tiny art prints based on other fandoms like Star Wars and works of (Hayao) Miyazaki. I took up making postcards with a few of my favourite fan art and have been sending them to friends and strangers. I wanted to share my love of all these different things with others and hopefully introduce them to something they might come to like, too,” she says.
Despite its rapidly growing popularity, fanfiction has garnered an equal amount of criticism. The reasons cited by detractors are many — that the writing is terrible, it’s a lesser form on account of being “unoriginal” and that it’s a poor exercise in self-indulgent– often sexual — fantasies. Fanfiction certainly covers a wide range; some works are barely legible while others can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the originals.
Within the literary establishment, whether it is the author or the publisher, fan-fiction can appear to be a thorn in their side. Hugo Award hall-of-famers Orson Scott Card and Ursula K Le Guin, as well as George RR Martin, author of A Song of Ice and Fire series, for instance, have been known to be critical of the genre. For one, the entire phenomenon appears to propel the Barthesian argument of “The author is dead”— the author/artist’s work belongs to the reader/viewer to interpret them without requiring to engage with the creator’s meaning or intent — to a new level. Fanfiction is disruptive in a way that it takes the writer’s imagined universe and can either build alongside it, or completely restructure it to suit their purpose. Good fanfiction can go beyond imitation, and that is more dangerous to a writer than flattery.
Certain genres, such as fantasy and science fiction, lend themselves to fanfiction simply because they already work within the “What if” premise. And without a doubt, the fandom is a powerful and intimidating force to deal with, especially online on microblogging sites such as Twitter. While writers such as Gaiman handle opinion with humour and grace, the last few years has seen Rowling constantly develop new theories about the characters of her Harry Potter novels. Is it a response to alternative storylines posted on fanfiction sites, or is it the author’s way to exhibit more control over her content?
Many authors have also taken action by suing and sending cease-and-desist letters to fanfiction writers, citing illegality or endangerment of their livelihood. While copyright laws differ from country to country, it’s largely understood that fanfiction and art can exist as “derivative works” of the original. This means such art can exist legally as long as they don’t break the policy of fair use, of which the key clause is that derivative works cannot be profited from. This placed fanfiction creators in a precarious position for many years.
A particularly criticised category is erotic writing, a thriving category of fanfiction that covers the entire gamut of sexual and romantic partnerships between various characters from the original works. Popular pairings can vary from Sherlock Holmes and John Watson from the BBC television series Sherlock, to Jacob and Bella from the Twilight series or even Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson from the band One Direction. This also involves pairings often considered disturbing, such as those featuring Harry Potter with Severus Snape, Voldemort or even Dobby the elf.
But the pros, says Mimi Mondal, a Kolkata-born New Yorker-based writer who used to dabble in Harry Potter and Bollywood fanfiction before moving on to other types of writing, far outweighs the cons. “It’s one of my secret hopes that someone will make fan art based on anything I wrote, because I’m no good at drawing myself,” she says.
This isn’t to say that such spaces are problem-free. AO3 came about as a result of a number of factors, including too much policing of content on some websites, staff cashing in on efforts by hosting ads (though no money went to the creators themselves) and a need for a space run by fans and for fans. However, this has led to problems of a different kind. “AO3 does a lot to bring in people. However, it also positions itself as allowing pretty much everything, unfortunately including deeply racist/ableist/homophobic works. The archive is run by volunteers who are consistently overworked, and who pull off miracles of maintenance, coding, and community-building. I would say it’s unfair to hold them up to the same standards as that of Twitter or FB, but the truth is they outperform those sites on a regular basis,” says Rhea.
Despite the challenges of evolving as spaces that are plagued by legal and other issues, it can be safely said that fanfiction and the communities formed around it are here to stay. This is why AO3’s victory has come as a much-needed affirmation of acceptance. Tanvi says, “You can’t stop it anymore, so you might as well appreciate it for what it is.”
(With inputs by Anushree Majumdar)