Many decades ago, Julio Cortázar posed a dichotomy between the passive reader (“the one who does not want problems but solutions, or false other people’s problems that allow him to suffer comfortably seated in his armchair, without committing himself to the drama that should also be his”) and the active reader or reader-accomplice, the one who can become a co-participant of the same experience through which the novelist passes. His work, “Rayuela”, is precisely an experiment in involving the reader, in constructing the story as it is narrated. Perhaps Cortázar, who is thus considered a precursor of hypertextual narrative and so-called “cyberliterature”, would have been an avid fanfiction reader.
Fanfiction is both a mobilizing force of popular culture and a kind of underground cult. A legitimate heir to the culture of remix, fanfiction is created by readers and spectators who are not satisfied with just consuming culture, but want to participate in it, create it, recreate it, change it. Millions of stories are published each month in huge repositories to be read by millions of other fans. The phenomenon can hardly be considered as something new: the fanfiction as we know it today began at the time of the Star Trek fanzines, and from those times there was a strong queer component within their stories, bringing Mr. Spock into Captain Kirk’s arms.
However, from that early Trekker fanatic era, fanfiction communities formed a minor component of the science fiction fan community, and were treated with condescension. Fanfiction was considered a predominantly feminine pastime: while men become more involved in what is called “healing fandom” (collecting figures, discussing in Reddit who is the best Doctor in Doctor Who), women predominantly devote their time to “transformative”: creating stories where Hermione Granger is black and Sherlock Holmes has an affair with Watson. Some believe that the dominance of women and the queer community in fanfiction is easily explained by understanding that by not being represented equally in culture and the media, fanfiction is a way of attacking the status quo, changing it. It was here that the Internet signified a revolution: becoming more horizontal and democratic, the huge fanfiction communities could no longer be ignored. Many of the great story ideas come from this underrepresentation in mainstream media and thus the birth of fanfiction.
However, beyond the rest of common viewers, fanfiction tends to inconvenience authors, actors and producers, who are not yet accustomed to the fact that in a hyperconnected world, a work of fiction ceases to belong to them at the moment it is published. Some authors, such as George R.R. Martin, have protested against these acts of appropriation and have asked their fans to refrain from carrying them out. There are countless cases of requests to remove content for intellectual property claims. Others, like J.K. Rowling, see no problem in the creation of derivative fiction by fans with large Harry Potter fanfiction libraries across various fan sites. After all, the history of literature is a history of cultural appropriation, without which we would not have virtually everything we consider classic today, including the works of Shakespeare. Many are even bringing more formal writing styles and tools to the world of fanfiction and tackling even more obscure fandoms from Pixelface to Princess Sarah.
Although many claim that fanfiction works are protected by the fair use clause in U.S. law, many authors choose to change character names before publishing them, just as E did. L. James in publishing “50 Shades of Grey,” a fanfiction based on Stephenie Meyer’s (equally terrible and equally successful) “Twilight. Twilight, in turn, is inspired by Jane Austen’s great classic novel “Pride and Prejudice,” which if anything is missing are re-imagined versions, from “Bridget Jones’ Diary” and “You Have an Email” to that new classic (?) called “Pride, Prejudice and Zombies. The most recent movie called ‘After’ was originally a fanfiction piece on Wattpad that got adapted.
Regardless of what intellectual property law says, it is no longer possible to expect today’s viewers and readers to passively consume the cultural content delivered to them: there is an immense community of people determined to enrich culture with the fruits of their imagination, and that impulse to tell stories is as old as humanity itself.