Fanfiction is experiencing a golden age of sorts.

Commercially speaking, fanfiction is more accepted than ever. Overt fanfiction has been accepted for a while if the source text is older, and, therefore, in the public domain. Think, for example, of Pride and Prejudice and P. D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberly, a continuation of the original story with a mystery twist. The novel was reasonably successful and was even adapted into a TV miniseries. Conversely, you have things like Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a crack-fic of absurd or parodic levels that was adapted into a major movie (even if it wasn’t a box office success). People like seeing how a canonical literary text can be played with, especially as wish fulfillment for how they would like the characters to be or end up.

Like, so much better.

Leaving the public domain, however, doesn’t seem to be as big an issue anymore. Certainly, the massive success of E. L. James’ 50 Shades of Gray isn’t held back by the fact that it famously originated as Twilight fanfiction. When her story took off, James changed the names and the story just enough to make it not-TWILIGHT, and the rest is history. Regardless of your feelings concerning the literary merit of 50 Shades of Gray, its commercial power cannot be denied. 50 Shades of Gray raised all sorts of questions about fanfiction: What is the deal with copyright and property ownership? Can someone own a story? What is the literary merit of a fanfiction? Is it considered an adaptation? Can we really call E. L. James an author?

The success and controversy surrounding 50 Shades of Gray shined a bright spotlight on fanfiction. At the same time, online production of fan-created works is booming. Fans can enjoy a wealth of material from sites like Fanfiction.Net or Archive of Our Own. Clearly fanfiction is now a big thing. But how did we get here? Let’s look into the past, to chart the weaving progress of fanfiction. Hint: it all comes down to one word. Slashfiction.

No, not that guy. Although I’m sure Slash fanfiction exists.

Know Thy Past

Fanfiction as a concept is relatively new. For much of literary history, borrowing and adapting from other writers was just how it was done. In fact, adaptation was considered the mark of a talented writer. To take someone else’s story and make it your own was just an example of how skilled you were.

MORE: Want more Shakespeare adaptations? Check out our review of ABC’s STILL STAR-CROSSED!

Take Shakespeare, for example. The Big Man Himself was a notorious mooch. He borrowed stories and characters from everyone and everywhere. Within his great treasure-trove of work, only The Tempest is considered to be original – i.e., his own creation and not someone else’s. Even then, The Tempest is considered to be at least influenced by the account of a shipwreck. Shakespeare also had his own works adapted, even during his own lifetime. Fletcher and Beaumont staged The Tamer Tamed, or the Woman’s Prize, a work that is essential fanfiction of The Taming of the Shrew. (Except in their vision, the women strike back. You should read it. It’s good.)

Over time, though, copyright laws and conceptions of ownership cut back this practice of mutual borrowing. As more authors were forced to create original works, people came to depend on individual authors for their dose of fiction. If a writer stopped delivering, there wasn’t going to be anybody else to pick up the slack. Arthur Conan Doyle famously fell prey to this when, tired of writing the character, he killed off Sherlock Holmes. People mourned. Black armbands and demonstrations in the street – these people went all out. Doyle eventually revived the character, exasperated (and probably a little scared) by all the fuss.

CLICK: Fans don’t play around! Check out our article on fan power!

But the people learned their lesson. You could not count on an author to do what you wanted. And, crucially, you were not alone. There were others like you, passionate (some might say obsessive) fans who wanted more. Individually, you were frustrated. Together, you were powerful. Individually, you were fans. Together, you were a fandom.


“Okay, okay, I know my past. Got it. What’s the deal with slashfiction?” – You

Hold on, my dear reader, we’re getting there. First we have to take a trip to THE FINAL FRONTIER. You see, Sherlock Holmes may have created (or solidified) the fandom, but fanfiction itself didn’t take off until STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES.

READ: No matter what, STAR TREK is always there. Read our take on why STAR TREK is still kicking 50 years later!

The legacy of STAR TREK cannot be understated, and its cultural impact has inspired a legion of passionate fans eager for more. When the show ended after just three seasons, they reached out and formed fanzines. With their show cut short, fans turned to each other for more. Fanfiction writers were able to publish works in their zines, which would then be disseminated at fan conventions and through mailing lists.

If I’m gonna make you look at Kirk/Spock, I’m gonna at least use Chris Pine.

Fanfiction for STAR TREK did more than just continue the adventures of the Enterprise’s crew, however. A popular theme in STAR TREK fic (and all fanfiction, really) was creating relationship pairings. The most popular of these linked swashbuckling Captain Kirk with his logical first mate, Spock. In descriptions, this would be written as Kirk/Spock or K/S. Thus, slash was born.

Boldly Going There

Modern fanfiction has come a long way from the 60s, and naturally so has slash. Modern fandoms have followed in the footsteps of their Trekkie forebears in creating pairings that aren’t canon. Popular ships include Destiel (Dean Winchester and the angel Castiel from SUPERNATURAL), Johnlock (Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson from SHERLOCK), and Drarry (Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter from HARRY POTTER). These fans write prolifically. They also create fan art.

This is tame.

(I would like to personally assure you I looked through enough fan art to scar me for life to find these pictures. I’ve seen things that cannot be unseen. There is slashart on my computer. It’s in CV’s archives. All for you.)

In addition to growing in popularity, new themes have emerged in slashfiction. As social values move forward, slashfiction itself has become less controversial. This allows writers to push the boundaries even further with what they write. Some of these creative pushes are fairly tame, like femslash (exactly what it sounds like – a slash pairing between two female characters. Why this needs a separate distinction, I do not know, but it is likely a reflection of the inherent misogyny present in fandom). Some writers will avoid a slash pairing by changing the gender of a particular character – you see this a lot with HARRY POTTER fans writing a fem!Harry character.

CLICK: This is awkward. So is puberty. Read about the significance of puberty in HARRY POTTER!

Some ideas are a little more… out there. For example, one inexplicably popular trope is mpreg (yes, it is what it sounds like – a male (non-trans) character becomes pregnant). Mpreg is pretty divisive. Some people like it for the ability to play with gender stereotypes and the ability to create a family with a slash pairing. Others find it unrealistic (and an embarrassment to the slash community).

Boldly Going Too Far

Although, as I mentioned earlier, slashfiction is becoming more socially acceptable, it is not without controversy (even more than mpreg). Many of the controversies actually stem from greater social awareness, rather than less.

Up first is the woman problem. Historically, most fanfiction writers have been women. There is some degree of controversy in having slashfiction written by women. Some people feel that these (predominantly heterosexual) women should not be writing male/male pairings. There is an air of fetishizing homosexuality – not just sexually, although many of these fics are quite explicit. Rather, it’s a sort of social fetishization. Think of the woman who proudly proclaims that she has a “gay best friend” that she takes shopping and out to brunch. This plays into stereotypes and can fuel condescension toward the gay community. It also silences gay voices. They are not telling their own stories. Someone else is telling their stories for them.

This is real.

Another controversy plays into the social fetishization – queerbaiting. Queerbaiting is when showrunners encourage fan enthusiasm for slash pairings, without actually making their characters gay. This is a particular complaint with the SUPERNATURAL fandom. The interactions between Dean and Cas are very romantically charged. This isn’t something fans are creating out of the blue. Queerbaiting is like corrupted fan service. The showrunners feed out morsels to the fans – just little things here or there – that suggest that the pairing is secretly canon. At the same time, they do not actually make the ship canon, avoiding angering more conservative viewers. Queerbaiting is a reflection of the inability to fully accept homosexual relationships in popular culture.

Still, despite all its controversies, slashfiction holds an important role in the history of fandom and fan-creation. For better or for worse, slashfiction propelled fanfiction into the mainstream.

So, essentially, blame Kirk and Spock for 50 Shades of Gray.

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