Twist in the tale: Pandemic-era fan fiction is a rather wild ride
Wizards are hoarding toilet paper at Hogwarts, vampires are fretting over immunity and superheroes are killing time by discussing their new fitness regimens. Take a look...
The world’s best-loved heroes and superheroes have been busy in the pandemic, and it hasn’t been in trying to save the world.
Instead, Harry Potter, holed up with Draco Malfoy, has been trying not to argue over toilet paper purchases. Marvel’s Avengers, all duly masked, have been meeting at a diner to chat, kill time and discuss their new fitness regimens. Edward Cullen, the ageless vampire from the Twilight series, has been fretting over whether his child is immune.
These aren’t official story lines. They’re fan fiction posts by @JayGwen23, @cakeisnotpie and @ZydrateNote respectively, posted on archiveofourown.org (Ao3). Ao3 is both lodestar and one of the world’s largest repositories of fan fiction, a place where people who have loved a story go to retell or reshape it in their own words.
Fan fiction has historically been fuelled by people desperate for a different ending. The genres reflect this most clearly.
Fix-It or Alternate Universe fan fiction pairs characters as fans think they should have been paired or raises from the dead someone they think should have lived — Hermione ends up with Harry Potter, and a new future is imagined for Han Solo’s son Anakin in the Star Wars universe. Missing Scenes imagines turns in the plot that fans think should have happened — Sherlock may finally tell Watson he fancies him.
In 2020, fan fiction was fuelled by people desperate to re-craft their reality too. And so, in the retelling of the Terry Pratchett-Neil Gaiman work Good Omens by @LilithReisender, a pandemic-era Pestilence is welcomed back by the other Horsemen of the Apocalypse; Meg March and John Brooke of the Louisa May Alcott classic Little Women struggle, in fan fiction by @MercuryGray, to juggle work and childcare.
Traffic has surged on fan fiction platforms too, as it has on streaming platforms around the world. In March, Ao3’s weekly page views rose from 262 million to 298 million over just two weeks. “Most fan fiction writers are trying to cheer themselves up first, and then their group of fandom friends. And if anyone beyond that likes the story, that’s wonderful,” Francesca Coppa, co-founder of Ao3 and a fan fiction scholar, told Wknd.
You have to be a bit of a fanatic to spend hours retelling or reading retellings of iconic works of fiction, and indeed modern fan fiction can perhaps be traced to the Star Trek mania of the 1960s.
The first Star Trek fan magazine or fanzine, Spockanalia, began to be published in 1967. When the iconic TV show, which ran from 1966 to 1969, was cancelled after 79 episodes, its fans — many of them women — responded by taking the plots forward themselves, writing impassioned stories of emotion and transgression in a growing number of Trekkie fanzines.
“Many women writers felt relatively unwelcome within literary science-fiction fandom and saw Star Trek with its stronger female characters as a space they could call their own,” said Henry Jenkins, author of Textual Poachers, an early study of fandom’s impact on popular culture. “Because what they cared about in Star Trek was often pushed to the margins, they ended up rewriting it more actively and many of today’s fan fiction genres started to emerge.”
In recent years, 2011 marked a turning point. EL James’s 50 Shades of Grey, an erotic trilogy that started out as Twilight fan fiction, was published and became an instant bestseller.
By 2013, Forbes named James the highest-paid author in the world that year, with an estimated $95 million in earnings. It was a success story that, incidentally, was also forced to shed its identity as fan fiction - in order to evade copyright issues and be published, James removed all references to Stephenie Meyer’s vampire novels.
Today, Hollywood studios routinely draw on fan fiction for plot lines. The shift from sidelines to mainstream for fan-writers began when producers realised that it actually increased engagement with the product, says Jenkins. Mainstream publishing too makes space for them but with permission from the estate and with the necessary disclaimers.
As for the significance of fan fiction platforms, in 2019, Ao3 won a prestigious Hugo award, the highest honour for a work of science fiction, for Best Related Work -- a category that traditionally included books or essays involving critical commentary, tie-in works, or other works adjacent to speculative fiction.
The India Stories
The domestic boom in fan-fiction writing online began with JK Rowling’s Harry Potter, about 15 years ago. Then writers began retelling our own stories — everything from Amish Tripathi’s myth-inspired Immortals of Meluha books, down to takes on the saas-bahu serials churned out for Hindi television by studios like Ekta Kapoor’s Balaji Telefilms.
Online, one can find fan fiction from India and around the world on platforms such as Ao3, fanfiction.net, Wattpad, Tumblr, Commaful. The more popular fan fiction writers online have tens of thousands of followers, earn feedback, criticism and fans of their own.
Fansites also announce their own awards, hold conventions. “Fan love is, above everything else, the expression of a sincere desire to belong,” said Nandini Chandra, an English professor at the University of Hawaii who teaches fan fiction as part of a course on popular culture.
Fanfiction is a slow starter in the Indian publishing market. Literary agent, Kanishka Gupta, says it’s because we don’t have the source genres - sci-fi, fantasy or speculative fiction - from where fanfiction emerges. In any case, most fan fiction is impossible to publish for legal reasons unless the original text is out of copyright.
In India, does it have a future? “Mythology is rife with potential for fan fiction,” sais Keshava Guha, an editor at publishing house Juggernaut, and the author of Accidental Magic, a book set against the backdrop of Harry Potter fandom. “You could argue that India is the true and original home of ‘fanfic’. So much of our literature — whether prose, poetry, or drama — consists of adaptations, retellings, mash-ups and critiques of classic texts. The Mahabharata and Ramayana are the most obvious examples, but there are hundreds of others as well. This is a tradition that continues in every Indian language.”
EXCERPTS FROM PANDEMIC-ERA WORKS OF FAN FICTION
Inspired by Good Omens: The Return of Pestilence
The book by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, a comedy on the coming of the End Times, was also turned into a popular web series on Amazon Prime in 2019. This fan fiction take sees Pestilence, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, come out of retirement centuries after she was rendered redundant in the age of penicillin. Here is an excerpt from the work by @LilithReisender:
Damn, she had forgotten how much fun this was. Within months, her little pet project had gone from a small little virus of little concern, to an international pandemic. The humans were panicking in a way that Pestilence hadn’t seen since she had made the black plague. It was... refreshing, to be busy again, to be doing big work instead of spending her time making petty little one-off diseases…
It wasn’t long before she got a call. The gang wanted to meet up while she was still here. Pestilence found them all waiting for her at a truck stop in Idaho; in the absolute middle of nowhere surrounded by dying corn with a sign that said “HELL IS REAL” next to the parking lot. So much for subtle. She did have to admit, the biker thing was fun, so much faster than the old horses. She walked into the truck stop where the three of them were waiting for her. They all stood up... Famine greeted her with a hollow smile, War with a wink, and Pollution leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. Death wasn’t there, he never showed up for their little meetups even in the old days.
“Pestilence, darling,” Pollution said, taking her hand as she sat down. “Lovely to see you again, it’s been far too long.”
“Yes well, there hadn’t been much need for me in a very long time. But here I am now!” She smiled at the group, and Pollution squeezed her hand. She and Pollution had tag-teamed the job during the industrial revolution. The factories that the humans were building had given Pollution a job promotion, and the bad conditions that came from them had given Pestilence the perfect place to work. They had fun together, and damn did they do their work well.
“Speaking of,” said Famine, taking a sip of his chocolate shake. “What brought you back?”
“Oh, you know how it is. I just had a Feeling that it was time for me to get back to work.”
“I understand,” said War, twirling a strand of her hair. “I played around a bit earlier this year, but decided to pull away at the last minute. I had a Feeling that something bigger was coming.” She smiled and wiggled a finger at Pestilence, “and I was right! Here you are.”
“Well, I can’t stay very long, you know how things are.” The horsemen nodded. “Speaking of which, I don’t think there have been many cases in Idaho. Well, looks like I should change that.”
Inspired by Little Women: Distances
Meg March and John Brooke are trying to hold it together. John has handled the transition to online classes with unease but grace, moving his high school lessons from the grubby public school to the cramped office/craft room in their small bungalow. Here is an excerpt from the work by @MercuryGray:
He tapped on the door. “Meg? You in there?”
Behind the door there was a titanic sniffle, followed by the most miserable sounding “No, I’m not.”
John took a deep breath and cracked open the door, finding his wife wedged behind it, sitting with her head down and arms wrapped her knees, a little ball of motherly despair.
She looked up with bleary eyes. “I can’t do it anymore, John! I just can’t! Not for ten more days! Or longer. I’ve washed everything I can wash, I’ve tried every enriching educational thing I can think of! I cannot have my only social interaction for two weeks be my three year old children!”
“And what am I, chopped liver?” John asked, meaning for it to be funny and knowing, immediately, that it had been the wrong thing to say. “I’m sorry. That was rude. I have not been very helpful the last couple of days, and I apologize… I had my classes and my students and you had nothing but back to back episodes of children’s TV and non-stop sanitizing.”
It was true — he’d been so wrapped up in trying to put his entire curriculum online (complete with memes and appropriate pop culture references) that he hadn’t really made any time for his family.
The tears looked like they were going to start again. “But you’ve had classes to write, and the students need you –”
Oh, Saint Meg, always thinking she had to be all things to all people. John wedged his way inside the bathroom and sat down next to his wife, wrapping an arm around her shoulder and pulling her adorably messy head towards him.
“And my wife needs me, too,” he said, petting her hair and tucking in a few flyaways. “Let me hose off Demi and take the kids for a walk. We will stay,” he added, as Meg looked about ready to protest, “six feet away from everyone and I won’t let them touch a thing and you can have some alone time. You will not clean a thing until I get back. I will take care of the floor in the front room. The socks can wait.”
Inspired by Stranger Things: Girl With October In Her Eyes
The writer takes two of the principal characters of the popular sci-fi Netflix thriller — teens Eleven and Mike Wheelers — into a post-apocalyptic time when a disease has wiped almost all humans off the planet. Eleven has a dog named 12. She and Mike meet for the first time, in a park (on the show, they met in the woods while Mike was looking for the missing friend at the centre of the plot). Here is an excerpt from the work by @snowzone5:
“Twelve?” El shouted.
“Where are you?”
“Twelve?” El was having a hard time keeping the tears from her voice.
I can’t lose Twelve. Not now, not after everything we’ve been through. What will I do? I’ll have nobody to talk to. Nobody to keep me warm at night. She must have left the bed just before I woke up.
El shouted until her voice was ragged.
When she couldn’t yell any more she cried.
This is going to be a perfect shot.
Mike lay prone facing the morning sun. He looked through the viewfinder. He’d been waiting to take the shot since the day started to get lighter... He wouldn’t miss today… shit! What’s that?
There was a grey blur coming towards him... fast. He tried to crawl backwards fast enough to get out of its way... The next thing he knew, there was a hot wetness on his face.
It tickled. Mike laughed. He hadn’t seen a dog in over… has to be five years
He managed to get a brief glimpse of the dog tag, it was registered in Hawkins. On the name part he saw “12”.
OK, that’s an odd name for a dog.
Or is this the dog’s role in a pack that somehow survived? The dog was prepping the next meal for the pack.
…“You found my dog! And she likes you.”
“I think she found me.” Mike said. The dog was practically doing backflips it was so happy. Mike sat cross-legged on the grass…
“I think she found me,” the guy said. He sat cross-legged on the grass.
“You named your dog Twelve?” He said, paused from scratching behind Twelve’s ears and looked at her.
“Oh,” he said, and then averted his eyes.
Oh is right. He’s really good-looking. His eyes, they are even deeper than his voice. Twelve likes him… All kinds of things are going to have to fall in place before that happens.
Inspired by the Twilight series: Wash your hands for Edward Cullen
Edward’s anxieties are triggered by the new virus. He fears for his daughter’s life and can’t shake the memories of the last pandemic he lived through, the 1918 Spanish Flu. Here is an excerpt from the work by @ZydrateNote:
“She’s fine, Edward. She can’t catch it.”
“You don’t know that,” Edward said quietly…
“Renesme is a vampire!” Bella tossed her long chestnut hair over her shoulders. “She doesn’t need to quarantine like-”
“Half-” Edward growled. “She’s only half-vampire.” He stood up from his piano bench and slammed the lid down on the keys…
“It’s not that big of a deal. She just wants to visit Jacob. He’s been isolating, both him and his dad. She’ll be-”
“Bella! This is non-negotiable She stays inside.”
“I thought you were through with acting like this. You’ve been a teenager for a hundred years but it’s a bit too long to keep the moodiness.”
“You don’t understand. How could you? How could you possibly understand… She’s not going out. I’m not letting anything happen to Renesme… It’s just- I can’t stand people saying it’s just like the flu. I’ve had the flu. It’s not a walk in the park. It’s a killer. It saps your strength and your life and it leaves you, best-case scenario, as a weakened shell of yourself. She might be half-vampire. We don’t know about that human half. And Jacob- They’re saying dogs can’t catch it. But I can’t risk that. If something happened. Carlisle can’t turn her again. She can- she can Zoom Jacob. That’s what they’re doing nowadays, right?”
Inspired by the Harry Potter series: Top Priority
England is trying to stop the spread of an aggressive new virus affecting both wizards and muggles. Everyone is being told to self-isolate. House mates Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy are stuck at home, trying not to go out of their minds. Here is an excerpt from the work by @JayGwen23:
Harry heard the ancient front door of Grimmauld Place creak open and then slam closed. Draco was always overzealous with his wandless magic. Harry padded into the entry still barefoot and in his pajamas to see if he needed any help with the groceries... Harry stopped short, when he came around the corner and couldn’t see Draco behind the wall of toilet paper he was carrying.
“Er, Draco?” Harry asked, not really sure what to say and hoping it was in fact Draco behind the stack of white rolls, instead of a different psychotic wizard.
“Harry, you won’t believe the madhouse it was out there! I made it just in time, these were the last three packages of toilet paper in the entire grocery aisle. Not to mention how bare the meat department was getting. I might have gone slightly overboard, but I don’t want to have to go back.”…
“There are only three of us. What do we need that much toilet paper for?”
Draco stepped around his purchases, leaving them floating behind him, so that he could scowl at Harry properly. “You never know...”
“Sure, Malfoy.” Harry kept from rolling his eyes, but by the look Draco shot him, he didn’t think he was hiding the fact that he wanted to. “Do you want me to give you a hand with…” Harry waved at the floating bags and array of items. “Er, all this.”
“No, you can keep your ungrateful hands off my supplies.” He huffed and headed to the kitchen, his items bobbing and twitching behind him...
Harry followed a few steps behind, trying not to laugh. Draco didn’t like being laughed at, unless he was purposely trying to make you laugh, then he expected you to laugh and loudly.
(All works excerpted from posts on archiveofourown.org)