This project will explore the history of the production of transformative works in collaborative fan communities. The modern conception of a “fan” as a science fiction/fantasy nerd who dresses up, attends conventions, and writes stories about their favorite characters grew largely out of the 1960’s with the advent of Star Trek. Today, belonging to a fandom has become more mainstream and no longer relegated to an often mocked subculture. On the surface, it appears as though this shift extends only as far back as the last fifty years, especially as it relates to to the cultural works created by fans: fanfiction, fanvideo, fanart, etc. The idea of rewriting canonical text to suit an author’s motives, however, is hardly a new one: Virgil wrote Homeric fanfiction, Dante wrote Virgil fanfiction; Shakespeare freely borrowed stories, characters, and plots from existing works. However, while these instances can be construed as fanfiction in a loose sense, the idea of an official versus unofficial work is a more modern conception, although still a century old. The first instance of “canon” referring to the distinction between the official text written by an author to differentiate it from fan-created works occurred in scholarship surrounding Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. One such instance took place in 1911, with Monsignor Ronald Knox’s address to the Gryphon Club, published one year later in The Blue Book Magazine. This distinction arose as a result of fans writing their own adventures of the great detective during the ten years between Doyle killing off the character and subsequently resurrecting him. As a result of advances in printing technology in the late nineteenth century, new advances in journalism allowed for magazines to have more direct involvement with their fan bases. Fan letters and fan worked could then be published side-by-side in the very medium that disseminated the canonical works.
By the middle of the twentieth century, printing technology and the advent of xerox machines in the 1940’s meant that fans could now create and circulate their own publications. The first science fiction fanzine, “The Comet,” was published in 1934, and by 1940, the term “fanzine” had been coined to refer to a fan created work produced explicitly by and for fans of a particular topic. These existing notions of fan fiction, fan publication, and collaborative storytelling finally converged and grew with the onset of Star Trek and its fandom. “Slash,” a particular subset of fanfiction that pairs two heterosexual characters into a same-sex relationship, began surrounding Star Trek (and, simultaneously, Man From U.N.C.L.E.), so-named for the punctuation between the pairing (Kirk/Spock). The first known slash fic of this sort was “A Fragment Out of Time,” written in 1978 by Diane Merchant. This form of altering the canon, mixed with often elevated adult or explicit themes, both served to stigmatize fanfiction.
Once the internet took hold as a space for collaboration, once disparate fan communities were able to locate and connect with one another on a scale that had previously been impossible due to geographic constraints. Now, fanfiction could be shared to mass audiences, inside and outside of their contrived community. Websites such as Proboards in 2000 or Tumblr in 2017 became spaces for community members to meet and write, engaging in textual roleplay set in their favorite storyworlds. At the same time, websites devoted to the publication of fanfiction began to appear, such as Fanfiction.net in 1998, Archive of Our Own (AO3) in 2009, and wattpad (which began as an ebook sharing site, grew into a self-publication site, and in the 2010’s organically welcomed fanfiction into its midst). These text-based sites were not the only spaces that housed fan transformative works. The practice of fanvideo had originally required painstaking editing and would not have had readily available platforms where they could be shared. With the creation of YouTube in 2005, and as video shifted more and more into a digital format, fans could download, edit, construct, add, and then upload their content to share with other fans. Additionally, local fan productions that would have only been seen by small subsets of the population could suddenly find a home on the internet. In April 2009, a group of college students at the University of Michigan put on a Harry Potter-themed parody musical. They filmed their creation and uploaded it to YouTube in July 2009. A Very Potter Musical has since taken its own canonical place within the Harry Potter fandom, and developed a devoted fan community of its own.
2019 marks an important year in the realm of fanfiction and fanworks. The AVPM production company, StarKid, has engaged in tours to celebrate the tenth anniversary of its influential musical, showing the impact of non-canonical works and their ability to transcend their origins and create a canon of their own. Additionally, in 2019 Archive of Our Own won a Hugo Award for Best Related Work, thus elevating every fanfiction writer who had ever uploaded a story to that site as a member of the community of content creators in their own right.