A Whistle Stop History of Fanfiction: Part Two
Last time on Holly’s Whistle Stop History of Fanfiction, I discussed the idea that a lot of what is often considered classic literature in fact sprung from fanfiction, stories about existing characters, or people, with a few tweaks and name changes. Which is all very well, but I’m sure some of you are there saying “yes, but it’s not really fanfic, at least not how we know it” and I will concede to that, if only because these pieces were contained within very small fan communities, predominantly family groups, rather than in wider reaching fandoms. And so in that frame of mind, in this next part of my series I’m going to take a swift jump forward to the 1960s and the birth of fandom.
Fandom doesn’t properly arrive until the 1960s. Why? Because that’s when television became the main source of entertainment in the home. In the UK, we had all of three channels and so everyone was watching the same things, which meant everyone knew what you were talking about, which meant that people could discuss these things at length and, you see where I’m going right? The moment you get mainstream media that everyone can easily access and lots of people are watching, you create the perfect conditions for fandom—those people who like it a little bit more than everyone else. And so what did those people do? They started writing fanfic. And circulating it, though not as books, but as fanzines and other fan works.
These fanzines became a massive part of the culture of fandom during the 60s and later. It was the only way to see what other fans were doing and thinking. You could send your own work in, art, letters and fanfiction. In fact a lot of these old fics have now been gathered and archived online; most notably by the Star Trek fandom, and I would recommend everyone checking out the K/S archive—yes, that is what you think it is. There is that much Spirk fic in the world.
And it wasn’t just zines. The Doctor Who magazine has been around in several different guises going since the show first started, but the fan letters were also being published in magazines like the Radio Times as well as broadsheet newspapers. People were using whatever method they could to get their ideas and identity as a fan out in the world.
During this time you really have two dominant fandoms, that have survived through to today anyway: Star Trek and Lord of the Rings. They are the grandparents of fandom. Science Fiction and Fantasy, the bastions of our nerdom. One, a new media, television, in colour, American, and very forward thinking in its views; the other, a literary masterpiece, academic in many ways, old school, and old world. These two fandoms have shaped and created how we look at fandom today. Star Trek has always been progressive and forward thinking, not only in the show itself, but also in the fandom; women and queer people were, and are, the driving force. Whereas—and I love the LotR so go with me—the Tolkien fandom, nay the Tolkien Society, need to get their heads of out the sand and realise that times they are a changing and Legolas and Gimli are so very gay.
Star Trek has something of a reputation for being an enlightened, inclusivity driven show, and that reflects in the fandom. It is, and always has been a fandom, driven by women, people of colour and a large queer community. If you look over the names of the fic writers from the earliest points of the fandom, it’s almost entirely female names and aliases. I don’t think it’s a surprise that so many women have gone on to work on the show.
The Star Trek fandom is a group of people who, in the 60s, were completely on board with not just an interracial kiss on screen for the first time, but were also shipping the two male leads to high heaven. We honestly have Star Trek to thank for Slash Fiction. I don’t think it’s too far to say that the Kirk and Spock ship, and Gene Roddenberry’s canonical acknowledgement that they are Th’y’la (the Vulcan word for friend, brother and lover all in one), influenced modern fanfiction more than anything else.
On the other hand we have the Tolkien Society. The Tolkien Society is an educational charity and literary society devoted to the study and promotion of the life and works of the author and academic J. R. R. Tolkien. It’s a really helpful thing to have, but they have made something of a point of not have fanfiction or fan works involved in the Society. Considering that Lord of the Rings and the rest of the Middle Earth canon are some of the most influential fantasy books of all time, you’d think that they’d be up for zines, fics, art and the rest. There appears to be a view that fanfiction is lesser to the canon, that it shouldn’t be entertained because it’s diverting from what Tolkien set down. I’ve honestly had full on debates with members of the Society over the nature of Sam and Frodo’s relationship and basically got shut down that “it wasn’t what Tolkien meant.” Now, I’ve got a degree in English and I’m pretty sure that the text is meant to be open to everyone’s interpretation. And that’s what fanfiction is, it’s a new interpretation. It’s exploring the text and opening up the meanings in a way that is reflective of that reader’s life and worldview. Especially for people who are not straight, white men; come on, there are a lot of straight, white men screwing things up in those books. Women, LGBTQ people and PoC needed to do something to see themselves represented, and if that means seeing Frodo and Sam as gay, or thinking that Aragorn is black, then that’s what it means.
This view of fanfiction has created something of a split in the Tolkien fandom. On the one hand you have the Society with its very academic, literary view of the books (and later the films), and then you have everyone else. However, this is changing and I hope that the Tolkien Society will soon see fanfiction as much a part of the fandom and enjoyment of the books as much as the original text.
But overall both of these fandoms, in very different ways, created an atmosphere in the fan community that allowed discussion, critique and fan works to grow and, eventually, flourish.
Next time on a Whistle-stop History of Fanfiction: The Internet is here and things are going to get wild.