A Response to Shannon Chamberlain on Fan Fiction

Just yesterday, The Atlantic published an article by Shannon Chamberlain about fan fiction and sexuality. The article is a smart piece, linking fan fiction practices in the eighteenth century with current pop culture trends. A previous iteration of the article was titled “The Surprising 18th-Century Origins of Fan Fiction,” which betrays some of the author’s underlying assumptions. Here I want to offer some reflections on how we might nuance some of those assumptions.

First, I want to say that I admire how Chamberlain tackles some complex, intertwining issues concerning fictionality, fan fiction, the commercialization of literature through capitalism, and connections in literary history and pop culture from the eighteenth century to the present. Her article is an important piece of public scholarship, and hopefully it will be taken into serious account in future work on fan fiction.

That said, Chamberlain’s piece rests on certain assumptions about literary history that I want to put pressure on, to destabilize, to reconsider in terms of how other literary historical threads related to fan fiction might be traced back further than the eighteenth century, to the premodern period. Primarily, Chaimberlain’s analysis is related to recent scholarship that connects concepts about fictionality with the development of the novel. Specifically, these ideas seem connected to Catherine Gallagher’s argument that the development of the novel in the eighteenth century is inextricably tied to “The Rise of Fictionality.”

In no way do I want the following thoughts to be an attack on Chamberlain or her piece, but I do want to pose some ideas as an interlocutor interested in some of the same aspects of literary history that pervade her piece. My intention is not to quibble with her approach to fan fiction by pointing out that medieval literature did it first. As Emily Friedman said on Twitter, “Fanfic now ‘gets’ us something but still not enough for us to theorize its distinction as form robustly across time.” Instead, I want to address how Chamberlain’s analysis of fan fiction connects to other assumptions about the novel as the preeminent form of fictionality.

Chamberlain herself acknowledges that we might consider premodern literature and fan fiction together. “As entertaining as it may be to think about Dante’s Inferno as Biblical fanfic,” she writes, “recognizably contemporary fan-fiction writing really got its start, at least in the Anglophone world, in the 18th century.”

There are, however, good reasons to challenge the types of assumptions that Gallagher has established and that some scholars have taken as a basis for examining modern fictions.

I’ve been thinking about these assumptions lately because of my own work on biblical apocrypha–stories about biblical subjects that never made it into the canonical Bible. Prompted by recent work on the subject, I have a brief reflective piece about “Apocrypha and Fictionality” appearing in a cluster of articles forthcoming in New Literary History.

In looking at the long history of fan fiction, fictionality is a key concept. So when looking at fan fiction in the eighteenth century and connections to novels and pop culture fictions, we also need to consider recent scholarship that has extended notions about fictionality backward in time, to the premodern period. Julie Orlemanski has done just that, offering more nuanced theoretical reflections about the subject from the perspective of a medievalist. Michelle Karnes follows suit in an article (in the forthcoming NLH issue) about fictionality and medieval marvels. Similarly, Monika Fludernik has challenged Gallagher’s thesis in relation to “the transhistorical and transcultural definition of fictionality.” I’m also looking forward to the other pieces in the cluster forthcoming in NLH.

Looking toward premodern literature in search of alternative literary histories about fictionality, we might confront some of the same questions of fan fiction that Chamberlain does. Of course, some of the cultural currents that Chamberlain discusses are distinct in the modern period, after the burgeoning of capitalism as we know it and the subsequent commodification of fictions. As she explains, those specific developments in the eighteenth century do lead to some of the same issues surrounding fan fiction and pop culture today.

Still, we find some interesting sites of inquiry in premodern fan fiction. Perhaps Dante is not the best example, but there are others. As I’ve already mentioned, we might consider the hundreds of works of apocryphal literature that reimagine biblical characters and stories. Scholars like Hugo Lundhag and Kasper Bro Larsen have considered various types of apocryphal literature as fan fictions.

In some biblical apocrypha, we find sexually subversive narratives similar to those Chamberlain evokes. She writes:

Modern fan fiction’s version of this exploration comes at a time when liberalization around sexual preferences, practices, and identities likewise makes it useful for auditioning socially costly decisions and roles in less risky environments than real life.

Such explorations of identity appear in premodern fictions, too.

Fresco of the Arrest of Christ (Kiss of Judas) by Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua (1304-1306).

Indeed, complex identities and anxieties about them are central aspects of biblical apocrypha and scholarship about them. What does it mean that Judas is often conceived in a relationship with Jesus that can be read as queer, or that Jesus is imagined as having a wife? How is Mary’s ever-virginal status used to subvert gender norms throughout Christian history in these narratives? What do narratives about missionary apostles tell us about premodern race?

The corpus of medieval romance literature also provides hundreds of case studies of fan fiction. For example, the Old French poem Yde et Olive may be considered a fan fiction as both an adaptation of the myth of Iphis and Ianthe in Ovid’s Metamorphoses as well as an extension of the Huon de Bordeaux cycle of narratives. Since it features a queer trans* knight, it also features many elements of slash fiction.

Many other examples could be brought to bear. These are just a few.

Chamberlain is right to claim that “Fan fiction’s role in litigating the boundaries of relationships is one of its most enduring purposes.” Such processes, though, appear throughout literature across temporalities, geographies, and cultures. What we find in fan fiction are the same ideologies that cultural studies finds in all literature. The problem is that we too often relegate fan fiction to low culture, conceptually distinct from high literature. But, again, literary criticism and cultural studies offer tools to confront this binary–tools that we can employ in studying literature across diverse times, places, and cultures.

Theorizing notions of fictionality alongside theories of fan fiction should not prompt us to locate the birth, emergence, or rise of such literary developments in a specific time period or culture. Orlemanski warns scholars of this in her review of work on fictionality that points to the Middle Ages or even late antiquity as starting points.

Even more, Eurocentrism and nationalism might lead scholars to train our eyes mainly or only on Western literature. This is easy to do when localizing ideas like the emergence of fictionality, the novel, and fan fiction in eighteenth-century Western Europe. We need to resist this impulse. Fictionality and fan fiction are parts of world literature from many different cultures, from the premodern period to the present. Acknowledging such complications affords more nuanced, globalized literary histories that we can continue to write and rewrite in relation to our own pop culture.

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