If you were to say that Fifty Shades of Grey author E.L. James almost ruined fanfiction for everyone, you wouldn't be entirely wrong.
By now, the British author's origin story is notorious: a London-based former television executive, James penned the BDSM-themed trilogy as a self-described act of "midlife crisis." Its first incarnation, a serialized Twilight-based fanfic published on FanFiction.net, titled Masters of the Universe (then penned under James' username Snowqueens Icedragon), was later adapted into the now-unavoidable bona fide franchise we know and love (or alternately loathe).
James' personal success story also has its byproducts: it became the de facto touchstone of fanfiction going mainstream. In short: if you didn't know what fanfiction was before, there was no way you could ignore it now.
But where exactly did the tradition of fanfic start? How long has it been around? And most importantly, what makes something fanfiction in the first place?
A brief and general primer for the uninitiated: fanfiction (stylized as one word, often abbreviated as "fanfic" or simply "fic") is amateur narrative writing based on already-existent novels, movies, television shows, and even IRL celebrities and public personas. In a piece published by New York Magazine this past March, journalist Laura Miller condensed the development of fanfiction as a movement that sprung from fanzine culture:
"...fanfiction as we now know it began back in the days of Star Trek fanzines, on whose mimeographed pages female Trekkers wrote of Mr. Spock swooning in the arms of an ardent Captain Kirk. For decades, fanfiction communities – soon to migrate en masse to the web – functioned as a subset of science-fiction and fantasy fandom, where they were treated, by the mostly male nerds who ran things, like a younger sister best banished to her room whenever company came by. The internet changed all that by ushering in the era of the networked fan, often a girl who sampled her first taste of fic in Harry Potter fandom."
While Miller's analysis is accurate, it doesn't provide the full picture. But then again, fanfiction's point of origin is almost impossible to precisely tack.
Laying out the history of fanfiction is a difficult undertaking, due to the archival aspects of the timeline, which, like the art and form of fanfic itself, is subterranean by nature. While there has been a recent uptick in features tracing the trends associated with the dawn of fanfiction, there are few academically recognized fic resources.
Even if fanfiction didn't exist in name before the early 20th century – we'll get to that later – it most certainly existed in practice. There are those who argue that fanfics brought forth some our best-known institutional works of literature, like the Homeric epics (which were based off an interpretive, non-canonical oral tradition) and Shakespeare's plays (almost all of which were sourced from earlier forms of literature, including the writings of Plutarch and Herodotus).
Even the first part of Miguel Cervantes' Don Quixote, one of the earliest novels of canonical Western literature, was followed up with an unauthorized sequel before Cervantes' own final installment was published. Fittingly, the author of the Don Quixote-inspired novel-length fic wrote under a pen name, Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda. While historians continue to conjecture about Avellaneda's identity, he most likely had the first confirmed fanfic pseudonym in history.
Jumping ahead to the 20th century, the actual term "fanfiction" was coined in 1939 by the sci-fi community as a derogatory term to differentiate between crude, amateur sci-fi fiction and professional fiction, or "pro fiction." (Even decades later, the same stigma holds true.)
It popped up again in a 1944 lexiconic fandom handbook titled Fancyclopedia, edited by John "Jack" Bristol Speer, the first noted fanhistorian. Then formalized as "fan fiction," the entry defined fic as:
"...[sometimes] improperly used to mean fan science fiction, that is, ordinary fantasy published in a fan magazine... occasionally bringing in some famous characters stf [science fiction] stories. [...] Fictitious elements are often interspersed in account of fan activities, which may make them more interesting, but plays hob with a truth-seeker like [Greek philosopher] Thukydides. Round robins have been attempted in the fan fiction field.
This generalized description held sway from 1930-1950, during the reign of sci-fi titans like Isaac Asimov, until the first modernized fanfiction boom: the golden era of Star Trek fanfiction and its marriage partner, the fanzine.
Fanzines had been around for a few decades before Star Trek aired its first episode; the first wave cropped up in the U.S. around the early 20th century (see sci fi/horror master H.P. Lovecraft's United Amateur). But as self-proclaimed Trekkie scholar Joan Marie Verba posited in her nonfiction work Boldy Writing: A Trekker Fan and Zine History 1967-1987:
"In September 1967, as Star Trek began its second season, a fanzine called Spockanalia appeared in New York City. The title page called it 'a one-shot published by Devra Langsam and Sherna Comerford.' (A 'one-shot' is a fanzine intended to appear only once.) The 90-page fanzine was mimeographed. The first issue was bound by laying the pages onto a wooden board and using a heavy-duty wall stapler. Collators then folded the prongs of the staples back with pliers."
Today, Spockanalia is the most recognizable of these fanzines, which went on to appear in myriad forms for each Star Trek generation and spin-off. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry went on to proclaim the zine as "required reading" for "every new writer, and anyone who makes decisions on show policy" in a letter to the zine's creators, Devra Langsam and Sherna Comerford, which was subsequently published in an issue.
Star Trek fanzines also played an influential role in the development of slash, a subgenre of fanfiction in which two same-sex characters most commonly read as heterosexual are paired in situations that are either romantic or sexual in nature. ("Slash" denotes gay male pairings, while "femslash" is the lesbian equivalent.) As reported by most online fanfic archives and wikis, Captain Kirk and Spock are deemed the first widely circulated same-sex couple within the slash genre, as established by the 105-page fic The Ring of Soshern, written by Jennifer Guttridge. However, the fictive pair incited conflict within the fandom, as reported by websource Fanlore.org:
"...in the 1970s, there were vociferous objections by well known fans to the idea of Kirk and Spock together romantically or sexually (known at the time as 'the premise'). One fan recollects [eminent Star Trek fan] Bjo Trimble describing K/S slashers as a 'bunch of twisted sickos.' Other well-known and highly visible fans were just as vociferously in favor of slash and explicit stories, causing extensive and vigorous debate."
Despite infighting, the precedent set by the original Star Trek fics has served as a superstructure for everything to follow. Its heirs are the fanhistorians who craft virtual libraries like Fanlore in the vein of Jack Speers. Constantly metastasizing amateur masterlifts and subgenre webpages upon pages are dedicated to intra-group One Direction slash. J.K. Rowling, the the benevolent godmother of late 20th/early 21st century fanfic writers everywhere, more or less condoned ficcer George Norman Lippert's James Potter prequel series as unofficial canon.
Like the zines that served as the medium for its earlier incarnations, the platforms in which fanfic is readily readable and writable are morphing at the same pace as new technologies in the Information Age. Amazon's fic platform Kindle Worlds has been around since 2014 (despite its lackluster success), and apps like Wattpad report that as of 2014, 53 percent of its users have written a fic on their phone, and more than 70 million stories were uploaded onto the site by September of that year.
Even Beyonce Twitter fanfiction is at thing. (And knowing Queen Bey, are you even surprised?)
Beyoncé catches Michelle Williams sleeping on her back patio once again. Heartbroken, she lays her Met Gala dress over the shivering singer.
— BEYONCE FANFICTION (@BEYONCEFANFIC) May 7, 2015
Beyoncé is babysitting North West, who is sloppily drawing a cow. She hangs it next to Blue Ivy's 25-page feminist manifesto on her fridge. — BEYONCE FANFICTION (@BEYONCEFANFIC) March 8, 2015
In reality, it all throttles back in time to the first human with the nerve to lean across a fire and whisper the innovation that has truly defined humankind with the variable version of a story. Everything else has been the same story ever since; never a final frontier, always a new, mercurial pocket of the multiverse.
Welcome to the world of fanfiction. It's been waiting for you.
[UPDATE: Star Trek fan Bjo Trimble was incorrectly referred to as a magazine. This has since been corrected.]