Everyone seems to have a different origin story for fanfiction. Many say it started with Star Trek, or Sherlock Holmes, or Mary Shelley. I see the urge to play in someone else’s sandbox as universal to writers and necessary to the creation of any story. When fanfiction began has to do more with one’s definition of fanfiction than any finite history. But I particularly like the origin story told here:
Once upon a time, a young mother wrote a story which grew and grew until it took on a life of its own. Soon nobody remembered that she had been the author; the story belonged to everyone and it began to change form.
She had written about a parentless child who found himself inhabiting a supernatural realm. People were afraid of his potential but failed to suppress his power, which was strong enough to destroy those he loved. It became one of the most famous stories ever written.
I am, of course, describing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which inspired one of the earliest cults in what we now call ‘fan fiction’.
The ingredients of Frankenstein proved so popular that Shelley’s readers began to rewrite it, first dramatising the book for the stage and then turning it into a film until, before long, her subtle tale had been transformed into a leaden yarn of a coffin-shaped man with a bolt through his neck.
Uncannily, she had predicted her own fate. Not only did the novel break away from its author, so that while everyone has heard of Frankenstein not everyone knows who first conceived of him, but the tale itself was a parable of the relationship between an ambitious creator and his fragile creation, who is set loose in the world and turns monstrous.
The article continues, describing in a gentle, lightly mocking tone a variety of Harry Potter fanfiction. It is possibly the best introduction to fanfiction I have read in a mainstream news source, and a good read besides.
Aside from that, I enjoy the use of Frankestein’s monster as a metaphor for fanfiction. The monster was supposed to be a project, a controllable, finite thing. But then it developed needs and agency of its own, and escaped its master’s control–some might say, inevitably. Though Shelley’s book is so rich that no one interpretation can coral it all, it does provide true-feeling imagery for understanding the moral rights of the author, their values and shortcomings.
The value in holding moral rights for many authors is that they allow them to treat their works as parents wish they could treat children, to control where they go and with whom and what they do when they get there. Like Dr Frankenstein, they see their works as a creation totally of their own, and therefore totally their own property and responsibility. They reflect the long-term attachment some authors feel to everything they write, and allow them to express those feelings in legal terms.
The shortcomings of authorial moral rights is that they do not reflect the ways in which most stories are created. Like Frankenstein’s monster, stories are made of many parts carefully assembled. Though the parts came alive in his darkened cave, they had lives before out in the open air. Giving one person moral rights to a being stitched together from the parts of many displaces the rights of those who came before (and were used) and those who come after (and who would use).
Maybe it’s the late hour, but I really like that metaphor.
“There are natures that go to the streams of life in great cities as the hart goes to the water brooks.”–Philip G. Hamerton