“Ah, Will, this is such a nice sentiment, but just reading this tweet made my stomach drop.”
The reply was nestled under a seemingly innocuous proposal from Will Graham, the co-creator and executive producer of Amazon’s A League of Their Own series. “Hey folks watching @LeagueOnPrime: We noticed there’s a lot of wonderful fan fiction happening in addition to the fan art,” Graham had written. “If we get some of the cast together in a couple weeks to read some of these on IG live, would that be fun for everyone?”
The question, blasted out to his 12,000 followers on Aug. 30, elicited hundreds of replies. But although plenty of fans responded with a gleeful “YES” or “OMG” or “DO IT WILL,” others seemed strangely hesitant, even fearful that it could end in disaster.
“I can hear your Legal Department SCREAMING from here,” one said.
“This is [a] whole bigass no go in fandom circles,” someone else commented.
“Gotta keep that 4th (5th?) wall intact,” another remarked, referring to the unstated boundary that separates creators and fans.
The conversation about whether to show fanfiction to creators has been raging through fan spaces for several years now, with older fans—generally, those who have spent more than a decade in fandom—largely preaching against it. Many have been once (or twice, or three times) burned by unfortunate episodes in recent history where outsiders collided with fanfiction, and chaos ensued. Ghost stories about fic writers left frightened or humiliated after run-ins with Interview with the Vampire author Anne Rice, for example, or the BBC Sherlock team at their Season 3 premiere, or a particular class of UC Berkeley undergraduates, are still told around the online campfire.
Those urban legends birthed fandom’s unwritten rulebook, which includes strict norms about fanfiction. For years, the bottom line was this: Keep fanfiction for the fans. But besides the younger fans ignoring the unstated rules, the playbook has recently been challenged by creators—like Graham and Our Flag Means Death’s David Jenkins—who, while helming more diverse shows, want more direct contact with their fans and their work. This online attention, to some fans, still automatically reads as a threat. As one Schitt’s Creek fan fiercely admonished their younger counterparts on Tumblr in April: “[S]top being fucking freaks and learn the history.”
In 2000, an Anne Rice fan sat in her bedroom in Colorado, checking her email. Scrolling through her inbox, she recognized the name of one of Rice’s lawyers alongside one message. She opened it to find a cease and desist letter, ordering her to stop writing stories about Lestat, Louis, and Rice’s other characters and posting them online.
“What the hell is going on?” she recalled thinking.
The woman, four years out of college, was an active member of an early internet discussion group called alt.books.anne-rice, a pocket universe where roughly 100 vampire fans gathered to swap theories, gossip, and what was then called “spec,” or speculative fiction. Among her online friends, the woman interchangeably went by her real name and “The Brat Queen,” a nickname affectionately bestowed upon her by another member. (The pseudonym stuck, becoming her whole online identity after a doxxing incident a few years later, and she requested in an interview that The Daily Beast use it.)
Now a pop culture and disability blogger, The Brat Queen had begun writing spec ahead of the publication of Rice’s 1995 horror novel Memnoch the Devil, following the example of two other group members who had posted snippets of fiction guessing at what story the forthcoming book might tell.
“We didn’t even know it was called fanfic,” TBQ said.
Nobody really knew whether they were legally allowed to be writing it, either. To this day, fanfiction’s legality remains a murky gray area. Technically, it’s protected under Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Law, or the fair use statute. But there’s no real precedent, since a creator has never dragged a fanfiction writer all the way to a court of law. (It seemed poised to happen this year, but Netflix’s suit against the creators of the Grammy-winning Unofficial Bridgerton Musical fizzled out with a settlement in September.)
Not that that was necessarily a problem; back then, it felt like fans “were in a different universe” to the creators of the worlds they loved, according to Heidi Tandy, an intellectual property lawyer who moderated an archive for Harry Potter stories and art called FictionAlley around that time. But while some creators remained totally ignorant of their fandom, or gently mystified by it, others were already exploring, curious about the other side of the invisible wall.
“I don’t remember when I became aware that Aaron Sorkin occasionally went to the boards for The West Wing,” Tandy said. “Maybe from reading it in Entertainment Weekly, but I was aware of it. And some of the writers on Friends were on our discussion mailing list.” Elsewhere, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling was busy praising a fansite dedicated to all things Sirius Black, saying she was “so proud” of the character’s “passionate fan-club.”
Rice was also aware that her fans were playing in her sandbox. According to TBQ, Rice’s publisher collaborated with alt.books.anne-rice in its early days, sending users review copies of her books and asking moderators to share news updates. “There was an element of the publishers going, ‘We don’t know what the eff this is,’” she recalled. “But both sides felt it out. It was a sympatico relationship. There was a mutual understanding. It was fine.”
So when the cease and desist letter materialized in her inbox, “it felt a bit like your next-door neighbor sending you a letter from their lawyer instead of knocking on your door to ask you to turn your music down,” she remembered in a later email. (TBQ did not keep a copy of the letter, but two of her friends separately confirmed its existence to The Daily Beast.)
Rice, though, had been grumbling publicly about fanfiction since 1995. Five years later, she took an even harder stance, posting on her website, “I do not allow fanfiction. The characters are copyrighted… It is absolutely essential that you respect my wishes.”
According to TBQ, a total of four writers on alt.books.anne-rice received a similarly stern letter that year. The group’s moderators responded by burying their archive beneath another webpage, a practice one characterized as going “into hiding.” After that, Rice’s camp quietened.
“But it destroyed the fandom,” TBQ said. “We all hated her. We were like, ‘We were only doing this because we loved your work.’” Many fans drifted to other communities, TBQ herself gravitating toward the Star Wars fandom. Scattered to the winds, the story of what had happened with Rice went with them, mutating with time. As recently as last year, one Reddit user commented that they remembered “how much [Rice] liked to sue people for writing fanfiction. Those were dark times.”
For some fans, like TBQ, the bitter taste in their mouths lingered for years. In 2018, commenting on a Tumblr post about fanfiction and copyright, she wrote, “The blessing of the original creators means nothing. They love us until they don’t.”
Since then, she’s watched a new generation of fans leap at the chance to interact with creators online with some trepidation. “It’s good that you’re enthusiastic,” she said. “But there’s a reason why things are the way they are. And if you want to push the rules or break the rules, you have to understand the rules first. And I feel like we’re not quite there yet.”
After the Organization for Transformative Works was founded, creating the open-source nonprofit Archive of Our Own (colloquially known as AO3) in 2007, the fear of litigious creators subsided, in large part thanks to the reassuring presence of its volunteer legal committee. But many in fandom still resisted the idea of being dragged into the light.
“Fans told us, ‘We don’t want a big front door [to fanfiction],’” recalled Francesca Coppa, a professor at Muhlenberg College who helped found the OTW. “‘We want to be underground, we want to be in the crevices. We don’t want to be mainstream.’ And our argument was, by putting the AO3 out there, it didn’t stop you from keeping your fanfiction on a little list or staying in the dark. If anything, shining a light over here meant it was actually darker over there, you know?”
That anyone could access AO3—and Tumblr, which was founded around the same time—was a blessing and a curse. It drew new fans, but also researchers and reporters, not all of whom had the best intentions—hence what is still referred to in fandom, often with a shudder, as “Morangate.”
In 2013, British journalist Caitlin Moran was hosting a Q&A panel after a screening of BBC’s Sherlock when she pulled out a fanfiction she’d found online for actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman to read aloud. The slash fic—an explicit work that paired Cumberbatch’s Sherlock and Freeman’s John Watson together—seemed to make Cumberbatch in particular increasingly uncomfortable, according to one of the few clips of the incident that are still available online.
Moran called the stunt off after a few paragraphs. “Shall we just leave it here?” she asked. “It was so much better in my head.”
Cumberbatch asked if there was “a punchline” to the bit. “Are we ruining the joke?” he asked.
Few in the fandom saw it as funny, especially the writer of the fic herself, who wrote a distraught message to Moran. “Thank you for spoiling something I found joy in,” she posted to Tumblr. “Thank you for humiliating me, taking my writing out of context without permission, belittling it and using it to embarrass actors who I deeply admire.”
An even stranger incident happened two years later, when a fanfiction writer made the startling discovery that one of her Star Trek stories had been included in the syllabus of a class at UC Berkeley called “The Theory of Fanfiction.” The student-led class required its 30 or so participants to post reviews in the comments section of each week’s assigned fanfiction. “The comments I received were bizarrely tone-deaf, condescending, rude, and more than that, completely out of step and touch with all fannish norms,” the fic writer explained in a Tumblr post titled “So Your Fic is Required Reading: Hahahanope.”
Disturbed at having been discovered by a bunch of undergraduates with seemingly no understanding of the world they had trampled into, fans bristled. Some reportedly tracked down and harassed students in the class, some of whom were in fandom themselves.
“Fandom has incredibly strong social norms,” Casey Fiesler, a professor of technology ethics at the University of Colorado Boulder, told The Daily Beast. “And fandom is so deeply tied to people’s identities that if those norms are violated, that can have this weird, dissonant effect” on their sense of self, too.
2015 was also the year that fanfiction toppled into what New York magazine called its “boom” era. Though there remains a stigma around fic—with detractors liable to call it cringey porn penned by rabid preteen girls—it’s undeniably gone mainstream. Actors like Orlando Jones, Michael Sheen, and Mads Mikkelsen have all said they’ve had fun wading through the archives to read stories about their characters (with Mikkelsen adding he “tremendously” enjoyed the steamier stories he found).
Fandom, in return, has inched closer to letting its guard down. Though people hemmed and hawed in Will Graham’s replies in August, many of them balanced it with cautious optimism—and appreciation for the thought.
“However this pans out, it’s an extraordinary gesture,” one follower wrote, “and a rare hat-tip to fic writers expressing their love for the world y’all created by gleefully playing around in it themselves. That’s the real gift.”
Though some creators may want to salute their fan writers, there’s not yet an established model for doing so successfully. But Graham asking his audience if his idea sounded like fun—thus opening it up to feedback—is how that model will be parsed out in the future, according to Coppa.
“We’re watching, in real time, the development of a new social contract between fan-friendly creators and creator-friendly fans,” she explained. “It’s actually exciting. A new protocol for dealing with non-hostile creators who appreciate us? What a lovely problem to have.”