I still remember the first Harry Potter fanfiction I read. I was 16, and it had been about a year since Deathly Hallows had released. I was scrolling through Mugglenet.com, reading essays and theories – all very factual, critical and about ‘canon’, when I came across a story told from Albus Potter’s point of view. He had just found out that Harry and Hermione were having an affair. It was short, but very well-written.
All of a sudden, something clicked. I realised that there were other people like me, who had also wondered “what if?” and “this shouldn’t have happened, how can I change it” while reading the books.
What is fanfiction? It’s basically spin-offs of fictional worlds where fans write their own interpretation of the story. Fanfiction, as we know it, is said to have started with the Star Trek fans in the 1960s, but developed and became popular with the advent of the internet and websites which host fanfiction from across genres.
A lot of people dismiss fanfiction as amateur writing, and I won’t deny that a lot of stories are written by teenagers, or people whose primary job is not writing, but there’s nothing amateur about the world of fanfiction. Writers pore over the source material to come up with alternate situations, they often give a voice to minor and unexplored characters, look at the story from a different perspectives, and change the world so much that there’s sometimes very little in common with the original work.
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The Harry Potter fandom is especially vast and popular. Fans from around the world regularly create stories and art, often updating stories they have been writing for the last decade or so. Fanfiction.net, a popular website for stories by fans, has over 8,22,000 Harry Potter-related stories, almost four times more than the next popular book series, Twilight.
There are AUs (or alternate universe, which explore a completely new plot), NextGen stories about the next generation of Potter and Weasley kids, and Marauders’ Era stories which explore the lives of the marauders in the 1970s, among others. The stories are set all over the world, with writers introducing different races and nationalities in the stories (I read one where Harry was Indian, and a vegetarian).
And the pairings. Fanfiction writers seem to explore all kinds of non-canon couples – from Dumbledore and McGonagall to Narcissa Malfoy and Hermione – there’s space for any romance stories you might want to read. Many are crossovers – how would Sherlock Holmes behave in Hogwarts? Or, what if Elizabeth and Darcy from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice belonged to the magical race?
It’s like every reader who didn’t see themselves in Rowling’s canon managed to create a niche for themselves. They took ownership of that world, and recreated it to be able to fit themselves in, and fit in other people who looked like them, spoke like them, whose sexual orientation was like their own, and who Rowling had completely ignored.
Recently, Rowling’s comments on trans people on Twitter received a lot of criticism, with reports that there had been a dip in the sale of the Harry Potter books. Several fans publicly said they couldn’t possibly engage anymore with the world Rowling had created. People spoke of the politics of the artist and how you can’t separate art and the artist.
It didn’t help when Rowling added her name to a letter in Harper Magazine called ‘A Letter on Justice and Open Debate’, which sought to justify her comments as free speech, and the criticism of them as “illiberal” – comparing her critics to Donald Trump and the right wing.
A lot of fanfiction writers, and websites too, were caught in a dilemma. They didn’t support Rowling’s comments, they wanted to disassociate with her, but they had also spent time and energy creating these stories. This world belonged as much to them now. They had painstakingly tried to erase all the criticism that Harry Potter often faces – mediocre plot, lack of diverse representation, badly-written female characters.
Would they have to give it all up now?
It’s important to note that fanfiction writers don’t make money from these stories and write on their own time, often in between classes and jobs. They really don’t get much out of this, except to meet and discuss these stories with other like-minded fans.
Many don’t use their own names while writing, preferring to take up some HP-related pseudonym. They don’t want to give it up just yet. One of the authors I follow, Adrian Chase on Archive of Our Own, posted this as a note before one of the chapters of her current story.
“This fic is a rewrite of her (Rowling) work. I have foolishly created this project within her play space and though I do what I can to address some of the racism in her work, I am not perfect. JKR created something that gave a lot of people hope, and then she took that hope away. I choose to do what I can in the spaces where there is hope, and maybe expand on that hope. Death of the Author is not a perfect solution, but it’s what I’m choosing to lean on in this creative play space.”
The end of July also marks Harry’s birthday – something celebrated the world-over with movie marathons, fan contests and social media campaigns. Lots of fan pages aren’t sure what protocol to follow now.
Most fanfiction-lovers agree that fandom is a different world altogether. One that owes nothing to Rowling, and has survived without her for years. Karan Vyas, a 20-year-old from Gujarat, says that he still reads fanfiction because “the fans have created their own fandom. It’s always fun to read new stories.”
Sudipto Dey, an 18-year old fanfiction reader from Calcutta, says, “Harry Potter was objectively a rather mediocre fantasy story, but a lot of us grew up with it so that counts for something. I’ve decided to stop supporting Rowling financially (merchandise, Pottermore, etc) and support more fan-made content instead – and that naturally includes fanfiction.”
My friend and I discuss this often. In our heads, the characters from Harry Potter that we love aren’t the ones Rowling created but the ones fandom has given us. S loves Narcissa Malfoy. She never cared about her earlier, but fandom has given her an almost-new person. Someone with a backstory, a personality, and more than one dimension. I feel the same about Sirius Black. Everything I love about Sirius stems from how the character has been explored in fandom, most notably in the stories of CatsAreCool, and Marauderlover7. These characters we love aren’t really Rowling’s.
In 1967, French essayist and theorist Roland Barthes published an essay titled ‘Death of the Author’, where he suggested that a text doesn’t belong to an author but to each reader who reads and interprets texts in their own way. A lot of scholars and fan theorists have seen fanfiction as belonging to this postmodern world that Barthes envisions.
With that in mind, it would be safe to say that this is not Rowling’s universe anymore. It belongs to everyone who has adapted it for themselves, to find themselves and their identity in a world that they love, have grown up with, and a world that still gives them hope.
Rowling’s politics can’t take that away.
Shreemayee Das likes to believe she’s a writer, a stand up comedian, and also a sensible adult. She co-founded, and organises comedy shows, under ‘The Grin Revolution’. She has a degree in English Literature, and bookshelves to prove it as well. Her writing has appeared in publications like Firstpost and The Telegraph. She has a lot to say about books, but can’t seem to write any.