(Very) Brief History of Fanfic
by Super Cat
Who wrote the first fanfic? Was it Ug, adding an extra mammoth to Grog's cave painting? Maybe the first fanfic writers were Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, penning their New Testament coda to the Bible. Or maybe the world's premiere fanfic was created when Plato wrote Socrates as a character in The Republic.
Slash writers follow a tradition back to the days of Kirk/Spock; it might even be possible to ferret out, if not the name of the first slash author, then at least a half-dozen nom de plumes. "Gen" writers have a harder time of it, because the tradition of general fanfic extends back to the pre-television era. The novel with the greatest number of uncommissioned sequels is, for example, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Among the titles available are Old Friends and New Fancies (Sybil G. Brinon, 1913), The Ladies! (E. Barrington, 1922), Pemberley Shades (D. A. Bonavia Hunt, 1949), Pemberley (Emma Tennant, 198?), Teverton Hall (Jane Gillespie, 1984) and the justly named Presumption (Jullia Barrett, 198?).
Critics tend to call these Jane-ites "metanovelists", but we know the truth. They are fanfic writers. How fitting, how convenient it would be to stick the pin of blame right here, into Austen. But it turns out that in our search for a first piece fanfic, we must go even further back, to around 1421, the (gu)estimated date that Englishman John Lydgate completed his awful but incredibly fannish work The Siege of Thebes.
The Siege of Thebes is a poem written as a "continuation" of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. In it, monk-poet John Lydgate meets up with Chaucer's pilgrims in Canterbury and accompanies them back to London. The Host begs Lydgate to join the story-telling competition, and after only the briefest of pro-forma humble protests, Lydgate complies, recounting The Siege of Thebes: a distressingly serious epic which, at over 4,000 lines, eclipses even Chaucer's longest tale (the Knight's Tale 2,200 lines).
Unfortunate for our dream of auspicious beginnings, Lydgate was no great wordsmith. He was in fact much closer to the BADFIC archetype. His ragged metre and wobbly syntax were not qualifications for an attempt to outdo Chaucer at his own game, but that is exactly how Lydgate tried to begin his poem. Typical fan stuff--Chaucer's tales are long, Lydgate's are longer. Chaucer uses one astrological reference in his introduction, Lydgate packs in seventeen. From the tour de force that is Chaucer's opening sentence (eighteen lines long), Lydgate produces a sixty-four line opening sentence before common sense (or an editor?) can call for a full-stop (although, in fact, it is not a sixty-four line sentence it is not a sentence at all, because Lydgate never manages a main clause).
His long and objectionable poetry earned Lydgate a great deal of criticism over the centuries, much of it justified. My favourite of these proto-flames is unquestionably the following, published in the Bibliographia Poetica in 1802 by a man called Joseph Ritson: Lydgate produced a good deal of matter which it presumably gratified him to write though it is inconceivable that there was ever a state of human intellect in which gratification could have come to anyone from its perusal. In his versification there is no harmony, no regular movement. In his expression, he has gained facility at the expense of felicity . . . There is, accordingly, no necessity of reading his works resting upon any one save him who has to make a professional study of English literature. For this unfortunate being the dead past, so far from being able to bury its dead, is not even able to bury its bores.
Reading Ritson's words, I am forced to admit that Lydgate's is a recognisable tradition, if not always a proud one.
You gotta love fanfic.