View: How fan-fiction challenged fantasies of authenticity

View: How fan-fiction challenged fantasies of authenticity


The second season of Bridgerton alerted Indian viewers to a simmering controversy over authenticity. This US made TV series is set in an alternate version of late 18th century London where the racial and colonial attitudes of that time don’t seem to exist. The first season had a black Duke as the most eligible bachelor in a London of the past which reflects the multiracial UK of today – or, even more so, since the Queen is also black. The second season has a rich family of Indian origin, the Sharmas, whose daughters are the heroines of the series.

This reimagination of the UK’s past has caused some outrage. In this week’s Spectator magazine the very right-wing TV critic, James Delingpole, deplored the trend of “discordant, anachronistic diversity casting and shoe-horned lesbianism” in series produced by Netflix. Delingpole commended the recent Agatha Christie adaptation Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? for avoiding this, though even here, he noted petulantly, one of characters “is from the Caribbean, which I doubt he was in the original book (published 1935).”

Another example is All Creatures Great & Small, a hit Channel 5 series based on books written by veterinarian James Herriot recalling his early years in 1930s Yorkshire. An earlier series in the 1980s stuck fairly closely to the books, but the new series brings in the diversity deplored by Delingpole. A white farmer has a black wife. A male farmer in the original is now a rather butch woman. A rival vet is South Asian. And, according to reports, even this was not enough for the BBC, which rejected the show for not being diverse enough.

Right-wing commentators portray this as elitist left-wing politics gone mad. But this doesn’t acknowledge how this push for reading today’s diversity into yesterday’s society and culture has roots in a phenomenon which is the opposite of elite. This is fan-fiction, where amateur writers reimagine stories in published works or films and TV, and then publish their versions free to read on Internet sites like Wattpad or AO3 (Archive Of Our Own).

Fan-fiction was initially dismissed as a sad pastime for obsessive fans, or deplored for salacious stories where writers wrote romantic or erotic pairings that didn’t exist in the originals. For many professional writers fan-fiction seemed like plagiarism, or an unsettling way to take away control of the characters they had created. Some worried it was a way to extort money, by alleging professionals had stolen the ideas of the amateurs.

But then content creators realised that in an increasingly digital world driven by influencers and trends, fan-fiction proved relevance. If people cared enough about characters to write their own scenarios for them, which were then read by hundreds more – with clicks on stories giving verifiable data – then they might pay to meet these characters again in more series and spin-offs. Fan-fiction’s importance was sealed when E.L. James reworked one she had written on the Twilight series into the massively successful 50 Shades Grey novels.

Fan-fiction also brought in new audiences. Popular novels, films and TV media used to be dominated by rich white Western characters, which reflected entertainment industry power structures. But fan-fiction allowed people to write characters that were more representative of themselves into existing stories. Queer fan-fiction became an important category. Writers who were black, South Asian and other ethnicities wrote themselves into stories. Writers with disabilities wrote stories which reflected their worlds with real understanding.

Then came online platforms for publishing and dissemination, like Kindle Unlimited. These allowed writers to move beyond fan-fiction websites, by-passing existing publishers who would not have taken them seriously, to reach readers directly. They could monetise their work and also find new audiences. Bridgerton has simply taken this trend to the next level, bringing the diverse, fan-faction created world to streaming TV.

Viewed this way, it is an empowering expansion of how entertainment is created. But there is one objection that may have merit. The earlier stories were often more nuanced than the authenticity-obsessives like to imagine. Agatha Christie wrote Hickory-Dickory-Death, a murder set in a hostel for students of different countries and races. James Herriot has occasional characters from different communities, and one oddly queer story about a male dog who becomes attractive to other males due to hormone therapy. Colonial historians have pointed to people of mixed South Asian descent who were part of 18th century British society.

One argument could be that the brazen confidence of fan-fiction reimaginations does disservice to these real histories and their subtler struggles. But another response might be that these complexities show that the non-diverse world that the authenticity-obsessives insist on was always a fantasy. And if they could have their fantasies, as they did for decades, what is wrong with other fantasies being played out now?


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