8 Literary Books That Are Technically Fanfiction
There's nothing shameful about fiction inspired by preexisting characters or people, and these books prove it
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We often behave as if there’s something inherently shameful about reading and writing fanfiction. I remember compulsively clearing my browser history as a child, terrified that my parents would find out what I was doing. I would slink into my family’s computer room and search up stories on YouTube, fanfiction.net, or fandom specific forums. I wanted to engage more in my favorite worlds and read more about characters I learned from, related to, and loved. But as I grew up, I learned that this instinct was embarrassing, and that the resulting work was “cringey” and “bad” and “not real literature.” So I kept my AO3 and Tumblr oneshots hidden and in private browsers.
But if “fanfiction” means stories and novels that incorporate already-existing characters and worlds, including sometimes real people (“real person fiction” or RPF), then it’s not relegated to work on AO3 and Tumblr—plenty of traditionally-published stories and novels count as fanfiction too. Extended universes like Star Wars or Star Trek have officially-licensed books and graphic novels by fans. The genre of historical fiction allows writers to envision the inner lives of their favorite artists, generals, or royal advisors. Yet we often don’t think of these books as “fanfic”—maybe because they’re not on fanfic websites, but just maybe because we consider fanfiction to be the domain of young women and young queer people.
Every culture has stories about established characters. Cinderella stories and Shakespeare adaptations and myths about myths dominate our libraries. (Shakespeare himself was revamping stories from Ovid and Chaucer.) And a lot of these adaptations garner not only traditional publishing deals, but broad literary respect. So here are 8 published books that by definition are fanfiction. And if these books can be good, who’s to say the work on AO3 is anything to sneer at?
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
It’s 1862 and Abraham Lincoln’s son is dead—at least mostly. In the evening following the 11-year -old’s death, Willie Lincoln explores the bardo, the space between this world and the next. With a cast of 166 characters (primarily OCs), this historical RPF shows Willie meeting and befriending ghosts from all backgrounds who are grappling with their existence, their present state, and their lack of future. Meanwhile, Abraham Lincoln, torn between the start of the Civil War and insurmountable grief, sneaks into the cemetery for a final evening with his son.
Tags: #canonicalcharacterdeath #hurt/comfort #originalcharacters #supernaturalelements #family
A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny
Snuff, a sentient dog belonging to Jack (as in the Ripper), narrates a series of 31 connected drabbles taking place across a 19th-century October. Snuff and Jack sneak around a dark and dreary London collecting everything they need for “The Game,” which culminates during a full moon Halloween. An onslaught of literary and historical references (Rastov aka Rasputin, The Count aka Dracula, The Great Detective aka Sherlock Holmes) show up, with their pets, as Game participants. The winning team, either the Openers or Closers, will decide the fate of humanity.
Tags: #drabbles #canondivergence #crossover #originalcharacters #fantasy
Pride by Ibi Zoboi
A modern, Brooklyn-based Pride & Prejudice AU. Zuri is a proud Afro-Latina Bushwick native, but her neighborhood is quickly changing. Zuri’s older sister starts falling for their new neighbor, Ainsley Darcy, but Zuri and Darius Darcy can’t seem to meet eye-to-eye. As Zuri navigates cultural identities, college applications, and her relationship with her neighborhood, she learns to balance pointing out other people’s flaws and accepting her own.
Tags: #enemiestolover #alternateuniverse #modernera
THERE by Lonely Christopher
Author’s Note: I do not own noticing that THERE is actually fanfiction
Imagine: A “vaguely academic,” drug-addled tale about a couple named Wendy and Jack, trapped in a haunted house with their young son. No, no not that story, a different one. This one is “intertextual.” Wendy and Jack terrorize each other through time and space in an endless loop. With thorough expositions of horror tropes and rigorous subversion, this couple’s hate for each other keeps you on your toes.
Tags: #crackfic #outofcharacter #alternatecanon #drugs
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
The Iliad but make it gay and horny. At first, Patroclus is Achilles’ servant. For years, he watches the son of a sea nymph and a king grow up, golden and beautiful. Then when war breaks out, the two become closer than ever and fall completely into each other. As the years drag on and tensions are raised between Achilles and his commander Agamemnon, Patroclus asks himself what bonds are sacred and what he must do for the war to end.
Tags: #angst #hurt/comfort #slowburn #canonicalcharacterdeath #thankshomerforgaytragedy
Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld
Hillary Rodham is a bright, young law student who begins dating Bill Clinton, a charming student with big political dreams. Although the two connected on every level, Bill seems unable to stay faithful, and a young staffer comes to Hillary with rape allegations. Bill fails in his 1992 presidential bid, while Hilary focuses on her long-term career. When 2016 rolls around with Bill, Hillary, and Donald Trump as potential candidates, what will be this AU’s election outcome?
Tags: #canondivergent #ooc #presidentialau #breakup
Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg
Dr. Voth, a trans man and academic, becomes focused on Jack Sheppard, an 18th century con man. After discovering a manuscript entitled Confessions of the Fox, Dr. Voth unravels Sheppard’s tale of his own trans identity and his relationship with a South Asian sex worker, Bess. Dr. Voth narrates in the footnotes of this manuscript, which provides a multi-layered queer lens to view an imagined history of a real thief.
Tags: #originalcharacters #queer #backstory #romance
The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
In a 21st-century Underworld, Penelope, Odysseus’s faithful wife, is lonely, bitter, and sharp-tongued. With centuries of hindsight, Penelope remembers her life from her childhood in Sparta to the years of waiting for her husband’s return. Her twelve loyal maids helped to deter her suitors, but when her husband returns and hangs them, their blood stays on her hands. Featuring interspersed drabbles from her maids’ perspectives, the truth about what happened between her and Amphinomus, and her thoughts on why her cousin, Helen, sucks.
Tags: #alternatecanon #characterstudy #death #greekmyths