Last weekend, Fifty Shades of Grey opened in wide release (write your own joke here), and critics have had fun snarking about how god-awful the movie and books are. Many have also criticized the fact that Fifty Shades began as Twilight fanfiction—an alternate-universe (AU) version of those novels-and-movies’ characters Bella and Edward, in which clumsy high-schooler Bella has become awkward college-student Ana and sparkly bloodsucking Edward has become flogger-waving billionaire dickhead Christian.
Fifty Shades, the book, is terrible. The writing is abysmal—“My subconscious is frantically fanning herself, and my inner goddess is swaying and writhing to some primal carnal rhythm” (wait, who is doing what now?)—and the story presents an abusive, stalker-ish relationship as desirable. But it’s unfortunate that sneering at Fifty Shades has expanded, like a black hole of snark and bitchery, into dismissal of all fanfiction as ben-wa-ball-yanking blather.
Fanfiction is a big tent. Most is poorly written; some is brilliant. But regardless of the quality of writing, the notion of wanting to create stories about familiar characters, and of having a community with which to share those stories, isn’t something to sneer at—particularly for us Jews. After all, what is midrash if not Abrahamic fanfic? What is a Seder if not a storytelling community?
Fanfiction—its fans write it as a single word, or sometimes shorten it to fanfic—has a noble pedigree. To write King Lear, Shakespeare ripped off mythological tales of the Celtic figure Lir and stole Cordelia from Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Milton’s Paradise Lost is a reworking of the biblical story of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, with Satan made wittier and more alluring, in the way of bad boys eternal. Without Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet we would have no West Side Story. If we’re going to dismiss stories for not being wholly original or for using older narratives as source material, we’re not gonna have much culture left. As Ecclesiastes tells us, there is nothing new under the sun.
In her fascinating book Fic, University of Utah English professor Anne Jamison looks at fanfiction’s origins. Jamison tells of how William Makepeace Thackeray loved Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe but was annoyed that Ivanhoe wound up with boring, blonde, goyish Rowena instead of the livelier Jewess Rebecca. So, in a manuscript called “Rebecca and Rowena,” he wrote his own alternate ending. He did so, Jamison writes, “for a set of reasons familiar to fic writers—a combination of wish fulfillment, criticism, parody, and fun.”
Thackeray (who of course named one of his own heroines Rebecca) couldn’t believe that Scott’s vivid, brave, and charming Rebecca “could disappear altogether before such another woman as Rowena, that vapid, flaxen-headed creature, who is, in my humble opinion, unworthy of Ivanhoe, and unworthy of her place as heroine.” Boom. Thackeray was, Jamison points out, in the words of contemporary fanfic writers, “a total shipper.” (A ship is a relationship; shipping is imagining that relationship in fullest flower; a shipper is the person doing the imagining.) But Thackeray has to deal with what fanfic writers call “canon”—the legitimate, scripted, authorial storyline. “There is no help for it,” Thackeray noted with a nearly audible sigh. “There it is in black and white at the end of the third volume.” But how could Ivanhoe possibly “sit down contented for life by the side of such a frigid piece of property as that icy, faultless, prim, niminy-piminy Rowena?” How indeed? So, Thackeray wrote a coda in which Rowena has become an anti-Semitic shrew who can’t stop nagging Ivanhoe about Rebecca because she knows that Rebecca is better than she is. And this, Jamison says, is one way shippers can cope when canon doesn’t cooperate with their own OTP—One True Pairing, the ship they wish had sailed.
The Internet teems with such ships and such wishful, off-kilter storytelling. Sites such as Archive of Our Own, fanfiction.net, Tumblr, and LiveJournal are full of stories—yes, most are terrible, but most published fiction is terrible. In a dense but fascinating essay for The Book Smugglers, a book review site and publisher of feminist speculative fiction, young adult fantasy novelist Foz Meadows points out that writing fanfic can serve for today’s frustrated viewers and readers just as it did for Thackeray: as “a means of emotional redress for fans dissatisfied with aspects of the original content.”
In fanfic, canonically straight heroes are gay; genres and source material blend; entire universes change. Fanfic lets everyone be a storyteller, and fanfic lets storytellers tell the culturally less valued tales they want to tell. So, is it any wonder that there’s a whole world of Jewish fanfic out there? After all, we barely see ourselves in mainstream TV and action movies, which are the most common original sources for fanfic. Like Ivanhoe’s Rebecca, Jewish characters in these episodic popular works tend to be secondary or tertiary. Some Jewish fanfic acts as a wishful corrective by bringing peripheral characters to the fore; other Jewish fanfic reimagines non-Jewish characters as Jews, or creates an entirely Jewish AU. There’s an annual challenge of Jewy-fanfic-writing called Days of Awesome, taking place, naturally, during the Days of Awe; another event, called the Purim Treat-a-Thon, is a multifandom gift exchange that happens around Purim, with writers offering literary mishloach manot (yummy gift baskets) to one another. There’s so much Jewish fanfic out there I can only offer you a taste—just a few virtual hamantashen and mini-boxes of narrative raisins.
I loved a story called “Show You Kindness, Grant You Peace” by a writer who goes by the name moonshout. (Most fanfic writers seem to use lowercase names.) Bucky Barnes, aka The Winter Soldier in the most recent Captain America movie, is shown slowly getting back his memory and humanity, with the help of Cap (aka Steve) and The Falcon (aka Sam). Bucky vaguely remembers his mother lighting candles and his father reciting a blessing on his head, and Sam, whose dad was a minister, realizes that Bucky must have been Jewish. Sam briefly rhapsodizes about his neighbor’s challah, leading Bucky to ask, “What’s challah?”
“It’s—aw, dude, this is a travesty. It’s this awesome, braided, egg and honey bread they have on Shabbat. Oh! Hey! There’s a synagogue in the neighborhood, I’m gonna take you there tomorrow and you’re gonna talk to the rabbi.”
“What’s a rabbi?” Bucky asks.
Sam covers his face with his hands and groans, sliding down his chair.
Eventually Bucky befriends the rabbi and is integrated into the spiritual life of the shul. He plants trees for Tu B’Shevat, participates in a Purim shpiel (he plays Esther; Black Widow plays Vashti and makes the thespian choice to come back at the end and avenge herself upon Ahasuerus), and cooks matzoh brei for the other superheroes on Passover. (They go crazy for it, as goyim always do: “It’s french toast with crackers! But it’s not french toast. It’s like crispy eggs. Wafer eggs. THE KIT-KATS OF BREAKFAST FOODS!”) The story is utterly random, sweet, and funny, and it adds nuance to characters we know from movies and comic books as well as making them seem … more like us.
I also enjoyed several Passover-centric Avengers stories. In one, Darcy (played by Kat Dennings in the movies) hosts a Seder in which everyone gets drunk on Franzia boxed wine and Thor is inexplicably flung from Asgard and crashes through the ceiling mid-Seder. (Darcy drunkenly yells, “Elijah!”) Another fic pretends to be a Haggadah written by Darcy herself; it’s so clever I may incorporate it into my own Seder this year. (“We’re all archetypes here,” Darcy tells the others. “We’re representing everything greater than ourselves. This is a story. That’s the point. Stories exist to remind ourselves that heroism is possible and that good can triumph over evil. It doesn’t always and it’s not assured. But if we work together, if we believe that there is something greater than each of us individually, if we believe in the ‘we,’ if we believe in the power of people working together, we can win. We can beat Pharaoh’s ass and we can win the day.”)
If you swing X-Men rather than Avenger, never fear: There’s a Seder story in which Bobby asks Magneto whether Moses was a mutant (with hydrokinesis, the power to move water), while Kitty Pryde thinks about redemption.
Kitty thinks about points of light, about the holy days of the year and the spaces in between. About years with nothing, decades and centuries of slavery and no hope at all, and the tiny lights of one burning bush in the high country and the voice of God. She thinks about belief, about the empty space at the heart of everything that seems solid where her power takes her, about moving electrons and moving the ocean to make a place that the people can walk, about a school where mutants can be safe and a man who bent the prison gates to save his people with the force of his will. About imagining the impossible: about walking through walls, walking through waves, walking through the desert for forty years. She thinks about belief that can change the world. “Next year in Jerusalem,” she says, raising her glass. Erik meets her eyes and smiles.
And though I am generally dismayed by fanfic about real people (our intern Gabi pointed me to a clueless and shudder-inducing fantasy in which Harry and Louis of the boy band One Direction are a Jew and a Nazi getting hot-n-heavy in a concentration camp), who could object to a wee tale about Jon Stewart inviting Rachel Maddow, Stephen Colbert, Anderson Cooper, and Keith Olbermann to his Seder?
Meanwhile, in Hanukkah ficdom, I was utterly tickled by “Chag Sammy-ach,” a story by a prolific writer named rivkat that gives us Sam and Dean Winchester, the demon fighters of Supernatural, battling the titular monsters of the award-winning children’s book Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins. The same author wrote “Rock of Ages,” a different Hanukkah story in which the Winchester boys are Jewish. (“Dean always thought the Winchesters were like the Maccabees. Tough fighters, winning against impossible odds, able to make anything last longer when there was no more cash or no more road. Whether it was God or just stubbornness behind them, they didn’t give in. And there was no mom in the Maccabees’ story either. He’d asked Dad just to be sure.”) As in the best fanfic, the characters are recognizably who they are in the source material, but with nuance-adding twists. The Winchesters’ dad, who in the show is often absent and hurtful, misses Sammy’s bar mitzvah. Dean feels awful but can’t do anything about it, so “Dean gave Sam eighteen bucks and his first beer, and told him that as far as Dean was concerned Sam had been a man since he shot his first werewolf.” In the show, both Winchesters have essential demon-protective tattoos, but in rivkat’s universe, Sam refuses to get his. Dean puts a mickey in his brother’s beer, tattoos him while he’s asleep, then props him up in bed, placing on his chest “the relevant portion of the Shulchan Arukh holding the involuntary tattooee blameless.” As in the show, Dean loves disgusting diner food and Sam is careful about his diet, but now it’s because he keeps kosher.
“Mmm, bacon,” Dean said blissfully, through his mouthful.
“You’re a savage,” Sam told him.
Dean blinked at him, innocent. “Technically, I’m an apostate.”
There’s a poorly written but sweet Hanukkah story in which all the dwarves from The Hobbit are gay and paired up and making latkes, except for Kili, who brings home his Catholic elf girlfriend Tauriel, but she helps make latkes too and it’s all good, and then Fili’s lesbian moms show up with brisket after making sure the sufganiyot are pareve. It’s a platonic ideal of a world in which everyone is accepted, and Jewishness and gayness and difference are celebrated.
In the Star Trek universe, you can find a Jewish Kirk, a Jewish Chekov (“Captain, the Afikomen is under your chair. As the patriarch, it is your job to hide it”), and not one but two beautifully written stories about Spock lighting a hanukkiah while thinking about his Jewish mother. There’s also a story with a Jewish Data orally pleasuring Captain Picard, but I’m not linking to that. Because come on, how can an android be Jewish? There’s also a whole world of fan videos featuring soulful glances between OTPs. As in the Kirk/Spock video below, fans recut scenes to create new narratives or enhance homoerotic subtext that’s in many cases already there.
There are many, many Harry Potter stories about Anthony Goldstein, the lone Jewish student at Hogwarts—my favorite involves the Goldsteins’ house elf, Bissele, kashering the magical school’s kitchen—but I fell in love with two stories about Jewish Snape. (Snape is my favorite Harry Potter character, and I am not ashamed.) In one he’s a converso; in another, he engages in the ritual of tashlich, throwing his sins into the water after Dumbledore’s death and the great battle against Voldemort.
Some stories think broadly about American Jewish identity. A very smart little tale called “Kaddish” imagines the industrialist Howard Stark as a Jewish immigrant who changed his name at Ellis Island and vehemently turns his back on Judaism. “To hear him tell it, he is American-made: a prophet of electricity and steel. In his dreams, he carries his birthright like Moses’s two tablets, offering them up to an absent God. Please, take this, he says. I don’t want it any more. Nothing good ever comes of it. Church bells announce his marriage to Maria Carbonell.” Now Howard’s spoiled and privileged son Tony, who worships only science and his own cleverness, finds himself in a cave in Afghanistan, hated for being a rich American but not for being Jewish. Dying, about to be turned into Iron Man, he’s baffled by his own loss of a sense of self. (“By the end of the week, he has the power of a small star burning inside his chest. He really just wants a goddamn cheeseburger.”)
Are you not entertained? How about a version of the Purim story in which Vashti makes a pass at male and female characters from Doctor Who? A modern-day Hanukkah party with all the guys from Les Misérables who instead of dying on the barricades make out and eat jelly doughnuts? A story called “Aleph is for Ashamnu, Bet is for Bagadnu” in which Big Bird learns about Yom Kippur? There are multi-chapter, hyper-literate 100,000-word fics, but I loved a 419-word gem about Mr. Universe, a minor character in Joss Whedon’s Serenity. It literally brought tears to my eyes, in part because I loved the underappreciated outer-space Western so much, but also because the story is about sacrifice, loss, continuity, and forced wandering—all themes relevant to our people today.
Fanfic touches on many issues of interest to me: marginalization, feminism, literary snobbery, sexuality, and the question of who owns stories. There’s stuff that’s too upsetting for me even to look at (thank goodness for the convention of tagging, so I can avoid all stories about rape, incest, and forced male pregnancy). But that’s OK. Fanfic is as varied as stories are, and to collectively sneer at the entire enterprise is ignorant.
My Harvard thesis was about Eudora Welty’s Robber Bridegroom, which is itself a kind of fanfic: It’s a pastiche of legendary figures from Southern history like riverboatman Mike Fink and the dreaded Harp(e) brothers, along with characters from Grimm’s fairy tales and Greek and Norse mythology. There’s humor and violence and disturbing sexual shenanigans. When I was 21, I thought that Welty’s chopping up and reordering of older texts was a way to express mastery over them. Could be. Or maybe she was just playing.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.