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RIP Dante, you would’ve loved fanfiction

When the trailer for an adaptation of Robinne Lee’s 2017 novel The Idea of You came out last month, it set the internet ablaze. Within a month, it became the most-watched trailer ever for an original streaming movie. As word of the film spread online, one question abounded. ‘Is this film based on Harry Styles fanfiction?’

The film follows 40-year-old gallery owner Solène Marchand (played by Anne Hathaway) and her love affair with 24-year-old boyband superstar Hayes Campbell (Nicholas Galitzine). They meet when Solène, a single mother, escorts her daughter to Coachella and unwittingly finds herself in the trailer of the heartthrob Hayes Campbell. She does not recognise him, but he takes a shine to her and an immediate connection is formed. Hayes then pursues Solène, they fall in love and try to navigate the media storm that follows their relationship.

As soon as Lee’s book was published, it was connected with One Direction’s Harry Styles. Lee, who once admitted that Styles acted as something of a muse, has now expressed regret over the statement. ‘It’s unfortunate because it’s being used as clickbait,’ she told Entertainment Weekly, ‘and when I’m writing for Hayes, I’m not picturing Harry Styles.’ A debate about the degree to which The Idea of You can be considered fanfiction has since emerged. But Lee’s desire to distance herself from the genre says more about the derision that surrounds the label “fanfiction”.

Some people have traced fanfiction back to Star Trek zines created in the 1960s but its history dates back much further. If “fanfiction” can be defined as ‘stories written about TV, film, or book characters by their fans’, Virgil, Jean Rhys and John Milton can be considered some of its best writers. Paradise Lost, Milton’s epic 1667 poem about Adam and Eve in Eden? Bible fanfiction. Inferno, Dante’s poem detailing his own journey through hell? Self-insert fanfiction. Tom Stoppard’s modern classic Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are DeadHamlet fanfiction at its finest. Authors tend to shy away from the term “fanfiction” because it is so frequently used in a derogatory manner but on a very basic level, the concept has always existed in literature.

Robinne Lee’s rejection of the label “fanfiction” may stem from a fear that her work and its themes would not be taken seriously if it is labelled as such. Talking to Vogue, Lee explained, ‘This was never supposed to be a book about Harry Styles . . . It was supposed to be a story about a woman approaching 40 and reclaiming her sexuality and rediscovering herself, just at the point that society traditionally writes women off as desirable and viable and whole.’ The Idea of You is, in many ways, a book about the ways in which ideas and people can be shamed by society. Solène, Lee’s protagonist is quickly labelled a “cougar” by the press when her relationship with Hayes goes public. The media is incredulous, appalled by the idea that a middle-aged woman could be an object of attraction to a younger and highly desirable man. Part of the book’s purpose is to prove that it is possible to rise above ideas unfairly ridiculed by society. Why can’t fanfiction, surely the most ridiculed subgenre of them all, do the same?

In recent years, work that originally started out as fanfiction has produced some of the biggest hits in the publishing industry. Most famous, of course, was E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, which started out as fanfiction based on Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight. Since then, Ali Hazelwood’s TikTok sensation The Love Hypothesis, which started out as Star Wars fanfiction about Rey and Kylo Ren, has taken the industry by storm. In the same year, Neil Gaiman defended the legitimacy of fanfiction online: ‘I won the 2004 Hugo Award for Best Short Story for an H. P. Lovecraft/Arthur Conan Doyle mashup fiction,’ he wrote, ‘so fanfiction had better be legitimate, because I’m not giving the Hugo back.’ S. E. Hinton, the author of The Outsiders, who has written fanfiction based on her own novel, similarly praised the genre, arguing that ‘two of the best stories I’ve ever read in my life, published or not, were fanfiction’.

The key word here is Gaimain’s: ‘legitimate’. Though fanfiction is undeniably a popular form, and one that can easily be found in the canon, it is still not taken seriously by the media at large. This, perhaps, is where Anne Hathaway comes in. Anne Hathaway is a multi-award-winning A-list actor, known for her performances in InterstellarLes Misérables and, of course, The Devil Wears Prada. Not only does she have a proven track record as a film star but she’s also enjoying what has gleefully been dubbed as a ‘Hathaissance’ in the media. Praised on social media for her iconic performances and ‘unproblematic’ celebrity persona, Hathaway may well be at the peak of her powers. Her decision to star in The Idea of You gives the film and book a kind of legitimacy: a premium label that can only be found in the brand of Anne Hathaway.

So, will this turn the dial in turns of how we start to view fanfiction? The film, though not universally praised, has not been derided in the way that it might have been five years ago. Instead, it has been lauded as an enjoyable piece of escapism and was even described as ‘deceptively courageous’ by Empire. Love or loathe it, The Idea of You is a mainstream rom-com about an older woman finding love. She is not laughed at in the film, nor is she an object of pity. In its own quiet way, The Idea of You is doing what fanfiction has always done on the fringes of the internet: namely, provided a space for people to express their desires in a way that mainstream culture may not allow. Fanfiction, as we know, has always been an object of derision but when it starts to dictate the conversation as much as it has done recently, perhaps it’s time we stop dismissing it and start paying attention to all the bizarre and creative things it is capable of saying.

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