Harry Potter and the Sanctioned Follow-On Work (or, Fanfiction vs. the Patriarchy)

How we talk about The Cursed Child—and why it matters.

by Elizabeth Minkel

Harry Potter hardcovers in a row. The final book’s authors are listed as Rowling | Tiffany | Thorne.

I’ve known this response was coming for weeks, ever since I gave in and read the spoilers for The Cursed Child after its West-End premiere. Set 19 years after the action of The Deathly Hallows, the play was penned by playwright and screenwriter Jack Thorne, who worked with J. K. Rowling and director John Tiffany to develop the story. TCC went into previews in June, and one enterprising reporter blessed those who couldn’t see it onstage or wait for the printed version of the script with a point-by-point plot summary of the action. There was…a lot of action. I was curious about the response to all those plot points—I sure as hell had a few ideas of my own—so I took to the Tumblr tags to see how others felt about it. To my dismay, one phrase cropped up again and again: “This is fanfiction.”

Deep in the tags, I saw “fanfiction” tossed around with “…and that’s why it’s garbage” and “lolol it’s actually ‘My Immortal,’ this is GLORIOUS” in a ratio of approximately 50:50. Many of those using “fanfiction” as a disparaging label appeared to be people who regularly read, write, and enjoy fic—a curious, self-effacing thing I’ve seen a fair bit over the years, fans’ way of diminishing their own writing in the face of creators’ “real” work. It’s a defensive posture, perhaps one that springs from the persistent internalized shame that continues to haunt transformative fan communities. It doesn’t matter how many fics you’ve read that surpass their source material in writing quality, in inclusivity, in characterization and emotional depth and structure and plot—fic is still fic, something inherently less.

Weeks later, the play is now printed, bound, and in the hands of millions of people. Some people appear to love it, but a lot of people seem largely…underwhelmed. Part of the frustration surely lies in the marketing: the play’s been branded “the eighth Harry Potter story,” complete with JKR’s canonical seal of approval, but it’s a pale echo of the novels, due in part to the fact that it’s not a novel at all. That paleness is compounded by the insistence from those who’ve seen it on the London stage that it begs to be viewed rather than read—that the script alone doesn’t fully convey the depth of the work. (This is not the space for me to argue that the text of a play should be able to stand on its own, but like, if it only works onstage, why the hell did they publish it as a book? Money, yes, I know, moving on.)

If a mere catalogue of spoilers led to this reaction, you can bet the full text inspired fanfiction accusations on a massive scale. From Sunday morning onwards, I spotted it again and again on my timeline. Buzzfeed’s Alanna Bennett collected “The Cursed Child is fanfic” tweets on Monday. By Tuesday, I started to see people sharing a Hypable piece entitled “On ‘The Cursed Child’ as fanfiction, and where the problem really lies,” whose author, Michal Schick, prefaces things by saying she’s read and written fic and has positive feelings about it—“I believe that fanfiction can be challenging, audacious, and important”—before proceeding to unspool a frustrating argument about TCC as fic, with its wacky plotholes and self-referential tone and the “what if” questions at the heart of it, something that is apparently the exclusive province of fanfiction and no other form of storytelling.

OK so like, let’s step back for a moment. First of all, every person tweeting “The Cursed Child is fan fic” is immediately voted off the island, because sticking a space between “fan” and “fic” suggests you’ve never actually read any fanfiction. (If you’ve seen “fan fiction” in any of my articles, please accept my apologies and realize I am helpless in battles with publications’ style guides.) Second, as a general rule, I won’t go to bat for fanfic as universally great literature, because no genre or network of written texts is universally great, particularly one that is almost wholly uncompensated and therefore far more open to writers of all levels of skill and talent than most.

But there are two enormous problems I have with the whole Cursed-Child-as-fanfiction construct. Let’s start with the nature of fanfiction itself, a practice that’s driven first and foremost by character rather than plot. People grab for the “ugh this is like fanfiction” response when they encounter a not-particularly-great work of art—particularly stuff within an established universe or a franchise—and most of the time, they’re eyeing the plot, things like bad logic, poor continuity, or characters imbued with knowledge they couldn’t realistically have. We toss it around when something feels self-indulgent—I’m guilty of this, those times I said the Doctor Who two-parter where everyone comes back and hugs and flies the TARDIS together felt like fanfiction. How strange, that when faced with a moment of total joy on television, I reached for “self-indulgent fic.” Internalized shame runs deep.

Fanfiction is broad and varied—and don’t get me wrong, plenty is plot-based—but on a whole, going on my two decades reading and writing it here, I’d say that fic is primarily about character. “Fanfiction is about what ifs” is misleading: the genre draws from character study and examination, and the plot, from “what if X was kidnapped and Y had to save him” all the way over to “what if pining X was in love with a reticent Y and they wound up having long, tense conversations for 17 chapters literally the slowest burn ever jfc” are about serving that character study—about taking characters you love so much that you want to linger with them and placing them in different situations, with different pressures, that warrant different responses. It’s telling that the cardinal sin in the fanfiction world isn’t “that plot was loopy, and full of holes”—it’s “this felt OOC,” short for “out of character.”

But The Cursed Child is a text that privileges plot over character: things (lol SO MANY THINGS) happen, and characters are made to react. I don’t think that Jack Thorne (pause here for the thorny (SORRY) question of authorship on this one, because “story by” versus “play by” is a complicated one, especially in “J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World,” as the little stamped icon on the back of the book jacket reminds me) doesn’t think about these characters—far from it. But I don’t think he writes from the characters first, not in the way fanfiction writers do.

(I’d argue that he’s doing exactly what he should be doing, because as far as I can see, a general audience (read: male-dominated, or at least, their voices are the loudest here) isn’t looking to dig deep into character—and especially emotionality. I think back to the reaction to BBC Sherlock’s “The Sign of Three,” the third-series wedding episode. It was one of the most fanfiction-y constructions I’ve ever seen on television: they asked a “what if”—if John got married, how would Sherlock react? But it was fanfiction-y because in practice, it didn’t actually ask ‘how would Sherlock react?’ but rather ‘how would Sherlock feel?’ Much of the female-dominated fandom embraced and loved the episode; the broader response on Twitter, in Britain anyway, was vitriolic. “It’s a show about a detective, not a detective show,” Mark Gatiss has said again and again; many viewers appear to prefer “a detective show.”)

It’s easy to sink into gender essentialism on this one—I’ll do my best to avoid it—but the privileging of character, of emotionality, of interiority, is par for the course in female-dominated transformative fandom, and pretty rare in the largely male-authored source works that rule the fan world, especially big-budget blockbuster franchises. It’s at the heart of the shipping clashes between creators and fans, when creators throw up their hands and say “stop making this about romance and/or sex!!” Creators are making plot-oriented worlds first, then thinking about what the characters will do; female-dominated fandom is thinking about who the characters are, and in a given situation, what they feel. (Not to diminish Hollywood’s/America’s/the world’s endless mild-to-severe homophobia, which is also a factor!)

But since I’ve made my way to the divide between male-authored source works and female-authored fanworks, we’ve reached the hill I’m going to die on, and the second reason “TCC is fanfic” is a frustrating statement. This play is not fanfiction because in reality, it’s a sanctioned follow-on work, written for money (likely a fair bit of money). I trudged up this metaphorical hill last autumn, when people were calling Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On and Stephenie Meyer’s Life and Death works of fanfiction, even though they were both original novels playing with texts both women had respectively authored. In a nice twist from “fanfic as perjorative” (which is, as far as I can tell, the main way it’s being used when discussing TCC) many people were calling these works fic to lift them up, to say that they were doing the same work as fanfiction, the what-ifs and the rehashings. I…had some feelings:

The trouble with the “it’s all fanfiction” argument is it’s not all fanfiction. That’s partly due the intent of the writer—who she chooses to write for, the kind of text she chooses to create, and how she chooses to share it—and it’s partly due to the imbalance of power between the people who write and read fanfiction and the people who create the source material for those works. …There’s an increasingly popular narrative that our reboot culture is just fanfiction with another name. Steven Moffat alternates his time between Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Who fic. The Marvel Cinematic Universe does the same thing that Marvel fanfic writers have done since the dawn of comics. J J Abrams is writing in a new fandom now—and the trailer for his first Star Wars fic looks awesome!

I appreciate these comparisons — but they frustrate me all the same. Big-budget reworkings of beloved stories are almost universally helmed by men; no-budget fanfiction universes are overwhelmingly helmed by women. And these female-authored texts partly exist to shift the text away from that default perspective, the one that usually pens and directs the source material, populated largely by men (and by straight, white men in particular). I regularly see someone arguing that Steven Moffat is writing Sherlock Holmes fanfiction, and I can’t agree: he is writing an adaptation for television, with all the cultural limits and benefits that that affords. He is playing the same game as millions of fanfiction writers, but he’s in a different stadium.

The Cursed Child is not fanfiction. TCC was not written within a network of uncompensated writers, sharing stories within a vast cultural conversation. TCC doesn’t do any of the things the best fanfiction does—it doesn’t push the characters forward, and it doesn’t dive any deeper, and it doesn’t feel like a critical response to any of the texts that came before it (Rowell’s Carry On performs far more work critiquing the Harry Potter books than this play). The Cursed Child is an official follow-on work: professional male writers came to JKR with an idea for a play and she approved all of it. Even if you think its sloppy, even if you think it’s a travesty, even if you don’t want to accept it as “canon,” you do not get to pin all of that on fanfiction.

Fanfiction has long been a joke to the mainstream, a weird thing that (oversexed) (or is it undersexed?) (hell, it’s probably both!) women do with otherwise respectable characters and universes. For a few years, as it was mainstreaming, as I spent endless cocktail-party conversations explaining the concept and getting a general, “How interesting,” back, it was starting to feel like we were making some progress toward a general understanding.

But the knee-jerk response to TCC has left me so, so disappointed: somehow a play with all the patriarchal privileges a single work could be afforded becomes “bad fanfiction” rather than “bad writing” when people don’t like it. The story doesn’t do any of the transformative things that transformative works do best: if you’re going to slap any label on it, the best word would be “derivative.” Fanfiction talks back; The Cursed Child just keeps talking.

When writers—and let’s be real, they are disproportionately male, even in this case, with a female-authored world—are tapped to carry on a universe, it’s ‘write it well or be relegated to the fanfiction dustbin.’ Never mind all the stories in that dustbin, ones that’ll never be read outside the community, that are far better works of literature than this play, that contain ideas that push these characters forward, rather than endlessly cycling them through what’s come before. (Don’t get me STARTED about a certain close male friendship in TCC—if you’ve read a word of fanfiction, you know that no fic author would tease and then no-homo her way out of that storyline.)

I’ve been active again in the Harry Potter fandom since the start of this year, after a decade in it and five years away, but I gave up on the sanctioned continuation of this universe a long time ago. I started throwing my hands in the air in the Hospital Wing at the end of book six, and it was compounded by the epilogue. In the years that followed, I worked hard to ignore every announcement and tidbit JKR & Co released about the characters and the world. (Er, almost always.)

I’m a fanfiction person; I could spend the rest of my life deep in Harry Potter land without hearing another word from its author. Save moments when the endless Harry Potter caused great harm—namely the narrative around Magic in North America—I was content to leave the continuation of the franchise at the door. These are my characters now, and the characters of fellow fans—I rely on myself, and other fic writers, to push them forward.

It would be easy enough to ignore The Cursed Child, to say it’s not canon for me (lol it’s not actually), to give it a hard pass. But I can’t bring myself to ignore it, because this is the work that has been sanctioned. Many fanfic-minded friends in the past few days have said to me, “I just thought of it as fic—and then I enjoyed it!” But it’s not fanfiction. It’s an official continuation of the universe. It’s a mess of a narrative that somehow got a place on my mantel next to the other seven books. It’s just one more reminder that we’re all playing the same game in different stadiums—that what I do with these characters is still mocked, and what a pair of men do with these characters gets that “Wizarding World” stamp on the back jacket.

A headshot of Elizabeth Minkel. She wears a leather jacket and earphones and holds two thumbs up.

Elizabeth Minkel is one half of Fansplaining. She’s written about fan culture for the New Statesman, The Guardian, The New Yorker, The Millions, The Verge, and more. She co-curates “The Rec Center,” a weekly fandom newsletter, with fellow journalist Gavia Baker-Whitelaw.

Elizabeth Minkel