War and Peace Fanfiction: A Brief History
“The next day Tamara had to think quickly once again, this time she thought about maybe killing Sonja, so she decided to wash the floor, in the hopes that Sonja would slip on it and fall and break her neck.” - Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, Book 3, Chapter 19
I am pleased to inform my readers that over 500 pieces of War and Peace fanfiction currently exist online. Thus, after reading 560,000 words in War and Peace, watching the entire BBC miniseries, or seeing the two-hour musical Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, many people determined that there simply had to be more War and Peace content, for some reason. Obviously, the quote at the top of this article is not from the original Tolstoy, but from chapter 5 of “War and Peace Present: Sonja Goes to Italy”, an utterly baffling short story that still runs to 10,580 words. There is no Tamara in the novel, although honestly I could be wrong about that. It’s a long-ass book.
Do not be alarmed by this initial lack of quality. War and Peace fanfiction may not have hundreds of thousands of stories like Harry Potter, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find a small cottage industry of people who create compelling Tolstoy-derived fiction. The Alexander Pushkin of W&P fanfiction is undoubtedly “Shadow Padawan”, who has written 35 different fanfics based on the plot of the novel, including all but one recorded story before 2010. As far as I can tell, Shadow Padawan was the very first person to post a fanfic of War and Peace online, posting the 172-word “Letter to Sonya” to Fanfiction.net on January 26, 2008. Like Pushkin, Shadow Padawan, self-described as a female law student in her early 20s who graduated from UC Santa Barbara (go Gauchos!), is not afraid to try her hand at W&P poetry, short stories, and novellas.
Oh yeah, Shadow Padawan writes in English and Russian, which is very applicable to her fanfiction based on War and Peace and Pushkin’s classic verse novel Eugene Onegin. Sadly, her Russian skills are not quite as useful for her extensive Lizzie McGuire and Harry Potter fanfiction catalog. After reading a few, I can confirm they are solid pieces of writing, not that I’m really an authority.
Of course, W&P fanfiction must have its own Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. That title clearly goes to “MaplePaizley” and “thewhiskerydragon”, by far the most voluminous and well-received W&P fanfiction writers yet known. On Archive of Our Own, another large fanfiction hub, you can read Dust and Daemons, a 235,140-word story based on War and Peace characters in an alternate universe based on His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman, completed in May of 2019. That can be accompanied by Either Very Clever or Very Stupid, a 135,712-word alternate universe (AU) tale set with Helene, Pierre, and Anatole in an American high school, and the 63,177-word story On the Lam, which is, according to the description “a Bonnie and Clyde AU that nobody asked for”.
Taken together, the MaplePaizley/whiskerydragon’s corpus is a masterpiece in the world of Tolstoy fanfiction. Either Very Clever or Very Stupid has 3,496 hits and 217 comments, and could easily serve as the plot of the next Japanese school anime. In total, MaplePaizley’s “AU” stories are likely close to the length of War and Peace itself, which is an astonishing achievement on its own. And honestly, the writing is...sometimes good!
Fedya didn’t bother to dignify this jibe with a response. He had dueled men for less. Shot them at forty paces without so much as blinking. Anatole briefly wondered whether it was out of personal fondness for him or regard for Hélène that Fedya did not immediately bolt to his feet to search for his pistol and insist on taking the conversation outside.
“She isn’t really married to Pierre,” Fedya said stiffly. “She’d have to love him for that.”
If these luminaries represent the “high culture” of War and Peace fanfiction (I mean seriously, can anyone beat Tolstoy fanfiction written in Russian?!), we must cover the cheap satirists and pop culture crossovers. This stuff is pretty bad, and most of the time the authors recognize this. Obviously, there is an incomplete parody entitled “War and Peace and Vampires”. There is also the incredibly shitty, homophobic, and pretentious parody “War and Peace Gaiden: Peace is not an Option”, written by someone who claims to “condense and recontextualize the story for modern audiences.” It’s total garbage.
There’s also a subgenre where people mistakenly put random war stories into the Fanfiction.net category. Some of these seem realistic enough, but of course there’s a “mature” fanfic about My Little Pony at War. There’s the Stephen King-esque horror novella entitled We Write Letters, which I don’t really understand. Lastly, there’s “That’s Life” the Doctor Who/Harry Potter/Umbrella Academy/Aladdin/Howl’s Moving Castle crossover, of which the best descriptor is a tag posted by the author that reads: “i have no idea where this is going, except it’s very gay”. Nice.
Finally, in our survey of this art subgenre, we encounter the “lowest” culture...the smut and pornography. As with all fanfiction, 15-20% of W&P fanfiction is porn that couples every main character with every other main character. I stayed away from these because I didn’t want to burn my eyes out, but I think Foucault would have an absolute field day with the amount of sexual repression that gets anonymously posted on these websites. There are also softer romance stories that are somehow even worse. Tolstoy’s romantic scenes in War and Peace were weak sauce as it is, and merely replicating that with clumsy prose is a bit pointless unless you really want to read about (insert character) holding hands with (insert other character). Here, yet again, Shadow Padawan proved to be a pioneer of the genre, posting the first light romance and “slashfics” (aka the gay fantasy ones) I can find online.
Our survey ends with a few oddities. There’s a story by “crazywolfgang” that goes as follows:
“i didnt know a name for it and would like suggestions for a name for this story”
That’s the whole thing.
Then there’s Peace and War, a completely unrelated Sonic the Hedgehog fanfiction that rips off the name. This is the moment I decided to jump off the ship. If you want to explore further, please do so without me. You can also feel free to read fanfiction based on Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters, Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, and the King James Bible. Seriously, this all exists. Isn’t Paradise Lost just biblical fanfiction? Maybe you can read that too.
Fanfiction gets a bad rap in many circles, but I have always found the medium somewhat fascinating. The whole rise of the industry came about when I was in middle school, and you’d be hard-pressed to find an avid reader who hasn’t clicked around Fanfiction.net once in a while. Even though the amount of published fanfiction has grown exponentially due to the Internet, that doesn’t mean the concept hasn’t existed since ancient times. Is Antigone not a fanfic of Oedipus Rex? Isn’t the Aeneid a Roman-based fanfic of The Iliad? In fact, what is War and Peace, after all, if not a giant historical fanfiction about the Napoleonic Wars? Not to mention The Great Comet musical, which is as fanfiction-y as you can possibly get.
On the other hand, fanfiction is still a bit daft. As George R.R. Martin and others have noted, it’s not very great for helping young writers learn character development. I stand by the consensus view that it’s a good way to get started in writing, but unsustainable for long-term development. Ultimately, as long as fanfiction writers aren’t making money off things they didn’t invent, it’s harmless and even beneficial for society. It certainly makes the drudgery of life more entertaining.
Most importantly for your humble blogger, these communities offer a microcosm into the development of culture and ideas. Writing a fanfic about a 560,000-word novel that is over 140 years old is not cool. Qualitatively, any story ideas or attempts to replicate an overwritten 19th-century novel, and it will never be that popular. But one day, someone tried it out. Others followed. Then someone else completely unrelated made a musical about the book, and people wrote fanfiction off of that fanfiction. The genre grew. It reached new heights. It has now expanded so far beyond the scope of the original that it is now its own thing. In broad strokes, isn’t that how all forms of literature progress through time? Isn’t the development of the novel itself—, Don Quixote to The Pilgrim’s Progress, to Oroonoko, to Robinson Crusoe (all of which inspired countless knockoffs and abridgements)—a reflection of this process?
Sure, some ideas are better than writing a panoptic mashup of every hit Broadway musical of the past decade, Pokémon, and the Kingsman film series, which supposedly features all of these characters:
Yeah, human entertainment is weird. But I can’t really complain. What else would I be doing?