[Guest Post] In Defence of… Fanfiction
A confession: I write fanfiction.
I’ll let that sink in for a moment, whilst you judge me and leap to all the usual conclusions. At least half of them will be reasonably correct.
For starters, let’s clear up some myths. Fanfiction isn’t about porn. Or, at least, it isn’t all about porn. There are as many different genres out there as there are genres of fiction, as many reasons for reading and writing it as there are readers and writers of it. And it isn’t exactly an obscure pastime; on fanfiction.net (the largest, if most mainstream and therefore frowned-upon collection of fanfic) there are 593,713 fics listed under the Harry Potter category alone.Yet despite its wide appeal, fanfiction is seen as the dark side of geek fandom. Widely derided, it’s dismissed as the home of squeeing fangirls high on sugar and manga, or else of hopeless deviants: furries, kink-seekers and the downright filthy. Both of these are, technically, perfectly accurate. Fanfiction gets a bad rep, as do its advocates, and honestly – there’s good reason for that. A lot of it is absolutely terrible (the infamous My Immortal, for example), and a lot of it’s cringeworthy wish-fulfilment crawling with Mary Sues. But to pretend that that’s all it is, is to do it a huge disservice.
Here’s one of my favourite quotes about it, used by Sheenagh Pugh in her book The Democratic Genre: Fanfiction in a Literary Context:
It’s always been high praise in Fannish circles to be told that you wrote a story so good it should be published, but sometimes, the highest praise is that it can’t be. Its very uniqueness, what creates it, makes it impossible to be anything else. Lots of people can write stories that fall into readable (more than you think, actually, but I’m flexible on the idea of readable), and many can write stories I’d pay to read, and even some write stories that could be published and be great. But there’s this small, fascinating group that write a story that belongs only to the fandom that created it. It’s like having a treasure you never have to share. It wraps itself in the canon and fanon and the author’s own mind that created it and takes it as its own so perfectly that you are so damn glad you went into that fandom, just grateful, just absolutely thrilled, because you get to read this.
Every fic, without exception, is a product of its fandom. Reading a fic is not just reading a simple story: what you’re actually reading is an intertwining of fanlore, mixing in-jokes and terminology from one particular fandom, as well as from the broader history and narrative of fandom. That’s why they can appear so incoherent and ridiculous to the outside world at times. Fanfiction authors are less writing a story than weaving together a cultural tapestry.
Fanfiction has a proud and noble tradition, as anyone entrenched within the community will tell you. Every student of fanlore knows where the term “ship” arose (X Files fandom), and where the term “slash” arose (Star Trek fandom). We have our own history; from the pre-internet fanzines, to early Usenet groups, right through to the great shipping wars of Harry Potter and the arguments over whether RPF (Real Person Fic; fanfiction about “real” people) is morally acceptable (the earliest known concrete example of RPF comes from the Bronte sisters, who used to write reams of stuff about the fictional country of Gondal. It can be easily argued that there was a huge amount of RPF within the oral tradition, as people passed down stories about folkloric legends such as Robin Hood, King Arthur, and – yeah, I’m going to go there – Jesus). We know our lore and our mythology and our terminology, and we study it as arduously as disciples of any other body of text.
Whilst I do stress that a lot of fanfiction out there is non-sexual and non-romantic in content (it’s called gen fic, yo, look it up), there’s an inarguable trend towards sexytimes. I’m all down with that; I like a bit of story with my porn, and I’m not a very visual person, so fanfiction is where I discovered a lot about myself and my own sexuality. I think I started reading fanfiction when I was about 13 or 14, and nowhere near, ahem, “active”. My first ever ship was Rupert Giles/Jenny Calendar. It was a while after that until I discovered slash, although that discovery was, frankly, inevitable – I had a bit of a sweet-tooth for Harry/Draco (Drarry, if you will). Fanfiction was (and still is!) a safe space to explore my own sexuality, and discover the kaleidoscope of sexualities, genders and identities that are out there. It was many years before I’d hear the name Judith Butler, or even hear the slightest mention of ‘queer theory’, but when I did, none of the ideas seemed particularly new to me.
Whilst there are plenty of male writers of fanfiction (especially within the gaming community – shout out to my little bro!) authorship is overwhelmingly female, and I don’t think that that’s a coincidence. Out in the real world, it’s difficult to own our own sexuality; there’s simply no room for shades of grey. You’re either frigid or a slut; you’re either straight or gay; your sexuality and identity is whatever people perceive when they look at you. But within the fanfiction community, away from the patriarchal mainstream, we can discover and explore how we feel about our own sexual and gender and personal identity. That’s something that I think has had more effect on my life than anything else. Through the medium of fandom, we can find out who we are, and what we like, and how we feel, all through just reading stories together. And then hopefully – eventually – we get to write our own story.
This is people writing because they love it, for no purpose other than writing for themselves and for other people who they vaguely know on the internet. It’s done purely for the joy of the thing. And it isn’t just about the fic itself; the fandom community is the most genre-savvy, theory-aware, innovative group of people I’ve ever had the pleasure to tangle with. This is a community alive with discussion about narrative, metanarrative, referentialism & self referentialism, literary theory, gender and sexuality, social justice, morality, pop culture and in-jokes. I’d also argue that it’s an innately queer community; it not only exists between the cracks, but thrives on the cracks. And in a world where deconstruction and theory are often frowned upon as “thinking about things too much”, fandom is where I found a home.