Sage: I have a problem with people telling me to be embarrassed about things that aren’t a source of personal shame. That problem being…I can’t. And it’s one of the great joys of being in my 30s.
I’ve been reading fic since I was 14, and never have I ever felt bad about myself while I was doing it. I used to be much quieter about it; it was something I shared with a select few friends if and only if I was sure they wouldn’t take the piss during morning announcements or something. I’m now more open about my preference for “original works based on existing media franchises” for two reasons: 1) I don’t care (I don’t caaaaaaare), and 2) I’ve seen how fan works of all kinds are used as ammunition in an ongoing attempt to erase the power and validity of certain fandom demographics.
And that was the impetus for this post, really. Last week, entertainment media collectively decided to canonize Eric Richardson, who is the author of a WIP fic based on Beyonce’s (perfect, groundbreaking, world-saving) visual album Lemonade. Vulture calls him “a fabulous human.” EW wrote a similarly worshipful profile. Meanwhile, talk show hosts are out here forcing James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender to read Cherik fic to each other and showing Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman explicit Johnlock fan art to provoke what they hope will be an amusingly horrified reaction. I’m so confused…did Richardson single-handedly validate the fanfic industry, or is he just excused from the regular mockery because he doesn’t fit the perceived author profile? (Female, dorky, sexless, sad.)
So we asked some of our readers and friends to send us their fanfic testimonials, whether they create or just consume. How did they discover their community? What do they get out of fic that they don’t get out of canon? And how do they feel about the fact that one of their main sources of joy and creativity is considered in many spheres to be taboo, or at least a very low form of expression?
Keep on reading for those brilliant reflections, but first, you’ll have to hear from us. Sorry. Co-editor privileges.
Like I was saying above, fic has been a part of my life since my family’s first dial-up internet connection. I’ve gone through intense phases, and I’m the kind of reader who sticks primarily with one pairing at a time. (No, not all fic is romantic or sexual, but like…I’m not here to fuck around, you know?) I love the democracy of fanfiction. Hop on any major archive and marvel at how many thousands of stories and millions of words are right there for the taking – stories that writers have spilled blood, sweat, and tears over. Those are free. Fans create for other fans, and then the portal is open. Writing itself can be a solitary activity, but less so here. Scenario: A reader sends a writer a prompt. The writer writes it. Hundreds of new readers read, comment, and form a fandom AROUND the fan work. Some of those readers create moodboards, gifsets, playlist, and trailers to go with that story that just made its way onto their favorites list. And that happens over and over again, until I can’t remember what a real book looks like.
There’s something equally comfortable and thrilling about starting a brand new story when you’re already intimately familiar with most of the characters. When I find something I love, I want to stay in it forever. But I also want to look at it from every angle, to have someone show me what would happen if these people were actually astronauts or baristas or reality show contestants or spies or a different gender. Which brings me to the elephant in the room: NC-17 fanfiction, or as the kids call it: “smut.” This post isn’t exclusively about the fic that would make your 1st grade teacher blush (though maybe she’s written a few of them, YOU don’t know), but the stories that come with an adult content warning are worth talking about, specifically. The ridicule that women especially get for reading or writing the sexy bits is born out of confusion and fear. There’s this whole underground UNIVERSE of literary exploration of sexuality happening where girls are largely in charge. And that scares the shit out of some people. People who liked it better when they could pigeonhole an entire gender into what they are and are not “into.” WE ARE COMPLEX. GET ON OUR LEVEL.
Kim: I was 19 when I fell in love with The X-Files. The movie had come out that summer and the show had just hit syndication and in typical fashion, I fell hard and fast for Mulder and Scully and all their sexual tension. I spent hours on the internet, devouring everything I could about my newest obsession. I don’t even know how it happened but I stumbled upon The Gossamer Archive and it was like a whole new world opened to me. People wrote FICTION about Mulder and Scully?! Fiction where they kissed?! Fiction where they had all sorts of sex?! WHY HAD NO ONE TOLD ME ABOUT THIS BEFORE?!
What I love the most about fan fiction is that it fills in those in-between character moments that just can’t be squeezed into a 42-minute episode of television. Want to know just what Mulder and Scully got each other for Christmas in “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas”? There are literally hundreds of stories that will tell you. (My favorite is one where Mulder got Scully a star because OF COURSE.) Is your OTP taking their sweet-ass time getting together on the actual show? Pick a pairing and I guarantee there are fics a-plenty waiting for you on AO3. Hell, fanfic is how I SURVIVED seasons 4 and 5 of Bones where Booth and Brennan were so painfully and obviously in love with each other yet too afraid to actually DO anything about it. People who read and write fan fiction are my type of fans. They are the fans who love things so deeply and passionately that they can’t help but go deeper and explore characters from every possible angle. Some of my dearest friends (many of whom contributed to this post) are women that I initially connected with BECAUSE of their fan fiction. I fangirled their Jeff and Annie fics from afar and then started talking to them on Twitter. 5 years later, we’re all friends IRL and planning vacations together. All because I desperately needed to read stories where Jeff Winger and Annie Edison fell in love.
Despite the wonderful trove of stories and authors, some prejudices within fanfic-dom exist. People get real prickly when it comes to “Real Person Fiction” or RPF. For some people it is one thing to read original stories about someone else’s characters but it’s an entirely different thing to read stories about actual celebrities or specific co-stars or band mates. That’s CREEPY, detractors say. They are real people, not characters. Me? I’m of the mind of why the hell not? Sure, Harry Styles may be an actual person (well…the bit is debatable. Someone that pure could only possibly be an alien.) but we don’t actually KNOW him. Harry Styles is as mythical a character to me as Fox Mulder. Hell, his own team has spent YEARS crafting narratives for him and his bandmates to sell them to the masses. (A POX on the marketing executive who coined Harry as “adorably slow”. HOW VERY DARE YOU.) At least fan fictions tend to show his character more respect than the people actually managing his image.
So yes, my iPad is full of Larry fics and I’ve lost countless hours of sleep reading stories where those boys fall in love over and over again. Why do I do it? Because it makes me happy. It’s for ME. I’m not going to go up to Harry and Louis and shove a copy of Escapade in their hands (though let’s be real, you know they own a copy) because that’s not why it exists. Fan fiction exists for just that: FANS. It’s a way for fans to explore the things they love and it’s a way for authors to hone their writing skills. I’ve had fanfics reduce me to tears and I’ve had fanfics bring a smile to my face when I’ve had a shitty day. It enriches my fandom and it enriches my life in the best way.
PS Have I mentioned the Larry fic where Harry is a cowboy and Louis is the paralegal trying to get him to sell his land? You’ll never cry so hard over a cow being born, mark my words.
Taylah: English is my second language, so I started writing Doctor Who fanfiction as a means of improving my English writing. I thought if I used characters that I was already acquainted with, it would be easier for me to write situations around them. When I look back at it, it wasn’t really good, but I had a small following and good feedback, so I continued writing for other fandoms (Glee, Community, Pushing Daisies, Gossip Girl, etc.) Eventually I gave up on writing but I have never stopped reading. I consider it a great way to explore your creativity, to improve your language skills, to test how open your mind is (and to know your limits, which is always good) and to be critical of the fiction we consume.
There is a lot more to it than mockery and parody, even though that is also great. Listen, I have read as much crackfic as anyone. I love the absurdity of it. I enjoy bad fic for what it is, and I would never tell someone “this was so terrible it made me laugh until I cried” (unless it was intentionally bad), but it is not a representation of all fanfic writers. Some of everyone’s favorite book authors, male or female, have written fanfic at some point in their lives, even long before the internet provided a platform to post it. There is a lot of good writing in fanfiction, and though I wouldn’t like the media to focus on it (because fanfic, good or bad, should belong in fandom and it is always awkward when someone decides to tell public figures about it), I wouldn’t like media to portray fic as just a joke. It doesn’t seem fair.
Mary: It irks me, quite frankly, that The Lemons is being categorized as fanfiction. Fanfic is written by people who deeply connect with the characters and worlds they’re writing for, and for people who share that profound connection. Does the subjective quality of fanfiction vary as widely as the range of published non-derivative fiction? Yep. At the end of the day (when I’m sometimes giving up invaluable sleep time to just read a few more thousand words on AO3) it’s not about subjective quality, or legitimacy, or marketability, it’s about love. People who love something so much that they become inspired to add their voice to the world of the story – those are the people producing fanfiction and fanworks of all other kinds. So say what you will about The Lemons but let’s not pretend that it’s fanfiction. It was not written by a fan of Beyonce, or Jay-Z. It’s fiction, sure, but there’s no love there.
AMillsPhoenix: I haven’t written any fan fiction for the Sleepy Hollow fandom but have read plenty of the stories. And I must admit that I am addicted to them because some of them are much better than anything the writers could come with. And others just take you inside the fandom minds of how much the characters mean to them and what we as viewers of the show hope would happen to our favorite OTP.
Shannon (dearygirl on AO3): I’ve been writing fanfiction since before I knew what fanfiction was, back when I would tell myself stories to fall asleep about what the girls of The Babysitter’s Club got up to in between club meetings and baby-sitting gigs. I still have a pile of notebooks filled with outlines for potential BSC storylines about things like Stacey and her charges getting stuck in a mall. And because shippers gonna ship even when they don’t know what they’re doing, Kristy’s older brother Sam was there as well and at some point there would be *gasp* kissing. Most of my friends were able to read the books and then… move on. But I’ve never been good at consuming a piece of media as is and then letting it go. I found myself wanting to submerge myself in the characters I fell in love with, wanting to know what comes next and what came before, what happened in the in between moments we didn’t get to see. I’d read and re-read certain books, watch and re-watch certain movies, trying to soak in every tiny detail, like maybe there was a code I could break that would let me into the secret of all those things the writer didn’t already tell me. But I felt overly obsessed and weird about not being able to let go so I kept it all to myself. It wasn’t until high school when my one-sided love affair with a boy named Pacey Witter happened to coincide with my family finally getting that exciting extravagance called dial-up internet that I was introduced to marvelous new places like Geocities and Angelfire and I discovered that I wasn’t alone. There’s nothing quite so powerfully comforting as finding someone who does/likes the same weird little thing that you do and I found an entire world of those people online. Other people who cared about the in between moments, the befores and afters, and alternate universes I had never even considered – coffee shops and apocalypses and so many hotel rooms with only one bed.
It’s been eighteen years since I discovered fanfiction and in that time I’ve written thousands upon thousands of words and read thousands upon thousands more. Some of the most profound and meaningful writing I’ve ever consumed has been fanfiction. Some of the best conversations I’ve ever had have been about fanfiction. It’s been an amazing source of creative energy in my life, and it’s given me a community of people who understand and help feed my constant need for MORE. I’m always going to feel a little weird and overly obsessed but it’s because of the community I’ve found in writing fic that that doesn’t feel WRONG anymore. It just feels like me.
Anon: What I didn’t expect to find in fanfiction is such a safe space to explore sexuality — which is so important for women, especially young women, because that’s not to be found in traditional/mainstream porn, the focus of which isn’t female pleasure or the emotional aspect of physical intimacy. It’s helped me take ownership of my sexuality in a way that I wish I could have years ago. And thanks to some of the works I’ve read, I feel like I have a much stronger understanding of other sexualities, like demisexual and asexual, that I legitimately don’t know where else I would have found. Fanfic also serves as a safe space to explore issues beyond love and sex like eating disorders, depression and anxiety, unhealthy family dynamics, discrimination, the list goes on. It can be as individual or shared an experience as you want, you can hug a specific work just to your heart or you can randomly text your friend REMEMBER THIS and flail together. You get the opportunity to tell an author directly when their work has made a difference to you. (And you can take it anywhere with you on your phone!)
Megan: I’d never been into fan fic until I found The X-Files, a show that was practically built for it. It’s canon that Mulder and Scully (like those aliens Scully always seems to miss) happen when we’re not looking. The more involved I became in The X-Files’ online fandom, the more I found the talented fans whose work filled in the gaps between what we see and what we don’t. And, yes, I eventually wrote a fic or two—there’s no better way to break out of a creative rut than to return to characters who already feel like home—but even reading it shifted the way I related to the show. Engaging with fic helped me take ownership over the story. It asked me to think about the characters as the writers do: Would Mulder say this? Would Scully take her coffee like that? Yes. No. Why? It made these people come alive.
Maybe even more importantly, it affirmed that I was allowed to make these people come alive. I was always afraid to believe anything about a character that the story didn’t confirm to be true; for better or for worse, I felt like my stories belonged in the hands of the people who created them. I thought it was a matter of respect for the writer, but now I think that a part of me didn’t believe I belonged there. Fic breaks down that barrier between us and the people who hold power as storytellers—and that breaks down the barrier between us and the people we see in our stories. Parodies are fun, but they miss the point. They exist to make light of what’s serious. Fic exists to let people take themselves seriously when the industry doesn’t.
Do you read fan fiction? Write it? Have a good one that we just HAVE to read right now? Let us know in the comments!