The increased visibility of fandom has brought with it media commentary leveled at readers and writers of fanfiction. This post explores how that media attention raises interesting questions around the suppression of women's writing, and considers why the ability to write in a not for profit space is vital to fan communities, and to the largely female identified writers creating in those spaces.
When twenty-first century commentators talk about fanfiction, they tend not to focus too deeply on Virgil’s Aeneid, and instead focus on the myriad of stories created by modern day fans across multiple fandoms from Harry Potter to Doctor Who. In the boundless age of the internet, fanfiction is now more accessible than ever and a Google search of ‘Harry Potter fanfiction’ generates over 1.5 million results. Fanfiction is no longer just accessible only to its intended fannish audience, it is now sport for the media, the creators of the canon, talk-show hosts and publishers to name just a few.
Despite there being a long and rich history of classic works of literature beginning from the same starting point as any other transformative work, fanfiction in its more modern form tends to give rise to a myriad of issues. There are authors and creators who do not support transformative works based on their canon (Interview with a Vampire author Anne Rice and Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin for example), those who are more ambivalent (Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling supports fanfiction, subject to certain caveats) and those who actively embrace fannish creativity (Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon has previously approved fan made transformative works born out of his shows). Because – just like fans themselves – the views of the original creators cannot be easily compartmentalised, any specific tensions between fan and creator in the individual fandoms referenced herein are beyond the scope of this post. Instead, I have considered these issues on a broader level and explored how the heightened awareness of fanfiction and increased media attention on participatory culture can have a negative impact upon writers in those communities.
As the pool of readers grows ever wider, a shift towards a more commoditised consumer-driven market for fanfiction could stifle and oppress fan communities which have previously been able to use their not for profit status to shake off the shackles of mainstream norms. While there are ethical challenges with profiting from fan works, there is also the possibility that a commoditised fandom will lead to sanitisation, self-censorship and forums which are increasingly less like to challenge popular culture.
All publicity is good publicity?
One of the most high-profile events which has forced fanfiction into the spotlight was the publication and subsequent success of Fifty Shades of Grey, which started life as a multi-part series of Twilight fanfiction. Amazon have seen an opportunity to cash in on works by fan writers with their for-profit fanfiction publishing initiative which has received the consent of the creators involved with the relevant participating fandoms. A writer of slash – fiction which explores a romantic relationship between two male characters – made an appearance in the Supernatural television series, and Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman have been questioned incessantly on the whys and wherefores of Sherlock BBC fandom depicting Sherlock Holmes and John Watson as lovers. Fanfiction has become subject to increasing publicity and scrutiny, not all of it favourable.
Ewan Morrison, writing for the Guardian , describes fanfic as “the lowest point we've reached in the history of culture – it's crass, sycophantic, celebrity-obsessed, naive, badly written, derivative, consumerist, unoriginal – anti-original”. Strong words indeed, Mr Morrison. Unfortunately, this type of rhetoric is not uncommon. Fan writing is seen as the domain of the ‘bored housewife’ just one of a variety of commonly used phrases which belittle, marginalise and fundamentally misunderstand fan communities and the creators who are part of those communities.
There are so many misnomers which perpetuate when people who have little exposure to fan communities begin writing about fanfiction, it would take all day to refute them. By way of example, Morrison’s article repeatedly refers to the sexual nature of fanfic. He describes a “dark sexual undercurrent” as representative in the “majority” of fanfiction and in doing so exposes a significant lack of research. Not only is the common generalisation that fanfiction is all about sex actually incorrect, the author also fails to elaborate on the perceived “darkness” he sees in the presumably few fanworks he has studied. It is worrisome if the portrayal of non-normative sexualities and alternative sexual practice is perceived as dark, and authors exploring these themes are marginalised by sweeping statements and sensationalism. In mainstream culture where the depiction of women being sexualised and brutalised in film and television is par for the course, one wonders why fanfiction and the themes which are sometimes explored in fanfiction receives so much unwarranted attention.
Fan writers are used to their creative efforts being perceived as invalid, irrelevant, derivative or perverse and have become accustomed to taking negative media commentary with a pinch of salt. However, as the spotlight on fanfiction increases, fan writers can expect to find themselves exposed to critique and commentary from a wider audience for whom fanfiction was never intended. While increased publicity brings with it some fan-positive results such as vocal supporters of fanfiction and the inception of bodies like the Organization of Transformative Works and Cultures, it also brings the detractors and scrutiny from a non-fannish audience who fail to fully understand the practice of writing fanfic. As mainstream publishers start to pay attention to fan writers and the traditional ‘not for profit’ element is subverted, that increased visibility of participatory culture brings with it risks which impact upon all fandom creators.
To boldly go where no (wo)man has gone before
Early academic studies identified fan writers as being predominantly female, college educated and straight. Such studies have since been shown to be incomplete and fan communities are much broader and more diverse than those early studies suggest, particular in terms of queer, non-heterosexual identity (an AO3 census shows 38.0% of users identifying as heterosexual). The age range and demographic varies from fandom to fandom, and there are many different reasons why a person might choose to write fanfiction. Studies which attempt to put writers of one kind of fic or another into a box typically fall short, in the same way it cannot be presumed that every writer of modern horror shares the same gender identity, sexuality, experiences and influences as Stephen King. Just as there is not one true model of fanfic to which all others adhere, there is not one true model of fan writer.
However, fan writing remains a gendered practice with the majority of fan writers identifying as female (the AO3 census reports 80% of users identifying as female). It is perhaps unsurprising therefore, that as fanfiction becomes more mainstream popular misnomers about the typical fan writer abound. Such misnomers veer uncomfortably into the territory of misogynistic stereotype from the star-struck sexually confused teenager to the aforementioned bored housewife or lonely spinster. The way in which women are treated in media bleeds into the sensationalism is often found in ill thought through articles on fanfiction, where fan writers are described in a manner which plays to sexist caricatures.
Despite the unfavourable scrutiny, fan writing continues apace and fanfiction continues to challenge the norms which perpetuate in popular culture. Fan communities have traditionally provided a safe space for writers to critique the lack of queer visibility in the mainstream, through a platform where writers can engage with source material and interrogate heteronormative constructs. As Elizabeth Minkel observes, “Fan fiction gives women and other marginalised groups the chance to subvert the mainstream perspective, to fracture a story and recast it in their own way.” 
When commentators talk about homoerotic slash fiction in particular, efforts are made to grasp why women would choose to write about male characters and male sexuality. Though attempts have been made to rationalise the practice – from criticisms suggesting writers of slash fetishize the gay male experience, to suggestions that with slash the male gaze is reflected back on male identified characters – there is not one simple answer. What is more curious is why, when male writers have been writing about female sexuality for centuries, the very notion of a large number of women writing about male sexual experience still has the power to shock.
The media representation of women teaches us of a society which values women by the way they look and what they choose to wear first and foremost. Popular culture gives us a multitude of complex, engaging, flawed, interesting male characters yet so often creates female characters who lack agency or who fall somewhere between ‘strong’ or ‘sexy’. As Sophia McDougall observes in her New Statesman article ‘I hate Strong Female Characters’, “Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong" . When popular culture has repeatedly presented us with a wealth of stories about complex male characters, should it really come as any surprise that the fans have been choosing to write stories about the most layered and intriguing characters visible in the mainstream? Is it any wonder when queer identities are consistently erased or marginalised and popular culture so couched in heteronormativity that fans are not prepared to sit back and accept the status quo?
In her text How to Suppress Women’s Writing, Joanna Russ talks about Satre’s notion of bad faith. She notes that female writing is often devalued: “[W]hat can be done to bury the art? To explain it away, ignore it, downgrade it, in short make it vanish?” She goes on to talk about denial of agency, and the promulgation of “the idea that women make themselves ridiculous by creating art, or that writing or painting is immodest…she wrote it all right – but she shouldn’t have”.
Although Russ has written extensively on fanfiction, in this instance she is referring to works written by famous authors of original fiction, from Woolf to Elliott to Brontë.  Yet the same analysis can be applied when commentators wade in on the practice of writing fanfiction. The derogatory terminology used to denigrate and dismiss women writing both diminishes their agency and calls into question the validity of their endeavours.
Let’s talk about sex
From the outset, I noted that not all fanfiction is sexual in content. There are numerous writers who focus on themes which have little to do with erotica just as there are numerous works fanfiction which fall into the so-called ‘gen’ rated category, which have no sexual or even romantic content. There are novel-length fanworks which explore character development, the gamut of human emotion and see much-loved characters experiencing new things which, after some 50,000 words or more, culminate in nothing more than a kiss. The common misnomer that fanfiction is all about sex plays into the hands of the detractors who point to some of the more obscure relationships or sexual encounters as a way of dismissing fanfiction as strange, as other and – in some cases – as harmful or perverse.
Yet there is a lot of fanfic out there rated 'Mature', 'Explicit Content' or 'NC-17' depending on where you're reading. Fandom has communities which exist solely to support and encourage the creation of erotic content. The so-called PWP or Porn Without Plot is a genre all of its own, and there are tropes which lend themselves almost exclusively to NC-17 rated material (sex pollen, anyone?). The fact that fanfiction does have erotic content is often held up as part of the amusement factor. Images are conjured of giggling teenage girls who want to explore sex without actually experiencing it, and bored, lonely women sitting behind computer screens, surrounded by cats. Of course, some people in fandom will be girls in their teens. Some people will be middle-aged women with cats. In fandom I have come across people from all different walks of life: people who are loud, people who are quiet, people who are queer and people who are straight, college professors, mothers, lawyers, doctors, nurses, accountants, journalists, artists, authors, undergraduate and post-graduate students. They are each individuals in their own right. They are not to be packaged into neat little boxes, nor are they to be shamed by mainstream media for a creative hobby which brings enjoyment and causes no harm. Are we really living in an era where it's still acceptable to reduce women to misogynistic stereotypes?
In a society where 'sex sells' and the male-dominated internet pornography industry is larger than ever, why are people still so concerned about women writing about sex, and why do women continue to be vilified and ridiculed for doing so? With visual porn increasingly more available, and female porn stars in their late twenties are being cast as mothers because they don’t look young enough for the target (largely male) audience, it is astonishing that erotic fiction can still leave people so askance. Fanfiction is world and character driven and – fundamentally – it is fiction with no real people are being harmed in the making of it. Commentary about characters being “subjected” to perverse acts (and the problematic tendency to label BDSM and non-normative sexual practices as ‘strange’ or ‘perverse’) is simply another way to sensationalise and demonise women who read and write about sex.
To attempt to suppress or belittle female exploration of sexual fantasy is nothing new. It is no coincidence that the same media which criticises fan writing also coined the dreadful phrase ‘mommy porn’ in a post-Fifty Shades world. While there are, certainly, problematic consent issues in Fifty Shades, this didn't give way to any meaningful discourse on consent or fantasy in fiction versus real life. Instead the loudest voices condemned the readers of the book, the literary quality and the fact the novel is without any discernible merit. This kind of dismissal of one of highest grossing works of erotica of all time and those who read it smacks of the same kind of casual dismissal of the romance genre, particularly books like the Mills & Boon publications (or Harlequin romances, if you're on the other side of the pond). Just as certain right-wing commentators have been horrified by the nature of the vaguely kinky activities in Fifty Shades, Ewan Morrison's article uses words like “dark” to describe the sexual nature of some fanfiction, and suggestions have been made that erotic fanfiction is ridiculous at best, harmful at worst.
Elizabeth Minkel observes that fanfiction is “not for the benefit of middle-aged men with a vast audience and little understanding of the form” and the straight white men who are often the stars or creators of the shows which spawn active and vibrant fan communities do not have to ‘get it’. Writers of fanfiction may bristle at one in many of a long line of poorly researched articles or excruciating interviews with celebrities who opine on a genre and group of writers they know nothing about. However, for the most part they will keep writing. In a not for profit community female writers are able to explore sexual fantasies and desire which the mainstream publishing industry would fetter and stifle.
Fan writers have never traditionally written for mass-markets or public consumption. Fanworks are created by fans, for fans, and have always been afforded a safe space to explore themes and characters which resonate with them through creative writing. As Lev Grossman observes, writers of fan fiction “don't do it for money. That's not what it's about. The writers write it and put it up online just for the satisfaction. They're fans, but they're not silent, couchbound consumers of media. The culture talks to them, and they talk back to the culture in its own language.” 
Because they are not fettered by adhering to mainstream consumers, fan writers have never shied away from going to places the mainstream publishing industry would not allow them to go. The practice of writing fanfiction is inherently different to the practice of writing original fiction because the author starts from a perspective where the intended audience already knows and loves the characters involved and the intended audience is not – and never has been – the observer watching from the side lines with little or no understanding of the fan or of fanfiction itself.
Catherine Tosenberger who has written extensively on fanfiction argues that the best fanfiction is unpublishable. She notes in her paper Mature Poets Steal: Children’s Literature and the Unpublishability of Fanfiction  that precisely because fan writers are actually trying to make their characters or the world their characters are in recognisable to the intended audience renders the best fanfiction unpublishable. A well-written character-driven Harry Potter fanfic will be told in manner where the character so clearly resonates as being Harry, simply changing his name and sending it off to a publisher is unlikely to fool anybody.
After several highly publicised cases of fanfiction becoming published works, it might be easy to assume that fanfic writers all want to be published authors or that all fanfiction is written with an eye on the publishing market. That too is another common misnomer which is often bandied about in commentary which considers why people write fanfiction in the first place. Perhaps they are practising for the real thing? Perhaps they too plan to change the names of the central characters and write the next Fifty Shades of Grey? Perhaps they are all hungry for fame and fortune and to see their work in print?
Perhaps that is true of some fans, but it is certainly not true of all fans and again it misunderstands fan communities. One of the most liberating things about writing fanfiction is precisely the fact that authors are not fettered by mainstream publishing guidelines. Their stories do not have to be sanitised and censored, sexual experiences, sexual identity, queer characters, diverse characters and female characters do not have to be erased and marginalised. Their writing is not a commodity. Fans can do whatever the heck they like with their stories because they are free and while fans writers may in turn generate their own fans, they are not writing for money and they are not stifled by the acceptable boundaries of consumerism in a mainstream market which remains woefully unrepresentative of marginalised groups.
Although she was talking about the mainstream publishing industry as opposed to fanfiction, Ursula Le Guin notes: “Hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being...We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality” she further went on to say “we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art…the profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art…” .
The same holds true of fanfiction. As soon as fanfiction becomes available for the consumer, and fan writers begin to focus on profits as opposed to free expression, there is a risk of stifling and sanitising fan writing. The authors who support fan writers almost always do so provided no profit is being made by fanfic authors. The more popular commoditised fanfic becomes, the more the unsettling the practice may become for previously supportive authors.
The more marketable fanfiction is, the more sanitised it is likely to be and those seeking stories with visible queer characters and alternative sexualities will be shamed or silenced by louder voices operating in mainstream industries. If fan writing becomes more vanilla and less ground-breaking, those who previously created to challenge boundaries and question creators will stop speaking.
I am an unapologetic fan of fanfiction, and I hope – above all else – that our communities remain free in every possible way.
1. Ewan Morrison Guardian 'In the beginning, there was fan fiction: from four gospels to Fifty Shades of Grey
2. Elizabeth Minkel 'Why it doesn't matter what Benedict Cumberbatch thinks of Sherlock fanfiction' (New Statesman, 17 October 2014)
3. Sophia McDougall 'I hate Strong Female Characters' (New Statesman, 15 August 2003)
4. Russ, Joanna (1983). How to Suppress Women's Writing. University of Texas.
5. Lev Grossman 'The Boy Who Lived Forever' (Time, 7 July 2011)
6. Catherine Tosenberger Mature Poets Steal: Children’s Literature and the Unpublishability of Fanfiction Children's Literature Association Quarterly Volume 39, Number 1, Spring 2014 pp. 4-27
7. Ursula Le Guin 'National Book Awards' Speech