There are a lot of misinformed posts out there about fanfiction, which often have a misogynistic undertone, vilifying a predominantly female gendered writing space. Those posts often waste no time in telling the reader how rubbish fanfiction is, pointing out its failings with a few examples from the kind of stories that the mainstream reader might consider 'strange' or 'obscure.' Let’s be honest. Fanfic is the literature that doesn’t even get to be called literature. It gets sneered at with snickers and eye-rolls and people often feel they have to go to great extents to hide the fact they write fic. Most authors (including myself) write under pseuds because the fear of public censorship and ridicule is real. Even just acknowledging you write fanfic can be tough. I remember disclosing my hobby with a bit of a giggle over a glass of something alcoholic back in my early days of fandom, flushed and a bit embarrassed.
I’m not going to get into detail about the misogyny inherent in the way fanfic (much like the romance genre) often gets portrayed in popular culture and I’m not going to take you through the history of transformative works, which identify Virgil as a writer of Homer fanfic, or seek to educate readers on the numerous literary greats who have dabbled in works which might properly be considered fanfic. I'm not going to tell you about the recent fanfic writers that have found commercial success with original fiction. This is not a post which looks at the way fandom communities contribute to conversations about diversity, queering popular culture, critique of mainstream media and why it all matters. That stuff will follow because there are nuances which merit posts of their own when it comes to that kind of debate and I also don't want to use examples of what the reader might consider to be 'real' authors to justify fanfic, because that kind of defeats the point of this post.
What I am going to tell you about is the smaller picture - my own story about what fanfiction means to me, as a writer and a reader, and why I will defend fanfiction for as long as people are happy to listen.
I stopped writing Blur fanfic pretty early on and it was only much later that I discovered online fanfic in all it's glory. I was catapulted into fandom in the most roundabout way, when I began studying Children’s Literature in 2010. After reading an academic article on Harry Potter fanfiction I fell down the rabbit hole, reading everything I could get my hands on. I then had an extraordinarily weird moment of rocking up at the University of Kent to talk about fanfiction. I proceeded to explain the origins of ‘slash fiction’ (male/male fanfiction) to some of the very writers I’d been reading extensively. Even more awkwardly, I had quotes from fics in the presentation and some of the fic writers were listening to my paper.
It could have been a hot mess, but despite my initial embarrassment, the people I met from Harry Potter fandom welcomed me with their awesome conversations, warmth and kindness. I count a significant number of people I met that day as close friends today – people I have met up with in locations all over the world from London to Las Vegas to New York. I organised a Harry Potter meet in London and people came in from various places around Europe, fan artists from America sent badges and packs of fannish treats and we all geeked out over chips and a mutual love of Hogwarts. Some of those Kent University people will know I’m talking about them in this post and I hope they know how grateful I am for their welcome back in those early days. I also hope those who came later in my fandom experience know how enormously grateful I am to them too. I do not say it lightly, when I say fandom changed my life.
Bit dramatic, you think? Not really. Fandom set me on an academic path which led to me changing my career entirely and so many of those friends I found in the Harry Potter fandom community gave me the confidence to dive off into the deep end. I found a group of people from diverse backgrounds, from different geographical locations. People who were LGBT, people who wanted to read and write about LGBT experience, people of differing ages, from all kinds of professions including doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses, academics, copy editors, translators and professional writers. Most importantly, I found people with the same love for the books I couldn't stop thinking about. I can’t even begin to explain the range of diversity of experience and talent in fandom spaces and it’s been an enormously important community which has helped me examine my own values.
I hadn’t written any fanfic by the time I decided to lecture people about it, and I kept a bit of a lofty distance, telling myself I probably wouldn’t write fic, I’d just study it and read it. I couldn't help the niggling feeling that it might be a bit embarrassing to actually write fanfic. Again, thanks society for that hangup. I held firm for about three weeks after returning from Kent University. Now I’ve got over two million words of fanfic to my name, all written under my fandom pseudonym, and I’m far from being one of the most prolific authors in the fandom. I write most extensively in Harry Potter but I’ve amassed a fair number of recent words in One Direction and Radio One RPF fandom, I’ve dabbled in Sherlock, Twin Peaks, Doctor Who, Buffy and Torchwood fic and I read a lot of Destiel (Supernatural). To put my fic writing into context that’s roughly 33 novels, if the average word count for a novel is around 60,000 words. That's also only the words I've deemed worthy of publication on Archive of Our Own. I've posted very few early stories on there and I've also got around 50,000 words of unfinished fic on my computer. All I want to illustrate with this is that I write and publish a lot of fanfic and I'm going to tell you why that's been so important to me.
Every day when I log in to my fandom email, I have new notifications of comments or kudos on stories I’ve written and they never fail to make me smile. Sometimes people leave comments which just say, ‘nice job’ and on other days I get comments telling me what the reader enjoyed – quoting my own words back at me, telling me what made them laugh or cry, extracting sections that they identified with personally or flailing over things they enjoyed. I sometimes get personal messages on Tumblr or by email, just saying, hey, that story. I liked it, and this is why. Before writing this post, I decided to go back to the first piece of fanfic I posted on my Livejournal account. If anyone’s curious, it was an adult Harry Potter paired with Severus Snape, the pairing that received a lot of attention in that academic article that pulled me into fandom in the first place. It’s a fairly weak piece of writing, something I can look back on critically and wince at. They go from zero to a hundred and within less than five thousand words all past canon acrimony has disappeared and they end up engaged to be married (wow, heteronormativity is real). Severus is very kind and sweet with none of his canon edges, and Harry is wide-eyed and naïve. What strikes me the most about the story however, isn’t the dubious quality. It’s the generosity of the comments I received. I wasn’t well-known at the time but people were so encouraging. Those tentative friendships that were already being formed led to people taking the time to tell me how lovely it was that someone new had started writing the ship (fan parlance for the romantic pairing) and each comment picked out those little bits they enjoyed, encouraging me to go on and write more.
I’m not suggesting I’m producing Shakespearean quality stuff now, but I can see a very, very noticeable progression after seven plus years of writing solidly most days. Just as runners have to run again and again to train for marathons, writers have to keep writing. With every new story, I feel as though I’m getting a better grasp of sentence structure, characterisation, plot and so on. I’ve come to really appreciate and understand the art of writing in a way I never did before. I’ve learned about the basic mistakes (e.g. point of view shifts) a lot of early writers make, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have friends who work on putting posts together about creative writing based on their own academic studies or professional careers as writers, academics, editors, publishers, translators and so on. I’ve got people who ‘alpha’ or ‘beta’ read my fanfic, giving me constructive criticism on sentence structure, plot and story flow. Some of those people are also prepared to do the same for my original fiction, without payment. I am fortunate enough to be part of a community of people where someone will give their time willingly to edit my stories to make sure the spelling, punctuation and grammar is spot on. I'm fortunate to know people who will let me ping them on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Livejournal or wherever to chat about ideas and help me discover new ones along the way. I do that for fandom friends myself, too. I’m currently chatting to a couple of people about stories they’re working on and offering my input which, in turn, helps me learn and improve.
I’ve begun working on my first novel and who knows where it might end up. It might languish in the same dusty places Madison Jeffries and his band currently occupy. Perhaps I’ll never get to write fiction professionally. It’s a difficult market to break into and a lot of luck and talent is involved in making the transition from hobbying writer to professional writer. In some ways though, the dream of being able to live off writing fiction doesn’t even matter to me as much as it used to. I have something creative in my life that I get endless enjoyment from and there are people out there that seem to enjoy the stuff I produce, which makes me enormously happy.
I see so many posts denigrating the quality of fanfiction and talking about it as poor-quality and frivolous. For those of us that occupy fandom spaces, we know this is far from the truth. Some of my favourite stories in recent years have been works of fanfiction which have spanned the length of multiple novels. When people ask what novels I've been reading, I'm always sorely tempted to say the last book I read was that *insert excellent fanfic* and send someone else down the rabbit hole. The nuances, the plots and the storytelling by some of my favourite writers hit me right in the feels. Frankly, there are days when I'd rather read a 5,000 word piece of fanfic by one of my favourite fanfic authors than a novel by some of the people that hit the 'best seller' lists. Let's be honest, there's stuff out there that's published in the mainstream that isn't particularly good either. Fanfic, like any other literary market, has good stuff and bad stuff. Fanfic writers are fortunate enough to operate in a free community where the bad stuff given space to get better.
Don’t underestimate the time and investment that goes into writing fanfiction, the adherence to deadlines and the professional way many writers approach the works they produce. I moderate and participate in fests, in which people write for prompts, a theme, character or 'ship', and they have to work to certain deadlines. Their fics then get posted as part of the fest over a couple of weeks or a month, depending on how big the fest is. With exchange fests, the stories you craft are specifically catered to someone’s own preferences and you receive a gift of a story or art in return. The challenges of running fests like these behind the scenes are not to be underestimated and so many people do this in their free time because they want to encourage creativity in fandom. Fandom is enormously generous with its creative output.
With fanfic, there's the criticism of ‘copying’ someone else’s work, which really misses the point of fanfiction. The characters and worlds they inhabit might be familiar, but the plots are often new, fresh, thorny, engaging and unique. In plenty of cases familiar characters occupy a completely new space or cross fandom universes, like a Harry Potter who never got his Hogwarts letter or Severus Snape as the new Doctor Who. A story like that can contain respectful canon references and knowledge but it offers an entirely new possibility and framework within which the characters exist. In terms of writing fiction professionally, not all fanfic writers see fic as a stepping stone to writing original fiction. Not all fanfic writers are interested in writing original fiction at all and others already make a living out of it. People are there for so many different reasons, it's really impossible to put fan writers into a one size fits all box, which is why it's often so frustrating when people try.
As fanfiction and works produced in fan communities become increasingly part of public discourse, I have three overarching comments to make. First, for those engaging with fandom, be kind to the new writers who stumble upon the community eager-eyed and excited because who knows where their stories might end up. Given them space to improve and welcome them into your world. Second, if you’re going to bash fanfiction, make sure you’re fully researched and you’re not just finding clickbait examples to ridicule vast and vocal communities who work tirelessly to produce creative output which is important to a lot of people, creators and consumers alike. Finally, if you're a celebrity talking about fanfiction, shipping and all of the issues that might come from that (to be addressed in a later post) take a little time to understand your fandom and speak to fans on their own terms. There's a lot of stuff that comes out of fandom spaces which can be toxic and challenging, but if you're going to reference fanfic, understand your demographic and the importance of the communities and their creative output to so many people.
I'll sign off by saying if you want to write and you’re interested in discovering more about the world of fanfiction and don’t know how to get started, talk to me on Twitter or Facebook. Fandom has cookies, and they taste good.