In Defense of Fanfiction – A Convert’s Tale
Fanfiction has a pretty bad reputation. Part of it is earned, but a lot of it is just because it sits pretty far down the list on Maslow’s hierarchy of nerds. Nerds have a pervasive inferiority complex so we spend a lot of time distinguishing ourselves from our perceived lessers with the phrase, “Well at least I don’t…” That sentence usually ends with the words “LARP” or “write fanfiction.”
For those that do not know, fanfiction is fiction written by fans. You may have guessed that by the name. It’s typically either expansions on, or re-imaginings of popular fiction. This can range from the pornographic teenage fantasies that it is often mocked for being, to multi-novel works of serious fiction.
Why am I even talking about fanfiction? Well, there was a recent election in a nearby country. It was very stressful. One of the ways I managed that stress was some hardcore escapism. That took the form of getting way more into Harry Potter than is typically considered healthy for a grown man to do. I partly blame the excellent podcast Witch, Please for making me engage critically with the fiction. That led to an idea for a story, followed by two and a half months of obsessive writing.
In the brief periods of cogent thought between abject terror at what might be elected south of my border, and complete absorption in a fictional world, I asked myself, “Why in the all the gods’ names am I writing a book that I cannot legally publish?”
I came up with a few answers:
First and foremost, it is fun. Making up stories is a fun way to spend some time. The fact that it is done in somebody else’s universe doesn’t detract from that at all. It typically adds to it. It’s pretty low stress writing. You get to play with established characters and settings without doing the hard work of inventing them. You also don’t have to worry if your work is derivative and unoriginal. You know it is, that’s the point.
Next, there’s an enormous community. I suspect that people have been writing fanfiction for a long time, but the internet has let us see it and share it. There are a lot of people writing and sharing their work. There are several sites dedicated to fanfiction and each has hundreds of thousands of stories (Archive of Our Own and Fanfiction.net). These are surprisingly supportive and friendly places for people to share their work and affection for their varied fandoms.
Also, and I think this may be something too often overlooked, fanfiction is really good practice. In any other art form, we expect people to copy other artists’ work. Not to claim it as their own, but to learn from it and improve their craft. You wouldn’t disparage a painter for attempting to ape Rembrandt’s style, and you’d think a musician was a self-defeating narcissist if they refused to ever play a song they hadn’t composed themselves. Writing doesn’t have an equivalent. New authors are expected to create original works. This is unfair and unproductive. Fanfiction provides a bridge, it’s the cover-song of the writing world.
When writing fanfiction, you often try to mimic the author’s style. You try to mimic the voices of the characters and the feeling of the setting. In doing so, you have to very consciously explore the patterns and choices of the original authors, both good and bad. You need to really engage with material. Good writing also requires a lot of research. Fanfiction requires the same, but in a clear and limited scope. You have to understand the source material, but rarely have to go beyond that.
Finally, art inspires art. After reading a great story, don’t you often wonder what happens next? Aren’t you upset that there is no more? Don’t you imagine how the story could have been different if circumstances were only a little changed? Fanfiction lets you do that. In that regard Marvel and DC write their own fanfiction, re-imagining their own canon. Some would even argue that J.K. Rowling did the same with Cursed Child.
“But, Ryan,” you say. “Isn’t most fanfiction terrible?” you ask. “And what about all the porn?” you add.
Well yes, a good chunk of fanfiction is poorly written. Of course it is. A lot of it is the first writing that author has ever done. Was your first writing any good? Were you brave enough to suffer through the critique of the internet to improve it? Most fanfiction writers are young, untrained, unpracticed, don’t speak English as a first language, don’t have anyone to edit their work, or any combination therein. This may be the equivalent of their first open-mic. Be nice.
Also, yes, there is a lot of erotica. There is a flourishing community of creative people writing everything from touching romances to wank fodder. So what? I can’t think of a more harmless form of expression of sexuality and desire. The fact that it is so mocked seems to me to be a holdover from the puritanical beliefs that led to most of North America being circumcised and eating corn flakes to stop teenagers from masturbating (seriously that was a thing).
All this is a very long way of saying “don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it.” Read some. Write some. Let yourself play in the sandbox of your favorite world and then tell me fanfiction isn’t worthwhile.