Why fanfiction is more than just a guilty pleasure

I don’t remember when I started reading fanfiction. I’d probably heard about fanfiction.net somewhere, and decided to open it out of curiosity. Yet my earliest memories involve Harry Potter NextGen fics, because, boy, did I want to know what happened way after 19 years later. Those stories helped me picture the Potter and Weasley kids to their full mischief in the footsteps of their parents — actually, who am I kidding? I read them for my Dramione hopes projected onto Scorpius Malfoy and Rose Weasley: a ship only teased at in the original material (or canon, as fans call it), until Rowling came out with Cursed Child.

From fanfiction.net, I’d migrated to harrypotterfanfiction.com, delved into Tumblr fics every so often, but never followed the horde to Wattpad. (Among other things, One Direction choose-your-own-adventures don’t really do it for me.) Then, I discovered Archive of Our Own’s (AO3) handy filters — by hits, reviews, or “kudos” — so it’s mostly where I linger now to catch the gems. Though my interest in Potter has waned, there’s always some new obsession to find fic about for a quick fix: no need to go out and buy a novel to read something familiarly enjoyable.

 

That exact trait of fanfiction, its strange familiarity, is both what defines it as a medium and draws the most flak. Whatever spin fic authors put, their writings still integrate an existing world and characters.

 

That exact trait of fanfiction, its strange familiarity, is both what defines it as a medium and draws the most flak. Whatever spin fic authors put, their writings still integrate an existing world and characters. The copyright aspect is an issue for some writers (looking at you, Orson Scott Card and George R.R. Martin) and free publicity for others (bless Neil Gaiman and his brethren), but one can’t deny that fics are derivative at their core. And here is where I make my case: that the literary potential of fanfiction is in no way diminished by their borrowed foundations.

If anything, fic is art upon art, a repository of fandom insights about the material. When there’s masterful fanfiction for a book, movie, series or whatnot, that just means the world is rich enough to build on, and only praises the writer who started it all. Fanfiction reimagines those circumstances, and even with that as a basis, churning out compelling text isn’t easy — especially when you have to understand characters that aren’t yours. Great fic writers can stay true to the spirit of each character amid changes in setting. To this, fanfic is riddled with alternate universe (AU) stories that somehow work. I’ve read about a 21st-century Anne of Green Gables, the Young Justice team as a Hughes-esque brat pack serving detention, Avatar Korra as a noir detective. And as fun as multi-chapter AUs are, I’ve also appreciated the tight introspection of oneshot pieces, the standalones that reveal a character’s thoughts in a specific moment, or compile snippets of his journey in one sweep.

 

Fanfiction reimagines those circumstances, and even with that as a basis, churning out compelling text isn’t easy — especially when you have to understand characters that aren’t yours.

 

Like all crafts, particularly those buoyed by online convenience, fanfiction has its share of good and bad eggs. Maybe you’ll come across misspellings, overdone punctuation (or the lack thereof), and other glaring grammatical errors, but what’s art without the learning curve? Thankfully, fic culture is feedback culture in a remarkably self-aware and critical community. Anyone used to the lingo will know that proofreaders are fondly called “betas,” and that authors are usually on the lookout for such sharp eyes for hire. It also helps that reviews are counted as constructive. The first time 2011 me attempted to write fanfiction (a missing scene from James Patterson’s Maximum Ride series), I didn’t expect any responses but got quite a few from strangers within a week — equal parts “congratulations on the first story,” and “capture the character a little better in the next.”

For the creativity involved in fanfiction, this essay shouldn’t sound like a confession. Naysayers may reduce fics to guilty pleasures, owing to how many writers use the medium to express sexual fantasies about literary figures, or how they fall back on certain tropes. Ratings on the fics, however, should give you a heads up anyway if you’re uncomfortable with the romps, and no shame if you’re interested. It’s 2017, and things like slash or LGBT fics help undo heteronormative notions.

What a testament to how evolved a pursuit fanfiction is, despite the critiques thrown at it. I don’t remember exactly how I came to crave the stories, but I know I won’t be stopping — not for a while at least, and not when fan culture has so much room to grow, one chapter at a time.

Tags:
#books #literature #self

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