Image: “A Rainbow of Books” by Dawn Endico on Creative Commons. License CC BY-SA 2.0
The criticism against fanfiction is most often centered on the rhetoric of it being poorly written, unoriginal, and too sexual in nature. However, this take fails to consider that fanfiction allows a writer to share their creative works without having to navigate through the publishing industry, a place filled with countless barriers against aspiring authors, especially minorities. As for the quality of fanfiction, I argue that there is value in having a genre that constantly puts out work by a variety of authors at different points of their writing journey. A more diverse group of writers would mean different takes on similar topics which introduces new perspectives that are not traditionally showcased. Though some fanfiction would be unappealing for the typical literary connoisseur, I defend that it is a genre that should be respected for its accessibility and representation.
Fanfiction, also referred to as fanfic for short, is a genre defined as stories written by fans for a particular pre-existing work. It could be set in the original creator’s setting or in an alternate universe, have the opportunity for the secondary author to add their own characters, and even change the ending of the original work. With this, the possibilities for fanfiction are endless which makes it hard to define as a genre, especially when considering historical works.
What was the first fanfic? The origins of the word fanfiction can be traced back to 1939 as a way to separate amateur science-fiction pieces from traditionally published works, the latter being considered superior in content (Reich). However, the genre existed long before that. For example John Rae’s 1917 novel New Adventures of Alice is based off of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and I entertain the idea that there are manuscripts lost in time that never left the fanfiction author’s home as it was no more than a pleasure project.
In current day, fanfiction dominates sites such as Wattpad and Archive of our Own (AO3), and can also be purchased at fandom conventions. Though most copyright laws prohibit the traditional publication and sale of fanfics, it is not as if fanfiction is entirely void from current media. Moriarty the Patriot, a manga series, is a spinoff of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series and focuses on the antagonist of the original work, using Doyle’s universe to tell another story. Hannibal and Clarice are both television series that build off the psychological horror film The Silence of the Lambs. By extension, series inspired by past works are constantly appearing. As these pieces work off an already-existing original work and are aimed toward fans of the source material, it is acceptable to group these as fanfiction.
Image taken by Atticus Yus, depicting volumes 1 and 2 of “Moriarty the Patriot” by Ryosuke Takeuchi and Hikaru Miyoshi.
Why value fanfiction?
To answer this, I prefer to break apart the stereotypes that make the genre famous, beginning with the abundance of queer content. A quick glance under any popular fandom’s tags on AO3 will show a significant amount of same-gender relationships. For example, Genshin Impact, an adventure-style videogame, currently has 5424 works tagged as featuring a man-loving-man relationship, 805 works featuring a woman-loving-woman relationship, and 2273 works with a heterosexual pairing as of February 25, 2021 on archiveofourown.org. Though it’s difficult to compare these numbers to traditional publishing, a rough comparison would be a 2019 sample on the American publishing industry which found that 81% of employees identify as heterosexual (Lee & Low Books). Of course, this statistic should be taken with a grain of salt as it includes not just authors and as well, there is a possibility that a heterosexual-identifying employee may still be queer by another aspect of their identity or do not have the opportunity to be out. Nevertheless, there is still a significant amount of queer fanfiction.
Given the historical and current day backlash against queer representation, to see it be overly represented in this genre should not be an instant point of criticization. Fanfiction has become a safe space for queer content to unapologetically flourish without having to worry about censorship found in traditional publishing. With the vast majority of fanfic being published straight to the internet, it can defy borders and be read nearly anywhere. Thus, someone in a country with censorship resulting in limited queer content on bookstore shelves can still feel represented through fan creations. Representation is vital in normalizing the queer experience as it reclaims it as something that does not have to be hidden.With that, I suggest that criticizing fanfiction for having too much queer representation pushes the idea that queer content should be limited, literally forcing it back into the closet.
Allowing content creators to have the freedom to reimagine their favourite pieces of fiction to align with their identities should be embraced. With so many major series still lacking in diversity, it becomes up to fandoms to do the work in handling representation. Although fanfiction most often avoids the publishing industry, it is not as if it’s a laborious-free hobby. Beyond the obvious fact that it takes time to write a manuscript, fanfiction writers are not copying down their source piece word-for-word. Rather, they are adding their own twists and interpretation, either extending the original narrative or placing it into a new universe. Though some tropes, such as the soulmates alternative-universe or a coffeeshop alternative-setting, appear often, it’s not entirely fair to label all of fanfiction as repetitive. Afterall, each story will vary depending on the source material, the author’s creative direction, and any additional genres they decide to add to their creation, such as fantasy or a contemporary setting.
The effort and dedication put into fanfiction can be interpreted to argue that the genre is unsustainable. Not only are the arts constantly underfunded, there are very few ways to make money from fanfiction. Some authors go on to take commissions and others go on to make writing a career, such as Cassandra Clare and Naomi Novik, though the latter is quite hard to achieve. Due to copyright laws, the average creator won’t be able to publish their works either. With that, the authors put in long hours of work for little in monetary value. This results in fanfiction being taken for granted as it is available freely on various hosting websites.
However, writing fanfiction should not be labelled as a waste of time. Though it may be difficult to make money from it, there are other gains that I view make the genre worthwhile. Creative outlets allow one to take a pause from their lives, providing a way to release stress while expressing themselves. With online fandom communities, content creators like fanfic authors and fanartists are able to meet each other and create friendships through their work. This is especially important given the lack of shared creative outlets present in communities which prevents artists from meeting those with similar interests (Bochnak). Fanfiction’s therapeutic and collaborative possibilities prove the genre’s value.
Until mainstream media is able to provide adequate representation of minorities, fanfiction will always be needed. Readers of all ages, but especially young readers, rely on fiction to build their understanding of the world. Even if perfect representation were to be achieved in current literature, there will always be fanfiction created. It’s natural for the imagination to build onto existing stories and create its own twists and turns, and people should have the right to share their creations.
Even if you have yet to find a fanfiction that resembles the greatness of Milton’s Paradise Lost, that does mean the genre as a whole should be disregarded. There is more to literature than just the quality of writing and amateur writers still deserve respect, especially if they are putting their work out there for people to enjoy for free. The genre’s indirect protest to current media’s lack of representation and unwillingness to explore unfiltered topics is admirable and should make us as literature students pay a close eye to the differences between fanfiction and traditionally published works.
Bochnak, Tracy. The Importance of Free Creative Outlets in Communities. 2003. Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Honors theses.
Lee & Low Books. “Where is the Diversity in Publishing? The 2019 Diversity Baseline Survey Results.” The Open Book Blog, January 28 2020, https://blog.leeandlow.com/2020/01/28/2019diversitybaselinesurvey/. Accessed 25 Feb. 2021.
Reich, J.E. “Fanspeak: The Brief Origins of Fanfiction.” Tech Time, 23 July 2015, https://www.techtimes.com/articles/70108/20150723/fan-fiction-star-trek-harry-potter-history-of-fan-fiction-shakespeare-roman-mythology-greek-mythology-sherlock-holmes.html. Accessed 20 February 2021.