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In the ever-evolving realm of creative expression, an enduring practice persists. Tucked away in the corners of the internet, this space thrives in crafting imaginative stories centred around characters from TV shows, movies or even video games. Despite having been ridiculed plenty for its overused tropes, cringe-inducing plot lines and an unabashed exploration of sex and other explicit themes, fan fiction continues to exist as a creative haven primarily inhabited by young people, women, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. These writers and readers have endured their fair share of derision and marginalisation from mainstream politics and media; there’s been an undoubtable lack of accurate and respectful representation of these groups. With soulless, one-dimensional female characters to the pattern of tragic deaths of queer characters, it’s no wonder why we’d want to make our own stories.
This derision is precisely why the spaces carved out on the internet through platforms such as Fanfic.net, Tumblr.com and AO3 have come to feel like digital havens.
Digital Havens or Lawless Caves?
Protected from ridicule and shame, these digital enclaves can be an incredibly stimulating spaces that foster the creative spirits of artists and offer a realm of escape for aspiring authors and other creatives who share their art with us. Fan fiction’s roots date back to the early days of the internet, making it an integral part of online culture. The gift that is fan-labour has, for the many decades of its existence, been offered freely and shared without any expectation of monetary gain. The production of fanfics can take many forms, from quick and concise one-part stories to expansive tomes spanning tens of thousands of words, all created purely from passion. The content of these stories can range from cute ‘fix-it fics’ where fans decide to rewrite the ending to tragic character deaths to crossovers between two wholly unrelated worlds.
That isn’t to say, however, that authors don’t want some form of acknowledgement from their audience. Even the smallest morsel of feedback that might look like a ‘this is amazing!!’ comment can go a long way for many authors. A sign that someone is reading, appreciating their work and desire more from them. Platforms like Wattpad, for instance, take this interaction to another level. Unlike the other sites mentioned earlier, Wattpad allows for readers to leave comments under specific sentences and not just the whole post. Although this engagement may not always be critical or constructive, they foster an engaging environment where readers interact with the story together. The community feels closer, they can laugh together and create a big, virtual book club.
Some authors I’ve spoken to have mentioned, though, the consequences of being in this space for too long. The structure of fanfiction varies from author to author, but many take requests from readers which end up looking very similar. The constant repetition of tropes and scenarios can become tedious to write but offer a worse fate for writers’ literary skills. Simply put, the instant gratification from likes and comments can hinder their ability to write unique stories. That being said, interactions with supporters still do serve as powerful motivators to continue writing.
It can also inspire them to take the leap and publish their work.
Fan-fics in Print
A couple of months ago, I found that a seven-part fanfic I had frequently come back to read again and again, spanning over 70,000 words, was gone. I was devastated. The author herself then announced to us the great news of publishing that story!
The act of pulling to publish has been a long-standing occurrence within the community, where authors decide to pull their stories from a platform in order to refine and publish them. It’s so commonplace that Amazon Kindle allows for fanfiction authors to publish their work and earn money from it. But it’s been suggested that the fine print to publish makes this more trouble than it's worth. As a result, many authors choose a simpler path: they change the names of characters, locations and other story elements that hint at their origins. Then, at least, it’s able to be published and recognised as original literature.
The most notable case remains to be Fifty Shades of Grey, inspired by the book and movie series Twilight. Twilight, itself, was a former fanfiction of the book series The Vampire Chronicles. But these very distinct stories are known as individual and independent pieces of work.
Authors like E. L. James and Stephanie Meyer became not just consumers, but contributors within the world of entertainment and literature. Their works are recognised internationally (and monetarily) as their own, and they’re able to feel a sense of legitimacy as offered by traditional publishing, after years spent in the underground market of writing. And authors’ years spent in those fanfiction enclaves do inspire some truly magnificent pieces of work. Magnificent for some, of course.
There are elements to the pulled work which aren’t very translatable to a mainstream audience. The tropes in them are risky and explorative, but too strange for a wider audience. Plot points are creative and dramatic but become unrealistic on a big screen. In E. L. James’ case, Fifty Shades of Grey is still criticised for promoting a toxic and abusive relationship. The book and movie series contains depictions of BDSM which The Atlantic has described as ‘troubling’, The Guardian as ‘soft-core porn for the ladies’ and many BDSM experts have said its simply ‘inaccurate’ to the real BDSM scene.
Although these can have damning consequences in real life, particularly considering that a huge portion of fanfiction readers comprise of a young audience, it still makes me question; would an inaccuracy like this be such a big deal within the fanfiction community? A community where a majority of sexual stories are simply a fantasy. Again, structures in writing vary depending on the author; a lot of the web fiction I’ve consumed have always had warnings and notes from the author before the story commences. Many of these outline what explicit things the story features, and then a ‘wrap it before you tap it’ joke as a little sexual health PSA before getting into the ‘soft-core porn-ish’ piece of fiction.
Does fanfiction and its authors thrive more on platforms made for it, then?
Lawless Caves or Digital Havens?
This community which, if its not evident yet, is an unbridled spectrum that ranges from cutesy and intellectually engaging novels to bat-shit crazy, surrealist, and sexual narratives. There are no rules or bounds within this realm; trigger warnings for a story’s contents are posted and then it’s shared with no hesitation. Those who enter the community quickly find the kind of content that they are comfortable and happy with reading – albeit not without a few of those bat-shit jump scares that I mentioned earlier in the process – and stick to their chosen niche.
Like I said at the start, this is the goal for most people who choose to read fanfiction; to search and find familiar fiction without the looming shadow of shame following their every move.
So the question, I find, becomes: does fanfiction only work when it only lives in the pits of the internet? On sites which aren’t viewed and discussed by and in the mainstream?
The sacrality that exists on those platforms can’t be denied. Especially in comparison to the unrelenting judgement that ‘pulled work’ faces in mainstream audiences when it reaches them. The transition from the cozy, judgement-free caves of fanfiction platforms to the broader public eye can be a challenging journey, as these stories encounter an entirely different set of expectations and standards. Writers, whose works were once raved about and praised may suddenly find them subject to intense critique and scrutiny. The readers, too. This sacrality exists for them and their explorations into unfiltered literature. Stories which feature queer and diverse characters who don’t die tragic deaths in the second chapter. Or a whole other world which doesn’t have the same conservative and prudish expectations that ours does. They experience a loss of free fiction and the community that may have surrounded it. In this transition, the once sacrosanct space of fanfiction is exchanged for the more unforgiving realm of the literary mainstream.
On a personal level, if a successful fanfiction that I decided to pull received the overwhelming negativity that many published fan fictions get, it would feel as though I had published it for nought. Of course, I can recognise this sentiment as entirely selfish; should I not support these artists and creatives? Would I not want my work to be noticed? These are the questions authors must contemplate if they ever decide to pull their work.
The community itself isn’t bound by rules or expectations, so I halfway expect creatives to take their highly successful stories and pursue recognition or compensation. What’s undeniable is that as fanfiction steps into the light of the mainstream domain, they carry with them the essence of their roots, and this in itself risks attracting sneers of disdain from the mainstream. The decision to publish or remain in the familiar embrace of fanfiction is a choice left entirely up to the author. Saddled with its unique set of risks, is whichever path they choose.
Edited by Natalie Cheung, Essays Editor