Confession time! I like fanfiction. I read it, I wrote it, I still get lost in it. I’ve talked to a lot of folks who read and enjoy fanfiction in different fandoms, and I’m always struck by how similar we are. A lot of us turn to fanfiction when it’s hard to cope.
I started reading fanfiction when life sucked. Grad school was a three-year period where everything that could go wrong in my life, did. In those three years I got married, lost my father, had a kid, and lost my brother. My dad and brother were my only family, and even a cheap funeral is pricy. Kids are pricy. I ended up in so much debt that I ultimately had to choose between dropping out just short of finishing my degree or living out of a car. The worst part wasn’t the grief, although that sucked, but the crippling isolation. Aside from my husband, I’d lost my entire family in those years, and my peers were mostly upper-middle-class, twenty-something trust-fund kids. In retrospect, I’m sure there were some who could have related, I’m sure I made unfair assumptions and tuned-out people who might have been supportive, but at the time I was so full of resentment that I couldn’t even talk to them.
Instead, I escaped into fanfiction. In online fandoms, I found something I desperately needed, beyond the escapist fiction. I found a community. Not a community of people I would ever be privileged to meet in real life, but a community of people who all had come together to celebrate our shared perception and experience of a story. It seems like such a simple thing to have in common, but stories are everything. Stories are reflections of our society, our world, and ourselves. They’re how we communicate emotions, experiences, and the nuances of personality and life that we call humanity.
Fanfiction is unique, because there’s so much of it that you’re bound to find something, in some fandom, that resonates with you as an individual. You’ll inevitably stumble on a story that, by its very existence, shows you that you’re not alone—that someone else out there enjoyed the same anime, book, or movie. That they shared the same perspective you did and experienced the same vicarious emotions and hopes and dreams for the characters. Built around these stories are comment threads, forums, messenger boards, and social media groups that allow you to put names to each work of fiction, to interact with other readers and authors until the entire process of writing and reading fanfiction becomes a dynamic group effort. It becomes an ever-changing celebration of the human experience, translated through a fandom lens, and it’s fucking amazing.
There’s been a lot of chatter on Twitter about the apparent evils of fanfiction, and my thoughts keep circling back to it. Critics are dismissing fanfiction as nothing more than private property that’s been misappropriated as literary training wheels for shitty writers. Then insisting at the same time that it’s all so pathetically badly-written as to be cringe-worthy. And finally claiming that that same cringe-worthy fanfiction somehow detracts from “legitimate queer literature.” By legitimate, I’m not sure if they mean queer authors writing own-voices narratives or if they just mean the grim, all-gay-characters-must-die crap that remains the only form of gay love story allowed into the scared literary cannon.
I’ve spent a couple of days wondering how, exactly, fanfiction might detract from “legitimate queer literature,” but the whole premise is based on the idea that fanfiction and commercial fiction are somehow in competition—for readers, for sales, and for attention. Readers don’t enjoy fanfiction because they’re looking for a free alternative to commercial literature. They wouldn’t rush off and buy books by the thousands if fanfiction didn’t exist. It’s painfully obvious from the nature of their critique that the folks condemning fanfiction have never actually experienced the fanfiction community first-hand, and that’s really kind of sad. If they had, maybe they’d recognize that the true goal of anyone aspiring to produce commercial fiction—or grim, depressing literature if that’s what they get a kick out of—should be to write something worthy of fanfiction.