As “nerd culture” has grown more mainstream, the notion of fan culture, or “fandom,” has entered into public consciousness. Even if you do not actively participate, you may be familiar with the standard forms of expression within fandoms, such as headcanons, fan edits, fanart and fanfiction.
Fanfiction is read and written for any number of reasons: to generate more content about a favourite fictional romance, to explore what characters would do in an alternate universe, even to add a new character and see what happens. But, overall, the appeal seems to be the opportunity to spend more time in a fictional universe.
However, fanfiction has only begun to be accepted in mainstream culture in the past few years, and the social stigma against those who read and write it continues to linger. Common misconceptions about fanfiction include that fanfiction is illegal, immature, unoriginal and pornographic. Moreover, a lot of the stigma against fanfiction stems from the fact that it is created and consumed primarily by young women and young queer people — including many university students.
Abby is a third-year student and fanfiction aficionado who has been reading, writing, and discussing fanfiction since her early teens.
For Abby, the appeal of fanfiction is “escapism, just in the way any kind of fiction is,” she said.
Furthermore, she stated, “[I like] looking at other people’s perspectives of things that I enjoy. I really like when they’re so good at writing that they force me to look at a familiar thing in a different way. I just like the idea of looking at the website and seeing that these are also other people who appreciate this thing as much as I do and then are wanting to expand upon that.”
The appeal of fanfiction as communal storytelling is not new. Fanfiction writers and readers have been enjoying fanfiction long before the digital age. Fanfiction as it currently exists began in the late 1960s in Star Trek fanzines. Despite objections from other fans, particularly to the frequent pairing of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock in a romantic and often sexual relationship, the zines were able to form a fan community that only expanded and became more interactive once fan content transferred to the internet.
Now, most fanfiction exists as self-published works on the internet. But, despite misconceptions, fanfiction isn’t necessarily poorly written or another form of online pornography.
According to Abby, “[fanfiction] really is just like with actual published books. There is a wide array of content and it varies drastically in quality — so you have some that are just terrible that are very painful to read. But at the same time, [there are] ones that are so good that if you changed a few key details you could publish [them] as a novel and [they] would do hopefully very well.”
Many works of fanfiction have, in fact, gone on to be successfully published as original novels, the most famous example being E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey. However, there are also many other critically acclaimed books that might be considered fanfiction, such as The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, which reimagines the life of Bertha — the madwoman in the attic from Jane Eyre. Other notable examples include Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles,a beautifully written piece of Patroclus/Achilles slash fiction, and Wicked by Gregory Maguire.
Online content has also achieved recognition of its own. Archive of Our Own (AO3), a popular fanfiction hosting site, won the Hugo Award for Best Related Work in 2019, resulting in a brief frenzy of fanfic writers congratulating each other for their award. Good or bad, every piece of writing on Archive of Our Own contributed to an award-worthy online community of content creators.
Indeed, Archive of Our Own has hosted more than five million stories in over 30,000 fandoms as of July 2019. Clearly, a lot of people read and write fanfiction and clearly it is becoming more and more valued for what it is — a creative way for people to explore already existing stories and create new stories and communities of their own.