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In Defense of Fanfiction

rowling_harry potter and the sorcerer's stoneI am not an internet phenomenon. I don’t have a fan base. When people list fanfiction writers they love, I don’t show up on anyone’s list. I do have an account on (an infamous behemoth of a fanfiction archive, and a common entry point for young fanfic readers and writers), which I registered in December 2001, at the age of fourteen. I posted only sixteen stories in five years, mostly single-chapter “one-shots” that involved things like half-baked romance, angst, and snarky Draco Malfoy wondering whether anyone had considered that putting all the “bad kids” in one universally hated house might not really be the best way to prevent future dark wizards from rising. They got a few reviews each, but no serious attention.

In short, I am not a big deal — and it doesn’t matter. Fanfiction is about the whole community of fans, not just the stories, and not even just the writers who are a big deal.

When people who don’t read and write fanfiction talk about fanfiction, they often miss the point. They miss what makes it valuable — if they admit it has value at all. As fanfiction has grown in popularity and visibility, there have been more attempts by people outside the fanfiction community to discuss and make sense of it. Fanfiction is stories ripped off from other people’s work! some say, or, Fanfiction is a great way to get kids to read and learn! Problematically, the tendency with all new or obscure things is to either reject them outright or force them into conformity with something familiar. Fanfiction doesn’t fit what people know about reading, and it makes them dismiss it or try to make it fit. Fanthropology, a LiveJournal community that archives references to fanfiction and fandom in the mass media, frequently links to news pieces and interviews wherein fanfiction becomes a blanket term for fantastic, implausible, self-indulgent, or downright crummy entertainment. On the other hand, more  well-intentioned efforts like School Library Journal’s August 1, 2009, article on fanfiction cover the mechanical basics of fanfic writing and culture and try to relate them to something more traditional and tangible — that is, the print world whose value we take as a given.

That’s understandable: I, like many of you holding this print magazine, prefer to read my books on paper. I like my books to crunch, smell, bend, and occasionally dog-ear. And I appreciate the difference between the experience of reading a printed book — edited, polished, and complete — and sitting in front of a screen to read a hundred-thousand-word story about something you’ve already read, by someone whose only editor is their seventeen-year-old internet pal from three time zones away. It’s different, it’s new, and, yes, it’s scary, because it’s not traditional and it’s not controlled.

It should stay exactly as it is.

Why? At its core, fanfiction is simply the practice of writing fiction based on other people’s work. What makes fanfiction valuable and powerful, however, is what it becomes: a large community of readers unconstrained by time, distance, age, or talent. Fandom is what happens when fans of things — novels, movies, TV shows, plays, comic books — actively seek one another out. They go to conventions, but more and more commonly they go to the internet. They write fanfiction, they leave comments, they draw and make vids and user icons (truly an art unto itself), they friend each other on LiveJournal and DreamWidth (a fan-operated blogging site based on LiveJournal’s open source software) and follow each other on Twitter. And they do all of these things because there is someone on the other end who loves what they love.

Being a bookworm has never been glamorous. Finding someone else who is head-over-heels in love with exactly the same stories and characters you are is difficult, and largely a matter of luck. But the online reading community, including fanfiction, lets readers find each other, and it’s easy, because that common point of interest is where you start.

Community and friendship come naturally in fandom, because the fan world is both free and reciprocal. It is ingrained with practices of sharing and responding, of reviewing what you read, of giving fanfics as gifts, making reading recommendations to friends (and recommendations, not automated searches, are the final word in finding good stuff), and “beta reading” friends’ stories before they’re posted. Although, as with any community, fighting can occur, fandom at its best allows every member to add to the collective enthusiasm, analysis, and creativity. It’s not a competition: when a writer becomes popular, the response is the prize. In many ways, online fandom fulfills the librarian’s or teacher’s deepest desire: it’s an entire community of people who can’t stop talking and thinking and sharing about books. Better yet, it is a community that many readers join in their pre-teens or teens, take at their own pace, and often never leave.

turner_thiefSome of my best fan experiences have nothing to do with actual fanfiction. I joined Sounis, a LiveJournal community dedicated to Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series, in 2006. Turner’s books aren’t nearly as popular as they should be; many of us only know other fans in “real life” if we have converted them ourselves. But Sounis brings together hundreds of fans from, quite literally, around the globe — check our user map — and gives us people to talk to. Or, to be honest, people to rant, rave, squee, fangirl, swoon, poeticize, theorize, and offer cookies to. In-person group meet-ups are a regular part of our community, and people often travel shocking distances to meet one another. I myself met a number of members (and — squee! — the author herself) in London in 2008. As I wrote in my LiveJournal:

It was the first time I’d ever met friends I’d made online, and I was a little afraid they wouldn’t like me and it would be wretched but…they are even better and more wonderful in person. And most wonderful of all — they read the books I read…We talked about everything from Joan Aiken to Jane Eyre to Georgette Heyer and Charles Dickens to Chaz Brenchley and Sarah Monette. Sarah Monette! The only other person in the world whom I know to read Sarah Monette is Jade, and she’s from Sounis, too — thus proving that Sounis is WONDERFUL and AMAZING, and it is only reasonable that getting to meet a few of them made me deliriously happy.

We had come from over half a dozen different locations, some continents away, across a thirty-odd-year age range, and none of us would have known or cared about one another if fanfiction and fan communities didn’t work in the way they do — expansively, independently, communally, and online.

The community is how fanfiction thrives, but active, interesting, multifarious fanfiction is likewise why the community thrives. Why people write it, and what it does for them, is complicated — but it boils down to the simple. Earlier this year, I posted a fanfiction survey on my LiveJournal. When I asked the obvious question, “Why do you read/write fanfic?” I got the obvious answer: it’s fun! Scott (whom I met several years ago on a Harry Potter fanfic writer’s LJ) said, “It’s fun to play in a place with so many rules, because you have to see if you can follow them. It’s a challenge. It’s also really cool to write in a forum where you get instant feedback and can actually discuss your writing with your readers.”

As an essential part of a story’s nature, the idea of sharing is nothing new. In fact, fanfiction functions a lot like folklore: it is a practice of shifting and filling the boundaries of a certain world to fit the person who is telling it, and of sharing those interpretations with others. As in folklore, the base of the story remains, but every telling reflects the teller. The urges behind both are the same: to respond, to express, and to give. Fanfiction is an extremely traditional — almost instinctive — form of storytelling. One respondent remarked that “each writer’s idea of the characters and plots adds more layers and richness.” The more stories there are, the more fanfiction becomes a conversation — not only in the comments left by readers, but between writers, readers, and the common source.

My friend Rhaella believes this to a perhaps controversial degree. “No person can create a fully organic and workable world on their own,” she says. “Fanfic is an opportunity to reinterpret works, sometimes flesh them out if that’s what’s required, but always keep them alive and moving in some way.” It is also, she says, a creative form of criticism. The generally accepted prerequisite that everyone participating already likes the object of critique seems to detract little from debate. Like any community, the online fanfiction world hosts its fair share of disagreements and outright battles — either personal or based on points of contention about canon and fan interpretation. Still, it is conversation, and it does keep the stories “alive and moving.”

So, fanfiction brings people from all over the place to be more excited about what they already love, makes them expressive and creative, and fosters very real loyalties and friendships. It sounds utopian, but it’s not. Every fanfic is not perfectly crafted narrative art, and not all stories are child-safe. Mature content in fanfiction is just like mature content in published books: kids who delve into fanfiction do so at their own pace and development. In my experience, a reader who isn’t ready for something she bumps into online will back right out again. And frankly, fanfiction is safer than most written materials — it’s standard for writers to list ratings and content warnings at the tops of their stories, not as censorship, but because no one’s intent in fandom is to traumatize anyone with content their various readers aren’t suited to.

As to the writing quality — well, a lot of fanfiction is downright rotten. But that’s more or less irrelevant. Says Julie, “I feel like fanfiction authors are more in touch with what people want to read.” People grow as writers and readers by making their way from the embarrassingly bad stuff to, if you know where to look, the truly breathtaking. But people do it at their own pace, and they are able to do it because the internet is personal and malleable in a way that programs, publishers, and even pen and paper are not. And we like it more, because it hasn’t been polished, dismissed, or dictated by any standards but what the reader enjoys.

Although not all authors are comfortable with the idea of their stories generating fanfiction, I think this will change. My friend Aja says, tongue-in-cheek but meaning it, “One day I will publish my grandiose set of novels, and when I do, I hope I attract intelligent and amazing writers to develop a fandom around them — there are so many characters that could do so many things other than what I have planned for them, but because that’s Not The Way The Story Goes, I can’t really write it, you know?” Writing is still personal, but to a lot of younger readers and writers, stories are becoming something evolutionary again — and the highest possible achievement is that someone else would want to write about what you wrote first.

brennan_demon's lexiconIt’s a new dream, and it’s possible — as some writers are already seeing for themselves. Sarah Rees Brennan, whose YA fantasy The Demon’s Lexicon was published by McElderry Books in June, was best known for several years as the Harry Potter fanfic author Maya. When she officially withdrew from fanfiction writing in 2008, with a LiveJournal name change and a website of her own, she left her loyal readers over two thousand pages of fanfiction in PDF form. And the readers are loyal; after the fanfiction’s removal, and two months before the release of her debut novel, “sarahtales” was still listed as a friend by 5,797 LiveJournal users. In fact, upon the announcement of her first novel, her online fans leapt into action and created a fan community for her original works. It was already watched in April by 613 people. Her journal now has 5,998 followers, and Marmalade Fish (the fan community) has 691.

Whether or not she has improved as a writer because of fanfiction (verdict, she says, uncertain), Brennan has gotten something powerful out of it. “Having people care about what you write, and tell you what they liked and didn’t like about it, was marvelous and encouraging for someone used to writing original fiction which few people ever read aside from my father and my Great-Aunt Jemima!”

But the gratifying thing about fanfiction is that you don’t have to have thousands of fans or a published book or a fan community of your own to experience the best it has to offer. Brennan’s final word on the subject is near-universal, and the one to take to heart: “I like fic because it’s fun,” she says, “because it’s a community centred around writing and excitement about a creative endeavour, because people involved in it are very kind, and because it is I think a huge compliment paid to a creator or a writer — your playground was so fascinating, I had to come play in it, and I made friends there!”

From the November/December 2009 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more in our Fan Week series, click on the tag Fan Week 2016 and see #HBFanWeek on Twitter.

About Becca Schaffner

The author, now Alex Schaffner, is a former Horn Book intern.

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