Fanfiction: The Infinite Free Buffet

by Alexandra Rowland

It’s 2019, and fanfic is Cool Now, Actually.

In fact, it’s always been cool, but now people get to say so out loud. Archive of Our Own, the fan-run, -coded, and -owned fanfiction site (which recently broke a landmark four million works hosted) is nominated for a Hugo Award in this year’s Best Related Work category. Not only that, more and more professional authors are talking in public about how they used to write fanfic, or they still sometimes write fanfic, or they’re writing fanfic right now as we speak.

It wasn’t always this way. When I was a tiny, wee thing, back in the early ’00s (which, in comparison to the entire history of the genre, qualifies me as roughly two steps above your average Johnny-come-lately), fanfic was something about which you were still supposed to blushingly dissemble: “Well, you know… uh… it’s not all porn… There’s some – some really good stuff there actually – um. No, I don’t actually want to link you to any of it.”

Back in those days, it was entirely expected that a fanfiction writer would expunge her entire body of work from existence if she eventually went pro. There were some who gave warning, so you had time to download any favorites before they were nuked from orbit. There were some who just… vanished. No explanation, just gone.

In those days, the concern was that if a professional author was discovered to have a history of writing fanfiction, it might ruin her reputation and her career. I think that was a valid concern at the time, misogyny being what it is (and queerphobia, let’s be real). Things were different back then. It was, and I mean this sincerely, a dark time.

But writers gonna write – and grow and learn and stretch their wings and their ambitions – and sometimes a few of them end up with book deals.

Sometimes, over the course of fifty years or so, a lot of them end up with book deals.

And slowly the tide begins to turn.

I’ve been thinking a lot about shame recently. Shame happens, I think, when there is a box that we’re expected to fit into, and we don’t, no matter how we squeeze. Shame is the side effect of being required to lie about some part of who you are. It’s the bruises from where the edges of the box dig in.

People who have been socialized as female have a particularly intimate relationship with shame: we’ve been stuffed into boxes of one sort or another all our lives. You have never met a woman or femme person who is free of those bruises.

Fanfiction is what taught me to forget shame. Fanfiction taught me to love audaciously and at great volume, because, no matter what, the quirkiest trope or literary device or emotional kink that I’m weirdly, obsessively into? There’s a thousand other people or more who love it, too, and a hundred people who are writing fanfic about it. It’s a door of the world flung wide open with a neon billboard saying, “Welcome to the infinite free buffet!” and there’s nothing but food as far as the eye can see—every possible kind of every possible quality. If there’s something you’ve been longing for years to eat, you can find it.

You can, possibly for the first time in your life, not just be fed but be nourished.

Sometimes, I make a terrible but unavoidable life decision: I talk to a boy. Sometimes, these boys are writers like me, and we talk shop, which I cannot do for any significant length of time without mentioning fanfiction. Often when I bring it up, these regrettable conversation partners sniff a little bit and say…

Read Alex’s full essay in the Stellar Beacon, alongside an essay on SFF and optimism (and hopepunk!), a SciFi RPG adventure about resisting tyranny, an article about bringing theatrical and improv techniques to your gaming table, and more. Get your copy today!