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 something shitty.
Now, there is a spectrum of shittiness that these comments fall across, but the ones that annoy me most are the ones that fall on the Almost Reasonable end of the spectrum. It’s the comments about how, well, fanfiction is all well and good as a hobby, but this gentleman just doesn’t understand why anyone who is serious about writing doesn’t challenge themselves to write something real.

It is the most annoying kind of comment because I have no more hope of arguing this gentleman out of his viewpoint than I would if it was further towards the Egregiously Awful end of the shittiness spectrum, but I will inevitably fall victim to temptation and try to do so anyway, and fail, and fail, and fail, while this boy purses his lips and primly says he just doesn’t get it.

I have a collection of metaphors and arguments that I have amassed over the years to explain to a skeptical and patronizing boy why Fanfiction Is Cool Actually, but all of them do the genre a disservice to some degree. I have attempted to talk about fanfiction in elevated terms: Sometimes I explain that it is the modern mythology, a way of communally sharing stories in a world where the open prairie of storytelling has been chopped up into parcels and fenced off with electrified barbed wire. Sometimes I explain it in terms of Marxist creativity, where marginalized and underserved voices have a chance to quite literally seize the means of production, dismantle the corporate factory, and build it anew in their own image. Sometimes I talk about the deep literary merit of fanfic, bringing up the most exquisite and spectacular examples of the form.

But here’s the thing: Fanfiction is all of these things, yes. But describing it in these terms always feels like I am attempting to defend it by watering it down or by draping a tablecloth over the unpalatable parts of it. When I explain it like this, the argument is, in essence: “See? It can be respectable within your patriarchy.”

Respectable is the very last thing that fanfiction should ever be. Respectable would be the death of fanfiction.

To love something, you must accept it in its glorious entirety, and so here is the whole truth: Fanfiction is ugly, messy, and amateurish – because it’s made primarily by amateurs. It’s experimental – and many of those experiments fail. It is a community made up of humans – who are flawed and petty and vicious and opinionated, who are carrying the toxic baggage of their society (racism, internalized misogyny, and various forms of queerphobia against anyone except white gay men), who make terrible interpersonal choices, and who sometimes care too much.

It is disreputable as hell and you should respect it anyway, because even with all of its problems and flawed humans and failed experiments, it is nevertheless something beautiful and rare: It is a sandbox, open for anyone to come in and play, and build castles, and kick other people’s castles down, and learn and grow as writers, as critics, as people. It is a living, breathing conversation with both itself and with the professional canon.

Let’s look at a timeline of inheritance so you can see what I mean by “conversation”:

  • In ancient times: Most religions developed concept or myth of the before-times when life was easy and perfect for everyone, free from sin. (This was also a theme of the works of the Greek poet Hesiod and historian Plutarch.)
  • Many people take this idea and run with it
  • In 1516, Thomas More writes a book entitled Utopia, naming the trope and describing an optimal perfect society.
  • Many further people take this idea and continue to run with it, developing the conversation into something quite complex and nuanced – is a utopia possible? What does it look like? How can we achieve it?
  • As part of this ongoing conversation, Aldous Huxley writes Brave New World (1931), about an ostensibly-utopian society, showcasing just how much social control would go in to building and maintaining a “perfect” society.
  • In 1973, Ursula K. Le Guin adds her two cents to the conversation and publishes the short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, questioning the cost of utopia and whether it is a utopia if even one person is living in abject misery.
  • In 2018, the fanfiction writer astolat publishes Victory Condition, with the author’s note: “It’s hard to walk away from Omelas if it hasn’t been built yet.” It manages to be both a sexually-explicit Transformers fanfic (of all things!) and a deeply fascinating philosophical response to Le Guin’s short story.

Whew, right? That’s what I’m talking about when I call fanfiction a living conversation. We are all standing on the shoulders of giants (and so are the giants!).

Everything is fanfiction, when you think about it. Any visual adaptation of a book or retelling of an older story is a form of it. Take a moment to think of how many Sherlock Holmes adaptations can you name in 60 seconds. The 1980s TV show with Jeremy Brett, BBC’s Sherlock, Elementary, the Robert Downey Junior movies, The Great Mouse Detective… I’m sure you can think of at least three or four more, and that’s not even getting started on all the thematic spinoffs (ie: the entire genre of “freelance detective with a plucky assistant and a friend in the police force” stories, like Phryne Fisher or the Chinese drama Detective L).

In the wake of Harry Potter, there were a dozen or more “magical school” books (all fanfiction). Every twenty years or so we get a new wave of vampire books (all, ultimately, Dracula fanfiction). There are countless professionally-published Star Wars books (read: fanfics) making up the Extended Universe. Hell, even this very article is sort of fanfiction (please see Seanan McGuire’s amazing article “The Bodies of the Girls Who Made Me: Fanfiction and the Modern World”).

And gentlemen profic writers have the gall to turn their noses up at me and suggest that people should try writing something original. Bless them.

We have been deeply brainwashed into the idea that “originality” is good. Especially in the internet age, we are voracious for new content, swarming on it like piranhas, devouring it, and drifting away as soon as its stripped bones fall to pieces under our teeth. We think we want new.

We don’t.

New is often off-putting, challenging, and uncomfortable. It’s flavors we’re not used to, or eating utensils that we’ve never seen before. Sometimes that’s fun to experiment with—like going to a molecular gastronomy restaurant and letting them serve you a cloud of steak-and-kidney-pie-scented gas trapped under a brandy snifter—but when you go home, you’re going to order a pizza with the same toppings that you always get, and I don’t think we should feel embarrassed about that because that’s not a bad or shameful thing.

People like familiar things. They like their favorite pizza toppings, or songs that they know all the words to, or a particular bench in a park that they’ve been to a hundred times, or stories about characters they already know and love.

But fanfiction is not always comfort food. It can be the pizza you order in your pajamas, sure. But the whole point of fanfic is that it relies on the familiar—the existing foundation of shared knowledge between author and audience—to do something transformative. In some ways, it’s actually a lot closer to the food at the molecular gastronomy restaurant: old classics scrutinized closely and made in a new, experimental form. Y’know… Fanfiction of steak-and-kidney pie.

Fanfic is as complex and exciting and innovative (and clunky and mediocre and cliché) as professional fiction. They share the same spectrum of creativity. They are capable of the same heights of breathtaking potential and the same depths of profound artistic failure.
Love them both. Read them both. But keep an eye on the fanfic writers in particular, because they are coming for your outdated and stale genre conventions. They’re standing on the shoulders of their own giants as well as ours, and they’re going to change the world.

Alexandra Rowland is the author of A CONSPIRACY OF TRUTHS (2018) and A CHOIR OF LIES (forthcoming, September 2019) and, occasionally, a bespoke seamstress under the stern supervision of their feline quality control manager. They hold a degree in world literature, mythology, and folklore from Truman State University, and they are one of three hosts of the Hugo Award-nominated podcast, Be the Serpent. Find them at, on Twitter as @_alexrowland, or wandering the woods of western Massachusetts.

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