Essays · Introduction

(The Start of) An Impassioned Defense of Fan Fiction

As a general rule, I don’t post reviews of fanfics on this blog.

Certainly, there was one notable instance—an instance in which said fanfic was eventually published as a book for sale, incidentally.

Lately, I’ve begun to ask myself: Why is that?

This is my “dirty” secret: I read a lot of fanfic. As a matter of fact, even when I’m too depressed to do anything else, when I can’t stand up or go outside or even pick up a book—even then, I read fanfics.

It would be accurate to say that fan fiction is my comfort genre of choice. Back in the days when I had bookcases’ worth of books at my fingertips, sometimes my comfort reads would be familiar, beloved books. Alas, those days are gone, and I don’t have the means to keep many books anymore. As such, most of the books that I do still have are books I haven’t yet read or books of particular sentimental or intellectual significance to me—none of them are comfort reads. Thus, I resort almost exclusively to fanfics for comfort.

Despite having reviewed that one work fanfic on this site, I now note that I never made a tag. I still vividly remember defending my choice to review it at the start, as if it was a shameful thing to be reviewing a fanfic alongside “legitimate” books.

But this year, since I published my own book and started reviewing the works of other self-published authors, I’ve experienced first-hand that the world of self-published novels is not that dissimilar to the fanfic world. In the world of self-published books, it’s easy to wind up with a work that, especially compared to a traditionally published book, is badly in need of an editor. Choices in these stories can be reflective of the fact that the author had no one to put a foot down and tell them no—in other words, they can be self-indulgent, lacking in sensitivity, bewildering or confusing to readers, and all manner of other things not generally found in traditionally published books.

Now, this could be—and usually is—viewed as a huge mark against self-published books. I used to see it that way too. But when I read Amidst Honeysuckle, Promises and Forbidden Things, something strange happened. By all ordinary metrics of an original novel, it should have been a complete disaster: grammar, punctuation and capitalization are almost comically freestyled, the plot depicts choices and circumstances with little to no regard for the real-world psychological and societal ramifications of those things except as serves the plot, and each and every character’s physical description is listed with hair color, eye color and physique—even when said characters have little to no part to play in the story. And for about a third to half of the book, I did think it was a disaster—until something clicked and I realized, I just have to think of this as a fanfic. And next thing I knew, I’d finished it—not particularly irritated or worse for the wear. I could even see the appeal it might hold to some, even if that appeal is no longer something I can appreciate myself.

This shift got me thinking. Why did that one thought make such a difference? If I can read fanfics of a quality that I wouldn’t accept from a book, then surely the problem was never really with the quality, but something to do with my perception. Why is it that we tend to separate original fiction from fan fiction so starkly? Fifty Shades of Gray and the way it was originally published—rife with errors, barely edited from its original fanfic form except for the requisite name changes—and that patently appealed to a very wide audience nonetheless.

Could it be that hang-ups on things like grammar, story structure and psychological ramifications are an elitist way of looking at stories? At the end of the day, the thing that matters most is appealing to an audience. Are there people with whom a story resonates? Are there people who want to spend their time reading it? If a story that fails at grammar, structure and psychology nevertheless gains people who want to read it, with whom it resonates—that story is still a success.

I became a fan of the YouTuber Jenny Nicholson after I watched her read and make fun of the fanfic Trapped in a Island with Josh Hutcherson (and yes, that is the title: grammatical errors and all). This story, she exposited, had 48300 hits on Wattpad (as of the day that I’m writing this, the number has risen to 70100 hits). The fanfic is abysmal, by regular story metrics. And yet, clearly it does resonate with a lot of people—even if we assume that all readers since Jenny’s video are reading it ironically, and that before Jenny’s video, about half the readers were reading it ironically, that would still be 24 thousand sincere readers—and personally, I think that a whole 20 thousand people independently reading a story ironically seems a little unlikely.

In story critique, perhaps we spend too much time paying attention to what stories should be, at the expense of seeing what is.

True that neither of the aforementioned Amidst Honeysuckle…Forbidden Things nor Trapped inJosh Hutcherson were stories that appealed to me. Yet there are other fanfics out there that I read and genuinely enjoy. Not only do I enjoy them—I learn from them. There are fanfics that I regularly cite as being a shining example of some storytelling technique that I admire—except, up until now, I’ve always shied away from calling it a fanfic when I cite it. “This book I read once,” I’ll say instead, deliberately vague and misleading whomever I’m speaking to.

For some reason, it can seem like a shameful thing to admit, enjoying fan fiction as sincerely as I often do. I didn’t even realize how ashamed I was behaving about this hobby of mine until I started thinking about it.

The thing is, quality isn’t even that difficult a problem to get around in the fanfic world anymore. With the advent of AO3 and the filters on FF.net, looking for a high-quality fanfic is no longer the disorganized bog of senselessness that it was when I discovered the world in the ’90s. It’s easy to do a sort of crowd-sourced quality control by sorting stories by popularity. Generally speaking, if you go to a fandom or pairing you like (assuming that the number of works in that fandom or pairing are fairly substantial) and sort it by popularity—meaning by number of kudos on AO3 or favorites on FF.net—you can find at least a few stories that are well worth your time on the first page of results.

And there are quite a few fanfics out there that I adore, at a level not dissimilar to my favorite original novels.

So, I’m making a change: I’m going to be posting reviews of some fanfics. Make no mistake—these will be some of my favorites, so things that I highly recommend. I won’t waste your time talking about the mediocre (for now). I want to showcase the wonderful pieces that the fan fiction genre can produce—especially the beautiful stories I love that can only exist as fanfic. By which I mean, they can have no Fifty Shades of Gray style novel adaptation. Many of these stories are too intrinsically linked to their fandom to make sense if removed from that.

And that, for me, is part of the appeal.

In addition to the reviews, I’m also planning a few essays, and maybe a vlog or two on the subject of fanfic: its worth for readers, its value for writers, as well as an analysis of the positive aspects of stories that can almost exclusively come out of fan fiction.

Whether you love fan fiction or are skeptical of this notion, I invite you to join me.

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