Between the ages of thirteen and fifteen, I found my life revolving entirely around fanfiction. Yes, fanfiction, where characters and settings from popular forms of media were featured in original plots, and anyone was free to write them. I remember staying up till 4 am, my phone grasped tightly in my hand, the faint light illuminating my face while I became completely transfixed reading about my favourite characters.
At that point, I feasted upon every morsel of content I could scavenge – fanfictions about Harry Potter, The Mortal Instruments, Percy Jackson… stories that rewrote plots, reimagined events or transported characters into alternative timelines. Fanfiction.net became my familiar haunt and after mustering much courage, I too began writing and posting my fanfiction on the site. The day I received 100 reads on my fanfiction became the pinnacle of my teenage existence.
what had once been a source of great comfort and familiarity began to cause me shame
Sadly, I grew out of that phase with time, and it began to dawn upon me that fanfiction was not as celebrated as I had imagined it to be. What had once been a source of great comfort and familiarity began to cause me shame. I realised that my obsession and love for fanfiction was not something to be proud of and I sought to hide any trace of it. Before writing this, I sat myself down and tried to understand what this deep-rooted shame was born out of, and I think I have a few explanations.
There are a lot of prejudices that cloud judgement when fanfiction is mentioned. I personally cannot talk about fanfiction without instantly thinking of ‘My Immortal’, a Harry Potter fanfiction that became famous for all the wrong reasons. With its ‘goth’ characters, writing riddled with errors of all kinds and a seemingly eccentric writer, ‘My Immortal’ created a very stilted image of what to expect from such works. Instantly, a trend of perceiving fanfiction as unintelligible rubbish took the world by storm. It became a general presumption that works on sites such as Fanfiction.net, Wattpad and Archive Of Our Own were incompetent and worth no merit.
Another pre-conceived notion that is irreversibly tied to fanfiction is the abundance of steamy, sexual works it spawns. This notion is largely a product of the fanfictions that mainstream media pushes into the spotlight. There’s ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, originally a ‘Twilight’ fanfiction, which is known for its scandalous content, creating a biased understanding of fanfiction. Recently, the Harry Styles fanfiction ‘After’ is gaining traction due to the commercial success of its film adaptations, again building on the sexual connotations that fanfiction carries. The result – fanfiction considered as a sexual outlet for (generally teenage) fangirls.
as the main audience for fanfiction is female teens, it is easy to look down upon their work
This brings us to the overarching assumption around fanfiction. Fanfiction has easily been written off as the ramblings of teenage fangirls that cared very little about coherency and structure and more about imagining graphic sexual scenarios about their favourite characters. As sad as it is, I strongly feel that as the main audience for fanfiction is female teens, it is easy to look down on their work and call it names, judge, and ridicule as well as mock anyone for liking it. In general fiction itself, readers of romance and young adult fiction are typically belittled for their juvenile tastes, and more often than not, these readers tend to be female as well. The same prejudice has been applied to fanfiction, branding it as an inferior body of work.
I do agree that fanfiction carries a multitude of faults, some mentioned already, others include abusive tropes, mature content being available for younger audiences as well as the danger of cyber-bullying. However, it is wholly unfair to degrade an entire genre of work just on these bases. There are many hidden gems that include carefully crafted plots exploring various themes that are extremely well written. Additionally, fanfiction also creates a community of like-minded individuals that can become a safe space for many. It is a space where one can write whatever they wish with no judgement and complete anonymity, which can mean a lot to people. At the end of the day, it’s a small haven to retire to and envelope yourself in the comfort of characters that you know and love.
fanfiction also creates a community of likeminded individuals that can become a safe space for many
So, the next time you think of fanfiction snobbily, I hope you think of ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ by Jean Rhys; is it not but ‘Jane Eyre’ fanfiction, a prequel to those events? And isn’t ‘The Aeneid’ a fanfiction of ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey’, an attempt by Virgil to emulate Homer’s epics and style? Isn’t ‘Inferno’ just like a self-insert fanfiction where Dante imagines himself interacting with Virgil? Is not ‘Paradise Lost’ the story of Genesis retold through Satan’s eyes, making it a villain point of view retelling?
All these works hold literary merit, yet when stripped down to their bare bones, are they really that different from popular fanfiction?
Illustration by Adeline Zhao