Fan fiction writers are not here for your titillation. Fan fiction writers are not here to make other fans of fiction feel safe and cozy in the knowledge that they’re wasting their lives watching telly more sanely than some others. Fan fiction writers are not here to provide cheap thrills for your audience.
We are not here — there, everywhere, in the public domain — to be made fun of; to be used as that old photograph on everyone’s high-and-mighty dartboard for all of those who… well, all of those who need to feel better about themselves and their own ways of consuming media. (Be that consuming loads of it, occasional viewers, or those consuming none at all.)
Apparently, you can only ever feel better about yourself by absolutely pissing on someone else’s fun parade.
Anyone’s, really. And fandom is such a great target. In fandom, you get teenagers (who everyone hates because they have no soul), in fanfic specifically you get mostly female teenagers (d’uh) and/or frustrated housewives (even more d’uh) in the case of Fifty Shades of Twaddle; you get people exuberantly expressing their love for something they love to watch, read, or listen to — and what all those attacking them only deign to watch. Almost invariably, the targets of such disdain are young women*.
Whenever talk show hosts ask actors to read or act out pieces of fan fiction, whenever media publications need something to laugh at that doesn’t threaten their influencers, whenever a content producer needs someone’s backs to launch off of for a cheap punchline — they use us. Empire Online has decided to join the parade of flinging flaming bags of poo:
Since time immemorial, fanfiction has lurked in the shady backgrounds of movie and TV shows, almost exclusively the domain of the truly obsessive.
Wow. There is so much going on in that opening sentence that I don’t even know where to start. Let’s begin by bolding some of the key expressions:
Since time immemorial, fanfiction has lurked in the shady backgrounds of movie and TV shows, almost exclusively the domain of the truly obsessive.
You know, that is rich coming from you, Empire, one of the leading UK publications on all things geek, nerd, and fanboy. Seriously, well done, one realm of fandom looking down on another, cleverly distancing themselves from “those people.” Because, sure, Empire Online editors may have the complete set of lightsabers at home, but they’re not “obsessed,” nah. Just harmlessly geeky.
So, basically, we’re all psychos, right?
Katie Couric cracked to Benedict Cumberbatch that he sure has some “crazy” fans. Graham Norton had Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy rate X-Men fan art and fan works on the show a couple months after asking Martin Freeman his opinion on some Sherlock fan works. All with that condescending air of, “aww, bless.” Aren’t they brain dead, but cute in their worship of you? The idea that fandom is a pile of raving lunatics not to be touched with a ten-foot pole has become more prevalent in recent years than ever; thanks to the increase of producer-fan interaction via the Internet and social media. We’re breaking through the fourth wall, we’re crossing more and more lines in the sand. It has become cute to — nudge-nudge, wink-wink — hint especially towards male actors that their fans (especially those of the a) female and b) screaming their names at the red carpet variety) are pretty much a template for the oncoming zombie apocalypse. That we’re dangerous, that we’re all basically psycho stalkers, and that they should reap our adoration but keep their distance, just to be safe.
This is why, for so long, the general fandom policy was to Hide the Porn. Don’t break the fourth wall, keep that shit at home, do NOT badger actors and creators about your ships. (And, seriously, don’t.)
Many actors make it a point to acknowledge that their fans are actually great, and that they appreciate how much work is going into the production of fan fiction and other fan works. Yet, this is the one they keep going with, this is what the news outlets and the yellow press figure would get them a) the most publicity, b) the best click bait, and c) the juiciest spats in the comments section. What it did get them was a lot of flak from fans being tired of the media engineering fake media outrage over a non-issue by using fandom as the vehicle for their war-mongering.
2019 update: ever since Good Omens premiered on Amazon Prime, Michael Sheen has been vocal and ardent in his admiration for Aziraphale/Crowley works on AO3, and it’s honestly adorable. And kind.
We helped him build that character, and part of his performance. And he doesn’t give two shits whether people think fanfiction is weird. Neil Gaiman has always been a proponent of it. And while I do not believe that we should go looking at straight writers’ doors for queer representation first, I do appreciate their support quite a lot.
Now, I will not claim that members of fandom haven’t made colossal fools of themselves in the past. It’s happened, it’s terrible — but it’s only ever some who are stupid enough to do this. What the media and the public seem unable to understand is that there’s bad apples in every barrel. Football fans aren’t all hooligans, that seems easy enough for everyone to understand, right?
What purpose does it serve to publicly ridicule the writers who have written the works presented in that Empire Online article?
What possible sodding purpose could it be, other than having a good laugh at something because that’s easier than acknowledging that fan fiction actually has a lot to offer. Character exploration, expansion of the fictional universe, connecting dots that the canon writers either didn’t have the time or the room to connect. Henry Jenkins has long ago established the notion that fanfiction (fanworks, in general) takes the monopoly of cultural creation away from those in power and gives it back to the masses. Any conversation about fan works and cultural production is as much about politics and power as it is about the narrative itself. After an episode has aired, who does it belong to? In copyright, sure, but also in spirit?
Using someone else’s ideas to base your own on is literally the foundation of modern literature. Hell, even ancient literature. Writers have always used whatever was up for grabs, and nowadays pretty much all I see on TV and at the movies is, basically, fan fiction. I daresay that pretty much everyone who works in film or literature does because they’re fan of something. Sherlock has been created because, guess what, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are huge fanboys and had nothing better to talk about during boring train rides to and from Cardiff — where they work on their other huge obsession, Doctor Who. Both of them wrote Who fanfic as kids — and have since used some of those old ideas in their actual canonical production of the show. Any adaptation, homage, or exploration of any given source material is, basically, fanfic. It’s just that Hartswood Films get money for it and I get kudos and maybe a virtual hug.
What happens when fan works are attacked by way of only ever picking out the most ridiculous and scandalous examples is: we’re being kept where we are. We’re being silenced, tainted by association with those authors deemed to be nutcases, we’re being shamed into not wanting to be put into the same context. The power imbalance is sustained. That’s what happens.
I honestly don’t know why tentacle porn is a thing. I also don’t care, because it’s none of my business. Does it hurt anybody? No. Do those liking that thing endanger themselves by doing so? I don’t think so. So what does anyone care??
Despite the (perhaps objective) absurdity of the material on this list, the quality with which some of it is written proves that fanfiction is not always a confused, badly spelled stream of fangirl/boy consciousness.
Are we really going to pretend like fan fiction writers and readers alike have absolutely no standards?
The thing is — and this is, again, speaking to the power imbalance — that fanfiction is, or should be, per se democratic. Anyone can participate. Great writers, mediocre writers, writers who really should install spellcheck. And I bet you that for every one of those 12 fan works Empire has listed, there are a dozen really great pieces just waiting to blow your mind. Fan works offer the chance to participate to the disenfranchised, to those crossing language barriers, to those who have the courage of putting themselves out there. Even if some of that content being produced is terrible, I will take the good with the bad, and offer myself as a beta reader.
You know, I’m not here to counter-attack. I’m not going to tell casual fans, or die-hard fans of something who don’t think fanfiction to be something that suits them, that they’re not true fans, or that being passionate about something is the only right way to do it. I don’t think breeding rabbits would be a valuable pastime for me, but I don’t go ’round shouting at rabbit breeders that they’re “obsessed” and “nuts” and “out of control.” They just really like rabbits, and I respect that; as long as they make sure that the rabbits they breed are happy and healthy. That’s a caveat I should think goes without saying, but I know that someone is going to show up and tell me that the analogy doesn’t work because animal breeding is known to have dangerous effects, etc. I know that. I’ve seen enough sickly, overbred animals to know that. So I’m saying it now — because, guess what, the same caveat goes for everything anyone ever does. Out there, on Earth, at all. The same goes for cyclists driving along the road, the same goes for any producers of media. If someone writes fanfic that isn’t up my alley, I will not read that fanfic. That’s it.
The thing where the media suddenly forget that fandom isn’t some dangerous no-go zone devoid of rules, or common decency.
Which brings us back to Fifty Shades of Grey. That shit is terrible. Not only is it badly written (side note: I have only read excerpts embedded in essays and blog posts), from what I have seen, it depicts a deeply troubling romantic relationship that includes, among other things, stark power imbalances, dubious consent, abuse, stalking, and gross neglect. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Such relationships have been depicted in fiction before — perhaps not involving notions of BDSM and Dom/sub relationships, but abusive relationships in fiction are nothing new under the sun. The question that we as readers, listeners, and viewers ask ourselves is, how does the narrative deal with this? Does it have to be acknowledged that this relationship is abusive and that its depiction cannot be taken as “how relationships should be,” but as the absolute truth that relationships can be that way? Or is it condoned or, worse, depicted as “true romance”? In the overwhelming majority of cases, horrible behaviour in romantic situations (such as not accepting when someone says no, not accepting when a relationship is over, constantly putting a partner’s needs second, one of the partners nurturing the other to the point of self-neglect, the idea of co-dependence, the notion of not being able to live without the other; just to name a few of those massively disturbing tropes) is accepted as the norm, is presented as what one should expect when entering the dating game. A lot of fiction does not question this. That’s what happens in Fifty Shades, which is why I, personally, don’t like it.
There is a line between fiction depicting unhealthy dynamics and fiction using harmful tropes and stereotypes at face value. This goes for romance as much as racism, xenophobia, or homophobia; including internalised prejudice.
Fan fiction does the same thing. There’s actually an ongoing debate over fics portraying incest relationships, fics containing non-con or dub-con elements, or violence. I know many who simply do not read them; but they would not rock up in authors’ inboxes to tell them that they’re being disgusting. That’s what tags are for. The remainder of the debate centres on whether authors have to use disclaimers that what they’re writing about is ‘problematic.’ I would argue that the use of the appropriate tags already shows that the author knows — because it should go without saying. Dark!fic has and always will be a thing, and there’s a reason it exists.
There’s another issue at play here that leads to fan fiction being used for the oh-so-innocent public’s titillation: the juxtaposition of violence and sex in fiction. People get murdered, tortured, slaughtered on TV, in the movies, in books and plays and radio dramas every single day. Murder is also something that happens plenty in fan fiction — simply because so many fandoms crop up around crime dramas and police procedurals alone; and because murder is, quite simply, a frequently used plot device on any drama series. Yet, what fanfic gets singled out for is, of course, the sex. Sure, fan fiction protagonists sure have a lot of sex. They bonk, they bump uglies, they go down and up and every which way imaginable. Slash is so dominant in fan fiction because, well. Same-sex relationships, like, exist. In real life. Curiously, that doesn’t make it onto the screen much, does it? And the odds for femslash (i.e. wlw relationships) both in canon material and in fan fiction are actually even worse than for same-sex male relationships. A lot of the time, fan fiction fixes things that media recipients feel are broken. Yes, there’s tentacles. Yes, there’s mpreg. So fucking what?
Why can’t people just be Zen about this?
The Internet is also full of porn. Amateur porn, professional porn, consensual porn, hardcore porn, really disgusting porn. Mainstream media, too, are full of private parts. But oh boy, that stuff bumps up any movie’s ratings faster than a banker can say mortgage fraud; while even horrific violence has become commonplace. Do you see where I’m going with this? This is a pattern. One that affects not just fandom, not just fan fiction, but the media in general. Sex sells, but sex is also the devil’s fruit and you should feel terrible for having it. But before you virgins over there breathe a sigh of relief — not having sex just makes you totally pathetic, y’know?
Fandom isn’t the problem. Writing stories with lots of dicks and bums and twats in them isn’t the problem. It’s the media’s inability to deal with sex that is what’s getting us into this mess. And I for one am sick of being made into the convenient outlet for everyone’s inadequacy.
I’m not here to pretend like everything’s alright in fandom. Sure, we fight, we argue, and there are opposing camps who might never reconcile on any given issue. But that’s just life.
I am not here for you to laugh about just because I love something differently. I am not here for you to drag me out into the spotlight for doing something that doesn’t hurt anybody just because you feel like it. I am not here for you to try and tell me that I have no standards, no concept of reality, no intellect because I am tuned into a community of people that interact with media on a level you don’t feel comfortable with.
So leave me the heck alone, Empire. Leave me the heck alone and stop using me and my friends for cheap thrills.
Hey welcome back Andrea! Having never heard of Empire, I think I’m grateful I never have, after reading this.
Hiya! Getting annoyed was what was needed to pull me from my traditional languor, it seems 🙂
Empire as a whole is fine, really. I guess most editors are still blokes and I often wish there were more diverse voices in the podcast, but it’s a good magazine, generally. It just sometimes that they make a grab into the toilet bowl, and this one’s it. I’m sad they didn’t leave this one alone, is all.
Well one thing good came from them getting you annoyed… your back! But i pity them. Happy Valentines Day to you.
I’m not familiar with Empire but I’m a fanfiction author myself. I hardly tell anybody in RL because I’m tired of the snickers and looks I get for my ‘TV show obsession’. This is a brilliant, fantastic article and I shared in on FB, Twitter and Tumblr for everyone to see and hopefully read. Thanks for writing it!
High five to the fellow writer! I’m very selective about who I tell as well, it’s harrowing. Sometimes I resort to telling people I’m working on a novel when I cite writing fiction as one of my hobbies, simply to get them off my back. (I am working on an original novel, but that is beside the point.) It’s sad that we should be ridiculed because the media have decided that something that so many people enjoy must be mocked and made fun of at all cost because it’s something they don’t understand and/or is mostly enjoyed by a group of people it’s cool to hate these days.
Thanks for commenting, it’s great to hear fandom voices; and of course for sharing my post!