Before I grew up and discovered the seductive draw of sitting in front of television for entertainment, I loved to read. Being a relatively introverted and anti-social person (just to perpetuate that geek stereotype further), books let me meet new people and go to new places without having to enter into the scary world of real people.
So, it was perhaps inevitable that my introduction to fandom would come through fan fiction.
In many circles, “fan fiction” has become a dirty term. Fan fiction these days tends to be thought of solely as poorly-written, smut-filled wish-fulfillment that leaches off of better works by better writers. (I may have abused hyphens in that sentence…) .
So, is this reputation correct? Is it an injustice?
Well, as with many stereotypes, there is some truth at the source of the bile, much of which originates in the current nature of the internet. Many of you, I’m sure, have heard the term “Web 2.0” before, but for those who haven’t, here’s a quick definition:
The term Web 2.0 was coined in 1999 to describe web sites that use technology beyond the static pages of earlier web sites.
A Web 2.0 site may allow users to interact and collaborate with each other in a social media dialogue as creators of user-generated content in a virtual community, in contrast to websites where people are limited to the passive viewing of content.
Fan fiction, while having existed for decades (some could argue centuries) in certain circles such as reading groups and fan magazines, has exploded in the Internet age, and grown even more accessible to both writers and readers in the age of Web 2.0. This open access has both positive and negative results.
Consider Andrew Keen’s article “Web 2.0: The Second Generation of the Internet Has Arrived and It’s Worse Than You Think” wherein he claims the Web 2.0:
nightmare is not scarcity, but the overabundance of authors.
Keen fears the multitude of content that is pouring online without any sort of stop-gap. When everyone can publish their thoughts, ideas, or fanfics online, the good content gets buried under the bad content.
And, I’m not going to lie, he does have a point. I think anyone whose spent their youth and early adulthood lurking on fan fiction sites can agree there is a lot of badly written content out there. There is a lot of smut, and there is a lot of wish fulfillment in the forms of author self-insertion and Mary Sues: a fan fiction creation with a long history:
The term “Mary Sue” comes from the name of a character created by Paula Smith in 1973 for her parody story “A Trekkie’s Tale”:15 published in her fanzine Menagerie #2. The story starred Lieutenant Mary Sue (“the youngest Lieutenant in the fleet — only fifteen and a half years old”), and satirized unrealistic Star Trek fan fiction. Such characters were generally original female adolescents who had romantic liaisons with established canonical adult characters, or in some cases were the younger relatives or protégées of those characters.
As you can see, bad fan fiction existed long before the Internet age, but the Internet and Web 2.0 has exacerbated the problem.
That being said, I do think the people who rail against fan fiction are missing some major points:
- A lot of fan fiction is written by kids. I first started writing fan fiction when I was 13, and I know many of those authors who are filling the Internet with their fantasies are still in middle and high school. So, yeah, not every fanfic is going to be a finely crafted, revolutionary text that makes you laugh, cry, and call home about. But, isn’t it better to encourage these kids than flame them for their faults? Maybe there is some budding Pulitzer or Noble winner out there who just needs that extra shot of confidence. At the very least, there may be a future really good fan fiction author who is in the process of developing. And if there’s not, there’s nothing wrong with giving kids an outlet to express themselves in a relatively harmless manner.
- There are some really good fanfics out there. Those of you who’ve read fan fiction extensively probably know a few people who, at one time or another, were relative rock-stars in their fandoms. Personally, I remember the Mellon Chronicles back in my early days of fan fiction discovery. While those Aragorn/Legolas friendship stories weren’t necessarily the best works I’ve ever read, they did have some interesting character moments as they explored the idea of a very deep male friendship. Some AU (Alternate Universe) stories show a great deal of promise as authors use their creativity to take characters into another context.
- Fan fiction is just another term for something we’ve been doing for centuries. Why are there so many variations on the King Arthur legend? How many different versions of Shakespearean plays have gone into theaters? How many times have we retold The Wizard of Oz? Why are there currently two modern adaptions of Sherlock Holmes on television? Our culture is based on expanding ideas already in existence. Every adaption, every reboot, every modern retelling is essentially fan fiction. And yes, a lot of the stuff that’s actually published by publishers instead of on forums and fan sites is higher quality, but a lot of it isn’t. Just because you need to base your creative work on the creative work of others doesn’t make you inferior. It makes you just the latest participant in a cultural practice that has existed for centuries.
So, Back to the titular question. Is fan fiction as bad as they say it is?
Well, yeah, in many cases fan fiction isn’t well-written or valuable. But, is that wrong? Is it such a horrible thing for there to be some creative fantasizing on the Internet? Furthermore, I would argue that it’s worth having all of those horrible fanfics out there if I get to read some of the really good ones. Fan fiction doesn’t hurt anyone (seriously, if it only feeds the revenues of the texts fanfics are based on because it embeds fans deeper within the fandom).
It’s good, if sometimes smutty, fun.