I have a confession to make. Honestly, it’s a confession that shouldn’t be hard for a fan of sff to make in 2018, but there’s still value in coming out publicly on the right side of an issue:
I love fanfic. I encourage my students to write and read fanfic, for all the reasons so eloquently and passionately discussed in this Seanan McGuire Twitter thread. I think the existence of fanfic is one of the most powerful indicators of a storyteller’s grip on their audience, especially in sff fandoms. If my fantasy series ever grew successful enough to provoke readers to abscond with it for fanfic purposes, I’d be more excited than if it hit the bestseller lists.
I grew up writing my fanfics in spiral bound notebooks that I hid under my pillow, or in loose leaf packets stapled into “books” that I copied out and distributed to friends. My current work teaching high school students is a constant reminder of the distance between their world of between fourteen to eighteen years of age and mine. I had dial-up and got my first email account a few months before going to college. If there were any places I could share my fanfic online, I didn’t know about them; if I had, I would have bought into the conventional wisdom of the early-to-mid 90s, so effectively memed here. Today, as an adult, what interests me most about fanfic isn’t so much the readership laying claim to characters and worlds for their own creative purposes (that’s pretty much the tautological definition of what fanfic is). I’m interested in its frequent drive toward emotional exploration over exterior stakes, and how that’s reshaped the very properties we consume today.
Let’s take Marvel comics as an example.
I grew up reading X-Men comics, loving their big, fractious casts of characters in an adopted-family-meets-hero-SWAT-team arrangement. One of my favorite comics moments of that formative time was the Gizmodo-maligned 1991 pool party issue. Why, yes. Yes, that is Wolverine in a pair of jean cutoffs. (At the time of this blog article’s writing, apparently, jorts are in the midst of making a comeback. So before you snicker at Logan’s problematic sartorial choices, just remember that my mother said there’s a twenty to thirty year turnaround on all fashions, and apparently we need to respect Mama Prescience a little more.) Yes, Colossus is wearing a thong. . . while in metal form. But a pool party for the X-Men was exactly the kind of experience that would have sent me straight to FanFiction.net or Archive of Our Own in search of more, if only they’d existed at the time.
Let’s face it: “Let the heroes do something other than punch rogue mutants or anti-mutant hate groups for a few pages” is a very, very fanfic-friendly creative move. It is, unfortunately, also exactly the kind of content at which sff purists and gatekeepers like to roll their eyes. It’s not terribly different than the forthcoming Ms. Marvel slumber party crossover which, if you search around on the interwebs (don’t) you’ll find more than ample outcry against, often framed in the most grossly misogynistic of terms. But this outcry—that these stories are just feelings or too much about the things that happen in the moments between explosions and apocalypses—is the cry of the dinosaur as the meteor descends from above.
Because now, the (former) kids are in charge.
I am (at the time of this writing) thirty-eight years old. And I grew up loving X-Men swimsuit issues, and Amber fanfics that explored the relationships between Zelazny’s sibling characters, and awkward crossovers between characters who could not possibly grate against one another in more delicious ways (Spider-Man and Wolverine, anyone?). There are more than a few people my age, give or take, who are writing professional
ly now, having learned and loved craft first as fanfic authors and readers. Many of these creators continue to write for that audience, as it’s a common and totally defensible sentiment that fanfic writing and “professional” writing aren’t meaningful narrative divides in the Year of Our Lord 2018. These former/current fan writers have stepped into the existing titles and characters they’ve loved. They’ve also written their own, unique works inspired by their experiences writing and reading and growing in the fanfic community, exploring hurt/comfort, meet-cutes, reconciliations, revelations, and more than a few coffeeshop AUs.
The point isn’t that core worlds, characters, or property concepts are being “ruined” or subverted, as the angriest comment threads online would have us believe. The point is this is a generation of creators that both acknowledges fanfic as a valid engagement with the source material, and borrows extensively from its toolbox. With more of those creators in professional prominence, many of the narrative beats and styles essential in the fanfic scene are reshaping the way “mainstream” fiction is written.
The inmates are running the asylum, and thank God for it. If they weren’t, I don’t think we’d have the sense of play that inspires scenes like the Avengers getting shawarma after narrowly saving New York from alien invasion, Sam Wilson meet-cuting with Steve Rogers and talking over his notebook of “adjusting to the 21st century” to-dos, or Diana and Steve Trevor talking about the necessity of men for sexual pleasure in a delightfully ad-libbed “we must sleep together but not like that” scene.
These moments and others in sff film, comics, novels, and short fiction embrace a whole generation that grew up believing that you can make mountains out of what others see as narrative molehills, and that climbing those mountains gives you a better view of the whole story.
I look forward to seeing what the next wave of fanfic writers do to reshape the genres they love. We’re an audience that should love change, after all.