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Bury me in ash, watch me rise: The cultural legitimation of fanfiction


Fanfiction is ingrained in fan culture, almost as a signifier of relevance. Many can recall whispering the words to themselves under soft covers with only the dim warm light of their phone illuminating the room. In the past 10 years fanfiction has morphed from something seen as low-brow and tawdry to an explosive industry that is being capitalized on every day. 

Fanfiction predates modern pop culture, in fact, it goes back to the 18th century with obscene derivatives of Gulliver’s Travels written by Alexander Pope and a slew of sexually explicit works set in the universe of Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel Pamela.  In the 1960s, established authors wrote fanfiction. In Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,”  he solely focused on the side characters in Hamlet. In the same vein, Jean Rhys, author of “Wide Sargasso Sea”, which is based off of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, explores the reasons why Bertha Mason went mad. However, this style of writing wasn’t truly denoted as “fanfiction” until the late 1990s into the early 2000s by the “Star Trek” fandom, “Trekkies.” College-aged people, especially women, indulged in the writing of “Star Trek” narratives, predominantly about Captain Spock and Captain Kirk. In those days, fanfiction was passed around at conventions, published in zines and on fandom specific sites as opposed to a cumulative repository (AO3, Wattpad, Other fandoms such as the “X-files” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” were a part of this practice, but Trekkies truly popularized it all. It was a niche sect of fandom operations presumed to be solely nerdy pursuits.

Those who do not engage in organized fandoms might not understand the appeal of fanfiction. Fanfiction bridges the gap between the creator and the audience,allowing them to engage with the media they are consuming in a more direct manner. Many have a misconception that fanfiction is simply a regurgitation of the pre-established source material. While there may be some canonical aspects kept from the source material, it is not an entire retelling, but an extension and oftentimes a complete reimagining of it. Regardless, the existence of most fanfiction can be explained by one of these 6 reasons: 

  1. To fix-it (fixing plot points and trying to change the story to the way that the writer wants it to be)
  2. To explore the characters motivations
  3. To promote a minor character to a major character position and explore their character in the main storyline
  4. To translate the story into a new genre
  5. To write about a particular relationship Ship culture
  6. To branch off of the established source material

Whether there is a perceived failure of the writer’s rooms or there is major success and the fans cannot bear to part with the characters, fans have a need to be enraptured in a pleasurable, fanciful world. That need is fulfilled by fanfiction long after the text or film is complete.

As with many industries, there is an undercurrent of misogyny in the criticism of fanfiction which frowns upon the aforementioned reasons and disregards fanfiction as a whole, touting it as “the lowest common denominator.” A census of 10,005 AO3 users, found that 80% of their users identified as women. Women-dominated interests are historically mocked and frowned upon. For these reasons, the introduction of fanfiction to mainstream media was surprising. The timeline for this is sandwiched between the two of some of the most hated pop culture moments: the incarnation of the Twilight movies and the rise of One Direction. 

In 2009, a year after the release of the first Twilight movie, Erika Leonard, under the pen name SnowQueens IceDragon, wrote “Master of the Universe” (MOTU) on – a Twilight fanfiction where Edward Cullen was a BDSM-obsessed billionaire and Isabella Swan was a college virgin. Sometime between 2009 and 2010, she wrote MOTU 2 which was then taken off of when she contracted with Writers Coffee Shop in 2011 to publish her work. Her explicit and abusive reimagining of the main pair from Twilight was published in 2012 as “Fifty Shades of Grey” (FoG). The cultural zeitgeist left studios hungry to exploit champion women and provide them with media that is tailor-made for them, thus the creation of the After movie franchise. In 2013, with the rise of One Direction, traffic on Wattpad and AO3 alike skyrocketed to an insurmountable number. In April 2013, Anna Todd wrote the first “After” book, which garnered 321 million reads and in 2019, it was adapted into a feature-length film. 

The ire, disgust and ridicule that was expressed towards those that interact with fanfiction as an authentic piece of media, has now been reduced due to the capitalist success of the aforementioned fanfics and others like them. No longer does one have to hide underneath sheets or look with furtive glances to ensure that no one around them is watching what they read. Fanfiction is now seen as a legitimate form of writing in most circles and thus has established its place in society. Authors like Neil Gaiman and S.E. Hinton have admitted to writing fanfiction. The concept is so blasè that denouncing fanfiction incites a cavalry of defenders and supporters of the art. 

Fanfiction is still typically treated as the lowest type of media to consume and it is generally frowned upon to consume such juvenile content. However, it is completely disingenuous to act like people cannot engage with the material authentically, and just because it is not something that you would naturally gravitate towards doesn’t make it any less valid. 

Fiction is supposed to push the envelope and allow people to engage with themes that are outside their comfort zone. Fiction is supposed to change the way a person thinks about concepts and interacts with certain topics. Fiction challenges creativity and births something unexpected by combining the familiar with the novel. Fanfiction is a way for women to create community and engage with the things that they like in a pleasurable manner. It’s a place for them to combine genres that would not be necessarily thought of (one direction x the purge). They have cultivated their genre, so anyone aware of what fanfiction is can spot those tropes and link them back to this type of fiction. Women are constantly ridiculed for their interests and it is not surprising that they took it upon their own hands and created a space that was solely for them to be able to explore their interests and passions without ridicule. Many find the content of fanfiction to be riveting and sometimes better than books that have stumbled their way onto the New York Times bestseller list. 

Despite the long journey it has endured, fanfiction is a lasting practice that has long provided a creative outlet for those people not well represented in society. While female interest in the art temporarily depreciated it’s worth, as female interest is known to do in a paternalistic society, fanfiction has found its way to market value against the odds of stigma and degradation.

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