While the publishing industry has grown exponentially in recent years with the continuing evolution of technology, there exist niche pockets of publication culture that remain virtually untapped. One of these unique forms of publication – one that is often delegitimized and completely disregarded – is fan-fiction.
For those who aren’t familiar with the genre, fan-fiction pertains to fan-written works created about characters from shows, movies, and other media forms. Just this explanation is often enough to pull eye rolls from some individuals; people are often quick to write off this type of work as “derivative” and “unoriginal” (what do these people think the Bible is?). But while so many continue to write it off as unimportant, the genre and communities surrounding it continue to grow and flourish.
The tendency of society to associate this breed of fan culture with teenage girls speaks volumes as to why the genre is so heavily condemned. Aja Romano, in his piece about fans of One Direction and their outrage concerning a particularly misogynistic article run by GQ, summarized the problem with this phenomenon rather effectively:
“That irony – that the media can describe fans wholly in terms of their vaginas, reduce the fans interest in their idol to being purely sexual, and then berate them for their anger in response – speaks to a core part of rape culture. […] The continual cultural reinforcement that women are to be passive, never to fight back, argue, yell, or stand up for themselves is part of the reason that women don’t fight back, argue, yell, or stand up for themselves when they become victims of actual sexual violence.”
And that is perhaps one of the more important aspects of fan-fiction – it gives a voice to young women who are often silenced and discouraged even when they simply enjoy something too much. It gives them a sort of power they would not have had otherwise by enabling them to put work out there and get response from other fans and writers, enables them to grow as editors and creatives, and gives them control over things like their sexuality – a part of themselves that is so often shamed, regardless of how they choose to wield it.
In an article for The Guardian, Sam Wolfson writes that, “When most teenagers are faced with the miserable advice of sex education […] or the miserable version of sexuality in porn, fan-fiction offers a more honest way to engage with relationships and sex. […] Fan-fiction is making teenagers better writers and better satirists, and allowing them to explore sexuality in a way decided by them rather than dictated by the entertainment industry.”
This notion of claiming ownership over one’s sexuality is particularly important when considering the massive queer community active within fan culture. In your average Barnes & Noble, a young queer or questioning teen would be able to find material about people like them, sure, but to what extent? The lack of queer representation in media for youths is criminal, and fan-fiction enables these youths to read about people like them at much greater length. Fan-fiction provides an avenue to learn more about their sexuality in a way that is comfortable and personal for them. It also introduces to them the idea of reading characters they love and are familiar with as people like them – and that being okay. Anyone who can claim that this notion isn’t revolutionary for these teens, who more often than not are left without appropriate tools to discover or even appropriately consider their sexualities, has a very shallow understanding of queer existence at best.
More than the emotional and educational impact fan-fiction and culture can have on young people, it has started to revolutionize self-publishing. In fact, E.L. James’ now infamous Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy started out as a work of Twilight fan-fiction.
This neither comes as a surprise to many nor aids in dispelling unfortunate shaming and stereotypic notions of fan-fiction and the young girls writing it. It is, however, effective in showing how this underground form of online self-publishing can be a bridge to something more within the writing community. There are innumerable online forums and sites allowing writers to create their own pages and publish extensive works. Emily Barker, 16, was recently commissioned by Penguin to write a book after reading her boy band-inspired work of fan-fiction. Publishing houses like Penguin paying specific attention to fan-fiction and justifying it by publishing one is a proverbial foot in the door, an important first step in eradicating negative stigma around fan-fiction and making the breach between it and professional publishing seem slightly smaller.
When taking that into consideration, it seems ridiculous to ignore fan-fiction in such a condescending fashion. This market is huge and continues to grow; the more widespread fan-fiction becomes and the more the “legitimate” writing community starts to take notice, the closer we come to bridging this gap. There are fan-fiction writers who have written multiple novel-length works that have garnered significant attention across fandoms, with their works garnering tens of thousands of views. This incredible way of connecting people, giving them important developmental and educational tools, and giving them the opportunity to showcase creative work that they are proud of could have the power to change the way we look at publication. It could also have the power to change the way we look at female authors and queer representation in fiction.