For a long time, the term fanfiction has been synonymous with something frivolous and artificial, something that takes someone else's original ideas and hard work, and twists it into meaningless pomp, playacting at writing. The people who enjoy fanfiction are often assumed to be immature readers who get off on lip service that carters to childish fantasies about romance, or vapid pornography. Furthermore, the many people who do write fanfiction are afraid of admitting it, knowing the ridicule and criticism they will receive, accused of being over-enthusiastic fans who need to get a life of their own, or salivating smut-creators (as though smut were a bad thing).
Fangirl illustration by Noelle Stevenson
But the reality is that fanfiction is incredible, reaching an impressive number and range of readers, while the writers, who spend hours on this time-consuming project, do so with no intention of earning a profit, simply writing for the joy of it. And while the current literary market is populated mostly by cisgender white males, with articles supporting evidence that simply having a feminine name can limit a writer's opportunities, the majority of fanfiction writers are female and nonbinary. In fact, fanfiction can be a queer person's paradise, a place to explore one's gender identity and sexuality in a safe, controlled environment.
Examples of this is found in slash fiction, fanfiction that focuses on interpersonal attractions or relationships between persons of the same sex. When the majority of couples in mainstream movies and television are heterosexual couples, or worse, inflict queer-baiting (that annoying trope of teasing a potential queer romantic or sexual relationship, but never actually confirming it) on its audience, fanfiction provides a chance to see the couples we only ship in our imagination played out on the page, validated by the same readers who read that same fiction that we aren't the only ones shipping those characters. Furthermore, when censorship or time limitations prevent in-depth focus on queer relationships, whether the physical (seeing queer characters kiss in cartoons or having the screen fade to back when it comes to more intimate scenes), or simply wanting to see more scenes of domestic bliss, fanfiction offers us to access that content.
When it comes to sex-shaming comments about fanfiction being too sexy, there's actually nothing wrong with that, as fanfiction allows a safe space to explore our needs and desires. Many people like erotica, and fanfiction plays into the field of literotica, engaging with reader's physical desires intellectually. In many senses, fanfiction is safe play, a vicarious form of pleasure in which we are engaged in the content, but still separate from it, choosing when to read and enjoy certain scenarios or moving away from it if we don't.
Furthermore, while there are those that can be nasty in the world of fanfiction (though unfortunately, what media outlet doesn't have its jerks) the fanfiction community is usually very respectful. Fanfiction writers often provide common courtesy toward their readers, featuring content warnings at the top of each piece to warn readers from potential subjects, such as violence and depictions of mental illness, that could potentially discomfort or trigger them. In addition, readers can often provide encouraging comments to fanfiction authors, and helpful advice in terms of editing and content, engaging with the community in a friendly and positive way.
I am an English Major with a focus in Creative Writing. My current syllabus consists of works by Edith Wharton, Mark Twain, William Shakespeare, John Milton, Sigmund Freud, Jacques Derrida, and so forth. While all these authors have produced brilliant and acclaimed work, each worthy of the fiction craft in their own way, it can be mentally exhausting if that's what you read all the time. When I’m tired from school or need a reprieve from my own anxious mind I turn towards fanfiction. There I can find well-written and lovingly crafted fiction involving the characters I love, simultaneously engaging my geek side and my queer side.
A series of videos from Button Poetry, an organization that promotes and supports spoken word poetry and performance. On of my favorites is titled "Fantastic Breasts and Where to Find Them" (2014) by Brenna Twohy. In the poem, she discuses why she loves erotic fan fiction as a safe, fun alternative to the degrading and misogynic rape culture often found in mainstream pornography, where people don't exist beyond their sexual utility to someone else. Twohy emphasizes that with the leads of fanfiction, "The sexiest part, is they are a part of a bigger story." A major part of me is turned off from mainstream porn, that often engage in empty stories that focus only on sex, with none of the emotional content I look for in erotica. As someone who identifies on the asexual spectrum, contrary to popular misconception, I still enjoy erotic content, and my favorite content often appears in fanfiction, where I can see characters I admire for their beauty, courage, and intelligence engage in intimate scenarios, figuring out what I enjoy fantasizing about, as well as the types of emotional relationships I wish to engage in, built on the same foundations of humor, love, consent, and respect.
Fanfiction can be engaging and empowering, a powerful tool that fans can use to engage with the media given to them, taking source texts and deconstructing and reconstructing them until we produce the content we desire, bringing diverse head canons to life such as Hermione Granger being Black or Steve Rogers being bisexual (for the record, I'm a Steve x Sam fan, myself), focusing on characters that look, love, and live like us. In this sense, writing can resemble alchemy, providing something fictional and powerful. American author and journalist Lev Grossman has written about the active, subversive nature of fanfiction, in which an audience can engage with producers and their content, writing that "culture talks to them, and they talk back to the culture in its own language."
Until the day where there are enough stories that capture every facet of human reality and fantasy out there, fanfiction will continue to be written, providing much needed fictional nourishment to a starving community.