On Fan Fiction

This post was migrated over from my tumblr

When I wrote fan fiction it was an exercise of complete shame. As I gained a following my mom implored me to put links to my stories in my college applications. I blanched at the thought—academia and whatever I was doing with my evenings were entirely separate. Separated by an electric fence. I couldn’t employ the strategies I learned in AP Composition to the relationships I was inventing between various characters in the Harry Potter universe. 

The reality, of course, was that it was an extremely formative textual exercise. I read and re-read J.K. Rowling’s novels for time lapses, periods unaccounted for, into which I could justifiably squeeze my narratives. This was called adhering to canon, and if my relationships failed to have happy endings due to the fact that JKR saw them as doomed, I’d post my completing chapters and watch the enraged reviews file into my inbox and watch my five-star ratings waver into four-stars.

Before I ever arrived at college, a solid five years before my first creative writing class, my betas, or volunteer editors, taught me everything I know about how to grammatically incorporate quotes, “he saids,” and cliffhangers into stories. Thus enabling me to smugly call out right answers in the creative writing room about why the letter after a question mark in quotes was never to be capitalized unless it was a proper noun.

I learned creative writing mechanics, about processing rejection and adoration. I knew the prizes came in lesser measure than the claims that the works were fascicle or without heart. I was engaging with reader-response instantly, which I would argue paints a much more reasonable portrait of where literature is going.

If you read books within the Kindle app, it shows where quotes have been most highlighted (cheat: it’s always the pithy aphorisms). YouTube reviews and accessibility to authors either in the John Green sense or on GoodReads make “the literary conversation” far more crowd-sourced than it used to be—far more so than my professors yet recognize or are willing to admit. Please tell me that literature is in decline when centuries ago it cost a fortune to get your hands on a manuscript whereas today you can download one in seconds to be devoured on your computer. Tell me literature is in decline when teens in the Philippines and Brazil celebrate American YA fiction along with us over the internet. 

So because literature, realistically, is becoming more and more available, the powers that be have less power. Reader response is no longer subject to a hierarchy of criticism divided into separate schools. This is a double edged sword since on the one hand, the fabled “old, dead white guys” have less hold on us, but at the same time literary lineage is being thrown a little by the wayside. UCLA, in fact, recently overhauled its English major to no longer explicitly require Chaucer, Milton, or Shakespeare. How are we to understand where we are if we don’t know where we came from? 

I’ll tell you what my theory is. Last quarter I took “Introduction to LGBT Studies,” and toward the end of the course we had a guest speaker come in to trace the lineage of “slash” fan-fiction, arguing that fan fiction is a way of establishing queer narratives in pop culture. Fan Fiction itself appears to be becoming a new wave of textual analysis and way of understanding where the literary movement comes from. Sherlock fan ficcers have to read Conan Doyle with a fine-tooth comb for inspiration. The really good stuff finds a place for itself among the conversation of a fandom, just as a good novel wedges into the literary conversation.  That’s why I think a study of fan fiction perhaps in twenty years will be crucial to an English degree. Studying the literary movements of the masses says what’s going on just as much as only studying what’s coming out of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Maybe in forty years there will be a place on your college application to insert the URL of your latest fic.

This, of course, is all part of the revolution of the nerd. TV programming used to pitch blandly to the 50% of viewers, and now selects down to tighter and tighter niches, allowing “nerds” to be catered to. With that comes the unabashed passion and love you find in the comments on vlogbrothers videos. Pop culture, despite its massive flaws, appears to be becoming more and more egalitarian in the face of all this reader response. Game of Thrones reacts to twitter, every NBC show is on Facebook.

So rather than allow culture to craft us, everybody who can tweet can craft culture right back. And everybody who’s plugging away at a novel-length fan fiction has the chance of being studied in universities long before they die without recognition. That’s the instantaneousness we’ve created for ourselves with modernity and all this technological connection. With hyper-speed comes hyper-responsibility, though, so edit closely and read aloud before you click submit on that latest chapter of Sherlock/Watson erotica.

Further Reading/Viewing:

Emily Nussbaum on Sherlock’s “Fan Friction”

Vlogbrothers’ FAQ