When I tell people that I read fanfiction in my spare time, I usually get more than a few bewildered responses and judging looks, ranging from “why?” to “fanfics are just a rip-off of the original material, why bother?” With the rising notoriety of fandom in various social media platforms, fanfiction has recently been thrust into the mainstream, but even now responses are often less than favourable. Incidents such Benedict Cumberbatch’s dismissal of the “rapacious slash fiction” depicting John Watson and Sherlock from the BBC TV series as a couple created uproar in the Sherlock fandom, and several authors such as Robin Hobb and Diana Gabaldon have labeled fanfiction as insulting, illegal and immoral, even going so far as to ban fans from releasing fanfiction based on their work.
I’m not saying that authors don’t have the right to decide whether or not their work should be open to fanfiction, but first, let’s get one thing straight – fanfiction is not plagiarism. By disregarding fanfiction, authors are disregarding the multiple ways in which fandom and fanfiction can have a positive impact on someone’s life. Fanfiction is a transformative space, and by its very nature provides a safe space for people who are normally marginalized by society, such as women of color, and members of the LGBT community. Fandoms and fanfiction allows people to explore different options, particularly in regards to sexuality and gender. Research also shows that fanfiction can be a source of support for LGBT females in finding role models they normally wouldn’t encounter in real life in or mainstream media. On fanfiction’s stage, people of color are the main characters, LGBT couples dominate the platform, identities like aromantic and asexual are no longer invisible, and bisexuality is no longer erased, finally allowing audiences who aren’t seen in mainstream media to see themselves reflected in the media they consume and create. Scoffing at such a medium is tantamount to labeling the desires of those who participate in fandom as “not important”, a response that is both derogatory and harmful.
Fanfiction is often considered to be mainly the sandbox of bored teenage girls, which is why it is almost immediately brushed off as amateurish and a rip-off. Putting aside the fact that fanfic writers comprise of a lot more than just teenage girls, with many fanfiction writers also writing professionally, the dismissal of fanfiction based on its audience of teenage girls is destructive in and of itself, and should be stopped. It is high time we stopped treating women’s interests and particularly the interests of young, impressionable women as an afterthought, and give them the respect they deserve.
By devaluing and dismissing fanfiction, we are perpetuating the idea that some texts are better than others because of the identity of their creators, which is ridiculous in such a subjective field as literature, and also works to further marginalize those who already have to work harder to have their voices heard in a field dominated by white men.
Some writers might (legitimately) try their hand at writing by first writing fanfiction, I was one of them, in fact. This is important, as fandom provides new writers a uniquely supportive and constructive space to grow among fellow writers that can’t be found elsewhere. This is where the role of bad fanfic comes into play, because we all have to start somewhere, don’t we? Bad fanfiction allows writers to improve, and in fact, some fanfic authors have even gone on to secure book deals, from numerous Jane Austen fanfics republished as novels and E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, which began life as a Twilight fanfic. In fact, much of what we encounter in mainstream media can actually be considered fanfiction, from the novel and film adaptation Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, to BBC’s popular Merlin.
But people also often forget about fanfiction is that it’s not just about practice. The majority of fandom engages in fanfiction not as a stepping-stone to becoming “a good enough writer”, but out of sheer love for the world and the characters of the original material. Fanfiction is not a rip-off of original material, but both a transformation and expansion of texts born out of love, and fanfiction can also be extraordinarily well- written. It is beautiful and powerful, and a medium very much worth defending.
Just remember –