Fanfiction gets a bad rep. But it’s so bad that it’s worth $1 billion of good. That’s how much the Fifty Shades franchise, a small project that budding writer E.L. James started as Twilight’s Edward and Bella fanfiction, earned in three years. Fanfiction has been notoriously dismissed as cheap amateur fiction, despite evidence of its evocative sensationalism. Maybe it’s the fact that fanfiction is too informal, eroticizes the most unexpected characters, or expands on an already-constructed world. Despite these concerns, there’s no question that the demand for low-brow fiction has a massive cultural effect on an audience that literary classics no longer reach.
Fanfiction is a flexible genre of unpublished, usually anonymous, fiction where writers draw inspiration from almost anything that has accumulated a fanbase. Most writers reimagine their favorite stories by recasting characters, plot, or perspectives in the way they see fit. The notorious Fifty Shades series borrows from Stephanie Meyer’s cult classic about a human girl and an alluring vampire boyfriend, which evoked intense hormonal fantasies from teenage girls. In her adaptation, E.L. James features the same cliché trope of the shy, inexperienced girl (Anastasia Steele/Bella Swan) and the cold, sexy multimillionaire CEO (Christian Grey/Edward Cullen), while jazzing it up for the middle-aged housewife through heart-racing BDSM moments. But fanfiction is not limited to fictional characters—it is also open to real singers, actors, and even historical figures. This genre is the perfect marriage of public figures and private imaginations.
Oftentimes it is these origins and inspirations for the fanfic that can offend readers. After all, these fanfiction writers (usually teenagers) draw inspiration from pop-culture icons like Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and Harry Styles, and stray far from the sophistication of beloved classics or thematically heavy contemporary reads. Thus, fanfiction draws comparisons to the Young Adult genre, which is already devalued in the literary world. The female protagonist of the young adult novel is quirky, cool, and attractive (until, at least, her romantic interest is introduced and replaces the plot). This calls into question the respectability of the genre. Similarly, potential for character development in fanfiction is sacrificed to the object of the author’s fantasies. Popular fanfiction serials emancipate the escapist potential of fiction, presenting the reader with self-identifying characters that affirm and encourage the irrational “can-I-really-be-Harry-Styles’-girl?” fantasies that distract from issues that matter. Published authors who want to be taken seriously often engage in exigent themes (race, sexuality, etc.), using fiction to spur contemplation, not fantasies.
When we discuss the questionable merits of fanfiction, we must address the elephant in the room: sex. Fanfiction is notorious for its explicit sexual content, and sometimes deservedly so. When writers focus on romantic relationships, coined “ships,” between characters (Draco/Hermione, Bella/Jacob, etc.), they are sexualized to an extreme extent, far beyond what the canonical works suggest. The family-friendly Harry Potter series rarely focused on the characters’ love interests. Therefore, ungratified fans made up their own as rather unfaithful adaptations. One fan took J.K. Rowling’s depiction of Draco and Hermione’s hatred for each other and created their own suggestive story entitled “Whips, Chains, and Prisoners of Love” where Hermione becomes Draco’s slave. Fanfiction is a work of a single author’s fantasy and imagination, and readers are often swept into incoherent, lascivious passages of literary porn.
However, over 125 million people have willingly purchased a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey, aware of the sexual content they are paying for. Similarly, Fanfiction.net adopts a mandatory baseline rating system: K (suitable for young children), T (suitable for teens), M (suitable for 16+ mature teens), and MA (suitable for 18+ mature adults). Fanfiction writers have expanded on this system, creating an informal yet expansive fanfiction specific lingo to act as basic content summarizers for readers (A/A: action/adventure, f/f: female/female relationship, m/f: male/female relationship, adult, R-rated, trigger warnings, and so on). Readers can avoid this type of content simply by skimming the title page.
In addition to the questionable content of the genre, there is no doubt that fanfiction writers lack an element of sophistication or style that good writers seem to have. For example, Vladmir Nabokov’s Lolita chronicles a disturbing story about a pedophile at first glance. However, his elegant words and the complexity of the narrator himself stimulate profound discussions beyond the literal. Follow along this passage: “I would lull and rock my lone light Lolita in my marble arms, and moan in her warm hair, and caress her at random and mutely ask her blessing, and at the peak of this human agonized selfless tenderness (with my soul actually hanging around her naked body and ready to repent), all at once, ironically, horribly, lust would swell again–and ‘oh, no,’ Lolita would say with a sigh to heaven, and the next moment the tenderness and the azure–all would be shattered.” Despite that an older man is sexually preying on a child in a sensuous way, Nabokov sweeps his readers into a poetic passage that asks for understanding. In his novel, good writing challenges readers to be active, to reconcile their unsettlement with sympathy or to confront the narrator’s unreliability.
On the other hand, some fanfiction stories that possess these vulgar narratives have no redeeming quality about them. The plot is riddled with clichés and corny romantic one-liners, dialogue that is meant not to be contemplated, but rather to produce an immediate visceral reaction. Try to follow these excerpts from Fifty Shades of Grey, for example.
“Why don’t you like being touched?” Ana whispered, staring up into soft grey eyes.
He grabs me suddenly and yanks me up against him, one hand at my back holding me to him and the other fisting in my hair.
“Because I’m fifty shades of fucked-up, Anastasia.”
“You’re one challenging woman.” He kisses me, forcing my lips apart with his tongue, taking no prisoners.
While these qualities appear in some fanfiction, forcing these preconceptions that the entire genre of fanfiction is heavy-handed and frustratingly tasteless diminishes the craftsmanship of worthwhile stories. Moreover, these qualities of bad writing are not exclusive to fanfiction. There’s plenty of raunchiness in James Joyce’s Ulysses, and terrible writing exists in published, popular crime thrillers and adult romance novels like #1 New York Times best-selling author Sylvia Day’s Bared to You, where its synopsis reads: “I craved his touch like a drug, even knowing it would weaken me. I was flawed and damaged, and he opened those cracks in me so easily.” Like all genres, fanfiction has its bad (or naughty) apples, and this misinformed bias may prevent readers from appreciating meaningful works.
There are hidden gems in fanfiction that go unmentioned beneath the craze of Harry Styles and bad boy romances. There are fanfiction writers who are brilliant in the worlds they reimagine and deserve praise, not stigma. Eliezer Yudkowsky is the author of the widely popular Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality serial composed of 122 chapters, which has controversially been called a better series than the one created by J.K. Rowling. In his retelling of the Harry Potter universe, Harry is raised and homeschooled by Oxford University educated professors of science and rational thinking, and he applies the scientific method to studying magic at Hogwarts. Yudkowsky’s work is proof that the amateur method of reinventing and possibly improving works of published fiction is an effective way to write in a low-stakes manner. More importantly, fanfiction can be a way for readers to immerse themselves in writing that challenges how they think about the original canon.
Beyond its potential literary value, fanfiction is an effective outlet for envisioning ourselves as the characters, by extending the voyeuristic, passive element of fiction to actively construct alternative narratives. Empathy and imagination are important skills to cultivate in creative writing, and fanfiction effectively intertwines the roles of author and reader. Furthermore, the vibrant fanfiction community fosters a supportive environment where writers can find an equally-invested fan audience. A young writer’s willingness to offer up their work for feedback shows a willingness to learn and grow.
Fanfiction’s value as a free, democratizing way for amateur writers to gain an audience in works they are passionate about challenges our perception of fanfiction as unsophisticated, valueless works. Brock Clarke, an English professor at Bowdoin and author of five published fiction novels and two short story collections, admits, “I wrote a novel (Exley) that is in some ways fanfiction, although maybe not in the way that people who read fanfiction would think of as fanfiction. And as for how I would respond to someone who wrote fanfiction in response to something of mine: happily. Unless I come off poorly in it. In that case, unhappily.” To him, a book’s worth is most measurable by whether it is “nuanced, irreverent, thoughtful.” There’s no reason why fanfiction cannot also possess these qualities. Although fanfiction certainly has its demerits, it is ultimately worthy of popular respect and literary value.