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A Response From a Fellow Fanfiction Author to Sarah Z’s “Is Fanfiction Good, Actually?” Video

How can you talk about fanfic without OC/Self-insert/Mary Sue fanfics?

Is Fanfiction Art? That’s the question posed by the newest Sarah Z video on YouTube.

Sarah Z. came to the following conclusions: 

  1. What is and isn’t art is always going to be inherently subjective
  2. When we’re judging what is and isn’t art, it’s very difficult to make this kind of proclamation about an entire artistic medium.
  3. When we’re looking at the limitations and merits of a given medium, we need to define the core characteristics that make something belong to that medium.
  4. When we’re evaluating art and artistic mediums, we need to do so in the historical context of those mediums.

In short, Fanfiction is an artistic medium, and like all art forms, it has some awful, some mediocre/middling, and some truly spectacular works.

The video is an incredible breakdown of the general argument of “literature” vs. fanfiction. However, I felt it was also somewhat incomplete.

One issue I took with the video essay was the fact that Sarah Z mentions twice that original characters in fic work against the idea of fic not allowing authors to work on character creation or original narratives … then proceeds to never bring up original characters again.

At 35:00, she states:

“[Historical fiction featuring historical figures isn’t fanfiction.] They’re just works that use established cultural figures either to create a narrative out of historical events or as the basis for their own narrative with their own original characters. But that’s still hard to unpack because that sentence can also describe fanfic, especially when it comes to AU fics, changed POV fics, and self-insert/OC fics.”

And at 55:40, she says:

“A large part of the creative process involves the foundations of what and who your story is about and that’s something you rarely get when doing fanfiction itself. Though, emphasis on rarely because, as I already said, the existence of fanon and OCs does blur this distinction a bit.”

Both quotes concede that original characters and self-inserts challenge preconceived limitations of fanfictions. Yet the video essay itself chooses not to explore them further than these concessions.

I, for one, would argue that original character (OC) and self-insert/reader fanfics are some of the most quintessentially fanfic genres and you cannot talk about fanfiction without talking about them. (Heck, our website was named for the trope.)

I know that it’s a difficult subject to discuss as even amongst pro-fanfiction crowds, OC fanfictions have a large portion of detractors who believe they harm the genre altogether. But at the same time, that’s what makes including them in the conversation so important. To ignore or decry them is to ignore an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to the originality of fanfiction.

I found Sarah Z’s rebuttal of the “Dante’s Inferno is fanfiction” argument amusing for this reason; Dante literally wrote himself as the main character, getting to interact with all of his dead idols in Purgatory, with one of them (Virgil) even leading him on his journey through the circles of Hell. If that doesn’t evoke self-insert fanfic, I don’t know what does.

The funniest part about this is that another creator (YouTuber Izzzyzzz) premiered their own video about Mary Sues one day after Sarah Z’s, and their video went into the double standard of original character creation in fanfiction spheres where every original character or powerful female character gets relegated to the label of “Mary Sue.”

The backlash against Mary Sues in fanfiction became so harsh that it led to the creation of anti-Sue characters, or characters who were so flawed/irredeemable/unlikeable that audiences had no reason to root for them, much less read the stories.

Again, it’s a double standard where fanfiction authors can’t do anything right; if they don’t write OCs, then it’s not really writing because they aren’t creating characters from scratch. If they make them too perfect, they’re Mary Sues. If they aren’t likable enough, then they’re Anti-Sues.

And while some people claimed they were just trying to “help” these people become better authors, many came back years later to admit that there was little justification to their harassment of other writers or that their response was ultimately disproportionate to the actual “crime” of writing Mary Sues.

The original "Mary Sue" AKA Lieutenant Mary Sue of the S. S. Enterprise.
Via Neatorama/”A Trekkie’s Tale”

But does that mean Mary Sue/self-insert/reader/OC fanfics can be art?

Personally, I don’t see why not.

Criteria for art is often subjective and/or gate kept, but if a story evokes true emotion or challenges your perception of the world, then there’s no reason to not consider it art.

That being said, I will concede that many Mary Sue/self-insert/reader/OC fanfics are more similar to harlequin romance / erotica novels than to Classic great romances by Austen or the Brontes etc. (despite many AUs attempting to emulate such works). But even then, the romance genre has similarly suffered from longstanding sexist ideas of art and entertainment, despite many romance authors being just as prolific and successful as male mystery or horror writers.

It definitely doesn’t help that American Public Schools (in my and most of my colleagues’ experience) don’t really go into the creation of characters and other tools of creative writing; these schools instead focus on analytical writing, meaning many young American writers are self-taught in the areas of creative writing and fanfiction (or at least must work twice as hard to seek out educational resources and classes). This could also explain why certain aspects of fanfic seem recurring—people write what they read, so if they read the phrase “tongues battling for dominance” a lot, they’re more likely to use it in their own works (again, for better or for worse).

The fact that fanfiction is a way that people of all educations, backgrounds, and career paths can create art and literature should be celebrated, not condemned. Not everyone has the time to go through traditional publishing routes (it took Lindsay Ellis 10 years to get her book traditionally published) and even self-publishing requires time, money, energy, and commitment. But in the same way that YouTube, Vine, and TikTok have democratized the making of movies and documentaries, fanfiction has democratized writing, allowing anyone and everyone to participate in making art. And for myself and many other fanfiction authors, our sweet little Mary Sues were the first characters we created and they should not be discounted.

What do you think? What’d your opinion of fanfiction vs literature? Is fanfiction art? Can Mary Sue / self-insert / reader / OC fanfictions be art? Talk to us about fic in the comments.

The Mary Sue has a strict comment policy that forbids, but is not limited to, personal insults toward anyone, hate speech, and trolling.—

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Kimberly Terasaki is a Creative Writing graduate, fanfiction author, and intersectional feminist. She liked Ahsoka Tano before it was cool, will fight you about Rey being a “Mary Sue,” and is a Kamala Khan stan. She appreciates all constructive criticism and genuine discussion.