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In Defense of So-Called “Bad” Fanfiction

Shout out to Sirius/Remus.

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If you consider yourself “in” a particular fandom, regardless of what fandom it is, there’s a good chance you’ve at least dipped your toes into the great and terrible ocean of fanfiction. And there is certainly a lot of great and a lot of terrible fanfiction.

Only a small amount of fanfic is considered “good” fanfiction. My own litmus test for this category is; does the premise sound like an exercise for a creative writing class? Then it’s “good” fanfiction. This is the aspirational fanfiction, the fill-in-the-gaps fanfiction, the play-by-the-rules fanfiction. Fanfiction to expand the world just a little further, maybe spend more time with a secondary character or a different perspective.

I’m not here to talk about this kind of fanfiction, and anyway, this fanfiction is well-defended.

I’m going to stand up for “terrible” fanfiction, in all its bizarrities and failures. I’m going to stand up for smut and slash, for utterly pointless fluff, for high school and college alternate universes, for crossovers of either characters or entire worlds, and – I’ll try – for crackfic. You know, the kinds of fanfiction that are brought up when folks try to tar and feather the whole medium with a broad brush. If you bear with me, I might even go so far as to mount a defense for badly-written and ill-conceived fanfiction. And, for your convenience, I’ll do so in that order.

One note, before we plunge into the ocean. I’m a long-time citizen of this shady city (mixing metaphors, for example, is practically a staple of fanfic), and I’m fluent in the language. I’m pitching this towards people who aren’t familiar with all the baffling shorthand, so I’ll be explaining all the weird words. If you already know all the slang, read the definitions anyway, you can argue with me about them in the comments! For now, a unit of fanfiction, one story, is called a fic.

Let’s talk slash. Slash is, at the most basic, a fic with a romantic pairing, and most often contains sexual content. The name comes from the tags authors use to mark their fic and make it more easily searchable (also, so that readers aren’t blindsided when everything turns sexy). For example, Kirk/Spock means that Kirk and Spock will be a romantic pairing. I use this example because it is the ur example. I’m pretty sure sexually-frustrated female Trekkers weren’t the first people to tell stories about two hot guys in a canonically close relationship getting it on behind the scenes, but in the age of modern fanfiction, they codified the early terminology. (For the interested, Kirk&Spock meant the relationship was purely friendship.) Slash was initially used exclusively to refer to relationships of two male characters (also known as m/m), but can now also refer to femslash (or f/f, or safFic). Slash is massively popular, and you can find at least one example of any pairing engaging in any kink. There’s buckets of vanilla sex and hand-holding and cuddling, and almost as much hardcore BDSM. Slash is like the garish magazines you get at the cashiers in a supermarket: people don’t like to admit they read them, certainly they don’t like to admit they buy them, but clearly, someone must be buying them, and a fairly obvious majority likes to accidentally stumble across them to just take a quick peek. Slash is like that, only free, and you can clear your browsing history! It’s the most popular type of fanfiction, but not, to some people’s shock, the only kind.

Here’s the twist: it’s important, to a lot of people. It’s sometimes the only sex education a teenage girl gets, or the only sex education that gives any impression that sex is fun and intimate and loving and exciting. It’s a place where teenage girls can read and write about this stuff, in all its broad scope and messy glory, alongside a large anonymous group of other people in the same situation. It’s where some girls find out that girls can masturbate. It’s where some girls find out that lots of people view sex between two people of the same gender as normal and hot. It’s where some girls find out that, actually, there’s other people out there who are just like me, and maybe I’m not dirty and wrong. (None of this is to say that there are no men of any age reading fan fiction, but the widely accepted notion that the fan fiction world is dominated by women makes it one of the few geek communities understood to be openly welcoming to girls, weather or not that perception is accurate.)

There are, incidentally, several theories about why so many teen girls and adult women spend so much time invested in m/m slash. My favourite theory is that, if both characters are male, that removes the gender politics from the equation, especially in BDSM. There’s no need to work through “Is this feminist or should I feel guilty?” if the inequality is all in the situation and not in the genders. Another theory is that there are not enough well-written female characters, particularly in the nerdy fandoms that dominate fanfiction – the Avengers, Supernatural, Star Trek – so women spend their energy pairing up the interesting male characters instead. (I think the enthusiasm of the Swan Queen shippers in the Once Upon A Time fandom give credence to the idea that plenty of women are interested in femslash too, if there are interesting female characters who bicker and meet each others eyes meaningfully.) And of course, there’s always the “two guys, double the hotness” theory, presumably based on the same principle as straight guys fascinated with the prospect of women kissing each other. In any case, I don’t think the reasons matter much. I think slash is valuable to a lot of people, predominantly young women disenfranchised by the mainstream ideas of sexuality, and even if it wasn’t, it would still be fun and hot and often, very well written.

The same goes for fluff, or fanfic in which the plot is minimal or nonexistent and the focus is on generating warm fuzzy feelings in the reader (and presumably, writer). This goes hand-in-hand with hurt/comfort (or h/c) where one or more characters experience a traumatic event and another character provides healing love and support. I say “the same goes for it” because I believe it also fulfills a need for people that they don’t find much balm for elsewhere, and because, when it’s well-written, it can be incredibly moving and cathartic. I know a lot of fluff and h/c is pointless meandering written by bored teenagers who just want to see Xavier and Magneto cuddle for once. But I also know that it’s being read and written by people who need to work through tough emotions and rough relationships, and I believe it can be a huge help to someone, even if it’s badly written or childish.
Okay, that’s the heavy stuff. Slash and smut, and fluff and angst, are the types of fanfiction I think are emotionally valuable, as well as often a lot of fun, and sometimes beautifully written. Personally, I have found that almost all my favourite fanfiction has been novel-length kinky erotic Thor/Loki fanfiction, due to being lovingly well-written. I have no explanation for that except, I guess, if you’re going to put that much time and effort into something, you’d try to make it good.

We’ll move on to the lighter stuff. I have no deep, worthy reasons to defend alternate universe (AU) or crossover fic. AU is usually the characters from a fandom, written in another time or place or situation. So, imagine the Disney Princesses in a college sorority. High school and college are very popular, and I don’t think I’m reaching here when I say that’s probably because all those 13-27 year old women are being good writers and writing what they know. What better way to explore how someone deals with bullying than to have them be pre-serum Captain America but in modern high school? Plus, most AU is for fun, and school and college are pretty fun, in fiction, anyway. A good AU fic is an advanced exercise in writing characters; how much of Steve Rogers’ character is due to him being the product of his time, a boy in a world at war, an old-fashioned gent? Without the explanation of icy time travel, how does Steve behave in the modern world?

Crossover is similar, but with two fandom universes; often the characters from one are living in the world of the other (for example, the Avengers are an elite group of Jaeger pilots instead of being superheroes) or the two worlds are the same world (the Kaiju invade a world that includes the superhero Avengers) or the two groups of characters meet, either because they both live in the same world (the superhero Avengers are supported by the Pacific Rim Jaegers and Mako and Natasha are best friends), or because of magic/tech/portals (when Gipsy Danger falls through the portal, Raleigh and Mako return to the world of the Avengers instead of their own world). And of course, there’s the classic “all my favourite characters from three TV shows and four movies end up in zany hi-jinks together and have lots of weird sex.” Again, it’s pure fun, and very engaging when done well. It’s all about the characters.

AUs and crossovers are flights of fancy, they’re exercises in character and plot, and they’re fun. A lot of it isn’t my “thing,” but that’s the beauty of fanfic. Don’t like this Disney Princesses At College fic? There’s another. Don’t like the concept? There’s also a genre of kindergarten AU. Don’t like the idea of Disney Princesses taking so much of a step outside their castles? That’s cool too, there’s loads of in-universe fic. There’s no need to poop on someone else’s parade, there is so much for everyone.

Unfortunately, I don’t have anything remotely profound to say about crackfic, or fics in which plot and character are secondary to whatever particular insanity the author prefers. I’m pretty sure the idea is to be humorous, although the effect on the reader is most often bafflement and sometimes a defensive reaction to precious favourite characters being written completely out-of-character. (Fun fact: the term “crack” might come from the idea that the author must have been on crack to write it.)

The thing about crack, the thing about poorly-written fanfic, the thing about terribly ill-conceived fanfic, is that it’s all writing. It’s all human communication and expression, and it’s mostly kids learning. People who have never written anything else outside of school maybe, are enthused by a fandom enough to start writing, and sharing. Yes, a lot of it is utter drivel, but even the worst, most meandering, poorly thought out, totally un-beta’d fanfic I’ve read has still had at least one person drop by with a “like” or a “kudos”. Fanfiction.net is the modern equivalent of writing little stories in the back of a school notebook, except you get to share your weird little stories, and read other people’s weird little stories.

Fanfic gets a lot of flak, and very little of it is deserved. Calling it out for being mostly pretty crap and containing a lot of biologically inaccurate porn is fair enough, I suppose, but also pointless. Who cares? No one’s making anyone else read it, and frankly, exactly the same charge can be leveled at actual porn. And crap is in the eye of the reader. Lots of it clearly needs an editor, but that’s inevitably how it is with fan content. Fanart is just as likely to be crap, but it’s the good fanart gets the attention. The bad fanfic gets the attention. I firmly believe that fanfiction is so often maligned because it’s a young women’s thing, and those things are easily and often pushed aside by our society. The stereotypical fanfic writer is a shy, awkward teenage girl. Shy, awkward teenage girls are easy to dismiss, especially the “weird, nerdy” ones. It shouldn’t be that way.

Anyone who’s denying themselves fanfiction based on the idea that it’s uncool, always pornographic, or exclusively the remit of dorky teenage girls is missing out. Fanfic is as broad as any other form of human art, it can be fun and funny, pointless or pointed, awful or awesome. The premise of a fic can sound like absolute drivel, and the execution can make it beautiful, just like in the movies or comics or novels we take inspiration from. Give it a try and give it a break, it’s fun!

Emmy Ellis holds the highly competitive title of “the weird nerdy one” in her group of geophysics graduate students. She’s Irish, but doesn’t sound it; disabled, but doesn’t look it; and an adult, but doesn’t act like it. Besides awesomely terrible fanfiction, her hobbies include cosplay, design, Dungeons and Dragons, and feminist ranting. You can find her Tumblr here.

(Image copyright Ollyy, via Shutterstock)

Previously in Fanfiction

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