Every once in a while someone comes along and decides to shit all over fanfiction. Usually, fanfic gets knocked as being poor quality writing, somehow of little to no literary value. It’s incredibly interesting to me, as someone who cut her teeth on fanfic, who did a degree in English lit and read lots and lots of litfic and “the canon,” and as someone who writes romance novels now.
There are a few reasons why people tend to crap all over certain types of writing. Fanfic hits this sweet spot at the confluence of about three of the major reasons. So let’s look at the underlying reasoning as to why fanfic gets the short end of the stick. Then we can end this idea that it’s somehow not “real” literature or lesser or whatever.
Fanfic Is Crap Because It’s “Not Original”
We have this really weird idea about the “singular genius” in Western society. That means we praise individuals but tend to overlook group contributions. That’s why we talk about Isaac Newton or Galileo. You hear a lot less talk about the scientists who are working on today’s breakthroughs.
That’s because those scientists tend to work in teams. We just kind of hand wave and be like “oh, the geniuses at NASA” or “the tech bro team.”
Using this logic, you can see how we justify the existence of billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. They’re singular geniuses. These guys deserve their money because they’re so gosh dang singularly smart—except they’re not, actually. What they’re good at is exploitation and getting other people to do the work for them.
We laud Musk, but we say nothing about the teams of engineers and literal rocket scientists working at SpaceX. We think Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are geniuses, ignoring that they only ended up where they are thanks to teams of people. Bill Gates founded Microsoft with a childhood friend and went on to develop MS-DOS. But he didn’t do it all alone—before Windows hit the market, Microsoft had more than 12,000 employees.
But this is the mythology we like—a singular creator, a singular genius. We devalue the work groups do, instead focusing on the individual. And that means that we prefer the “singular genius” version of the artist. Authors who write original stuff are visionaries, luminaries, geniuses.
People who write derivative works—like Star Wars novels or fanfic—aren’t given similar accolades. Instead, they’re seen as copycat hacks who have no original ideas in their heads. They’re not artists.
Derivative works fare at least slightly better than fanfic. Which brings us to the next point …
Fanfic Is Crap Because You Can’t Sell It
Derivative works have the copyright holder’s big old stamp of approval. That’s why we don’t see them for what they are: fanfic. Derivative works are a-okay, even if they lack creative vision, because they can be sold for profit.
Fanfiction, on the other hand, can’t. That’s copyright infringement, folks. Companies today are a lot more tolerant of fanfic (although you occasionally run into a creator who dislikes it). Today, the power of the fan is more recognized. Fans are what power shows and books and help them make scads of money.
Fanfic does still carry the inherent danger of copyright infringement—if you’re foolish enough to try to profit off it. Copyright infringement usually focuses on tangible harm to the author, often in the form of lost profits. Fanfic doesn’t damage the author’s income or sales, because you can’t sell it. It also doesn’t overlap with the original story so much so that one is a replacement for the other.
Author do still have moral rights, but those are often less of a concern when it comes to fanfic. Still, back in the day, we slapped big old disclaimers on everything. “Don’t own, don’t sue” was the common refrain of early Internet fanfic communities. Occasionally, we’d get one bright-eyed author who thought it was a good idea to sell their fic. The community generally came down on them, because we didn’t want the copyright holder to shut down our communities.
Because that is what they did, especially if they thought you were turning any money off it. The last thing you wanted was Disney’s corporate lawyers breathing down your neck or Anne Rice pitching a fit and getting you TOS’d from your servers. (This kind of shit is why fans eventually put together AO3—so we’d stop getting booted off the latest blogging site.)
All Hobbies Must Turn Profit
So—fanfic is deemed “not worthy” because, in a capitalist society, everything you do should be aimed at making money—even art. Art is only good so long as it’s profitable. That’s why we’re seeing a bajillion superhero movies and nothing else. Superheroes make money, Hollywood execs want money, these are the movies you get.
Is there any art or artistry in them? It’s a good question. The lack of diversity in Hollywood or in any other medium, though, usually goes back to money. “Good art” makes money, so studios and publishers and musicians all step to a formula to create “art.”
And this trickles down to all creators. Since time is money, then anything you put significant time into should make money. Since fanfic cannot be sold, you cannot assign monetary value to it. And that brings me to my next point …
Fanfic Is Largely a Feminine Space
It’s no secret that our individualistic, capitalistic society devalues what’s usually termed “women’s work.”
This work is utterly invaluable; without it, society would not operate. Yet we consistently undervalue it. By some estimates, if we paid mothers properly for their labor, they’d earn close to $200,000 per year.
We pay people to wash clothes and cook food in restaurants. We’ll pay babysitters or daycare workers and teachers to look after our kids. We pay nurses and PSWs to look after the elderly. Yet we expect women (by and large) to do all that shit for free.
Now, how the heck does this connect to fanfic?
There’s a couple of overlaps here. First, “women’s work” tends to be social. It focuses, often, on caring for other people and working with them, as a team of sorts. As I noted, we focus on the individual genius versus the genius of groups. (A recent example: someone complained about pill bottles being difficult to open, so someone designed a better one. They posted the design and others refined it; those designs were then put up for free; and now several people are manufacturing them and distributing them for free. WOW! But let’s talk about Elon Musk and what a genius that guy is, right?)
Fanfic as Feminized Production
We tend to ignore collectives, so we tend to see the production of fan communities—who may collaborate and work together or create pieces that speak to each other—as being lesser. And, like women’s work, fanfic tends to be unpaid, because of copyright laws designed to protect those “individual geniuses.”
And—perhaps oddly enough—fanfic communities tend to be predominately female.
So, we have a collective of (largely) female writers working with other people’s ideas. They’re dumping a lot of time into something that’s “free” because of laws designed to protect the “individual genius” (usually male) and limit “the collective.”
So fanfic is yet another space where women’s production tends to be devalued. Yet again, women labor for free often for the enjoyment of others. We write fanfic because we’re inspired and we publish it for others. And readers’ delight is pretty much the only thing that keeps fanfic writers going.
I can think of a bunch of other “feminine” writing spaces—romance, chick lit—where the quality of the writing is derided and discounted.
So, Why Isn’t Fanfic Crap?
Fanfic tends to get written off as a “silly little endeavor” because it’s a heavily feminized space. Because it can’t be properly monetized. Because it focuses on a collective of creators working together vs. a bunch of individualized geniuses creating their own ~ visions ~.
But that says nothing, really, about the quality of fanfic. Yes, there’s relatively little in the way of quality control—anyone with an Internet connection can start posting fanfic, really.
But there are plenty of published books that aren’t actually very good. And in the self-publishing era, the amount of dreck that shouldn’t have seen the light of day has increased.
So, there’s really no difference level between the quality of “published books” and fanfic. Some of it’s good, some of it’s bad, and most of it’s middling.
Using a Masculine Paradigm to Decide What’s “Good”
Does fanfic ask us to write more poorly? Nah.
Fanfic tends to exist in the same vein as a lot of “pop” writing—serial or instalments, which gives you the soapy, “tune in next week” vibe. But we can also find the on soap operas, many television series, comic books, and—you knew this was coming—sensation novels. (You might know those as something Mr. Charles Dickens was a master of writing).
Fanfic might hark back to the romantic, the gothic, or even the sensational. These are all forms of fiction that had their heyday in the 19th century. They are largely considered outmoded, particularly by modernists.
The Romantics and the gothic and the sensational are all intended to arouse a good deal of feeling in the reader. Modernist works, on the other hand, tend to be more subtle and underhanded. We can think here of Ernest Hemingway and his infamously sparse style—a radical departure from Dickens and Byron.
By and large, we’re still under the thumb of these modern masters when it comes to determining what is “good literature.”
In the modernist view, popular is bad. Why? It touches a nerve with people, evokes emotion. It gives over to the absurdity of the supernatural (as in the gothic) or the sensational (as in the sudsy soap opera).
And all of these forms have at their core a certain femininity—they focus on emotion. As a result, today, they’re largely relegated to chick lit and romance and—you guessed it—fanfic.
Modern Masculine Art Dismisses Emotion and the “Irrational”
Litfic tends to be masculine and wants to take itself seriously as art. Science fiction and fantasy, often male-dominated arenas, also tend to take up this “masculinizing” effort. Thus litfic seeks to show us what happens without saying anything; science fiction uses logic and science and reason; and fantasy focuses on adventure—and none of it digs terribly deep into relationships or characterization.
Romance, on the other hand, relies on relationships. What we call “chick lit” focuses on relationships, be they friendships or romances. And fanfic, oh, boy, fanfic is almost always focused on developing characters and/or relationships.
So fanfic, like romance and chick lit, tends to focus on the emotional. Thus it tends to follow in the footsteps of the gothic, the romantics, and the sensation novels of yesteryear.
And that gets labeled “bad” because it’s too feminine and touchy-feely. I suppose we should all aspire to write high art novels that take themselves very seriously. Or perhaps fanfic is “bad” because it can’t be monetized. Maybe it’s “bad” because it’s more of a “team effort” than “individual genius.”
All of that, I’d argue, comes back to the masculine versus the feminine. The artistic genius is usually male, independent, and capitalistic. The feminine is about relationships and working together, delivering “free” labor.
So, Is Fanfic Bad?
No! Fanfic is a legitimate form of writing. People like to shit on it as “lesser” for all the reasons above. They do so without realizing how their notions of what’s “good” and what’s “not,” what’s “art” and what’s “not” are wrapped up in the hyper-masculine notions of individual (male) genius in a capitalistic Western society.
If you can get by that, then you’ll see fanfic isn’t bad, and litfic isn’t inherently good either. You can have bad litfic and great fanfic and vice-versa.
And if you’re not yet convinced fanfic isn’t bad, think of this:
Every writer is always learning, because writing is an art that we never perfect. We continue growing and evolving, and thus our art changes too. And the only way to improve, to continue that evolution, is to practice.
Fanfic, like all other types of writing, is practice. And if it’s what motivates someone to keep practicing, well, they might just be the best damn writer in the room—so long as they keep at it.
So instead of quibbling about what’s good art or bad art, get back to practicing your own art, by writing what inspires you—whatever that happens to be.