Not Just Lustful Literature: Self-Liberation through FanfictionBY Jacqueline Risch
When people hear the word fanfiction, most think of young teenage girls writing fantasies about dating Harry Styles from One Direction or what their life would be like if they were a character in the Divergent trilogy. I know my mom did. During my childhood summers, my mother required me to read a book for twenty minutes a day. When she asked, “What did you read today?” I replied that I read fanfiction. I swear she saw the back of her skull by how hard she rolled her eyes.
“I mean real books, Jacqueline! Not these uncredible, made-up stories written by any Joe-Shmo!” But what my mom didn’t understand about fanfiction was that it is, in fact, a credible and valuable form of literature. Authors of fanfiction, like other writers of other genres, take hours to brainstorm, write, and edit their work. On top of this, fanfiction encompasses detailed, thoroughly researched immersions of a work’s original characters, intricate plotlines and lore, and realistic scenarios that allow for deep explorations of human behavior. Despite its negative stereotypes, the world of fanfiction holds surprising benefits, and after examining its history and practices, one can only come to this conclusion: fanfiction is a valid and worthy activity, as it improves academic writing, mental health, and even sexual education.
Before analyzing the legitimacy of fanfiction, we must first understand exactly what it is and how it is typically assessed. Fanfiction, or fanfic, is a work of creative writing written by fans of TV shows, movies, novels, and video games. These creative communities are dubbed “fandoms” and have been around for centuries. In an article in the Cultural Science Journal, Henry Jenkins attributes the origin of fanfiction to the fans of nineteenth-century Belgian inventor Hugo Gernsback (Jenkins). Hugo Gernsback is widely considered the father of modern science fiction and saw fiction as a means of education (Jenkins). After he published science fiction stories in popular magazines, audiences became inspired by his creative narratives and, in response, quickly started to write stories of their own (Jenkins). Fans began to read each other’s work and soon held the first Worldcon, or World Science Fiction Convention in 1939 (Jenkins). Thus, fanfiction was born.
But fanfiction didn’t just jump from a science fiction magazine to the web. It needed to take a couple different paths to get there, one of the most significant ones being the creation of the fanzine (a fan magazine) Spockanalia. Spockanalia was created in 1967, and it centered around the TV show Star Trek and was even deemed by Star Trek’s creator Gene Roddenberry “required reading” for “every new writer and anyone who makes decisions on show policy” (Reich). The zine quickly blasted off in popularity and played a critical role in the development of the subcategory of slash fanfiction (Reich). Slash fanfiction takes two commonly deemed heterosexual characters and places them in a situation with romantic undertones. In particular, the slash pairing of Captain Kirk and Spock is credited as “the first widely circulated same-sex couple within the slash genre, as established by the 105-page fic The Ring of Soshern, written by Jennifer Guttridge” (Reich). These fanzines and slash fanfics were the seeds from which all other fanfics grew.
With the creation of the internet, fan historians were able to create virtual libraries, and even everyday people could create and publish their slash fanfics on a webpage. Eventually, the enormity of separate webpages for fanfiction was reduced to the most popular three we know today: Archive of Our Own (AO3), FanFiction.net, and Wattpad. On these platforms, users can upload their work under copyright protection, and these works can be read, “liked,” and commented on by any user. While it seems like these sites would not be not reliable for developing beneficial hobbies or community, Archive of Our Own defies this claim with its 2019 Hugo Award win. AO3’s award is a recognition of its “alternative model of authorship—one that operates outside the publishing world or academia, one where authorship is collective rather than individual, and one where artworks are appropriative and transformative” (Jenkins). Archive of Our Own invites people of all ages, genders, and sexualities to partake in the creative process of fanfiction. While fanfiction is typically created single-handedly, AO3 has modified it into an activity to be engaged in by a group of writers seeking to express their ideas. Their Hugo recognition is only a reminder of all the benefits of fanfiction. It’s time to stop dismissing fanfiction as a childish, shameful activity and recognizing it for all its positive influence, starting with its effects on academic writing.
In Pursuit of Technique
While fanfiction mainly concerns creative writing, the techniques and skills used to write about different fandoms reflects academic writing. One of the most important aspects of academic writing is considering your audience, and fanfiction provides a great way to practice this. Vivian Shaw, author of the Greta Helsing Trilogy, explores this very notion in her article on Tor.com. Fanfiction writers typically use a universe that has already been established by the original creator. However, every author has a different writing style, and it may be difficult to write exactly like the original creator. Shaw points out that “no one is good at writing in another person’s style at first, but if you keep at it, and look at other people’s versions of that style, slowly you will gain control over what specific decisions you are making to emulate the original or to riff on it” (Shaw). Learning how to write in another person’s style is key to developing fanfic whose content is almost indistinguishable from the original creator’s. If a fanfic does not resemble the original work, readers are less likely to engage with it. And since learning how to write in another author’s style is all about serving the reader, improving this skill carries over into how fans write in academia. If they can serve the reader in a fanfic, they know how to serve a reader in a formal paper.
Another way fanfiction improves academic writing is through the cultivation of creativity and motivation. Think back to your junior year of high school when your teacher assigned a five-paragraph essay about symbolism in The Great Gatsby. Speaking from personal experience, I can bet money that you were less than enthusiastic about writing that paper. You can only talk so much about the meaning of the green light or Dr. T. J. Eckleburg’s eyes. But what about if you were given a little more freedom? What if you could rewrite the ending of The Great Gatsby? Write through Daisy’s point of view? Maybe even reveal that Nick and Gatsby were in love the entire time! This flexibility would have the potential of getting you to engage more creatively and critically with the novel, and, more than likely, you would have enjoyed the process a whole lot more.
Writing does not have to be a chore. When forced to write about something they do not care about, students are less likely to put effort into a paper. I surveyed a group of 34 college students about whether or not they would feel less motivated to write a paper with a prompt given, and 58.8% of the sample replied that they would be less motivated to write the paper (Risch). But if students can pick the topic they write about, that is an entirely different situation.
Librarian Julia Torres has read a lot of the fanfiction her students have created. She believes that fanfiction works “are free of a lot of the oppressive structures that we have in the real world. That’s a place where our students escape from all of that, and they might do that through their favorite fantasy characters” (Laslocky). By practicing writing skills through topics they care about, students develop their skills more rapidly and are more prepared for writing an essay without a prompt in college. Teachers are more likely to give prompts for students to choose from for their essays in high school, but professors in college are not. Thus, we can conclude that students who have improved their writing skills with fanfiction in high school will be more prepared to tackle an essay with minimal guidance at university.
All of the points above have been made assuming that a student’s first language is English. But what if it wasn’t? What about all the international students in college or all the immigrant children in high school? Rebecca Black, a professor of informatics at UC Irvine who teaches English as a foreign language to students who are multilingual learners (MLL), noticed that while her students struggled to write a one-page essay for the course, they were incredibly enthusiastic about writing and reading fanfiction in English. Why was this? What changed their motivation? To answer this question, Professor Black conducted a study into why her MLL students were motivated by writing fanfiction. In her research article published in the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, she concludes that “the strong sense of audience and community afforded [fanfiction] influences the sort of peer-reviewing, teaching, and learning practices that take place […] by tempering critique of form with genuine enthusiasm for content or rhetorical effect” (Black). Black also discovered that “the digital mode of communication also allows not only ELLs but all authors to draw on multiple modes of representation and thus a range of semiotic possibilities for making meaning and achieving their rhetorical intent” (Black). Through an online, digital community, most authors feel more comfortable writing, developing, and receiving criticism. They feel more motivated to learn in a setting where they write about topics they enjoy and receive feedback in an environment that condemns harsh criticism. Through fanfiction platforms, multilingual learners can experiment more with different writing styles, sentence structures, and genres without fear of judgment. Now imagine if fanfiction was taught as a course in school. Students could experiment with writing with much more freedom, honing their writing skills instead of figuring out the difference between a homophone and a homonym. The possibilities are endless.
As an avid fanfiction reader myself, I wanted to get my favorite author’s perspective on the pros and cons of fanfiction. For the purposes of this paper, I will refer to her as C.D. Like Professor Black’s multilingual students, C.D. is not a native English speaker, but through reading and writing fanfiction, she has flourished into a successful writer. During our interview, she said, “Fanfiction has been the single most beneficial thing to my English, not only writing but reading it as a teen, too. I was very average at English for a long time (for a person my age coming from my country). That, however, slowly changed after I started writing fanfiction in English around the age of fifteen” (C.D.). Almost a decade later, and after five years of joining Archive of Our Own, she has around 3,000 followers and eleven published works, which total over 658,000 words and over 27,000 likes, or kudos. Kudos are difficult to achieve from readers, so to have attained so many of them is a feat. Thus, the results of engaging fanfiction in her early teens are demonstrated in her success today.
One misconception C.D. was adamant about addressing during the interview was that fanfiction takes no effort. To her, “many definitive pieces of literature from my youth have been fanfics from authors who had a story to tell and put countless hours of love and effort into crafting that story.” While anyone may publish fanfiction on a platform, “the fact that it’s amateur doesn’t mean it can’t be quality. Granted, not all fanfiction is high literature, but some pieces are pretty damn close” (C.D.).
C.D.’s work is an example of this very concept. To Sing a Song of Steel (TSASOS) is an Attack on Titan fanfiction, surrounding the fictional relationship between Levi Ackerman and the reader, whom C.D. designates as Cora Reader. Cora is set to marry the czar of her enemy country to secure a peace treaty, but ends up falling into sacrilegious love with her bodyguard, Levi, instead. TSASOS is an “au” fic, or alternate universe fanfic, meaning C.D. created her own fictional world, story, and lore from the original plotline Attack on Titan universe. While To Sing a Song of Steel may be about a fictional character from an anime, it has been taking her fifteen to twenty hours to write, edit, and update each chapter. She is currently on chapter 36, and she’s been working on TSASOS for over a year and a half. Fanfiction is not a leisurely process, and it deserves recognition as a legitimate form of media rather than being brushed off as a lustful hobby. C.D. puts as much time and dedication into her fanfics as a professional author does. With all the time and effort her fanfics take her, C.D. finds that not only has fanfiction improved her writing, but it’s also helped improve her mental health.
Fanfic & Mental Health
But how does fanfiction relate to mental health? How can a literary genre affect someone’s state of mind? When authors create fanfiction, they typically write in a form that is called expressive writing. C. L. Folterman, author of the novel Death’s Reject and graduate of Old Dominion University with a B.A. in psychology, defines expressive writing in her article “Five Psychological Benefits of Writing Fanfiction” in Fanfic Magazine. She presents expressive writing as “writing that comes from your gut. It’s what surges out onto paper when you’re coping with the hell-storm that is life” (Folterman). When you write your feelings, fantasies, or write out a situation that corresponds to events happening in your life, that’s expressive writing. Fanfiction is a form of expressive writing, and it has been used to improve mental health. Expressive writing has been used as a treatment for trauma patients, demonstrating that regardless of what the patient is writing about, expressive writing improves their moods (Folterman). Using fanfiction as an outlet is a great way to help calm personal toil. By writing out feelings, authors can relieve stress, using fanfiction as an “emotional catalyst” (Folterman). Fanfiction provides authors a release for emotional baggage.
C.D. is an excellent example of someone who uses fanfiction as an emotional catalyst. She admitted that while fanfiction does provide her a valuable outlet for destressing, it also have a darker side. C.D. noted that “writing, for as long as I can remember, has both been a place to escape and a place to confront a lot of my feelings and issues. Especially TSASOS and its darker storyline are some things I’ve poured a lot of my own personal struggles and trauma to,” but admitted that “my work garners harassment at times, which wouldn’t be an issue usually, but given the size of my audience, the amount of harassment is proportionate to that and can be overwhelming at times” (C.D.). For her, fanfiction is both a light and a darkness. Fanfiction can improve her mental health, but it can also overwhelm her with the expectations she has garnered from her readers. There are two sides to every coin.
Authors can also use fanfiction as a method to develop parasocial relationships. Kathleen Gannon, a graduate student at Lesley University, wrote her capstone thesis on the impact parasocial relationships have on human beings. Parasocial relationships are one-sided relationships that a person holds with either a fictional character or a celebrity (Gannon). In fanfiction, authors can create any scenario involving them with their fictional or celebrity crush. In this space, they can use expressive writing to aid in the release of stress or anxiety. Gannon specifically looked at how therapists use fanfiction’s cultivation of parasocial relationships to treat clients’ trauma or stimulate personal growth (Gannon). For this example, Gannon examined the category of superheroes. Therapists recognize that superhero fanfiction “can be used in metaphors for personal myth-making that can facilitate growth, change and self-expression for clients,” and “the stories created can help the client go through difficult times in their lives and give them a sense of strength when they feel their weakest” (Gannon). By associating themselves with a character or strength, clients can develop the courage to heal from trauma and a boost in morale. Even though these characters are fictional, they provide authors with self-assurance and motivation to conquer their suffering. But while fanfiction is great for dealing with the aftermath of trauma, what about preventing it or dealing with it in the moment?
Surprise! Fanfiction can improve that aspect too through its problem-solving abilities. Suppose a fan is planning to write a chapter of their story that contains a lot of heavy angst or sadness. In that case, the author must first immerse themself as the character they are writing about to properly understand how that character would think, feel, and handle situations. During this process, authors and the eventual readers are forced to experience the emotions of problems they may not be familiar with; fanfiction forces both the author and the reader to place themselves in another person’s shoes, inspiring empathy (Folterman). Fanfiction helps its audience and creators relate and deal with emotional situations in real life by practicing writing these situations. Having read a sensitive situation through fanfiction, authors and readers alike are better prepared to deal with real-life scenarios.
Fanfiction began to provide more people with a way to cope during the intense lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic. This pandemic continues to ravage the world, and many people’s mental health has worsened since they could no longer speak face-to-face, socialize with friends, or even leave their house (Panchal). Anna Zhang, a 21-year-old college student, was confined to her home in Beijing, China for a portion of the lockdown. During isolation, Zhang decided to dive into writing fanfiction about her long-time favorite TV show, Nirvana in Fire. She describes using fanfiction to cope because “reading my favorite characters overcoming the adversities and saving lives really [gives] me more strength to face the current event” (Cam). When people’s only way to communicate is online, fanfiction can help pass the time and express worries and doubts.
Fanfiction is giving people across the world the opportunity to engage with material in a way they may not have anticipated, providing them a distraction to the stress of the pandemic. Archive of Our Own even reported that daily viewings of the website hit a record high last April with 51.4 million views, and users post an average of 4,000 works per day, a 25% increase from the average 3,000 per day (Cam). That is an incredible amount of people who used fanfiction to occupy their day during quarantine. But while many believe that all these fanfiction viewers are either teens or young adults, older adults are enjoying this content too.
Take Karen Hill, a fifty-five-year-old mother of five, as an example of an adult fanfic writer. She is involved in a 100-person Les Misérables writing group, spending up to five hours a week drafting communal fanfiction (Cam). Some of Hill’s children work as essential workers, so “being able to just submerge myself in a story, whether I’m reading it or writing it, has been terribly therapeutic. It just erases all of this horribleness” (Cam). Even older adults enjoy writing fanfiction, especially in uncertain times. Fanfiction is a great stress reliever for every age. But while fanfiction is undoubtedly not limited to lustful teens or hormonal young adults, it is instrumental in aiding youth as they become more comfortable with their sexuality.
Porn with Plot
It is easy to dismiss fanfiction as a form of soft porn but doing so misses the entire point of its “not suitable for work” (NSFW) elements. Not all fanfiction is by any means pure NSFW, but the best part of these “smut” fanfics is that they are equally important as the ones that aren’t. When teens, predominantly female and LGBTQ+ teens, want to explore the ideas surrounding sex, the mainstream media tends only to provide the heteronormative perspective that primarily focuses on male pleasure. But fanfiction is often the gateway to everything the mainstream media doesn’t say.
Unlike typical porn, which centers itself on the male gaze, fanfiction helps broaden the perspective of sex to include female and nonbinary pleasure and pleasure for those who may not be in a heterosexual relationship. Writer Isobel Beech describes fanfiction as “[giving] back the power to chicks in some ways. It felt like one of the few places that women or girls were in control of a sexually-based narrative” (Syfret). Anyone of any gender, race, or sexual orientation can write fanfiction–a contrast to most movies and shows, the majority of which are directed by men. Fanfiction has the potential to “[place] an emphasis on mutual attraction, respect, friendship, mutual pleasure, and counteracted the stereotypes that spread through porn” (Syfret). Because fanfiction has a more diverse writing base, writers have more liberty to depict pleasure from the female or LGBTQ+ perspective. Taboo ideas such as female masturbation, BDSM, and genderfluid sex are all available without any stigmatization.
For author Alisan Keesee, she learned more about sexual education from fanfiction and personal research than from her sex-ed class (Keesee). Keesee found that the sex-ed that her school provided was “lacking, wrong, or biased” and emphasized that reading fanfiction “gave me the opportunity to figure out my own sexual preferences and biases without actually having sex. It helped me make informed and healthy decisions regarding relationships and sex. It helped me decide what was best for myself and my body” (Keesee). Sex-ed’s minimal attempt to explain the concept of reproduction ignores the normality of pleasure. It can make students feel shame for their desires or believe that sex revolves around the male perspective. Yes, I know not to get pregnant. But how? This poor sex education forces students to have to discover what sex is for themselves. However, fanfiction can provide guidance on contraception, consent, and healthy relationships that diagrams and abstinence videos cannot. Through the mainstream media’s lack of sex-ed, fanfiction has indirectly become a vital tool for personal and sexual discovery.
Girls in Love
Fanfiction’s diverse nature not only opens a safe space for heterosexual pleasure and education but sex-ed for LGBTQ+ teens as well. What about discussing the difference between bisexuality and pansexuality? Or the fact that some people might not be interested in sex at all? A lot is missing from this conversation, and fanfiction is there to help fill in the blanks. I know it helped me discover that I am bisexual.
Referring back to the Archive of Our Own as an example, only 38% of AO3’s users identified as heterosexual, and more people identified as genderqueer than as male (Hu). This statistic means that 62% of Archive of Our Own’s readers are on the LGBTQ+ spectrum. The reason behind this statistic may be that LGBTQ+ youth view fanfiction as a coping mechanism and a way to find acceptance. According to Mental Health America, only 37% of LGBTQ+ youth report being happy, and they are also four times more likely to commit suicide than heterosexual youth (“Bullying”). LGBTQ+ youth can use fanfiction to “control [their] narrative in order to heal from [their] trauma; and, most plainly, fan fiction [can be] a safe and creative introduction to the sex that [LGBTQ+ youths] would later be having” (Tesoro). When they feel like they cannot trust anyone at school or their parents not to shame them, LGBTQ+ youth have fanfiction as a resource to guide them without judgment. These short, fictional stories may suddenly become the only advice, insight, or comfort that these teens will receive. Fanfiction helps provide identity and representation to these marginalized teens. For some, fanfiction even helped them discover that they were part of the LGBTQ+ community.
One fanfic author, who goes by the pseudonym Jo, attributes fanfiction as helping her figure out she was trans. Jo reveals that “writing about trans characters helped me figure out that I myself am trans. Fanfiction was a safe place for me to put those feelings when I couldn’t articulate them to anyone else in my life” (Tesoro). Once again, fanfiction provides a safe space for those struggling to find representation or support for themselves. Similarly, another author, Ashley Caranto, says that fanfiction helped her come out as asexual (Tesoro). Most people have never even heard of the word asexual, or if they have, it was only a foggy memory of relating to a cell in their freshman-year biology class. Mainstream media erases LGBTQ+ representation, and when any representation is present, it’s viewed as a gift instead of the bare minimum. Caranto believes that fanfiction is “a genre that writes against the mainstream,” and “has the ability to disrupt, unsettle, and to represent those of us who have been silenced by other forms of writing” (Tesoro). Fanfiction helps LGBTQ+ youth identify, explore, and reclaim themselves in a time when they are often regarded with shame or backlash.
Try to imagine yourself utilizing all of fanfiction’s benefits. You just got done with a hard day at school, finding out that your friends from the last five years no longer consider you friends because of your political views. You just wish you could escape the betrayal and heartache. Changing into a comfy set of loungewear, you relax into your desk chair, ready to update your fanfic. Here’s the beginning of your newest chapter:
Life in Labyrinthia should be a peaceful one, but not for us. Us… witches. We cannot trust anyone, secretly cowering in fear each time our eyes cross a knight’s. The Inquisition hunts us down and will send us to our fiery grave if we are caught. Mercy is never given—every witch’s greatest fear lies with the Inquisitor and prosecutor, Zacharias Barnham. Barnham shows no sign of regret or wrongdoing for his fatal prosecutions, and we fear the day we may slip up on concealing ourselves. Although, no one quite understands the fear as well as I do. I don’t have any true friends. Any person in the town would turn me in if they knew my true identity, and the other witches would surely do the same if it saved them from the Inferno. Every day I pray that I will not be found out…
And publish. There’s the next chapter of your fanfic updated. Wow. That actually helped a lot. Maybe your readers will comment on how well you’ve articulated the concept of isolation. Maybe they’ll mention how much they look forward to your updates. Or maybe they’ll even provide you with some suggestions on how to emphasize your character’s loneliness! You feel a burst of confidence. Who needs terrible friends anyway? They’re only providing you with more content to improve your story’s plot.
So parents, when you discover your teen bundled in piles of blankets asking just to read one more chapter of fanfiction for a research paper in their Composition II class, don’t be so quick to write them off. Writing fanfiction can improve academic writing, mental health, and sexual education. Sure, not all fanfiction is New York Times bestseller content, but fanfiction can take an incredible amount of time and effort to create, improving their authors’ writing abilities, and helping teach the English language. Fanfic can calm its writers in times of distress, like during the current coronavirus pandemic. It can even help women and LGBTQ+ individuals, especially youth, feel represented in society and aid them in sexual discovery. Fanfiction has incredible qualities, and after reading a previous draft of this essay, my mother has changed her mind and can now see the value in fanfiction. Maybe it’s time for others to do the same.
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