With spring now firmly in our clutches, many of you are probably spending more of your time outside, enjoying the sun and, if you’re like me, anticipating summer by creating a reading list to be reckoned with. No place is safe: gird your libraries, your bookstores and your online Kindle stores because I am coming for them, but not before I’ve sorted through an even longer reading list, the seemingly endless fanfiction titles saved in my browser’s bookmarks folder.
Fanfiction (also called fan fiction or even fic)—stories written by anyone with access to a computer that expand on the universes created in books, movies, television shows, even real-life situations—is the underbelly of the literary world. Indeed, many would argue that it isn’t part of the literary world at all, but a cheap imitation of authors’ original works.
The world of fanfiction is prolific and, for better or worse, yields varying quality in writing. Because fanfiction basically has no rules (not even copyright laws, as writers of fanfiction theoretically don’t get paid, and fanfiction arguably falls under fair use), fanfiction authors have the ability to put their favorite characters in any imaginable situation–often, but not always, to the chagrin of the authors who birthed them. J.K. Rowling, for instance, has expressed her discomfort with sexually explicit Harry Potter fanfiction (there is a lot of it), but supports fanfiction in general. Anne Rice is perhaps the most famous derider of fanfiction–which is pretty rich coming from an author who has made her career on vampire fiction, a long tradition of storytelling that functions on reinvention in the same way fanfiction does–to the extent that fanfiction.net will not allow users to post fanfiction based on Rice’s works.
While authors’ reticence to accept fanfiction does indeed contribute to its dubious status in the literary world, the largest contributor is likely the stigma attached to the community that creates it. Fanfiction is often associated with teenagers and so-called nerds, people who obsess over fictional universes to an extent that they choose to spend their free time writing involved stories that act out their fantasies. There’s no doubt that this kind of fanfiction exists; I’ve read some of it, and while it’s not all bad, it certainly isn’t the best. When fanfiction writers put their own agendas or fantasies above the elements of the story that make the original version so compelling, the fanfiction usually suffers. The best fanfiction—the fanfiction that you should be reading—celebrates the original text and participates in a long literary tradition of using that which already exists to create relevant and high-quality stories.
Fanfiction has existed as long as storytelling has existed; we’ve just called it something else. The nature of storytelling is the art of building from previous stories, which is exactly the purpose of fanfiction. Shakespeare derives the plot of many of his plays from myths and legends, embellishing and re-imagining them into the classic plays we know today. What is Milton’s Paradise Lost but biblical fanfiction? What is Wicked but a fanfiction origin story about L. Frank Baum’s character, the Wicked Witch of the West?
It’s easy to write-off fanfiction as lowbrow rubbish, but to do so is not only to deny it its place as a legitimate literary movement—guerrilla literature, I like to call it—but will also deprive your reading list of some genuinely good reads. Fanfiction caters to almost every whim and every fandom. There are stories about missing scenes, for instance, what you didn’t see after the show cut to credits. There are fix-it stories that do what it says on the tin—fix unsatisfactory plot points or endings from the source material (Grey’s Anatomy, anyone?). There are Alternate Universe (AU, for short) stories for the more adventurous and open-minded fans, which take elements and storylines from the source material and transcribe them into new settings and circumstances. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, for instance, is an example of video-based fanfiction that adapts Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice into a 100-episode retelling as an online video blog. There are origin story fanfictions, fanfictions that continue the source material after the official end, fanfictions that focus on minor characters, even fanfictions whose subjects are real people (called RPF, or real-people fic).
Because there is so much fanfiction out there, it can be difficult to find exactly what you’re looking for. The struggle to find a story that is well-written and has the desired length, rating, characters and genre is real, but the internet understands this struggle, and the curation technology is steadily improving. Websites like fanfiction.net and archiveofourown.com allow you to filter search results based on a number of criteria, including all of what I previously mentioned except for writing quality. In order to discern if a novel-length story is going to be worth your time, you’ll likely just have to start reading and see if you like it, but there are ways to make more informed decisions, like looking through the reviews and comments or seeing how many views or positive ratings it has. Sites like Tumblr host huge and diverse communities of fanfiction writers, many of whom have story and author recommendation lists. Because fanfiction is so internet archived based, it is often easier to find just the right story than it is to find just the write novel at your local library, and it’s only getting easier. Archives are expanding and improving, networks between fanfiction authors and readers are growing and fanfiction itself is expanding into other forms of media, like video and art.
The beautiful thing about fanfiction is that it benefits everyone, even if the authors of the source material beg to differ. Fanfiction provides a wealth of stories for the inclined reader, offering new perspectives into familiar and favorite stories. By reading fanfiction we open ourselves to new possibilities; we change the way we think of stories, harkening back to the idea behind the oral tradition that stories belong to everyone, that stories change and adapt with each voice and society that tells them. Fanfiction allows new writers to gain practice and hone their skills, so it’s okay that bad fanfiction exists because it’s generally a safe place for new writers to get feedback on their work. As for the authors of the source material, they benefit through the knowledge that they have created a universe that has spawned readers and viewers that do not passively consume; instead they revel and participate in the world of the story. In short, fanfiction is literature of the people, a sort of proletariat, and the revolution is online.