The Truth About Fanfiction

There are two extremes of thought concerning this millennial genre, and they look a little like this:

Yeah.  Basically, some laud fanfic as a colorful and uncensored art form that should 100% be considered real literature.  Others look down on fanfic as an amateur and seedy distraction with no legitimacy.  These generalizations probably don’t actually reflect the opinions of the bloggers above, but it’s a decent (and funny) starting example.

Obviously, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  But interestingly, I find that many often bash and praise this internet genre for misguided reasons.

By way of background, I’ve discovered fanfiction in 2010.  The gateway drug was, of course, Harry Potter, and I’ve since wasted countless hours reading across multiple fandoms.  I occasionally write my own when a vivid spinoff strikes me.  After the novelty of fanfiction expired, however, I started to hold it at an arm’s length: I loved the opportunity to read about my OTP(s) falling in love over and over again, but I became impatient with trite and poorly-characterized fanworks.  Now, I’m a self-proclaimed Picky Fanfic Reader.

Criticism:  Fanfiction is illegitimate because it is derivative.

Debunking: One should not scoff at internet literature just because they’re based on pre-existing content.  While some fanfics do speculate and elaborate on canon moments in its media, there are SO many fanfictions  that bend events, settings, and even characterizations to create an “alternate universe” (AU).  e.g: Ron and Hermione are normal (non-wizarding) people who fall in love in a coffee shop.   You’ll soon find many works which — with name changes and some tweaks — could easily pass as original stories.  (Cough, cough: Fifty Shades of Grey.  Not saying that’s reputable literature…but you can see how some fanfictions are mere steps away from becoming new stories.)

In that way, fanfiction authors aren’t just playing Mad Libs with stolen characters and settings.  They’re truly exercising creativity and ingenuity as they reinvent famous stories into something new.  Also, friend, “there’s nothing new under the sun.”  Writers have been ripping off other writers since language was invented, and we call those classics.  

Praise: Yeah, there are rookie disaster writers, but lots of fanfics are INCREDIBLE!  The greatest, most popular fanfictions are basically like books.  (Some of them sure are long enough to be!)  Tons of quality fic are better than half the stuff currently on the market. 

Debunking: I’ll need to stop you right there!  DO NOT pass go DO NOT collect $200!  Now, I’ll be the first one to admit that fanfic has improved my writing: fanfiction is the first place where I realized that descriptive writing should be like a scene in a movie, and the rigor and pressure of writing a long fanfic taught me to be a more committed author.  And I’ll be damned if I said that fanfics haven’t torn my heart in a million pieces, or inspired me, or produced touching lines.

On the other hand.  “Good fanfiction” is not the same thing “good writing.”  Think of what we expect from fanfic: whether you want a cute or angsty story, you’re seeking an intense emotional impact.  Great literature is often emotional, too, but the emotional impact is the byproduct of portraying a profound truth about life, humanity, etc.  In fanfic, the emotional impact is the byproduct of my favorite couple kissing.  See the difference?

When I log onto fanfiction.net, I don’t expect a mind-blowing epiphany, though that would be a shocking plus: nah, I’m usually just looking for OTP lip action, at least.  This creates a conflict of interest between appealing fanfiction and “good” writing.  Popular fanfics are addicting and exciting because they’re saturated with melodrama, employing lovable tropes, predictable plot devices (are these BFFs pretending to date gonna get together???), and cliched resolutions (“We’ll love each other forever,” he promised.)  None of which “good” writing should have.  “Good” writing should never stir up drama for the sake of drama, and they should be as original as possible.

Appealing fanfiction, due to audience impatience and reasonable word limits, have little room for subtlety.  Subtlety is a major characteristic of “good” writing, and I don’t mean it in the sense of using, like, vague symbols or metaphors.  I mean, like, on a Hamlet or Hemingway level of ambiguity and complexity.

So, if a fanfic has perfect grammar, an intriguing style, and an exciting plot — that is the top 1% of fanfiction!  But I dread that the impressionable internet generation will think that’s all “good” writing requires.  Unfortunately, to my chagrin, that’s not the case, and it’s better to realize that now.

Sorry if that burst anyone’s bubble.  On the bright side, here are some 100% Michele-Certified Reasons why fanfiction is awesome!

  • It’s free
  • It’s healthier and less violent than pornography (but if you want violence, you can still find it…you do you…)
  • Shows more LGBT, transracial, and other unconventional relationships than TV and cinema probably will in 10 years.
  • Fanfiction is amazing practice for budding writers.  Thinking of original settings and characters is hard, so the opportunity to plug these factors in to focus on description, dialogue, and plot is precious.  The awful, hackneyed stuff on fanfiction is infuriating, but I never dare to shame it or give a harsh review: these are writers-in-progress.

M.L.

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