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Crybaby Is fan fiction a cultural climax or just fangirl crack?

Sep. 19, 2019
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Illustration by Dina Bax.

Before One Direction and “Star Trek,” there was Jane Austen. Hell, before that there was the Bible. What all of these cultural landmarks have in common is their fan-driven appropriation: 1D listeners and Jane Austen fanatics alike have converted their idols into characters, placing them in original stories which range from profoundly cathartic to overtly sexual. Fan fiction has permeated literature since just about forever, and it isn’t slowing down anytime soon.

When exploring fan fiction’s origin story, it’s crucial to define what actually constitutes fan fic. If it is explained as “the work of amateurs retelling existing stories,” then the Bible fits the bill pretty cleanly—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were all retelling the same story about the same character, after all. But this becomes complicated by the Middle Ages’ lack of both fans and authors. So perhaps a more fitting definition would lie in “the reworking of another author’s characters.” With this in mind, true fan fiction didn’t really pop up until the 18th century when legal authorship was invented and the novel emerged; in 1913, self-proclaimed Janeites (read: Jane Austen stans) came together to write “Old Friends and New Fancies: An Imaginary Sequel to the Novels of Jane Austen.” The Janeites effectively invented continuation fic, a medium in which fans use an author’s characters in new storylines.

By the 1920s, new types of fan fiction were springing up everywhere. Some writers took to the now-omnipresent self-insert fan fiction, in which the narrator meets their hero (be it Sherlock Holmes or a weirdly dominant Harry Potter); others enjoyed real-person fic, writing about musicians and politicians like they knew them IRL. Then, fan fiction took a turn from the ‘30s to ‘50s, almost explicitly focusing on sci-fi. Simultaneous was the emergence of slash fic—a subgenre in which two TV characters from the same work go from friends to gay lovers. A formative example lies in Jennifer Guttridge’s “The Ring of Soshern,” a 105-pager in which Spock and Kirk are deserted on an island and Spock will die unless he’s penetrated ASAP. (He’s penetrated, and the two “spend all their remaining days on the planet exploiting both the planet and each other’s bodies.”)

In response to this kind of overt sexuality, Ewan Morrison noted in “The Guardian” that fan fiction’s intentions aren’t always innocent:

“There is a dark sexual undercurrent to the majority of fanfic, as if on a subconscious level the fan actually resents the control that their idol or idealised character has over their life. Through the act of writing fanfic, and subjecting characters to compulsive or vengeful love, sex, S&M or rape, the fan then regains control.”

Notably, the ethical concerns regarding fan fiction sex scenes go both ways. On one hand, fan fic has been credited with allowing women to indulge in their sexuality without shame. Most fan fiction is female-written, enabling women to have complete and unrestricted agency over their fantasies. In real life, women might be scared to ask their partners about trying BDSM or even voicing their sexual needs—but in writing and reading fan fic, women need not restrain or censor their desires. They can get off on Harry Potter fucking a Giant Squid or the tender romance between Edward and Bella in a literary world sans sexism. In the privacy of a woman’s phone or laptop, she can curate her fantasies and, even if only for twenty minutes, ignore men’s ideas about what female sexuality should look like. And while that might still mean a fan fic’s female narrator playing a brazenly submissive damsel in distress, it will be on her own terms—ultimately, it is still the female writer whose fantasy is playing out.

Even beyond sexual agency, though, it turns out many women simply prefer erotic fan fiction over visual porn because of its emotional intimacy. Muhlenberg College English professor Francesca Coppa says “backstory tends to be sexually important to women,” and fan fics almost universally put “relationships back into the porn.” In her book “The Fanfiction Reader,” Coppa dubs this unique phenomenon in erotic fan fiction objectification’s opposite: “subjectification.” While porn reduces people to bodies—vessels, holes, skin, and hair—fan fiction humanizes its players, gives them emotions and complexity and maybe even plumbers who actually do their job.

This is not to say that all erotic fanfiction is softcore, innocuous, and sentimental. In fact, many of its kinkier sides expose fan fiction’s ethical implications. Take, for example, a 14-year-old girl writing explicit sex scenes involving a fully grown Liam Payne and a narrator resembling herself. Is that OK? Coppa dismisses such a scenario, explaining that fan fiction doesn’t ever hurt real, physical people. It’s also, according to her, way more morally sound than violent pornography: “In fan fiction, I know no physical bodies were coerced to do anything in the making of the erotica.” Others, however, argue that fan fiction does not necessarily offer an ethical orgasm. Tech writer Tonya Riley believes the aforementioned real-person fiction actually calls into question matters of consent and ownership of public identity. It is for these very reasons that in 2002, one of the earliest fanfiction forums,, banned all fan fiction involving real people. But then Larry Stylinson—the infamous and greatly fictitious pairing of One Direction members Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson—emerged from the shadows in 2012 and opened the floodgates. (That year, Larry Stylinson was Tumblr’s single most popular ship in fan fiction.) Thus, the debate sparked once more: are these stories an unethical violation of consent, or simply a predictable consequence of fame?

A 30-year-old fan fic writer named Sergey said in an interview for Medium that “RPF—and by that I mean explicit stories about currently living celebs—is the lowest trash possible to me.” While he has no issue with historical RPF, he expressed disapproval of writers who fantasize about their contemporaries, and “who use ‘But they are famous, they have to deal with it!’ as an excuse for being creepy.” From a legal standpoint, though, not much stands in the way of fan fiction writers. Because celebrity personas are very rarely copyrighted or trademarked, and most fan fiction remains unpublished, writers typically aren’t violating laws about using someone’s likeness for promotional materials without their consent. If a fan fic does get picked up, avoiding those laws can be as simple as changing the characters’ names.

Anna Todd’s One Direction fan fic “After” exemplifies this loophole to a T. The story, which has received more than half a billion views on Wattpad, centers on female protagonist Tessa Young’s dark, sex-crazed relationship with none other than Harry Styles. After its initial success in 2013, the story was published as a series of novels in 2014—featuring our beloved Tessa and a carefully refined “Hardin Scott.” Oh, and its full-length feature-film adaptation hit theaters in April. And all of this is, in the eyes of the law, completely justified by its genre: fiction. Once fiction is labeled as such, proving that it represents reality is difficult. But fan-fic writers are often not even attracted to or enticed by reality; they prefer to detach themselves from its monotony, instead indulging in more fantastical and drama-filled options. As Stacey Lantagne, law professor at University of Mississippi, asserts, “Online writers do not write stories about Harry Styles in college hoping to trick people into thinking the celebrity Harry Styles is anything like their Harry Styles. Rather, they are engaging in an obvious (and, in fandom circles, familiar) bit of fictional play.”

For all these reasons and more, Ewan Morrison defines fan fic’s reputation as less than stellar:

“It may seem like a joke, but for many the rise of fan fic is ‘the end of the world.’ Fanfic is seen as the lowest point we’ve reached in the history of culture—it’s crass, sycophantic, celebrity-obsessed, naive, badly written, derivative, consumerist, unoriginal—anti-original. From this perspective it’s a disaster when a work of fanfic becomes the world’s number one bestseller and kickstarts a global trend.”

And so fan fiction’s duality is complicated. Yes, it is a cultural hallmark which has A. united millions of obsessive fans over shared interests and B. created limitless space for female sexual agency. But it’s also an ethically imperfect and culturally frowned-upon medium which gives very few fucks about consent—a matter which is indisputably at sex’s core. So whether you’re into Spock and Kirk or Larry Stylinson, it’s time to start digging deeper into what makes these stories so important—and to what extent you think they’re okay.