Why Gatekeepers Are Wrong About Fanfiction
Fanfiction's role in the literary community is complicated and often contested, but fan works have been influencing literature and its culture for years. Here's why this "low art" has a lot to offer the world of fiction.
A Twitter Firestorm Ignites
On January 16th, the writing community became embroiled in a battle over the value of fanfiction. It started with a lengthy Twitter rant from relatively unknown fantasy author R.S. Benedict. It began:
it's incredibly bleak how many contemporary aspiring writers cut their teeth on fanfiction, a form that actively teaches you to write worse
'but some published writers start with fanfic' yeah EL James and Cassandra Claire--they're fucking terrible
controversial take: low-effort formulaic lowest-common-denominator writing is bad actually
'But fanfic is often queer.' Great; but did you know that queer literature exists outside of fanfic? It's a lot more meaningful to read legitimate queer stories than to mash your plastic action figures together.
IMO arguing that women need fanfiction is profoundly misogynistic. I'm a woman, and I can read and write actual stories. I don't need training wheels.
Needless to say, this didn't sit well with fanfiction writers and readers (as well as dozens of published authors and literary professionals), who came to the defense of the medium.
Not only does Benedict misrepresent the facts, but she also seems to skim over the fact that several of her own works are derivative in one way or another. (Her website describes her story, The Fairy Egg, as a retelling of the real life death of Bridget Cleary and another, Water God’s Dog, as being based on Sumerian mythology.)
Let's break down some of the ways that Benedict's arguments miss the boat.
Fanfiction Isn't Just On the Internet
When people hear the word fanfiction, they typically think of Wattpad or Fanfiction.net—teenage girls writing about falling in love with Harry Styles or fighting alongside Harry Potter. But the reality is that many of our acclaimed favorite books are fan works in one way or another.
Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet was based on a narrative poem by Arthur Brooke. Gregory Maguire's book Wicked, the inspiration for the hit musical, is a retelling of L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz. Seth Grahame-Smith's parody novel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, was an original mashup with Jane Austen's text. Even Mark Twain wrote a book based on the King Arthur stories. The world of fiction has a long history of borrowing and remixing works.
E.L. James and Cassandra Clare Are Not The Only Fanfiction Writers
Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James and Cassandra Clare's The Mortal Instruments series are both well-known fanfiction works, but they're far from the only examples of authors who have dabbled in fanfic writing.
Neil Gaiman, a highly celebrated fantasy author and winner of both the Newberry and Carnegie medals, actually published a few fanfiction works. His novel "A Study in Emerald", a fanfiction combining Sherlock Holmes mysteries with the world of H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu, won a Hugo award for its writing.
Andy Weir, acclaimed author of The Martian, wrote Ready Player One fanfiction. Other famous writers who honed their craft through fanfiction include The Outsiders creator S.E. Hinton, bestselling Fantasy writer Lev Grossman, SciFi author Naomi Novik, and YA hitmakers Marissa Meyer, Meg Cabot, and Rainbow Rowell.
Fanfiction Doesn't Mean Bad Writing
If the impressive list of fanfiction authors above doesn't already make it clear, there's plenty of quality fanfiction out there. Many fan works go on to become published novels of their own, while others simply act as playgrounds for the imagination of the author.
In a study of works on Fanfiction.net, professors Cecilia Aragon and Katie Davis found that writing fanfiction and receiving community feedback actually improved users' writing. An analysis of 61.5 billion words showed as writers received more reviews, their vocabulary improved. They speculated that encouragement and “distributed mentoring" amongst community members was responsible for this growth.
Writing Fanfiction Isn't Easy
Benedict, like many people, believes fanfiction to be "low-effort" and "lowest-common-denominator", but most writers will argue that writing fanfiction requires skills that other forms of writing do not.
Authors are forced to write within an existing set of rules while remembering details from existing plot lines. They are also required to write within the unique voices of characters crafted by another person. You're also trying to find success in an overpopulated genre where readers are already familiar with the finer details of the property and have set expectations.
At the End of the Day, Fanfiction is Just Another Genre
Not all fanfiction is good or terrible. There's a huge range of quality levels, but that's how it is with every genre. As fanfiction is written mostly by young, self-taught, and inexperienced writers, it's easy to find examples that are considered "lower quality", but there's plenty of great ones too.
Most authors will tell you that any writing experience will help you grow, and the evidence seems to back that up. Rather than defining what is or isn't art or literature, it's worth acknowledging that the value of art is only measured by how it is received and enjoyed, and with millions of people reading fanfiction every day, it's worth ignoring the opinions of anyone who tries to make broad decisions about what is "good" enough.
Just make art for art's sake.
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