Revenge of the Feminerd: Fanfic is Underrated

Jarrah E Hodge
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a white woman with brown hair sits in an armchair and works at two laptops--by PicsFanfictions (fanfics, for short) are original fiction based on the events and characters in already created popular media, such as books, movies, TV shows, anime, comics, and video games. It’s difficult to determine exactly how many people write fanfiction, but there are certainly a lot of stories being churned out on a daily basis. To give just one example, in the last six years the number of stories on just about Law and Order: SVU alone, has more than doubled from 3,500 to over 9,800 (I picked SVU because that was the show I first started writing and editing fanfic for).

Although it’s very difficult to get accurate demographic data, the evidence suggests that the majority of fanfic writers are women, with the age of the writer varying based on the source material (or “fandom”) she focuses on. It seems most are young, including a large number of teenagers. And while many fanfics contain sexual content, the sexual orientation of the writer doesn’t always determine whether the sexual orientation of the story’s characters will be straight or “slash” (same-sex, trans, or queer). For example, Wikipedia states that many writers of slash fiction about male characters are straight women.

I started writing fanfic when I was in high school. In addition to writing about Law and Order: SVU, I’ve also been what’s called a beta reader, which is essentially a fanfic editor/proofreader, for stories about SVU, M*A*S*H, and The West Wing.

I’ll admit there’s a lot of fanfiction that can read like sloppily edited romance novels (including my first couple of stories), and the fact that anyone can publish fanfic without having writing experience can mean readers have to wade through a lot to find the real gems. That’s why, even though I enjoyed writing and reading fanfic, I was embarrassed to talk about it. Now though, looking into it, I realize that there’s a lot to celebrate about fanfiction.

There’s been a little scholarship done around fanfiction and gender relations. The first academic to really take up the study of fanfiction was Joanna Russ, who sadly passed away earlier this year. In the 1980s, Russ looked at Kirk/Spock fanfic (at the time, being published in fan magazines) and analyzed it in terms of imagery, sexuality, and literary theory, making a big stride forward in its recognition as a form of literature. In her landmark essay, “Pornography By Women, For Women, With Love,” she illuminated the complex reasons people write and read slash fanfic.

More recent research includes Angela Thomas’ work, which found that writing fanfiction allowed young women to create empowering narratives that let them feel more powerful in their everyday lives. She also found the sense of community writers got from fanfic was important, especially for teenagers who might otherwise feel excluded in their peer group.

Canadian Paulette Rothbauer’s research found that some lesbian and queer youth find role models in slash fanfiction, which some found particularly important at a time of life when they may feel alone and unsupported.

Looking at another way fanfic challenges conventional gender relations, Melissa at The High Hat speculates that women writing about male slash pairings is a way for authors to “have the freedom of being male in their female bodies.”

And even if there are a lot of fics that couldn’t be seen as progressive, lack of censorship and encouragement from an online community is part of what makes fanfiction writing an activity that feels both safe and fun, especially to young women writers. Even the much-maligned stories featuring Mary Sues (cliched main characters that stand in for the author) could be a useful form of self-expression for the author, even if they are painful to read at times.

If people are expecting Pulitzer-caliber writing, they don’t understand what fanfic is about. There are some really great fanfics and some not-so-great ones. The most important thing is the opportunity it gives people, especially young women, to explore gender identities, build a sense of community, practice writing, and express themselves without fear of censorship.

(photo by Remo del Orbe under Creative Commons license)

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19 Comments Have Been Posted


Way to go, Jarrah! I have quite an appreciation for fanfic, especially since explicitly queer characters in the TV canon are still few, far between, and usually off to the side. I've only written <i>Veronica Mars</i> fic myself, but I agree with you (and Chally, who mentioned fanfic earlier this year) that the process allows women and girls to make established characters their own and explore their personal identities. I also appreciate RPF (Real Person Fic, eg. what might have gone on when the two female leads from <i>Glee</i> were living together,) which is in a lot of ways no different, being that celebrities are constructed characters in the minds of those who don't know them.

<i>I’ll admit there’s a lot of fanfiction that can read like sloppily edited romance novels (including my first couple of stories), and the fact that anyone can publish fanfic without having writing experience can mean readers have to wade through a lot to find the real gems.</i>

Well... I might argue that this applies, to a lesser degree, to published work as well. I actually don't mind that so much fanfic is Velveeta-cheesy, because some is hilarious in its own right. "Badfic" (which is probably an established term, though I just made it up) is enough of a culture that some people write it on purpose. I'm personally fascinated by the infamous <i>My Immortal.</i>

Anyway. Thanks again!

Thanks, Deb. Glad you liked

Thanks, Deb. Glad you liked the article. Yes, badfic is an entrenched term with associated entertaining websites. And you're absolutely right to say there's a lot of cheesy writing outside of fanfic.

And Aja was right to point out a lot of what we think of traditionally as "literature" is essentially fanfic, like Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres. I commented more on that below, but I think you both made a really good argument that there's no real point making a distinction as to quality of fanfic vs other forms of literature. I'm very proud of my later stories and not at all proud of my earlier ones so even individual writers go through ups and downs, in fanfic and elsewhere.

Ah, My Immortal. I have it

Ah, My Immortal. I have it bookmarked when I need some lolz. Maybe that's mean, but it's true.

Oh my

Curiously, I have it bookmarked under the title 'for lolz'. Are you by any chance my estranged twin? Then again, I suppose it's not that rare an inclination. Regarding the meanness; it might not be all that polite, but, well, our dear 'Enoby' does rather ask for it, do you not find? No matter.

As an amateur fanfic author (as opposed to a professional one, I suppose? What an odd idea.) I think it allows young writers to share their pieces without their readers having to adopt an entirely new universe, which is, I believe, especially fortunate for those with fantastical leanings. The characters are already as dear to the audience as to the performer, which creates an immediate bond and allows for a faster pace and fewer tedious explanations. Also, one already has a setting and a set of fixed characters, which, although occasionally daunting, lends more time to developing a plot and a literary style.

Also, it's just so much fun!

I have been reading a lot of

I have been reading a lot of Buffy and Harry Potter fan fiction over the years, and it has been fascinating. You do have to wade through a lot of badly written gender regressive trash, but then you find that masterpiece, the one that is arguably better than the show/book. I was disappointed by the boring pairings in Rowling's series, and therefore read the ones that paired Harry and Draco, which allowed for the exploration of very interesting power dynamics in the better ones. Buffy and Spike always lend themselves to similar possibilities within a hetero framework.

I have found Henry Jenkins work on fandom quite fascinating, especially in 'Textual poachers: television fans & participatory culture.'

Thank you for this! Many

Thank you for this! Many people see fanfiction as, at best, a playground for annoying pre-teens, and at worst a creepy place where people over-analyze other people's work. As someone who spends, probably too much, time in fanfiction communities, overall I find it a supportive and safe place for like-minded people to communicate.

It also serves an important purpose in allowing teenagers, who are a major demographic in fan communities, to feel good about themselves and build a sense of who they are in a supportive place, and also to explore both homo and hetero-sexuality.

There is a lot of negativity, or 'wank', in some fandoms: I've found groups of Glee fans who can get nasty sometimes, for example, and ship-wars happen (one big one at the moment is around Gossip Girl: Chair vs Dair), but overall, it was an important part of my and many of my friends' teenage lives, and it's nice to see fanfiction shown in a supportive light.


"Fanfictions (fanfics, for short) are original fiction "

FYI, for future reference, "Fanfiction" is a collective noun. When you're speaking about works of fanfiction, you say just that, "works of fanfiction." You can pluralize "fanfic" as "fanfics." But when you pluralize fanfiction as "fanfictions," it sounds....weird. :D

Also, I have to add....

Everything you're saying here is fairly obvious to most fans, but this --

"If people are expecting Pulitzer-caliber writing, they don’t understand what fanfic is about. "

--this is really just plain wrong. It's the people who *don't* expect Pulitzer-caliber writing that really, fundamentally, don't get fanfiction. See also:

Love it

Thanks Aja,

In terms of the pluralizing, I've seen it both ways and I don't think one is more correct than the other, though you could argue that fanfictions sounds more awkward so your point is well taken.

And I love that link - it's a great list. My goal wasn't to delve deeply into the realm of fanfic for those of us who are already into it but more to give some arguments for defending the genre and your link definitely goes to that, so thanks for sharing :)


Also was going to add that when I was referencing "Pulitzer-caliber writing" I wasn't meaning to say fic is less but that it tends to be different. Of course there is innovation and room for immense creativity but at least in the SVU fandom there's also a lot of focus on maintaining the canon, which restricts what you can do in terms of reinventing characters or plots.. I love A Thousand Acres and Rent and Sunday in the Park with George but they most definitely broke out of canon compared to their source content.

That's also an asset for fanfic - sometimes it can be even more challenging to exercise creativity within the confines of a canon. Fanfic challenges writers to push the boundaries, but also to examine the minutiae of everything that might have been overlooked in the source material.

Following up

Hmmm! My experience and perspective about what constitutes"maintaining the canon" may be different from yours. When you say that fandom's canon sources restrict what you can do with the writing, that's totally inaccurate based on my entire experience in fandom. There is no possible way to make the claim that fanfic, on a large scale, restricts itself to canon. You have <i>hundreds</i> of thousands of writers who routinely write AUs (alternate universes) where the stories take place in different worlds/universes/with different characters, or with something fundamentally shifted about the canon itself. Even in my the Jane Austen fandom, which is notably traditionalist in terms of writing/canon authenticity, there's a whole huge forum devoted to modern AUs and "flights of fancy," if you will.

Then you have writers who disregard parts of the canon they don't like, like the thousands and thousands of HP fandom writers who are writing "non-epilogue-compliant" fics after the end of Book 7, or writing "eighth-year fics" in which the characters go back to Hogwarts to finish school. It's the same thing that professional writers of original fiction have been doing with canon sources for years. (E.G. Nolan writing original characters into his Batman series instead of using the ones canon gave him; e.g. Lerner & Lowe disregarding the canonical ending of Pygmalion to write My Fair Lady).

I agree that there are a lot of restraints placed on writing that can aid/spur on creativity, but those aren't in any way *limited* to fandom, or really unique to fandom, when you think about it! I mean, fanfic really is just an evolution of the kinds of recursive storytelling that's been around for centuries, so there's really almost nothing about it that is unique. Even Mary Sues, for example, have their counterparts in countless works of original fiction--fandom is just notable for naming that trope, codifying, and subverting it. Fandom is really good at that. :D

First, gotta say I'm loving

First, gotta say I'm loving this conversation. It's really exciting to hear about your different experiences. We kinda already talked about this on Twitter but I thought I'd post it here so other folks could see it. Would love to hear from more readers about your experiences with fandoms and canon policing.

So I was saying that in the SVU fandom, especially about a year or two after it really took off, there was a <i>lot</i> of canon policing. There was a group that formed called the Canon Crusaders that was made up of fairly established fandom community members who'd go around making sure people were in canon. To some of the group members this even meant you couldn't have any character pairings that weren't allowed on the show.

With my experience now I'd say f* the canon and I'd say the most important thing about my writing is its experience for me, not whether it annoys someone else who doesn't like my pairing. But back then (in 2000-2001) I was 15 and honestly didn't have the self-esteem or feminist background to stand up for what I really wanted to write about. Also back then there were a lot fewer venues for publishing your work. Aja said on Twitter that she feels the Livejournal communities are a lot more open and I'm so glad to hear that. In the early 2000s we were mostly writing fics via Yahoo! Groups, so it felt more important to kind of do what the people running the groups approved of.

That said, I'm still proud of what I wrote at the time (except my first 2 stories, which I were at least a good learning experience) and an interesting challenge that emerged that I loved was plumbing the depths of the characters within the confines of canon. I didn't give up on my pairing (Olivia/Elliot) but I made sure I didn't "auto-divorce" Elliot and that I wrote in a viable scenario for my 'ship to get together. I did a lot of looking at characters via in-depth post-ep fics that I thought added a new dimension to how we looked at the episodes' plot. I think it was a great experience in some ways.

So it definitely seems like canon-policing varies by fandom and community and may have decreased since the days of Yahoo! groups, back when I had the only Olivia/Elliot fanfic site. I did have slightly different experiences in other fandoms, with M*A*S*H being a lot more lax, partly due to the fact that the show had been off the air for so long, and West Wing being a bit police-y but less rigid than SVU. Like I said, I'd be really interested to hear what others' experiences are with fanfic rigidity - do you feel like there are people in your fandom who police you? Do you edit yourself in terms of canon and how far you break from it? Or do you find your fandom more encouraging of creativity and accepting of AU stories?

And I mentioned this to Aja but would like to throw it out to other readers - if I end up being able to fit in a follow-up post on fic, what aspects would you like me to discuss? I'm really interested in Aja's point about a broader definition of fanfic that sees it as part of a larger historical tradition. Another commenter also mentioned the idea of women being embarassed to write female Mary Sues but maybe more willing to write male Mary Sues, and I'd be interested in exploring that further. Let me know what you think!

Love it! I just wanted to

<p>Love it! I just wanted to give a shout out to the volunteer-run <a href="">Organization for Transformative Works</a> (full disclosure - I am a volunteer), which is a non-profit "established by fans to serve the interests of fans by providing access to and preserving the history of fanworks and fan culture in its myriad forms.</p>
<p>We believe that fanworks are transformative and that transformative works are legitimate. The OTW represents a practice of transformative fanwork historically rooted in a primarily female culture. The OTW will preserve the record of that history as we pursue our mission while encouraging new and non-mainstream expressions of cultural identity within fandom." <a href="">http://transformativeworks... </a></p>
<p>Folks who are into fanfic might be interested in OTW's <a href="">Archive of Our Own</a> a fan-created and fan-run archive, and people who want to read more fandom scholarship should check out <a href="">Transformative Works and Cultures</a>, an academic journal on the topic.</p>

Thanks for the links

Thanks, Anne. I'll have to check those out.

Another scholarly look at fan fiction

Another name that should be added to the list of scholars looking at fan fiction is Dr. Rebecca Black of UC-Irvine. She's studied how fanfiction communities provide support for English language learners. This is one of my favorite papers of hers:
Black, R. W. (2005). Access and affiliation: The literacy and composition practices of English language learners in an online fanfiction community. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 49 (2), 118-128.

katesune, phd


Thanks for the great suggestions, katesune!

Fanfic and Mary Sues

Great mention of the fanfic part of feminerding! :D I didn't see it coming (for some reason), but i'm very glad that you touched on this subject.

I would love to see you (or someone else) write on Mary Sues and female fanfic author's own treatment of female characters - fairly often I talk with fellow female nerds, mentioning that they're afraid of writing their female characters as Mary Sues... but they're not afraid that their male characters turn into those. It seems that these people i've met consider Mary Sues and strong female leads as interchangeable. But maybe that's for a blog on amateur fiction writing altogether.

Anyway, i'm looking forward to next installment. Keep up the good work!

Thanks for your touch on this

Thanks for your touch on this topic! The realm of fanfics are often swept under the covers despite the huge reading base! I once was a preteen who wrapped myself in these slash delights like a sweet self-spoiling blanket :)

I have been a huge fan of you

I have been a huge fan of you Femnerd column, and I was even happier to see you writting about fanfiction.
Ever since I read my first naruto fanfic back when I was like 12, male on male slash fanfiction has been a huge part of my free time. And even though I primarily read slash fics, I have a a profound love/respect or all form/types of fanfiction, and displays of fandom.
For awhile I even tried writting my own, though unfortunatly for me I was scared away from the world of a fanfiction writting by Anti-slash flamers. Thought don't worry I am giving it another try on a more open fan site.

But anyway I really just wanted to say thank you, fanfiction is too often disregared as juvenile, or silly pre-teen fantasies, but for those of who know we should never be embarrased to say we love and embrace it, it really is a huge part of our lives, and we love to see it aknowleaged!

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