There are some strange things on the internet. No, not those things. But some strange things nonetheless.
We live in a society that laments a hypothetical impending crisis of literacy. Neologisms, memes and text-speak erode our language faster than ever before. It’s difficult to tell where the dictionary ends and the latest patois or argot begins. These kids can barely even spell anymore, we think, imagining that it was better in our day. What hope remains for the written word?
Reading, at least, doesn’t seem particularly endangered. We all read all the time, albeit in digital (and abbreviated) form. Even longer-form prose is still very popular - there’s no particular danger there.
But then there’s this thing I’m doing right now: writing. The reasonably creative use of written language to create something new, or even to communicate effectively. That’s the primary object of concern, as we see scattershot their/there/they’re, greengrocer’s quotes, and the slow, silent death of the comma. These damned kids can’t write to save their lives.
Except in one of those dark corners of the internet.
There, writing is very much alive - and takes surprising forms. Enter the world of fan fiction, or fanfic.
The idea is simple, and just what you’d expect from the name: people writing works of fiction, long and short, set in the established universes of novels, TV shows, cartoons, movies, videogames and more. Usually in a single such universe, but combinations are also popular, and are called “crossovers”. If you ever wanted to see your beloved Star Trek characters interacting with Mulder and Scully, well, your wish has been granted.
The internet’s pre-eminent repository of fan fiction is fanfiction.net, and its archives are so vast as to be awe-inspiring. There are billions upon billions of words here, for every conceivable property. Stories are split into genres, and further (often) into pairings of characters.
The author base is predominantly female, though by no means exclusively. Age probably skews on the young side, biased towards the teens and twenty-somethings. Given the demographics, you can imagine the popular genres: angst, coming of age, doomed romance, the trials and tribulations of life, pondering mortality and destiny, and so forth.
There’s also a large dose of cloying, silly love stories (“fluff”), schmaltzy pieces set to popular songs, with lyrics interspersed (“songfic”), and a boatload of other tropes. Unashamed match-making between two primary characters? That’s “shipping”. Stuck in (or visiting) an isolated cabin somewhere? “Cabinfic”. Same-gender relationships? “Slash”. Pieces of just a hundred words or so? “Drabbles”. The list goes on.
Now, I won’t lie to you: there’s some very weird stuff too, because fanfic is no-holds-barred self-expression, often written by young people.
Maybe you’re a fan of Castle, or Breaking Bad, or let’s say Stargate SG-1. And maybe you’re frustrated that Jack and Sam never really got together on-screen, despite all the sexual tension for those ten years of travelling around the galaxy. Let’s also say you’re an adult, and don’t want to filter out pieces with more mature ratings. If you enter those preferences into the fanfiction site, you’ll get 5,700 works of fiction. That’s not a word-count; it’s almost six thousand individual stories.
Some of them will be a few hundred words. Most will be between 1,000-3,000. Some will be more than a quarter of a million words, which is more than two novels’ worth. And in a very (very) small percentage of the stories, Jack and Sam will be anthropomorphised animals instead of humans. Or robots. Or will find themselves in our real world, possibly even interacting with the actors who portrayed them on TV. The weirdness goes deep sometimes.
For the most part, though, it’s just what it sounds like: fiction written by fans. I must admit that it’s a guilty pleasure of mine; I’ll often blast through a few stories during a half-hour lunch break. I’d never try to convince you that it’s great literature, but I do think that it’s important. Fan fiction gives me hope for the future of writing as a creative pursuit.
Wait, hear me out.
Lest we think that young and no-so-young people don’t read (or write), consider the sheer volume of material that’s been published. There are tens of thousands of authors, using their grasp of language to weave stories featuring their favourite characters in new situations. For some of those authors, fanfic will be a precursor to writing as a pastime throughout their lives. For a few, it’ll become a career. But in every case, it’s a celebration of the written word: tested out in a safe environment, often under pseudonyms, and in front of a responsive and constructive community of hundreds of thousands of readers. That’s a profound thing.
There’s a deeper reason why I think fan fiction is important, though: the ways it informs us about humanity, or at least the specific subset comprising its authors. It’s immediately apparent that themes and plots recur - such as the cliches and sub-genres that spawn their own neologisms. These universal threads tell us something about ourselves. Our hopes, our disappointments, our perception of the world as it is and how it ought to be. That’s the power of fiction as a whole, and it absolutely also belongs to fan fiction.
There’s a vast body of work here. No matter what you’re into, someone has written fiction set in its universe. I challenge you to find one of the extremely rare counterexamples - and you’d better check back monthly.
And yes, a significant portion of it is cringe-worthy (though not as much as you’d expect). Plots can be thin and self-serving. Dialogue can be wooden, and poorly rendered. Emotional maturity can be conspicuous by its absence. The occasional Mary Sue does crop up. A certain percentage of the stuff is just plain awful.
But even the really awful stuff is instructive: it’s raw, and has its own beauty - somehow enhanced by the spelling errors, dodgy grasp of language, poor formatting, and the adolescent emotions, settings and plots.
There’s a real person behind each of these pieces, and their voice is one we almost never hear. We filter it out, and dismiss it, and forget that it brings a perspective that’s not our own, and never will be. The more I consider the basic element of striving humanity, the more my perception of these pieces changes.
There’s a striking sense of exposure or voyeurism, like reading someone’s diary. The tales are a thin veneer for the author’s need to make sense of (and hopefully affect) the universe around them - or at least a nearby universe that they know well, and can project their own feelings onto.
There are also some true diamonds in the rough to be found, if you’re willing to look: stuff worthy of the masters. You can read an entire story, usually a handful of thousand words long, and suddenly be stopped dead by a phrase that’s several orders of magnitude more artful and elegant and poignant than all the rest. It’s an arresting experience, and it’s wonderful.
I can say with complete conviction that, if you’re a reader (and a student of this human condition we all find ourselves in) you should have a look at this odd, modern phenomenon.
It’s worthy of your attention, especially if you despair at a bleak vision of the future of artistic self-expression. Yes, it’s a bizarre place, and a saccharine one. It can be unsophisticated. But there’s treasure there.
It’s also optimistic, and that’s the crux of the matter for me. So many young minds, expressing themselves via the written word. Who cares if the depth, and art, and thematic sophistication aren’t always present? There are more important things to think about - like how writing is fundamentally an act of hope.
Never let it be said that fan fiction isn’t literature. Indeed, it may be some of the most vital, relevant, important writing available.
A version of this article originally appeared in issue 28 of The Loop Magazine.