The last fanfiction I ever wrote was updated in August 2013. Twenty-two chapters, with one chapter clocking in at 9,000 words. In fanfiction terms, it’s abandoned. Incomplete. Dead. I ended the chapter on a cliffhanger. I click on the reviews and read a comment from 2018:
Oh damn its [sic] been years since this story has been updated but its [sic] so worth the reread. I can’t believe I still remember this amazing story and I guess these reasons are why…
I’m gutted. I know the feeling of being so absorbed in a story only to be yanked out of it at the last sentence, the pain of knowing that it may never be updated, the ache of not knowing where the author is. Are they still writing? Are they alive? Do they check on their own fanfictions like I do, like some internet archaeologist digging for half-buried treasures from another time?
When I type the word fanfiction in the Google search bar, an autocomplete entry pops up. “What does fanfic mean?” The short definition: “[Fanfiction], (also abbreviated to fan fic, fanfic, fic or ff) is fictional writing written by fans, commonly of an existing work of fiction.”
Does this mean the epic poem Paradise Lost by John Milton is Bible fanfiction? That Faramir in Lord of the Rings is J.R.R. Tolkien’s self-insert character? Couldn’t Batman be classified as a Mary Sue, a derogatory term used for female wish fulfillment characters? What would the esteemed literary elite think about all of this?
But we write ourselves into these worlds. Fanfiction is fiction at its core.
The Internet is at best tolerable, but at worst it is a nightmare labyrinth where we only exist on three, maybe four social media platforms.
Gone are the digital spaces we carved out for the sake of our own passions and interests. If you review books on YouTube, you’ll be approached by Skillshare for a sponsored episode. That podcast you like recites copy for MeUndies. In between clicking through your scroll of Instagram Stories, ads for Dyson, Sephora, and Thinx pop up. A frozen food company can tweet out a long thread about fake news, while my local news station posts clickbait articles on their Facebook page. Niche is just another word for inevitable monetization.
In an effort to fully remove my nostalgia goggles, I recognize that the early digital frontier wasn’t a perfect utopia of wonder. It was dangerous, virus-filled, and not without its own manufactured drama. Doxing and catfishing existed. Trolling was rampant, hence the Internet adage “don’t feed the trolls”. My life online wasn’t perfect. Nonetheless, the fanfiction community was my temple and its writers were part of a congregation I willingly participated in.
I began writing fanfiction because I liked writing. I liked being part of a community where it was accepted and encouraged to play with other people’s words and worlds. When I connected with other fanfiction writers, it wasn’t out of a coy expectation to network with people who would eventually publish me. I was a teenage girl who wanted to engage with the fictional worlds of my favorite books, movies, and tv shows.
Like many teenage girls in the early-mid aughts, I had the belief that I wasn’t like other girls. I loved anime. I didn’t wear makeup. I hated Twilight and read only the “classics”. I wasn’t a complete loner, but my friends were mostly the weird kids, the anime nerds, and the band kids. However, I never shared my interest in reading and writing fanfiction with those friends. I am not sure why I never spoke about it back then; perhaps I just wanted it to stay my secret. Fanfiction was one of my few escapes from bullying, angsty teen drama, and mindless schoolwork.
The first fanfictions I ever wrote and published on Fanfiction.net were Naruto, Bleach, Teen Titans, and Avatar: The Last Airbender. I wrote mostly humor and action/adventure fics, “what if” scenarios, and alternate universes (AUs). I wrote a story where Naruto never had the fox demon Kyuubi sealed within him. A Teen Titans standalone story about Raven’s strained relationship with her villainous father Trigon. I enjoyed writing from a canon character’s perspective the most. I liked figuring out how to make a character sound the same as they did on the show but through writing. As an awkward teenage girl with hardly any relationship experience, I didn’t gravitate towards writing romance until my early college years and I didn’t write any content past a T rating. As I got older, I stopped writing fanfiction for cartoons and anime shows and ventured into fandoms like Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Cringe alert: not only did I write canon couple pairings, I also wrote original character/canon character pairings, the latter still unpopular and ridiculed in today’s fandom culture. I filled spiral notebook after spiral notebook of fanfiction and original stories, planning one-shots and sequels for the storm of ideas in my head.
Writing fanfiction introduced me to the endless library of 21st century fandom terms: smut, omegaverse, plot bunnies, Mary Sues, adding an “!” after a noun or adjective before the character’s name to denote an altered character, R&R, lemons and limes. There were LiveJournal accounts dedicated to making fun of bad fanfiction and self-insert characters, communities centered around shipping characters, and groups of fanfiction writers offering review/critique services for free, in which I was actively involved. I helped newbie fanfiction writers with their story ideas and proofreading, and I would ask the fanfiction writers I admired for their insight on my stories too.
Sure, I got the occasional flame or bad review, but it made me a better writer. If a canon character wasn’t acting like themselves, someone would comment “OOC”. If I had made grammatical or spelling errors, a reviewer would point them out. The criticism and workshopping I received in my MFA program couldn’t compare to the critique from a user likely named xxFanficLuvr1999xx. I often joke that my years in the Pit (a nickname for Fanfiction.net) made me impervious to most modern-day trolling attempts. Although I experienced wave after wave of targeted online harassment in 2018 and 2019, nothing hurt quite as much as the “this fic sux” reviews left by Anonymous on my stories. Despite the haters and the trolls, I was spurred on by a community that wanted my contributions. Their positive messages linger in my mind and message inbox:
“You have a believable OC who isn’t like a super genius like [them] and isn’t some super special awesome person. Looking forward to the next chapter!”
“So sad, so beautiful story [sic] :(”
“Oh my god the feels! That chapter, like the others, was purely amazing and perfect and spectacular. Keep up the marvelous work and please update soon, if you don’t mind! This is, by far, the best thing I’ve ever read.”
While I didn’t and still don’t consider myself a Big Name Fan in any of the fandoms I participated in, I had a decent number of fans following my work, hopping from one story to the next and leaving reviews. I had fanfiction friends too. We’d message each other about our future writing projects, critiques of each others’ stories. Yet we rarely divulged any personal info outside of being in school or having a job. I knew writers only by their username or a first name: D, Emily, Ro. I can’t recall if I ever shared my real name online. At least, not publicly. It was easier to be me online when no one actually knew who I was or how I looked. My writing spoke for me.
I stopped writing fanfiction in my second year of college because I wanted to write for publication and I perceived a decade of writing fanfiction as a hindrance to my future literary career. I majored in English. I attended a low-residency MFA program. All in the name of being a real writer. To produce work. To have prestige. My poetry thesis and craft paper were well-received by my peers and the faculty. I sent poems to established literary journals like North American Review, POETRY, and The Kenyon Review. Despite the form rejection letters, I knew that I was good, that my poems were good. I drank my ego’s weight in alcohol. My first published poem was a finalist for an inaugural poetry prize. A male writer I once considered a friend told me I was magnetic. Attractive, even. In those moments, I wasn’t thinking of writing for myself.
Most days I do not feel joy in writing. I struggle with typing a single sentence or stanza in Microsoft Word. Writing this essay took months. I will never earn back what I’ve spent on submission fees. Sometimes I’m okay with that. Sometimes I’m not. I should be happy with my poetry chapbook and my decent publication credits. I am, but I’m not. My participation within the poetry publishing world is fading. I wrote fanfiction for my readers, but also for me – for my own joy.
Even the Internet cannot outrun entropy. The WayBack Machine is more like a rusted time capsule than a time machine. In the ongoing paradox of human communication, we are recording our history on another form of ephemera. How many fanfictions are perpetually suspended in the ether of Fanfiction.net, Archive of our Own, or WattPad? How many photo album sites house rows of one image, a square with a red x in the top right corner? How many passwords have you forgotten for email accounts you no longer use? What about roleplaying forum boards? Dead links. Website not found. Blue text to nowhere.
Some praise writers’ explanations of their own work as the Word of God. But writers aren’t gods. Their words aren’t lightning-struck commandments on stone tablets. When people write fanfiction, the world belongs to them as much as it does to the original author. Rather than a one-way street, we can imagine the relationship between author and audience as a Venn diagram.
In June 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic and social unrest happening worldwide, author J.K. Rowling once again took to Twitter and expressed another anti-trans statement. Rowling has been labeled as a trans-exclusionary radical feminist (a TERF) due to her ideology regarding gender. With the recent announcement of her new book (written under the male pen name Robert Galbraith, also controversial), Rowling’s commitment to transphobia further distances herself from the main body of work she is best known for—Harry Potter. (As a cisgender white woman, I cannot speak on transgender issues but highly recommend reading Gabrielle Bellot’s phenomenal essay about reckoning with Rowling’s transphobia as a transgender woman of color.)
Rowling’s outbursts and canon warping aren’t new. I remember reading “Voldemort has a daughter” fanfiction over a decade ago, so imagine my chagrin when I read the stage play for Jack Thorne’s The Cursed Child, where a major plot point revolves around the sudden reveal that Voldemort and his most loyal follower Bellatrix Lestrange had, in fact, produced a child. While Bellatrix is canonically obsessed with Voldemort, there’s no indication that the two ever had a physical or romantic relationship. Needless to say, reading the play was a personal disappointment. Or that Voldemort’s pet-slash-familiar Nagini couldn’t just be a large, creepy snake. It was revealed in the Harry Potter spin-off movie Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald that Nagini is a woman cursed to transform into a snake. Her Wiki character page doesn’t outright confirm her race, but in the movie she is portrayed by South Korean actress Claudia Kim. Rowling states she kept this a secret for twenty years, but there is no indication in the books that Nagini was ever formerly human. These revisions, new content, and retroactively “progressive” changes add nothing to the original story and all read like bad fanfiction. I am sure if J.R.R. Tolkien was alive and had a Twitter account, he would be tweeting new information about the Valar. I highly doubt he would say that Aragorn and Arwen needed marriage counseling, or that Gandalf magicked away his own waste. Tolkien did explicitly compare his dwarves to Jews in connection to their language and culture. As a Tolkien fan and a Jew, I can’t pretend that statement away or ignore the criticism from scholars who look at his oeuvre through a racial lens. He would certainly be ratioed on Twitter if he made that tweet.
Can you still write fanfiction of a book series when its author is monstrous or hateful? Answer: it’s complicated. I believe it is the individual’s responsibility regarding their media consumption. French theorist and critic Roland Barthes claimed we cannot know what the writer intended; the writer is rather a producer of text without interpretation and that words are written in the moment. But if the author is alive and spewing misinformed opinions that directly impact their audience, the author therefore cannot truly be Dead. Orson Scott Card, writer of the science fiction series Ender’s Game, remains a controversial figure for his views on homosexuality and politics. Even dead authors maintain their influence. H.P. Lovecraft’s eldritch mythos may be in the public domain, but so is his racism. The new book-turned-HBO series Lovecraft Country is a prime example of recontextualizing the monsters that populate the world as figurative and literal bigotry the main Black characters face. One can hope that if and when Harry Potter enters the public domain, future writers will reinvent and subvert its themes.
Rowling created an original world, yes, but the fans have far more imagination.
I never want to forget the feeling of writing for the sake of creative freedom. I want a release from the productivity mill. No more racing to the top of the pyramid writing scheme. We are living during a fucking pandemic in a world on fire, so if I want to write self-indulgent bullshit, I’ll write self-indulgent bullshit.
After a series of clicking on forgotten usernames and passwords (and remembering my old email address), I’m able to log into my Fanfiction.net account. The website layout itself hasn’t really changed since its inception in 1998, though the site appears visually cleaner than my last login five years ago. It’s like I never left. I upload a new Microsoft Word document in the document manager, label it “Chapter 23.”
“Oh hey. It’s been a minute. Remember when I gave up on this story? Well, I’m back.”