Fanfiction: Fair, Foul, or Both?

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With an overwhelming selection of media to consume these days, participation in fandoms is almost impossible to avoid. You might be scrolling on TikTok and come across someone in cosplay, maybe someone describing a theory for a final plot-twist, perhaps a speed-paint of someone’s favourite character. Growing up, I certainly drew my own favourites like Winnie-the-Pooh and Mickey Mouse, as I’m sure most others have done too. You might watch a show, really like it, and want more content about the characters you’ve become so invested in. What then? 

At this junction, rather than sending angry emails to the producers of said show, many people turn to fanfiction (also called fics). There, readers can explore different headcanons (what a fan thinks could have happened, but is never stated explicitly in the source), alternate universes (often shortened to AUs, these are fics where the same characters are put into a different setting), and even just character studies and introspections. Though this seems like an ideal cure-all to book- and show-hangovers (when you can’t stop thinking about a book or show you’ve just finished, leaving you unable to read or watch anything else), many people find it embarrassing for others to know they read or write fanfiction, perhaps due to the stigma surrounding it. But why does such stigma exist? Neither fanart nor cosplaying have as bad a rep as fanfiction does, even though each serves similar purposes in a different medium.

Cannonballs to the Literary Canon

“I am genuinely sorry to bother you with this, but I am hoping you can help settle what is becoming a very unpleasant multi-fandom argument,” begins a Tumblr ask sent to Neil Gaiman, author of Good Omens (and much more). As is often the case with media we become enamoured with, we begin to wonder about what occurs beyond, before, and in the background of the main storyline, and, naturally, we begin to want answers to these wonderings. Did that side-character ever end up finding their missing parents? Was the main character really good at chess when they were younger? What if, owing to the fantasy world’s beliefs of reincarnation, the hero’s dead grandparent came back as an irritable sidekick and changed the plot entirely? The answers to these questions tend to manifest as headcanons (an example is roach-works’ addendum to this Tumblr post), and in turn can lead to fics that are either canon-compliant (the fic is coherent with the story) or canon-divergent (the fic is not coherent with the story and explores an entirely different ending, though typically in the same setting). However, simply probing around curiosities isn’t always enough—sometimes, readers want concrete confirmation to satisfy their headcanons.

Is this justified? Sure; everyone wants for what they believe in to be the right thing. And yet, it is this desire that defeats the purpose and the joy of fiction: to have the ability and the freedom to interpret and expand upon the source material as one wishes. In his response to the ask, Gaiman writes, “These are not things on which people can be right or wrong, or on which anything can be ‘settled’.” Of course, some creators may feel differently, and may want to correct a headcanon, provide confirmation to their fanbase, or just expand their own world and further flesh out their characters (examples of this, courtesy of J.K. Rowling, are Pottermore—which arguably spiralled—and the Fantastic Beasts prequels). Some creators may be offended at the perceived slight, viewing it as the fans thinking their own version of the story to be better than the original. Generally, though, the issues creators have with fanfiction tend to be more towards the appropriation of intellectual property and fear of incurring lawsuits over incorporating fan ideas into their work.

As owners of the copyrighted content, creators have the final say on what is legal with regards to their work. There have been authors in the past (such as Anne Rice, Sharon Lee, and Steve Miller), and there will certainly be more in the future, who have explicitly stated that they will not tolerate any fanfiction of their work in any capacity. Most creators tolerate fanfiction at the very least, though some do have specific wishes for their fanfiction: for example, J.K. Rowling does not condone sexually explicit Harry Potter fanfiction. Many creators see fanfiction as flattering, like Leigh Bardugo, and encourage fans to write it for their own joy, like C.S. Lewis. Others are completely against it, seeing it as “immoral”. For cases in which the creators do not allow fanfiction, it can still be legal under specific circumstances: if it is not-for-profit, and if it’s ‘transformative’ (if it involves “adding new elements, commentary, or criticism”)

An incident with Marion Zimmer Bradley, author of Darkover, over copyright issues with a fanfic author from whom she’d apparently taken an idea for her book without consent also led to many authors avoiding and prohibiting fanfiction to prevent the same from happening to them. This attitude is also quite common: for fear of stealing an idea and incorporating it into their canon, authors (like Neil Gaiman) generally don’t read fics of their own work, regardless of how staunchly they support the practice themself.

All this to say, though one of the reasons fanfiction is disparaged is that it’s seen to be disregarding or selfishly refurbishing the source content, that is almost never the case. Frequent visitors to might even recall the common precedent to fics: “Disclaimer: I don’t own [source, or characters],” and similar statements. For the fics that do intend to ‘re-write’ the original, it must be acknowledged that this is often not in mockery of the creator but again, merely to satisfy one’s own wonderings. Additionally, posting works to sites like Archive of Our Own (AO3) and is a declaration of not-for-profit and copyright-infringement-free work in and of itself, so fearing that the canon itself is being actively dismissed and rewritten is a bit illogical.

Neil Gaiman asks about fanfiction
Twitter (also known as X) user asks Neil Gaiman about fanfictiond

The Good Ole Sexism

Let’s talk about how, like the romance genre, fanfiction is typically looked down upon due to it being characterised as catering towards the female population! Here’s a fun fact: Dante’s Inferno is basically self-insert fanfiction. Why is it lauded as a literary masterpiece when fanfiction is derided on the internet? Some might say that the answer to that question is obviously because modern Christian debates about the afterlife are predicated on Dante’s work, whereas fanfiction (or, at least, the common misconception of it) revolves around the contrived and far-less-scholarly romance between two characters—not to mention the disparities in the quality of writing! While this is true to a significant extent (bearing in mind the comparison to the general perception of fanfiction), it also begs the discussion of what constitutes literary value, which is an entirely subjective whole ‘nother can of worms. The other answer to the question is that, during Dante’s time, producing thought-provoking literature was a men-only activity and literature produced by men was recognised as thought-provoking if only by virtue of the author’s gender. Today, writing as a profession has gradually become more female-dominated, and so the thought-provoking-ness of literature naturally became less potent. 

This is actually a documented phenomenon. A study suggests that “work done by women simply isn’t valued as highly.” As the story goes, as soon as a previously male-dominated field begins to garner more women joining the workforce, the importance, perceived difficulty, and pay of the job begins to drop. This has been seen in teaching, and in STEM as well: Biology is now regarded as the easiest of the sciences, a causation (not correlation) brought about by the increasing number of women studying it.

Of course, this is true in writing as well: it’s found that “the more female a genre, [] the cheaper the books.” The author of the linked article posits that fanfiction is dismissed entirely as a genre due in part to our reverence of the ‘official’ world of publishing (that has been historically male-dominated). Romance being viewed as a ‘female genre’ garners it similar treatment, and this in conflation with contentious fandom shipping culture makes fanfiction very, very stigmatised content. Furthermore, by perpetuating the double-standard of deeming fanfiction “unoriginal” but praising other derived literary works (like Inferno), we further reinforce untrue stereotypes of women’s work being of less value than men’s simply through the associations of romance-fanfiction-unpaid-female and scholarly-official-creative-male. Seanan McGuire, author of Every Heart a Doorway (and much more), summarised this nicely as “HE makes LITERATURE, SHE writes TRASH.”

The general impression of fanfiction is that its primary purpose is to cater to fandom ships (romantic relationships—both canon and not—supported by fans). As ships are inherently romantic and romance is seen as a more simple-minded genre appealing to women (as opposed to, say, science fiction), fanfiction by extension is seen as the same. Of course, while fanfiction (like all other fandom activities) comprises a far wider range of genres, it is true that a significant aspect of fandoms is their shipping. That is not to say that any scorn is justified; rather, it just highlights the need to re-evaluate the influence bias has had on our perception of romance as a genre.

The Good Ole Sex, and Other Questionable Content

Saving the most controversial for last: the issue of fanfiction containing (nay, advocating?) inappropriate content and unethical practices. The truth of the matter is that there are fanfics out there that maybe detail gory murders a little too explicitly, or are centred around an incestuous ship, or are just plain porn (amongst other infractions). People take issue with this for two primary reasons: 1) that writers who create such works and readers who consume them must condone them, which is wrong and thus to be frowned upon; and 2) that the creation of such works and their publishing forces this content onto unsuspecting and unconsenting viewers. In the latter case, a common argument is that this is especially disrespectful to viewers whose cultural and religious values are violated by the content of the fanfiction. This controversial content can also take on a seemingly less harmful form—that of rare-pairs (uncommon ships) and ‘problematic ships’ (such as shipping a minor with an adult).

This can be very off-putting, but as X-user @ladyofthestorm wrote: “Every ship you can think of has been shipped, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” This is where the term ‘proshipping’ comes in. Lately, through the usual telephone-wire distortion of things, proshipping has come to stand for ‘problematic shipping’, alluding to ships that are morally reprehensible and ethically corrupt (like pedophilia, as previously mentioned). However, proshipping actually is just the prefix pro and the word shipping, leading to the predictable meaning of “ship and let ship”. Basically, ‘I’ll ship what I want and you do the same’. This is not condoning ‘problematic ships’—in fact, it is more an acknowledgement that, despite what ships one may choose to engage with, they do not necessarily condone those ships in real life. A good analogy for this is to extrapolate the situation to media in general. Say, for example, that someone is an avid Game of Thrones (GoT) fan. The series has an incestuous relationship between two main characters (and the relationship itself serves as a key plot point). Does this mean that the GoT fan is in favour of incest? Another question to ask would be whether GoT fans encourage slaughter, or slavery. Obviously, the answer is no—just because someone is a GoT fan doesn’t mean they condone incest, slaughter, slavery, or any of the other morally reprehensible and ethically corrupt practices in the series. They can still enjoy the series as a story and a form of media whilst acknowledging the wrongdoings of the characters.

The same goes for fanfiction. Furthermore, AO3 revolutionised the consumption of fanfiction with their tagging system, which allows users to filter out works that they feel aren’t suited to them. So, if someone actively doesn’t want to read fics of a certain ship, they can filter out that tag in their search. And even if they don’t, they can simply choose not to open fics that are tagged with that relationship. This makes it very difficult for unsuspecting and unconsenting people to fall prey to the wicked wiles of fanfiction authors advocating problematic behaviours. There are many common tags that are widely recognised in fandom spaces, such as hurt/comfort, angst, PWP (porn without plot), fluff, and more. While some tags describe the genre of a fic, others may describe the content (“yes. there was only one bed”), the setting (“college au”), or the relationships (“bilbo adopts smaug because smaug is a little puppy”). You can check out @AO3_tags for some funkier examples!

At the end of the day, yes: some fanfiction does contain content you might not want your twelve-year-old sibling to get their hands on. However, regardless of how ‘degenerate’ some fics may be, it is unjust to categorise fanfiction as a whole to be the same, especially when there now exist robust filtering methods to eliminate content that you do not want to consume. And, couldn’t it be argued that the point of art, as @camestela_ on X wrote, is to “explor[e] the deep ugly complicated parts of life”? Even if you disagree, there has always been a dissonance between the media we enjoy and what we actually believe to be right or wrong. To cast moral judgement on fanfiction for delving into that which ‘legitimate’ media is lauded for addressing seems hypocritical.

Why Bother Reinventing the Wheel?

Fanfiction is not just rehashing the content of the source material. It can be an expansion of the universe, an exploration of the characters, or simply just some good old-fashioned porn. Fanfiction, like all other literature, doesn’t need to be ‘deep’ or thought-provoking for it to have value; nor does it have to serve any real purpose, or convey any real message. More than that, “fanfiction is a home-cooked meal made for yourself and for your friends.” Often, after reading a book or watching a show, it is the characters we become emotionally attached to. Sometimes, all you might need at the end of a long day is simply a coffee shop AU of your favourite characters. Like all fan-created content, fanfiction is by fans, for fans—creating a fandom community where everyone shares the things they love.

Many people find it easier to enjoy content about characters and settings they’re already familiar with, or are emotionally attached to. As intuitive as it sounds, people just like reading what they enjoy. Simply put, by Neil Gaiman himself on the oft-referred-to post on Tumblr dot com: “Make fun fanfiction. Enjoy yourself. Make things up. Share them. That’s the point.”