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Elizabeth Minkel writes about fandom and fan culture for the New Statesman and is a staff writer at The Millions. She also explores the ins and outs of fandom on her podcast “Fansplaining” and in The Rec Center newsletter. Today, for International Fanworks Day, she talks about falling in, and out, and back in love again with fandom, and why fanworks are such an important part of her life.
Look, I don’t do this with everything I read. When I finish a book I have this ritual where I close the back cover and hold it for a minute and just process. I might think about the characters for a few more minutes after that, but usually it’s more like days, or weeks, or even years (I named my cat after the protagonist of a Virginia Woolf novel, after all). But every so often, a collection of characters grabs me and drags me under. Kind of an aggressive image, I guess, but this part often feels out of my control. By the time I come up for air I’ve already lost myself in these worlds. And even as I read other things, those characters are always there, just on the edge of my vision.
Books aren’t just about words on a page, and once one is published and bound, it’s no longer simply about the person who wrote it, the how or the why or the intent. Books—all media, for that matter—are about the people who read them, and what they do with them. How readers internalize them, their sentences or their themes or their characters. How readers change because of them—change their minds, maybe, or change themselves. And for some readers (yes, we’re talking about me here), books are about what we do with them—after.
I’m similar to a lot of fanfiction readers and writers, I think, because I wrote fic before I knew it was a thing—only a year or two before I got online and I realized that it was a widely-held impulse, but many years before I learned the history, about how it was the basis of decades-old tightly-knit communities, or, cast in a broader definition, at the heart of literature itself.
I suppose there’s no use getting shy about my pre-teen fannishness—it was Sweet Valley High fic, meticulously charted on yellow legal pads, though before you get any ideas about 5’6” twins with eyes as blue as the Pacific, I was actually drafting a sprawling backstory for the corporate board I’d created to run a minor character’s father’s company. I was particularly invested in this minor character’s father. No, I know. My middle school library had a collection of biographies about famous self-made men, like Horatio Alger stories, but true, and I’d checked every single one out, to study. I told people I wanted to be a ruthless businesswoman. No, trust me, I know.
But it was Buffy the Vampire Slayer that brought me online, and while we’re rolling out embarrassing stories, I remember with startling clarity the first time that I read someone else’s fanfiction, without quite realizing what it was. Giles—my Giles, a perfectly appropriate character for a 14-year-old girl to have a crush on—was turned into a vampire, and I remember writing a friend in utter panic, massively confused by what I’d read, as if I’d stumbled upon some prediction of what was to come in the next season, or something that had already happened that I’d…somehow managed to miss (I mean, honestly). And if I dig a little deeper into that panic, I have to wonder if that was the moment of revelation, when I realized that multiple texts could exist simultaneously, a million parallel universes, pressed up against each other. (I mean, let’s be real here, I was actually only focused on Giles becoming a vampire, but still.)
I took a brief detour into ER fanfiction before I stumbled into Harry Potter, and that was where I wallowed for a full decade, each new book digging the knife in deeper. It was with Harry Potter that I became a shipper, and read around (and under, and straight through) pairings. It was in Harry Potter that I started reading slash, for reasons too complicated to elaborate here. And it was in Harry Potter that I learned about tropes and common practices and, particularly relevant to my interests, fix-its—I began to realize why I needed fanfiction, and what exactly I needed from it. If literature is a conversation, then I am the type of person who reads and says, “Yes, but—” I value the spaces between the lines, but I also want to pry them open. I respect writers’ narrative choices, but I need an army of fic writers, including myself, to flip them over, to poke at them from every angle, to illuminate things the original author could never have imagined.
I followed fic writers from Harry Potter to Torchwood, and I was somewhere deep in fix-its set on faraway planets thousands of years in the future when I started to see the word “fanfiction” in the mainstream media. I was a book critic by then, working at a fancy magazine in Manhattan, and I mentioned to a coworker that I’d spent the weekend writing fanfiction. She physically recoiled before telling me to never say that aloud in the office again. But this was the height of the Fifty Shades frenzy, and it was hard to keep my mouth shut, as every media outlet under the sun swung and missed while trying to say something about fanfic. So I wrote about it, as cagey and as critically distant as I could manage. “Fanfiction readers often—” “Many fans—” “People write fanfiction—” I was there, not particularly well-hidden, just below the surface. Me, me, me.
It was two years later, when I was in deep—that taking-up-all-my-idle-thoughts-and-even-some-of-my-active-ones sort of deep—with Sherlock that I finally stuck my head up above the surface. I was tired of fangirls getting trampled on by the media (all fangirls, of course, but particularly the kind like me, fanfictionally-inclined and too nervous to really speak up about it). So I started writing about fandom, with a focus on transformative fanworks, in various mainstream media outlets. My entire career veered sharply, but in an incredible way, because I was suddenly being paid money to talk about the things that were most important to me, the things that had always been at my core. (It’s not about the money—and trust me, we’re not talking about much here—but on some level, it is, though unpaid fan labor is certainly a topic for another day.)
But the deeper I got into fandom journalism, the harder it was to find my old fannish self. Part of this was my particular fandom at this particular moment, fractured by new canon and warring factions and actors who kept saying stupid things that ruined it all for me. But part of it was me, because I had given up something that had been deeply private, a respite that I relied on through all those years of lurking—that weird simultaneous feeling that fanfiction belonged to only me and to this entire massive community simultaneously. I didn’t find a way back in there, so for two years, while I penned one article cheering for fic after another, I didn’t read a word of it.
I think back to that colleague of mine, the one who recoiled, and how funny it is that only a few years later, so many people—most of them in a professional context—are asking me about fanfiction, and they’re genuinely curious. They ask for links and recs, explainers and tips. Somehow we tore down the walls of stigma that felt impenetrable a decade ago—it’s not a done deal, not by a long shot, but we’ve made a ton of progress. People who’d never heard of fanfiction, or never gave it a second thought, are coming in and loving it and staying put.
But it’s strange to see all this play out, because for me, I think, ‘What have you been doing all this time? How could you not need fanfiction, from the very start? Isn’t it as natural as breathing? And as necessary?’ (Yes, yes, I am dramatic; unsurprisingly, I really like angsty fic where everyone misunderstands and hurts each other and you squirm with anticipatory worry.) In my fic-less few years, I felt like I was reporting on my past life, observing my real self at a temporal distance, pushing back that nagging worry that loving fanfiction, needing fanfiction, actually was something you grow out of, a suggestion I’d always railed loudly against.
A few months back I was idly scrolling through my dash when I noticed that one of my favorite Torchwood writers had published something new. I clicked, almost on autopilot; a few years back, I lived for her stories. I found myself plowing through her masterlist, something I’ve done before. And in December, a friend published a long, exquisite Harry Potter story—I learned that we shared a ship, my actual not-exaggerating OTP, Remus/Sirius. It turns out you can fall into the same rabbit hole twice. I spent Christmas excavating favorite stories from a decade ago, something that involved the Wayback Machine and a fair bit of cursing. And a week ago, I started to draft a story of my own. I’ve been thinking about it during work and on the subway and while I was meant to write this piece—and I’ve never been so grateful to be distracted.
I’ve recently started a fandom podcast (with Flourish Klink, a long-time fandom person who now works in the entertainment industry) and a few episodes ago, we asked listeners to write in and talk about times when fanfiction helped them through struggles in their lives. The response shouldn’t have surprised us so much; it was overwhelming. People talked about drug addiction and physical illness and sexual identity and social anxiety—there are so many paths to fanfiction, and we take away so many different things, but we all wind up in the same space, trapped on the same ships, joking about how they’re ruining our lives, when actually, they’re saving them.
So I suppose when I think about the broad topic of fanworks, grasping for a simple way to talk about why they’re important, the shortest, most cop-out possible answer I could give is that they’re everything—and that’s why they’re important. It’s something you just feel: going under, falling down those rabbit holes: it might be out of my control, but I’m fully aware that it’s happening. Fanfiction is a part of me, and that’s why it’s worth celebrating. Because it’s always been there, on the tip of my tongue: “Yes, but—”