Fanfiction is a collection of stories based on the characters and settings from existing commercial works. The reason that I use the word commercial is because we don’t usually call it fan fiction if you write a story about Lady Macbeth even if Shakespeare wrote it first. The separation of stories into fiction and fanfiction is all about who “owns” the work.
Before I go off into a rant about trademarks and copyrights that I am sure will bore you, let me say that this is not an article about the legality of fanfiction. What I want to talk about is why fanfiction has become such a phenomenon now; a phenomenon that supports numerous websites, blogs, twitter posts, and forums; a phenomenon which has spawned hundreds of conventions all over the world to celebrate derivative works. Why have fan stories suddenly caught the imagination of such a large percentage of the population? My thought is that the fiction fills a need that is out there, a psychological and emotional need for creation and connection.
The pervasiveness of the internet has created a culture of separateness. Even while engaged in group activities, people are alone. How many times have you seen people at a restaurant sitting at a table together, but each in their own separate world looking at phones and pads for their entertainment? More and more, people are not interacting with the world around them, they are engaged in online culture. It is online that people make their friends, online where people post opinions and get their news, and it is online where people read their stories.
Years ago, when I wanted to read something new, I would go to the bookstore or the library. Look around, how many bookstores do you see today? The number of independent brick and mortar bookstores in the United States have declined from 2,400 to 1,900 between 2002 and 2011.1 In the early nineties, there were over 4000. 2 This means that many people, maybe even most, are buying their books online. But if one is online anyway, why not just read your stories online as well?
With the advent of small affordable pad computers, more people than ever are doing just that. They read and listen to stores on their phone or computer. In this environment, a New York times best-seller looks no more glossy or legitimate than a popular fanfiction work. This levels the playing field for writers making it easier for readers to find new stories.
But given the plethora of written material on the internet, how does one chose what to read? Here is where fanfiction comes in. If a person knows the story, or the characters, or the world, it is easier for them to judge whether they might like the work. It gives them a place to while away the minutes while waiting for their child’s soccer practice to finish, or while standing in line at the grocery store.
The barrier to entry for fanfiction stories is low. Picking a fandom is picking a genre. You know what the rules are, what the environment is, even the names of the characters. It is faster and easier to immerse yourself into than new fiction stories. Over time, an active fandom can even create it’s own characters and storylines for readers to follow. These stories are free to stray outside the bounds of the original work and embrace concepts of interest to the reader that might never be broadcast to a mass audience.
ITS ABOUT THE SEX.
Many fan works are porn. This is because sexuality is a basic human desire that is still largely suppressed in our society. Issues about sex that are not to be discussed in polite company, can be discussed quite easily in fanfiction. Issues of sexual identity and orientation, rape, bondage, and fetishes are all popular topics in fandom. This is not to say that heterosexual sex is not seen. It is quite commonly portrayed. And these stories may be the only sexual activity that many of the readers have easy access to.
Fanfiction is also a place where people can work out their own sexual fears and hangups. The psychological distance of identifying with a fictional character allows a person to feel and still disengage if the emotions become too severe. Stories also use identification to evoke empathy for the plight of people who are different. They give people a chance to imagine that they were a different sex or sexual orientation than they are, in a way that evokes understanding and sometimes pity.
The free discussion of taboo sexual topics liberates people. It allows them to sublimate their harmful feelings, substituting them with art that others can also identify with. It allows them to talk about issues without subjecting themselves to ridicule for their beliefs or desires. It makes people feel free to be happy. To be free from shame. To get around the everyday repression that society forces on us all, and to let down their hair when they read. Writing and reading about sex is therapeutic. and it makes many people happy.
ITS ABOUT THE EMOTIONS
Stories have always allowed us to put ourselves in another person’s thoughts. They create empathy, allowing us to feel another’s emotions. Reading fiction allows the friendless to feel companionship, the downtrodden to feel brave, and the lonely to feel loved. Stories hold a powerful pool of emotions that allow us to control our moods. They make us laugh, fill us with sorrow, compel us to hope, and give us joy. In a world full of change, why would we not indulge when we hold such power in our hands?
ITS ABOUT THE COMMUNITY
I began by saying that we were growing more separate. Fanfiction and fandom builds communities that bring people together. By sharing art, people are interacting on a very personal way with other people everyday. The internet allows people to meet like-minded people across the world. They can talk daily to people who are far removed from them physically, and these connections are real emotional connections that bring life, friendship, and companionship to people who would normally not be allowed to contribute to their full potential.
Fanfiction increases the potential of people to be creative, contributing members of society. It gives people friends to tell stories to. Friends to tell about your day. Friends who care about what happens to you and give you an outlet when your life becomes hard to endure. Friends made over shared loves are strong indeed, and this is why fandoms can outlive the original works that they are based on, because in the end, they aren’t even about the stories that started them. They are about the people who are using these works as frames around which to convey their own experiences and truths. Fanfiction is truly the art of our time.
1. OEDBstaff. October 29, 2012. 12 Stats on the State of Bookstores in America Today.
2. Steve Wasserman. May 29, 2012 . The Amazon Effect – Amazon got big fast, hastening the arrival of digital publishing. But how big is too big?