The Bullshit Claim of Someone Else’s Shame

Another day, another “interviewer” trotting out fanfiction in public conversation with a star.

Oh, joy.

Today’s culprit, as you can see here, if you like, is the LA Times, who asked an actress from Downtown Abbey to, tee hee!, read erotic fanfiction about her character out loud.

How droll.

This comes on the heels of the Sherlock debacle a week or so ago, wherein Caitlin Moran used the series’ season three premiere event as a venue for–you guessed it–pulling Johnlock out of a hat and, ha hah, shoving it in the actors’ faces.


In the forest of WTF? that this raises, the most pressing one for me is this:

Why the hell would you do this? From a rhetorical perspective, ok, what would you as an interviewer hope to gain?

Here’s my answer:


Look, I’m sure these cats go in thinking they’re Zaphod Beeblebrox hip because they know what fan fiction is. Hey, bloody good for you. You can read the internet! Well done.


I’m sure they think that invoking sexytimes fic to an unsuspecting actor will introduce a moment of levity into the interview, un bon jouissance in the midst of what, no doubt, is the actor’s 27th sit-down in a row. Ah, publicity junkets, these reporters think: I’ve got the best of you now.

They’ll kill two birds with one stone, said interviewers: they’ll put the actor off their guard by being “unexpected” and “edgy” and thus soothe their own discomfort, their unease at being in the room with a person who’s more famous than them. They will gain, as they say, the upper hand.

And the vehicle of le petit surprise will be the fan–the female fan, to be clear–one who was foolish enough (the reporter’s thinking goes) to post their, pfft, “writing” online where anyone with a keyboard might find it and can you believe, actor, that people would write such things, such dirty things that your character and another (or two) might do between the sheets?

Mainstream culture is nothing but consistent on the question of women’s writing: it’s tripe, dilluted, chick lit, a stream of words that cannot hope to connect to the essence of the human experience as true literature penned by the male hand might. Just as the author of Jane Eyre was firsts known as “Currer Bell” rather than Charlotte Bronte, there’s a reason, dear reader, why we know the creator of Harry Potter as “J.K.” and not “Joanne” Rowling:

The use of a pen name was suggested by her publisher, Barry Cunningham. He thought that young boys might be wary of a book written by a woman, so Joanne chose ‘K’, for ‘Kathleen’, the name of her paternal grandmother [x]

Even now, I’d argue, within the dominant discourse, women’s writing remains incredibly suspect, in large part because of the cultural assumption that women write only for other women, that whatever stories they spin can be appreciated only by someone who lacks a dick–the success of women like Jo Rowling being the exception, one assumes, that proves the rule.

But what’s worse, most galling of all, is when women really DO write towards what they perceive to be a primarily female audience. In such cases, mainstream culture trots out terms meant to be diminutive to author and readers alike: like “chick lit” or “romance” or even, back in the day, “melodrama.”

However, the success of the Fifty Shades trilogy–whose author, one notes, is also known by her initials and not her given (and terrifyingly female) name–has afforded those who fear it another terms with which to dismiss women’s writing:


And so, we have in recent days seen two high profile public “outings” of fanfiction as grist for an interview with the actors whose character the (female) fan has been audacious enough to claim for her own and–dear god–put through the paces of romance and sexual encounters that lie outside of the show’s canon world.

Oh, the horror!

Look, as I said, this behavior is nine kinds of bullshit–

–but the one I’m going to point to is shame.

The basic assumption in both of these recent cases is that writing fanfic–and reading it!–is something for which we as women, as fans, should be ashamed.

We should be embarrassed that we spend 5,000 words imagining how Sherlock might seduce John, or where in Downtown Abbey’s vast acres would be the best for a discreet (if noisy) sexual tryst. We should be embarrassed because fuck, we’re not very good writers, because we use the words “trembling” and “rigid” and “slow wet and sloppy” way more than Hemingway ever did. We should be embarrassed because we’re women, damn it, women who should be focusing on pleasing our spouses or boyfriends or imaginary heternormative mate and not on pleasing ourselves with our own, ahem, pen.

I say: Fuck. That.

Now there’s no question that the authors whose works were recently trotted out and laughed at in very public spheres do feel humiliated, do feel as if their work was put on display simply and only to be mocked. Which it certainly fucking was, and I am in no way suggesting that they shouldn’t feel this way.

What I’m saying is that, in order to prevent further bullshit of this kind from occurring in the future, one thing we can do is fight back against the notion that writing fanfiction–of whatever ilk we damn well please–is ANYTHING to be ashamed of.

Yes, America: women read and write romance and erotica and fucking porn, all under the general header of “fanfiction.” We do it! We even make it with love. And, fuck yes, we do it in part to get off, to make ourselves feel good, to be sexual outside of the goddamn dominant discourse. Yes! We sure fucking do.

What exactly are you going to do about it, mainstream culture?

Oh, try and “out” our efforts to creatives whose work we’re riffing on, in some lame attempt to make your work as journalists seem relevant and “down with the times”?

Yeah, good luck with that.

Trust me, trust me, when I say that I understand that not everyone who writes fanfic wants people in their real world lives to know what they do on their own time, because fanfic is our thing, it’s special, no non-shippers need to apply.

But trust me too when I say that the kind of behavior we’ve seen lately around fanfic, it ain’t gonna stop any time soon. There’s red ink in the water, and the journalist types are hungry for chum, and for now? We’re it, some of us by pen name in specific.

I guess what I’m saying is that having a pseud is important and often liberating–it certainly has been for me. But there’s also untold strength, I think, in publicly claiming what we do, what we write, what we jack off to, because otherwise? People in the “press” will keep telling our stories–selling our stories, as it were–for cheap humiliation at our expense, under the guise of “entertainment.”

This is part of the reason that, despite the kindly expressed worries of some of my profs, I’ve consciously made little attempt to unlink my academic self from my pseudonym and my concomitant proclivities in writing fanfiction of the occasionally sexy kind. If you want to know who I am in real life, you can find me; if you want to challenge me at an academic conference with lines from my smuttiest Wincest, so be it. This may very well have consequences for me when I start looking for a job. Some people may not want to hire a highly trained rhetorician who also happens to be adept at writing schmoopy angel-human porn. Yes. I know this.

But for me, so much of who I am as a scholar and a writer comes straight from (so to speak) writing fanfiction, from interacting with my readers online, from collaborating with other authors. Participating in fandom, for all its ups and downs, has made me better at what I do as a professional-type person: a better teacher, writer, and researcher. And what is heartening is there are many many amazing fans out there in academia who are doing this work on a far grander and insightful scale than I.

So look: the only stories people outside of fandom will know about us, about what we do as readers and writers of fanfic, for now? Are those in the public press. Some of those have been awesome. The two of late? Not so much.

As storytellers, dear readers, who is better equipped to push back against the narrative machinations of others than are we, those who write fanfiction? In our everyday lives, in academia, at work, on the freaking subway, wherever: let’s keep telling our own stories and shake off the bullshit claim of someone else’s shame.

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