The upcoming release of the film version of 50 Shades of Grey has spawned, perhaps inevitably, another uptick in discussion of fanfiction in the media. In this piece from the New York Post, for example, fan fiction writers themselves decry 50 Shades for its crappy writing, misleading portrayal of BDSM, and for being “just porn”:
Tom, a 22-year-old warehouse worker from the Southeast who uses the pen name military history and writes “Lord of the Rings” fan fiction, found the book’s abusive relationship disturbing and the understanding of BDSM misguided.
“The whole thing honestly reads like masturbation material,” he says, “as opposed to an actual story.”
PEOPLE READ FANFIC TO GET OFF?!
HA! (Love that it’s a dude saying this, BTW).
Me, I’m not here to cast any shade on the 50. No. If you like it, awesome. If you don’t, that’s ok, too. Everyone’s relationship to fanfic is different, which is something that I think a lot of mainstream media stories about fic really don’t get.
So. Here are four reasons why I adore fanfiction:
1) Fanfic comes with a build-in sandbox.
That is, the original text sets up some initial boundaries in terms of characters, plot, locations, relationships, etc. In Supernatural, for example, which is what I write about most often, we get Sam and Dean straight out of the box, along with some distinct and unique settings: hundreds of anonymous backroads motels, the Impala, Bobby’s house, etc. As fic writers, we walk into a sandbox already in progress, and for me, that’s proven incredibly liberating. Even as I branch out into AUs or whatever, I never have to worry about where I’m going to start: I’ve always got one foot in Kripke’s sandbox, which gives me the mental room I need to run. I’ve wanted to write all my life, but it wasn’t until I came across fanfic, and the productive boundaries it provided, that I let myself do so.
2) Fanfic has helped me figure out what I want from a lover and a partner.
Fic has given me the sexual and romantic vocabulary I didn’t know I was missing. Not only in terms of describing specific sex acts, though I suppose there’s some of that to; rather, I feel much more fluent in the possibilities of sexual dynamics. Fic’s helped me to see the status and power games that can be (very pleasantly) explored through sex, given open communication between partners.
Ok, yes, maybe I’ve discovered that I’m more of a sub than I thought, but I’ve also learned that I’d like to be with someone who’ll push me, who won’t back down from me and may also, in mutually agreed upon times and spaces, hold me in place. This seems like good shit to know about oneself, yes? And I honestly had never thought about it in a meaningful way before I started reading and writing fic. Thanks to fic, I get to think through these issues and play them out using the borrowed bodies of beautiful men. Which is amazing.
Does that mean every line, every scene, every sex act that makes it into my fic = a fantasy for me? No. For example, I have great affection for getting a certain character’s face a little, uh–
Now, this is a scenario and a body that I find incredibly hot to write about—but to experience myself? Eh. Not so much. In that way, to read my fic as a road map of how to seduce me or some shit would be seriously misguided.
That said: I have learned how to really fucking love writing dirty talk. Hopefully that’s a skill I can apply at some point. Heh.
3) Finding love and support for my fic has helped sustain me through grad school.
I have no idea how people get through a PhD program in rhetoric and writing without the support of a loving community of readers. Which, let me assure you, is not something easily found in academia.
As a fic writer, then, I’ve been so, so fortunate in that most of the readers I hear from are incredibly supportive of my work; and that so many are willing to reach out to me, to say nice things about my fic, is remarkable. When I have been at my lowest in fighting with my dissertation, especially, my fic readers have been there to remind me that I don’t totally suck as a writer, that I have some felicity with the pen. Admittedly, there are times when I’ve wished that my dissertation could take the form of fanfic—that Dean and Cas could show up among my recitations of rhetorical theory and page after page of data—but hey.
So readers writ large, know this: you’re going to get a shout-out in the acknowledgements page for my dissertation, because without you, I’d never have made it this far.
4) Fic has taught me, once and for fucking all, that writing is always collaborative.
Before I started writing fic, I was a bit of a squirrely creator; I’d write something, sure, I’d even post it here on this blog, but I never made a concerted effort to get anyone to read it. But from the very first story I posted, I learned that posting fic was akin to entering a conversation already in progress. As I noted above, I’ve been quite lucky in that most of the response that I’ve received from readers—and the discussions that have ensued—have been both positive and productive. What I’ve come to learn is that, as a writer, I have little or no control over how a fic is received once I’ve put it into the world: and that’s fucking rad. My readers have seen things in my stories I had no idea were there, or have interpreted them in ways that I didn’t “intend,” per say, but that resonate in a meaningful way with that reader.
Let me be clear: this is NOT something I learned in grad school, through two MAs and an-almost PhD, even though each of those degrees centered heavily on writing. Fanfic taught me—continues to teach me—how readers, writers, and texts make meaning together, every damn day online, and how wonderful those conversations can be.
In addition, I’ve had a chance to write fic with other people, with amazing writers whose styles, approaches to writing, and even interpretations of Supernatural and its characters can be very different from mine own. The negotiations necessary to write fic—especially super-porny fic!—with another person whom you’ve never met in person are amazing: kairotic, erotic, and angsty by turn. Having your own writing process is one thing; creating one with another person in real, messy time is another. My co-authors have been (and continue to be) amazing, which is not to say that there haven’t been disagreements, or arguments over canon, or debates over what word to use to describe a certain character getting blown. Still, without fic, there’s no question that the possibilities of collaboration would have remained a terrifying mystery to me, even after (especially because of?) 800 years of graduate education.
This may sound odd, but writing fic has made me a better teacher of writing. It’s made me more willing to talk to my students as a fellow writer; not as their buddy or peer, but as someone else who struggles with putting words on the page, and someone who wants to collaborate in discussions with them about how to make the process of writing suck less.
All this from fanfiction, from anonymous women who read and write porn for fun and talk about it online. That’s pretty fucking amazing, I think.