A Presumption of Interaction: Readers, Writers, and Fanfic

There’s been a conversation circulating on tumblr of late about “the culture of fanfiction”: namely, about how in the Good Old Days on LiveJournal and Fanfiction.net, people left comments on fanfic, but now, on Archive of Our Own (AO3), they rarely do. Commenters also associate this shift with a change in readers’ attitudes towards fic writers. This shift, folks argue, has been from one of gratitude towards one of demand in which readers expect stories to be crafted to meet their preferences in pairing, plot, sexual situations, etc., and get pissed off when stories don’t do what they want them to.

Something about these discussions has nagged at me all week.

Admittedly, I’m relatively new to the fanfiction game; I know next to nothing about LJ and even less about Ff.net. I’ve cut my teeth as a fic reader and writer on AO3, the Grindr of fanfic, where the next story is just one swipe away. Perhaps that will make you take what I’m about to say with a grain of salt. To wit:

Writers, your readers don’t owe you anything.

They don’t owe you a kudos, or a reblog, or a comment, or any sort of public recognition at all. No matter how long you worked on it, how much research you did, how much of yourself you invested into its lines: readers don’t owe you a thing.

I think part of this attitude, this sense that we as writers are being wronged by recalcitrant readers, comes from a desire to forget that writing, even on the web, even in this age of implicit interactivity and connection, is usually solitary. Yes, there are far more opportunities now, for better and for worse, for content creators and their fans (readers, viewers, etc.) to interact. But that doesn’t mean that either party is obligated to do so: creators aren’t required to respond to you, simply because you tweet at them or leave them a long, detailed comment, and fans don’t have to talk to you either, even if they absolutely adore your work.

In some ways, this seriously, seriously sucks, because as a writers (as a writer), we thrive, we feed, we need feedback to reassure ourselves that we do not suck, that we should keep writing, that someone out there in the void has found what we have to say meaningful. But. Let me reiterate: your readers owe you no such thing, even in an era, on a platform, that we perceive as facilitating–as demanding?–that kind of interaction.

I won’t lie: I love getting comments from readers. It fuels me. It keeps my head in the game. I’ve printed some out and pinned them over my keyboard to remind myself why I write. One reason why, that is.

And yeah, there have been times when I’ve gotten discouraged because I’ve posted a story that I really liked and it hasn’t garnered the kind of response that I thought it deserved. Or when I read stories with a huge number of kudos or comments and thought: WTF? The shit I write is 100X better than this.

Because, hey, I’m a writer. We’ve all got egos the size of a planet, as Zaphod Beeblebrox might say. We put our discursive offspring out into the world and we want people to love them–to love us.

I get that. I do.

However, when it comes down to it, I know that my readers aren’t required to respond to me, to tell me how much they enjoyed a piece, or didn’t. I mean, in some ways, writing fic is like teaching: you do what you do, you let it go, and nine times of out ten, you never know what kind of impact you’ve had, if any. You just have to do what you think is the right thing and accept that you don’t control the ending.

There’s also the question of sheer volume. Fic is so visible now, so accessible as compared to the days of snail mail newsletters and zines that expectations on both sides of the reader/writer dynamic have shifted. Once, you had to make do with the fic that showed up in your mailbox; now, you can almost get thousands and thousands of fics on demand, sorted by your preferred pairings and kinks.

In essence, as fic has become more prominent, we as fic writers have become more invisible. We are our product, our stories, first and foremost. I think this is part of the issue: readers react to our products as extant things, as content, and not as the result of an individual writer’s creative process.

Look, I think there is something to be said for the culture that the interface and design of AO3 has helped to create and to foster. Because certainly, hitting the kudos button is easy; leaving a comment requires more clicks, more time and attention. And then there’s that problem of words again: because how do you express how much a fic meant to you, or made you laugh, or has brought you back again and again because it’s so damn hot?

That said, fussing at readers for not commenting often enough on fic is a losing proposition: shaming people ain’t a great way of changing hearts and minds. So if you’re a writer (hello) and you like getting comments (yes please), then all you can do is act like the reader you want to see. Leave kudos as you see fit. Leave a comment, even if it’s just “this is great!” Look back over the comments that have resonated with you, have proven productive, and echo them when you respond to other writers’ work. If you really like a piece, reblog or retweet a link to it, and include the author’s name and/or Twitter handle.

Act as if the fic community you want already exists and do all that you can to perpetuate it, to foster it. That’s all–that’s a lot–we can do.

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One thought on “A Presumption of Interaction: Readers, Writers, and Fanfic

  1. Karen

    Have to take issue with this a bit. Now, I’ll confess that I can be as slack as the next person about leaving comments on a fic, but I feel guilty about it, and these days if I enjoy a fic I usually at least leave a smiley or a heart to let the author know. Maybe it’s because I come from a generation that’s used to having to pay for entertainment (and a generation that was taught to write letters of thanks for any gifts received). If you read a book by a professional author, you have to pay for it. Admittedly fanfic (usually) isn’t written by professionals, but if you go to see an amateur production of a play or musical, you still have to pay. So, I feel, if you’ve had the gift of receiving free entertainment, it’s a courtesy to at least thank the author. Agreed, nobody is ever owed a courtesy but it’s just good manners to extend one. Like: if you’re going through a door, you don’t owe it to the person behind you to hold it for them, but it only takes a moment, and it’s pretty poor form to drop the door in their face. Likewise, it only takes a moment to leave a smiley on a fic you’ve enjoyed. And I agree that the plethora of fic available probably encourages people to disregard common courtesies,. It encourages it; it doesn’t justify it. And look at it the other way: what if nobody ever bothered to leave feedback? How many writers would still bother to post? I’m pretty sure that if it were not for the encouraging feedback I’ve received, I would never have written more than the one short story I first posted 4 years ago. I’d still be laying in bed mentally composing epics that never made it to paper. So, if we want to continue to have an abundance of good fanfic to read, then I think it’s important to leave feedback. And, like I say, it’s just good manners.

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