Okay, here goes nothing. Deep breath. My name is Alice, I’m newly twenty-two just like that Taylor Swift song. I like to read and write and have done since I was very young. Those are facts most people know about me, whether you’re family, a IRL friend, or someone who’s met me through the wonders of the interwebs. What most do not know about me is that I have written fan fiction.
I don’t particularly want to get into what fandom I write for, because I think that’s where a lot of the judgement for writing fic comes from and that’s not something I care to justify right now. It’s not important. What is important is the value fan fiction can have, not only in bettering writing capabilities and in having a direct line of precious feedback ongoing, but also in terms of representation and in pushing the boundaries of storytelling sometimes limited in the publishing world. The latter is the reason I’d like to give equal time to discussing reading fan fiction as well as writing it, because even if you don’t fancy yourself a writer, there’s a lot to be gained from reading good quality fic.
First things first, because for many the reading comes before the writing…
I’d like to preface by explaining how I initially got into fic, because I think, to a degree, everyone’s journey has been a little different. I actually used to think fan fiction wasn’t for me. Especially in regards to reading fan fiction about books I’d enjoyed, I struggled to get to grips with someone else trying to fill in the gaps of a voice that wasn’t their’s, that they hadn’t mastered like the original author. Characters felt misguided, misplaced in their actions, in their chosen words and I couldn’t find enjoyment from something that, sometimes, seemed to stray too far from what we knew to be canon. To this day, I do find it hard to read about characters that are namely exclusive to a book world, because, as a reader, you become so accustomed to that particular narrative and if someone can’t absolutely nail it, it feels off. I think it’s far easier to read — if you’re simply a reader of fic and not a writer — fic based on film characters, or from TV shows, or bands, etc.
A few years ago, then, in 2013 when I was in my first year of university, I had dabbled in reading strings of words of fan fiction, but it had never really stuck. I kept to books for the most part and tried not to agonise over the what ifs of my favourite characters after the pages had stopped turning. But then I saw something on tumblr — a photoset made by a fan of a fan fic (how meta). The fandom it belonged to was one I’d say I’d barely dipped my toes into, but liked enough that I was intrigued to read a little bit, see what it was all about. Flash forward to 2am that following morning where I’d put off copious essays, presentations and readings to find out what happened next. Because this fic was novel length (and not even yet finished), yet I’d devoured nearly hundreds of thousands of publishing-deal-worthy words that dealt far more closely with the intricacies of real, raw relationships, inner battles and body image than I had ever seen in one best selling book.
That’s the thing about fan fiction vs published works. For fear of not selling, for some cruel, unfair uneven playing field, minorities aren’t always represented in the book world. There aren’t always honest portrayals of POC, the LGBTQ+ community or those who suffer from mental health issues. For the latter, in YA I will say there is a lot more these days than there ever has been and that’s great, but we need equal amounts of everything else too that reflect the multi-cultural, beautiful array of variation in this world that we live in.
The other aspect where fan fiction wins out (at least for me and the fic I was reading and then writing, anyway) is that it explores the lives of university students and/or people in their early twenties. I’ll admit I’m a little skeptical of New Adult fiction, which I presume narrates the lives of people my age. It’s got a reputation for being pretty much exclusively erotica and not even the original or particularly healthy and balanced kind. It’s ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’-type books in my mind and perhaps that’s completely false, but so is the notion that fan fiction is lame and notoriously awful, because it’s written by fanatic teenage girls. Which, point and case, it’s clearly not. Remember when I said I was 22? And, might I add, have become friends with fellow writers of a similar age to me, if not older who are wonderful and talented and deserve to have their work shared to the masses. Also, like, surely we should know by now not to underestimate teenagers…?
Something else as well as minority representation that is particularly important to me is the portrayal of honest sexual relationships. I have begun to see this being depicted more thoroughly in YA, but only just and I think there’s something so flawed in publishers not thinking (or perhaps being too afraid) to include and want for authors to write scenes that illustrate first times and navigating that side of a relationship. It’s naive to assume a large percentage of teenagers aren’t having sex and, whether they are or not, sex ed in schools is so awful, outdated and hardly informative that it’s leading teenagers to look elsewhere for more solid resources, some of which aren’t at all positive in perpetuating real sex. Because girls don’t necessarily know that sex doesn’t have to be painful, or that pleasure isn’t purely for the boy. They don’t know that they are allowed to say no, or that they can speak up if something isn’t working for them. That girls can have sex with other girls and boys can have sex with boys. And that if you want to have sex with both, that’s cool. And if you’re not really interested at all, that’s totally normal and valid, too. And, you know, those gender labels. What if you’re not sure? What if you don’t… fit? Although YA is for sure making some headway with this, fic has been doing it long before without apology.
All that being said, the fic I have read that has some form of its narrative dedicated to sex generally hasn’t been ‘first times’, because it’s (thankfully) been more focused around the lives of twenty-somethings. Therefore, in a lot of cases (but not all), they’ve been there, done that, got the t-shirt. And so, for me, the particularly important aspects of sexual relationships explored in fic have been the psychology of it. Of how having sex, even with someone you love or care strongly about, can mess with your head even then. The impact past, perhaps unhealthy relationships can have on your attitudes towards sex and future partners — or one night stands and how they change you in some cases. Navigating sex with a new partner and discovering that you’re not always absolutely top of the class, great at it the first time around and neither are they, that it takes time to learn one another’s bodies, learn what works and what doesn’t and laugh about it. I don’t think that that’s an idea depicted enough in books and films and TV shows. Everyone expects firework inducing kisses and other first time experiences, made so believable that when one of the involved party decides it’s not… all that… They’re too afraid to voice anything for fear it’ll ruin things, for fear that that’s not the right decorum in the bedroom. For the record, it is; you should both be having a jolly good time jumping one another’s bones; it shouldn’t be one sided. Capiche?
So, what I’m trying to say (always in the most long winded way possible) is the spectrum of subject matters to which fic can cover is open and wide and bottomless. And sometimes that can be irrevocably bad if people take something into their hands they don’t fully understand or that’s offensive, but, for the most part, it’s a great beaming light of goodness. People are represented and important dialogue exists on topics that need to be pushed in mainstream publishing. (And I can finally have stories written about people dealing with the stage in life I’m at!) The best bit of all: It’s free! Completely and utterly free. Brilliant, wonderful, inspiring people are writing novel length stories — double that, triple that! And you don’t have to spend a penny. The only downside is it also means you don’t get to own a physical copy of your favourite story, which, really, a lot of fic has become for me.
And then came the writing of fic…