39: The F Word

I guess this is my coming out post. No, I shouldn't trivialize the term that way. Okay. What I'm trying to say is that I read (and, less often, write) fanfiction.

I was introduced to it in middle school, although I had been writing stories in my head for years. I did not think it odd to imagine myself in the fictional worlds I discovered with each new book, or fantasize about the characters I'd met going down a different path than the one they'd taken. It felt natural to allow my mind to dwell on these fascinating people and places, to take the authors' fictions and run with it, proliferating outwards in thousands of directions like glittering webs of possibility. It felt right.

It began with Harry Potter. I was eleven years old and received Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone for Christmas. I devoured the book over the course of a day, and chattered obsessively about it with my friends, and daydreamed about it, and reread it, and then I was stuck. I had no idea when the next book would come out. In 1999 there were no podcasts for me to listen to or newsletters to which I could subscribe. It did not occur to me to type "Harry Potter" in my browser's search bar in sixth grade. But then, one of my best friends told me about a website: Fanfiction.net.

You can imagine what happened next. A database of stories written from the perspectives of these characters I had come to love? More adventures? More excitement? I was instantly hooked. I followed the trio through rollicking capers and watched them have arguments satisfyingly adjacent to the ones I had read, but they were different! They were new! Sometimes there were unfamiliar characters who I quickly grew to love. Sometimes there were romances between characters I never would have thought to pair. Writing styles and story lengths varied and I grew to appreciate the vast differences between the canon and the multitude of fan interpretations.

As I got older, I began to seek out more unconventional fanfiction. My tastes grew in scope and quality. I learned all of the lingo, the weird acronyms. I read so much that I began rolling my eyes at the plot lines that had now become cliche and disparaged the overly romantic self-insertion stories. Fanfiction had shifted from the realm of addendum, of ancillary, and become a proper genre of fiction, entertaining in its own right. I eschewed new books in favor of a solid 20 chapter fic from a favorite author of mine.

I get the stigma. The word 'nerd' has been reclaimed recently, particularly on the internet, where fans of a particular piece of media can come together and revel in their collective obsession. There is strength in numbers, and the nerds have finally outnumbered the cool kids, to the point where it is now exceedingly cool, and indeed, compulsory, to be a nerd. But fanfiction has always occupied a higher tier of nerd-dom, and by higher I certainly do not mean cooler. Is it the demographic? Certainly, the authors of most fanfiction tend to be women. There is a large percentage of fanfiction that falls into the 'erotica' category. And women speaking frankly about sex and desire, particularly through the lens of popular characters in media that are male, or enjoyed by men, can be intimidating or off-putting for some. Female sexuality tends be scary, in general, when it isn't packaged for male consumption.

That's fine. Well, it isn't fine, but it's the patriarchy, and there is little I or any one individual can to do to dismantle it in one fell swoop, but I can rail against its insidious effect on popular culture by declaring out loud my appreciation and support for narratives that de-center the sovereignty and desires of men. Or I can just read great stories written by regular people on the Internet who happen to be fans of a thing I also enjoy. For free. Where is the shame in that?