500 Words on Fanfiction

Fanfiction. Yeah, you know what I’m talking about. Not the semi-literary, novel-length type, either, though that stuff is definitely worth checking out. No, I’m talking about the kind that very few people want to discuss outright. A lot of it is pornographic. Most of it is queer. It ranges in quality from abysmal to pretty damn good. And, as an adult in 2019, I believe that its existence is invaluable.

“Slash” fanfiction — that is, fans’ writing concerned with the romantic and/or sexual “shipping” of characters, often male ones — has existed for a long time, probably a lot longer than anyone realizes. An argument could be made that it emerged with the James Kirk/Spock pairing in the late 20th century, or with the Sherlock Holmes/John Watson pairing in the late 19th, or with something else earlier on. In recent years, it’s taken the form of things like Dean/Castiel (CW Supernatural), Steve/Bucky (Marvel’s Captain America), and Enjolras/Grantaire (Les Miserables).

My references here might be a little outdated, because I’ve been distancing myself from the communities that produce content concerning pairings like this. My reasons for this vary in legitimacy, from my adherence to ever-present “cringe culture” to genuine discomfort with some of the sexual content that fanfiction writers consider to be acceptable. But I don’t think this distance is wholly necessary. In fact, I think that I would be a whole lot happier if I let myself start reading and writing fanfiction again.

The reason for this is simple: as a queer person, it means a lot to me.

Or maybe it isn’t so simple at all.

Because, sure, I can recite buzzwords like “representation” and “legitimacy” until my tongue goes dry from it. But people are understanding less and less what those words really mean.

I’ve been reading a lot of fiction by and about queer people lately, and one thing has consistently stood out to me: we are expected to be serious. Queer personhood, as dictated by cishetero culture, is rooted in pain. If our oppression is to be recognized, then everything we do must be an act of rebellion. But why is it that we have to be literary, while straight people are free to write whatever they please? Walk into your local Barnes & Noble and take a look at the shelves in the Romance section. You’ll be greeted after row upon row of technicolor spines with generic, saccharine titles. And, sure, some of them will concern same-sex pairings. But if they do, they’ll be numbingly pornographic.

Isn’t fanfiction pornographic, too? you’ll likely be thinking. Yeah, it sure is. But it’s a whole lot of other things, too. Check out the popular tags page of Archive of Our Own, the preeminent fanfiction website:

“Angst.” “Fluff.” “Hurt/Comfort.” “Friendship.” “Romance.” And, if you look a little closer: “BDSM,” “Mental Health Issues,” “LGBTQ Themes.”

Aside from the last one, of course, none of these themes are explicitly queer in nature. But on AO3, they almost always are. Because fanfiction writers, more than anything, want to make their readers feel. They want us to feel queer angst, queer hurt, queer comfort, queer friendship, queer romance. And, fuck it, why shouldn’t we?

1 thought on “500 Words on Fanfiction”

  1. I know fanfiction means a lot to many queer folks. Many of my friends and even my partner are some of those people.

    Fanfiction’s queerness, though, feels very…watery. Each story feels like a variation of the same template, with a weak intro and plot starring flippant personalities skinned like familiar characters that eventually leads to romance, sex, maybe both. Having two characters of similar genders or expressions maybe makes a story gay, but queer?

    In the early days of Kirk/Spock, where 1970s feminist zines sometimes included slash, I think radical and queer things were happening. Now, I think the genre is overtired, and the queerness of the art form is gone.

    As you distance yourself some from that culture, where are you/where do you think you’re heading? I would love to see a follow up, whether that’s a response to my tangent or more about fan culture. Thanks for writing this!

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