I’ve just finished my second assignment for my MA in Children’s Literature, and it was a lot of fun. It was on Fan Fiction and Gender. For the past month I have been reading a lot of quite strange stories on AO3 or Archive Of Our Own (https://archiveofourown.org/) – FF’s interesting because it is genuinely written by children. Not entirely, but it can be. Anyone with access to a computer can write and post. No publishers, no agents, nothing. That does mean you get a lot of dross, but actually surprisingly little. However carefully or not you choose your words, it takes dedication and time to get 50,000 of them onto the page, and that’s how long many of these books are. I was only working in one small section of the Harry Potter inspired stuff, and there were hundreds of thousands of stories. One of the ones I was looking at had five books in the series, each book comprising in excess of 120,000 words. That’s quite an output. Also, the stories I was looking at were ‘genderswap’, so Harry was Harriet/Holly and Ron was Veronica, so you would have thought quite niche? Actually a quick search on AO3 of ‘harry potter genderswap’ brings up over 15,000 entries. So when I say there’s a lot of it, I mean a lot. My point is, you don’t do that without believing in it to a certain extent. Plus there’s no guarantee that anyone’s going to see it, let alone read it. So who does it, and why?
This is fiction aimed at, and created by, fans. That is fans of narratives which exist in the public domain. So, Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch or Robert Downey Junior versions), Harry Potter, Brooklyn 99, The Incredibles etc. Yesterday I found some about the Netflix version of Anne of Green Gables (Anne with an E). I mean there’s pretty much every ‘source-text’ you can imagine. If it was popular, there will be fan fiction. There is even fan fiction about real people; the band One Direction are particularly well represented. Admittedly pop stars images are as much a construct as a character in a book, so I suppose that’s no surprise. What is interesting to me is why people write this? There is literally no incentive. But they do. A lot. There’s no doubt that a lot of it is socio-political, after all what better way to react to an absence of female characters in the mainstream than by simply writing a Sherlock Holmes story where Sherlock is actually Shirely, and John Watson has become Joanna? It’s also clear that the internet represents a safe space to experiment, both with being someone else, but also with being a writer. You don’t even have to invent the characters, someone else has done it for you.
But to my mind, the most interesting reason is almost the most obvious. We all want more. Any reader (and remember, in order to read FF you have to have read/watched a source text or you wouldn’t be bothering with this) who loves a book and gets to the end, wants more. You can read sequels and prequels, but they run out. There are only seven Harry Potters. So what do you do? You write your own. Without getting overly academic, until there is a reader, a book is meaningless. It is just paper and ink. It is only when a reader opens it and reads it, that it has any meaning. This is why academics (Roland Barthes kicked it all off) talk about the ‘death of the Author’. The author (and their work) don’t exist until a reader comes along and ‘interprets’ what they have written. They literally fill-in the meaning. This idea becomes a bit clearer when you look at a comic. How does Spiderman get from being on top of a building in one cell of a comic, to being in his bedroom in the next one? You (the reader) fills in the gap. You imagine him doing that journey. You probably don’t, but you accept that the journey has happened in between cells of the comic.
FF is doing the same thing. The writers are writing the missing bits. Harry Potter doesn’t exist outside of those seven books, so if I want more I’m going to have to make it up myself. What happened in Year 2 in potions class? Let’s write the story which will tell us. Why did Harry not end up with Hermione? Let’s write it so that he did. JK Rowling says Dumbledore is gay, so let’s give him a backstory where he’s in love with Snape.
So, what you end up with, are many stories where the writer is showing us what they wish had happened. Or something that might happen in the future. Or that they think did happen, but wasn’t written about. I could keep talking about this for days as I find all this really interesting. Why are people writing stories where Harry gets pregnant and he and Ron have the baby? Or where Captain America ends up falling in love with Edward from Twilight? What does this tell us about fiction and what authors are not providing? Does FF represent what people want to read, or is it entirely selfish? Personally I do like writing for characters I’ve already created, but I also love creating brand new ones. I would happily write for series TV if anyone would pay me, which is I suppose a sort of a version of FF. But I’d be being paid to do it, whereas all this stuff is free. It’s genuinely interesting, is extremely contemporary and by definition is a post-internet phenomenon. Go and have a look. But be warned. There’s a lot of x-rated and quite strange stuff out there. Be sure to use the tags (extreme violence, underage, character death etc) or you may find yourself in some pretty odd places.