The New Word Order

Payal Dhar is a freelance writer on technology and society, and an author of young adult books
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Fan fiction writes another age of female liberation

IT IS WHOLLY possible that I wrote my first fan fiction in the 1980s. That makes my uppity attitude towards it later in life rather hypocritical, though I plead being seven years old as my defence. Back then—that is, in those pre-internet days—writing myself into a variety of fictional realities, and sometimes playing them out in secret or with the sibling, didn’t seem like any particular political statement. I loved books, I loved writing; I was cripplingly shy, and we moved too often to make lasting friendships. So it was only logical that I took refuge in books and the people in them. If those make-believe journeys were my initial forays in crafting a me-shaped hole in the fabric of reality, I was oblivious to it.

The definition of fan fiction is obvious enough—fiction written by fans, of course. I first encountered the term much later in life, in the early years of the 21st century, when the internet was still unveiling vistas hitherto unimaginable. I joined a fan forum called Moiraine’s World, a fandom based on Robert Jordan’s epic The Wheel of Time series, and discovered a dedicated legion of writers with their own take on matters. The stories left me thrilled and horrified in equal measure, not just because of the largely racy content, but because I had never imagined the possibility.

‘Fan fiction is what literature might look like if it were reinvented from scratch after a nuclear apocalypse by a band of brilliant pop-culture junkies trapped in a sealed bunker,’ wrote Lev Grossman in Time in 2011. “They don’t do it for money. That’s not what it’s about. The writers write it and put it up online just for the satisfaction. They’re fans, but they’re not silent, couch-bound consumers of media. The culture talks to them, and they talk back to the culture in its own language.” His is a rather more eloquent definition, one hinting at the disruptive nature of the pursuit.

Let’s first tackle the obvious question: why? Wouldn’t a real writer be more keen to create their own fictional universes and tell their own stories? Isn’t fan fiction a lazy, second-choice effort of a wannabe storyteller who doesn’t have the chops to create original settings? And—let’s get to the point, really—isn’t it an appropriation of someone’s intellectual property and likely to land the writer in jail?

The key difference between being an author of original work and being an author of fanfic is commercial. As Grossman said, fanfic writers don’t do it for the money. This and the fact that most such writers declare upfront that they don’t own the characters or settings is what keeps them (usually) on the right side of the law. There was a time (pre-1970s) when “fan fiction” referred to works of fiction based on existing books or TV series written by fans—well-meaning folk, but perhaps flirting dangerously with the finer points of copyright law— and published in inexpensive fanzines. These kinds of fanzines are more or less history today, wiped out primarily by horrified copyright owners, some even serving cease-and-desist orders to the peddlers of such fare.

But then, the internet came along, giving fanfic a new lease of life. Websites like Archive of Our Own (AO3), Wattpad, (FFnet) and Commaful contain more than just colourful (re-) imaginings of existing fictional universes— they are realms of endless possibilities. From a creative point of view, fan fiction is the ultimate free run in the yard of your dreams, expanding upon existing fictional reality (what is known as canon). From an existential perspective, it becomes a rather more subversive form of art, especially when used to reclaim an injustice or erasure, whether as a creator or consumer of fan fiction.

The internet has given fanfic a new lease of life today. From a creative point of view, fan fiction is the ultimate free run in the yard of your dreams, expanding upon existing fictional reality (what is known as canon)

IT’S 2019. But the lives of queer women are still the most dispensable on screen. If not death, then tragedy visits fictional lesbian characters with disproportionate and unerring regularity. And the realm of fan fiction is where that bias is often corrected. Katie Janeway, 45, “clown, lesbian, gardener” from Scotland, wrote plays and poetry for years before venturing into fanfic. She writes fiction about women-loving women (WLW) based on a British medical soap called Holby City, and admits that sometimes fanfic writers do a better job than television producers in portraying the lives of queer women. Her genre of choice is AU—alternate universe— because “canon…makes me sad”.

This is because Katie’s favourite WLW pairing on Holby City, the only one in the series, was subjected to a ghastly run of stereotypes, followed by a break-up that had the entire fandom across the world in uproar. When the show makers didn’t seem to care, fan fiction, including fan art, took over. “[Fan fiction] has its drawbacks because it lets the mainstream off the hook,” Katie adds. “They don’t have to do the hard work of creating well-written [WLW] stories or characters.”

Another Katie, this one from across the pond in the US, says, “When I was younger [she is 39 now] I wanted to write character-driven stories because I was so frustrated by episodic shows.” She wrote Star Trek: Next Generation and The X-Files stories focused on women “because those shows didn’t and it was annoying”. When she goes looking for fan fiction to read nowadays, she still looks for diversity. “In fanfic, gay writers try to fix the stuff [that shows get wrong or don’t get in the first place]. It’s [like waving] a huge rainbow sign.”

Fan fiction, she believes, can’t help but be political. “I think most people who start out writing fanfic want to flex their writing muscles [and tell stories] from their own perspectives. It becomes political because these perspectives often come from minority viewpoints, [that is,] not what we’re usually exposed to because of the gatekeeping that’s still present in published media.”

“All art is political,” says another American fanfic reader who calls herself CPR. “Putting pen to paper represents freedom. In some societies that is a dangerous act.” If you had a particular idea about what a typical reader of fan fiction looks like, then CPR might surprise you—a 55-year-old lawyer who went looking for fan fiction for more stories about the Australian prison TV drama Wentworth. “The fanfic I read is associated with TV shows that have WLW relationships.”

By popular consensus, the science- fiction TV series Star Trek is credited—or blamed, some would say—for the genesis of fan fiction. Fanzines filled with stories and artworks based on Gene Roddenberry’s groundbreaking 23rd- century space saga set about finding new worlds and new civilisations beyond the canon. Star Trek can also be credited for the birth of a fanfic genre called slash fiction. This refers to same-sex relationships between the characters of the fictional universe, usually a non-canon couple, in this case, Kirk and Spock. These early fanfic writers chose to interpret the close and sometimes volatile relationship between the captain and his first officer as tinged with sexual attraction, leading to many heated encounters beyond the sort that was possible to show on television. These stories came to be called Kirk/Spock or K/S or just “slash”. Slash—sometimes called femslash when it has a female pairing—has endured to this day. In fact I’d go out on a limb and say it remains one of the most popular kind of fanfic. Some modern- day examples include Harry/Draco from Harry Potter, Sherlock/Watson (from the 2010 TV series Sherlock), Edward/Jacob (Twilight) and Jane Rizzoli/Maura Isles (Rizzoli and Isles). Now that same-sex couples are more visible on TV and in fiction, and viewers and readers have more options, the jury is still out about whether the term “slash” should be used for canon couples. Oh and yes, there are fewer female pairings—there’s a reason for that, which we’ll come to later.

Fan-fiction communities attract gender and sexual minorities. These communities can be safe spaces for those who do not find themselves represented in the ‘impartial’ storytelling of the mainstream

To the impartial observer, the act of rewriting fiction may appear unremarkable. Stories, after all, are for everyone. They take you on journeys into the skies on the back of a dragon, show you civilisations below the surface of the earth and among the stars of the future, glimpse the secret lives of orphans and princesses, imagine a time and place different yet so similar to ours. All of this irrespective of who you are, where you come from, what you believe, or how you live. But readers and viewers are never impartial, and neither are storytellers—we all imagine with our own particular lens, which in the case of fiction is an overwhelmingly hetero- patriarchal one. Fanfic in a large part tries to correct this imbalance.

Stats from surveys conducted by FFnet and AO3 in the early years of this decade showed that their registered users were overwhelmingly female or genderqueer (78 per cent for FFnet and 97 per cent for AO3—note that while FFnet’s survey divided gender into a binary, AO3 included other genders). Moreover, AO3 also reported that over 60 per cent users identified as not being heterosexual. The conclusion is straightforward: fan-fiction communities attract gender and sexual minorities. These communities can be safe spaces for those who do not find themselves represented in the “impartial” storytelling of the mainstream. (Fanfic writers and readers are also usually young, though we are not touching upon the significance of that here.)

There are dozens—hundreds? thousands?— of writers “correcting” the stories they see themselves on the margins of, be it on television or in books or films. Mainstream stories usually put heterosexual, cis-gender men front and centre. Even if there are stories of women, non- binary genders and queer people, these are told from straight, male, Orientalist and various other heteronormative perspectives. Therefore, in the hierarchy of what makes a good telling, authentic stories about women, and especially queer women, find themselves a long way down the list. This makes sense— patriarchy has been purpose built to keep men in power and women on the fringes, and nothing and nobody gives it the middle finger more thoroughly or visibly than queer women.

IN OTHER WORDS, one way of looking at fan fiction is to see it as women, especially lesbian and bisexual women, and other non-cis-male genders who don’t fit into the tapestry of hetero- patriarchy, reclaiming their place in fictional realities. And in doing so, they create blueprints for the more inclusive world they have given themselves permission to imagine.

Viv Pointen, 67, a retired college lecturer, and now a political activist and author from the UK, says she loves the concept of fan fiction as a means of reclaiming spaces especially denied to women and within that, lesbians: “I long to see women like me and my friends on TV—it’s like we don’t exist.” Viv went from fangirl to fanfic author almost overnight when she turned to writing as a catharsis to an emotional ending to a television story she had been rather invested in. Over the past few months, Viv—writing as Fran Turner—has created an incredible 65,000-word work rectifying the dysfunctional WLW story in Holby City. She feels (and many in the fandom agree) that this is “how they should have told the [real] story”. Viv’s work uses complex vocabulary and imagery, and is set against real-time events—“that’s pretty serious and is intended to be”.

And why not? Stories of women and WLW have been systematically sidelined for eons. It’s only fitting, therefore, that they are taking them back, quietly but certainly, working from the fringes but within the space of mainstream stories. In the process building communities knit together by the love of something common, be it the attraction of an unlikely universe, the love of an enduring character, or a lived reality.