I read, frankly, a ridiculous amount of fan fiction on a daily basis. In fact, I read so much fan fiction that I decided to write my thesis on it. I've spent the past six months researching how fan fiction functions in fan communities and what sets it apart as a subset of literature. The results, which I obtained through a combination of closely reading fan fiction, conducting community research and interviewing fans, confirmed what my personal experience suggests: fan fiction is a crucial practice in the development of young writers and fans, allowing them to form community (particularly online) while exploring their own identity.
For those unfamiliar, fandom scholar Judith May Fathallah defines fan fiction as, “the unauthorised adaption and re-writing of media texts. … Fanfic is typically freely shared, makes no money and, though it has an analogue history, now exists primarily on the internet.” In short, fan fiction isn’t something officially sanctioned or commissioned by an author or franchise. It’s unprofessional writing typically done by fans that exists to be shared in digital spaces rather than published. The birth of fan fiction as we know it today is largely attributed to Star Trek fanzines of the 1960s, and it’s still going strong today: Archive of Our Own, a popular fan fiction hosting site, was recently nominated for a Hugo award.
I spent the vast majority of my adolescence reading and writing fan fiction about young adult series like "Maximum Ride" and "Artemis Fowl" or movies like "How To Train Your Dragon." Not only was I regularly writing thousands of words a week, but I practiced both giving and receiving critique on sites like fanfiction.net, while also making friends in the fan fiction community. Later down the line, fan fiction was my first, true introduction to queer identity and sexuality. While I can’t really say fan fiction made me bisexual (although you could quote me on that), it was instrumental in helping me to discover and explore my own queer identity.
My own research confirmed many of my anecdotal observations about how fan fiction functions in fan communities. It’s a binding force and social currency in digital fandoms, carrying fans through hiatuses of official content and providing rallying points around which fans create additional content. Reoccurring tropes and seemingly trite characterizations are valued, acting as signifiers of fandom knowledge and reference points that make fan fiction incredibly accessible, even for novice fans. On a personal level, fan fiction is a source of pleasure (no beating around the bush; there’s a lot of sex in fan fiction), soul-searching and identity exploration.
All of that being said, fan fiction still carries a certain stigma, particularly when it uses real people rather than fictional characters as inspiration. It’s too nerdy, too feminine. It’s all dreck, and there’s too much sex. Sure, all of these things may be true. There’s a lot of bad fan fiction and a lot of smut. It’s nerdy as hell and frequently produced by women. However, inherent in all of this is fan fiction’s true value: it’s where many writers develop their skills — everyone’s writing is bad at first! — and craft their own representation. Ultimately, fan fiction brings people together, and that’s something I’ll die on a hill for 10 times over.