Fanfiction Is a Valid Literary Genre, and Here’s Why

My most popular piece of writing is 4100 words long and has more than 300 views, 39 likes, 7 saves, and 4 comments. I know, I know, that isn’t much, but it’s important to me, and it makes me smile that more than 300 people saw and enjoyed something that I wrote, without me having to promote it at all! It’s published on a publicly run and moderated permanently-free-to-use site with an excellent tagging system that lets you find content tailored to your own specific tastes with minimal effort.

Where is it posted?

Archieveofourown.org.

My most popular work is a fanfiction about The Phantom of the Opera.

And that’s where a lot of people are going to click off of this article. In popular culture, and in the literary world especially, fanfiction gets a really bad rep. It’s seen as childish at best, and stupid or cringey at worst. When I say “fanfiction”, most people’s minds jump to the little snippets of tropey nonsense you would catch in Big Bang Theory, or perhaps to your favorite nerdy side character that screams “I TOTALLY SHIP IT” at every opportunity.

Maybe you’re a little more “in the know”, and you thought of HBO’s Euphoria and the controversies that came with their depictions of real people in weird animated fanfiction shorts. Maybe your first thought was the infamous “My Immortal” and its decade-long authorship mysteries.

But what about the poor aspiring authors behind these fics? They’re even more ridiculed. These are, more often than not, teens and young adults, writing in their spare time to express their love for whatever media they happen to enjoy, and other adults, other, more experienced and world-wise adults, choose this creative outlet to make fun of them for? I think that’s just sad.

No, you know what? I think that’s just wrong. I think fanfiction can be not only cleverly-written and fascinating, but I’d go so far as to say it’s a necessary outlet in the modern world of creative writing.

Before we go any further, let me clear something up. When I’m talking about “fanfiction”, I’m talking about the Webster definition of the term.

“Stories involving popular fictional characters that are written by fans and often posted on the Internet…called also: fanfic.”

Full definition here: x.

This to me means any work of fiction that is written by and for the fans of a larger work of fiction or fan society. Any fiction that uses the universe and characters of a fictional work that isn’t published by the original or licensed creators is considered part of this genre.

And yes, I did say genre. Fanfiction deserves to be called its own genre as much as noir mystery and pulp fiction do: it’s a body of work that shares similar themes, tropes, and clichés.

Now, this does lend itself to some problems. There’s a lot of contention about whether or not fanfiction falls under the umbrella of fair usage laws, and rightfully so: as I said, fanfiction is an unlicensed use of licensed creations. This is a bit too big of a topic to talk about in anything smaller than a full-length book. Trust me on that, I’m in the middle of writing one.

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The “fair use logo”, although no one actually uses this one…

So, for the purposes of this article, we’ll narrow our discussion down to content created with no intentions or actions by the creator for commercial use (aka, they make no money) and which has already been greenlit by the original creator. So, we’re talking about Destiel fanfiction (some of which Misha Collins himself may or may not read) rather than forbidden Anne Rice fanfiction.

Fanfiction isn’t even a new concept! Some of the greatest works of literature that we hail as classics today can definitely be considered fanfiction. Case in point? Dante’s Divine Comedy. It’s literally a fanfiction about the Bible and Dante’s favorite classical writer Virgil but in a 1200s Italian culture AU.

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Dante Allegri chilling in his Bible AU world, which somehow became a real part of how people actually view the Christian afterlife? This is La commedia Illumina, a Firenze on the wall of the Florence Cathedral.

John Milton’s Paradise Lost is also Biblical fanfic (there are a lot of those). It even has the trope of a villain getting a sympathetic arc! Even the Aeneid is an unofficial sequel to The Illiad, not authorized in any way. Yet you wouldn’t scoff at someone reading any of these and tell them to pick up a “real” book, would you?

Fanfiction helps writers to get better at writing. It gives them important practice with characterization and style development that they need in order to learn to create their own original works. Writers interact more thoroughly with the works they create from than the average reader, and this is true no matter what genre you’re writing in; in order to write for a character or world, you need to know it inside and out. You need to know every quirk and flaw and success and failure and be able to exploit those in a new situation that’s fun for your reader, even if that reader is just you.

It’s also important to be able to recognize overused or common tropes in your genre so that you can play with them, either by hardcore leaning into them (love triangle, anyone?) or turning them completely on their heads (hate at first sight), using them to your advantage to entertain and captivate your audience.

Fanfiction is a healthy, free, and fun outlet for creative people to express themselves and be supported by others in their favorite communities. It’s a method of communal storytelling, in which a writer creates something, which is then reinvented by the reader, who becomes another storyteller in the larger culture of the work (Thomas Foster has an excellent section about communal storytelling in his book, How to Read Literature Like a Professor).

Someone posts a wall of text, nothing more than letters on a page, and somehow that causes other, completely unrelated people to fall in love with it, so passionately that they want to add their ideas to the story, so they write and post about them. A new block of text means a new audience full of new readers who fall in love with it and want to share their ideas, and so on and so forth until we’re all telling one big story together. Isn’t that amazing? One person’s ideas on a page can become an entire community!

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So why should anyone be ashamed of writing a goofy piece of fiction about their favorite characters kissing? Bigger than that, why should any author, who pours hours and days of their life into a passion project that they are guaranteed never to make a single penny from, who writes hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands of words of expansion and character development and the fulfillment of ideas that the original creators never had the time, budget, medium, or perhaps even inspiration to fully realize, feel any sort of shame for making such amazing pieces of writing?

There are authors out there making real full-length novel series just because they can, just because they love something that much, and I think that deserves to be respected.

Writers of all people should know what kind of effort goes into publishing content for others to see. Even if it’s silly or bad or nonsensical, who cares? Someone loved something enough to be inspired by it, and I can’t bring myself to rain on their parade.

I’m a fanfiction writer because I choose to share my love of things in the medium I’m best at, for the practice, for the fun of it, and for the community of people that love things with me. I say give us a chance.

Read fanfiction. Save a writer’s pride.

Written by

Hello! I’m Cat, author and amateur fandom historian based out of Georgia. I write about literature, theater, gaming, and fandom. Personal work: catwebling.com.

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