Not many things fit the definition of guilty pleasure more perfectly than fan fiction. So much so that when scouting sources for this article — fanfic writers, readers, and even those who harbour ire for it — most that I reached out to requested for anonymity. "I'd rather die than admit," was what one fanfic writer jokingly told me when she declined to be named for an interview. It's strange; most don't want to publicly proclaim their love or hate for it. But why is this so? What is so embarrassing about being involved in the world of fan fiction?
For a literary genre that has existed for so long, it's curious why fan fiction is still very much a decidedly divisive concept. In this regard, published authors belong in two opposing camps. On one side, you have the infamously litigious Anne Rice and the disapproving George R.R. Martin who described himself as an "opponent" of fan fiction.
And on the other side of the spectrum, you have Neil Gaiman who replied, "I won the Hugo Award for a piece of Sherlock Holmes/H. P. Lovecraft fanfiction, so I'm in favour," to a tweet saying that fan fiction is an insult to the author. You also have J.K. Rowling, who has not only been supportive but also encouraging of fan fiction. It can even be argued that she — by constantly adding details to the story post-publishing — may be a fan fiction writer of her own work.
Both sides have their own merit, but the question still remains: is fan fiction, which Merriam Webster defines as "stories involving popular fictional characters that are written by fans", good or bad? Let's do a deep dive.
The case for fan fiction: aspiring writers and giving representation
It's a jumping board for aspiring writers
In recent years, more and more authors have become open about embracing their past as a fan fiction writer. The most famous of all is 50 Shades of Gray author E.L. James, whose most commercially successful work is admittedly a Twilight fan fiction. It's been proven time and again: With fan fiction, budding writers can harness their talent. "You realise that fan fiction is not a passive thing, it's a collaborative thing; people post reviews in between chapters so you get to modify and you get to improve as a writer," shared Kay Rivera, a fan fiction writer for almost two decades who now has a regular column on a well-known local news site.
But aside from fan fiction being a jumping board for aspiring writers, it has also become a medium for expression. Although she does not deliberately hide it, as a surgeon-in-training, Kay Rivera said that she does not share this part of herself to her colleagues as it could affect her professional look. "It's a high stake, not "super creative" field. It's a field that doesn't welcome the thought that you have hobbies or free time," she said. It's a poetic irony in a way; by being an anonymous writer, you become more open and expressive.
It adds value to what's already published
It may not be true for all fan fiction written, but it does apply to more than a few. Fan fiction often adds value to the canon by exploring other facets of the story. "Many of my favourite characters in fiction have supporting roles who don't have many storylines. In fan fiction, these side characters are given more depth and authors share insights with their fellow fans," said Maria Tomas, who shared that she likes DC Comics fan fiction Jason Todd, Stealthy Big Brother because it speculates on the interesting relationship between the Red Hood and his younger fellow Batman sidekicks — an exploration that's missing in the canon.
It gives representation
It's no secret that mainstream literature often focuses on the crazy rich, the powerful, the heterosexuals, and is obviously lacking in ample representation. In fan fiction, these shortcomings are fulfilled. No need for #GiveElsaAGirlfriend campaign, in this world, Frozen's Elsa already has one.
In Jo Baker's Longbourn, the seemingly invisible servants in Pride and Prejudice get the spotlight. With this, we get a fuller, more nuanced take on the story. Whereas in Jane Austen's beloved classic, we cheered for Elizabeth Bennet when she was determined to walk for miles to visit Jane in Netherfield; in Longbourn, with Sarah the maid as the protagonist, we realised that this action is also selfish and careless as someone had to painstakingly wash her soiled petticoats. "If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them," Jo Baker writes.
And it's not just fictional characters who get representation, the Italian poet Dante Alighieri created what is arguably the greatest self-insert fan fiction, The Divine Comedy (The Inferno, The Purgatorio, and The Paradiso), as a biting critique to his oppressors, effectively giving him voice while in exile.
When the author becomes problematic, fan fiction is a solace
There has been a lot of talk about boycotting authors who are problematic. But Kay Rivera has a solution: fan fiction. "The thing is when you fall in love with something and the creator turns out to be this problematic person, there are two ways you can respond: you can boycott everything, forget everything, and the other thing, for me, I can turn those things around. I can make my stories in her universe a vessel for the things that she now refuses to espouse — acceptance, open-mindedness, equality," she said, adding that Harry Potter has been such a big part of her life that she could not just take it out of her personality. But she could take the lessons she learned from it and continue to become "the person that the books made me want to be".
The case against fan fiction: inappropriate themes and horrible writing
Gory and inappropriate sexual themes are rampant
In 2017, Malaysia followed Indonesia example and banned fan fiction sites (particularly fanfiction.net) due to "obscene scenes" from the stories published on the site. While the petitions against the ban have a point that fan fiction is not as "explicit compared to a pornographic video", in all fairness, the act of banning is not baseless. Incredibly gory content and questionable sexual themes involving May-December (age-gap relationships) romances are quite common.
The writing can be horrible
Let's face it: anyone can write, but not everyone will be good at it. Sometimes, starting badly can be part of the journey towards becoming a better writer, but it remains true that not every fan fiction work is top-notch. "Fan fiction can be made by anyone literate. Literacy doesn't mean the person can write well. So, the thing about fan fiction, I don't like it because it's not written well — there are grammatical errors, plot holes, and convoluted pacing," casual fan fiction reader Hera Ydulzura said. And this could reflect badly on the canon.
Let's also not forget that fan fiction writing isn't limited to fictional works. We have RPF or Real Person Fiction where people write stories using celebrities as characters. The most common ones are those involving K-pop stars; where people have different "ships". Some say that this is a distasteful, clear commodification of real people, while others posit that it's harmless. Even Kay admitted that it's a grey area in the community. "Intent is everything," she said. "Some people do it for admiration." Kay explained that no one really thinks that fan fiction "captures the inner person of a celebrity" and that it can be seen as writing using the image or public personality of the celebrity.
There may be copyright infringement
The strongest opponents to fan fiction often have an issue with possible copyright infringement. Outlander author Diana Gabaldon once wrote in a now-deleted rant (which is, of course, preserved here because we're living in an age where nothing online is ever deleted): "You can’t use someone’s copyrighted characters for your own purposes, no matter what those purposes are. Really. I’m not making it up; this is International Copyright Law". But then again, with all due respect, it's not that simple.
We have what you call fair use, which allows the use of copyrighted materials for "transformative work" such as reviews and parodies, but it's still murky whether fan fiction falls under this protection. In Klinger v. Conan Doyle Estate, the judge ruled in favour of the fan fiction author because some of the stories are already in the public domain and therefore the characters Sherlock and Watson are free to be used.
However, it's another story when it becomes profitable as with the case of Warner Brothers v. RDR Books, where a superfan planned to publish a Harry Potter universe guide book slash encyclopedia that will ultimately clash with J.K. Rowling's plans to publish her own. So it's never a simple story — fan fiction writers simply walk a fine line.
So is fan fiction good or bad?
It’s hard to reconcile opposing sides that both have valid points. Like anything worthy of discussion, fan fiction comes with its own brand of good and bad. Your final judgement on whether it's the former or the latter really depends on your own beliefs. For some, fan fiction is a way to express and improve themselves but for others, it's disrespect for their or other people's works. Whichever side you may be on, you can't deny that fan fiction is still literature, it's still art — even if it's just an attempt of it, it gives value and meaning to an art piece.
(Cover photo from: fotografierende via Unsplash)
Love reading? Learn more about "bookstagramming" here.