I was cruising through the net, following the cold trail of one of the periodic “Is or is not Fanfic the Ultimate Literary Evil?” arguments that crop up regularly, and I’m now bursting to make a point that I never see made by fic defenders.
We’re all familiar with the normal defenses of fic: it’s done out of love, it’s training, it’s for fun. Those are all good and valid defenses!
But they miss something. They damn with faint praise. Because the thing is, when you commit this particular Ultimate Literary Evil you’ve now told a story. And stories are powerful. The fact that it wasn’t in an original world or with original characters doesn’t necessarily make it less powerful to any given reader.
I would never have made this argument a few years ago. A few years ago I hadn’t received messages from people who were deeply touched by something I wrote in fanfic. So what if it’s only two or three or four people, and I used someone else’s world and characters? For those two or three or four people, I wrote something fucking important. You cannot tell me that isn’t a valid use of my time and expect me to feel chastened. I don’t buy it. I won’t feel ashamed. I will laugh when you call something that touches other people ‘literary masturbation.’ Apparently you’re not too up on your sex terminology.
Someone could argue that if I’d managed the same thing with original characters in an original world, it could’ve touched more people. They might be right! On the other hand, it might never have been accepted for publication, or found a market if self published, and more importantly I would never have written it because I didn’t realize I could write. The story wouldn’t have happened. Instead, thanks to fanfic being a thing, it did. And for two or three or four people it mattered. When we talk about defending fanfic, can we occasionally talk about that?
I once had an active serviceman who told me that my FF7 and FF8 fic helped get him through the war. That’ll humble you. People have told me my fanfic helped get them through long nights, through grief, through hard times. It was a solace to people who needed solace. And because it was fanfic, it was easier to reach the people who needed it. They knew those people already. That world was dear to them already. They were being comforted by friends, not strangers.
Stories are like swords. Even if you’ve borrowed the sword, even if you didn’t forge it yourself from ore and fire, it’s still your body and your skill that makes use of it. It can still draw blood, it can strike down things that attack you, it can still defend something you hold dear. Don’t get me wrong, a sword you’ve made yourself is powerful. You know it down to its very molecules, are intimate with its heft and its reach. It is part of your own arm. But that can make you hesitate to use it sometimes, if you’re afraid that swinging it too recklessly will notch the blade. Is it strong enough, you think. Will it stand this? I worked so hard to make it. A blade you snatched up because you needed a weapon in your hand is not prey to such fears. You will use it to beat against your foes until it either saves you or it shatters.
But whether you made that sword yourself or picked it up from someone who fell on the field, the fight you fight with it is always yours.
Literary critics who sneer at fanfic are so infuriatingly shortsighted, because they all totally ignore how their precious literature, as in individual stories that are created, disseminated, and protected as commercial products, are a totally modern industrial capitalist thing and honestly not how humans have ever done it before like a couple centuries ago. Plus like, who benefits most from literature? Same dudes who benefit most from capitalism: the people in power, the people with privilege. There’s a reason literary canon is composed of fucking white straight dudes who write about white straight dudes fucking.
Fanfiction is a modern expression of the oral tradition—for the rest of us, by the rest of us, about the rest of us—and I think that’s fucking wonderful and speaks to a need that absolutely isn’t being met by the publishing industry. The need to come together as a close community, I think, and take the characters of our mythology and tell them getting drunk and married and tricked and left behind and sent to war and comforted and found again and learning the lessons that every generation learns over and over. It’s wonderful. I love it. I’m always going to love it.