Fanfic Makes Us
I've never read Seanan McGuire's work (until this thread, anyway), but this tweet essay is fantastic, so I thought I'd take advantage of my sudden, inexplicable popularity to share this with the wider world.
I don't know where the paragraph breaks would be, so I'm breaking it off by tweet, except for where a sentence runs across two.
All right, y'all: we're going to take a moment to talk about my last retweet. Specifically Sarah saying "Every time I talk about writing fanfiction, I get hatemail." I am not tagging her in because I don't want to dogpile her mentions.
Buckle in. It's going to be long one.
I started writing fiction, so far as anyone can tell based on excavation of my old papers (Mom kept everything), around the age of six. In these stories, I went off to Ponyland to play with the Ponies and hang out with Megan. Everyone loved me, naturally. I got to ride unicorns.
Most of the kids I knew were making up the same stories; I was precocious only in that I was already writing them down. The boy three houses over had a very close relationship with the Care Bears. His sister was the best mechanic the Transformers had ever known.
Was most of it self-insert wish-fulfillment? Well, yeah. FUCK, YEAH. We were kids. We were learning how to make up stories, and the best stories were the ones that had a place for us in their centers.
As we got older, most of the boys I knew stopped telling—or at least stopped sharing—those stories. They had discovered that the majority of media centered boys exactly like them, which meant they could move from self-insertion to projection without a hiccup.
(Projection is also an important step in learning how to make believe. If you can't BE the main character, you can let them be your avatar, carrying your essence into the story. Here's the thing, though: it takes time to learn to "ride" avatars that you can't recognize.)
Everyone who grows up on a diet of Western media learns, on some level, to accept The Default as their avatar, because we historically haven't had much choice. Want to be the hero, instead of the love interest, the scrappy sidekick, or the villain? Embrace The Default.
Bit by bit, the number of girls* who would admit to making up their own stories also dropped off. The rest of us, well. We learned that "I had an adventure…" made people laugh at you. We started writing avatars. (*Parts of this thread are very binary, because they are based on my childhood experiences, and I grew up, as many of us did, in a very gender binary world. I am fascinated to see how these experiences with story change as we move into a more fluid and accepting world.)
Only writing avatars also got us laughed at, when people found out about it, got us accused of Mary Sue wish-fulfillment bullshit. We stopped making up original female characters. Many of us stopped making up characters at all.
If we used only existing characters as our avatars, we didn't get laughed at as much. If we used only existing MALE characters—characters we had all been trained to view as The Default, capable of anything, not just of being The Girl—well.
Suddenly we could write ANYTHING WE WANTED. Suddenly we were GODS OF THE FICTIONAL WORLD, and we could finally start telling the stories the shows and books didn't want to give us.
I honestly think that the reason so many fanfic writers are women/girls is a toxic combination of social stigma ("ew, fanfic is a GIRLY thing, ew, it's all PORN, and most of it is GAY PORN") and seeking a way to empathize with The Default.
So you have generations—literal, multiple GENERATIONS—of female authors growing up steeped in fanfic. Making our own stories from high school on, if not before. Trying to find our way to a schema of story that actually fits us.
(You also have generations of queer authors, trans authors, and gender-nonconforming authors, all going on their own journeys. My sexuality definitely influenced my attraction to fanfic, because finally, I wasn't being judged for it.)
This means that you have, again, GENERATIONS of female authors who have gone through the most rigorous writing school in existence, going pro and starting to publish.
Yes: THE most rigorous. FIGHT ME. Fanfic taught me pacing. Taught me dialog. Taught me scene, and structure, and what to do when a deadline attacks. Fanfic taught me to take critique, to be edited, to collaborate, to write to spec. FANFIC MADE ME.
An MFA takes three years. My path from fanfic newbie to published author took me more than a decade.
It's not a structured school. There aren't classes, or finals; you don't get a degree. How fast you learn is tied to how fast you listen, and you can stop whenever you find the place that makes you happy. "Going pro" is not the brass ring for every fanfic author.
A [considerable] number of us started writing fanfic because we wanted to live the stories that we loved, and then discovered that we loved telling stories. We wanted to do it always and forever and maybe…maybe we wanted to tell OUR OWN STORIES.
Maybe we wanted to CHANGE THE DEFAULT.
Can you imagine?
Graduates of a school that doesn't cost money, with a "student body" made of mostly women, CHANGING THE DEFAULT.
Because here's where I'm going to pivot a little, and tell you a filthy, filthy secret: men write fanfic too. They just call it "homage," or "public domain," or "licensed work," and get on with their bad selves.
FUZZY NATION? Fanfic.
Every X-Men comic written since Claremont stopped? Fanfic.
Your beloved HAMILTON? Real-person fanfic. Songfic, even.
When men write fanfic, there is a tendency for the media to report on it as "transformative" and "transgressive" and "a new take on a classic story."
When women do it, the same media goes "hee hee hee she wrote about dicks."
Am I blaming the men who tell the stories? Fuck, no. But when the conversation is always framed as "HE makes LITERATURE, SHE writes TRASH," that is the schema people seize upon. That is the narrative we live.
The Default, now, is that a man who writes fanfic is uplifting and transforming, showing us the pearl within the oyster, whereas all the woman wants to show us is the "pearl" in the "oyster," in the Victorian sense.
AND THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH THE VICTORIAN SENSE. But this is just an updated version of the "men write erotica, women write pornography" conversation that's been going on since I was a wee small Seanan sneaking my stepdad's Playboys.
Women who admit they wrote (or still write) fanfic get shit upon, over and over again, because we keep saying, and allowing the media to say, that fanfic is trash, and that by extension, we who write it are garbage people.
It gets used as a "gotcha." I have experienced it directly, the interviewer who drops their voice, leans in conspiratorially close, and asks if the rumors that I used to write…those stories…are true.
They always look so damn shocked when I respond with a cheerful, "Oh, yeah, my agent initially contacted me because she really enjoyed my BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER Faith/Buffy porn!"
[Cue Dayanara rolling her eyes on Seanan's behalf]
I am supposed to be ashamed of my past. I am supposed to repudiate the school where I learned to hold an audience; I am supposed to bury the bodies of all the girls who made me.
Fanfic is a natural human interaction with story. Children do it before they know its name. People who swear they would never do it all the time, retelling fairy tales and Shakespearean dramas and family anecdotes in new lights and new settings. FANFIC WILL NEVER DIE.
We need to acknowledge that fact: we need to accept that fanfic is never going away, and that it would suck a sack of wasps through a funnel if it did, because we need it. We need to center old stories in new ways, to update The Default, and yeah, to see some vampire peen.
So if you know someone who wrinkles their nose at fanfic, or who would tell a former fanfic author that their original fiction is somehow worth less because of their roots, or who is just generally an impacted asshole with legs, remember:
They are wrong.
Fanfic is beautiful.
Writing fanfic teaches you important storytelling skills.
I have a funnel and access to wasps.
Thank you for coming to today's episode of Seanan Gets Mad About Shit.
And thank you for accepting my choice to repost this.
Now I must go…my fingers hurt from the copypasta. 😛