Why Is It So Hard To Talk About Fanfiction?


There has been yet another disastrous attempt to capitalize on fanfiction’s increasing visibility because apparently it’s hilarious to make fun of someone’s hobby. An event called “Fanfic Theater with Chris Gore” was announced as part of WonderCon’s schedule and it’s as bad as it sounds; basically the plan was for a bunch of comedians and TV personalities to do a live read of “the weirdest and wildest” fanfiction on the Internet, which is basically just public bullying under the guise of humor. The event has since been cancelled due to the understandable uproar from the fanfiction community, but it’s not the first time fanfiction has been exploited in this way. In fact, it seems to be happening more and more. We could just wait for it to happen again, or we can ask ourselves why people keep talking about fanfiction like this, and how we can change the conversation.

A few of weeks ago there was a similar controversy when a class about fanfic at the University of California, Berkeley asked students to leave a critical review on each of the fanfics they read. The actual fanfiction course in itself is not really the issue, but asking a group of outsiders to directly critique the work of a bunch of hobbyists is genuinely awful. Not only is that bad academic practice – you don’t just jump into the community you’re studying and tell them what they’re doing wrong – but it also goes against everything fanfiction is about. Which is why it was so shocking to discover that a number of people taking the class were from the fanfic community. The same contradiction can be found in the WonderCon controversy as the fangirls from defective Geeks* were involved in the event. Surely fangirls should know better?

The problems with both the fanfic course and the WonderCon event are fairly obvious. They both involve outsiders taking fanfic out of context and judging it publicly. Generally, the fanfic found online – the stuff that Chris Gore was planning on making fun of – is written by amateurs. I don’t mean that to suggest that they lack talent or knowledge, I just mean that is not for profit; it’s purely for fun. It’s made out of love. Love for the thing that inspired it. Love for the act of writing itself. Love for the fanfiction community. Although some fanfic authors write professionally as well, that doesn’t change the fact that the practice of writing fanfiction is essentially a hobby. It’s the same as joining an amateur sports league or gardening or knitting or whatever else you do in your spare time for fun. Imagine if a bunch of strangers came to your yoga class and started laughing at your attempts to master that new pose. That would be pretty cruel right? So why is it okay to do that to fanfic authors?

If the problems are so obvious, then why do our fellow fangirls keep getting involved with these acts of public bullying? I took one look at the description of “Fanfic Theater with Chris Gore” and could immediately recognize what was wrong with it, but at the same time I could understand how the girls from defective Geeks might have decided to be a part of it. Because here’s the thing about fanfiction that everyone within the community instinctually understands: some of it is hilariously absurd. Fanfic is all about asking ‘what if’ and the answer is always yes, which leads to some pretty bizarre stuff. Limitless possibility is what makes fanfiction so amazing but it’s also pretty funny sometimes. My friends and I constantly write the strangest stuff to send to each other to laugh about because it’s fun. So live reading and laughing about fanfic is something that we do within the community. It’s part of enjoying fanfic.

The thing is, there is difference between members of the community laughing together about a specific genre that falls within the vast expanse that is the umbrella term fanfiction, and a bunch of outsiders teasing something they don’t understand. While the panel might have had the intention “of being a celebration of fanfiction, not a mockery,” the fanfic community has no way of knowing that – especially when similar situations usually result in the belittling and shaming of fanfiction authors. Like when Caitlin Moran made the Sherlock actors read homoerotic fanfic in front of a live audience just to make them uncomfortable. The fanfic community is used to being mocked because it happens a lot – which makes the decision to create a panel with the sole purpose of laughing at fanfic seem deliberately spiteful.

So why would any fangirl in their right mind choose to be a part of something like “Fanfic Theater with Chris Gore”? Perhaps they don’t have any other options because fanfic was something secret for so long that fangirls don’t know how to talk about it. In fact, it seems at this point that everyone is talking about fanfic except fangirls. As a result, those outside fandom assume they have a greater understanding of fanfic than they actually do. So they might witness fic writers laughing about crackfic together and think, “that seems fun, we should do that,” and because we do it in the community, it must be okay. Then they invite a couple of fangirls to join them, saying that they want to celebrate fanfic the way we do in the community and those fangirls are just super excited that someone wants to celebrate fanfic that they ignore the HUGE underlying issue, which is context.

In the context of the creation of the WonderCon event, it was probably all about celebrating fanfic in a fun way, BUT to the wider fanfic community it looks like just another group of people getting together to publicly mock something that is hugely important to them. Considering that fangirls get so few opportunities to celebrate fanfic in a positive way, it sucks that something like this has happened because it gives us an excuse to avoid talking about it and reforges the idea that fanfic is something to laugh at.

Like it or not, fanfic has entered the general cultural zeitgeist and we have got to figure out a way to talk about it with mainstream audiences. The way we do that is by sharing our own stories and creating our own public events. The only reason someone like Chris Gore thinks it’s okay to create an event like “Fanfic Theater” is because no one has told him that it’s totally inappropriate. And trust me, this whole concept is completely unacceptable. The problem is that there is obviously a void that we’re not filling, which leaves the door open for any ignorant asshole to jump in and take control of the conversation. So we’ve got to face our fears and start publicly celebrating fanfic because otherwise we’re never going to change the way we talk about fanficion.

*Defective Geeks wrote a lovely heartfelt apology for her involvement. You can read it here.

Author: Undie Girl

Undie Girl (aka Von) has a BA (Hons) Major in Cultural Studies. The title of her honours thesis was “It’s just gay and porn”: Power, Identity and the Fangirl’s Gaze. She’s currently pursuing a Masters of Media Practice at University of Sydney. Von’s a former contributor The Backlot’s column The Shipping News and a current co-host of The Geekiary’s monthly webcast FEELINGS… with The Geekiary.

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9 thoughts on “Why Is It So Hard To Talk About Fanfiction?

  1. The WonderCon panel in question had the author’s permission and in fact had some of the authors of the fics on the panel itself. It was a celebration of crack fic which has been held since 2012 at many different conventions. They had authors ASKING them to present their work.

    Are those authors not considered “good” fanficcers because they laughed and enjoyed themselves?

    So long as the author gave permission, who the heck wouldn’t want watch a performance of a fic where Naruto falls in love with a T-Rex?

    I understand being protective of the medium, but grouping together and deciding that other people having fun that we dislike, fun we dislike that doesn’t tear apart diversity, does not launch threats, does not break the law… must be BANNED from the earth due to our own sensibilities being offended… Or because we’re afraid they MIGHT be offended…

    That’s what Gamergaters do, guys. They say “This is our club. You are not wanted. You are not allowed to disobey our specific rules, or ELSE.. we will organize, threaten, insult, boycott.” Fandom is starting to get to that extreme. I’ve seen people doxxed and receive death threats just for not liking someone’s ship.

    The intolerance has got to go on ALL sides. What is the point of a quest for a more tolerant society, if we are incapable of being tolerant ourselves. Because tolerance is easy when it’s things that you like and approve of, it’s actually needed when it’s things you fear and disapprove of coming to the table.

    Videogames started as a little boys club. And Gamergate is about that club feeling threatened to let the world at large into it. Just like these guys need to realize that gaming is now for EVERYONE… we need to realize that too, because fanfic IS part of the zeitgeist because we put it on the internet where anyone can get to it.

    Like it not, fanfic is now part of pop culture. And the evolution of culture is hard to control in the specific ways you want it to. Conversations on discussing the importance of transformative works ARE an important part of trying to direct culture in a way that is beneficial for all.

    I agree that fanfic can be an incredible catharsis, uplifting, give an outlet where some people have none. There are beautiful INTRICATE stories out there that are better than books on the shelves and sometimes better than the source material. It can start people on the path to becoming novelists. We should absolutely share that. We should try to get people to understand that fanfic is not just about sex, but that it’s not wrong if it IS about sex.

    We should also embrace that sometimes fanfic is written to be a satire or comedy and celebrate that too. We shouldn’t be so desperate to have fanfic taken seriously that we’re unable to share its quirky absurdities as well.

    Let’s start having the conversations. But let’s start tearing down the walls we seem to be continually putting up in the process too.

    1. That’s exactly what I’m saying! The issue I had with this particular event is that we’re not the ones running it. I take issue with people that don’t have a vest interest in a particular sub culture using it as something to laugh at. I would 100% LOVE to see a panel of ficcers doing dramatic readings of their most Bazaar fics – there are even famous fan ficcers out there that could be involved. But another random white male geek laughing at fanfic, no matter how well intentioned, is not good for anyone.

      I am advocating for MORE inclusion of fanfiction at mainstream geek culture events like conventions! It has a HUGE place in fandom and it needs to be represented but it should be represented by us! We need to be the ones coming out and showing people the wonders of fan fiction and that includes the bizarrely awesome like Naturo falling in love with a T-Rex (side note if that’s a think can you please link). We’ve got to get out from behind the imaginary fourth wall and stop letting other people speak for us.

      1. I agree that just another white guy with no vested interest laughing at fanfic wouldn’t be good for anyone. But it wasn’t that. The panel itself has ALWAYS involved people within the community. And he’s shared his love of fanfiction with everybody, including his 22 year old daughter who he brings to the con, who WRITES fanfic. The panel isn’t him laughing and cracking jokes about those nutty fanfic authors and horny 50 Shades of Gray ladies. They all divide up the roles and read the fanfic.

        I think people assumed that because he is male and a comedian and also white that he MUST be outside the box of what is welcome. And really… why? Yes, we need to promote diversity. Yes, most fanfic writers are women. Yes, the panel might benefit from being hosted with female. But why should we be banishing white, male, comedians who AREN’T pointing and laughing from participating? Why should that be something that needs insults and the threat of a boycott?

        And are we going to be those people who instead of calmly saying, “I think maybe this panel would benefit from a female host or at the VERY least co-host, why not let the Defective Geeks take the lead..?” ..we say, “OH MY GOD. white straight male! We can’t have those in our clubhouse! BAN IT. BAN IT.” If we’re preaching diversity, we need to open up the doors to all. We HATE it when we’re excluded, shouldn’t we be trying to be the example here? And I’m not saying I don’t understand the impulse to say, “Fanfic is mostly women’s domain, does the host really need to be a dude?” Because that impulse is surely there and it is a good question to ask. But asking questions and putting forth suggestions is much different than the reaction I saw online.

        I also think it is telling that not one of the people complaining (that I saw) has ever actually been to the panel, which again — the panel is far from new. They assumed their feelings would be hurt (and assumed that no author’s permission was sought – which I absolutely agree would be HORRIBLE, the Sherlock thing was HORRIBLE) and that kind of POSSIBLE threat was enough to yank the ripcord. That kind of behavior in civilization scares me, to be honest. Where instead of questioning if something might go over the line, or experiencing it yourself and judging, people make a snap decision that a possible FUTURE offense needs to be removed. That’s how movies get banned.

        I, unfortunately, cannot show you Naruto falling in love with a T-Rex, but if you look for Defective Geeks online you can find some of their Fanfic Theatre. Including Optimus Prime/Leia.

        As a PS… Asylum 14 is having Misha Collins and Orlando Jones host a Fic Rec panel. No idea if they’ll just be talking about fics they liked or reading some passages, but shouldn’t this be getting the exact same scrutiny, as they are males who seldom take things seriously? Shouldn’t we be asking them why no female authors are on a panel with them? Shouldn’t we be asking them if they intend to seek author’s permission before mentioning someone’s fic who might not want it publicized? Or are we going to let them skate because they are beloved actors? I’d personally like to see the outrage machine toned down, but if the outrage machine is going to exist, let’s at least apply it equally.

        1. As I’m not the author of the piece I can’t speak for her, but my take from the controversy is that the issue is less about a white man doing it and more about “comedians” reading the “wildest fanfiction.” It’s becoming evident that it was poorly summarized in the WonderCon panel guide. The way they worded it, it absolutely sounded like they were going to make fun of fanfiction much like the Sherlock incident. Gore himself said somewhere (I think Twitter… pardon me, I don’t have a link at the moment) that they should has used the word “performers” instead. Yes, absolutely. Because the way it was worded did not sound like a fun, consenting celebration, but a fanfiction roast. Misha and Orlando have proven time and time again that they understand fandom culture. They’ve been called out on things before, sure, but they are still generally very respectful. Their gender has nothing to do with it. It’s their attitude.

          I really don’t know who Chris Gore is so the only thing I could base my opinion on is the description in the WonderCon booklet, which obviously sold this panel as something it was not.

  2. When I heard about the panel, I said it was something that could be great if done right, but the description of the panel didn’t give me much confidence that would be the case. Sounds like, from what the other commenters have said, that it could have been great.
    It would be awesome if there were con sponsored contests and awards as well as skewering. Genuine respect and appreciation for fanfic and not just the contempt and ridicule that you hear so often.
    Personally, I would love critique of some of my fic. I even wouldn’t mind people finding my fic unintentionally hilarious. But I would want to choose to put it out there

  3. The way the panel was being promoted definitely sounded like, ‘come on and have a good laugh with us!’ Mr. Gore makes his living that way, and if this was a misunderstanding it’s an understandable one. Nearly all approaches to discussing fanfiction seem to come from this place: this is a really skeevy, weird, we’re-somewhat-embarrassed subculture of fandom, so we’re all going to suffer from second-hand shame together! I’d love to see a discussion of the really amazing writing that’s going on in the fandom communities.

    The fandom critique thing (UC Berkeley, I guess it was?) is, I think, a great example. Those responsible for teaching the class say they’re big fanfic fans, one even writes some! and then say their purpose was to teach critical writing. So how about do that in class, instead of in the fanfic community? Because they don’t take it seriously; they don’t understand the dynamic; they don’t accept its value. Until that attitude changes I’m thinking the fan writing community is justified in being very cautious, and proactive.

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