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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. 

Stories are fractal by nature. Even when there’s just one version in print, you have it multiplied by every reader’s experience of it in light of who they are, what they like, what they want. And then many people will put themselves in the place of the protagonist, or another character, and spend a lot of time thinking about what they’d do in that character’s place. Or adjusting happenings so they like the results better.

That’s not fic yet, but it is a story.

But the best stories grow. This can happen in the language of capitalism—a remake of a classic movie, a series of books focusing on what happened afterwards or before—or it can happen in the language of humanity. Children playing with sticks as lightsabers, Jedi Princess Leia saving Alderaan by dueling Vader; a father reading his kids The Hobbit as a bedtime story as an interactive, “what would you like to happen next?” way so that the dwarves win the wargs over with doggie biscuits that they had in their pockets and ride to Erebor on giant wolves, people writing and sharing their ideas for deleted outtake scenes from Star Trek and slow-build fierce and tender romance with startling bursts of hot sex between Hawkeye and Agent Coulson.

A story at its most successful is a fully developed fractal, retold a million times and a million ways, with stories based on stories based on stories. Fanfic of fanfic of fanfic. Stories based on headcanons, stories based on prompts, stories that put the Guardians of the Galaxy in a coffee-shop AU and stories where the Transformers are planet-wandering nomads and stories where characters from one story are placed into a world from another. Stories that could be canon, stories that are the farthest thing from canon, stories that are plausible, stories that would never happen, stories that give depth to a character or explore the consequences of one different plot event or rewrite the whole thing from scratch.

This is what stories are supposed to be.

This is what stories are.

Fandom and fan creations are a communal act. They do not disguise how they are influenced by each other. They revel in it.

Literature was once a communal act, too. Film as well. It’s only once we decided to extend and expand the idea of copyright and turn stories into primarily vehicles for profit that we rejected this communal structure. The literary canon shouldn’t be all dead white men. They didn’t build the novel. They didn’t build theater. They took what was already there and said “This is mine now,” and we believed them.

Creativity is communal. There is no such thing as the lone genius on a mountaintop. Ideas are passed around, handed back and forth, growing all the time. Fandom is what human creativity looks like in its normal form. Fandom is like this because humans are like this.

We didn’t just borrow the sword. We remade it because we saw in it the potential for something better. And we did that together, all of us.

Fan fic is real literature. I have read fan fics for free that are written better than books I have paid for! That is why it is important for me to leave kudos and comments on anything I like. I want to encourage these aspiring writers to keep going. : )
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