Guest post: Fan fiction is more than smut

The internet is for porn.

We all know the song (from the Broadway musical Avenue Q), and it’s funny because, in a way, it is true.  And hose of us who have been around the internet for a while are familiar with the infamous Rule 34: if it exists, there’s porn of it.  It’s nothing incredibly shocking but, if you listen to the media hubbub surrounding the bestselling novel 50 Shades of Grey, you would think otherwise.

For those of you unfamiliar with the novel, there’s already been a great recap post here on Club Jade.  To sum up, it’s an erotic novel that started out as Twilight fan fiction.  The entertainment media can’t seem to get enough of this story, churning out article after article about 50 Shades and author E L James.  The media attention seems to focus either on the novel’s fanfic past or the crazy idea that women like to read erotica.  I laughed about the latter slant (really? In 2012, it’s still surprising that women like to read about sex?), but was intrigued by the former, mainly because of my involvement in the Star Wars fan fiction community.

Disclaimer: I read and write a lot of fanfic.  It’s relatively new hobby for me (and yes, I almost did just write Hobbie), but in the year and a half I’ve been involved in the community I’ve met a lot of great friends and read just as many great stories.  Yes, some fanfic is bad, but other stuff is good (even better than profic).  As a fan, I believe fanfic has merit right alongside profic.  (Aaron Allston does, too.)

Until now, I’d couldn’t believe that the mainstream media hadn’t yet made the erroneous connection that fanfic = porn.  So an article on CNN entitled Fifty Shades of Grey shines light on erotic fan fiction”, I wasn’t that surprised.  But I still facepalmed; especially when I saw the accompanying photograph of Kirk and Spock.  The third sentence of the article states, “Welcome to the world of fan fiction, where fans tweak or add to existing series, novels and characters — oftentimes with a steamy twist” (emphasis mine).

It is the word “oftentimes” that bothers me about that statement.  Yes, I know there is erotic fanfic on the internet (refer back to Rule 34).  I’ve read it; heck, I’ve written it.  I don’t think “smut” (as it’s called) is anything to ridicule or look down upon, and I’m not ashamed to read or write it.  But that does not mean that the majority of fanfic is porn, and I hate that people will see novels like “50 Shades” and believe that is the case.

Fanfic serves many purposes for both readers and writers, but it comes down to this: we want to see things that we aren’t getting in canon.  Do you want to know what happens to Harry Potter and his friends after the novels?  J.K. Rowling isn’t going to write that, so other people have.  Do you want to explore previous incarnations of the Hunger Games?  You can write your own version or read others.  Do you wish that Syal Antilles had a bigger role in the Star Wars Expanded Universe?  She does in fanfic!  Basically, fanfic helps fill a void that can’t be fulfilled by “profic”.

And yes, that means that smut will inevitably exist.  Profic (thankfully) isn’t going to explore the intimate relationship between Luke Skywalker and Mara Jade, so fans create their own.  But that doesn’t mean that fans don’t also write alternate universe stories in which Luke and Mara married much earlier than in the canon storyline, or in which Mara never died, or stories that don’t feature much of a romantic aspect at all.  Those types of stories are what you will find if you look for Luke and Mara fanfic on the internet.  In fact, websites like Fanfiction.net and TFN’s Jedi Council fan fiction forums do not allow higher-rated fanfic to be archived.

To be fair, the CNN article does clarify (much further down the page) that “not all fan fiction is erotic”, and then gives a paragraph-long quote explaining how fanfic is about seeing more of a character.

Well, I guess that’s better than nothing, right?

It’s inevitable that people will hear about 50 Shades of Grey and make broad generalizations about the nature of fanfic, but I wish that they wouldn’t.  People will say that all fanfic is badly written or all fanfic is just about smut or that people who read and write fanfic are nuts.  To but it bluntly, fanfic gets a bad rap, probably more so than any other area of fan participation.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard “why don’t you write real stories?” when I tell people I write fanfic.  I write fanfic because I want to.  Other people think that reading fanfic is a waste of time, because it’s not the “real” story that Lucasfilm approves.  Well, I read fanfic because I want to read more about the characters that I love, which is the same reason I read the EU.

To sum up, fanfic does not equal porn.  It’s so much more than that.  I’m glad to see conversations about fanfic in mainstream media, hoping that fanfic won’t be the redheaded stepchild of fandom anymore.  I only wish all this attention surrounded a different novel, and can’t help but wonder what people would be saying about fanfic if something like the Son of Suns trilogy was turned into an original work instead of 50 Shades.


Nanci is one of the hosts of the Tosche Station Radio podcast

13 thoughts on “Guest post: Fan fiction is more than smut

  1. Pingback: Check Out Nanci’s Guest Post on Fan Fiction at Club Jade | Tosche Station

  2. ginchy

    Wonderful piece. Very true and shows the negativity that fanfic gets due to only a part of the overall fandom. I love the differing types of stories to be found in fanfic, the way that a character you love can be expanded upon to allow you to see sides of them you may never have expected (and I don’t just mean the naked sides…though those are nice, too).

  3. Donsinluv

    So, we’re back to fic. And here I though that the 50 Shades stuff (yes, I wrote “stuff”) would go away when the great eye (yes, I wrote “great eye”) inevitably moved on. That usually takes about five minutes in the current media climate, so 50 Shades has lasted almost twice as long as the last fluffy story, whatever that was. Or maybe they’re just waiting for Lindsay Lohan to screw up again.

    Mostly, I think this has a lot to do with the fact that 50 Shades not only appears to have a large and somewhat vocal following who seem to be grown women who like erotica (horrors!), but it that it also garnered a big money publishing deal as well as big money movie rights. The operative word here is money. If 50 Shades was simply a fic with a large following, the great eye (sorry) would already have found something else to obsess over.

    That begs the question: can fic be serious writing? Some of it is. Some of it isn’t. Some of it is a mess, and some of it is very good — sort of like the rest of the publishing world. Literary writers, or those aspiring to be literary writers, are predictably horrified by fanfic. Speaking from experience, you’ll never convert those guys, so don’t waste your breath.

    Does fanfic exist alongside legitimate fiction (whatever that is)? It does and has for quite a long time now. That question is moot — fanfic exists, and it’s basically unstoppable (except if you’re Diana Gabaldon, but that’s another story).

    What Ms. James did was actually rather difficult — she took the guts out of the fic (namely the franchise) and turned it into an original story, or original enough, anyway. The rewrite must have been a nightmare.

  4. Amberlee

    I see this as similar to how the press treats Libertarians. Libertarians are about more than just wanting to legalize drugs, but almost every candidate immediately gets asked if they want to legalize drugs and then treated like a crackpot when they say that yes, that’s part of the platform of the party.

    The press does the same thing to fan fiction people. OMG there is PORN involved therefore all of it must be porn and the entire story is, therefore, about how fan fiction writers write porn. And, btw, since a lot of fan fiction writers are women: OMG WOMEN READ PORN!

    *sigh*

    It’s just sensationalism in an attempt to get readership. Period. And I have to say it’s getting to be pretty old. Every time a new big movie fandom rolls around the press suddenly rediscovers fan fiction for it (much less erotic fiction) and everyone does a Kermit Flail (TM).

    Remix culture has been around since the first story was told by one person and someone told it again a week later to someone else. Fan fiction is no different. Shakespeare did RPF plays of monarchs and remixes of other plays. The Eyre Affair and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies are just like plenty of fan fiction I read all the time. But no one really wants to talk about that. There’s nothing titillating in fan fiction as literary fiction.

    Sure, there’s plenty of fan fiction that is outright bad — from grammar to spelling to total lack of anything resembling coherence — but there’s plenty of it that is wonderful. Superb even! Like any work of fiction, fan fiction can illuminate the world around you, help you see yourself in a new way, and break down barriers. In fact, in many ways the best fan fiction I read does all of that and more because it is often focused on things that “mainstream media” doesn’t provide: strong women, persons of color with agency, individuals with disabilities with agency, and confronting cultural conformity or taboos.

    The fact is that I know plenty of fan fiction writers of erotica that have “filed the serials numbers off” of stories and had them published as original works by small, specialized online publishing companies. It’s been going on for years. But 50 Shades has just gotten a lot of press recently and now it’s a “discussion.” Personally, it’s one I’m glad to see happen because I think copyright and trademark law can stifle creativity and that the issue should be discussed — particularly where fan fiction is concerned.

    There are lots of us out here writing who never intend to do anything but write our best for fun. We are challenging ourselves and our skills with something we enjoy as a hobby. Not everyone who writes needs to be “published” to feel they are a writer anymore than every person acting in regional theater doesn’t have to make it on Broadway to call themselves an actor. And I think fan fiction fills part of a need to share that is inside every writer — even those who don’t care if they ever have their work bound or have a big company hand them a cheque for their work.

    I’m proud to write fan fiction — even the smutty kind — and I’m even more proud to see someone here at CJ posting about this. Thanks for saying something a lot of us are thinking.

  5. Gabri

    Agreed on all counts. Sure, there’s plenty of fanfic with smut. Last I checked, plenty of original fiction, tv, and movies also contained smut. Fanfic is no more dominated by the existence of smut than those other mediums are.

    And that “why don’t you write real stories” stuff drives me crazy. Fan fiction is real storytelling. The fact that it’s derivative doesn’t deprive it of worth. Son of Suns is a perfect example of the brilliance that fanfic can showcase. Not to mention how much you learn about the craft of writing and editing when you’re doing it yourself. Writing fanfic didn’t just make me a better writer and editor; it made me a more aware and perceptive reader.

    On top of all of that, I personally think that anything that motivates people to create their own variety of art is worthwhile. Life is busy, and creativity is something that can too easily fall by the wayside. Fanfic helps rekindle it for a lot of people. We can’t all be published writers (though many of us have no desire to be such anyway), but we can all write fanfic, strive to improve our skills, and just plain have fun.

    If you go looking for smut, you’ll find smut. If you go looking for badly written wish fulfillment fic, you’ll find badly written wish fulfillment fic. But if you go looking for insightful, unique, brilliant, polished, high quality fan fiction, you’ll find that, too. Like everything else in life, fanfic’s a mixed bag. It would be very nice if more people grasped that concept and started noticing the incredible diversity fanfic has to offer.

  6. Iverna

    This is a great post! I agree 100%. I’ve never written smut, myself, and I’d say that 95% of fanfic I’ve read wasn’t smut either. Not that there’s anything wrong with smut, because there isn’t. But it’s simply not true to say that most fanfic is smut.

    See, this is why I don’t like journalism. It’s supposed to involve research. They’re supposed to know what they’re talking about before they write articles like this. But no, apparently, we can just go with stereotypes and work from there. I don’t much care how fanfic is perceived by the world at large, but I don’t like it when people spread misinformation like this. Do some research, it’s not that hard!

    As for the whole accusation that fanfic writers are lazy… I can honestly say that I’ve read plenty of original fiction which was less imaginative and less well-written than some fanfic I’ve read. I mean, look at crime or romance novels. How are those more imaginative and original than something like the Sons of Suns, or Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, or many others I could name? Some fiction is great, a lot of fiction is mediocre, and some fiction is bad. That’s true across the board, though.

  7. Dunc

    This has been a regular problem. Witness the previous glut of ‘teehee, ladies write buttsex’ stuff on slash. But by their very nature, they’re ‘trend’ pieces, so naturally they go soft. If 50 Shades continues – if the movie actually happens, for instance – I think we’ll see some far more critical looks at the phenomenon in the mainstream. But only time will tell.

    (And, I think, 50S/Master of the Universe was alternate reality from the get-go. Like those stories back in TPM fandom that made Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan ancient samurai or Roman legionaries and such. Xena fandom – which had reincarnation of the main characters built into the show – was also known for self-pubbing/vanity pressing the less obvious ‘fanfics.’ Maybe they still do.)

    Probably the best article on fanfic in recent years was the one Lev Grossman did for Time last year. It’s noteworthy that he DID approach and talk to fandom at length about it.

    But, you know, I would be the last person to admit that there isn’t plenty of bad fanfic, porn and otherwise. Like tie-in fiction, the reputation is by no means undeserved.

  8. Gollum

    Agreed with Dunc (above)- the Time article was awesome and DID address the preconception that fanfic is all about smuttiness- it acknowledged that YES, you can find porn-fic of just about anyone, anywhere, in major fandoms (I’m primarily thinking HP here…), but that isn’t what fanfiction is about and certainly isn’t even close to dominating the “industry.”

    Now, having said that- there’s probably a reason why something like 50 Shades can gain this sort of popularity as fanfic-turned-originalfic- because it IS about the romance/smut, isn’t it? (I haven’t read it so don’t really know) There’s a reason why well-written Star Wars fanfiction will never be adapted in such a way – to take it out-of-universe would destroy the complexity of a good story. So much has already gone into SW pro-fic, and if a good fanfic writer takes all of that into account and creates a narrative that ties those elements together… what’s the point of adapting it into something “original”?

    That isn’t a comment one way or the other about how “good” Twilight is- but take out the fantastical elements, put a smutty(-ier) twist on it, change names, ages, locations, etc, and it’s probably far easier to rewrite a similar-esque plot. And plots, unfortunately, don’t have to be too original to be considered original (after all, on their most basic levels, the plot of Lord of the Rings = the plot of Star Wars(OT) = the plot of Harry Potter).

    Lastly- I think anyone who has ever seen the Romance section of a major bookstore would acknowledge that women like to read about sex. I really feel like the hype over THIS one mostly just stems from the Twilight thing, and the BDSM thing. And I don’t mind that- because a better story would never be (COULD never be) twisted out-of-universe in such a way.

    Anyone who reads that CNN article and gets huffy about fanfic was never going to read or write it anyway; anyone with an ounce of common sense knows that fanfiction is written by all kinds of people about all kinds of things.

  9. mav

    Great post! It seems like this keeps coming up and people keep being shocked that women like erotica. Maybe this was shocking 20 years ago (though it shouldn’t have been) but now? Really? But that isn’t what fanfic is about, never has been.

    When I bring up that I read/write fanfic most people (that know what fanfic is) give me a look that says ‘So you’re one of those people’. And they usually have a comment or two about slash, like that’s all fanfic is. It’s frustrating and every time fanfic comes up in the media they just keep pushing that stereotype, so I don’t see an end to it anytime soon. :(

  10. kataja

    Great post – good comments! Fanfic is a rich world where I’ve found some of my best and worst reading experiences. There’s not more sex there than in most other artforms. But I can add that if I want to read good porn – then I immediately turn to fanfiction, simply because I find the quality of the erotica higher than in traditionally published literature.

  11. autumnsoliloquy

    Great post! And thanks for recommending the Son of Suns trilogy — just spend the whole of yesterday reading through that masterpiece. Now THAT’s something I’d buy as a paperback.

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