Fan fiction is more than a genre. It’s a technology for generating new feelings out of old texts.
Like her protagonist, EL James appears to love humiliation, as evidenced by yesterday’s #AskELJames Twitter Q&A. While the many harsh jabs at Fifty Shades of Grey’s prose style weren’t directed specifically at its origins in fan fiction, certainly some of the animus against it is informed by a sense that fan fiction should stay fan fiction: not pulled into the world of “proper” literature and the authorial legitimacy it presumably confers. But while fan fiction as a genre is still largely (and unfairly) denigrated, it’s leaking into literature in all sorts of exciting ways.
In an essay published this spring, poet and playwright Joyelle McSweeney described her recent work as “fan fiction in the form of plays.” Poet Richard Siken, due to his relationship to the Supernatural and Sherlock fandoms, was just dubbed “Poet Laureate of Fan Fiction” by The Awl, and fiction writer Tom Cho has, in various interviews and essays, named fan fiction a model of influence. Postmodern pastiche may be dead (I’m skeptical), but fan fiction is alive and thriving, not just on internet archives and Tumblr–or on the New York Times bestseller list–but also in indie and innovative literature.
Fan fiction isn’t new, of course, and its separation from the literary world has never been absolute. While the world of fan fiction tends to be dominated by TV and film fandoms, there are also countless literary fandoms, and fanfic writers sometimes use lines from poems as prompts (which is how Siken originally got involved)
I’ll include myself here. My chapbook TWINS adopts a fanfic mode, appropriating the main characters of the Sweet Valley Twins YA series and infusing them with queer desire. In “Elizabeth’s Lament,” I take on the role of “good” twin Elizabeth to express my complicated and embarrassing feelings towards “bad” twin Jessica, who acts as a proxy for an ex-girlfriend on one level and on another for the hetero/cis-normative world of the Sweet Valley franchise itself: I love you but you’ve never really seen me. I love you but you continue to go for sundaes without me. I love you. Love me back! The story’s relationship to the source text is neither satirical nor parodic: it expresses an attitude not of denigration or gentle mockery, but desire mixed with betrayal. It’s infatuated, and it hurts. It wants: a register I’d call fannish.
As Kristina Busse and Alexis Lothian have observed in an essay on feminist and trans discourses in slash, fan fiction is “based primarily in affect: love for the source, desire to continue it into different contexts, annoyance with the things it does badly, and pleasure in the friendships and shared desires that circulate in fan communities.” In fan fiction, the fan’s affective excess finds form in a proliferation of narratives drawn more or less closely from a popular text, mixing its recognizable feel with analysis through strategic modifications to readymade, familiar worlds and characters. The source text functions as a scaffold for invention of all kinds.
Through these kinds of inventions—or fantasies—fan fiction “reorients” a source text, as fan studies scholar Ika Willis has argued, “opening its fictional world onto a set of demands determined by the individual reader.” This is especially true in slash, a subgenre of fan fiction where writers imagine queer sexual relationships between characters from popular sources. Through this reorientation, Willis suggests, fan fiction “occupies a charged crossing point” between the reader’s “desiring subjectivity” and their knowledge of what is possible in both the actual world and the world of the text. In these terms fan fiction is not (or not only) a genre but a practice—an affective technology that “feels out” a text to find (often hidden or subtextual) emotions and desires. It announces a relationship to a source text that is infatuated, made dizzy, and vulnerable to betrayal. From this vulnerability, fanfiction seizes the objects of its affections and confronts them to express and/or repair the hurt.
If this sounds familiar, maybe you’re remembering the avant-pop of the 90s, which was described and delineated in two anthologies edited by Larry McCaffery: Avant-Pop: Fiction for a Daydream Nation (1993) and After Yesterday’s Crash: The Avant-Pop Anthology (1995) (both have informed my own work). Bringing together authors like Ricardo Cortez Cruz, Robert Coover, Bret Easton Ellis, David Foster Wallace, and Kathy Acker, these anthologies map out a school of writing that paired avant-garde literary tactics with images, characters, and tropes from popular culture—including formal strategies indebted to hypertext, jump cuts, and sampling. Extending pop art’s investment in pop culture’s aesthetic potential, avant-pop formed a relationship to source texts that was more collaborative, if also more overtly critical or parodic, than pop art’s “neutral” reframing. While avant-pop (and its parent category, pomo pastiche) and fanfic have much to say to one another, in placing them together it seems clear that what is definitive about fanfic is its affective intensity: its fannishness. It’s devoted to fantasy and desire—specifically, the desire to inhabit an available role, infusing it with one’s own identity. Avant-pop maintained a distance between author and (appropriated) character that fanfic literature does not. In fact, what’s most specific to the examples of fanfic appropriation I’ve come across is their use of self-insertion to blur the boundaries between author and character.
In his short fiction collection Look Who’s Morphing (published in the US and Canada in 2014), Tom Cho uses self-insertion to reorient popular texts. In the opening story, “Dirty Dancing,” a first-person, gender-ambiguous narrator, constructed as a proxy for Cho himself (who is transgender), inhabits the role of Baby and becomes involved with Johnny Castle
This is a slash scene—Cho has replaced the original straight couple with two hypermasculine men. In an essay published in Australian Humanities Review, Cho has written directly about this story’s relationship to fan fiction, describing his love for the film and its narrative of coming of age through dancing. But, he writes,
this film also evokes painful discrepancies between its textual content and my own experiences and desires. My self-insertion into this text is thus an ironic contrast to my inability to see other aspects of my self-including my Asian-Australianness-reflected in this film. This act of self-insertion may have an air of mischief and even defiance—”No one puts Baby in a corner”—and yet one cannot forget that it is also a response to pain.
In replacing his own avatar with Bruce, whose whiteness the narrative can more readily absorb, Cho makes visible the narrative’s inability to incorporate racial difference, even when subjected to queering
In his essay, Cho explains he adopted the trope of self-insertion from fanfiction. What he doesn’t mention is that self-insertion is largely looked down on in the fanfic community, especially when it involves a “Mary Sue” (or “Marty Stu”): a character who is constructed (or perceived to be constructed) as an idealized proxy for the author. Indeed, according to the infamous Geek Hierarchy chart, “erotic fanfic writers who put themselves in the story” are ranked the lowest of all geeks (except for furries). Even within fanfic, then, a space for excess feelings, there is a limit placed on what is perceived to be self-indulgence—though this doesn’t stop writers of fanfic from going there. As Sanna Lehtonen has noted in an essay on the trope, self-insertion remains an appealing device because it allows writers “to experiment with possible identities in the most unlikely situations.” Lehtonen argues that self-insertion in fan fiction functions as not simply a wish-fulfilment device but a form of speculative life writing that enables the construction of selfhood.
Cho’s narrator, whose identity remains somewhat stable throughout the collection despite their constant transformations, is often constructed shamelessly (and hilariously) as a Mary Sue/Marty Stu character. But Cho doesn’t stop at experimenting with different identities—aspects of his own subjectivity go with him, flooding the characters he inhabits. In “The Sound of Music,” for example, Cho’s narrator adopts the role of Maria only to realize that, instead of falling in love with Captain von Trapp, they want to become Captain von Trapp—so they do, escaping to the Alps, “looking and acting a lot like Captain von Trapp, and thinking about every issue and angle and possibility of my new life while a chorus sings ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain.” Cho’s self-insertion illustrates the distance between himself and the characters he’s channeling—and in this case closes that distance by reorienting the text around his own subjectivity, an essential, insistent “I” that asserts itself at all turns.
Another antecedent to fan fiction might be New Narrative, with its insistence upon an (albeit porous, volatile) “I.” This movement of predominantly queer writers emerged in the 70s and 80s in opposition to what they considered Language poetry’s evacuation of subjectivity. New Narrative writers, who included Chris Kraus, Dodie Bellamy, Kevin Killian, Kathy Acker, Eileen Myles, and Bruce Boone, among others, insisted on bringing authorial subjectivity into their work, and with it an emphasis on the body, sexuality, and queer conceptions of identity.
Of these writers, Acker is arguably the closest link to fanfic lit, given her use of self-insertion throughout her body of work. In her novels Great Expectations and Don Quixote, for example, Acker inserted herself into canonical literature to show the wide gaps and fissures between her subjectivity and the narratives available to her. Conveniently, she shows up in both of the other texts I want to mention here. In Leon Baham’s chapbook Ponyboy, Sigh, which slashes paradigmatic heteromasculine coming of age narrative The Outsiders, Acker enters briefly as a character (“a chorus of Kathy Acker”). Written between poetry and theater, the text is indebted to Acker in its performativity, its polyvocality and vertiginous code-switching. Baham adopts the voice of Ponyboy (here reinvented as “so gay he can’t even think straight”) and reimagines the story’s central friendship as “true love”—or a swarm of nervous, unstable lust. As it proceeds, the text sighs, gasps, spasms through its source text, exploiting its latent homoeroticism to realize its not-so-hidden queer fantasies.
Acker shows up more prominently in Michael du Plessis’s breakup novel The Memoirs of JonBenet by Kathy Acker, where the author-narrator channels Acker who channels JonBenet Ramsay (and, eventually, William Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft too). All these characters are dolls, by the way, with the city of Boulder, Colorado, serving as a stage for doll games. Like Cho, Du Plessis constructs his first-person narrator transparently as a version of himself. But where Cho enters one role after another, stretching each to fit his subjectivity, Du Plessis’s narrator enters multiple roles simultaneously: a Russian-doll approach to subjectivity and voice that is as much about masking as inserting the self.
In contemporary fiction, which is traditionally a genre where authorial subjectivity is expected to be effaced in deference to “made-up” characters, the self is being “vigorously reasserted” all over the place, as Jonathan Sturgeon declares in an essay on autofiction. Despite its own vigorous assertions of the self, fanfic literature does life writing much differently than autoficion: It is grounded in, and committed to, fictitiousness, fantasy, performativity. In fact, scholar Francesca Coppa has located fan fiction’s heritage in theater more so than literature, and Joyelle McSweeney has similarly linked fan fiction to the stage. “In some ways,” McSweeney writes, “drama is the most literalizing form for fan-fiction to take—the masks, drag, costumes, ventriloquism, unlikely/hyperlikely scenarios so endemic to fan faction are actualized in the masks, costumes, drag, ventriloquism, and scenarios of drama itself.”
I’m glad McSweeney mentioned drag, because it’s the last piece of fanfic, maybe: The other key component of these examples of fanfic literature, if not of fan fiction as a genre (which is rarely as queer as we want it to be). Here self-insertion is used as a tool to read a text—reading, that is, in the sense of the word that comes from drag—a form of critique, or exposure—while remaining invested in its possibilities. A fanfic mode reads a text to feel it out—and insert new feels inside it.