When I told a sub-editor of The Norwich Radical that I wanted to write an article in which I explore the fan-fiction community, his first words of advice were ‘steer clear of mpreg’. You can Google ‘mpreg’, if you like. If you’d rather not, socio-political zeitgeist Buzzfeed offers a simple definition: ‘the term for a genre of art and literature where a man is pregnant.’
This is precisely what fascinates people about fan-fiction: its alleged tendency to veer towards the bizarre, the unknown, and, some would say, the un-publishable (although nowadays the proliferation of fiction appearing online throws the whole question of what is/is not ‘publishable’ into question). Talking about fan-fiction right now conjures that which we have seen before – excerpts of sexually charged dialogue between Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes and Andrew Scott’s Moriarty, for example (a pairing so popular that Sherlock co-creator and renowned fan-teaser Steven Moffat wrote a scene in which the two lean in for a kiss, albeit in his usual roundabout, not-quite way).
But of course, we know that not all fan-fiction is like this.
This is precisely what fascinates people about fan-fiction: its alleged tendency to veer towards the bizarre, the unknown, and, some would say, the un-publishable
The sheer volume of writers engaging with one another on public forums is a meeting of minds, not an intense orgiastic online hub. Sadly, however, the latter is what sticks in the broader collective consciousness of the media. When, say, The Graham Norton Show has as one of its guests David Tennant, or Daniel Radcliffe, fan-fiction will invariably crop up, and be labelled as that ‘weird’ thing, the umbrella for the strange people. Sometimes snippets of stories will be read aloud to the roaring laughter of an audience and the awkward shifting of the guest. The stories chosen, of course, always concern fantasy, love, and sometimes sex. Graham Norton isn’t going to ask Radcliffe to read aloud a short story about the politics of Hogwarts in a parallel world in which Slytherin is historically a courageous, red-blooded house of bravery and compassion. That wouldn’t be very funny, would it? It doesn’t make enough people squirm, or feel uncomfortable; it doesn’t maintain the cosy oppositions of ‘normal’ and ‘other’, and thus avoids thinking about fan-fiction, and its writers, in a way that is fair or complex.
To give the show credit in this instance, however, Norton and the celebrities seated around him end up posting a fan-fiction synopsis themselves to a website devoted to Daniel Radcliffe. In another episode, talking to Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy, Norton makes sure to call the stories ‘sweet’. ‘Creepy,’ he says. ‘But sweet.’ It’s damning with faint praise, to say the least.
I spoke to a handful of fan-fiction writers during the writing of this piece, and trawled through many online forums and message boards dedicated to those who create new fictions out of pre-existing characters and worlds. At no point did I come across anybody who wanted fan-fiction to be known as a ‘weird’ medium of storytelling. This is just the easiest way of looking at it: if you see David Tennant reacting to erotic Broadchurch fan-art, and hear hundreds of voices laughing, it’s easy to disengage, sit back, and throw the entire thriving online community into an imagined bracket of bed-confined loners. When a big broadcasting voice perpetuates this idea, it’s an easy laugh for the majority and a kick in the teeth for the minority. Any press is good press, of course; but in this case the press is the same, each and every time. And in this respect, as in so many others, majority still rules in the eyes of broadcasters reaching for ratings.
It’s easier to throw a blanket over this large – and growing – online community so that we can dismiss them and get on with something else.
But we’ve seen this all before, and fan-fiction hasn’t yet reached the pinnacle of ugly scapegoating, and likely never will (because it has yet to have any effect on money, or immigration, or any of those other things people are obsessed with). Channel 5’s ‘Benefits’ series (Benefits by the Beach, Dogs on Benefits, People Called Ben Who Are Stealing All Of Your Money, etc.) is a regular tide of stinking gravy that exists purely to spin a narrative of demonization and, for the viewer, self-satisfaction (we’re not like ‘them’, we can justify feeling a certain way towards ‘them’, etc.). Of course, with fan-fiction this is less pointed; people aren’t going to feel too strongly about the name fan-fiction is getting unless they worry that its writers are stealing their money, or invading their playgrounds, or being considered for the new Top Gear line-up. It’s easier to throw a blanket over this large – and growing – online community so that we can dismiss them and get on with something else.
For the media, it’s innocent fun. When you hear the laughter, you don’t need to think about the writer – is it a sixteen-year-old girl who feels like she can be herself under an online pseudonym? Or a twenty-something man with Asperger’s, for whom storytelling comes much more naturally with an already established cast of characters? We forget about the writers, because we are sold an idea of a community that isn’t ‘writing’, but rather a smorgasbord of amusing segments to churn out on chat shows.
When we write, we are retelling old stories. All writing is rewriting. Is T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ fan-fiction? Imagine it being recited to a cringing Dante. Is Johnny Cash’s version of the song ‘Hurt’ the Fifty Shades of Grey to Nine Inch Nails’ Twilight?
Any community of writers who come together with a passion to write and share their work should be celebrated for the sheer breadth of what they are doing. And until that happens, I eagerly await the arrival of a short story set on The Graham Norton Show’s red sofa, in which the boundaries of reality and fiction dissolve, and the eve of a nightmarish apocalypse dawns on national television.
Featured image © BBC/Robert Viglasky