On fanfiction and why sometimes it's tiring to take on something new
My kids have never been super interested in new movies. Ones they have seen a million times they will happily watch a million times more. But whenever my husband and I suggest something they haven’t seen before, a stubborn, often insurmountable wall of skepticism immediately goes up.
Their arguments: Why would anyone want to watch something that they might not like? Why should I watch something that might be scary, for all I know, when a movie I already love is right there.
Our arguments: It’s important to try new things! Those movies you love? Those were new movies once, and look how well that turned out! If you don’t watch new movies, think of all the fun you might miss!
Sometimes, we win, and a new title is added to the repetition rotation. More often, they win, and here we go again with Disney Nature’s Bears or the My Little Pony Movie or Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer.
This phenomenon existed in our family long before the pandemic began. My perspective on it has changed, however. The experience of living in an unpredictable, unstable world has made me appreciate what it means to cling to the comfort of the known. I myself haven’t watched all that many new shows or movies in the last couple of years, something that I initially attributed to no longer being able to stay up as late as I used to because I’m tired. Fucking tired. But I realized that the reason is not that I have too much to do or not enough hours in the day. It’s an emotional exhaustion. The presence of COVID in the world hasn’t upped my level of physical activity, only my worrying, which takes a different kind of energy from you.
To explain, I shall invoke What We Do in the Shadows, a show about vampires and one of the few new pieces of pop-culture I have let in recently.1 Three of the main characters are vampires in the traditional sense: They drink blood. The fourth is an “energy” vampire. A cross between Dilbert and someone from Office Space, the energy vampire, whose name is Colin Robinson, sucks the life out of you figuratively speaking by boring you or trolling you to death. Less painful than a fatal bite to the neck, perhaps, but the loss of emotional energy is life draining just the same. This is the energy we need to make life joyful, to take up hobbies and seek out life-affirming activities. The energy we need to read new books and watch new movies.
Here’s another way of thinking of it:
To start a book, you have to make room in yourself for new characters and worlds. Do I look like I have the emotional energy for that? Do I look like I can trust like that right now? Just show me the things I already know pay good returns on my investment, except I also want to read something new, so I guess they can be in a coffee shop this time.
This passage is taken from an online post referring to fanfiction. For those who are not familiar with the term, fanfiction/fanfic/fic is fiction that is derived from other works by fans who are not seeking to profit, only to extend, reimagine, deepen or in some cases completely ignore the original.
You could say that any adaptation is fanfiction in that it is an interpretation of an original work. This is especially true of adaptations that take the story out of its original context—like the Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock’s modern take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. But true fanfiction isn’t written by people who get paid to adapt, say, Jane Austen novels for PBS, to name another cultural phenomenon that has inspired many a fanwork. Fanfiction is written by fans—amateurs having fun—and distributed for free for other fans to enjoy.2 The lack of a profit motive is key to the definition of it because fanfiction’s value stems from what it gives the reader: an opportunity to engage in characters and universes you already love, to wrap yourself in the comfort of the known in ways that allow you to choose how it’s going to go.
I have known about and read fanfiction for years, but it wasn’t obvious to me what made it so compelling for people until the pandemic. There’s comfort in reading and re-reading the same story, the same characters over and over, in new settings, new situations, or merely retreading old ones. It doesn’t take anything from you. For writers of fanfiction and creators of other types of fanworks, the fun is in pushing the limits, creating room for queer characters, for example, or blowing up the plot or “fixing” authorial choices you didn’t like or simply indulging in a relationship that you want to see explored.
Consider the Harry Potter universe: What if Hermione fell in love with Ginny instead of Ron?
Consider Pride and Prejudice: What if Darcy were a woman and Elizabeth a man?
Consider Downton Abbey: What if Matthew and Mary Crawley lived in modern times instead of Edwardian England?
Consider Game of Thrones: What if Jon Snow were a student at Hogwarts or if he and the Stark kids were famous YouTube creators?
Consider Dawson’s Creek: What if Dawson, Pacey and Joey were not teens who lived on Cape Cod, but Brits who lived through the Crimean War?
Laugh if you must, but that last one is real. I read it. (I’ve read fanfic fitting all of the above scenarios, in fact.) It was a great story, the length of a short novel and written by a history student who wrote Pacey-Joey-centered fanfic in her spare time. Not all fanfiction is that complicated, though. Some is just about two characters having a meet cute in a coffee shop.3
The sky is pretty much the limit with fanfiction. However unique or esoteric, whether a specific type of story derived from a particular book, TV or movie exists depends on whether there’s a person out there in the world who has both the interest and the inclination to write it. Given that 7 billion people populate the earth, odds are good. A reader can completely lose themselves in Archive of Our Own or the other fanworks platforms out there, just brimming with content. This is a global interest, so not all fanfiction is in English, of course, and because authors are mostly amateur writers, many of them young, much of it is not Pulitzer-worthy copy. There are a lot of good writers out there, though. And porn. There’s lots and lots of porn. If you venture forth into the world of fanfiction, keep an eye on the ratings because it can get hot and heavy very quickly. Case in point, the book 50 Shades of Grey about a couple who dabbles in S&M famously began as fanfiction about the main characters of the Twilight book series.
Whether or not fanfiction is something you might be interested in reading, though, the point here is that not all reading has to be new material or even good material. Kids don’t care about that stuff. They just want to enjoy themselves and be comforted. If watching a movie or show or reading a book over and over gives my kiddos what they need, I’ve decided it’s OK to let them. And to start what may well be another interminably long, virus-avoiding year, let’s allow ourselves permission to do the same.
January Book Bites
Capsule Book Review
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White - read and reviewed in 2018, a comfort book if ever there was one - Reading this aloud, as I did to the little one recently, truly makes you appreciate White's wonderful writing. Few stories of friendship are this simple and this powerful all at once, and only this one features one of the best closings ever written: "It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”
Currently on my night stand
The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun and the Struggle to Save and American Neighborhood by Julien Rubenstein - I’ve been looking forward to reading this story about a neighborhood in Northeast Denver since it came out and was recommended to me by a neighbor last year. It’s a compelling page turner from the start.
What the kids are reading these days
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling - Both of my kids are knee deep into a Harry Potter obsession. The 10-year-old is reading independently and on Book 3. I’m trying to keep up as I read Book 2 aloud to the 6-year-old. It’s a different experience to follow Harry’s journey as a parent, and however complicated (to put it nicely) Rowling’s status as a public figure has become, the world she created (mostly) holds up.
Recently found in a neighborhood Little Library
Less by Andrew Sean Greer - A number of people whose book opinions I am interested in enjoyed this book, and everytime I come across it at the bookstore, I pick it up and re-read the description and consider buying it. There’s always something else that I want to buy more, though. When I saw it in the Little Library, I screamed. Sometimes a book finds its way to you the way you want it to.
Here are a couple of books that I found extensive comfort in, and a couple that fit into common fanfiction tropes.
The Library Book by Susan Orlean - I take comfort in Orlean’s writing like many take comfort in the voices of their favorite NPR hosts. Here’s my review from 2019:
If ever there was an algorithm that effectively created a non-fiction book to suit the reader’s specific interests, this is the book that it would spit out for me: A writer I love (Susan Orlean) writing about subjects we both love (libraries and books) tied together by the threads of historic preservation, the challenges of existing as a community-serving public institution in the 21st century (both related to my job in municipal government), and good old journalistic sleuthing (related to my old job as a newspaper person). I expected to love this book and did. It’s engaging, educational well-written and even a little emotional. Orlean puts more of herself in this than her previous works to great effect. If you love books, libraries or true-crime mysteries, I can’t recommend enough.
Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell - Fun fact: Another Rowell book, Fangirl, is about a college freshman who writes fanfiction about a popular series of fantasy books (clearly inspired by Harry Potter). I didn’t love that, but Rowell actually went on to write books about the characters in the fictional universe she created for the purposes of Fangirl. Eleanor and Park, unrelated to that world, is her best work in my view, and one I love to pick up and reread passages from on occasion. Here’s my review from 2012:
Reading this book felt like wrapping myself up in a warm fleece blanket. From the moment Eleanor steps on the bus for the first time, everything about it felt familiar and just as I’d lived it, even though Eleanor and Park’s experiences turned out to be very different from mine.
At a time when fiction about young people is mired in the dystopian and fantastical (some to great effect, some less so), it was wonderful to read a story about the sometimes painful, sometimes humiliating, sometimes even joyful normality of adolescence. No time is wasted describing a world we don’t recognize (however alien the 80s may seem to today’s youth), setting up the overly convoluted plot or explaining the thing from which the protagonist is going to save us. Instead, Rainbow Rowell spends her time living inside of each of the two main characters and letting us into their disparate worlds and hearts in a way that feels fair and compassionate, not indulgent or overly intrusive. I came to love both Eleanor and Park as individuals and as a pair and, being many years removed from my teen years, felt eager to protect them from everything they go through in the book and everything that I know comes after.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been moved by a work of fiction with so few moving parts. Nice to know that a setting we know so well and that has been explored so thoroughly (high school) can still surprise us.
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys - This novel takes a character from Jane Eyre, the madwoman in the attic, and puts her and her demons front and center in a “prequel” of sorts to the fate we know she will meet at the hands of Rochester. Fanfiction writers often do this. That is, fill in what they see as plot holes or follow threads that the original creators did not. Rhys gives meaning and depth to her protagonist’s journey, whose story is worth reading whether you choose to associate it with the work that inspired it or not.
Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld - This is a modern adaption of Pride and Prejudice that moves the characters to Cincinnati, Ohio, of all places, and written very much in the spirit of fanfiction that seeks to subvert and honor the original. Here’s what I wrote when I read it back in 2017:
The problem with most modern updates of Austen stories comes from the attempt to modernize the circumstances and the plot. You can't. There is very little equivalency to be found in the lives of women in Regency England and our lives today. What's missed is the essence of Elizabeth and Darcy's relationship—the idea of liking a person in spite of yourself—and Austen's subtle commentary on social norms of the day. Thankfully, though, Curtis Sittenfeld gets it. Eligible is enjoyable because of the cheeky way she has brought beloved characters into the modern world: Elizabeth is a writer and Darcy is a surgeon (obviously); thoughtful, levelheaded Jane is a yogi; Bingley is a charming reality TV star; Kitty and Lydia are into cross-fit; Mrs. Bennet is a country club bigot with a shopping addiction; Lady Catherine is a thinly fictionalized version of Gloria Steinem (I know!); and Wickham is . . . well, that's just too good to be spoiled here. What makes the narrative really excel, though, is that like Austen, Sittenfeld dissects society's enduring obsession with what women do with their lives clinically and comically. Here, finally, is a version of the story that does the original proud.
The show is a mockumentary-style comedy that airs on FX and was created by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, based on a movie they made of the same name and subject. If you like the dry, awkward humor of Flight of the Conchords, you will like this.
Yes, the internet makes writing, reading and sharing fanfiction especially easy, but electronic communication didn’t invent the concept. Fanworks existed long before the web.
A lot of fanfic centers around “ships” (short for relationships), and the coffee shop AU (short for alternate universe) is one of the most beloved fanfiction tropes there is.