When I was in elementary school, a high schooler came and talked to us in our auditorium. He was the author of a series of children’s books that he had both written and illustrated, and I remember how he said he always dreamed of seeing his name in a Barnes & Noble, longing to share shelf space with his favorite novels. I watched him hold his book, an actual published book, in awe; he told us that we all could take something that we love and make it our job, make it real. The boy had something to his name, a tangible object that screamed, “I was here!” or “I existed and created something to be proud of.”
I remember sitting on the cold auditorium floor of my elementary school and wanting what he had: the respectability of being an author. I was one and the same as this high schooler, this author, for I wanted my name somewhere, to take something I was good at and make a living from it. Friends, family, and even people I don’t know would see my name while browsing for books, and they would know that I could write. I had written something worthy of being bought and sold. I had done something.
For years afterward, I always wrote with a goal in mind: to get published. I knew that my middle school dystopian society stories would never be read by anyone but my mother and me, but I wrote them to hone my skills. I was preparing for when I was older, so when a great idea hit me, I could finally take what I love and make it a career. I lost sight of writing just for the sake of loving writing. I could never consider myself an actual writer until I had a tangible book to show for my work or until I had made money off of my hobby.
This philosophy of mine played directly into the capitalism that the traditional publishing industry thrives on. Although many authors write because they want to and find it fun, there is always a monetary end goal. The desire for fame and hope to get rich doing what they love keeps so many going, even when the chances of financial success in the field are less than 0.005 percent.
On the flip side of writing is being a reader. Books are expensive. Many new hardcover books cost nearly 30 dollars for a single copy. Reading, thus, becomes a socioeconomic issue: if one has no disposable income to buy books and lives far away from the nearest public library, they might not have access to the reading material they desire.
As both writers and readers, how do we rebel against the capitalistic hand manipulating publishing? Two words: fan fiction.
Fan fiction, or “fics,” is a way for people to explore characters and relationships outside of what actually happens within the canon of a story. It allows fans to go beyond what the author of an original work did, placing characters in new environments or turning side characters into fully-realized protagonists. As a common example, many people write and read fan fiction about the imagined relationship between the characters Remus Lupin and Sirius Black from the Harry Potter series, a “ship” known as “Wolfstar.”
Fan fiction, though, has garnered quite a bad reputation. People often use the saying, “this is written like fan fiction” to criticize books with lackluster writing and turn others away from reading them. Many view fan fiction as poorly written smut or the fantasies of teenage girls hoping to fall in love with Harry Styles. Often, people poke fun at those who both read and write it.
But what is fan fiction, if not a platform for people to write solely because they want to? Fan fiction writers usually publish under pen names; thus, people do not put their work on the internet to get famous. Take, for example, the second-most-liked fic on Archive of Our Own, a popular fan fiction platform usually shortened to AO3, called All the Young Dudes. The author of this fic, Mskingbean89, remains completely anonymous, despite the traction that their fic has received.
Writers also do not write fan fiction with the hope of being published. Although some fics, like the After Series by Anna Todd, were picked up by traditional publishers, the vast majority never will. Primarily because many fics are written in worlds copyrighted by other authors, there is simply no possibility of getting published as a “real” book. This, however, is the beauty of fan fiction! It exists for no reason other than because people love to write and love the characters they are writing about.
Fan fiction is also accessible. Sites like AO3 are non-commercial and non-profit. They never ask readers or writers to do anything but enjoy its content. It costs no money to write or read fics, and they all exist on the same platforms. If one has access to a phone and Wi-Fi, they also have access to millions of fics on platforms like AO3, Wattpad, and fanfiction.net—for free.
Fan fiction connects people from all over the globe who love the same characters and the same relationships. Its very nature counteracts the mindset of pursuing monetary gain while ultimately losing sight of passion in the process.
When I look back to my fifth-grade self and her desire for fame, I wish I could tell her to re-focus on what makes writing so important to her, and more importantly, that she should write fanfics!