It’s some time before September, trunk all packed and robes freshly pressed, when Draco Malfoy has what can only be described as an epiphany. He’s standing at the foot of his bed, hand poised to drop a newly bought textbook in the trunk with the rest of his school supplies, when it hits him, like lightning, like a hex, like Granger’s slap in third year …*

I became an addict when I was 14. But it wasn’t drugs, or booze. I didn’t drop out of school or run away from home; in fact I stayed in. When you are addicted to fan fiction, you don’t need to leave the house to escape.

Tossing the textbook on his bed, he rummages around on his shelves for another, before grabbing his soft school satchel and waving his wand over it in loops and figure eights and diamonds. When he’s done, he shoves all his clothes and what gold he has on hand inside the bottomless bag, pulling it over his shoulder and grabbing his broom. The wind is cold, colder than it should be for this time of year, pouring through the open window, and he can feel his nose start to run. The wood of the broomstick feels unnaturally hard beneath his hand. His throat feels tight.

He jumps.

My habit took hold in 2006, not long before the last Harry Potter and Twilight novels came out (in 2007 and 2008 respectively) and the year I got a laptop for Christmas. It was a relief no longer to have to make furtive use of the shared home computer. I’d been convinced my parents were going to find out what I was reading. On one occasion, my brother had looked over my shoulder, shuddered, and announced to my mother and father that I was reading porn. ‘No, I’m not!’ I replied, but he was right in a way. The first fan fiction I read was soft-core erotica written by other teenage girls, inspired by the recent vampire craze. The romantic interest would be a sulky boy called something like Darren or Edmund who was secretly a vampire or a werewolf, and not so secretly attracted to the weird chick. By the end of the story, they had kissed.

The OED defines fan fiction as ‘fiction, usually fantasy or science fiction, written by a fan rather than a professional author, esp. that based on already existing characters from a television series, book, film etc’; the term, it says, was first recorded in 1944. Although common before the 20th century, the genre boomed when better and cheaper printing made it possible for writers to distribute their work in small magazines that came to be known as fanzines. Despite the early prominence of the Baker Street Irregulars, a Sherlock Holmes society that began producing the Baker Street Journal in 1946, science fiction dominated. There was a spike that coincided with the advent of Star Trek in the 1960s; there are now millions of texts ranging in length from a hundred words to a hundred thousand. A fanfic version probably exists of any popular book or movie you can think of.

I started reading the Harry Potter books when I was eight. I started reading fan fiction because I wanted to read more about characters I already knew. Fan fiction is written by amateurs imitating their favourite writers, even if mostly to poor effect. All writers imitate other writers, but only writers of fan fiction preface their stories with warnings: ‘I own not, you sue not’ or ‘If I owned Star Wars, Jar Jar Binks wouldn’t exist.’ (Others write the theft into their titles – ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’.) I read fan fiction online in the nether regions of the web, but once you start looking you find it everywhere: Arthurian legends, fairytale adaptations, a ‘sequel’ by a different author, historical novels, RPF (Real Person Fiction). Geraldine Brooks’s March, a novel which sees the events of Little Women from the perspective of the girls’ father, and which won the Pulitzer Prize? Faaan fiction.

Fan fiction gave me hours of free entertainment, repetitive strain injury and an introduction to new worlds (it’s where I first read about Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson). My favourite stories reworked the assumptions of the original texts. Little Witch1’s ‘The Disillusionment of Draco Malfoy’ sees the blond bully not as the one-dimensional character of J.K. Rowling’s books but as someone with a brain and a conscience. And I loved the way fanfic referenced fanfic. As lady_ragnell writes in her contemporary Arthurian fanfic ‘No People like Show People’, ‘Merlin knows about fan fiction. He grew up lonely and gay in the country with internet too slow to download porn off of and an addiction to Star Wars, of course he knows about fan fiction.’ According to FFN Research, the average user of FanFiction.Net in 2010 was a 15.8-year-old girl from the United States who didn’t write fan fiction herself. Not to say that 45-year-old mothers and adolescent boys don’t also read it, or that fan fiction is only written in English; but the odds are not good. And with a community that is 80 per cent teenage and 80 per cent female, with three-quarters signing in from Britain or one of its former colonies, can it be a surprise that the Harry Potter books have such a dedicated following?

The world of fan fiction as it exists today can be found on a few computer servers. FanFiction.Net, begun in 1998 by a programmer called Xing Li, is the most popular with more than three million users and an equal number of stories. There are many competing sites; currently the biggest competition to FanFiction.Net comes from Archive of Our Own (AO3), which is more of a ‘by fans, for fans’ community. First proposed in 2007, it launched in beta in November 2009. Because filtering fan fiction requires such a complex database, and because so many people visit the sites at the same time – FFN Research noted that FanFiction.Net ‘is a site that challenges Facebook in the amount of time spent browsing within the domain’ – they frequently get technical problems. In economic terms, fan fiction is a public good, meaning that it is both non-rival – many people can read the same story at the same time – and doesn’t exclude: no one can prevent you from reading it. You don’t even need to log in. So the sites survive largely through donations and rely heavily on volunteers – a term that describes both moderators and writers.

While the vast majority of readers do not write, most of the writers are also readers. In fan-fiction communities based on canonical literature the reader is likely to know the text well enough for it to make sense when you announce that your protagonists are thoroughly ‘alternate universe’ or behaving out of character. The home pages of most writers carry a tab of bookmarked stories within the site. Once you have ‘curated’ your own selection of favourites, delete sparingly; you’ll probably never be able to find a particular story again (there are more than half a million stories based on the Harry Potter series alone).

I used to read fanfic crosslegged, lap covered by my laptop, back slightly bowed but supported by cushions. The problem was where to put my wrists; I knew the laptop was too close if my hands reared back as I typed. All the chairs in our house were too low, or the tables too high, so I sat on the sofa. (No one can look over your shoulder if your back is to the wall.) When I got to the home page, I’d select ‘books’ rather than ‘movies’ or ‘cartoons’ or ‘comics’ or whatever. Now there would be a choice between Harry Potter and Twilight. True, there are hundreds of other options, but these two are the most popular. (Lord of the Rings is a distant third, although Sherlock Holmes is gaining ground.) As for Anime, Naruto and InuYasha have the most stories written about them. Popularity is important because it means you can choose to weed out everything that isn’t a finished story written in English that has more than ten thousand words and is identified as ‘romance’. If you want to read smut, change the rating to ‘M’ for ‘mature’ and select the two characters you most want to read about having sex.

Before I turned 18 I used to feel guilty about reading the smut, but when websites asked me to verify my age, I lied. When women writers warned ‘Mature Readers Only!!’ I felt less guilty: the words were a flashing neon sign that said ‘read me.’ Whatever fantasy you can’t act out in real life can be fulfilled in fan fiction. May-December relationships are very popular, as are boys transforming into girls. BDSM has a huge following. But the most common sexual ‘perversion’ is gay sex. On AO3, as of 17 October 2012, ‘roughly four in nine’ works were categorised as M/M. Some prolific pairings: Harry and Draco from Harry Potter, Edward and Jacob from Twilight, King Arthur and Merlin, Captain America and Iron Man, Sherlock Holmes and John Watson (given the portmanteau Johnlock).

If the lure of reading fan fiction is clear, the lure of writing it is less obvious. On the surface, writing fan fiction is pointless: there is no hope of getting paid and very limited glory. So why do people do it? Vera Rozalsky, a prolific writer of Harry Potter fanfic, isn’t too sure: ‘The first answer is that I can’t rightly say. And I really feel a bit silly about the whole thing … The second answer is that I was faced with the even more daunting task of writing drama based on history … I was still struggling with the notion of dramatic conflict.’

One common strategy for writers of fanfic is to express indignation at which characters an author has decided to pair up – Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley, say – and write stories that remedy this error. Others claim they write to improve on the style of the original. As audreyii-fic (her username) notes in her ‘Sanity Report’ following the first chapter of ‘The Movement of the Earth’, an attempt to rewrite New Moon, the second novel of the Twilight series,

Being as I am making every effort to replicate Stephenie Meyer’s … unique … voice, this fic will also double as the audreyii-fic Slow Descent Into Madness Show. If I perish in the endeavour, please tell people that I died saving adorable kittens from a house fire, not that my brain exploded in self-defence rather than use ‘glower’ six times per chapter.

More important, fan fiction offers an opportunity to remedy plot holes. Why did Dumbledore leave Harry in the Dursleys’ care although he knew Harry was being mistreated? Branwyn’s story ‘The Guiltless’ wrestles with this problem, recasting Dumbledore as a badass: ‘“I think,” says Dumbledore, “you wanted to know my intentions towards Harry’s relatives. They are very simple. Without resorting to any overt threats, we are going – as the Muggle saying has it – to put the fear of God into them.”’ My own attempt at writing fan fiction offers another motive. I had to write a movie adaptation of Wuthering Heights for school: I called it The Heathens and set it in Chicago in 1989. The tagline went something like this: ‘A territory dispute between two gangs – The Grange and The Heights – separated childhood friends Cathy and Heathcliff. He will do anything to get her back.’ Writing it was really, really fun.

Not everything about fan fiction is wonderful. The main means of communication between writer and reader – commenting – is inherently flawed. The higher the number of comments on your story, the more people have read it; at least that is what writers assume, trumpeting their high numbers. But the number of comments doesn’t mean anything. Comments merely allow readers to proclaim themselves mortally offended by the content of a story, despite having been warned in large block letters of INCEST or SLASH (any kind of sex between two men or two women: the term originated with the Kirk/Spock pairing – it described the literal slash between their names). Or to take the opportunity to tear down a budding writer, no matter that she’s probably all of 14. Fan fiction is a nerdy hobby with its share of bullies. I only commented on a story once, in response to a fic called ‘Hearts Keeping Time’, based on the Twilight series: ‘Anyone who can write a joke about vomit and cereal and make it sound convincing and funny deserves respect. I would send it to you, but the postal service hasn’t learned how to package emotions yet.’ Adair7 wrote back, giving me an A+ for my sense of humour. She sounded cool; I could see why people did it.

Another catch is that fan fiction is by and large written and posted as a serial. An author might post two chapters in the space of a week, then leave months between Chapter 2 and Chapter 3, if they finish it at all. Most of the time there is no way to predict when another chunk of text might be posted, which in my case resulted in a frantic rush to the laptop every day when I got home. When there was nothing, I was conveniently already on the site, and would browse listlessly. The considerate authors who kept to schedules were almost worse, inducing a near Pavlovian response when Wednesday or Thursday or Saturday finally came around. And usually the anticipation was better than the thing itself.

The first time I told anyone I read fan fiction was just a few months ago. My roommate’s response was: ‘So? I do too.’ I kept my habit a secret for so long because it seemed immature and embarrassing. But by the time I told her I had stopped spending so much time online. I got bored with having to scroll through tens of misspelled summaries to find just one story that sounded appealing. The amateur romances that I’d always sought out still popped up on the site, but I’d begun to outgrow them.

On the assumption that I was online for an hour each day for about five years, excluding periods when I had no internet access (let’s call it a month), that comes to more than 1700 hours spent reading fan fiction. And that’s a conservative estimate. Most of the time it was two hours a day. During a binge it could be six. I’ve read so much Harry Potter fan fiction that the real plot gets obscured by alternative storylines I’ve read online. During those years, every attempt to curb my obsession failed, and even now, although my accounts have gone untended and my email updates have been halted, I still can’t quite give it up. When I get nostalgic I reread old favourites, laughing before the punchlines. Every so often, I spend some time browsing in new, different fandoms, changing the preferences one by one and then scrolling down to the white space at the end of the page. I am not sure what I am looking for.

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Vol. 35 No. 6 · 21 March 2013

While there is a great deal of evidence for Katherine Arcement’s assertion that the overwhelming majority of fan fiction writers are female (for some categories of slashfic the figure may be as high as 95 per cent), the demographics vary a good deal from one fandom to another (LRB, 7 March). The fandoms Arcement has, by her own account, spent most time in, Harry Potter and Twilight, have a significantly higher proportion of teenage readers than many others, but those based on more challenging series do not attract communities that are ‘80 per cent teenage and 80 per cent female’. The balance also varies considerably between sites, and what may be true of FanFiction.Net (nicknamed ‘the Pit of Voles’) is by no means necessarily true of Archive of Our Own, LiveJournal, DreamWidth, DeviantArt or Tumblr – all of which play significant roles in the fanfic community.

Moreover, what may be true of the writers of fanfic certainly cannot be extrapolated to the readers. Many leave behind no data by which they might be identified; those who post comments on sites on which they are not registered will usually appear only as anonymous ‘guests’; and members will usually appear only by their online handle. Like the disproven notions that ‘men don’t read romances’ and ‘women don’t read science fiction,’ the assumption that men don’t read (female-authored) fanfic will not do.

Arcement is also mistaken in defining slashfic (or just slash) as ‘any kind of sex between two men or two women’. The point of slash is that the orientation of one or more canonical characters is changed, which is why slashing is strongest in fandoms where the source parades heteronormativity or machismo. Kirk/Spock, Bodie/Doyle, Aragorn/Boromir, Darcy/Bingley and Harry/Snape stories all slash their canons, but a story featuring, say, Sebastian Flyte and Anthony Blanche in bed would not be slash, nor would a relationship between two lesbian characters in The L Word qualify as femslash.

John Lennard

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