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Imitation is Flattery: In Defense of Fanfiction

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Vanessa Willoughby

Staff Writer

Vanessa Willoughby is an editor and a writer. Her work has appeared on The Toast, The Hairpin, Bitch, Bookslut, Thought Catalog, and Literally, Darling.

While we at the Riot take some time off to rest and catch up on our reading, we’re re-running some of our favorite posts from the last several months. Enjoy our highlight reel, and we’ll be back with new stuff on Monday, January 11th.

This post originally ran November 18, 2015.

Fanfiction may seem like low-lying fruit, an effortless jab at aspiring writers with more than a passing interest in a specific subculture. In the media, fans have been depicted as anything but sane, emotionally mature and functioning contributors to society. In movies such as Misery, based on the Stephen King novel, or The Fan starring Robert De Niro and Wesley Snipes, the fans are beyond obsessive. They’re inconsolable, often ruthless in their mission to touch greatness. They’ve invested their entire lives into a writer or a sports celebrity, crafting volatile delusions around an unknowing stranger. The fan’s object of affection becomes both godlike prophet and helpless prisoner.

The publishing industry has become increasingly open to commissioning works originating from sites such as WattPad or One of the most obvious is Fifty Shades of Grey, which started off as a Twilight-inspired opus of fanfiction. According to some Internet sleuths and Harry Potter fandom veterans, Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series started off as a Ginny and Draco story. Even the stories that are universally panned and mocked, such as the infamous work My Immortal, develop a rapt following. In the case of young authors such as Anna Todd, whose One Direction inspired series got picked up by Simon & Schuster, platforms such as WattPad act as a launching board to contracts with mainstream publishers. In a profile with Wired, the magazine reported that Todd initially began her hand at writing via Instagram. After her favorite authors ditched Instagram-based writing for WattPad, Todd followed. Surprisingly, the story went to number one on the site and naturally, industry executives took notice. The four-book series is “reportedly worth six figures” and the author “has struck a movie deal with Paramount Pictures.”

There’s an obvious benefit to writing fanfiction: instant audience and mentorship. As a young girl who initially ventured into the world of fanfiction due to an unflinching loyalty to boy bands, I can’t deny that fanfiction offers helpful tools for the unsure writer. Like any other writing workshop, the community members critique your work fueled by the anonymity of the Internet. Unlike a writing workshop, these people aren’t paid to pick apart your work and thus, will have no problems delivering an honest assessment. Additionally, if your writing captures a sizable audience, it can help catch the eye of an agent or publisher. In the age of social media and ereaders, publishers are always looking for innovative, effective ways of selling books. If you have the force of a community like WattPad, it creates an undeniable demand. The writer is equipped with not only a group of devoted readers, but a brand.

I can say without shame that I used to be heavily involved with fanfiction. After I moved on from boy bands, I settled into the Harry Potter community. I’ve read some amazing stories from talented authors, stories about bit players and characters that barely had five lines in the books and/or movies. There was a challenge in taking on these characters, as you had the bare bones but had to fill in the rest. The most engaging authors were able to use these characters as blueprints. I loved getting reviews like Instagram models love getting likes. For someone who was hardly an extrovert at school, there was power in knowing that hundreds of people were taking the time to read your words and leave a review. It was mildly addicting to know that people were waiting on your words, hypnotized in the grip of your imagination.

Literature that is unforgettable incites a dialogue at the very least, and a conversation at its best. Novels can serve as responses to pre-existing literature. Some of the best pieces of literature are works of thinly disguised fanfiction, re-imaginings and interpretations of stories posing as new ideas. Without fanfiction, would we have movies such as Clueless or West Side Story? Without fanfiction, there would be no Wide Sargasso Sea or The Hours. Fanfiction is simply another aspect of literature, an institution that can train readers to become writers.