In college I was in a fiction writing class with a girl that told me she wrote Buffy the Vampire Slayer fanfiction. She explained that fanfiction was any fan-written piece of fiction that used the characters and the world of a particlar show/movie/book, usually exploring romantic pairings or plot ideas that for various reasons were never addressed in the source material or "canon". The whole thing seemed strange to me. I didn't understand why you would spend all that time writing about someone else's characters, especially when it restricted what you could write about to the rules of someone else's world. Why not write your own story if you had problems with the one you were reading/watching?
I'll confess that at sixteen I wasn't very generous. I tended to think of this girl as obsessive about her favorite television show, devoting way too much of her time and energy into thinking about people and a world that didn't really exist. Granted I was thinking this while sitting in a Shakespeare class, where I was spending hours thinking about the motivations and possible alternate actions that the characters of Romeo and Juliet could have taken for an essay I had to write. It took me a few years to recognize that my judgement of my friend was based primarily in elitist ideas about high and low culture and not her frail mental state. If by chance she recognizes herself here, I'm sorry.
I never really gave fanfiction a second thought until a year ago when I was surfing around the Internet looking for information about Law and Order: Criminal Intent and I stumbled across some. I blame morbid curiosity, or maybe the Devil. But I read it. And I liked it, so I started reading more. The problem was, everytime I would surf over to fanfiction.net or some other archive, I was afraid someone was going to walk in and catch me. Not friends or my boyfriend, but one of my English instructors, one of my writing peers. A member of the literati I was admittedly a part of. I realized how ridiculous it was for a twenty-five year old woman to be hiding her reading habits, and it forced me to explore what these conflicted feelings were all about.
I realized that there were two main problems with fanfiction in my mind. One is that fanfiction isn't "real" or canon, in the sense that the author/producer/director of the source material is the God of the world that they build, and only their actions constitute "real" events in the world of that story/fandom. I don't know why that is, if it is a primordial human thing or what, but it's there. I have a respect for the creator and their intention, even if I think they are overlooking a huge plot possibility, and even if I read a million fanfiction pieces that "fix" this problem, until it happens in the "canon," it didn't happen. For me. The second problem with fanfiction is that it isn't "real" writing in the sense that no matter how well written a piece of fanfiction is, it is not the orignal idea of the author. The story can never go anywhere, it can only be passed around by fans for awhile (and enjoyed, which is noble) but it's not really the author's work. Building a world and creating characters is difficult and in that way fanfiction is cheating. To me.
However I've realized something else about fanfiction; it's fun to write, and it's fun to read the feedback from other fans. In this way fanfiction becomes a vehicle through which other fans and I begin having a conversation about the story, but also making it our own and adding or subtracting from a collective mythology that brings us together as a community. It's primitive, it's anarchy, guerilla culture war, whatever you want to call it. Law and Order:Criminal Intent has been "pwned"[sic] in netspeak.
There is a stigma in our culture that says a person should not care about television shows, movies, or books more than "real" life. But at the same time television, movies, books, video games, and the like are the means by which members of the culture express the most "real" part of themselves, the soul. We live for this stuff. Issues about what is portrayed through entertainment mediums are important enough to be mentioned in political campaigns for the highest office in the country. Entertainment is very much "real life."
When looked at this way fanfiction becomes a fascinating phenomenon. You begin to see how people try to own the mythology of the masses, and put characters in situations that they identify with or fantasize about. You get to see how different members of the community tweak the characters to make them fit their definition of a hero or villian. Even the dreaded "Mary Sue" (an idealized author insert, often seen as mere wish fullfillment) becomes an interesting experiment, in which you can watch someone reveal how they see themselves fitting into a particular cultural mythology.
Now when I read through fanfiction I have no shame explaining to my friends what I find interesting about it, talking about trends I see in the writing of different fandoms and what conclusions I've been drawing about the audience at large from those observations. I feel as though I've learned a lot more about people — their values, fantasies, ideals, and dreams — in the past year than in all my time in sociology and psychology classes. And I've discovered that there is now an academic journal, Distraction, dedicated to the discussion of fanfiction, validating the academic in me. I've never felt more connected to "real life."