When one thinks of fanfiction, the stories that come to mind are often trite — the mention of fanfiction likely sparks a reminder of an unfortunate run-in you had on the internet with a badly written or grammatically incorrect romance between two unlikely characters.
Fanfiction’s reputation can be rough, and I get it. Before it became a billion-dollar franchise, E. L. James’ 50 Shades was a Twilight fanfiction — and I’m not sure if I’ll ever recover from reading the masterful line, “He’s my very own Christian Grey popsicle.”
But you may be surprised at the potential of fanfiction.
When it comes down to it, fanfiction is simply a fictional story based on another story. Fanfictions have been around for centuries, and many of us have probably read them as university students — William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was based on the poem “The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet.”
This means that writing off fanfiction without further consideration of its value would write off authors like Shakespeare, and I believe that the centrality of these titles to our literary academic world means that we do not want to give up on fanfiction.
But what about fanfictions that haven’t become classics? What do we make of the thousands of fanfictions circulating the internet that aren’t included in English curricula?
Perhaps it’s time for us to consider how we define “real” literature.
One of the ways that we define literature is whether it’s published by a reputable publishing house. But the fact that fanfiction is self-published also has its merits.
While printed books are often subjected to a host of censorship issues, many popular fanfiction sites allow fanfiction authors to publish whatever they want, as long as it remains appropriate within legal realms.
Browsing fanfiction sites can allow readers to engage with talented authors who may not have the means to seek proper publication. It also allows them to explore uncensored subject matter free from the constraints of traditional publishing.
Furthermore, I think that fanfiction creates a space for marginalized communities to explore their identities. And should “real” literature not reflect real life and provide us insight into our own lives?
For example, women — myself included — are the primary readers and writers of fanfiction. This is notable because fanfiction opens up a world for us that is free of the misogyny and sexism that can dictate popular stories. Fanfiction lets us see ourselves in plots in ways that empower us instead of degrading us.
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve turned to reading fanfiction as a way of fixing sexist plots in mainstream media — I mean, does anyone else remember when Game of Thrones’ eighth season had Sansa Stark credit her strength and dignity as stemming from her prior sexual abuse?
Let’s also consider that “real” literature is often revered because it presents a social message. Fanfiction, too, encourages important messages, but these often get lost in the depths of the internet when people don’t take them seriously.
To give a concrete example, a common Harry Potter fan interpretation is that Hermione Granger is Black — an idea based on book descriptions of her frizzy hair and unspecified skin colour, amongst other things. For years before Hermione was portrayed as Black in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, fanfiction representation of her as Black allowed Black Harry Potter readers to see themselves represented in a beloved fictional world.
So, is fanfiction “real” literature?
I don’t know if that’s up to me to decide, but what I can leave you with is this.
As a university community, I believe that we must remember that literature exists outside of the bounds of our academic life. Not all articles are going to be peer-reviewed, not all books will be published by a traditional publishing house and not all essays will be by someone with a PhD.
And that’s okay — I believe that it is up to all of us to approach any literature with an open mind. You don’t have to like or even read fanfiction to acknowledge that it allows for a wider appreciation of literature.
So I believe that we should stop gatekeeping what “real” literature is, and instead appreciate fanfiction for what it is — a community of people who love reading and writing in the same way that any “real” literature reader does, too.
This op-ed was written by a University of Saskatchewan undergraduate student and reflects the views and opinions of the writer. If you would like to write a reply, please email email@example.com. Hannah Tran is a final-year undergraduate student studying English and Psychology. She frequently forgoes her class reading lists in favour of fanfiction but asks that you don’t tell her professors.