In defense of fanfiction

by Sarah Swenson, editor-in-chief

It’s no secret to those who know me that I love to read. However, I go through phases where schoolwork takes over my life and I feel like I have time for nothing but homework and studying. Books take a back seat. I have often felt a little embarrassed about this—how can you call yourself a bookworm if you haven’t picked up a book in weeks? But I never actually stop reading.

At the end of a long day, crawling into bed at 1 AM with a body sore for sleep, I find I cannot actually sleep without first opening my little purple Samsung Internet app, navigating to AO3, and… yes, I’m talking about fanfiction. If I am too tired to keep the light on and read a book before bed, I turn to fanfiction instead.

Middle-school me would never have told strangers that I read fanfiction all the time, but I’ve come to feel like being embarrassed about it is silly. It’s just reading. Sure, the writing is based on other media, but so are “The Divine Comedy” (better known as “Dante’s Inferno”), “Twilight,The Song of Achilles, the Percy Jackson series, and every fairytale adaptation, myth reimagined, or book with biblical characters ever.

I’m not saying that the writing I find at 1 AM online is comparable in quality to the writing of Dante Alighieri or Madeline Miller—though perhaps, dare I say, a lot of it surpasses Stephanie Meyers—and I would not list any fanfiction alongside my favorite books, but it’s also not crap fiction. A lot of the stories I read are more well-written than some published fiction, and regardless of the literary merit, they tell honest stories with characters that I already know I love.

Another advantage of fanfiction—filtering. I know that a common critique of fanfiction is the content that it shows—and it can be explicit, creepy, or just plain messed up. But if you use a site like AO3, that isn’t a problem anymore. Anything you don’t want to see you can filter out. Anything you would like to see, you can filter in. AO3’s tagging system acts as a trigger warning as well, something that most books do not have. I am not arguing that they should, but some people may be more comfortable knowing what they are walking into.

Reading daily is a habit that pretty much every doctor, teacher, and parent would encourage. Studies have found that regular reading improves brain connectivity and agility, increases your vocabulary and your ability to empathize with others, decreases symptoms of stress and depression including blood pressure and racing heart rate, slows or prevents cognitive decline with age, and also helps you fall asleep! According to Healthline, children who read show higher test scores, and stronger skills in not just reading but also mathematics, science, and foreign languages. Reading is an exercise for your mind. The benefits don’t stop when you grow up; you will always benefit from a sharp mind and good reading comprehension.

Studies have also shown that the rates of teenagers who enjoy reading or who read for fun are declining. According to the Pew Research Center, from 1984 to 2020, the percentage of 13-year-olds who read for fun “almost every day” declined from 35% to just 17%, while the percentage who read “never or hardly ever” increased from 8% to 29%. For 17-year-olds, the percentage who read “almost every day” declined from 31% to 19%, while the percentage who read “never or hardly ever” increased from 9% to 27%. The shift was much less significant for 9-year-olds. Why was the decline so much greater for teenagers than for 9-year-olds?

Not so sound like an old grouch, but it’s probably at least partially the phones. Access to the internet all the time. Instant gratification from 20-second videos can be a lot more appealing than the pleasure of reading a book, which takes a lot more time, requires a larger time investment, and is not, like video games or social media, designed to addictively trigger your dopamine centers.

That is why we should not discourage reading on your phone. I don’t think there is any reasonable scenario where all teenagers are convinced to greatly restrict their phone use. It’s not going to happen; phones are addictive. However, if teenagers—as fanfiction is primarily written and consumed by teenagers—have created a community that encourages reading on their phones, why are we discouraging that? It’s not like reading on your phone decreases the benefits of reading that much, especially if you are using a blue-light filter to avoid overstimulating your mind and keeping you awake.

I think a large reason why fanfiction is so often dismissed is that it is written and read primarily by teenage girls. Our patriarchal society tends to dismiss everything that teenage girls like, and has forever, calling their passion “crazy”, “cringy”, or “girly” (as if girly is an insult). Most of the time, this hatred is fed into not only by sexist men but also women who are afraid of getting lumped in with “most girls” and treated as such.

I’m sure you can think of some examples. Fangirls who followed One Direction received much more jeering than boys and men who followed the Grateful Dead. The Hunger Games, which I would argue is a classic in dystopian literature, is largely dismissed because of its large teenage girl following. The entire color pink, doomed to derision because it was associated with teenage girls.

Even when people eventually come around and realize—hey, the thousands of people who liked that thing were not wrong just because of their gender—it is only once the main audience has shifted from teen girls to adult men that society acknowledges the merit of the media. Think, perhaps, of the Beatles and Beatlemania; they are now seen as one of the best bands of all time, but at the height of their fame, they drew crowds of young female fans who were laughed at for their love of the music.

So why would we expect anything different for a genre of media produced and consumed primarily by teenage girls? Society cannot stand the idea that teenage girls could be creating something worthwhile.

The truth is, fanfiction is impressive. Readers and writers of fanfiction are often quite prolific. You don’t realize the length of something you are reading sporadically on your phone in small chapters until you say the word count out loud and have someone else gape at you. One fanfiction I read was over 500,000 words, and I read it in about two weeks, during the school year. For context, that is about half the word count of the entire Harry Potter series, or about three times as long as the “Lord of the Rings.” Online estimates place the average novel between 70,000 and 100,000 words. That’s a couple of days. 50,000 could be one sitting. I think that if a teenager is reading that much regularly, we should be praising them, not calling it weird.

Fanfiction is an easily accessible way to read. It doesn’t require lighting, money, or even the foresight to bring a hefty book around with you. It allows you to specify exactly what you want to read, including word count, content, and fandom. The accessibility of writing should not be a condemnation of it, nor should the fact that it is probably written by a teenage girl.

I’m certainly not saying fanfiction is better than novels, and when I have the time, I love to read physical books. I love the feel of the spine and the smell of the pages and the ability to mark it up with pen and highlighters. However, I also think that the ability to pull up a book at the drop of a hat, with all the specifiers that I want, is pretty cool. At the end of the day, fanfiction encourages teenagers to read, and anything that does that is a positive in my books (pun intended).

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