Fanfiction & Queer Violence
It’s embarrassing to admit I partially became a man because of erotic fanfiction. In all honesty, it still feels remotely shameful to confess that for years I religiously dedicated myself to the practice of reading and spinning fanfiction. Coming to terms with this is like finally lifting up the carpet I’ve been standing on for years, only to find the soft wet underbelly of an entirely different beast altogether. What I believed to be escapism turned out to be something far more real than I could’ve imagined.
For the uninitiated, fanfiction is rabbit hole full of the internet’s secrets and desires. It’s the art of fashioning your own version of pre-existing properties for either a private or public readership. This includes your favorite fantasy novel and last summer’s blockbuster. It’s all fair game, whether or you like it or not. It’s an escapist dream. It’s a sexual outlet for those without community, without partners, for the frustrated and lonely and confused. For many, it’s also how amateur writers get their feet wet with sharp-tongued communities eager to provide feedback. If anything, fanfiction is what every writer wants to say, without any of the repercussions of having it associated to any concrete institutions other than its source material.
In an interview about her book, A Little Life, author Hanya Yanagihara writes:
“Fiction is the realm where we’re less used to seeing violence (…) But it is a part of life and it should be a part of fiction. When we stop seeing it in fiction, we stop seeing it everywhere.”
The book, which is about a group of men living in New York and navigating personal and sexual relationships with other men, touches on some valuable lessons about what it means to be vulnerable in a harsh society. Yanagihara comments she in part wrote A Little Life based on her fascination with the social behaviors of men, which is not too far off from how I first approached fanfiction myself. This fascination—in some cases, intoxication—with the mannerisms of men, brought me even closer to realizing my potential life as a queer male-loving person.
Violence against queer bodies is very much a part of reality. And despite fanfictions’ bad reputations for being escapist fantasy, it satisfies a deep-sleeping desire to see bad things happen to the characters we love. Fanfiction stares back at us and accepts that violence does indeed happen—but here, we can control it within the confines of prose. That painful things can and will happen to those we love, but if even for a moment, we as fans of something can take ownership of where that pain lands, how it hurts us.
Niche fanfiction guides queer folks searching for a venue to satisfy their narrative needs. It’s often times the first site of impact for adolescents to wrestle with the complication question of gender identity and sexuality. Familiar faces, settings, and characters are just blueprints for what might become a work of fiction inhibiting its own self-constructed reality. Fanfiction exists in a bizarre realm all its own: fictional in the proper sense, but utterly invested in what tangible social constructs shape its reader’s life. Worlds collide, the fan and the source-material intertwine, and a new piece of fiction is created that exists in a hybrid state that would’ve never come to fruition without a desperate leap of fate.
What sort of stories about trauma do queer people need? What sort of narrative does a closeted trans person need? Who is fanfiction good for other than blossoming young writers? I’ve asked myself these questions countless times before with no avail. It seems very bad of me as a fanfic writer to not have asked myself these questions before. But I believe we’re past the point of simply gender-swapping iconic male protagonists with female counterparts and vice-versa. Fanfiction has become more inclusive in its stories and its search for what an “authentic” queer voice sounds like. On the other hand, a transgender Captain Kirk would be an anachronism—but also a voyeuristic self-indulgent experiment of what it might mean to write a queer character with serious ethical hang-ups. It would more importantly, be new, almost a clean slate from which to build a nuanced character study out of a pulpy science-fiction context.
Fanfiction gives us queer writers options that would never exist in mainstream media: it invites us to ask what if, and question the consequences of our creative decisions. Writing fanfiction is an action that demands reaction, that wets its palate on the anticipation of its audience for the next twist in a story that would otherwise remain untold. However, the response from the source material’s original creator isn’t always necessarily in the fan’s favor.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Brokeback Mountain author Annie Proulx commented on the influx of fanfiction she received in response to her short story’s original ending:
“There are countless people out there who think the story is open range to explore their fantasies and to correct what they see as an unbearably disappointing story […] They constantly send ghastly manuscripts and pornish rewrites of the story to me, expecting me to reply with praise and applause for ‘fixing’ the story.”
I want to respect Proulx’s response on the basis that, as the original author of Brokeback, she has the final say as to what the short story is and what it ultimately means. However, it’s hard not to read her comments as condescending to the many gay readers and writers who felt touched by the original film and story. To respond to an “unbearably disappointing story” is to have an unbearable desire to nicely wrap up endings, and resolve a narrative that finally gives beloved queer characters what they want. The phrasing of “pornish rewrites” no doubts indicates what sort of fanfic we’re dealing with either—the sort that you look up online in the dead of night as a guilty pleasure. This isn’t to say that fans don’t appreciate the occasional appearance of harsh reality in their fiction—but again, this depiction of violence is supposedly “uncommon” in fictional accounts of queerness. It’s standard practice among fans to only want happy endings for their favorites, however I argue Proulx’s point also resonates with Yanagihara’s on the reality of violence in fiction.
Queer writers don’t like being reminded that the world, at large, puts them constantly in a position of danger and interrogation by the heteronormative majority. The power in mainstream fiction predominantly lies in the straight middle and upper-class, without argument. Most people will never read a gay romance novel or watch a film with a queer character in their lifetime. Most people will never realize that an entire online community exists for writing stories about one handsome fictional lad kissing another handsome lad. But popularity was never the intent of fanfic writers – most don’t use pre-existing properties to leverage their identities or search for any prolonged monetary compensation. If all the trauma and stress of occupying a transgender and/or queer body is steam, then the act of creating “pornish rewrites” is the valve some groups desperately cling on to.
Any long-time reader of fanfiction can tell you that the wait for an update to their favorite fic can be unbearable. Is this need for resolution related to a need to fix an “unbearably disappointing story”? Are the original authors of a property so insecure as to fear that a queer audience might take their own words and re-imagine them out of context? I want to push on this concept of the unbearable and what this would mean as an invitation for queer and trans writers to reconsider their relationship to fanfiction. This relationship is essentially one of power—the dynamic of canon and fan (fanon) that challenges the Word of God that is the original text. Without all the Hegelian hang-ups. This unbearable need for change transforms into a form of action in real-life, all from the initial spark of fandom and love for fiction. Fiction isn’t always the ideal place to find realism – but it’s a worthwhile starting point that can re-direct us towards a new horizon of queer stories, places of the optimistic imagination.
There’s a famous Kurt Vonnegut quote I always think about when I think about the depiction of transgender bodies in fiction. Needless to say, it’s also the reason I make sure to always include semicolons in my fanfiction. It’s also fascinating when I think about the physical space a transgender person’s body takes up in prose—or even the lack of space. Not all queer writers write fanfic, but plenty of fanfic writers are queer. But when a trans person’s body is included, suddenly the reader is confronted with overly-wrought explanation of bodily functions, outfit, dressing, facial features, body shape, voice, make-up, style, gait, height, weight, temperament, hair, essence—as if these things themselves were the necessary grammatical functions to form a sentence about a queer body. Others may argue that these are also the fundamental characteristics in which we identify other human-beings, but I call bullshit. The hyper-fixations of the traits that compose a trans person’s body is just another hallmark of traditional prose, as if we were paper dolls to be dissected and put back together in Frankenstein amalgamations.
Figuring out my gender identity took a lot of detective work when it came to reading fanfiction about the fictional men I was passionate about. Although I vaguely understood that these shows and comics weren’t especially progressive, I took this passion to a whole new level with fanfiction and a queer community. In this space, I could write about these characters being transgender without the skeptical eye of outsides—this was a bubble for fans to experiment with writing that didn’t need to perfect. There wasn’t any self-explanatory semicolon of descriptors, no pointless meandering of “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing,” in another author’s words. There was only the intent on telling a story, even if that meant revisiting old trauma to conjure a narrative worth caring about. This sort of storytelling was meant for everyone, regardless of experience or publishing history or skill level. At its most basic form, fanfiction is about making the niche visible to a self-selecting crowd of readers that will cherish it.
A brief look at popular tags and genres of popular fanfic websites, such as Archive of Our Own and Fanfiction.net, show a trend in fanfiction’s flavor for the melodramatic. Fanfiction tagged as “angst,” “major character death,” and “hurt/comfort” are amongst the most popular when it comes to slash, or male-male character pairings. While there are certainly plenty of lighter sub-genres in the popular fanfiction tagging pool, slash fanfiction seems to be the most gripping when it appeals to extremes. That is to say, most people much rather read an interesting piece of fiction than a boring one. Queer writers writing about queer characters are, essentially, using this unique platform to disperse fiction that speaks true to their experience, with all the complicated and messy bits included. The accusation that fanfic writers are all aiming to tidy up messy endings, such as the case of Brokeback Mountain fanfiction, is just false. The reality is, just as many, if more fic writers enjoy putting their darlings through the metaphorical wringer. It wouldn’t be wrong to admit that many make their favorite couple as miserable as possible before turning things around. The reality of being queer, in a Western context, is that violence is ultimately inevitable, and fiction that doesn’t acknowledge this cannot nourish us.
More recent terms used among fanfic writers include the phrase “dead dove don’t eat” which, as the name would suggest, implies something the reader shouldn’t attempt. There is a safe space for inclinations towards violence and pain in fanfiction—it’s one of the few publishing outlets for queer writers to confront anxieties about how society treats queer bodies. These tags essentially act as warning labels for what a reader is about to get into, and for good reason. Even if fanfiction might be the wild west of prose when it comes to what writers can get away with, common courtesy still applies to the uninitiated. As wild as fanfiction plots get—being sold as a sex servant, captured by a seductive demon lord, searching for your werewolf soulmate—they all use a broad brush to paint how we feel queer relationships get treated by society. Camouflaged with the ornate coverings of fantasy or bare naked in realism, these stories are filling a niche and reaching a demographic that most prose writers could only dream of.
But even in fictional settings where queer people are the norm, there will naturally be conflict and pain, just like in the real world. It’s absolutely necessary to protect the fanfiction that delves into the uncomfortable, the dangerous, the grittiness and grossness of being queer in a society that condemns your existence. If you can control your greatest fear—even if just for a moment—that’s a clear taste of power that’s impossible to forget.
If mainstream fiction really “is the realm where we’re less used to seeing violence,” according to Yanagihara, then fanfiction might be the subversion we need to appreciate and celebrate now. There’s no need to dismiss the labor fanfiction authors put into their work as useless fantasies meant to correct “unbearably disappointing” stories. Perhaps disappointment is the right emotion to feel—perhaps there is too much disdain for fanfic writers and their approach to circumstances that dictate queer life. The depiction of emotional trauma, abuse, and even rape is far too common in slash fanfiction to not realize that there might something bigger at stake. That this is not a cry for help from a community of queer writers, but perhaps a coping mechanism with creative capital within certain social circles. Fanfiction gives these marginalized voices a common lore, a canon of literature that otherwise wouldn’t exist. This is notable and visible online presence that needs to be amplified, supported, and most importantly, loved by writers.