As a child, Angie Fazekas would sneak down to their parents’ computer in the basement at night and read fanfiction. In an interview with The Varsity, they recalled hastily erasing their browser history once they were done in fear of someone discovering what they had been reading.
Now they have a doctorate in Women and Gender Studies with a focus in Fan Studies at U of T, and have drawn from their adolescent experiences to write their dissertation on the topic of explicit fanfiction, under the title, Creative Becomings: Explicit Fanfiction, Reinventing Adolesence and Queer Relationality.
Fazekas’ experience is one that rings true for more people than you may think. Taboo, embarrassing, and often dismissed, to say you enjoy fanfiction is a brave admission. But why do we dismiss something that has contributed to the coming of age of so many people in our generation? Fanfiction has widely shaped the adolescent inner life of students growing up in the digital age, and scholars like Fazekas argue that it’s time to give this “embarrassing” facet of creative and sexual development the recognition it deserves.
The origins of fanfiction
We can trace fanfiction back to the Star Trek fandom from the 1960s, which also launched other staples of fandom communities, like dedicated conventions. A subset of Star Trek fans, most of them women, began writing and distributing fanfiction among themselves. Before the advent of the internet, fans would maintain this practice by circulating stories through homemade zines.
The internet gave fans a new frontier for sharing their work. What began as smaller individually run blogs and sites for certain fan works finally culminated in the creation of a community-driven, non-for-profit site called Archive of Our Own (AO3), launched in 2009. The site is operated by the fan community itself and is not subject to censorship or monetization. Thanks to AO3 — as well as other platforms, such as Fanfiction.net and Wattpad — fanfiction has become more accessible than ever. AO3 alone is home to over 10 million fanfiction works across 53,000 different fandoms.
Fazekas added that, during the pandemic, fanfiction readership and writership increased even more since people were stuck and home and in need of a creative outlet. It is during these transitional times, between life’s busiest moments, between the release dates of a series’ next instalment, between the hours of 10:00 pm and 3:00 am, that people turn to fanfiction.
Sexual discovery and fanfiction
The sexual element of fanfiction has contributed to its taboo nature as a genre. The medium’s lack of censorship and accessibility is enough to spark moral panic in parents worried about the plethora of zany sexual narratives that their children might be reading.
However, Fazekas noted that fanfiction is much more than ‘smut’ — erotic content that composes around only 10 to 20 per cent of fanfiction. Fazekas stressed that the difference between fanfiction and other forms of explicit material is that fanfiction is a “self-driven” form of exploration.
Sexual exploration is an inevitable part of adolescence, and fanfiction may be one of the more harmless and creative pathways for exploration. “I’m invested in having spaces for young people to explore that aren’t institutional spaces,” Fazekas explained.
It is naïve to assume teenagers learn only about sex and sexuality from their parents or sex-ed classes. At this stage in life, sexual curiosity manifests itself in different ways in different people; fanfiction is one creative, community-driven outlet for that curiosity. Through fanfiction, people can explore without actually enacting their desire. “I’d like there to be a little less taboo about teenagers accessing sexual narratives online and reading sexually explicit stories,” said Fazekas. “I think there’s real value in that for people figuring out who they are.”
Self-discovery and fanfiction
Students who read fanfiction seem to have the same impression, often emphasizing multiple reasons for why they read it. In an interview with The Varsity, Luis Sanchez, a second-year political science student, noted that “[fanfiction authors] devote hours of their life to try to create a story that is convincing and realistic and try to make sure that the characters are as accurate… to the narrative as possible… it doesn’t feel exploitative or it doesn’t feel cheap, because you know most people who are writing it… are just as big a fan as you [are].”
In interviews with The Varsity, Sanchez and Ann Jacobs, a U of T student studying human biology, explained that they both discovered fanfiction in their tween years, with Jacobs coming across it while waiting for the newest Percy Jackson books to come out. During those transitional periods between releases, fanfiction provided the sustenance and community that the two of them were looking for.
Fanfiction also represents more specific memories for Sanchez and Jacobs, with the former recalling that he used to read it in middle school on his school’s Chromebooks after he finished his classwork. On the flip side, Jacobs grew up in a very religious environment, and fanfiction allowed her to explore aspects of her life that were taboo in her household.
Furthermore, Fazekas stressed the importance of fanfiction’s impact on LGBTQ+ self-discovery; if young people are questioning their orientation, fanfiction offers both a way of exploring that side of themselves through stories and accessing stories that mainstream media seldom presents.
Fazekas herself wrote self-insert lesbian fanfiction about Buffy the Vampire Slayer and used their own story to illustrate the benefits of fanfiction in their dissertation, Creative Becomings.
Lastly, fanfiction sites offer a low stakes environment for creative discovery and development. Writers use these sites to practice their writing skills, get feedback from fans, and even gain widespread acclaim without having to go through the traditional publishing process. Canadian literary icon Margaret Atwood even publicly endorsed Wattpad in 2012: “Wattpad opens the doors and enlarges the view in places where the doors are closed and the view is restricted. And somewhere out there in Wattpadland, a new generation is testing its wings.”
Fanfiction is popular, not just as crude entertainment, but as a space for creative and sexual expression outside of the confines of our households, classrooms, and peer groups. Of course it can be amateur and embarrassing, a corny indulgence to be enjoyed under the covers on your childhood bed. But fanfiction takes a clandestine place in so many of our hearts — why not recognize its true impact on our coming of age?