If you are a fan of any film, television show or piece of popular culture, you have probably discovered fanfiction. And if you’re like me, you may have also had a life-altering and all-consuming Wattpad fanfic phase as a pre-teen. Unrestricted childhood internet access aside, fanfiction is one of the cornerstones of internet culture.
Alongside the growth of fan fiction online, a growing number of popular books, television shows and movies have their roots in fanfiction. Most notable is the Fifty Shades of Grey series by E. L. James, originally a Twilight fanfiction titled Masters of the Universe published on fanfiction.net. The immensely popular After series was originally a fanfic based on Harry Styles and One Direction that was shared on Wattpad. The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare draws heavy influence from Harry Potter fanfiction. Both of the series The Kissing Booth and Light as a Feather also began as Wattpad originals. Many of these books underwent a process known as “filing off the serial numbers”, where references to the universe it was originally written in are removed and replaced with a new context.
The success of such series has seen companies introduce ways for fanfiction writers, and themselves, to monetise fan works. The so-called O.G. fanfic company Wattpad, for example, has radically changed its website structure over the years to accommodate for profit incentives. Between 2015 and 2017, Wattpad introduced advertisements and launched their tiered ad-free subscription Wattpad Premium. In 2019, the launch of Wattpad Paid Stories gave fanfiction writers an opportunity to profit from their writing and access support when growing their fanbase.
Having followed the growth of fanfiction from a niche corner of the internet into an entire industry, these efforts to capitalise on fan-made stories undermine the values at the core of fanfic and fandom. Fanfiction grew alongside the rise of male-dominated science fiction fandom in the early 20th century. In the 1960s and 70s, women and LGBTQIA+ individuals formed separate fanfiction spaces for themselves, which developed into modern-day fandom communities. Fanfiction operates in the subversion of corporate interests — by definition fanfiction uses the intellectual property of others to create something new. The creation of Archive of Our Own (AO3) in 2009 celebrated these origins, moving to create the largest entirely fan-run, non-corporate fanfiction archive on the internet. Fanfiction thrives off fan creativity and labour, predominantly unpaid, separated from the whims of corporate censorship and domain owners. Beyond going against these values, introducing profit incentives to fanfiction intensifies problems of copyright and ownership — should a writer be able to make money from someone else’s work? AO3 has banned the sale of merchandise and advertising from its website for this exact reason.
The commercialisation of fanfiction introduces a complicated motive to what was previously considered as writing for pleasure. By adding subscriptions, paywalls, and financial competition to fanfiction, writers are starting to follow the tropes and guessable formulas to make their fanfiction more successful and algorithmically popular. In this environment, fanfiction loses its potential to subvert the norm.
One of my issues with series like After and The Kissing Booth is the portrayal of generic, heterosexual, and often toxic relationships. Romance books targeted at a primarily young, straight, and white, female audience have become the ticket to mainstream fame, even if it comes at the cost of online infamy. Anyone who has either stumbled across or is in the depths of the literary community that is BookTok will be familiar with this phenomenon — The Love Hypothesis, one of BookTok’s most successful novels, was originally a Star Wars fanfiction. Though BookTok has brought its own positive impacts, it has fostered a focus on consumer habits and the pressure to market your writing within the fanfiction community.
From fanfiction.net to Wattpad and AO3 to BookTok, the landscape of fanfiction has undeniably shifted. Regardless of the woes of modern fandom culture, we must remember that corporations, and even governments, are increasingly seeking to limit what individuals — especially young people — can access online. It is crucially important to support and elevate writers, especially LGBT and POC writers, and to recognise and reward their writing.
In the meantime, I’ll be scrolling through AO3 looking for my next read.