Sometimes, I say smart things.: Fanfiction & Capitalism, and Why I Think They Are Related [TW for homophobia, mentions of sexual violence, capitalism]
Lots of really amazing writers denigrate their work (or have their work denigrated by others) because they write fanfiction rather than “real stories.” The more I think about this, the more messed up I think this is, and I’d like to talk about why.
Part of the reason fanfic is often denigrated is because a lot of it is erotic, a lot of it is about escapism and wish-fulfillment, and a lot of it is queer. So much fanfiction is queer, in fact, that it should come as no surprise that it is widely reviled and made into a joke; homophobia is still very real and I trust that I don’t have to explain how it would cause queer literature to be denigrated.
But that still leaves the fact that a lot of fanfic is erotic. Given that I’m a sex educator, I’ve seen first-hand the effects of sex-negativity and its accompanying effects of silence and shame. People’s lives are ruined or ended every day by what they did not know, have had hidden from them, and could not find out for themselves. I’m not exaggerating this in the slightest; ignorance about sex and sexuality regularly causes death, either from dangerous abortion procedures, suicide, disease, or murder. With that degree of violence surrounding sexual information, I see an obvious connection between cultural sex-negativity and the fact that erotic literature is so widely viewed is worthless. Of course this extends to fanfiction.
The fanfiction which isn’t directly sexual is often still about wish-fulfillment of desires other than sexual ones, many of which center around the desire to be loved and able to recover from trauma. Hurt/comfort is one of the most popular genres in fandom, and this is for good reason. The fact that anyone sees a problem with people exploring pain and recovery and love is deeply disturbing. Why would anyone complain about people spending time fulfilling their desires in a way that hurts no one? The only answer I can think of is “Because people are supposed to suffer.” I obviously disagree with this.
And this is, finally, where capitalism comes into it. One of the biggest reasons people see fanfiction as a waste of time is that it’s unpublishable because of copyright infringement. And since fanfic can’t be formally published, no money can be made from it. This is, fundamentally, the ONLY difference between fanfiction and “real” stories—copyright infringement prevents fanfiction from being given a monetary venture.
We might like to hope that published material is, somehow, of better quality than that which is unpublished or unpublishable. But this is not true, as anyone who has tried and failed to get published will tell you. More crap gets published every year while more masterpieces languish in anonymity than we can ever truly know, because it’s not about quality, it’s about money.
Which then begs the question: if the only difference between fanfiction and “real fiction” is the capacity to make money, why is fanfiction considered so worthless? Because capitalism wants us to believe that monetary value is the ONLY system of value with any meaning.
Nevermind the fact that many of us have learned more about consent, negotiation, gender, and sexual orientation from fanfiction (and other ‘unpublishable’ content on the internet) than we ever did from anything published or offered to us in school. Nevermind the fact that fanfiction is the first and ONLY place many of us will ever see people like us being represented. Nevermind that fanfiction is often written to help us explore and heal from issues of trauma, abuse, internalized bigotry, and self-loathing. Nevermind that fanfiction gives so many of us access to characters we love, cherish, admire, and look up to being like us, feeling like us, loving people like us, or just plain representing us in a way we often cannot get from the real people in our lives as a result of bigotry and shame.
In this homophobic, sex-negative, capitalist society, minorities of all sorts are supposed to be worthless and fandom is often the only place they can seek representation. In this bigoted, capitalist society we are not supposed to believe that our pleasure and fulfillment is worthwhile. We are not supposed to see ourselves as having intrinsic value. Lots of us need escapism because the world around us hates us so much that the only way to survive it is to escape it sometimes into a created place that views us as valid and good. Fanfiction, moreso than mainstream published media ever can, gives value and space to people and feelings and experiences that are given no space or value elsewhere.
But we are supposed to think that’s worthless.