I’ve been doing a spot of research on behalf of my boss, trying to answer one question: what are readers getting from fan fiction that they can’t, from the primary source?
My inclination was to say “sex”—to not read a bunch of fan fiction, pretend I had read a bunch of fan fiction, and come back with sex. But I’m trying to be more honest, lately—or less of an arsehole, at least—and that wouldn’t be nice. Besides, the answer (as far as I can gather) is more interesting than that.
Bear in mind, the following observations are based on a fairly small data set. I’ve read 50 works of fan fiction in the last 14 days, between 500 and 150,000 words in length. Each had at least 500 kudos (the equivalent of a like, on the site I used), and at least 100 comments. The most popular had nearly 9,000 kudos and upwards of 6,000 comments. The least popular had exactly 500 kudos and 122 comments. Here are the things most of them had in common:
I know I said that wasn’t the answer, but 44 out of 50 works featured completed sexual acts. The other six featured romantic relationships that didn’t exist in the source material. Most of the sex was, hmm…ever read a romance novel?—not the old-fashioned type, but, like…something with a title on the order of Bound: A Billionaire Secret Baby Romance? Like that. Very explicit. Loads of butt stuff. So, there was that.
Here, I’m referring to human interactions in the text, but also to conversations in the comments. First, I noticed that most fan fiction contains a lot more just talking than you’d get in a proper book. If you hand something like that to an editor, you’ll get a lot of “…but how does this scene advance the plot?” In fan fiction, it doesn’t seem to matter. Readers exclaim over random fishing trips and chats over lattés. They respond well to subplots that do nothing but show the characters living their lives: the more ordinary, the better.
They also love non-sexual expressions of affection. People hugging: that’s great. People sleeping together without having sex; people leaning against each other while they wait for the bus; people holding hands—all that stuff’s golden. There are entire works, some of them novel-length, devoted to little more than that. I get it. Who doesn’t like to be touched and held? If you’re not getting a lot of that, why not read about it?
But you can’t disregard the actual human connection going on. These popular authors engage with their readers. They chat in the comments. They answer questions. They take suggestions. Sometimes, they get fan art, which attracts more notice, still. It’s all rather lovely. Welcoming, sort of thing. Something you’d do, just to talk to people. (Well, and because you like writing, I’d presume. I do the same with art. Sure, I love it; sure, I profit. But if I could lose my right hand or my community, I’d be hard-pressed to choose. I mean, probably my community—losing a hand sounds horrible. Still, I don’t know. Maybe….)
Absurdities and Soapy Drama
It’s hard to sell a publisher on something really over-the-top. The grotesque, the strange, the goofy, campy weirdness—there’s a market for all of it, but the niche is comparatively small. Actual Star Wars is a safer bet than the entire cast living in a trailer park, running a freak show out of a caravan. (Yep. That exists. I didn’t read it for this project, though. Someone texted it to me, line by line…oh, I’ll get to that some other time.)
Another thing I read, as it’s pretty much fan fiction, was Modelland, by Tyra Banks, which…it’s like….
Oh. I’ve been staring at the wall, now, a while.
Let me try that again. Tyra Banks is a reality star, and Modelland is fan fiction for her show. Which she wrote, herself, and she put it on Amazon. I read it, and I read its reviews, and one thing jumped out at me: the critical ones (and there were heaps of them) weren’t from people who didn’t want soapy trash. They were from people who did—but they wanted well-written soapy trash. Or coherent soapy trash, barring that.
(Did I like it? No. I adore rubbish—I wallow in it. But this was, like…smelly rubbish. And it had lots of vomit in it, and I’m very anti-puke. Someone gets the boak, I’m away.)
A lot of folks want to be writers. Both readers and writers seem to take courage from the stars of the archive. The authors see the kudos pile up; they think about taking the next step. The readers see it, and they think “I could do that.” And, hey: they might be right. People hop from fan fiction to just plain fiction all the time. Sometimes, they even turn their fan fiction into regular fiction. They call that “filing off the serial numbers”—like when Edward Cullen stops being a vampire and turns into Dorian Gray.
Cliffhangers and Episodic Content
The longer works told an interesting story: most of them were posted over a period of weeks or months, one chapter at a time. Comments on early chapters tended towards the sparse, only to multiply exponentially as the story progressed. This is the opposite of how things work in mass-market publishing: with each book in a series, more readers drop off. I’m not sure why the opposite is true of fan fiction. Maybe it’s because a chapter’s more easily digestible than an entire book. Or maybe it’s the cliffhangers plus the wait: most authors introduce a question or problem in the last paragraph of every chapter. (This isn’t unique to fan fiction—what is unique is the pause between chapters. You don’t get much episodic fiction in the mainstream, these days.)
I’m not sure how useful any of this’ll be to someone who mostly publishes mass-market SF&F. Readers in those genres aren’t big on cliffhangers or ambiguity, even if a new book comes out every month. Romance readers like it even less. Uncertainty means one-star reviews. And the sex, the human connection—it’s hard to fit too much of that into a 50,000-word military fantasy…IN SPACE. I suspect most readers would find it odd, given the context.
Bugger. I hope this doesn’t mean I’ll be doing more romance. Not that I mind romance. It’s just…man, I love a bloody ending.
17 thoughts on “Fan Fiction”
“…when Edward Cullen stops being a vampire and turns into Dorian Gray”.
…and then the main heroine has to save him from the obsession of painting his own self-portrait using only 50… shades… of gray.
Hey, I wasn’t poking fun…much! Not in a mean way, at least.
Yeah… Romance novels are an easy target and get an unfair amount of snooty condescension.
I suspect that an underappreciated factor in the popularity of books like 50 Shades is just how much oppopportunity they provide for smug superiority (same goes for most popular music etc).
They do. I’ve written, blimey…coming on twenty of them, myself. They have their tropes, but so does every genre. (That’s what the whole “…IN SPACE!” thing was about. It’s a reference to a kind of sci-fi where it’s basically ordinary Earth life, in space. I’ve written loads of those, too.)
Just for the record, I did not write “50 Shades.” I don’t write anything, romance or otherwise, involving non-consensual sexual acts presented as erotica. There are enough jobs going I don’t need those.
Laughing at the bad ones can be fun, of course. Even the good ones can be goofy. But I think most romance readers are in on the joke. They appreciate humour, and mention it in their Amazon reviews.
(“Modelland” is neither funny nor romance. It’s just…unedited, maybe?)
Also, I didn’t notice your first comment first, the bit about Dorian Gray. Ha, ha, ha…didn’t notice I’d done that. Well, I’m leaving it. It’s funnier that way.
It’s, uh, difficult to imagine someone who wrote about a middle aged man eating all of Neil Gaiman’s novels to be the author of “50 Shades”. Just saying. 😉
I’d say that most sci-fi and fantasy is about re-learning to appreciate mundane experience… It’s not a coincidence that the biggest trope setter, “The Lord of the Rings” is mostly about walking.
That, I think, is very British. We do love a good walk in fine weather, and even when it’s raining.
While I did not write 50 Shades, I have written books you wouldn’t guess I’d write. Those paperback romances are, ah, rather more explicit than most people realise. Especially nowadays. (But there’s not a whole lot of “he sheathed his velvet rod in her quivering rose” any more. People are over that. Now, it’s cock and, well, you get it.)
The sci-fi’s considerably less embarrassing to write. Even if it is…IN SPACE!
Actually, rain can totally qualify as fine weather. Those mornings when the world is all greys and greens and there’s a fresh wind blowing… In fact, since we’re heading into summer, that’s exactly what I’m going to be nostalgic for (Israeli summer has one disadvantage besides the heat, the fact that anything green that isn’t a large tree withers into brown sticks, which is quite depressing… Although the golden hour past four in the afternoon sort of makes up for that).
I am not surprised about romances being explicit… Flowery euphemistic prose runs the danger of being unintentionally comical or overtly creepy, or both.
But…but…you get WET! I mean, I don’t mind so much in the summer, but then you get that, y’know, that miserable autumn rain, or early spring. The worst is the drizzly sort, where you don’t think to bring your brolly, but it just keeps on spitting, and you end up soggy and miserable on the other end.
I must admit, I WOULD feel creepy, writing an explicit scene using euphemisms. It would feel like writing it for children, which…euuuuuugh. No. Hell, no. (I know teenagers read these things, pass around rude books at school, and all, but I pretend I don’t. They’re not FOR that crowd.)
I just wear a water impermeable jacket/overcoat, with a hood. Umbrellas are a bother to lug around and are easily destroyed by the wind. Unless you’re walking into a thunderstorm, you barely feel the rain.
I think I find euphemisms creepy mostly because they try to be so indirect, so you get an effect of the writer trying to repress something. I can’t really imagine writing anything explicit addressed to children, it’s one of those things that go beyond creepy into “does not compute”.
I feel it. Or maybe I just pay it too much attention. I hate that greasy, damp drizzle feeling, on my face and hands. And I hate when it gets in my hair. Or when it goes down the back of my neck. I should be more stoic about the rain.
I suppose euphemisms made sense at a time when most leading ladies in romance novels WERE virginal and repressed. But, while those tropes still exist, the trend nowadays seems to be towards women who, even if they are virgins, know all about sex and want to have some. Readers seem interested in heroines who, while they still want a man to come and rescue them, wouldn’t completely fall to bits if one didn’t. There are still a lot of pretty insulting stereotypes going on, but more and more, you can write female characters with agency and a sense of adventure, and people will want that.
I, too, hate having wet hair, and the feeling of water trickling down your neck. I really do wrap up pretty thoroughly though, hood plus scarf plus waterproof hiking boots, so it’s unlikely to be a matter of stoicism.
Most 19th century social mores were a bit pants, to put it mildly. The scary thing is that there are plenty of people who want to go back. I never understood men who claim that they want a woman who “stays in the kitchen and makes sandwiches”, you’re always tempted to suggest that they’ll be better off marrying a food factory (plus that kind of scenario has icky oedipal overtones).
I suppose I ought to invest in a better overcoat, then. And better boots. Mine leak like a motherfucker.
I used to know someone like that, a strong believer in traditional gender roles. We don’t speak any more. She wasn’t stupid, or otherwise overly conservative (that I know of), but she had strange ideas on how women should want to live. She didn’t seem to be able to understand ambitions that would supersede marriage and children. Not just in the way where most of us, y’know, we see someone doing something that’d be unappealing to us, and we think, yikes, glad that’s not me. She was more…she seemed to think there was something wrong with you, if your aspirations differed greatly from hers. While I can’t understand the drive to have children, I can understand the unshakable desire for SOMETHING, and recognise that SOMETHING won’t be the same for all of us.
I do make pretty nice sandwiches, though.
Some people have what I’d call social/emotional OCD. They’re obsessed with the idea of living a “proper” life, and since most ideas of propriety stem from outdated tradition, this is how they view things. Maybe it stems from anxiety/fear of being judged. I suspect most conservatives/republicans are like that.
I remember you warning people off your baking in this very same blog (I’d still try it… And would definitely go for sandwiches, mine are just OK though). 😶
Well, I mean, I wouldn’t make the bread myself. I really am rubbish at baking. I once baked a fly into a loaf of egg bread. It was pretty gross. The wings were still perfectly visible.
That would be sad, going through the motions of a life because you think it’s the proper one. Doing things you’re not sure you want, thinking it’s expected. (I hope that wasn’t the case, for my former friend: she DID have kids. Kids who aren’t truly wanted have unsatisfying childhoods.)
My mother once baked ants into a sponge cake* that was to be served at a family dinner. For a moment everyone thought they were poppy seeds, but then you could see the legs.
*Not on purpose.
Having fun is an art though. Or at least the ideal scenario. Most people go through life in a state of disappointment and confusion either way, with occasional glimpses of happiness here and there. A sense of purpose, however artificial, allows more tangible achievements, and supposedly more happiness. I can understand why people live that way.