Libraries, Fanfiction, and You: Unexpected Partners

Fanfiction and Libraries by Tom Deja
Illustration by Tom Deja

Last week, I wrote about fanfiction’s increasing appearance in magazine articles and books, and this week’s no different: this time it’s about a 2016 article from American Libraries magazine, the official magazine of the American Libraries Association (ALA), along with subsequent articles on the same topic: fanfiction… and libraries.

This isn’t like a peanut butter-and-jelly (or chocolate) combination. Some people might think “Well I guess you could write fanfiction in a library… or use a library’s computers to read it… or maybe find source material to base your fanfic off of… but what else is there?” Turns out, there’s more. A lot more.

A quick disclaimer: I get American Libraries magazine because I’m a librarian –or rather, I’m a library assistant with a library degree– and a former member of the ALA, along with numerous other library associations. While I’m not used to seeing fanfiction mentioned prominently on the cover of any major magazines, it makes a bit more sense on an American Libraries cover than it would on, say, TIME magazine or Vogue. Why? Because libraries are all about information and literacy –two parts of fanfiction that many fans may not consider as they read or write stories.

Anne Ford introduces the concept of fanfiction to American Libraries magazine readers (many of which work in or with libraries, even if they aren’t themselves “librarians”) by describing a scenario: a shy teen confesses she loves fanfiction to a youth and teen services librarian, to which he replies, “Me too!”If the goal of such a librarian is to make young patrons feel more comfortable in the library –which is a first step in helping those patrons in seeking out and discovering knowledge, and thus helping them to learn– then having something in common with them is a great start.

But of course, fanfiction isn’t just for teens. In fact, I would argue that it didn’t start out for teens at all, but evolved to include them, much as libraries didn’t start out as being for the general public, but now are thought of as primarily for the public before any other considerations (specialized medical or legal libraries, fancy private libraries with multimillion-dollar collections) are made.

Disappointed by a TV Series, Book, or Film? If you still love your fandom, discover FANFICTION today and have the story YOUR wayFanfiction can be a great gateway for anyone looking to become more confident in their writing. In a way, it’s not all that dissimilar from those who use online prompts or books of story ideas to help them come up with ideas: you’re working with a set of restrictions (a given set of characters, a developed world or concept) and branching off in your own direction. Some people regard fanfiction as a “junior” step to “going pro,” and while many fanfiction writers do indeed write with the intent of one day becoming a professional published author, plenty of others write fanfiction without any intent of ever becoming a bestselling author. For them, writing fanfiction is entertaining, fun, relaxing, challenging, creative, stimulating… and many other adjectives. It’s not merely “practice,” even if it is a “hobby.”

I myself am a fanfiction writer who takes writing fanfiction quite seriously (hence this blog), even if I struggle with the idea of ever writing an entire original novel or collection of short stories with the intent of getting it professionally (as opposed to self) published. Somewhat ironically, if a “pro” fiction author ever says that they dislike fanfiction, or that they see people who write fanfiction as “blaspheming” on the world, its characters, or its creator(s), I stop supporting them. On the other hand, if I found out that a fanfiction author that I like or admire has “gone pro,” I will likely read their books (cheers, Marissa Meyer!). If there’s a fic author out there who has a bad reputation in fandom, I will actively feel gross every time I see one of their books/movies/comics/whatever (ugh, Cassandra Clare and E.L. James), and will most likely avoid their works entirely. I completely understand when authors say they don’t actively seek out fanfiction for their own works, out of fear of some sort of legal retribution. Of course, I can’t see that ever applying unless an author read a fanfic, somehow adapted its ideas into a subsequent publication, and then never gave any credit to the fanfiction author.

Cover of "Ransom My Heart," a novel written by the fictional character Mia Thermopolis from Meg Cabot's "The Princess Diaries" series
“Ransom My Heart,” a novel written by Meg Cabot’s fictional character, Princess Mia Thermopolis. Is it somehow fanfiction? Can you write fanfiction of your own characters?

For example, in one Meg Cabot interview about her bestselling series The Princess Diaries, she mentions forgetting one of the character’s addresses. Rather than grab a copy of one of her own books off the shelf, she elected to do a web search instead, and the first result was a fanfiction: a crossover between The Princess Diaries and Harry Potter, where Princess Mia gets a Hogwarts letter. First off, if you know what this fanfic is, please send me the link! It sounds great! Second, Meg Cabot went on to say that she didn’t read much of it, but forwarded the link to several of her friends. She clearly thought it was funny, but she didn’t feel comfortable reading it in its entirety, even though it’s completely implausible that she would ever write a book crossing over her own character, Mia Thermopolis, with those of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Even if it ended up somehow spawning another, similar concept (a princess discovers she’s also a witch, and trains to be a good one while struggling with teenage angst, growing pains, and her classmate’s apparent “destiny” before aiming to return to her country and rule properly), it still wouldn’t be the same as the fanfic.

Here’s where I can imagine a lot of fans being divided: if that were your fanfic, would you have wanted Meg Cabot to comment? If so, would you have wanted her to be completely honest with what she thought of how you handled her characters? What about J.K. Rowling? I imagine many fans would be simultaneously excited and terrified by the thought of a fandom’s creator reading their fanfiction. It might encourage some writers to do their very best work, to make the characters as familiar as possible, even if they’re being dumped into an entirely different world (such as the Wizarding World of Harry Potter) or circumstances (such as dealing with a teenage princess while also worrying about trolls in the dungeon). On the other hand, it might make other writers terrified of “not being good enough,” and not living up to the author’s impeccable standards, even if that same author knows that their own work had to go through plenty of edits before it became the well-known, bestselling, published piece it is today.

What’s a bit less intimidating than having your fanfic read by the fandom’s creator? Having it read by your local librarian! Many libraries offer writing programs for teens and adults alike, and fanfiction is a great way to comfortably break into these events. To make even the most skeptical of library patrons feel comfortable with the notion of writing something that was started/generated/spawned by someone else, Ford cites adult services librarian Nancy-Anne Davies from the Toronto Public Library:

“Depending on how widely you want to open up the definition, you can find evidence for fan fiction going back centuries.”

Many people will cite Star Trek zines as the first place where fanfiction appeared, but if you want to be technical about it, technically many fairy tales, Shakespeare’s plays, and famous myths are fanfiction. If another work is a “jumping off” point for your work, does that make your work fanfiction? Why not? In this way, we remove the stigma from reading and writing fanfiction, and instead celebrate the idea of reading for enjoyment, writing for whatever reason you want, and embrace the challenge of “playing in someone else’s sandbox.”

Fangirl novel by Rainbow RowellFord mentions bigger names in fandom that have gotten attention for freely talking about fanfiction and their relationship with it: again, E.L. James, who wrote her Fifty Shades novels as Masters of the Universe (Twilight fic, not He-Man, much to my disappointment) before “filing off the serial numbers” and getting it published professionally. There’s also Cassandra Clare, who supposedly started the “Draco in Leather Pants” trope, turning her own Harry Potter fic into what is now the Mortal Instruments series. There’s also Rainbow Rowell, who not only wrote a book about a fanfiction writer (Fangirl), but followed it up with a book (Carry On) set in the universe that her fanfiction writer wrote about. Talk about meta!

Libraries can utilize fanfiction by using it to help bridge the gap between what is available at the library on a given topic and what isn’t. Not all fanfiction-related material is actual fiction, either; there are plenty of fandom-related encyclopedias (often in the form of wikis), galleries that can demonstrate a diversity of art styles and methods, and articles dissecting everything from a show’s choice in music to its underlying themes as they relate to World War II Japan. Fanfiction and related materials can also encourage people to think about library materials in a different way.

Think about this possible event: a librarian pre-selects a stack of mystery books. There will be some short stories, some graphic novels, some excerpts from popular YA novels, and some excerpts from novel adaptations of movies. Program participants randomly get one of these things and then have to create their own work based off what they read. It could be writing that continues the story (or acts as a prologue to it), an essay analyzing it, a piece of art inspired by it, or even a collection of songs that speak to the work’s themes. Would you attend such an event, even if you had no idea what sort of works you’d be encountering? Would you participate? If so, what would you consider creating?

Fanfiction, in other words, is a perfectly valid source of information, and a gateway to learning even more about a variety of topics: fans and fannish behavior, art, media, costuming, research, language, culture, realism, and so much more.

I used to be part of a local writer’s group. Upwards of 20 adults got together at someone’s house and talked about each other’s work. Participants were expected to read a pre-selected member’s work ahead of time and be able to comment on it within a short period of time. They could also print out a copy and make editorial marks to give back to the author, and only mention specific points during the group conversation. The submitting member would be limited in how many pages they shared, in the best interests of the time limits of the group members.

It was all well and good, up until it was my turn to submit. Everyone in the group wrote such different stories, I couldn’t claim to be inspired by their writing so much as their process, writing regularly, editing diligently, and sharing with the intent of learning and growing as a writer. So used to writing fanfiction, I stressed over what I could possibly submit that would be original but still interesting enough to these readers. I ended up writing the first chapter of a paranormal YA story, but I never got beyond that. While I got great feedback on the story, what I really wanted to write –or rather, finish— was my fanfiction. Since I assumed it wouldn’t be welcome in a group aspiring to become professional published authors, I stopped going. And, without anyone to hold me accountable in-person, I stopped writing as often.

Libraries, again, can bridge this gap by being a safe place where people of all ages can get together and share their love of fanfiction. It could be a discussion group (much like a book club), or it could be a writing group, divided up by fandom or age range. While it’s easy to “ghost” online groups or be cruel to anonymous avatars, it’s not so in a public, in-person group. Still, such a group wouldn’t be for everyone: many people keep their fandom lives and their public “IRL” lives completely separate on purpose. This is not to say they’re necessarily ashamed of their fanfiction habits; people can have a number of reasons why they keep the two distinct. This is important to libraries as much as it is to fanfiction readers and writers. Adds Davies,

“For people who may have only interacted with the library online or may have not been involved with the library before, this is an impetus for them to get more involved.”

Even libraries without a regular youth and teen services librarian can get involved, Ford says, by having a fanfiction contest. The irony is that while it makes perfect sense for a library to encourage such a contest, when professional authors or organizations do it (cf. Kindle Worlds, or Orson Scott Card’s Heel Face Turn on Ender’s Game fanfiction), they end up looking exploitative and hypocritical. People who have been writing fanfiction for years, and find it near and dear to their hearts most likely won’t participate in such contests, but of course, every writer is different.

What about you? Would you write fanfiction in your local library? Would you share it with other fic writers at your library, or with library staff interested in fanfiction, or in the same fandom? Would you enter a library-sponsored fanfiction contest? Why or why not?

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