The science fiction and fantasy community has long been plagued by gatekeepers, people (usually men) who see themselves as guardians of the fandom, whose job it is to ensure that only ‘real fans’… Well, I don’t know. Call themselves fans? Talk about the fandom?
I couldn’t say what gatekeepers intend to do. I’ve never understood the mentality of trying to keep people away from something I enjoy, as though that will somehow diminish my enjoyment of it. Joy, after all, does not exist in limited quantities, and it’s more fun to have someone else to share my love of a thing. But there are people out there (usually men) who seem to think it necessary to establish ‘The Canon’ as this Great Thing From Which We Must Not Deviate, and then force out anyone who dares to suggest something different from The Canon.
Enter fanfiction. Long regarded as the ridiculous domain of equally ridiculous teenage girls, fanfiction has been the target of endless stereotyping and disdain either because gatekeepers hate anything that isn’t canonical (and fanfiction often isn’t), or because the Old Guard of science fiction and fantasy still doesn’t take non-male writers seriously.
Far from being merely the domain of teenage girls, however (and really, what’s wrong with being a teenaged girl? Half the world’s population is, will be, or was a teenaged girl at some point in their lives), fanfiction is a refuge for an array of human beings seeking to engage with their favorite cultural works in ways that are applicable to their own situations. Whether the writer is a thirteen-year-old girl stretching her writing wings for the first time or a forty-something genderqueer person venting frustration with the world, fanfiction provides us with a means of engaging with our favorite characters, stories, and settings in new and meaningful ways that aren’t guarded by trollish gatekeepers or serving corporate interests.
Since its founding in 2009, Archive of Our Own, or AO3, has given women, LGBTQIA, and other marginalized groups a voice online and a place where we can rave about our love of the Fandom du Jour or find new stories about people we’re curious about. It also gives us a place to theorize– for example, what if it hadn’t been the 1990s and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s Garak/Bashir friendship had a chance to become a romantic relationship that developed across five seasons? Or what would have happened had Johnlock been more than merely subtext on Sherlock? Fanfiction allows us to investigate the possibilities of the original source material as it relates to us as individuals.
But AO3 has not solely been an archive for fanfiction. The creators and administrators, many of whom work on a volunteer basis, have been relentless in their efforts to maintain a free and open internet where fanfic writers can post their stories without worrying about being sued by corporate entities, having their work taken down without warning, or being de-platformed entirely. Thanks to AO3, we’re all a little bit more free to engage with the things we like.
Though the broader community has been reluctant to admit that fanfiction is kind of a big deal, that opinion is starting to change. Now that AO3 has been around for a decade and many fanfic writers have become published, award-winning authors in their own right, the opinion that fanfic writers are silly teenage girls writing coffee shop drabbles about their favorite non-canonical M/M pairings is starting to change. Of course, there are still plenty of teenage girls writing coffee shop drabbles, but there are plenty of stories where the writing, character arcs, and worldbuilding rival that of major SFF authors.
With its 2019 Hugo Award for Best Related Work, AO3 is finally getting some of the recognition it deserves. The people who keep AO3 up and running put in an immense amount of work to ensure that every fan can have a voice and tell their stories.
So congratualtions to AO3 and the dedicated people who look after it! Theirs is a labor of love that is finally getting the recognition it deserves.
Side Note: I have written plenty of fanfiction throughout the years, and though I haven’t been active on the site for several years, I still have an AO3 account. Most days, I get an email notifying me that I’ve gotten at least a few kudos for my stories. And no, I will not tell you my user name there. You’ll have to figure that out on your own. Good luck.
Side Note II: If you think about it, fanfiction has been around much longer than we give it credit for. Far from being a phenomenon born of social media, fanfiction has given writers a chance to tell all sorts of stories for a long, long time. Nevermind the Star Trek fanzines from the late 1960s that produced the first Kirk/Spock romances (and gave us the term ‘slash’ for same-sex pairings). The work of Chretien de Troyes from the Twelfth century, for example, give us our first instance of Lancelot du Lac, who hadn’t existed in Arthurian lore before that. Basically, Chretien de Troyes introduced a Mary Sue OC who became so popular that his affair with Queen Guinevere became canonical and survives to this day as pretty much everyone’s Arthurian OTP. You’ll even see it in a lot of BBC’s Merlin fanfic in AU stories where the Merlin/Arthur bromance turns into an actual romance, allowing Gwen/Lancelot to once again become everyone’s OTP.