Fanfiction as Art Form: Understanding the Derivative as Creativity
April 22, 2015
by katherine frain, poetry editor
Let’s talk about The Establishment.
Not the band. While I’m one hundred percent sure there’s a respectable band with that name (or there should be), I want to talk about The Establishment as people who write know it. It’s The Establishment that keeps the VIDA counts abysmal, that keeps disabled romance movies from hitting the theaters, that keeps rap categorized as ‘that black music one white guy does’ because there’s no respect for art when you have to be spitting it on the spot, or when the person who’s dropping the paint isn’t an artfully put together wisp with a vacant stare to challenge the sun.
Basquiat, I see you. Toni Morrison I see you. Amy Tan I see you, but I also see the way none of your art was ever considered standard for the public-school subjects I was taught. I see how my cousin confused Morrison and Maya Angelou when Maya Angelou died. And honestly, how long have we been mourning the live artists as dead?
The Establishment is an idea. It’s an idea that manifests itself in black suits and blue ties, sure, in executives crowded around gold-plated records crowing over the fact that we’ve taught ourselves over and over that only one kind of art is valid, that only one kind of art is commercially viable, that commercially viable and valid can somehow be conflated.
Guys, this is where the fangirls get upset.
Suck the startled laugh back in. Fangirls are a revelation in a landscape that’s dedicated to declaring art dead among the young: fanfiction itself is without a doubt the largest and most complex testament to people’s undying love for a story. Some people – generally men – even get respect for writing fanfiction, as long as you don’t call it that: Joss Whedon’s entire Avengers series is built on fanfiction of comic-book heroes and vaguely Norse mythology.
I want to set up right now that I think of The Establishment as everything we – writers, consumers, creators – think of as vaguely Respectable and Brand-Appropriate, even if we don’t consciously agree with those labels. The Establishment is the idea I had that I shouldn’t write poems about my feelings because my teenage girl feelings were not Respectable. The Establishment is everything The Toast eats for breakfast.
Fanfiction is…not The Establishment. The most shocking thing about fanfiction is that after fifty pages of it, you realize that you recognize the elements; the plot set-up and the character-drawing, while they might not always look like they came out of Granta, are absolutely normal. But Hermione Granger may be black. Sherlock may be a 1920’s lesbian dealing with the postwar era. Dumbledore may be pregnant – and still be a man.
Ultimately, fanfiction is about this change. It’s about women who are sick of not seeing themselves reflected in popular work, or women who seek to reclaim and reclassify power positions labeled male. It’s about women who want to see partners who are both in a position of power and in a position of equal power, which might be part of the reason that so much fanfiction is unabashedly gay. It’s about voyeurism, plain and simple.
Fanfiction is written by more nonbinary- than male-identified people by any Archive of Our Own survey. It’s the place where the displaced gather, and The Establishment can keep spinning its records on the wall, because in the bootleg version Castiel and Deanna are stepping out in their high heels, hand in hand.