Internet fanfiction is becoming mainstream – but not necessarily more representative

The once-mocked internet pastime for teens is starting to be taken seriously. But the stories going mainstream may not represent wider fanfic culture.

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The internet lost its collective shit yesterday when Aviron Pictures released the highly anticipated teaser trailer for the movie After, based on the bestselling novel of the same name. The film, starring Josephine Langford and Ralph Fiennes’s nephew, the highly believably named Hero Fiennes-Tiffin, is a classic romance story, of a girl (Tessa) who meets a boy (Hardin) at university and has her otherwise perfectly planned, Type A life thrown into disarray by the ensuing relationship. “After your first,” the movie’s tagline reads, explaining its name, “Life will never be the same.” “My life before him was so simple,” Tessa says in the 90 second clip, “and now there’s just…after.” At the time of writing, the trailer posted to Twitter has been retweeted nearly 30,000 times and has over 4.5 million views.

“OK, this seems like a standard teen romance film,” you may be wondering. “Why is everyone so hyped?” The answer to this question lies in the fact that, in the original story, Hardin’s first name was actually Harry – after Harry Styles. And the book – After – was originally erotic One Direction internet fanfiction.

For the uninitiated, fanfiction is relatively self-explanatory – it is fictional stories based on worlds/characters/people that already exist. While this is not strictly in the definition, internet fanfiction has the connotation of being heavily sexualised, with much of it being entirely based on imagined romantic subplots and including graphic sex scenes between characters from the original work. (If you want some examples/explanations of fanfic, Stephen Bush wrote about his truly wonderful Harry Potter fanfiction last year and, for the same themed week, Eleanor Margolis, wrote about Harry Potter fanfiction erotica).

The series of fanfiction posts that became After, the book, started on Wattpad, a popular fanfiction publishing site, in 2013. Over the course of a year, the series grew to have 101 parts, over one million words, and 450 million reads, leading it to be picked up and published by publishing house Simon & Schuster. Its viral popularity even caught the attention of Paramount Pictures, which purchased the film rights in October 2014, resulting in the above film coming out in April 2019.

Although After’s success story may seem like an anomaly, fanfiction is becoming increasingly mainstream. While there are plenty of examples of non-internet fanfic in popular culture, such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Bridget Jones’ Diary, and even Paradise Lost, internet fancfiction is getting more and more airtime. Fifty Shades of Grey, which was originally online erotic Twilight fanfic, is the most well-known example. And while you might think that fanfic readers and writers would rejoice at seeing their often mocked, admonished as “nerdy” hobby become the basis for blockbuster films and franchises, you would be wrong. Fanfiction’s mainstream turn is riddled with problems, according to long-time readers – particularly in what kind of fanfiction actually becomes the pop culture hits.

Sam, 20, who has been reading fanfic for eight years, is one of these people. They say that fanfiction has evolved as an outlet for predominantly gay romantic plots, but this is not reflected in the storylines picked up by conventional publishers and TV studios. “For example, [in Harry Potter fandom],” Sam explains, “There weren't that many Harry/Ginny fanfics that were well-known when Harry Potter fanfic first came about, but there were loads of well-known Drarry [Draco/Harry] fanfics.”

The reason for this, Sam argues, stems from the lack of non-heterosexual relationships portrayed in mainstream film, television, and novels, which drove LGBT+ teens to read and create their own romantic story plots online. “These characters wouldn't get together in canon [slang for original source material] because of homophobia,” Sam tells me. They argue that, despite the fact that romantic fanfiction is so overwhelming gay, it’s only “het nonsense” that breaks through to the mainstream.

Many critics of mainstream fanfiction agree. Vox, Mashable, Syfy, and CNN have all published in-depth studies of the demographics of internet fanfiction, which look at the characters in fanfiction as well as the people reading and writing it. The research shows that fanfic not only gives a platform to far fewer heteronormative stories (instead making room for LGBT+ focused romantic plots), but also give space for teens, women, and, essentially, anyone who doesn’t identify as a straight, white, cis man to tell their stories and explore their sexuality. After Benedict Cumberbatch complained in 2014 about fanfiction’s obsession with a Sherlock-Watson hyper-erotic romance (known as “Johnlock”), Elizabeth Minkel put it perfectly in her rebuttal for the New Statesman. “Fan fiction gives women and other marginalised groups the chance to subvert the mainstream perspective,” she wrote. “To fracture a story and recast it in their own way.”

This is where fanfic readers find After particularly problematic. It might have been an incredibly popular story, but One Direction fanfic has been almost solely focused on a supposedly secret gay romance between Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson, commonly known as “Larry Shipping” (slang for “Louis-Harry relationship”). “I've always thought of 1D fanfics as basically entirely gay,” Stephen, 30, tells me, who has been reading fanfic for around a decade (alongside his wife). “I've barely seen any straight 1D fanfic.” Sam adds: “I legit didn’t know het One Direction fanfic was a thing.” Larry Shipping is so prevalent that several mainstream outlets, such as Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, and even the Telegraphhave reported on the phenomenon. The internet culture podcast Reply All dedicated its sixth ever episode to the Larry Shipping phenomenon.

Although After, much like its erotic fanfic counterpart Fifty Shades of Grey, is undeniably a hit, it is ultimately a part of small fraction of hetero-fanfic – in and amongst a sea of far more popular gay fanfic plotlines.

Fanfiction of all kinds, though, can come with challenges. As Julia, 27, who has been reading and writing fanfic since she was 11, tells me: “There’s this duality to fanfiction where it’s supposed to be a safe space for young people (especially women) to explore their sexuality, but is often a way to disseminate bad tropes.” She points out that in a lot of erotic fanfiction, sex is forceful and more often than not, BDSM – regularly blurring the lines of consent to an audience of, mostly, teens. One other fanfic reader and writer, who asked to remain anonymous, tells me that much of gay fanfiction also involves sex scenes written by straight women, which creates a host of problems where young gay men reading fanfiction online get a skewed view of what gay sex is actually like, simply because it’s written by someone who has never had it.

These concerns, though, seem unlikely to halt the rise of internet fanfiction. If After continues to replicate the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, we can start to expect to see more fanfic hits making its way into mainstream popular culture. However, if the trend stays the same, the general public will get a lopsided view of what fanfiction really is – a place used to elevate gay, lesbian, and trans voices may soon become just another place to elevate straight ones.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.