Writers Have to Be Supported to Survive


I’ve recently seen several posts with tens of thousands of notes circulating around Tumblr that are extremely critical of the idea of fanfic writers accepting donations to support their activities. Many of them, such as the one excerpted above, refer to the guidelines of AO3, which are meant to defend the right of the site to exist on the basis that the content it hosts is purely transformative and not intended for profit. The undertone of these posts, however, is a strong pushback against the idea that fanfic writers might aspire to the same levels of professional success and support as other creators in fandom.

I would like to argue that the idea that fan writers deserve to have a choice whether to receive compensation for their work is reasonable, especially since many highly visible fan artists, YouTubers, and Twitch streamers can receive hundreds, thousands, and even tens of thousands of dollars every month through donation sites like Patreon and Ko-fi.

Yes, intellectual property is protected by law and legal precedent, and it’s important to understand fandom history and to respect the ongoing battle AO3 has to fight. And yes, fan writers use copyright-protected names and scenarios. At the same time, fan artists use protected names, scenarios, and images, while YouTubers and streamers use protected sound and video – and sometimes the entirety of the protected work. If the “transformative work” and “added value” and “critical commentary” and “performance” arguments of fair use laws apply to visual artists, video creators, and streamers, why don’t they work for writers?

There are three things going on here.

The first is that AO3 is an independent NPO, not a giant media conglomerate. Even if YouTube is forced to take down certain videos that violate intellectual property laws, YouTube itself is not in danger of being taken offline. AO3 is in a much more precarious situation and therefore has to be extra cautious. This is an issue specific to AO3, however, and it’s not universally applicable to other hosting and sharing sites.

The second is that many media corporations in the United States consider digital images to be ephemeral, meaning that they have a short shelf life in the popular consciousness. Fan art and video streams shared on social media will help to promote a piece of media while it’s still trendy, but they also tend to be quickly consumed and discarded and thus aren’t perceived as being in danger of becoming long-term competition for the original media property. Because it used to be published in the form of physical books and magazines, fanfic was considered to be competition, but this perception has changed, partially due to the support fanfic has received from commercially successful writers like J.K. Rowling and George R.R. Martin.

The third is sexism. This is complicated; but, to make a long story short, fanfic has been treated differently because, unlike illustration and video editing, it is primarily associated with communities of women.

Media industries overwhelmingly dominated by men, such as comics and movies, have always provided ways for younger male fans to enter the industry as professionals. There is a long history of commercial studios actively scouting emerging talent from popular fan artists and amateur video producers, so media corporations have a vested interest in not completely shutting down spaces in which these creators can develop and exhibit their talents. For example, an aspiring comic artist can take his portfolio of X-Men character illustrations to a comics convention to show to an industry representative, and Marvel will hire him if they like his fan art. Because these industries have traditionally been male-dominated, however, the work of women was seen as derivative and embarrassing. A male artist who drew a fan comic would get a job, and a woman who wrote fanfic of the same media property would get a cease and desist letter.

Moreover, women have historically been expected to be the keepers of public morality. For instance, a male professor who writes mediocre novels about cheating on his wife with underage female students can easily be promoted to the head of a prestigious creative writing program, while a woman in any profession can be in danger of losing her job for writing any novel at all. Because of this, many female writers have had to hide their creative careers in a way that male artists and video producers have not. Even though these prejudices are fading, many fic writers are still very serious about protecting their real names and identities. At the same time, many fan artists and other creators use their fanwork to promote themselves while using their professional names – and, thanks to social media, we can now see that not all of these creators are male.

Because a new generation of female and nonbinary fan artists, animators, video producers, and streamers are now comfortable pursuing their creative careers while using their professional names and accepting donations while they establish themselves, it only makes sense that fan writers would want to do the same thing. After all, if people like Rebecca Sugar and Noelle Stevenson can go from posting popular fan art and fan comics on Tumblr to becoming mainstream showrunners, why couldn’t a female or nonbinary fanfic writer go on to become an actual scriptwriter for the next, say, Star Wars or Pokémon movie? If illustrators, comic artists, YouTubers, and Twitch streamers can receive donations to support their fanwork while they establish their careers, what arbitrary rule says that writers can’t do the same thing while still respecting AO3’s legal guidelines?

There is an entire generation of younger writers who have come into fandom with ambitions of professional success and no understanding of why they should feel pressured to separate their fandom identity from their professional identity or why they shouldn’t have the choice to receive the same support as creators working in other mediums. Instead of mocking younger writers for not knowing fandom history – and instead of shaming older writers for resisting outdated prejudices – I think it’s worth it to support them and hopefully change the culture.

Most people don’t want donations and only think of fandom as a fun escapist hobby, but writers should still be able to access the same choices as other creatives. I’ve already shared my thoughts about the issues I personally have with Patreon, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want other people to explore that option for themselves. After all, writers have to be supported for fanfic to survive.

I feel like I could write an entire book about this – and I have! I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the publisher can stick to the May 2020 release date, because I’d really like to talk more about fandom and cultural change, as well as what the achievements of artists might suggest about the future of fiction.

Fanfic Content Warnings

I take content warnings seriously. Really, I do.

I teach upper-level college classes in women’s fiction, queer fiction, and horror fiction, which collectively contain all manner of gendered violence. I also teach non-Western fiction, which can sometimes contain depictions of politicized issues (such as race) that some Americans might find difficult or offensive. I don’t give my students a written list of content warnings, as such a list can be triggering in and of itself, but I do give them specific warnings in advance of a reading as part of the “housekeeping” announcements I usually make before I start class; and, like all announcements, I repeat content warnings in staggered intervals to make sure the message has a chance to reach everyone who needs it. I also try to be sensitive to the specific needs of individual students, who have disclosed a range of personal triggers from “portrayals of self-harm” to “vivid descriptions of the color red.” Making sure that no one in my classes is exposed to triggering content without reasonable warning is the easiest and least awkward thing in the world, and I genuinely don’t understand why there is or ever was a debate about it.

So, when I say this, I say it as someone who has devoted a great deal of thought to the issue and accumulated several years of relevant experience dealing with it:

I don’t think fanfiction needs to be tagged with appropriate content warnings in order for the author to have the “right” to post it.

I’ve certainly found my way into stories that I had to back-button out of, and I appreciate when fic writers tag the obvious content warnings (which I suspect actually helps readers find these stories, especially when it comes to niche interests). That being said, I don’t think it makes any sense to treat the people who read sexually explicit fanfic on AO3 like innocent children whose hands need to be held at all times. Like, if a story description reads “Bowser pounds Peach with his monster cock in front of an audience,” then the reader should be expected to understand what they’re getting into.

It’s also frustrating that many of the content warnings I’ve started to see in the past two years reflect puritanical American standards regarding the “protected status” of children, who must never be exposed to “bad” things until they’re 21. A good example of this is the recent insistence on tagging things like “underage drinking,” because it’s apparently “abusive” if an anime catboy from a Japanese video game set in a fantasy world so much as mentions having had wine with dinner. This is especially distressing because a “Mature” or “Explicit” rating on a story clearly indicates that it’s adult content that an adult has written for the amusement of other adults. If someone is still too young to be comfortable with adult themes and depictions of the adult world, then they shouldn’t be reading that story in the first place.

According to the same logic, I believe an adult reader should be expected to understand that a fictional depiction of something is not intended to condone or promote it. Fanfic in which two Overwatch characters take turns pegging each other is not a Disney movie intended to teach life lessons to children. If one of the characters has a mental illness or a tragic past that isn’t properly addressed within the narrative according to current standards of political correctness, this is not “erasure” or “bad representation.” Representation is achieved by people from marginalized positions having a platform to give voice to their stories and perspectives, and making these people afraid to use this platform because they’ve watched people like them being violently harassed for not tagging their smutfic with “romanticized depiction of a disability” (or what have you) isn’t conducive to actual representation.

An argument I see with disturbing frequency on fandom discourse blogs is something along the lines of “it’s okay to write fanfic with dark themes if it’s properly tagged, because this helps people understand that what they’re reading is problematic.” If you compare this to a similar statement meant to promote inclusive representation, such as “it’s okay to write fanfic because your voice is important and you deserve a chance to speak,” it becomes clear how stressful and confining moral prescriptivism is. Why does fiction – especially fanfiction, which is subcultural and countercultural – need to have to have some sort of moral in order to be allowed to exist?

It’s obvious to me that this whole mess is caught up in the sexist expectation that adult women should be the keepers of public morality. According to Tumblr-based fandom, which reflects the near-constant messaging present in many societies across the world, a woman stops being her own person and starts being a mother at around the age of 25. Once she’s crossed this threshold, her main purpose in life is to THINK OF THE CHIDLERN!!1! at all times. As a genderqueer nonbinary person, I understand that not everyone who writes and reads fanfic is “a woman,” but this doesn’t change the fact that fandom policing mirrors the purity politics that many women have to deal with in real life, according to which they’re only “allowed” to do something “selfish” if they can justify it as morally wholesome.

In any case, I still stand behind my main principle when it comes to fandom, which is that fictional characters are not real. Actual human beings, on the other hand, deserve not to be harassed for what they do for fun on the internet in their spare time.

Perspective

A list of some novels with an average number of chapters & word count per chapter
https://aquiniawrites.tumblr.com/post/183745409506/thought-it-might-be-useful-a-list-of-some-novels

I tend to write (and enjoy, and translate) shorter novels and novellas, so it felt validating for me to get a bit of perspective on word counts. There tends to be a major privileging of massive word counts in certain communities devoted to writing and publishing, and this has always bothered me. Like, it’s not a test score; more words does not equal more better.

This is not a criticism of people who write longer stories, of course. I love huge novels, but diversity is good.

For me personally, I think the sweet spot for a book is around 50k-60k words, although I also enjoy French and Japanese novellas and short story collections of around 30k-40k words.

This is one of the many reasons I appreciate fanfic, by the way. Although I actively seek out the publications of small presses, these presses tend to be extremely male-dominated. Mainstream English-language publishing houses promote way more women, people of color, and other minorities than a lot of liberal-leaning critics give them credit for, but the books they put out are still depressingly homogeneous in a number of significant ways. There are a lot of online fiction magazines that do fantastic work, but they tend to be strict about word counts, with anything above 6k-8k words being immediately rejected. It’s therefore wonderful to have access to such a wealth of interesting writing that falls entirely outside the number-driven standards of what would ordinarily be published.

Fanfiction, Numbers, and a Very Small Window

So I recently found a short essay…

Ten Simple Ways To Get More Attention For Your Fanwork

https://melannen.dreamwidth.org/354977.html

This is all reasonable, at least in my experience, but the truth is that fandom engagement seems to have dropped off for most writers during the past two years. Almost no one posts or links to their fanfic on Tumblr anymore, but what I do see are posts with massive numbers of notes about how painful it is to be ignored by your fandom, possible reasons why no one leaves kudos anymore, and so on.

There’s a pervasive idea that you can build your own audience if you’re consistent and good at what you do, but the most popular thing I ever wrote was a steaming heap of garbage that I posted on Fanfiction.net back when Fanfiction.net was still mainstream in, like, 2009. I think a lot about how maybe I missed a window of opportunity, and how maybe I just wasn’t born in the right year. Like, maybe if I were a little older, maybe I would have been able to “make it” before social media blew up and collapsed in on itself. Or maybe, if I were younger, I would have had access to the resources and platforms that could have helped me develop my skills and community when I was still a student.

I’m afraid that the real truth is that some people are never going to make it, and maybe I’m just one of those people, unfortunately. Even worse, maybe my entire generation is never going to make it.

I think all of this is definitely worth worrying about, and not just from the perspective of a writer. Over the past four years, I’ve seen so many incredibly talented fanfic authors just up and disappear after expressing frustration with not getting any feedback, and it kills me. I wanted them to keep writing for very selfish reasons – I wanted them to finish a story they were serializing, or I really enjoyed reading their work and would have read anything they posted in any fandom. I hope they stopped sharing fanfic because they became professional writers, but I’m afraid that a lot of people probably just gave up and quit.

I have immense respect for professionally published authors, as well as people who are capable of doing the social media hustle, but I also desperately want to see the re-emergence of a healthy fanfic culture on more subcultural platforms like Tumblr.

Fanfic on Tumblr

I just read a brilliant post on Dreamwidth titled “State of the Migration: On fannish archival catastrophes, and what happens next” about, well, exactly what it says on the label. There has been some concern about Pillowfort, and I’ve seen a few curated lists of other alternatives to Tumblr, but I’m going to be honest and admit that what I really want for the next fandom hub is that it’s fanfic friendly. Tumblr was a great platform for visual artists, but it wasn’t such a good place to host or promote writing.

As a fic writer, I believe with all of my heart that fan artists are wonderful, which is why I support a number of them through Patreon, Ko-fi, and commissions. I reblog the work of fan artists because I love it and I want it to spread, even if my contribution to the artists’ success is limited. Almost every writer I know is supportive of artists in their own way. Artists make fantastic contributions to fandom, and they deserve love!

At the same time, I’ve sometimes felt resentful that many people in Tumblr-based fandom don’t go out of their way to support fic writers in the same way. In fact, most don’t even bother to click on the “like” button of the fic posts that appear in the tags they use on Tumblr. This may seem petty, but it’s actually a big deal. Not only does the small show of support of “liking” a post fill the hearts of writers with joy, but it also figures into the metrics of the Tumblr platform itself, which promotes posts and keeps them from disappearing from the appropriate tags based on how many notes they receive.

I recently read a great essay, Social Contract Theory and Fandom Libertarianism, whose author argues that people with a libertarian approach to fandom want “all the benefits of living in a society without any sort of responsibility for their fellow community members.” I think many fans want the “benefits of living in a society,” such as a steady stream of quality content, positive feedback, encouragement, and the occasional monetary donation – because of course they do – but they may not fully understand why it’s important to help support the community that supports them. After all, the popular fan artists have thousands of followers, and their posts get hundreds (and often thousands) of notes, so the community is doing fine, right?

Unfortunately, there are a lot of fic writers (including myself) who’ve struggled through a dark and painful space on Tumblr. The libertarian approach to this concern is that “everyone should just take care of themselves and leave everyone else alone.” In theory, this should work. The problem is that the prevailing fan culture on Tumblr has been skewed heavily in favor of artists, and what this has meant in practice is that fewer people have been posting their stories. Over the past four years, from the summer of 2014 to the end of 2018, I’ve watched the number of fic posts on about two dozen fandom tags I track dwindle down to almost nothing, even as the fandoms themselves continue to be quite active.

One might argue that the platform itself is to blame. This makes a certain amount of sense, as the layout of the site facilitates the rapid consumption of images, while writing often takes more time to process. In addition, depending on the interface, “Read More” cuts and links may not work properly. That being said, Tumblr recommends posts based on the activity of each individual user. For example, if a user likes a lot of text posts, Tumblr will recommend more text posts. This means that there doesn’t seem to be any innate programming that works against text posts, as Tumblr does not hide text posts on tracked tags, and image posts are just as likely as text posts to disappear from tags if they don’t receive enough notes.

The root of the problem is that many people on Tumblr, as individuals, do not support fic writers. They will not like fic posts, they will not reblog fic posts, and many will not even bother to look at fic posts if they don’t see them reblogged by someone else. Moreover, even though it’s relatively common for fan artists to draw fan art that celebrates the work of other artists, the vast majority of people specializing in visual art on Tumblr would never consider drawing fan art for someone’s fic. There are exceptions, of course; but, in my experience, they are extremely rare. No matter how involved a fic writer may be in the fandom community, and no matter how much support a fic writer may give to other creators, most people won’t acknowledge the existence of their writing.

In other words, the work of fic authors work may as well not exist. This is probably why I’ve seen so many writers get discouraged and leave their fandoms or quit Tumblr altogether over the past five years. Millions of stories are still being posted to Archive of Our Own, but AO3 is not a social networking site and was not designed to facilitate friendship, community-building, and collaboration. Meanwhile, the entire purpose of Tumblr is to create relationships between users, but writers rarely end up benefitting from their engagement.

The sad thing is that, again, this bias against writers is not innate to the platform itself, and the culture within fandom doesn’t have to be the way it is now. To give a personal example, when a fandom artist reblogs one of my fic posts, I can get hundreds of notes and dozens of new followers. That sort of thing means the world to me – all creators value positive feedback, after all – but it only happens about once every six months. This has been enough support to keep me going, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt that the majority of my fic posts only get seven or eight notes. I’ve tried experimenting with all sorts of variables, from the content of what I post to the length of what I post to when I post to how often I post, but nothing I’ve done has affected the reception I’ve received. What has surprised me most is that the reception of my writing is also completely unrelated to the size of my following; I currently get the same number of notes on my writing with thousands of followers as I used to get with only several hundred followers.

And this, I think, is why the culture of fanfic on Tumblr died out, while fandom culture in general seems to have gone off the deep end. Writers contribute fresh new ideas, create meta and stories that inspire people, and make high-quality shitposts. They are vital to fandom, and they keep online communities (especially communities for niche interests) healthy, friendly, and thriving. I hope that, wherever fandom ends up, the slow migration from Tumblr serves as a catalyst for a change in the culture.

Fanfic Writers and “The Money Question”

I wish a statement like “people would pay to read your original writing” weren’t considered such an insult in fandom. To me, it’s a combination of two sentiments:

(1) I want you to be fairly compensated for your talents. You should be able to pay the rent doing this amazing thing you do so very well.

(2) I want you to be able to quit the job you hate so that you can spend more time doing the thing you love. You would win, and everyone else would win because we would get to read more of your work and share it with people outside our circle of fandom.

For people who can afford it, there is an established path of going to college, majoring in Creative Writing, and then going on to get an MFA. Along this path, there are multiple opportunities for publication and self-promotion. Being part of an active fandom community can be just as intellectually stimulating, educational, and skill-developing as the best of degree programs, but there’s no real path laid out for us for concerning “what to do next” as we get older and need to support ourselves financially.

I can’t help but think that this has to do partially with the way that fic still isn’t considered “real” writing by many established professional authors, and I wonder how much of this is tied up with gender and the expectation that women won’t receive money for their work. Moreover, because women’s writing is often downplayed in Creative Writing programs and other “serious” literary venues, many women have turned to fandom to share their stories with a sympathetic and engaged fannish audience, which also tends to skew female (and nonbinary and queer). For many fic writers, entering the world of professionally published fiction means leaving behind a large and supportive community and disowning a substantial body of writing.

In any case, I wish that we could talk about “what happens next” for fic writers. Sure, it’s empowering to do what you enjoy, but it’s also empowering to be able to make a living by doing what you enjoy.

So how do we do that? I really want fandom to have this conversation. Episode 86 of the Fansplaining podcast, “The Money Question” (here’s the transcript), touches on this issue in terms of monetizing fanwork through platforms like Patreon and Ko-Fi, as well as the legal position of AO3, but I want the conversation about the relationship between fanfic and professional writing to be wider, deeper, and spread more through different voices across different fandom spaces.

Fanfic and Commissioned Illustrations

I’m currently writing a Majora’s Mask AU in which Termina only exists because of Link. In my story, after Link “saves” Termina, it begins to disappear. The only two people who are even marginally aware of that anything is strange are Zelda and Ganondorf, who have been drawn into Termina by the strength of Link’s dream. Zelda is seeing it in a vision, and Ganondorf is experiencing it from where he’s imprisoned in the Sacred Realm. Neither of them realizes this until the end of the story, when they figure out that they have to wake up into the “real” world of Ocarina of Time, which is a much harsher reality than the one contained within Termina.

At the moment Tumblr seems to be the main platform people are using to engage with fandom; and, unlike LiveJournal or even Twitter, Tumblr exhibits an extreme bias toward images. What this means in practice is that fan art gets a ton of love, while fanfic receives relatively little attention. People complain about this all the time, and I routinely tell fic writers I’m friendly with that they should stop trying to write for fandom. Instead, it might make more sense for them to file off the serial numbers of their work so that they can publish it as original fiction.

This is easier said than done, of course, and in fact I declined to follow my own advice when I began outlining the plot and character details for this story. Two people trapped in a fading dreamworld is a fairly broad and open concept, and the characters obviously don’t have to be Zelda and Ganondorf. It would be fairly easy to change the names and smudge the identifying details and thus write a completely “original” story… but I don’t want to.

I recently finished my third playthrough of Breath of the Wild, and instead of moving on to something different I decided to pick up Majora’s Mask, which I hadn’t played since the game was released on the Nintendo 3DS back in 2015. I love the dark and foreboding atmosphere of the game, and I’m fascinated by all the many ways that Termina is falling apart at its seams. I read Majora’s Mask as a deep dive into the trauma that Link experienced in Ocarina of Time, especially his guilt over the fact that, even with the ability to travel through time, he couldn’t save everyone. I’m fascinated by Majora’s Mask, and I want to spend more time in the world of the game. I also want to explore its themes from a different perspective.

Specifically, what trauma did Zelda experience in Ocarina of Time? And what about Ganondorf? Who would these two characters be if they weren’t trapped in their respective roles? And what does it mean that they are trapped?

What I’m trying to do with this fanfic is to read Majora’s Mask through a critical lens. I’m a big fan of analytic meta essays about the game and its story, but I want to do something a little more creative in the way I examine its themes. For example, Majora’s Mask strips away Link’s identity as the “Hero of Time” and places him into a new environment, but the core of his character remains – he’s still a hero. So what would it look like if Zelda’s identity as the “princess of Hyrule” were stripped away? Who would she be? And who would Ganondorf be if he weren’t the “Demon King Ganon”? I want to play with these archetypes, but I’m also interested in the challenge of adding greater depth to seemingly one-note character tropes.

One of the nice things about working in the discursive space of fandom is that there’s a pre-existing community of readers who might be interested in a story like this. There’s also a large community of artists, especially in the fandom of a well-established gaming franchise like Legend of Zelda. Even though I don’t have much artistic talent myself, I’m primarily a visual person, and I find it inspiring to collaborate with artists on illustrations. This generally works in the same way it does in the independent comic publishing business, namely, the writer commissions an artist. Although most of the actual labor of illustration is done by the artist, it’s the writer’s job to find someone whose style and interests would be a good fit for the project. In fandom, this is relatively easy, but it’s still very cool when sparks fly and magic happens.

I’m very lucky to be able to work with Thali (@snoozeforever on Twitter / @ponthion on Tumblr) to create illustrations for this story, since I’ve been a fan of her art for years. In fact, it’s her critical engagement with the Legend of Zelda games as expressed through her artwork that encouraged me to start engaging with the Zelda fandom on Tumblr.

It’s a little embarrassing to commission an illustration for my own story, especially if it’s fanfiction. On the other hand, it’s an incredible experience to watch my ideas and characters come to life in visual art. The process of communicating with artists about design elements is also a lot of fun. It can sometimes be a challenge to try to express a complicated character concept in just one or two sentences so as not to overwhelm people with long emails full of extraneous details, but I am continually amazed by the brilliant interpretations created by the artists with whom I’ve had the honor of collaborating.

In any case, Thali has created as created multiple incredible designs based on the character concepts I sent her, and you can see some of my favorites below!

( Character designs by Thali )