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.

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.

The Three False Equivalencies of Anti-Fandom

(1) The False Equivalency of Representation

Even if a fanfic has hundreds of thousands of views and thousands of kudos, it is never going to achieve the same level of cultural impact as big-budget mainstream media. No matter how much wholesome fic you write about Finn, it is not going to be the same as John Boyega’s face on every movie screen everywhere in the world.

(2) The False Equivalency of “They’re Just Fictional Characters”

Because “positive representation” isn’t really a valid concern with fanwork (although, in a collective sense, it absolutely can be, but that’s a different conversation), it doesn’t matter whether your fic or art is about Naruto kissing Sakura or Naruto kissing Sasuke. In fact, those three names are probably nothing more than nonsense words to 99.999% of people on this earth. It also doesn’t matter if you, as some rando on the internet, get off (for whatever reason) on the idea of Sasuke forcing himself on Naruto, Sakura, or both at the same time. They’re just fictional characters, and it does not matter to the broader culture. What does matter is if systematic structures of inequality and discrimination are uncritically reproduced in the fictional texts embraced by fandom without commentary. It’s therefore a false equivalency to put “I don’t like this m/m ship” on the same level of critique as “I don’t like how the source text marginalizes female characters.”

(3) The False Equivalency of GO OUTSIDE

Saying “I don’t like a particular m/m ship” is not only fine, it’s par for the course in fandom. Saying “I don’t like how the source text marginalizes female characters” is also fine, and we could probably use more of that sort of thing in fandom, to be honest. Someone writing about the details of their disappointment regarding a work of fiction is also fine. It’s okay to not like things! What is not okay is sending death and rape threats, accusing people of pedophilia, finding someone’s personal information and threatening to contact their family or employer, and doing things like creating a [username]gokillyourself account on AO3 in order to leave comments containing concrete instructions on how to commit suicide. It is a very clear false equivalency to suggest that expressing a negative opinion about a fictional character is “just as bad” as harassing an actual human being.

American Gothic Posthuman Romance

I’ve been reading an epic ongoing Five Nights at Freddy’s fanfic series, Everything Is All Right. I know almost nothing about the Five Nights at Freddy’s games, but the fic’s author, R. Lee Smith, is a prolific and extremely interesting writer who happens to share one of my more arcane interests, interspecies romance. Smith’s writing style and subject matter resemble those of Stephen King – and I say this as a fan of Stephen King, if that needs clarification – except if all of King’s protagonists were female and also down to romance monsters.

Smith’s work came highly recommended by @corseque on Tumblr, whose taste in fiction I’ve grown to trust over the past two or three years. Corseque mentioned that this author has been writing fanfic, so I clicked on the link and started reading the first novel in the series, which is about the developing relationship between the author’s original character and Bonnie, a rotting animatronic rabbit without a face.

People say of writers they admire that they would read anything they wrote, up to and including a shopping list, but I think the real test of how much you like a writer is whether you’d be willing to read their erotic Five Nights at Freddy’s fanfiction. For me, regarding R. Lee Smith, I guess that answer is “yes.” I’m not sure that this is the sort of thing I could recommend to most people, but it’s quite good. Like, really good. I’m taking my sweet time reading the series, but I’m hooked.

By the way, I want to take this opportunity to comment on how amazing fanfiction is. It’s so cool that so many fantastic writers put their work up online for free, and it’s such a gift that anyone can access it at any time from anywhere. Sometimes I get frustrated with fandom, but there is not a day that goes by that I’m not grateful to every single fanfic author on this planet.

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.