I first encountered fanfiction on the tiny screen of my neighbor’s iPod touch. It was 2014: the age of dystopia novels and their movie adaptations, when you couldn’t move for a reference to Divergent or The Hunger Games. Back then, fanfiction.net was the place to be, filled with middle-grade readers, writers, and probably some grownups too. What I didn’t know at the time was how formative fanfiction would be in my interests—and, perhaps more embarrassingly, my sexual awakening. I also didn’t know about the rich history of fanfiction cultivated by generations of fans past. The vast depths of internet fan culture didn’t just appear, beamed to my friend’s iPod like so much advertising. Before Archive of Our Own, before FanFiction.net, even before LiveJournal or DeviantArt, there was Spockanalia.
Contrary to popular belief, fanfiction is an art form that dates back to Dante’s Inferno, perhaps the most famous spinoff of the Bible. 1967, though, marks the first formalized fanfiction that refers to itself as such. Spockanalia, which fanlore.org and the Wikipedia entry on “Fan fiction” describe as the definitional fanzine, contained fan-made art, fiction, and essays inspired by the then-currently-airing Star Trek. This analog version of fanfiction was no less diverse in genre than the sprawling fic scene of the internet. It featured romance stories, “write like Star Trek was real” fics, and the original real person fic (RPF). Its third issue, released in 1968, received backlash for a few “dirty” stories that referenced, but did not feature explicit, sexual content. Fanfiction is just like any other genre—it has its own tropes, framing devices, and pitfalls. Some fics are fun for the whole family, whereas others are material strictly meant for jerkin’ it. However, fanfiction that acknowledges that it is fanfiction has mostly lived on the fringes of media. Hamilton, for example, is essentially RPF fanfiction. So is A Man for All Seasons, which I was forced to read in tenth grade. Not sure either of the respective creators would ever admit that—and why would they?
Modern fanfiction is often still viewed as a hobby for run-of-the-mill geeks and nerds (or, more worryingly, freaks and pervs). However, the increasing ubiquity of the internet has broadened fanfiction’s acceptance in the mainstream: Most people have heard the rumors that Fifty Shades of Gray and Red, White, and Royal Blue originated as fanfic. Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, about a fic-obsessed college freshman, spawned the Carry On trilogy, which made the novel’s fictional franchise real. Even I, a former paragon of sexual shame, have sent my fanfiction to friends and first dates alike. I may still be a little embarrassed about the hobby, even as I write this article, but it’s a mostly a silly way to work through my emotions—like the fic I wrote about my favorite West Wing character being scared to go to Princeton, or the one that contemplates Catholicism through the eyes of Ace Attorney characters. These, like many fics out there, are far from sexually explicit, which may contribute to fanfiction’s gradual acceptance in the mainstream (although Fifty Shades would probably beg to differ). But should fanfiction’s more degenerate contributors be exiled for daring to tackle the taboo?
Fanfiction has always been a site of sexual freedom, even liberation—but with the advent of the internet, it has become an ever-changing garden of sexual delights and horrors, all of which coexist alongside fluff (heartwarming fics) and hurt/comfort (exactly what it sounds like), sometimes at the same time. Now that it’s mainstream, it’s hard for me to reconcile the subcultural nature of fanfiction and fan spaces with its ever-increasing visibility. For almost a decade, I’ve been so entrenched in fan culture that it surprises me when someone doesn’t know what Alpha/Beta/Omega dynamics entail.
Maybe this is because since my first prepubescent encounter with fanfiction, I’ve become something of a connoisseur. I can tell you that Archive of Our Own (AO3) is the best place to find quality fanfiction, that you should always filter for complete fics and exclude crossovers, that Wattpad is the home of the straightest, worst-written fic and you should never judge a fic by its popularity. I remember the mass migration from fanfiction.net to AO3, significant mostly because AO3 protects fan creators from copyright infringement suits, and the gradual decline of “lemon” and “lime” (also known as the citrus scale, meant to designate levels of explicitness) as ways to rate smut fics. I wouldn’t be caught dead describing anything as “slash” (male/male) fic—it’s too cringe—but at one point in time, slash and femslash were the only terms we had to describe queer pairings.
“Dead Dove: Do Not Eat” is a label that has particularly intrigued me recently. The term draws on Arrested Development (2003-2019), referring to a scene in which a character opens a bag labeled “Dead Dove: Do Not Eat,” finds a dead dove inside, and comments, “I don’t know what I expected.” This tag is now used to describe the most depraved of fics, those that depict rape, violence, cannibalism, and other unsavory topics of which I’ll spare you the description. Although these topics give me pause, I appreciate both the clear tagging system of fanfiction and its willingness to push boundaries. “Dead Dove: Do Not Eat” is a marker of that which we are afraid to address in real life. Its use as a warning allows fanfiction enthusiasts to either engage or avoid the taboo, and fics that live under this label are a relatively harmless space for people of any age and background to explore the difficulties that plague the world, or those that they may be facing. Perhaps the writer publishing a violent fic is processing their own experiences through fictional characters, just as I have with my own more palatable issues. Extreme BDSM fics are as much an outlet for sexual discovery as the vanilla fics of my youth, the ones that fed sexual exploration and normalized sexuality for my pre-teen self.
Fanfiction has its own constantly evolving dictionary, one that changes with new websites and fandoms and often corresponds to the evolution of social justice language. This is no accident—fandom is a haven for weirdos, for the marginalized to imagine a world beyond mainstream stories and representation and create their own. Without fanfiction, would I ever have discovered my own queerness? Where, if not in the corners of the internet, can a young girl use slash fiction about the Book of Mormon musical to process her own religious doubts? And even my own encyclopedic knowledge of fanfiction, which goes far beyond the average person’s, falls short of the terminally online or elder fans who have been around since Spockanalia. As in 1967, fanfiction is a space for creative expression that exists outside of the constructs of more serious literary publishing. Anyone with access to a library computer can read or write their own fanfiction—and unlike most venues, including this very magazine, original work is verboten. No one logs onto AO3 to read a 200,000-word novel. If I wanted to do that, I’d major in English or something.
No, we go to AO3 to read a 200,000-word fanfic that makes the Riverdale characters take down government corruption in the 1930s and fight in a well-researched portrayal of the Spanish Civil War. I may not get off to omegaverse or mpreg fic (both of which, suffice it to say, involve a lot of submissive and breedable men), but their very existence has broadened my idea of what a kink can be, what true sexual acceptance looks like. Fanfiction is, and has always been, on the forefront of normalizing the taboo, and of depicting new trends in sexual culture. Enthusiastic consent, for example, has become a popular tag, exemplifying the impact of the #MeToo movement and encouraging fic readers to engage in enthusiastic consent with their own partners. Even the “Dubious Consent” tag has helped me recognize the red flags in my own sexual interactions. Fanfiction continues to be a space for me to, whether by writing or reading, work through the multitude of emotions that come with being human. With a cautious mindset (or an experienced guide like myself), it’s a place to safely explore one’s sexuality or dip a toe into the waters of creative writing. Each new fic—sexual content notwithstanding—builds on the work of generations of fans who are committed to pushing boundaries, even as they set clear and specific sexual ones.