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On Fanfiction, Fandom, and Why Criticism Is Healthy

Let’s make room for criticism of fandom in fandom.

Teen Vogue

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Photo collage showing Chris Evans as Captain America, Daisy Ridley as Rey Skywalker, John Boyega as Finn, and Anthony Mackie as the Falcon

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In 2021, Twitter user @Benedict_RS won the ire of the entire Internet with a lengthy Twitter thread about fanfiction.

“It’s incredibly bleak how many contemporary aspiring writers cut their teeth on fanfiction, a form that actively teaches you to write worse,” the tweet read. It clearly struck a nerve: it now has thousands of quote retweets and hundreds of comments, sparking passionate defenses of fanfic and fandom from outlets like The Mary Sue and ComicsBeat, as well as writers everywhere.

While Benedict’s thread was clearly written to start discourse and incite drama, the argument itself wasn’t new or groundbreaking; rather, it was the responses that proved most interesting. The majority of people who reacted to Benedict’s thread did so in defense of the stories that they wrote and read, stories that led them towards being a better writer, or a published author. Many people also positioned fanfiction as something that was just for fun, and so critique didn’t have to enter the equation at any point.

The whole situation reawakened an ongoing ideology that is present in basically every fandom: things fans like can’t possibly be criticized because picking apart problems in fandom or media doesn’t seem to be very fannish. However, existing in fandom as a thoughtful person means that several things can (and must) be true at once — fandom is a place for fun and fanfiction should be something that people do just for themselves, but critical thinking (and tweeting) should have a home in how we engage with and make fanworks, especially when thoughtful commentary comes from fellow fans.

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It’s not censorship or bullying to point out that there are issues in different fandom spaces that require some updated approaches. For example: “Don’t Like, Don’t Read” and “Your Kink Is Not My Kink” are phrases used in fandom to let people know that they should take care of themselves by not reading content they find objectionable based on a matter of different taste. But neither of those phrases are good responses when fans come up against bigotry in fanworks. Telling someone to “just ignore” transmisogyny, ableism, or open antiblackness in fanfiction isn’t just unhelpful; it’s unkind.

Ultimately, enjoying something and critiquing it are seen as opposite experiences. In Chelsea Steiner’s “The Fanfiction Take That Enraged The Internet,” essay for The Mary Sue, she writes, “I would like to propose something radical in 2021: LET PEOPLE LIKE THE THINGS THEY LIKE. Unless those things are nazism or animal cruelty or a violent insurrection to overthrow the government, people should be free to enjoy what they like without guilt or judgment. I can’t stand gory horror films, but I don’t begrudge those who do. Let people live their damn lives.”

But what if you enjoy critical analysis and not being a hater? If I’m critical of something that someone else loves — an idol group, Tenet, a “problematic” pairing blowing up across a fandom I’m in, fandom as a whole — it must be because I hate the thing, not because I’m capable of multitasking.

These days, people just don’t seem to like criticism very much. No matter who it’s coming from or how they deliver it. And sure, it’s not like criticism provides an easy serotonin rush, but just because it’s difficult or it may seem boring, that doesn’t mean it’s not necessary. The phrase “let people enjoy things” has become a shield raised across the Internet, in and out of fandom, as a way to deflect even the mildest of criticisms about everything from politics to pop culture to a certain British author who claims she’s being canceled for her terribly bigoted opinions while… really not experiencing cancellation. With the rise of stan culture across social media, any critical opinion about a popular celebrity or anything they’ve touched or that’s related to them — from a slightly less positive review of Taylor Swift’s Folklore to this piece on the instances of antiblackness in ARMY back at the tail end of June 2020 — is treated as both an attack on the artist and on the fans themselves. And such an attack is always met harshly, with some stans going so far as to swarm critics with threats of violence and sustained harassment.

However, it’s not just stan Twitter where criticism is treated like a bad word. In many fandoms where people write and read fanfiction, criticism — of fictional relationships, of bigots in fandom, or of problematic or harmful kinds of stories in these spaces — is treated as if it’s automatically against fandom and even similar to censorship, like the Hays Code, which shaped Hollywood films from the 1930s to the 1960s.

I get that we’re hardwired to take criticism of the things we love very personally, because it does feel as if someone is attacking us by pointing out problems with the thing we love. If someone calls out a Korean artist for cultural appropriation, their fans feel like they’re all being called “racist.” If someone says that a celebrity is creepy or brings up their past bad behavior, their fans… think that means they’re being subject to the insult. But good criticism isn’t personal even when it’s about a person, and people in fandom need to recognize that we can choose how to react even here.

The phrase “let people enjoy things” has become a shield raised across the Internet, in and out of fandom, as a way to deflect even the mildest of criticisms

Within fandom, critical analysis falls under the umbrella of meta: non-fiction writing from fans that discusses any aspect of fandom, fanworks, or the source media. And yet, I’ve seen many people refer to criticism of fandom — especially of racism in fandom/fanworks — as censorship and compare it to book burning. But criticism isn’t censorship.

In media and fandom, criticism is a way for people who love something to talk about the things keeping them from loving it fully. When I write about cultural appropriation and Blackness being used as a concept in Korean pop music, I’m not doing it from a place of hate. I’m coming to these thoughts as someone disappointed by how my culture is turned into a costume. The majority of the time, when fans talk about issues with the Archive of Our Own (like the fact that the platform does not remove purposefully racist fanworks) they’re not trying to shut the doors on the fandom institution. They’re trying to get fans to think critically about what we’ve said is “okay” in fandom.

You don’t need to engage with bad faith criticism of the thing you love, but looking more deeply into what you read or create is healthy. That kind of practice exists to improve the thing being critiqued.

And criticism of fandom in fandom and from fans? That can only make our spaces that much more welcoming.

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This post originally appeared on Teen Vogue and was published February 10, 2021. This article is republished here with permission.

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