When an academic study grabbed headlines recently for revealing that books written by women are priced lower than books written by men, the novelist Joanne Harris responded on behalf of the women around the world huffing with unsurprised resentment:
‘In an industry where women’s work is generally seen as of less value and relevance,’ she said, ‘for it to be literally priced lower seems to make a twisted kind of sense.’
The more female a genre, the authors found, the cheaper the books. They noted the discursive connection to labour market research that ‘consistently shows that the more female an occupation, the lower the pay and prestige.’
The study’s sample of two million books included self-published e-books, but it did not include fanfiction, which is not typically ‘published’, even digitally, but rather ‘posted’ on a number of online platforms.
If fanfiction had been included, the study’s accompanying graph, showing a genre’s price plummeting in relationship to its ‘femaleness’, would have been even more vertiginous.
Fanfiction surpasses romance as the most female genre of all, with more of its readers and writers identifying as genderqueer (6 per cent) than male (4 per cent). And while romance titles are traditionally priced low, fanfiction costs less. In fact, it must be free.
On Archive of Our Own, the most popular platform for English-language fanfiction, there are 3.8 million works, of which about 80,000 are novel-length. A popular piece of fanfiction can receive upwards of 500,000 hits, prompting The New Yorker to declare of the genre, ‘No clearer path from new writers to potentially interested readers has existed in the history of civilization.’
These millions of pieces of writing are sorted according to fandom, meaning the TV show, movie, book, band, video game, or comic from which the stories draw their characters or setting. The extent to which the fanfiction leans on the original work varies enormously, with some stories re-writing a TV show’s ending, for example, while others might take inspiration from the show’s characters but completely rewrite the plot and universe they exist in.
Because fanfiction violates copyright by reimagining someone else’s IP in this way, it cannot be for-profit. To protect itself and its users from legal action, Archive of Our Own forbids its fanfiction writers from profiting in any way. Writers aren’t even allowed to link through to digital ‘tips jars’ or Patreon accounts. In addition to the legal limitations, many fanfiction authors defiantly don’t want to earn money from their writing, taking pride instead in the community’s anti-capitalist ‘gift economy’ of exchange and collaboration.
With all these women doing all this writing, all as an unpaid labour of love, it makes a twisted kind of sense, to use Harris’s words, that fanfiction is therefore the genre with the least perceived value and relevance. It is women’s work, and discussions of the legitimacy and worth of fanfiction are usually a smokescreen to conceal what is a gendered judgement.
The most frequent criticism levelled at fanfiction is that because of its connection to source material, it is derivative and unimaginative. In the words of science fiction author Robin Hobb, ‘Fanfiction is to writing what a cake mix is to gourmet cooking. Fanfiction is an Elvis impersonator who thinks he is original. Fanfiction is Paint-By-Number art.’
But where does this leave professional authors of bound-and-printed literary homage and pastiche who also draw upon someone else’s source material? Are they just more successful Elvis impersonators? Quite the contrary: they are lauded for striving to touch the hem of Elvis’s garment.
When Zadie Smith imitated the plot of Howards End in her novel On Beauty, it was praised as ‘dramatic irony’. When Jane Smiley re-wrote King Lear, this imitation was not a deficiency but a selling point, with one essayist noting that ‘a significant part of the suspense of A Thousand Acres comes from wondering how she will re-create, or navigate, Shakespeare’s great moments.’ John Banville’s Mrs Osmond is a sequel to Portrait of a Lady, mimicking the style of Henry James, in an example of ‘superb pastiche’. Michael Cunningham’s The Hours dovetails Mrs Dalloway with Virginia Woolf’s biography (a classic fanfiction move, by the way, where a fictional character is merged with the actor who plays them). The Wide Sargasso Sea is a prequel to Jane Eyre. John Updike rewrote Hamlet as an erotic fanfiction from the point of view of Gertrude and Claudius.
Go to Archive of Our Own and you’ll find fanfiction of Howards End too. And King Lear, and Mrs Dalloway, and of all other sources used in these homages. There is even a 56,000-word re-imagining of Hamlet set in 1950s Chicago which has received 7,700 hits.
Reading fanfiction, you will experience the same anticipatory thrill, described above, of wondering how the writer will incorporate expected plot points. You will see incredible mimicry of the original work’s style, or clever deviations from it to make a thematic point. You will see how the constraining parameters of fanfiction can lead to more creativity, not less.
You will see some bad fanfiction, too. And you could say that the difference between the categories of published homage and fanfiction is quality, but… John Updike, though.
The problem is not quality per se, it’s that the quality of literary homage is judged individually, on its merits, while fanfiction is dismissed holus-bolus at the level of genre. And when we damn the whole genre of fanfiction as unoriginal, while simultaneously praising the innovation and creativity of similarly derivative literary works, we are replicating the same disingenuous valuative discrimination that sees publishers price female-centric books lower than men’s because they perceive, as a category, that women’s creative labour is worth less.
We instinctively assume the historically masculinised, legitimised world of commercial, public writing is better than the domestic, unpaid writing done overwhelmingly by women, because we have been primed to do so. Here is the ‘male glance’ at work, the narrative corollary of the male gaze described, by media critic Lili Loofbourow, as our instinctive dismissal of female-centric stories as trivial.
This is, she says, ‘how comedies about women become chick flicks’ and how soap operas become trash. ‘When we look at a girl story, most of us go a tiny bit stupid. We fail to see beyond the limits of our own generic expectations.’
Meanwhile, all these women are doing all this writing, for other women, with no public recognition, and for no financial gain. Maybe, as has been suggested, the reason men don’t write fanfiction is because they baulk at the idea of unpaid labour. Women, on the other hand, ‘who traditionally spend large portions of their lives working in relative isolation for little or no pay’ have learned to see the value of a necessarily profit-less pursuit. Can you?