It’s been a while since I got personal in one of these columns. So I thought while everyone in the northern hemisphere is sleeping off the midwinter revels, it might be a good time to slip some deep and philosophical navel-gazing in under the wire. Exciting, right? (It’s okay. You can still go back to sleep if you like.)
Many people have written a lot of things concerning fanfiction. Most of them have a wider appreciation of the history—and the breadth—of the form than I do. Fanfiction and fairytale exist on the same continuum, I remember reading somewhere: it’s all part of the human impulse to take the stories we hear and make them our own. And that makes a lot of sense.
It’s less difficult than it used to be to find mainstream narratives that feature, for example, QUILTBAG protagonists. But it is still far from common. Fanfiction lets people take stories that everyone knows—or at least that many people know—and make them into stories that reflect even more ranges of experience.
I had a conversation in this last month about queerness and pairings in fanfic and other narratives. In the course of that conversation, Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart came up, with its portrayal of queer (and kinky) consensual female relationships. And I ended up admitting that the first time I read it, the female queer stuff went over my head. I was seventeen at the time: it was there, explicit, and on the page, and my reaction to reading it was I know something is going on here but I don’t understand what it is.
Theoretically, I suppose, I might have—must have—understood that queer women existed. I’m not prepared to swear to it, though, since my exposure to popular culture between the ages of thirteen and nineteen was extremely limited, and I had no close friendships—and very little social interaction outside of the confines of class—to point out to me the gaps in my education. The sheltered child who got regular reliable internet access at the age of eighteen had a lot of gaps in her education.
Not to mention the ingrained prudishness of someone who didn’t understand why anyone would want to engage in sexual activity. For a while there, after I learned the word, I suspected that asexual probably applied to me. Maybe it did. Maybe I’ve changed at a more fundamental level than any one at which I could have imagined it was possible to change. (Except I sometimes—very rarely, in ways that confused me with its intensity—felt desire.)
It’s fundamentally embarrassing—for me, at least—to set out to write a post about how a form of writing that is renowned for its explicit sensibilities, its shameless approach to sexuality, ended up helping me understand myself better. It seems laughable, unserious, that the terribly uncertain confused me who puzzled over definitions of gender and sexuality—nonbinary? cisgender? asexual? bisexual? queer?—with the distant bafflement of someone who thought that it couldn’t be personally relevant except as an abstract exercise (because what did it matter how one’s axis of attraction tilted if one was comfortably celibate?) should have found in the archives of that much-denigrated subset of literature the shock of self-recognition. The idea that it was all right to be confused, and also all right to appreciate shameless sensibility.
I used to be one of the people who sniffed at fanfic. (I was much more certain that good taste was an absolute quality, five or six or eight years ago. I might have been a bit more insufferable then, too.) It’s a bit odd to have come around to the utter and urgent conviction of its importance. As a set of communities of literary production that permit the re-imaginings of mainstream narratives; that permit—and encourage—playfulness and experimentation and the queering of conventionality. But also as something of personal importance.
I didn’t really understand that I wasn’t asexual, until I started reading fanfic in earnest, in the last couple of years. That I did—that I could, that I was allowed—to feel attraction and desire. That those feelings mightn’t look the way that the society I’d grown up in held as a normal default, but that didn’t mean they didn’t exist. That I didn’t have to be afraid of being attracted to all kinds of people, include other women.
I’m not saying that this personal development is all down to reading fanfiction. A lot of factors contributed. But fanfiction—okay, while I’m being honest, I’ll admit it was mostly femslash—played a significant part. And as long as mainstream narratives still uphold a default sort of protagonist, and a default sort of experience, fanfiction is going to stay important.
And on the evidence, a lot of people enjoy producing and consuming it.
You might ask, Why am I writing this? And the answer is: I used to think I was alone in my confusion and my uncertainty. I used to be ashamed.
I’m still embarrassed. Hi: here are some soft and vulnerable innards—but I got used to talking about depression and anxiety and medication and coping methods, and really, it shouldn’t be easier to talk about mental illness than not knowing where you fit, should it?
I still don’t know where I fit. There’s a lot of things I don’t know. But I’m starting to think that maybe, just maybe, that’s okay.
Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads books and other things. She has recently completed a doctoral dissertation in Classics at Trinity College, Dublin. Find her at her blog. Or her Twitter.