New form of reading among young adults: A compelling case for fanfictions

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Updated: Feb 17, 2021 1:47 PM

Fanfictions quickly became a very popular and significant part of being a community of fans, so much so that they have even started to replace the traditional books.

fanfictions, wattpad, archive of our own, AO3For many fans, fanfiction has worked as a gateway into the world of reading and writing. (Image: Bulbul Dhawan/Financial Express)

Fanfictions: With the rise of the internet and social media, fans across the globe have been able to form a tight-knit community. The communities of fans have gone to such an extent, that they have dominated a large part of Twitter, and this aspect of the microblogging site is now known as “stan Twitter”. Same goes for Instagram. A sneak peek into any of these “fandoms” and their interactions would bring you face to face with inside jokes and references. But what is peculiar about these references is that sometimes, they are so widely popular among all the fans and yet, they do not trace back to anything or anyone related to the original book, artiste or movie. So where do these references come from? More often than not, these references stem from fanfictions that are very popular in the fandoms.

Fanfictions: What are they and how did they become so popular

Fanfictions quickly became a very popular and significant part of being a community of fans, so much so that they have even started to replace the traditional books. Fanfictions are nothing but stories that fans write around their favourite book, movie, series or even celebrities. The fans weave a fictional narrative around the characters or the celebrities, by either keeping the narrative very close to the original and yet vastly different, for example, keeping Bella from Twilight a human and Edward, a vampire, having the same back stories but tweaking little details here and there, or by completely changing the entire setting and only inheriting from the inspiration, the characters and their physical attributes.

Fanfictions have a long history, going back to when platforms like Wattpad first emerged. In fact, fanfictions around celebrities like Michael Jackson were already doing rounds even before his untimely demise in 2009. However, this concept did not catch on a lot, as most people chose to use Wattpad for writing original stories. Then came the era of books like Twilight and Harry Potter. These books became the gateway for a generation of readers into the world of reading and more importantly, writing. These books played a major role in allowing teenagers to find escape and solace in the beauty of written characters and universes, and also inspired them to write. Some with wild imaginations began writing about these same characters in different situations, making fanfictions more popular.

In fact, websites dedicated to fanfictions started emerging soon, and this form of writing became highly popular due to the comfort and popularity they provided. When a book, movie or series ends, people often take it as a personal loss, and fanfictions provided a way for people to not have to grieve for that loss. It has turned into a situation where each fanfiction is like a season of a never-ending series. While readers feel lost when a fanfiction ends, because some of them are written really well with beautiful plot lines and commendable character development, they have millions of other fanfictions with same characters to turn to, and while the character development and the growth trajectory is different, the familiarity of same characters with same physical attributes is enough for them to find solace.

Among the major contributors and consumers in the world of fanfictions are the One Direction fans. These fans are so dedicated to fanfictions that multiple domains relating to One Direction Fanfiction are registered, with some even being dedicated to individual band members. Not only that, but this fandom was a major reason why fan communities began to thrive on Wattpad. This fandom also led to the widespread popularity of a platform called Archive Of Our Own or AO3, which is now the preferred platform for more Directioners to read and write fanfictions on. AO3 has now also become the preferred platform for other fandoms like the fans of K-Pop bands like BTS.

While this form of writing caught up in Western countries first, with the social media leading to tight-knit communities, fanfictions have spread rapidly in India, for reading as well as writing. To understand more about what attracts these fans to the world of fanfictions, Financial Express Online’s Bulbul Dhawan talked to several Indian fans of One Direction.

What draws Indian young adults to fanfictions?

Most young adults in India involved actively in the world of fans have preferred reading fanfiction over traditional books.

Kolkata-based One Direction fan Eshika told Financial Express Online, “I prefer fanfictions (or fanfics, for short) over traditional books because they are based on the characters I want and it also offers a wider choice of scenarios. The best part of fanfics is that they are free, anyone can read them and there is a wide variety of scenarios to choose from. And if you aspire to be a writer, you gain a lot of readers with proper content. For me, fanfics are an escape from reality, the perfect solution to boredom. But unlike books, you do not need to carry them with you all the time, and you can save them online, so they are more convenient.”

Another 25-year-old fan, on the condition of anonymity, said, “For me, fanfictions are nice because of the easy language, because sometimes, especially with traditional Classics, the language can be hard to understand and therefore, difficult to imagine. Moreover, with traditional books, we base the entire physical persona of the characters based on the description, and that can be hard. On the contrary, with fanfics of a band like One Direction, I know what the characters look like, so when something is being described in the book, it is easier for me to picturise it.”

Books vs fanfictions

Chandigarh-based Sanya, however, is a fan of books as well as fanfictions. She highlights the differences between traditional books and fanfictions according to her. “Traditional published books cover all aspects of life, due to so many genres that readers can choose from. On the other hand, fanfictions give readers an opportunity to read things that they really want to imagine. I believe that the reason why fanfictions are appreciated so much is because the readers can escape into them, which is something that makes them happy. However, I do believe that fanfictions are written solely for fun, so they should also be taken lightly.”

Sanya also shared what she believes to be pros and cons of fanfictions. “The pros are that they make readers very happy, because readers get to feel something they want regarding their favourite characters or artistes, even if it is just written in texts. Moreover, some fanfictions are very well written and developed and are worth being given a shot. On the other hand, sometimes, fanfictions can be a waste of time, since traditional books provide a much wider base. A lot of fanfictions have the same concept, plot and pattern, and do not give a wider perspective that books do. That being said, there are some fanfictions which have concepts really worth reading.”

To get expert opinion on the impact of fanfiction on reading of traditional books, Financial Express Online reached out to Dr John Ballam, Director of Diploma in Creative Writing at Oxford. He shared, “I have noticed no decreased interest in traditional forms of fiction nor any increased interest in fanfiction expressed by readers aged 18-25. What is observable in this group is a highly alert sensitivity to Young Adult Fiction as having been something important in their own development as readers.” He also shared that he did not observe fanfictions affecting formal literary studies or creative writing in any manner whatsoever.

“I have seen no signs that fanfiction is becoming in any way prominent in how literature or creative writing is being taught. In principle, such an evolution could begin with students’ expectations (that is, as tutors, we interest ourselves in what interests or influences our students), or with the expectations of tutors seeking to stimulate critical reading and writing in emerging media. I have seen no demand for either,” he said.

Novice writing: Can it negatively impact readers?

A Delhi-based fan went on the technicalities of English and said that sometimes fanfictions have really bad grammar, and if the reader is too young, it can have a negative impact. “But if the reader is grown up, they can tell when the grammar is incorrect so it does not impact that much. However, I believe that books are better in this case because they also help expand the vocabulary of readers,” the fan told FE Online.

This view was also shared by Dr Ballam. “I see no direct impact of fanfiction modes on students’ work, either creatively or critically. Most are highly responsive to contemporary idioms in all modes available – including online, broadcast media, recorded media and similar – but there is no identifiable strand derived explicitly from reading fanfictions,” he said.

Fanfictions: Entry into the world of reading and writing

For many fans, fanfiction has worked as a gateway into the world of reading and writing. A Maharashtra-based fan, on the condition of anonymity, shared, “I am personally not a bookish person, but when I found out that there were stories based on people I idolised, I was intrigued and wanted to read them. I read a lot of them and it helped improve my vocabulary. Some of my friends also had the same experience. Sometimes, fanfictions even encourage you to write your own stories.”

Khushi from Uttar Pradesh also expressed a similar view. “I believe that among the pros of fanfictions is the fact that it develops a habit of reading, and also tickles the creative bones of writers,” she said, adding that reading fanfictions also worked in a therapeutic manner. She added, “Fanfiction writers do not care about gaining commercial success or reviews, and they simply wish to present other fans with their own creativity regarding the artistes or characters they drew inspiration from. They write their stories to cater to a specific community with an aim to spread new ideas and attain self-satisfaction.”

A platform for support and solidarity

Among the hoard of fans FE Online talked to was a Delhi-based fan who goes by the fictional name Panchali on his social media accounts. He shared why he loves fanfictions so much. “I feel like traditional books and movies are not really inclusive and do not show the sides we need to see. I am gay and I never had an idol who was also gay, so I felt like I was invisible, but fanfictions, which focus on such areas and issues, made me feel seen and visible. I can honestly say that fanfictions saved my life, because otherwise I felt like I was just a mistake. Fanfictions have become a kind of safe place,” he said.

Why the negative air around fanfictions, then?

Occasionally, some fanfictions that became very famous were taken up by publishing houses to be published as real books, with changed names, of course. Among them were the much hyped Fifty Shades of Grey, which was originally a Twilight fanfiction, and After, which had been a Harry Styles fanfiction. Both of these books, however, have been criticised for romanticising and glorifying abusive relationships. Due to the hype around them, both of these book trilogies were also made into movies. It is out in public domain that these books were originally fanfictions, and therefore, people who are not privy to the world of fanfictions, have been left with a very narrow view of the kinds of fanfictions there are, since both these books are heavily erotic as well.

On the other hand, books like Escapade, which was also originally a fanfiction, did not get as much traction, likely because in its core is a same-sex couple, with one of them being a sex-worker as well.

Therefore, most people who are aware of fanfictions have a negative connotation of it.

A brilliant marketing strategy

However, now, fanfictions have gone beyond being just something for the fans and have possibly converted into an excellent marketing strategy. Case in point is One Direction. In the beginning of their career itself, several interviewers began mentioning things like fanfictions, some even asking the members to enact a few of them briefly. What this did was bring fanfictions to the notice of their fans.

While some were already writing and reading fanfictions, this caused more and more fans to flock to these forms of writing. The rest of the image building work for the band was done by these fanfictions which made fans feel closer to the members. It led to the forging of an emotional bond from the side of the fans, who felt like they knew the singers because of how these stories portrayed them.

The mentioning of fanfictions in interviews is not a casual event and therefore, when it was done with One Direction, it was most likely a marketing tool. But on the off chance that it wasn’t, fanfictions are now for sure becoming a part of the larger image-building exercise for the celebrities.

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