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Fanfiction isn't about muting the original stories. It's about heightening them.

Sarah Michelle Gellar on Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The exact moment my 14-year-old heart started to break.
Mutant Enemy
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

This article is part of a series on fan culture and its many related topics. Start with our primer on fandom and follow along with the series every day this week.

Constance Grady: The world is full of misconceptions about fanfiction, but one in particular confuses me every time I come across it. It’s the idea that fanfiction is by its nature meant to replace and correct the work that inspired it.

"Every fanfiction I've read to date … had focused on changing the writer's careful work to suit the foible of the fan writer. Romances are invented, gender identities changed, fetishes indulged and endings are altered," fantasy author Robin Hobb wrote in 2005. "That's not flattering. That's insulting."

"Younger fans [are] a group that seems uninterested in conflict or personal difficulty in their narratives," film critic Devin Faraci wrote just last week. "Look at the popularity of fanfics set in coffee shops or bakeries, which posit the characters of a comic or TV show or movie they love as co-workers having sub-sitcom level interactions."

The idea seems to be that fanfiction supersedes and even erases its source material; that in creating fan works, fans are overwriting the thing they love. Faraci in particular seems to be imagining a scenario in which some young Captain America fan looks at Captain America: Civil War and says, "Nope, it looks like that movie might have conflict or personal difficulty in it," and heads straight for her favorite Bucky/Steve coffee shop alternate universe fic without ever watching the original film.

This critique is completely baffling to me.

Fanfiction is not inherently corrective

When I read fanfiction written about source material I love, I am almost never reading it to "correct" the source material or erase my emotional reaction to it. I’m doing it to heighten my reaction to the source material.

In general, the books or movies or TV shows that make me want to read fic are the ones that thwart my desires in some way. I want these characters to kiss, but they don’t; I want these characters to be happy, but they aren't. What Faraci describes as "conflict or personal difficulty" is what makes the story interesting; the lack of fulfillment is part of the appeal.

I turn to fanfiction to explore a scenario in which the characters are happy and do kiss, and I can get a kind of momentary relief — which in turn reminds me that in the source material, these characters are still unhappy. This sends me careening back to my original state of unfulfillment, and enhances my overall engagement with the work.

Fanfiction provides a temporary catharsis that heightens the tensions of its source material

Here’s an example.

When I was 14 years old, I watched the season two finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which Buffy is faced with the possibility that she might have to send her boyfriend Angel to hell to save the world.

"She’ll never go through with it," I said to myself. "She’ll find a way out."

The end of the episode came. The portal to hell yawned. Buffy’s face crumpled as she realized what she’d have to do. "Any second now," I said. "She’s not gonna do it."

Buffy sent her boyfriend to hell.

My little teenage mind was blown. I had never imagined that a TV show might go through with a worst-case scenario like that. I had never imagined that a TV show would be so willing to hurt its main character so deeply — or to hurt me so deeply.

I knew it was going to get undone somehow. This was 2003, and the episode had first aired in 1998; I knew that Angel had gotten his own spinoff show. Obviously he was coming back from hell.

It didn’t matter. I spent hours in tears. And eventually, I turned to fanfiction.

I read fic where Angel was never sent to hell and fic where he came back. I read fic where he never came back and Buffy spent the rest of her life in a state of emotional trauma. I read fic where everyone was human and going to high school or working in a coffee shop and the stakes weren’t life and death. I read fic that was meant to comfort and soothe and fic that was meant to make you laugh and fic that was meant to make you cry, and absolutely none of it was correcting or replacing the show in my heart.

I loved the show. I loved that it had made me feel something so deeply. I didn’t want the events of the fic I read to take place on the show. What fic gave me was a way to temporarily soothe the pain the show had created, secure in the knowledge that the show existed outside of the world of fic and was going to resolve this storyline in its own fashion. It essentially served as a way to outsource all my baser narrative needs: I got the catharsis of a sentimental ending and the surety that the show itself would avoid sentiment.

I won’t pretend that fans never use fic to correct a show’s shortcomings, or even that I never do it myself, but the idea that correction is the sole and intrinsic purpose of fanfiction confounds me.

By the time I finished watching Buffy, I would have been disappointed if Buffy and Angel had ended up together. I didn’t need that from the show. I had fanfic for that.

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