On fanfiction and reading

Illustration by the amazing Pepper ❤︎

The year 2000 was a time of beginnings. J.Lo’s “Waiting For Tonight” pulsed through the charts, ushering in a new millennium. There was optimism, excitement — we collectively looked out on the horizon of time, and sailed boldly towards the unknown future. On the World Wide Web, everyone was abuzz with “Web 2.0”. We’d sign each other’s guestbooks, visit each other’s websites and give each other “hits” for our view counters. We’d polish our forum sigs in GIMP or our hastily pirated versions of Photoshop 4. We’d surf the web. 2000 was also the year I started reading the longest, most epic literary piece of work I had ever read — and will ever read — in my life.

And that epic, was a fanfic.

When I was 7, I was obsessed with this cartoon called Card Captor Sakura (or Cardcaptors, as it’s English dub was known). I’m not sure what specifically about this cartoon captured me so. Was it the fantasy-based-in-reality world? Was it the beautiful artwork and design of the cards? Was it the mystery and investigative plotlines of each episode? Whatever it was, I was hooked. And the thing you do, when you’re a fan of a piece of media, is to join some online fan communities, and read fanfiction.

One day, while doing my usual rounds on fanfiction.net, I found a piece that ticked a lot of boxes. The characters and the world felt “believable” (like they were canon), the story was intriguing, it was decent in length, and it was four chapters in (so about halfway through, I reckoned).

As time went on, one by one, the fics I followed ended (or were abandoned). I moved onto other fandoms, other fics. And yet, this humble Card Captor Sakura fic went steady. The world grew and grew. Chapters soon bloomed into book-length features. The author weaved an intricate loom of history, mythos and prophecy. She introduced new characters. She wrote spin-off stories, set in the universe that was now more hers than the original creators. And before I knew it, I had left primary, and then intermediate, and then high school. This story, and its author, who was thirteen when she started writing it, grew up with me, and I with it. I’ve known it for as long as I’ve known my own sister. It influenced my philosophies, my ways of thinking. For something I never spoke about, it became a huge part of my life.

It would’ve been right as I started university when I fell off the bandwagon. With all the readings I had to do for school, and the new life I was experiencing, I didn’t have time for my fanfiction reading anymore. I was ready to grow up, and grown ups have no room for such childish fantasies.

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To be clear, fanfiction is not “good”, in the usual sense of the word “good”.

By that, I mean the things that make literary works professional: impeccable spelling and grammar, a “tightness” in the writing, and knowledge of the unspoken rules — what you can write about and what you can’t. Fanfic is, typically, “bad”. In fact, some of the best-known works of fanfiction out there are celebrated for their absurd “badness”. Fanfic so bad, that it becomes lauded as genius.

Most fanfics, however, are not entertaining in their badness — they’re just mediocre. This is not to slight fanfiction authors, who put in a great deal of work into their texts. Most don’t speak English as a first language. Many are children, just coming into their teens. When I say that fanfiction is “bad”, I mean it as a joking term to describe the aesthetics of fanfiction: the lack of polished grammar and syntax, language-mixing, liberal use of cross-overs and pop cultural references, fourth-wall-breaking, and wildly experimental structures. To read fanfiction is to give up on the guarantee of a certain reading experience. It is to enter The Wilderness. Say goodbye to beautifully typeset pages with a comfortable reading measure, and hello to scrolling through an unformatted HTML document in Arial, or Times New Roman, or Verdana, with no max-width, no page numbers; nothing else but text. (If you’re lucky, the author will use paragraphs.) God forbid you accidentally close your window in the middle of a chapter, else you lose your place and have to scroll through the whole page again to find where you were.

The chaotic neutral alignment of this world becomes part of the appeal; the magic of fanfiction. Fanfiction sites have the atmosphere of a buzzing bazaar, an authenticity of the goods on offer that makes everyone feel psychologically safe. There’s a distinct lack of pretentiousness, and a real sense of community. Authors volunteer their time to “beta” (edit) each other’s works; some others will even translate the more popular works into different languages. Discussion is lively. Feedback is lifeblood.

I tend to gently mock the world of fanfiction, because it feels childish and a bit silly, but deep down I love it with all my heart. It gave me some of the best pieces of writing I’ve ever read. And if I’m honest, the various styles of fanfiction have probably been the greatest influence on my writing as it is, right now.

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Quiet, shy kids will know — we spent all of our time reading. Gobbling up books by the stackload, everything from fiction to non-fiction, drabbles to longform to epics; every possible thing we could get our hands on we consumed. Hungry for escape, for knowledge, we read. Books were explored, treasured, praised, gutted.

I’m not sure how I stopped reading like I used to, but gradually, I did. I suspect it’s a combination of social technologies conditioning our brains for distraction and short-form everything, and late-capitalist pressures that tell us our time should be spent only on extracting “value”. Reading became work, it became a means to an end. Books were no longer a place for solace, for escape, or for curiosity. They became a source of facts, thoughts, tools; things I could use. Things of “value”.

As time went on, my reading moved from books to shorter and shorter articles. From a healthy mix of fiction and non-fiction to exclusively non-fiction. What once was joy became replaced with a cold, calculating, transactional relationship. I would give texts my time, only if they could give me something, too.

It was a couple of years ago when I first noticed my lack of reading. Every new year, I would set myself a resolution to read more. Every year, I failed. In 2018, I aimed to clear the low bar of one book a month. I got up to June. In 2019, I didn’t try at all.

No matter how hard I forced myself to read, I couldn’t stifle this weird feeling of expectation. This nagging voice in the back of my head who kept asking, “what’s the point?”, in the middle of a book. I would look upon my massive list of book recommendations, and fantasize about reading them all. But in the middle of reading, the bad thoughts would creep up again: “is this really worth your time? Is it good enough for you to be reading this one, instead of the hundreds of other books you could be reading right now? What’s the point?

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A few weeks ago, the memory of that long-lost Card Captor Sakura fanfiction came up again. It had been almost a decade since I last read it, but I was curious to see what ever happened to it. I typed in the old URL, a string of characters flowing out my fingertips like an old piano piece I thought I’d forgotten long ago.

And there it was, in all its 2000s-web glory. The table layout, the pastel, tiled background. The Times New Roman font with those horrid royal blue and aubergine purple default link colours. The feeling from seeing that website, a decade later was… weird. Everything felt so deeply familiar, and yet so strangely new. It was like being back in a town you used to live in, knowing which streets to walk down and yet feeling as though you shouldn’t.

I could feel my heart rate climb as I skimmed down the page. There were new chapters . New chapters! When I had left this story ten years ago, in my mind the world halted to a standstill. I can’t describe the joy and excitement to find out that unbeknownst to me, it had lived on all these years.

For all the flack I give modern technology, having access to it is a game-changer. These new chapters averaged around 100,000 words each — the length of a decently-sized novel — and reading them as one long HTML page, like I used to, was not the best experience. So, I printed them to PDF files and downloaded them onto my ebook reader. No longer would I be stuck sitting at a desk at 3am, staring into a CRT screen.

Words can’t quite contain the excitement I felt, diving back into this world of magic, mystery and myth. Overnight I transformed back into my childhood self. I stayed up to read until the wee hours of the morning, eventually falling asleep. I dove back completely in this world, despite the language gaffes here and there, despite some of the cheesier aspects to the plot, despite the blatant exposition-as-dialogue. I didn’t care. I got to live in this fantastical world again, a world I thought I had lost, and that made me happy.

As is customary in fanfiction, each chapter is followed (or sometimes preceded) by an author’s note. Over the past 9 years, she had been averaging about 1-2 chapters a year (which, if you compare that to releasing 1-2 books every year, is pretty impressive). In it, she talks about her life, her work, and her commentary on the events of that chapter. The parts in the chapter which she’s not happy with. The parts she struggled to write. The parts that she wrote years in advance, and how she was finally able to reveal those plot points.

As I finished each chapter, the years flew by in my hands: 2011 (my first time flatting), 2012 (my first time living overseas), 2013 (my honours year). I felt like I was at the end of a movie, where the filmmaker reveals all the events that we had just seen from another character’s perspective. Ten years ago, the title would say, and just like that, we had traveled back in time. 2014 (starting HVNGRY magazine), 2015 (settling into my design job). 2016 (starting a podcast), 2017 (running Rails Girls Supercharged)… and that was it. I had caught up to the present day. And just like that, nine years flew by me, again. And just like that, I was back, staring at the unknown horizon.

Something else happened, too. As I rediscovered the joy in reading fanfiction, I rediscovered the joy in reading itself. Reading not for information, or research, or enlightenment. Reading for the sake of reading. For how the words sound, strung together in their unique ways. For the images they formed in my mind. For the feelings and sensations they evoked. I shed my selfishness. I re-learned how to read with a generosity I didn’t even realise I had forgotten — an openness, a lack of pretentiousness that gives a text your full and undivided attention, without expecting anything high and lofty in return.

I started to gobble up reading again. Longform articles, books, books, so many books. It was like I had emerged on the surface of an ocean, coming up for air after years under water.

Fanfiction saved my joy in reading.

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I’m not trying to get you to read fanfiction, here, and if I’m honest, I’m kind of hoping you don’t read the fanfictions I refer to here. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little embarrassed by them. But on further introspection, I think my embarrassment comes from society’s general distaste for Things That Women Like, and the knowledge that these kinds of works are not to be celebrated. Harry Potter is a bona fide hero; Bella from Twilight is a MarySue. (Hey — I don’t have to like Twilight to recognise the blatant double-standard.) There’s a whole internalised misogyny article beneath the surface here, and people much smarter than I have written and spoken about this, so I won’t go into detail here.

What I do hope to convince you of, are the lessons we can learn from fandom. That there is inherent value in the practice of giving up your time, with zero expectations of getting something in return. That expectations about “value” and “quality” can rob you of joy, and the discovery of some real treasures. That communities are more than the sum of their individuals. And that there is a certain nutrition for the soul in silly, childhood fantasies.

(As a fun side tidbit, fandoms solved an information organisation problem that tech companies haven’t. So, there’s that, too.)

These lessons that are more pertinent now than they were 20 years ago. Children book author Gregory Maguire remarked in an interview, “I think the more Google-fied we become, the more we believe that there’s a factual interpretation for everything, and the more we rely on our skepticism and become immune to fairy tales, poetry, and dreaming.” But fairy tales, poetry, and dreaming has its own purpose. An acceptance towards a lack of concreteness and absolutism is exactly what we need to tackle the biggest challenges of our generation. The ability to imagine and accept — without irony, without cynicism — the possibilities of a better world, is the spark we’re missing right now. We cannot make true what we first can’t imagine.

I’m not sure if you’ve been struggling with the same struggles around reading as I have been these past few years. But I hope the reveal of my unspoken fanfic-filled past, if anything else, has been mildly entertaining. And if you’ve been struggling with reading, as I have, I hope this helps you come up for air.


Things that I’ve read/enjoyed lately:

And just like that, we’re halfway through 2019. How have you been? I’ve been cranking a playlist of 2000s music and reliving my childhood, basically. Revisiting old places with new eyes. It’s… A Time.

As always, please forgive my run-on sentences and typos and incoherent ramblings, these newsletters are always written on a whim. And as always, send me your reading recommendations, your thoughts, your feels. I love hearing from you.

Hope you’re keeping warm! (Or cool, if you’re in the other hemisphere!) Here’s to the second half of 2019, and to facing it with our heads held high (and above water).

Much love,

—Serena