Fanfiction was the guilty pleasure that helped me unlock the internet

My relationship with fanfic began as an assignment in English. At the age of 12, my tiger parents forced me to spend every spare moment at the local squeeze school. It was around 6pm on a Friday in July. Neither of us had eaten lunch and our English teacher knew she was missing us. Mrs. L looked at us over her reading glasses, pursed her lips, and said, “Your assignment for the weekend is to write a one-page alternate ending to William Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet.”

At the time, I didn’t understand that we were asked to write a fanfic, but that was the environment that was created. Fifty Shades of Grey has become a guilty pleasure for decades.

I was annoyed by the extra homework school normally piled on my plate. But for whatever reason, this Romeo and Juliet assignment triggered something in my academically fried brain. Cram schools revolve around brute force math and vocabulary exercises until you can factor quadratic polynomials in your sleep. None of the 20-page homework packets asked us to think about “what if…”.

What if Juliet had decided that Romeo’s body was a sign that Ophelia had escaped from her abusive family and gone to the convent she had fled to? I stayed up late Sunday night writing, editing, rewriting, and re-editing my one-page masterpiece. It got a B+, which is the equivalent of a double F in my family. I was grounded, but something deep and primal in my soul had changed.

It’s scary to admit, but I spent most of that summer doing these things Gundam Wing. I was raised on a healthy diet of Cartoon Network’s Toonami, and I have no defenses other than being a weakling. In protest at my homework load, after my parents had fallen asleep, I went into my living room and prayed that the 56K modem’s screeching wouldn’t wake them up. Google started to pop up and it took me straight into the world of perversion Gundam Wing fanfic. It was the first time I had used the internet for anything other than homework or AOL games.

99 percent of it gave me a heart attack. I hid my tomato red face behind my fingers as I browsed the fan made libraries. However, I was equally excited to be scandalized. Here are thousands of people using the computer to ask “what if?” he asked. True, most of the questions are “What if the bones of the first and second heroes were as broken as possible?” But they had the courage to ask such an insolent question and write about it in excruciating detail. Publicly.

Here are thousands of people using the computer to ask “what if?” he asked.

As an anxious teenager, this confidence was tempting. I wanted the freedom to ask and explore what-if questions. I stayed up late at night on LiveJournal, lurking like smarter people than myself creating communities around the fandoms they love, wondering how I could tap into this. I clicked link after link until I landed on Suddenly, I had access to a free library full of thousands of stories that offered glimpses into a different world than the one my parents had planned for me. It was the first time I understood what made the internet and the subcultures it spawned so exciting.

Before I knew it, I started asking more of my own “what if” questions as I finished each movie, TV show, or novel. Finally, I began to allow myself to scratch out some answers.

My English teachers did not accept. It was a non-prestigious way to express creativity. They said that true genius comes from original work, and it was a waste of talent to think about the legitimately questionable. (Unfortunately, that’s how I learned the fair use doctrine.)

I wanted to spit because I was bored only reading the harsh prose of dead men. I wanted to shout out that there is an army of deviant authors online writing some of the most transgressive stories I’ve ever laid eyes on. Of course, you can tell that some of them are written by people with poor grammar (see My Immortala Harry Potter Considered the worst fanfic on the internet and has its own wiki). But I couldn’t find anything similar on the shelves of my local bookstore. I wanted to argue that in 2001 it was one of the few places online that introduced the idea that queer people could have happily ever after. But I didn’t have the words to say any of that yet, so I kept my mouth shut.

Nevertheless, I continued to read my nonfiction on top of my more “legitimate” reading.

Reading Mummy The fanfics led me on a year-long, fruitless attempt to read and write hieroglyphs. I learned more about the Civil War by reading 130,000 words of alternate universe fiction written by a history graduate student than I did in AP US History. The notes on that story rivaled those of Vladimir Nabokov Pale Fire. I definitely learned about classicism in French slang after two years of experience Les Miserables fanfic community. (Did you know that author Victor Hugo’s novel about French slang is a 100-page diversion?)

Fanfiction isn’t such a taboo pastime anymore. It’s wild, but it’s been mainstream since the early days of and LiveJournal. Fifty Shades of Grey a Twilight fanfic turned into a movie. Rainbow Rowell wrote FangirlA popular novel about a college student who writes a mega-popular fanfic about. Harry Potter– esque series. This was later reversed To carry and Prodigal Sonincredible meta sequel series where you can read the story Fangirl the main character writes. Wattpad has an entire Wattpad-to-Movie link where One Direction fanfics with billions of readers have been turned into Netflix movies. Love hypothesis By Ali Hazelwood, a romance novel that recently went viral on TikTok and got a movie deal, started as Star Wars fanfic. There are a few more examples.

The genre is still widely derided, but openly celebrated in a way I felt was impossible at 12 years old. I don’t read as much as I did when I was a teenager. Fandom has gotten a little too much for me, and adult life leaves less time for guilty pleasures. But old habits die hard. I still make alerts for my favorite movies, and Our Own Archive is the first site I open when I hate the end of the story. Maybe I’m a little older, but thanks to this deliciously weird internet subculture, I’m not asking myself, “What if I had the confidence to write?” already.

Photography by Victoria Song / The Verge

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