My partner makes fun of me for reading romance novels and fanfiction.
The one makes them uncomfortable (it’s the sex scenes, I think); the other they don’t consider to be proper writing (well, it’s not like fanfiction writers make up the characters and settings themselves, is it? They’re hardly doing any work, really).
Now, I love reading fanfiction, and sometimes all I need is a good romance novel to work through the angst and disappointment of the daily grind and get the smile back on my face. I write fanfiction (badly), for crying out loud. But for a long time I was ashamed of these two things, fanfiction and romance novels, and while I’m still coming to terms with that (who could be ashamed of reading, for crying out loud?), I’d like to unpack why it is that these two genres are considered something to be ashamed of, and hopefully blow some of my own preconceptions out of the water.
Romance and fanfiction are two genres that are looked down upon. They’re not serious fiction, they don’t engage the mind or challenge the preconceptions. This, in my opinion, is total rot – I’ve learnt as much about the human condition, about what makes people tick, from romance and fanfiction – yes, even fanfiction – as I have by reading literary fiction. And I’ve learnt even more about myself. So-called “serious” fiction is great for putting a lens to the world, for getting lost in language and finding out what makes humanity tick. But I learnt more about myself and my place in the world, about my desires and about the kind of person that I want to be, by reading fanfiction (and romance).
We talk about romance like it’s a guilty pleasure, but why should it be? It allows us to live vicariously, experience the sex our partners and lovers might not be willing to offer, but it’s not just about sex. It’s about people – women, overwhelmingly – standing up and getting what they want. Women laying out terms and men acquiescing. Women taking charge of a least one aspect of their lives. It’s by women for women. And, sure, the idea is that these protagonists are made complete by their (male) lovers, but that’s the genre, and it never pretended to be anything different. More than that, these women are usually frightened, or career-driven, and only now beginning to find themselves in a place where they want to commit to a relationship. We’ve all been there.
In what other genre is the primary preoccupation a female protagonist calling the shots and getting what she wants? None, I’d hazard. Every other genre is open to both genders (not that romance is closed to men), and as such is overshadowed with male writers and male protagonists. If women make up the majority of readers, why is this the case?
Fanfiction is the same, but it’s more. People love a thing, a character, a world so much that they want to be there. That’s what it’s always been for me – being a part of something, in a safe space. Fanfiction allows people to give the characters they love the things they need – family, love, acceptance, purpose It allows us to belong to something larger, to be part of a community. It allows us to share our love for a character, a place, a world in a space that is safe and supportive and loving.
Fanfiction is not, despite what my partner believes, all gay sex and orgies. Neither are romance novels all quivering members and throaty gasps. Transformative works allow fans to get involved in a work that moves them, where romance puts women in a space where they are unequivocally in control and cared for. Both of these things are valuable and necessary for developing confidence and a strong sense of self. I mentioned above that I learnt more about myself and my place in the world by reading fanfiction and romance novels than by reading any other type of fiction. As an avid reader, it’s pretty much literary soup in my head, but I can definitely say that both fanfiction and romance were necessary to my current understanding of my sexuality, my goals, and my sense of my place in the world.
It’s not for nothing that I can say that when I grow up I want to be Phil Coulson with Pepper Potts’ shoe collection.