Above: Harry Styles (L) and Louis Tomlinson (R), formerly of One Direction.
When I was barely in fifth grade, I felt too nerdy, too disabled, too brown, and secretly too queer to be accepted by my white, homophobic town. I escaped this alienation by turning to books. But as much as I loved Harry Potter, The Lightning Thief, and the other novels I flicked through at my town library, I never saw myself in the protagonists, who were mostly white, heterosexual men.
I didn’t realize how deeply this affected me until I got an iPod Touch and stumbled upon fanfiction. Across the internet, fans of particular works were rewriting popular stories however they liked: coffeeshop romances between Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy, time travel re-do’s of Disney movies, what-if’s about the protagonist from Wicked having twins. I couldn’t be openly queer, but I could read about Luna Lovegood and Ginny Weasley falling in love.
I soon created accounts on fanfiction sites and talked to authors—many of whom were themselves queer—about the same-sex relationships they wrote about. I slowly accepted the parts of myself that made me feel alienated from my peers, and I carried that newfound self-acceptance throughout my high school years.
It is a radical act to take a popular work, such as Harry Potter, that is largely white, straight, and male, and carve out spaces for marginalized people within in it. This egalitarian creative freedom—gaggles of fans rewriting established stories—sets fanfiction apart from formal, published works. A popular repository of fanfiction, Archive of Our Own (AO3), won sci-fi’s most prestigious literary award, the Hugo Award, this August. As an uncensored repository for queer fanworks, the site’s recognition with a Hugo Award is a win for LGBTQ representation in popular culture.
The Hugo Awards and a History of Archive of Our Own
The Hugo Awards are the most prestigious literary award for science fiction and fantasy. Members of the World Science Fiction Convention select winners across a variety of categories. At the 2019 ceremony in Dublin, Ireland, AO3 co-founder Naomi Novik accepted the Hugo Award for Archive of Our Own in the Previous Related Work category. I read the news on NPR and immediately texted all my friends and authors I had contacted over the years.
Fanfiction has always existed in some form, from every Shakespeare parody to The Wizard of Oz retold as Wicked the musical; a recent episode of HBO’s Euphoria even included a One Direction fanfiction sequence. Writers in the 1990s carved out online spaces for fanfiction, but by the mid 2000s, popular fansites such as Fanfiction.net, LiveJournal, and Fanlib faced mass deletions, censorship issues, and commercialization controversies. AO3 formed in 2009 as a stable online repository for fanfiction. The website is adamantly noncommercial, relying on donations and volunteers to run its operations. AO3’s parent organization, The Organization for Transformative Works, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that compiles other types of fanworks and offers legal counsel for related issues.
Today, AO3 boasts over 5 million works, 2 million registered users, and “over 10 million monthly users,” site volunteer staff Claudia tells NewNowNext. Users create free accounts to publish fanfiction pieces, comment on other authors’ works, and track works they’ve read. Fanfiction exists for a wide variety of books, video games, and other media, from Harry Potter (over 212,000 works) to British sitcom ’Allo ’Allo (42 works).
Central to AO3’s success is its lack of censorship and its sophisticated tagging system. Users can describe their fanfiction using tags, highlighting relationships between characters, themes, or content warnings. Very similar tags are aggregated by hand to eliminate clutter, and the entire database is searchable via a set of filters to include or exclude specific material. This makes it easy to find, for example, a time-traveling Star Wars story featuring a particular romantic relationship. AO3 author GretchenMaurice says that the site is “simple and user-friendly and, most importantly, it’s run by the same exact people it was built for.” Essentially, AO3 has become an internet hub for fandoms large and small.
Carving Out Space for Everyone
AO3’s recognition by the Hugo Awards excited me for several reasons. Foremost, awarding a prestigious Hugo to a repository of fanfiction—a belittled, female-dominated cultural phenomenon existing almost entirely on the internet—validated the power of ordinary people to contribute significantly to literature. Previous Hugo winners in the Best Related Work category were individual works by established authors, such as an essay collection by Ursula K. Le Guin or a collection of reflections on Doctor Who.
In contrast, AO3 is an online gathering space for fans rewriting established works. To me, recognizing that ordinary people can write high-quality work signaled a shift in how online communities are perceived by institutions such as the Hugo Awards. While it’s true that a lot of fanfiction is poorly written, I’ve stumbled upon pieces that are more nuanced, have better character development, and are more tightly written than published books I’ve read. A few of my favorites include The Changeling, a Harry Potter rewrite about Ginny Weasley in Slytherin House; Learn Me Right, a high school-setting story of Wicked the musical; and Best Father-in-law Award, a short piece about a police detective from the Arrow television show.
Furthermore, since fanfiction is a place that can celebrate marginalized people, getting recognition for a platform that enables the sharing of fanfiction makes me hopeful for the social standing of these marginalized groups. Fanfiction is a way for me and other minority writers to increase visibility of our own social groups, but it’s possible that fanfiction could also signal or increase acceptance of queerness and other minority representation to mainstream audiences.
It’s not necessarily true that writing lots of fanfiction about, for instance, Sherlock and Watson’s romance will make the relationship canon on the TV show, but it is significant that a same-sex relationship is so popular (works on AO3 featuring that specific “ship” comprise half of all works for the show) among fans. Perhaps a fan stumbling upon same-sex relationships in fanfiction could over time become more accepting; after all, normalization requires repeated exposure.
In the future, I hope that Archive of Our Own and other fansites remain accessible to international users. Claudia, the AO3 volunteer, adds that new traffic to the site is increasingly from outside the United States, possibly influenced by “the difficulty in sharing [LGBTQ works] on more local platforms.” For instance, large numbers of Chinese works featuring same-sex relationships were posted within the last few months—and are presumably banned in China, where marriage equality is illegal, and homosexuality is still largely taboo.
I also hope that female-female relationships become more popular in fanfiction and original works; currently, of AO3’s 100 most popular romance ships in 2019, only three are female/female. Overall, I am optimistic about the future of fanfiction, and I hope that AO3 receiving the Hugo Awards’ blessing means the platform will remain open for years to come.