Guest Post by Jenn Leyva
On Sunday, The Guardian published an article about fan fiction, a genre of writing dominated by teenage girls self-publishing stories re-imagining sexuality in pop culture.
There has been considerable pushback against the authors of fan fiction, especially pointed at the book deals mentioned in the article, such as 16-year-old Emily Barker's contract with Penguin. There's a snobby part of me that understands that pushback. These books are not going to be comparable to Infinite Jest or Anna Karenina, and I don't think anyone is expecting them to be.
Part of the "outrage" is coming from the fact that these young women have been self-publishing on the internet instead of writing through more traditional outlets. More interestingly, I think it makes people uncomfortable because it deals with a topic that is uncomfortable
Fan fiction is a way for teenage girls to address sexuality and romance on their own terms. It's well discussed in Virgin-land that we as a culture are obsessed with controlling the sexuality of young women. From purity balls to abstinence pledges, we are so afraid of female sexuality that we do all that we can as a culture to control it. The problem is that this type of policing hasn't actually stopped the objectification of women or the sexualization of girls. Women are expected to be sexy without being sexual, and young women even more so. With fan fiction, teenage girls are talking back. Or writing back. They are writing about their experiences, what they want their sex and romantic lives to be like and how the realities fall short.
As Wolfson reports in the Guardian article about fanfic story The Naughty Game (book cover above):
“At the moment, one of the most popular stories on Movellas, the fan fiction site where Barker was discovered, is a sort of Hunger Games meets American Pie coming-of-age tale where members of One Direction compete to "stamp the V-card" of the story's first-person protagonist. You might expect a distasteful and badly written tale of teenage lust.
“In fact, the story is a fairly merciless character assassination of the band, in which their petty attempts at sexual espionage are almost always rebuffed, by the same person who is making them up. A repeated device used to great effect in the story is Harry Styles getting kicked in the balls. Niall – the one who looks like a Guess Who? illustration – comes round to her house with flowers and chocolate, which quickly get "smashed at his face"”
If we're going to critique these authors (and presumably the publishers) for their work, I think it's important to step back and ask why we read. We read for pleasure and, with all art and media, to see ourselves reflected back at us. The growth of fan fiction is filling a much-needed void. Honest depictions of young sexuality, imagined by and focusing on teenage girls just doesn't exist in mainstream pop culture.
I personally don't read fan fiction, but I know a lot of my friends do. I see the appeal. In addition to the fanfic mentioned in the article published in The Guardian, a lot of the genre focuses on exploring queer sexuality. As a fat queer woman myself, I'm always looking for depictions of myself in media. Fat women are not depicted as worthy of sexuality, and when they are it's because they're so gross and desperate. I've created my own little bubble where I surround myself with impressive fat queer women. Fan fiction is in many ways the same. It's a type of art in which the realities of our lives can drown out what everyone seems to be telling us about our lives.
In the last email exchange I had with Therese before I wrote this article, she told me that she "used to be quite the fan of Downton Abbey fanfic.” And she followed it up with "Don't hate me." I don't read fan fiction, but I have respect for young women writing about sex and romance and those who read their words.
When Jenn Leyva was 16, her dad told her that he'd buy her a car if she lost weight. She cried, finished her calculus homework, and is now a New York-based fat activist and recent graduate of Columbia, where she studied biochemistry. She authors Fat Smart And Pretty, a fat blog about social justice, feminism, science, health, and fa(t)shion.