Fan Fiction And The Mode of the Fucked-Up
4 min read

Fan Fiction And The Mode of the Fucked-Up

On writing like an actor
  1. A few weeks ago, as a semi-professional writer who recently landed his first big 5 deal, I came back to writing fan fiction. I’d like to take a moment to talk about fan fiction, not in terms of its cultural baggage, but as a form. It has a particular power which other literary forms rarely offer: it can access what I call The Mode of the Fucked-Up, about which more later.
  2. Fan fiction is fiction that is also criticism. It is nothing more nor less than that. It functions both as original work and as a critique of someone else’s work, whether that critique is “I want to comment in depth on your work’s religious themes” to “I want to stake out a position that it’s politically important for queer people to fuck.”
  3. I know this is a reductive definition. It doesn’t account for the massive emotional complications that can surround fan writing. In particular, it doesn’t account for the way fan fiction allows women and trans mascs to inhabit cis masculinity in ways that can be by turns affirming, depressing, self-destructive, vengeful, and incomprehensible. For me, the latter is a deeply personal theme, and it’s one I wrote into my upcoming book. However, I don’t see it as central to what fan fiction is, as opposed to how fan fiction is used.
  4. There are a lot of reasons for fan fiction’s abject place in American culture, but if there’s anything I know about American culture, it’s that we don’t do well with hybrids and crossovers, except as kinds of cars. A fiction that is also criticism does not sit well in car country.
  5. The cultural/legal baggage surrounding fan fiction gives it what the insurance industry calls “inherent vice”: the aspects of a system that are set up to fail (hence Shakespeare’s great play The Inherent Vice of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark). In imagining both tragedy and inherent vice, you start with a system and then add emotions to it: first the solipsism or the faulty brakes, and then the ruined family.
  6. The inherent vice of fan fiction is as follows: it can never be paid work, almost never invites a mass audience, and often calls upon fans to do repairs on a creatively bankrupt corporate property in order to maintain that property’s value, before proceeding to devalue the fans’ work. #3 alone makes it difficult to create anything good, and #1 and #2 pile on.
  7. I’m as anti-capitalist as the next trans writer, but while capitalism exists, I want my writing to provide me the means to live and a reasonable chance of being remembered when I die. I don’t want to dismantle capitalism starting with my personal ability to make a living.
  8. All this is a powerful argument against writing fan fiction, so here are the reasons that I started again anyway.
  9. Now we come to the Fucked-Up.
  10. Until this year, I told two contradictory stories about fan fiction. One was that I’d sworn it off about ten years ago because it was too seductive to give my original work room to grow. Today, I find that this is untrue: it is all just writing, albeit writing that has different forms and strengths.
  11. The other story was that I’d written a fan novel in 2018 as part of the work of coming out as trans. The “fandom” was me; this book was a response to a novel I’d written in 2014 and never published. In my re-exploration of the story, I focused on the main characters’ transness (and made one of them trans who hadn’t originally been intended as such). Despite its origins, I do consider this book fan work; it functioned as a critique. I later smashed the two books together to create an entirely new book that I’m editing now. This is, I believe, known as “process.”
  12. Writing the fan novel was an intensely physical experience. It made me shake. The tremors came when I realized I was coming very close to an important realization about myself, something unprecedented and alarming, in the sense that an alarm wakes you up.
  13. I felt the ghost of those same tremors while rewatching The Terror’s finale, “We Are Gone,” earlier this year.  My first thought was “Christ, what am I going to learn about myself now?” — but really it’s just that “We Are Gone” is an exceptionally Fucked-Up piece of media.
  14. This is a trait it shares — for a few examples that I happen to think about constantly — with Hamlet, The Seventh Seal, and The Prisoner’s final two-parter, “Once Upon a Time”/”Fall Out.”
  15. A story is not Fucked-Up because it includes grotesque images, although “We Are Gone" sure does. A story is Fucked-Up when it looks the truth in the face, with the truth in question usually being death, or the dissolution of what we think we know about personality. It is usually, whatever theatrics surround it,  simple and level in its approach to these things. The looking is a meditative looking. As with meditation, you stare into the abyss of yourself.
  16. It is not writers who make work Fucked-Up; it is actors. This is not to say that  Shakespeare has nothing to do with it, but his work still relies on actors to bring the live trauma and pain required to make it Fucked-Up. If looking the truth in the face is the heart of Fucked-Up media, well, a book doesn’t have eyes to look. You need a body to look at the skull.
  17. Hamlet, holding up the skull of Yorick: “Look, Horatio. Isn’t this fucked-up?”
  18. There are some fraught edges to my “look in the face” metaphor, regarding various forms of disability. Myself, I can’t look another person in the eyes without spending conscious effort. If this idea doesn’t apply to you, please substitute a sense that does. My central point remains: it’s hard to get Fucked-Up without a human body, reacting, monitoring, interpreting, and drawing on all the things that are locked up inside it.
  19. Actors interpret a script with their bodies; fan writers interpret an existing story with their bodies.
  20. Fan fiction allows prose writers to access the Fucked-Up directly,  as an actor does. This is a rare experience for us; our routes to it are normally few, blocked, and circuitous. Of course original writing can look at whatever it wants, and it’s still written with a body. I’ve read authors — Hilary Mantel, for one very famous example — who write extremely Fucked-Up fiction. But to get to the Fucked-Up, I think you have to be interpreting something (Mantel’s best work interprets history or autobiography). You have to be adding your own troubles, your critique, your love, the concerns of your body, to something that’s already there.
  21. And that, my friends, is what’s special about fan fiction, and why I wish that there were more place in our world for a critical, interpretive, and actorly fiction.