In the fall of 2004, a friend of mine with similar taste in music, mod clothing, and homoeroticism send me a link to Albion Fic, a LiveJournal community for RPS (real person slash – homoerotic fanfiction about real life people) featuring British musicians. The primary focus of the community was fic involving the Libertines, but there was also plenty of material featuring the likes of Franz Ferdinand, Morrissey, and even Franz Ferdinand/Morrissey if you were so inclined. And I, somewhat abashedly, was.
A few weeks later, I interviewed Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos and Bob Hardy for a feature on the late lamented Chart Magazine’s fashion-focused Stylin’ page. After we’d covered all of the requisite normal questions about fashion and presentation in rock music, I asked the singer and bassist if they were aware of any of the fanfiction that had been written about their band. They weren’t just aware of it. There were, in fact, quite tickled by it.
“It was pointed out to me at one point, and I thought it was very humorous” Kapranos told me. “The thing I didn’t realize is that there are so many hot-blooded girls who are really kind of into this voyeuristic thing about homosexual sex. At first I thought they’d been spying on my private life, and then I realized it’s just fantasy.”
This is how I came to be the author of a news story that appeared with the headline “Franz Ferdinand Don’t Mind Being Coupled With Morrissey In Gay Fan Fiction,” on Chart’s equally late and lamented website, ChartAttack.com, on November 12, 2004. Almost 13 years later, it holds a unique place in my heart (and my CV.) I’ve written much better stories, and I’m even proud of some of them. I’ve also misjudged a few issues and penned things that I genuinely regret. This is the only piece that leaves me feeling completely ambivalent.
My intentions at the time were pure enough, if a bit naive. I simply found something intriguing that was developing in fan culture in a more public way than had been possible for previous generations — fanfic has existed on and offline for decades, but the increasing accessibility of the internet at the time exposed it to a much wider audience of supporters and detractors — and I wanted to write about it. I happened to have access to one of the bands being written about so, after asking my more traditional interview questions, I decided to see what they thought about the fanfiction being written about them. Their perspective was interesting, so I wrote a quick news story about it.
Young fans, especially female fans, are supposed to love their idols in a way that makes them want to consume and fund their art (and the art industry). They’re not supposed to respond with creativity of their own.
At the time, there weren’t a lot of other people moving between fandom and music journalism in this way, so I didn’t really have any greater context for what it meant to breech the wall between fanfic and its muses. Now that forcing musicians and actors to read and comment on stories about themselves (and their most recognizable characters) has become a journalistic norm, I’m not entirely comfortable with the small role I played in this cultural exchange. To paraphrase the other half of those FF/Moz pairings, I helped move fanfic into a zone where it was clearly never meant to go. And now I’m not too sure.
At best, these conversations about fanfiction border on irrelevant. The stories are only about the stars in the most superficial sense, and they’re not necessarily for the artists. They are primarily for the people who write them and the communities of fans they are shared with. As long as fans aren’t forcing their work upon their muses – and most prefer to keep some separation between their art and the artists who may have originally inspired it – then there’s really no point to asking the latter about the former.
At worst, there’s something somewhat unusual about shoving fanfiction in an artist’s face and asking them to respond to it. Whether it’s done with the malice of a writer from the Telegraph making Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman read Sherlock slash out loud at a BFI event in 2013, or the better-natured ribbing of the recent The Mountain Between Us promo where the film’s star, Idris Elba, reads fic about himself, the punchline is the same. The work is regarded as laughable. The authors portrayed as ridiculous. The imaginations of often young and predominantly female fans are regarded as the inherent subject of ridicule.
I also used to think that writing and reading fic were simply amusing. Fascinating, but a bit of a trifle nonetheless. Now I think of its creation and circulation as a genuinely and thrillingly subversive act.
As I’ve watched the treatment of fanfiction in media change, I’ve also noticed my own opinion about the phenomenon itself evolve. Thirteen years ago, I enjoyed fanfiction, but I just accepted the idea that it wasn’t as good as “real” fiction without question. Now I realize that the lines between the two are blurry, if they exist at all. And that sometimes the only thing that separates fanfiction from fiction is having an already established (and usually male) writer and a budget behind it. What is BBC’s Sherlock, for example, if not Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s Sherlock Holmes fanfiction? Why does Guy Ritchie continue to receive praise for the homoeroticism that he brings to his adaptations of Sherlock Holmes and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. when he’s simply producing a watered-down version of what two of the oldest slash fandoms in the history of pop culture have been doing for over half of a century?
I also used to think that writing and reading fic were simply amusing. Fascinating, but a bit of a trifle nonetheless. Now I think of its creation and circulation as a genuinely and thrillingly subversive act. Pop culture in general and pop music in particular has long treated – and maybe even relied on – the passion of its fans as a passive entity. Young fans, especially female fans, are supposed to love their idols in a way that makes them want to consume and fund their art (and the art industry). They’re not supposed to respond with creativity of their own. Fan art upends the relationship and the power balance between fans and artists by elevating the former to creators in their own right who can engage with material in ways that aren’t limited to just watching, listening, or reading.
This is why I’m uncomfortable with the role that I played in the reductive way that we talk about fanfiction outside of fandom now. But it’s also why there’s a part of me that doesn’t regret writing that specific story — Alex Kapranos fundamentally understood this all of those years ago, and his perspective on the issue is as refreshing and necessary now as it was then:
“I think it’s brilliant. It’s really, really funny,” Kapranos said. “And I like that sort of thing ‘cause it means that there’s people who have imagination who are inspired by your personality and the things that you’ve done, so it’s a good thing. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with fictionalizing a genuine character as long as you make it clear that you are fictionalizing, which I think all that slash stuff does.”
He continued: “I think it gets dangerous when people start believing that those things are actually true, and I think for the obvious majority of people that that’s not going to be the case. There are a few people who get crazy obsessed and start imagining they’re having relationships with people that they don’t have relationships with. That sort of thing’s a little bit frightening, but I think that’s very rare.
It’s what we do in songs as well. I mean, we take characters who are around us and write stories, write songs about events that have happened in their lives. Of course, when you tell any story, you make it dramatic, you use the tools of drama to make an exciting story. All they’re doing is an extreme example of what we do.”
As former purveyor of fanfiction, I’d infinitely prefer it if more mainstream coverage of fanfiction wasn’t so derisive, or that it didn’t prioritize the opinions of its subjects above any other potential points of discussion. But as long we’re stuck here, I’m happy that I was at least involved in bringing a dissenting opinion into the mix.
And, I’ll admit, I’m proud that my little story has its own entry on Fanlore.