Right, so, first and foremost: y’all should know that this is about as close as I ever get to an angry screed! But it’s an angry screed in the name of positivity, so that’s something, right?
Here’s the deal: today I saw a post—a series of posts, in fact—positing that the overall quality of the work available at the Ao3 was decreasing, and arguing that there had been at one point a mission of “quality control” at that archive (which, for the record, there never was). I am not linking to those posts, because more capable and knowledgeable people than I have already responded to them, and because, at the end of the day, those posts aren’t really what this post is about. The post is about the increase I’ve seen in comments like this, about the folks I see mocking “badfic,” about the sense of betrayal people seem to feel if a piece of fanfiction is not up to their individual standards, about the rather shocking volume of people who seem to have come to the conclusion that fandom exists for their personal pleasure. Which, don’t get me wrong—fandom does exist for the pleasure of fans. But it’s a collective thing, with each individual contributing to the whole, and the degree to which that knowledge seems to have slipped—along with the remembrance of the fact that every handle represents a living, breathing human being whose importance is not hinged on the quality of their fanworks—is starting to freak me out.
I wonder, sometimes, if those who think it’s hilarious to mock stories on anon memes, or a good idea to post angrily about the quality of something you’re reading, or at all justified to suggest that a fan-run, fan-funded archive should be subject to some kind of quality control mechanism, remember starting out in fandom. Because I sure do! I distinctly recall being fourteen and fifteen and writing stories so utterly, completely within the realm of badfic that I’m fairly certain I could have read them aloud to peel the paint from the walls. Really, really, really awful, you guys. Really awful. There was this one where Draco came home beaten up and Harry literally, actually, for real magically healed him with his cock. There were quite a few where Sirius referred to Remus as “Moonshine,” with wide, besotted eyes and flowers behind his back. There was one, I distinctly recall, where Remus fell asleep on his books in the Great Hall and Sirius bridal-carried him up to Gryffindor Tower, complete with sweet nothings and forehead kisses and declarations of intent, surrounded by students who were all encouraging them, in the 1970s. Every one of them ended with someone falling asleep, because I didn’t know how to close a story. Every one of them featured a horrible dance of messy, unfollowable POV shifts, because I didn’t know how to manage that yet. Each and every one of them was a grammatical travesty.
And I’ll tell you what, I am proud as shit of having written those fucking awful stories. Admittedly, they’re not something I like people to read now—they were written under a different name, and I purged them from the internet some years ago, since I no longer consider them indicative of my style or skill level—but I am proud to have written them, and proud as hell that they were garbage. And I’ll tell you why, while I’m at it: that garbage? Was necessary for me, as a writer, to produce. Was necessary for me to slog through. Was in fact a huge part of how I developed the ability to hold a POV, to wrangle with the rules of grammar and structure until I had something that felt like my own style, to create a plot, to hold characterization. And you know what else? I fully expect that, in ten years, I will look back at the things I’m writing now and think, “Oh, god, I cannot believe anyone was kind enough to read this.” Such is the nature of creativity—there is a learning curve to writing, to art, like there is for anything else.
I’ll tell you another thing, while we’re here: I was lucky. I was, in fact, almost obscenely lucky; in my early fandom experience, I was befriended by a few of people who were at or above my skill level, who were kind enough to read my stories and encourage me to continue writing. And I would’ve stopped, you guys, I would’ve stopped in a heartbeat. For those of you who make your contribution to the fandom community by, instead of producing fanworks, reading or reccing or commenting on said fanworks—which, let me very clear, is an INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT and often hugely undervalued contribution to this community—let me explain something. Putting forth a piece of creative work, in any arena, is an incredibly risky and nerve-wracking thing to do. I would equate it to public speaking, but I happen to personally prefer public speaking; at least, in that circumstance, you are aware of an approaching finite end point to your nerves, and you are in control of how much of you the audience sees. When you put forth a piece of creative work, you’re not only displaying your skill level in the medium in question, but also that part of your heart that you layered into the work in question. It’s terrifying! Had I been met, in those early days, with, say, a thread on an anonymous meme, or a twitter discussion, or a tumblr thread (not that twitter or tumblr were around then, oh, internet, how you grow), openly mocking my attempts at writing? I would’ve been shattered. I would’ve stopped bothering to try. I don’t know whether I would have ever started again—that kind of discouragement, that early on? I doubt it.
And then I think about how many threads like that I’ve seen, how many twitter discussions, how many tumblr chats, and I start to feel a little sick.
I have no doubt whatsoever that I’m going to hear a number of things in the wake of this post—the argument that criticism is necessary, the argument that this is somehow an attempt to stifle the free speech of disgruntled fans, the argument that the people producing the fanworks that have disgruntled those fans are somehow deserving of this sort of response, be it for their “laziness” or their ignorance or their lack of skill. So let’s look at each of those arguments; I’d hate for it to be said, after all, that I am anything less than thorough.
First of all: the argument that criticism is necessary. And you know what, I agree with that one—criticism is necessary. Concrit is an essential part of the creative process, and always will be, and of course there are also those instances when someone has created something that, for example, perpetuates a stereotype or includes language/behavior/depictions that are actively triggering or harmful to other members of this community, and need to be corrected. Criticism is a very important part of any creative population, but there is a large difference—a VERY LARGE DIFFERENCE—between criticism and mockery. And the truth is, you know what that difference is as well as I do; you know it’s kindness and courtesy. You know it’s respect for the fact that there’s a person behind that handle. You know what the difference is between constructive criticism and public ridicule. You know you do.
Secondly: the argument that I am trying to stifle the free speech of disgruntled fans. You’re going to have to take my word for it that I’m not—hell, I’m not even making the argument that this should be a wholly positive community, though god knows I wish I could. I would love it if, for example, we could shut down any and all anon memes due to reasons of underpopulation, that we could come together as a group of people and decide to do away with negativity; I am still, forever and ever amen, that girl who wants cake and rainbows in Mean Girls. But I’m not arguing for that, because I’ve come to accept that it’s not going to happen, that you can’t gather a group of humans together—however like-minded—and expect that group to be without some negative energy. I am merely asking that that negative energy not be directed at the people who are both the easiest targets and the most likely to be done irreparable harm. If nothing else, that kind of thing is directly against your own interests—some of those people who you wish to mock and ridicule are going to go on to be truly exceptional talents, and driving them away for committing the crime of being new to this, or not as good at it as you would like, is only going to prevent you from interacting with that exceptional talent when it has developed.
Thirdly: the argument that people are deserving of this kind of treatment, for an assortment of reasons. A lot of the time I see this one in the specific context of fanfiction that is grammatically less than perfect—“They should have gotten a beta,” or “They should take more pride in their work,” or what have you. But you know what? There are people who don’t have anyone they trust to beta their work, or people who are brand-new to fandom and haven’t yet figured out that a beta read is considered standard practice, or don’t know how to find one. There are people who are writing in a language that isn’t the language they are most comfortable with (which is always wildly impressive to me, since the best I can do in a language other than the one I am most comfortable with is, tragically, a request for a sandwich and/or the location of the bathroom), and there are those who have betas, and those betas are also just starting out and not yet very good at it! You have no idea how much pride went into someone’s work, or what their reasons are for the grammatical or structural quality of that work—in fact, the only thing that can be gleaned from reading a piece of fiction that is grammatically below standard is that the writer in question has some room to grow on that front. THAT IS ALL. THAT IS THE ONLY FOR-SURE CONCLUSION THAT CAN BE DRAWN.
Oh, and also—and this one is the one that always trips me up, that I almost forgot to include in this post because it is honestly hugely mystifying to me that people aren’t regularly marveling at it and being deeply mindful of it—let’s point out that fanworks! Are free! Entertainment! On the internet! Are the product of work! Done! For free! In people’s spare time! For the sole reward that other people might enjoy it! This is nobody’s job, and, in fact, the time that people spend producing fanworks could often in fact be used to do other, more lucrative things. You’ve heard the expression time is money, yes? Well, the time that people spend producing fanworks is time where they are not, in fact, earning any money—it could easily be argued that people are not only not paid for producing fanwork, but actually actively giving up pay to produce it. And, in this same vein, no one is actually *owed* a different fanwork, or a better fanwork, or a fanwork more suited to their tastes, than the one they’ve come across or the ones that are available to them. Which, incidentally, encouraging someone to produce what you’re looking for is far more likely to yield positive results—for both of you—than complaining about the lack of it, just saying.
Mostly, though? Mostly what I want to say here, and mostly what I was referring to when I said that I think people forget what it was like when they first entered fandom—you remember, don’t you? That moment of stunned surprised when you came across something you didn’t think existed? Or when you had your first conversation with someone who understood part of you that you’d assumed was inaccessible to others? Or when you found that first fanwork that took a piece of media you loved and made it better, made it more inclusive, made it more accessible to you, made it more relatable to your experience? Or when you took a leap of faith and shared an opinion, or an idea, or a conversation, or a fanwork, and felt the glow of your first positive response—even if it was just one person, one person who had seen what you’d done and enjoyed it—buoy you through the rest of the day?
For many of us—in fact, I’d risk a generalization and say for most of us—fandom is a place where we feel that we fit in some way(s) we don’t, necessarily, in what you might call mainstream culture. And maybe that’s for reasons of representation, and maybe that’s for reasons of community, and maybe that’s for reasons of style of interaction; maybe that’s true for each of us in some ways but not in others; maybe that’s one of those seemingly inescapable truths that we somehow manage to escape anyway, most of the time. But the fact remains that none of us would devote time and energy to fandom (whether in producing fanworks or consuming them) if it wasn’t scratching some itch for us, if it wasn’t filling some need that wasn’t being sated elsewhere in our lives. All of us! On some level! Are experiencing that! And that’s just one of the many, many reasons why my fan experience, why your fan experience, why ANYONE’S fan experience is no more important than anyone else’s. I don’t care who you are, and I don’t care what you have or have not done in fandom, or how long you’ve been in fandom, or what fandoms you’ve been in, or, quite frankly, any of that—your fan experience is not more important or more valuable or more integral to the greater community than anyone else’s. You are not more important than the novice fandom participant, or the fandom participant who has been at it for awhile and whose skill-set is simply not up to what you consider your standards. You just aren’t. That’s not how it works.
Finally, I’ll say this: I have, over my years as a fandom participant, behaved in a manner that was not considerate of others. I have hurt people, both by action and by inaction; I have things that were callous and unnecessary; I have taken stands from a place of ignorance; I have been unkind, both with and without intention; I have fucked up. People make mistakes. And this post isn’t about saying, “Anyone who has done these things is terrible and should feel terrible,” because you aren’t, and you shouldn’t. But I’ll tell you what—while those mistakes I made were learning opportunities (like my terrible fanfiction), and while they’ve helped to shape the person I am right now (like my terrible fanfiction), and while I am sure I will make nice fresh new ones in the future (like the work, fan or otherwise, I am writing now, which I am sure will one day look terrible to me), here’s the difference between my bad fanfiction and my bad fan behavior: I’m proud of the bad fanfiction. I am glad of the bad fanfiction. The bad behavior, I’m ashamed of; it harmed others, so I will never be glad of it, no matter how much I learned from it. Treating fellow fans with courtesy and respect and encouragement and kindness—I really cannot stress this enough—is its own reward. It contributes to the eventual quality of the work available for you to interact with, it continues to foster a community that provides so many of us with something (whatever that something might be) that we cannot find elsewhere, and it does not leave you looking back and cringing, later, thinking, “God, I can’t believe I did or said that shit to another person.” There is no downside to being good to each other, except possibly the loss of a half-second’s worth of satisfaction through vindication, and that half-second is really—trust me here—not worth it in the long run. It’s really not.
So, in conclusion: be good to one another, and be good to yourselves. I guess that’s my point; it kind of tends to be, more often than not. <3