Fanfiction Is Cringey & Beautiful — No Wonder It’s Having A Moment

Photographed by Jessica Garcia.
Do you ever dream of finding out your horrible mother sold you — messy bun and all — to be a One Direction sex slave? Or are you more familiar with the dark twisted tale of a famous K-pop threesome, living fast at the helm of a vicious mafia in Seoul, playing with... guns? Or, maybe you live in a world where hot anime characters moonlight as dopey college students with stimulating tongue rings? Or perhaps, all you — (y/n) — want is for the two obviously gay characters in a popular show to just make out? If you need to check your pulse when you read the phrase: “there was only one bed” or worse, “(y/n) woke up one morning with the sudden urge to vomit,” don’t worry: You’re in good company.
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Welcome to the cringey-beautiful world of erotic fanfiction, also known as smut, where celebrities and fictional characters get both figuratively and literally bent over by lust-minded writers with thirsty readerships. What once was a dirty secret within geeky fandoms is now semi-mainstream, thanks to our recent surplus of free time and horniness. Not all fanfiction is erotic — some can be a simple exploration into alternative plotlines for beloved characters. But smut, fanfiction’s sexually explicit problem child, is all about seeing everything through a lens of sex. Smut is made according to the same rules as porn: If it exists, there’s probably smut about it — even the ship stuck in the Suez Canal isn’t out of bounds. 
Smut has always been a part of the very-online experience, but recently the trendy young adults of queer and alt TikTok have grown more confident in admitting they’re fluent in the language of thirsty lit. Memes about popular tropes and fanfic clichés are amplifying what is now a semi-public conversation. However, just because a TikTok about sloshing down to the family dinner table after spending a day reading smut can get 1M views, doesn’t mean it’s mainstream. If a smut reader talked about their interests with a non-smut reader, for example, they could easily be met with any number of assumptions about fanfiction and erotic prose. Fanfiction-lovers are often assumed to have unhealthy parasocial relationships, to be into unspeakably kinky stuff, or to be virgins. But sometimes, they’re met with the opposite reaction.
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When 32-year-old Rory* learned her coworkers were all well-acquainted with fanfic vernacular, she realized she was among her people. Rory remembers, after a few post-work drinks, admitting to her coworkers: “I read things at work that I probably shouldn’t be reading at work.” After a pause, someone asked what she meant, exactly, and  Rory said, “I’ve kind of gotten really into this fanfic stuff.” Turns out, she was in a veritable summit of fanfiction enthusiasts – with everything from Harry Potter to BTS fandoms represented. After they exchanged AO3 tags, Rory confirmed that, while she might be hornier than most of her colleagues, she felt she was in good company all the same.
Rory explains that, compared to porn, with smut, “you get more of the burning and the lusting, especially if it’s a slow-burn fanfic where they both like each other, but neither of them will admit it and there is so much tension.” But despite all this talk of slow-burns, the fact that fanfic is based on characters who readers already know allows for easier access to the good stuff. By pulling from familiar faces and backstories, fanfiction writers can offer complex and emotionally charged sex scenes in the same amount of time it takes a busty housewife on Pornhub to realize she has no money to pay for pizza.
But does that explain why so many people are now flocking to fanfiction? Melissa*, a 29-year old who not only reads but also writes fanfiction, has given the “why” a lot of thought: “We know what this world is. We know what the plot is. Let’s skip to the smut.” No matter the characters — be they celebrities or literal ships (still looking at you Suez Canal smut) — fanfiction doesn’t need a gratuitous plot. What’s more, fanfic doesn’t have to please critics, nor fit into guidelines about what’s appropriate; and, as Melissa puts it,“my mind has a higher special effects budget and better cinematography.” Fanfiction writers are free to explore sex in ways that writers who share their works on screens or through publishers have never been able to, which means smut often subverts the male gaze and centres queer desire in ways mainstream media has often teased but never delivered on. If the fandom says now kith, the fic will make it happen.
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Literary snobs who might scoff at the idea of diving into fanfic can also look to people like longtime fanfiction reader and writer, Karla*, a 32-year-old product support specialist, says that — even as an English major — she probably reads more fanfiction than she does books. She’s read plenty of bodice-rippers, or as she calls them “old lady novels,” and says they’re great, “but those also get pretty campy as well. At that point, you might as well just read fanfiction.”
Even if you don’t read smut, you’ve certainly been touched by it: If the jocks and cheerleaders of the world point and laugh at the enemies-to-lovers fic reader, remind them of their mom’s dedication to the 50 Shades of Grey book and movie franchise. Lest we forget, that whole phenomenon all started as Twilight smut posted to fanfiction.net. Or point to the many book deals that emerged from Wattpad, like the Harry Styles fic-inspired After, which was later adapted into a film.
Or, you could just point to the meme that Karla’s brother — who doesn’t read fic, but knows she does — sent her recently. It asked: "Would you rather read a critically acclaimed book or would you rather read fan fiction written by a 13-year-old who has no idea about sex?" The response is really the only one that matters: "Is the fan fiction good though."
*Some names have been changed.

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