Art Under Capitalism
On The Passions of AO3
This is the Sunday Edition of Paging Dr. Lesbian. If you like this type of thing, subscribe, or share it with your friends!
They say capitalism breeds innovation, but this has certainly been proven wrong time and time again. As some astute Twitter users have observed, how can capitalism breed innovation when the same Hallmark Christmas movie has been made dozens of times? To be sure, creativity can happen within capitalism, but its particular constraints – defined as they are in the falsely objective language of profitability – have the effect of erecting boundaries regarding what should (or shouldn’t) be produced within this system. But, as commanding as these structures may be, humans have always found a way to create art within – or outside, as it were – these constraints. I’m thinking, of course, of fanfiction.
Fanfiction, it seems, is a particularly evocative example of what creative works can be like when freed from the constraints of capitalism. In particular, today’s most popular fanfiction site – Archive of Our Own, known colloquially as AO3 – is illustrative of these community (rather than capital) oriented ideas put into practice.
Fanfic itself, of course, dates much further back than the founding of AO3. The origins of fanfic are often traced back to the 1960s when fans of Star Trek (most of whom were women) got together and created fanzines. Within the pages of these magazines were fan-authored stories about the show’s characters, most notably ones depicting Captain Kirk and Spock in romantic entanglements. (In modern parlance we would call these fans Kirk/Spock “shippers”). However, it’s possible that fanfic goes back even further than this. As early as the 1930s there is evidence of science fiction fans holding conventions and publishing their own fan-made journals. Even further back than that there were fans of Sherlock Holmes, who, eager for more stories, formed clubs and wrote their own Holmes mysteries.
If you wanted to expand the definition of fanfiction, you could go back even further and say that John Milton’s Paradise Lost (first published in 1667) is technically a fanfiction of The Bible. Where Milton differs from these other examples, of course, is in the area of copyright. Though modern copyright law hadn’t yet solidified in Milton’s time, theoretically a published author like him would be able to retain the copyright of his work and thus profit from it, or if not retain copyright, at least share in some of the dividends. (In actual fact, Milton sold the copyright of Paradise Lost for a mere £10). Indeed, this is the most significant difference between fanfiction and writing produced within the publishing industry – fanfic authors legally cannot profit off their work, attached as it is to pre-existing intellectual property that they do not have the rights to. As such, the first three early examples of fanfic I laid out were produced for (presumably) similar reasons – for the enjoyment of its readers and writers, rather than for profits.
It is with this understanding of fanfiction that AO3 comes in. Archive of Our Own was launched in 2008 as part of a larger non-profit organization called The Organization for Transformative Works, and is now the preferred site of many fanfic readers and writers. (Fanfiction.net technically has more users than AO3 but AO3 gets significantly more traffic). The OTW was founded with the intention to preserve fan-made content – referred to here as “transformative works” – and protect these works from any legal challenges. In addition to AO3, The OTW also hosts its own fan wiki and publishes its own peer-reviewed academic journal called Transformative Works and Cultures.1 AO3 itself was created in order to build a space where authors could publish their work without being fearful of facing legal consequences.
AO3 is a highly anonymized site (users are known only by their usernames – of which you can have multiple under one account – and you can even post a work anonymously or “orphan” a work if you no longer want your username associated with it), and it has an extremely comprehensive tagging system, a feature that is beloved by users. Its clean, easy-to-navigate interface is similarly enjoyed by readers and writers alike. Similar to a site like Wikipedia, it is run by volunteers and funded entirely by donations. Its non-profit status is one of the things that distinguishes AO3 from other fanfic sites like fanfiction.net, which was previously the preferred fanfic site for many writers and readers.2 Indeed, the fact that no one is making money from the site in many ways protects AO3 from facing the legal issues its predecessors might have.
For writers of fanfic, there are a number of reasons they are drawn to it as a writing practice, anti-capitalist qualities aside. For some writers, they come to fanfic because they are disappointed in the “canon” of whatever media property they happen to be a fan of. (Canon refers to the narrative of the “official” media text). As one user on Reddit put it, “i write fanfiction bc there are things i want to read that don't exist so i have to make them myself.'' Another user said they read fanfic for “quality LGBT+ content,” which can be difficult to find elsewhere. (Two popular forms of fanfic are slash fic and femslash, which depict two men or two women in a romantic pairing, respectively). In filling in the blanks, or reading between the lines of their favorite media property, fanfic writers are able to flesh out new ideas and create narratives that might be more appealing to fans.
This practice of re-writing canon is also important as it relates to one of the central elements of fanfic: community. While fans (readers or writers) may turn to fanfic initially because of a desire for more content, they often return for the sense of community that is found in spaces like AO3. As another Reddit user noted, fans’ changing relationships to canon often take place as a community. “Sometimes a story ending is just so devastating, illogical, or unsatisfying that the entire fandom almost universally rejects it and creates their own... collectively.” Other users noted they kept writing on AO3 because of the helpful feedback they got on their fics, suggesting that writing on the site can be a “liberating experience.” As one user noted, it’s not just the comments themselves that are encouraging, but also the fact that users on the site take fic writers’ work seriously. Other words Reddit users used to describe the site were “supportive,” “accessible,” and “approachable.”
In fact, fanfic writing can actually be a useful tool for improving one’s writing ability. Even for successful published authors such as N. K. Jemisin, who won a Hugo award three years in a row and still writes fic in her spare time, fanfic can be a way to test out new ideas and engage a supportive readership. Katie Davis and Cecilia Aragon, two professors at the University of Washington, actually did a study where they measured the effectiveness of fanfic writing as a teaching tool and found that it’s very successful as a device for improving writing skills and engaging students. Davis and Aragon noted that the communal reading and writing space that sites like AO3 and fanfiction.net engender are beneficial to writers, modeling relationships they call “distributive mentorship,” just as the users on Reddit attested to. Some fanfic writers even improve their English-language skills while writing fanfic, getting feedback along the way as they continue writing. (It’s fairly common to see someone say “sorry, English is not my first language,” in the notes of a fic, even though these apologies are certainly not necessary.)
The result of this community-oriented model is that typical hierarchies between authors and fans are eroded. (Occasionally, this can be a negative thing – every so often readers can get belligerent with authors, demanding to know when the next chapter will be released, but this type of response is infrequent). As writer Emilia Copeland Titus puts it in Catapult Magazine, “There is an equivalence between fanfiction writers and readers: we’re in this together, united by our mutual passion for media.”
The fact that the majority of users on AO3 are women and genderqueer people3 and many are queer only adds to this feeling of equivalence. Fanfic has always existed on the periphery of polite society, and the relative social capital of its practitioners reflects (or perhaps constitutes) this peripheral state. Indeed, one need only look at late-night talk shows – Colbert and Martin Freeman discussing the “wild erotic imagination” of Sherlock fans or Angie Harmon on Conan complaining that she’s “always the man” in Rizzoli & Isles fanfic, for example – to understand how fan creators are seen by those not engaged in fandom themselves.
Along with this sense of solidarity between fanfic readers and writers is a shared sense of delighting in pleasure and hedonism. I don’t mean that strictly in an R-rated sense – though there is certainly a large amount of fic that falls into this category, known in fanfic parlance as “smut” – but am more so speaking to the fact that fanfic readers and writers can search for exactly the type of content they want to see with no literary or moralistic barriers in their way. Again, this is where the sophisticated search function of AO3 comes in, as fans can search for exactly what they want and most often will actually be able to find it.
While capitalism itself is certainly framed in similarly hedonistic terms, (think of the famous “greed is good” slogan from Wall Street), the pleasure inherent in fanfiction is not the pleasure of material accumulations, but rather the pleasure of creativity, melded together as it is with the pleasure of sharing in and celebrating these creations.
Certainly, fanfic writing is not always entirely outside of the capitalist publishing industry. For example, as many of us probably now know, the wildly popular Fifty Shades of Grey series was originally a Twilight fanfic that was then scrubbed of all references to the primary text, a practice known as “filing off the serial numbers.” (Some fanfic readers have noted that it is somewhat disheartening that Fifty Shades has become the most famous example of fanfic when there are many more eloquent works out there that could have achieved this status – including many that explore BDSM in ways that actually emphasize communication and consent – but I digress).
One Reddit user who is active in fanfic communities also noted that although AO3 itself is not a moneymaking enterprise, some users are still trying to “squeeze “capitalistic” dynamics into it anyway,” reminding us that digital currency still carries weight, monetized or not. Indeed, AO3 and other fanfic communities are not free of some of the more insidious dynamics that permeate digital culture more broadly. Issues like racism, sexism, and ableism still exist on these platforms, and harassment does still sometimes occur despite AO3’s anonymized user base.
As such, fanfic is not an inherently radical practice, despite some of the anti-capitalist ideas that undergird the systems that support it. What’s more, the intentions of individual fanfic writers are not monolithic, and, as Copeland Titus puts it, “It is a mistake to assume that everyone engaging with fandom is doing so with the intent to subvert capitalistic notions of authorship.”
Nonetheless, while fanfic writing is not inherently anti-capitalistic in its nature, it certainly exists alongside capitalism in an interesting way. Recently, a tweet about the almost masochistic dedication of fanfic writers went viral. The Twitter user posted a number of screenshots from the “notes'' section of AO3 posts wherein several authors apologized for a new fanfic chapter being late and/or less than perfect, with their reasons ranging from the author having had a literal baby to being in a psych ward. (I’ve collected the first batch of screenshots below). Another Twitter user (above) noted how dedicated these writers were despite having no promise of compensation for their work, suggesting that this goes against the capitalist maxim that nothing would get produced without a profit motive.
The motivation behind writing fanfic in the first place thus becomes clear: it is fans’ dedication to and passion for these stories, characters, and communities that drives them to keep producing this content. For fanfic writers, this community and readership element is essential. In mainstream publishing institutions, the structures therein are constrained and defined by capitalist systems. Indeed, one must prove – as in any media production context – that what they have written, or plan to write, will appeal to a large enough audience to justify its production or distribution. In this way, pitching one’s work within this capitalist system can be tiresome, and downright demoralizing. Moreover, as Copeland Titus puts it, “the validity of a writer’s career is frequently contingent upon her audience and the social recognition she receives for her work, in addition to any financial compensation.”
The type of social recognition that comes from being a fanfic writer is certainly not one that carries much weight in any writing or publishing circles outside the fanfic community (though AO3 did deservedly win its own Hugo Award in 2019), but it does produce its own insular world where success carries different meanings. With fanfic, one arrives on the scene with a pre-ordained readership at hand, or at least the possibility that new readers will find their work based on their unique interests. What one Reddit user noted when I asked what makes fanfic different from other forms of writing is that with fanfic “you come from a place of knowledge,” which means readers know and care just as much about these characters as authors do, in addition to both parties feeling a similar sense of ownership over these stories.
To be sure, fanfic is not going to destroy capitalism from the outside-in. But, what it can do is illustrate how creative works can flourish outside of the tyrannizing constraints of capitalism. At its best, AO3 can be a place where creativity flourishes and community support is a given. A model of absolute perfection it’s not, but it's certainly a model of something critical to this moment.
In the spirit of honesty, I do actually have an article published in this journal. If you’re so inclined, you can read it here.
Fanfiction.net has also taken a hit in popularity in recent years because they have banned and/or purged adult content in the past, as well as other types of fic such as real person/celebrity fiction. They have also banned works based on certain texts because of requests from authors, most famously Interview With A Vampire author Ann Rice. Read more about the differences between AO3 and fanfction.net here.