So I had a personal crisis yesterday. The “precipitating event” was the discovery that Eat, Knot, Love, a Sterek fanfiction that I first read back in August, got pulled from Goodreads. While I didn’t shed actual tears, I was afflicted by a sense of profound helplessness and just plain sadness that defied my best efforts of rationalization.
You don’t have to tell me that my reaction was excessive or even ridiculous. And I don’t even have the excuse that I lost the review for it, since I’d actually posted it on my blog. (And I’ll just say here, that I really and truly do not mean anything I say here as a criticism of the author, pandabomb, whom I admire immensely and who after all is only one of dozens to do exactly the same thing.)
For the vast majority of inhabitants of this solar system who don't have a clue what I’m talking about, here’s the basic gist. This past December posts started going viral on Tumblr expressing dismay that fanfics were being reviewed on Goodreads. Individual authors complained to GR management, which agreed to pull the fics from the site—in the process deleting without notice any reviews or comments that had been posted. I personally lost more than twenty reviews with no way of recovering them; other friends lost close to a hundred. Predictably, there were some unfriendly exchanges between the camps, and along with most of my GR circle, I ended 2014 depressed and resentful that I was getting persecuted (sorry--feelings were running high) for loving stories by authors who were busy slamming me on their Tumblr boards.
The main wave of deletions happened in December and January before tapering off. Inevitably, I moved on to other winter activities such as procrastinating working on one of my seven WIPs, and the whole brouhaha dwindled to occasional ruminations on tempests in teapots and life’s vicissitudes, etc. etc.
Until I saw that Eat, Knot, Love had been removed, and I basically lost my shit. The reasons for the freak-out are mostly personal: for starters, it’s one of my all-time favorite, most admired fics. It made my list of Best Reads of 2014—not best fanfictions, best anything. I’d guestimate that I’ve read it twenty times and I still think it’s incredibly funny and brilliant and erotic and everything else that I value in a Sterek fic.
Eat, Knot, Love also happens to be the first Teen Wolf fanfiction I ever read. That raises it from the category of “favorite read,” to actual, legitimate life-changing event for me. It’s not an exaggeration to say that since that fateful read, I have plummeted down the rabbit hole of the Teen Wolf fandom. Evidence: I’ve read hundreds of fics, I’ve barely read anything else for the last half year, I’ve written and posted two of my own TW stories, watched every episode of Teen Wolf, not to mention countless hours spent combing Tumblr and Pinterest for Derek Hale GIFs. BTW, here’s one:
I repeat, life changing.
Still, despite being firmly in the “Goodreads” camp, my take on this divide has evolved since the winter, and though I still don’t agree, I understand better why authors were upset about finding their stories on Goodreads. My Road-to-Damascus moment came after reading a Daily Dot piece by Aja Romano about a notorious instance in which a journalist invited members of the cast of Sherlock to read aloud sexually explicit passages from a “Johnlock” fanfic. There is no question that it was intended as mockery, and I don’t think you need to be a “special snowflake” to see the basic nastiness of using an appearance by beloved actors to humiliate not just that particular author, but anyone who wrote or enjoyed Sherlock fanfiction, meaning a lot of the show’s most passionate fans.
Romano has pointed out elsewhere that this is hardly an isolated event: journalists take pot shots at fan communities all the time, and the relationship between fandoms and the creators and actors of the shows they support (and frequently make possible at all) is often strained, verging on unpleasant. With this perspective, I finally “got” why authors would become suspicious any time their works are read and discussed outside of trusted fan circles.
Ironically, the reviewing community on Goodreads has its own reasons to be defensive, since the site has been ground zero for a truly ugly battle between reviewers and authors over negative reviews. There’s been plenty of fallout from this fight, but two points are especially relevant here: first, a lot of trash gets talked about the site, giving it a reputation (totally unjust IMHO) as a place where authors are mercilessly pilloried, and second, GR reviewers have something of a hair-trigger when it comes to authors complaining about reviews.
And while I emphatically deny the accusation that GR Sterek readers are not “fans,” and passionate ones at that, I have been forced to acknowledge that a lot of us are not members of the fandom in the traditional sense. Most of my friends got into Teen Wolf through Goodreads, that is, through the fanfiction, and many have no interest in the show itself. (Though most are happy to ogle Derek Hale GIFs—speaking of, here are two more favorites:
Anyhoo, most of us started reading Sterek because we already loved M/M romance, and became obsessed when we discovered how creative, sexy, and ultimately brilliant the fictions from this fandom are.
Somewhat glibly, we saw our willingness to read and review fanfiction as a mark of respect—we take it seriously because we think it merits it. This is not to say that I think fanfiction requires some kind of imprimatur—I don’t. And while I did try to pay tribute in my reviews to fictions I admire, the main reason I wrote them in the first place was so I could exchange views about the stories with my friends.
And this is one area where I think misunderstanding made the situation worse than it needed to be. People, authors especially, who are unfamiliar with Goodreads often assume it’s just a big clearinghouse for book reviews. That’s wrong: Goodreads is a social networking site, one where the socializing revolves around books. And though the site has its issues, its platform is beautifully designed to fulfill its main function: enabling users to discover likeminded friends and then engage in focused, interactive, readily accessible discussions of specific texts. For that reason, many GR fans were flummoxed by the recommendations coming from fanfic authors that we just move the discussion to AO3, which is not a social site, or Tumblr, which is not focused exclusively on books and only allows users to “follow” instead of “friend” making it far more difficult for outsiders to make the kind of connections we were used to on Goodreads.
And frankly, the platform issues of AO3 or Tumblr are beside the point. Goodreads users discuss fanfictions on the site because that’s where our friends are. And I do think that’s something we all have in common: dependence on our online communities. I am a voracious reader, who in a typical year puts away something like 250 new books/fics and another hundred rereads. Like a lot of my GR friends, I do not have a single person in my real life who shares or even understands my love of Teen Wolf, slash, or anything I read or write. My entire reading life is conducted online, all of it via Goodreads. I really don’t have words for what this community means to me—or what it would do to me to lose it, to go back to the bleak time when reading was a measure of my isolation instead of an entrée into an gorgeously diverse, globe-spanning community of likeminded souls.
From everything I’ve seen, what I just wrote could as easily describe the experience of the average Sterek fan. If ever there was a communal activity it is the reading and writing of fanfiction and online communities are its lifeblood. For that reason alone, I would hope—beg—fans on GR, Tumblr and anywhere else to always be mindful of how their choices can impact and even harm their sister communities.
On Goodreads the main problem is that thanks to the reviewer/author wars and STGRB bullshit, we’ve mostly internalized a view of the relationship of author to reviewer as intrinsically antagonistic, verging on toxic. While this attitude may work well enough for a reviewer of traditionally published books, it is totally alien to fandom culture. More than that, and this is my key point, it is antithetical to the very activity of writing fanfiction, which is communal and collaborative in nature. This goes beyond questions of culture or etiquette or prickly author feelings to the very heart of the creative processes that make fanfiction possible. I do not mean any of this as an accusation against Goodreads fans, or a denial of the value or legitimacy of reviewing fanfiction on the site, which I wholeheartedly defend. But at a bare minimum, if our goal is to be responsible, constructive members of the larger fan community, our current ideas of the author/reader relationship will have to evolve.
For those who oppose listing fanfictions on Goodreads, all I can do is beg that you not lightly take a step which has as its main effect, if not its outright goal, to destroy what has been up to now a thriving community of passionate fans. Though our culture, assumptions and way of talking about fictions may feel alien and at times even harsh, our appreciation of the form is genuine, as are the friendships we’ve formed around that shared love.
Ultimately, I think the deeper reason this conflict has left me so depressed is that it has again forced to the forefront of my consciousness how vulnerable our communities are, and by extension how vulnerable fanfiction itself is. For all the incredible vitality of the form, the structures that make fanfiction possible are frighteningly fragile, dependent on sites we don’t control, subject to legal and commercial pressures we don’t have a prayer of fighting if they should really turn against us. A complaint, possibly based on misinformation, made to an administrator who thinks fanfiction is an embarrassment can in one second erase a hundred reviews and months of comment streams that are not just the record of a conversation, but in our online world, constitute the actual substance of cherished friendships, which exist only as typed exchanges on a website.
To offer another potential scenario: Jeff Davis or MTV or some asshole actor with a clever lawyer could decide tomorrow to aggressively protect their “intellectual property.” They do not go after yours or my Tumblr board, but after Yahoo, which in turn lays down the law to Tumblr. And next thing an announcement goes out that all images clipped from Teen Wolf will be routinely deleted, and users who persist in posting them will be permanently banned from the site. If the legal climate become unfavorable, if the media companies decide fanfiction is hurting their “brand,” there is no guarantee that they won’t be able to shut down fanfiction on AO3 or Tumblr or any other hosting site.
And the saddest part is that our work and our communities will have been destroyed by people who never read a TW fanfic, who thought fanfiction itself was a joke, who didn’t give a shit about what we were doing or what we’d created.