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When I was younger I read a lot of original stories about friendship and romance. The friendships were always strictly platonic and the romances were always strictly heterosexual. If there were books about queer characters out there they were most certainly out of my reach as a kid living in the rural southern U.S. But as I grew up the romance became more abundant and at least it was something to read besides books assigned for school, which felt heavy no matter how interesting the books ended up being.

But then I discovered fanfiction.

Oh, I was writing it long before I discovered it had a name, secretly, like I was doing something shameful by writing stories about characters that belonged to other people. But discovering the community was fantastic and enriching, and finding so much free queer content was like finding the Holy Grail. It was like a light beaming down on me from the gay erotica gods. Teenage me didn't know what to do with it because she was pretty closeted and super ashamed about sex. But she was also so extremely excited because, yes, people were writing queer fanfic about all the characters she wanted to read queer fanfic about! It was glorious.

Most of my reading life from my early teens to now could be sorted easily into "reading fanfiction" and "reading original fiction." If I was reading one, that was what I spent most of my reading time on rather than balancing them both. I often swung back to original fiction due to school assignments leading to cool books, obligatory road trips (we didn't have e-readers yet, what dark times!), after discovering a cool author due to a rec from a friend, or because I wanted to know just exactly what popular culture was wigging out over. But inevitably I always ended up back with fanfic as my main source of stories. I never really examined it or my preferences. After all, to me reading is reading is reading. Fanfic is reading and nonfiction is reading and comics are reading and magazines in the doctor's office are reading. But in the last two years I've found myself balancing original fiction and fanfiction quite a bit more, and the results have surprised me.

Now that they're more equal it's much easier for me to see how little of my queer self I see in original mainstream fiction that I like to read (specifically, science fiction and fantasy). And sometimes, if I see myself at all, people like me end up tragically miserable, and often super duper dead.

It's no wonder that the path of my reading life has so often curved toward fanfiction. I realized a few weeks ago as I examined my yearly reading statistics that because fanfic has always been freely available, free of too many gatekeepers, and often unabashedly queer, I often end up neck deep in fanfiction after bad experiences with original fiction. Earlier this year, I read a book I loved desperately the whole way through. There was a character, and he was like me, and I understood what he was going through and felt what he felt and was devastated when he died at the end, with an emphasis on his queerness explicit in the text. I was crushed.

I mean, that's good work, right? Writers make you feel things and empathize with characters. But he died and it felt like part of me died, too, because I liked him so much. But in the grand scheme of things, it wasn't even a blip. Just yet another microaggression for a queer reader.

I could read outside mainstream science fiction and fantasy if I had more funds to do so. I know that self-publishing and smaller presses have made more diverse fiction widely accessible. But right now 95% of my reading is guided by review copy (which I have limited time for) and my rural library. Most of the time my requests for queer romances go into a void and I never hear anything about it, not even an automated denial of ordering the book. I assume that they assess it and decide it won't be interesting to the majority of patrons, which is their right as people who know better than me what the community needs. But it leaves me in a place where I'm financially cut off from the queer fiction scene, waiting for my next birthday gift card, and have to keep hoping for crumbs in mainstream speculative fiction and often find myself disappointed.

After reading this book that so thoroughly broke my heart, I immediately fell back into fanfiction. I can actually track my Archive of Our Own reading history from the week of finishing the book to now. There's a huge spike right after the book, a small drop, and then a gradual rise as I slowly make fanfiction—and very specifically queer fanfiction—a staple and stable part of my reading life. The only difference is this time my original reading didn't drop off, and I've been reading more than ever, which I've had to do because of new obligations. It made me curious enough to go back further and look as far into my fanfic reading history as my reading stats would let me go, and sure enough, for every terrible original story featuring a queer character becoming miserable or dead, my fanfic reading spiked in response.

Because of having multiple reading obligations and having to fit my fan reading into that structure, the truth became clear when my reading experiences were side by side: if I wanted queer narratives that didn't make me miserable I could not rely on mainstream speculative fiction. Queerness is often a tool used against the characters I meet rather than an aspect of their personhood. Whereas if I want to read stories where queer people are heroes and powerful and flawed and happy and save the day and don't have to be miserable because of their sexuality, fanfic is the place for the person like me who has limited funds and a desire to read great stories. And truly, making sure I'm reading queer stories where the worst thing that happens is miscommunication and some awkward sex has been really helpful, because it makes some of those books that marginalize, abuse, and kill queer people less fraught. At least for me, I know there's another story out there from a fan writer that won't trick me into loving a queer character only to rip them away or oppress them or grind them into the dirt for daring to have a different sexuality than the nonsense binary system we're currently dealing with. And although fanfiction is far from perfect on representing women and people of color, it's still more welcoming to a queer reader than some mainstream spaces.

Of course, the problem with mainstream speculative fiction (and all fiction for the marginalized and minority) is scarcity, requiring the few texts that make it through to be everything to everyone all the time. That's just not possible or realistic, or very fair to the authors giving it their best shot. Until mainstream speculative fiction deals with its issues of racism, sexism, and fear of sexualities not on some weird binary system of "gay" and "straight," people like me will have to get our fantastical stories elsewhere as we wait for the few voices daring to write queer characters as triumphant without making their sexuality a part of the plot and a liability to publish more books. I really appreciate the mainstream authors who make this a priority and the publishers who support them, but I keep hoping for more.

Until then, I'll be on Archive of Our Own.

Renay has been writing SF and fantasy fan fiction, criticism, and commentary since the early 1990s. She has founded and contributed to several gaming fandom fanwork newsletters and fanwork exchanges and serves as staff within the Organization for Transformative Works. You can find more of her work at Lady Business or follow her on Twitter.
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8 Apr 2024

the burrowing spiders, / backs the size of satellites, / orbiting your hair
And these meteors still fall to the earth.
Graduate Assistant Four Fronds Turning had made the best guacamole that Mike had ever tasted in his original or post-revival life, and it was all wrong.
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