It’s been quite a while since I picked up a new novel. Apart from the occasional charity shop purchase when something catches my eye, I get my fiction kick from fanfiction. It’s free, for a start, but also I don’t have to spend time getting to know the characters or figuring out the world rules if it’s fantasy or sci-fi. It’s so much more easily accessible, especially now that I can access AO3 on my smartphone, meaning I can read whenever I’ve got a few spare minutes – waiting for a bus, standing in a long queue at the bank.
I don’t read books before bed anymore, and in the evenings I feel like there’s too much Internet to devour to allow time for books. I enjoy catching up on Tumblr or watching shows the way I might once have spent an entire evening reading a book or even a longer fanfiction I’ve been saving up.
In my mind, I tend to sort fanfiction into two categories – the one-shots or WIPs I can dip into on my morning commute or during those little snippets of free time, and the long complete fics I set time aside for. I treat those longer stories the way I would have done novels I was especially enjoying. I’ll find a free afternoon when I can sit in a comfortable armchair with a cup of tea and properly lose myself in the story, or go to a coffee shop for an hour on a day off, and make the reading as much a part of the little treat to myself as my latte. I want to be able to savour the experience, and sometimes I want to know that I’ve got the privacy to be emotional if the story elicits such a reaction.
That’s not to say that those short fics I read in stolen moments of free time are any less important to me. I love dipping into a story on the way home from work, especially if it’s been a tough day; leaving work knowing I can open up something light-hearted or heartwarming is a great way for me to cope with work-stress.
It all feels very different to my earliest memories of reading fanfiction. Back when I was still a university student, I discovered fanfiction during my first summer break – after three months of living away from home, I couldn’t adjust to being back with my parents and sister and became more or less nocturnal in an attempt to find time to myself. On a huge desktop PC with dial-up Internet that automatically disconnected every two hours, I’d spend the night devouring every story in every archive I could find, writing down site names because I didn’t want my parents to see any bookmarked sites. Back at uni, I’d go to the IT suite after hours to print stories to read back in my tiny rented room, reading the good ones over and over. I’d sign out a laptop for a weekend to read more, accumulating an impressive collection of floppy disks full of works that I had saved for when I had no internet connection.
Fanfiction felt almost illicit, a secret pleasure that no one else understood or had even heard of. Independent archives for shows or even for specific ships or characters were the norm, and a site offering to add your work to its archive was a huge honour. Discovering fanfiction.net was a boon – it felt like limitless access to more stories than I could ever read, and I’d check categories daily, always on a PC, meaning I had to sit down and devote time to reading. Between that site and LiveJournal, I was never short of stuff to read.
Getting my own laptop, when I was 24 and in my first real full-time job, meant that I could devote practically all my free time to reading. I saved stuff to my hard-drive, and later to USB drives, in an attempt to keep stuff organised.
The first phone I owned that could access the Internet was like a gift from the heavens – I still remember the thrill (and expense!) of using a WAP connection to access ‘Starsky & Hutch’ fanfiction on a tiny Panasonic G50 (back on the days when the coolest phones were the smallest). It wasn’t until several years later, when Kindles were all the rage, that I could enjoy being able to read offline again, but there was still the arduous process of saving stuff I wanted to read and actually transferring it between devices – every holiday or long journey was preceded by several hours of ‘filling up’ the Kindle.
Back in those early days, I never felt overwhelmed by fanfiction – there was lots of content, but even with ff.net there wasn’t the sheer volume of new material that appears today. One thing I miss terribly is LiveJournal’s Crack Van community. Devoted entirely to fanfiction recommendations, users would apply to ‘drive’ the van for an allotted period of time, during which you could recommend a set number of stories for your chosen fandom, explaining why those stories were important to you.
That’s one thing I feel is lacking from the fanfiction community now – I occasionally see rec posts on Tumblr, but there’s nothing like the organisation and regularity that came from the Crack Van. Now, the main way to find stuff is simply to wade through the piles of new material on AO3. Easy enough if you’re looking through a relatively small fandom, but a nightmare if you’re seeking out work for minor characters or for a rarepair, which is where my preferences tend to lie. Sometimes it’s easy to feel swamped by the amount of new stuff that appears every day. Characters get tagged in fics they only have one line in, or ships get tagged in stories where they’re not the focus. And don’t get me started on chatfics.
I want to be able to keep up with the fic side of fandom, as that’s always been my main interest and my primary creative outlet. I don’t ever want it to feel like a chore. So it’s taken a big effort on my part to accept that, with most fandoms, I’ll never read everything that’s written. Instead, I have to do the best I can to pick out what appeals to me, and remember that reading fanfiction is meant to be a joy. It’s the thing I do when all my responsibilities are taken care of and I have time to relax, to escape into another world with characters who mean so much to me.
Yes, a large amount of fanfiction is less than stellar quality, but even the ‘okay’ stuff is a fun way to pass the time without taxing my brain. And I’ve got so used to reading on my phone that reading fic on a laptop screen feels weird now (plus reading on a laptop means fighting the distractions from all the other tabs I have open!).
As a proper grown-up with a serious job, fanfiction is what I rely on to get away from the stresses of real life. It’s been my connection to like-minded people, my way of making friends. It’s not a guilty pleasure anymore – I love that I can read fanfiction on the bus, or on my lunchbreak, without having to print out pages or carry floppy disks everywhere. And I will continue to treat it exactly as I would published fiction. I’ll sit in my comfy armchair with a cup of tea and read fic while the rain hits the window, or in a café by the sea while I’m on holiday. It’s my comfort, not my secret. And I don’t feel the least bit guilty that I rarely read novels anymore.