my taste in fanfic

I don’t read all that much fanfic. My fannish impulses don’t express themselves that way; I write individual stories because I come up with specific concepts, not because I have an ongoing engagement with the canon, or am linked into the social community of that fandom. Taken from the other direction, I generally only read things if a friend has recommended them, and a lot of what I read ends up not meaning a whole lot to me, because I lack the context or the interest to receive it properly.

But there are exceptions. There are fanfic stories I not only read, not only love, but remember for years afterward.

And, as I realized a while ago, they all have a common trait.

For a fanfic to really stick with me, it needs to be doing something extra, beyond just being fannish. (There’s nothing wrong with being fannish, mind you — it just isn’t what I read for.) Something intellectual, something critical, which can’t be done by writing original fiction, because that would lose the closeness entanglement of its commentary, and can’t be done by writing straight-up criticism, either, because that would lose . . . something harder to put my finger on. Stories that strike that balance make me absolutely giddy as a reader.

I’d like to share with you a few examples of what I mean, with explanatory notes. (But, uh, be warned — I guess the stories I like share two common traits. The thing I mentioned above, and the fact that they’re EPICALLY LONG. The two rather naturally go hand-in-hand.)

“The Game of the Gods” (Lord of the Rings, but really more The Silmarillion), by Limyaael — This was the first one, the first massive fanfic I read in its entirety. There are 35 chapters in it, and even if a lot of them are really short, that’s still a pretty substantial total. I think Teresa Nielsen-Hayden was the one who recommended it, years ago; the fact that I still remember it this far on should tell you something.

The gist is that Varda and Morgoth have a contest: he will try to destroy Middle-Earth using Mary Sues, and Varda will try to stop them using nothing but logic and common sense. Run with that concept, and what you end up with is not only a fanfic (with lots of really hilarious Silmarillion notes around the edges), but a critical typology of Mary Sues. There’s the goth one, and the sparkling-unicorn one, and the anime one, and the Harry Potter crossover one . . . your brain will melt by the end. 🙂

“Myriad” (DC Universe/Buffy crossover . . . to start with, before it eats EVERYTHING ELSE), by Vitruvian — This one starts off with Lois Lane in a bar, ranting at another woman about Superman, and finally bursting out, “When you come right down to it, Superman – no, scratch that, Superman and all of his costumed cronies and stupid enemies – never belonged anywhere but in a comic strip, and I WISH that’s where they stayed.”

At which point Anyanka, vengeance demon extraordinaire, says, “DONE.”

In subsequent chapters, the same thing keeps happening, over and over again . . . and so the fic ends up framing the various canons for Superman over the decades as attempts by the Powers That Be to get Superman’s story back on track after Lois Lane repeatedly wishes him out of existence. Naturally, all this mucking about with history attracts the attention of the Doctor . . . and Torchwood . . . and this is the one fic on the list I didn’t end up finishing, because I started to run into too many things I either wasn’t familiar with, or didn’t want spoilers for. It still entertained me mightily, though.

“Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality” (Harry Potter, naturally), by Less Wrong — This is the one that made me realize what it is I look for in a fanfic, because it does it all, in spades.

(Warning: I will not be held responsible for the hours of your life you lose reading this fic. I’m told it’s now longer than the first three HP novels put together, and I can believe it.)

It’s an AU with one core difference: Petunia Evans married, not Vernon Dursley, but Michael Verres, a professor who raised his adopted son (non-abusively) as a genius of rationality and science. Which makes this a “magic vs. science” story . . . but unlike most such stories, it falls neither into the trap of “science proves that your magic doesn’t work!,” nor into the trap of “haha, magic doesn’t have to obey your silly science.” Harry knows magic doesn’t work. When he sees undeniable proof that it does, his response is the truly rational one: he concludes that one or more of his starting premises must have been wrong, and sets out to improve his understanding.

Along the way, the fic does a bunch of other things, many of them correctives to things that have always bugged me about the canon. Harry, of course, gets Sorted into Ravenclaw; so does Hermione, while Neville goes to Hufflepuff and Ron (for whom the writer seems to have zero use) goes off to Gryffindor. In other words, all four Houses get used. And Slytherin gets a much more nuanced portrayal, without being utterly revisionist as to its flaws. The same can be said of Draco: he’s still a jerk, but he’s also eleven, and capable of change (though not easily). There’s also commentary on gender, and responsibility, and what happens when you think of yourself as if you were a character in a story, and . . . lots of awesomeness.

Many thousands of words of it, in fact. 🙂

“Carpetbaggers” (The Chronicles of Narnia), by cofax7 — Another novel-length work, this one filling in the gap at the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, after the Pevensies have been crowned. It takes a much more realistic angle on the story than Lewis did: Narnia is still a magical, wondrous place that works changes on the people who come to it, but it is also a land that has spent a hundred years in the grip of winter and a ruthless queen. And that has consequences.

This one is interesting for its practical look at nation-building and the basis of sovereign power. Aslan has named the Pevensies kings and queens of Narnia, but that endorsement only gets them so far. They have to earn the respect and acceptance of their new subjects, in a variety of different ways. What makes this one work for me is the way it contrasts with the half-cozy, half-mythic tone of the source; there are plenty of stories about those themes, but by sliding this one into that gap, it reflects interestingly on how such practicality gets turned into smooth-looking history.

“The Chuck Writes Story: An Unauthorized Fandom Biography” (Supernatural), by Lettered — ALL THE META. This one requires a strong working knowledge of the TV show, and even with that, you may lose track of where the boundaries are between the fic and the source. It imagines that Chuck Shurley, who (in the show) wrote the Supernatural novels about the adventures of Sam and Dean (yes, this is still in the show) under the name “Carver Edlund” (which is a nod to people outside the show), found his way to the Supernatural fanfic communities (which also exist in the show) . . . and started writing his own fic. Starting with scenes cut from the novels, and then writing sequels to his canceled series. Which leads to him interacting with some of the Big Name Fans — some of whom are characters we saw in the show. And then wank erupts when his true identity is revealed. But all of this is happening concurrently with the events of the show, which means that all kinds of CRAZY META SHIT starts going down.

And the entire fic is written in the style of a fandom-wank history. Complete with links to dummy LJs/DWs created for the purpose of versimilitude. It is freaking brilliant. And it talks about fandom and fanfic and the way we interact with stories, in ways that absolutely could not be done in any other medium.

(Be sure to read the afterwords. One of my favorite touches is in the third one — the fake fandom_secrets manip. Also, you can read it on AO3, if you prefer, though that loses the visual element that makes it seem like a real fandom-wank history.)

Those aren’t all the fics I’ve ever liked and remembered; they’re just five of the most epic examples. I could list Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead among them, because really, it’s the same kind of thing. And — though I shouldn’t say this; I really don’t have enough spare time — if you know of any others like them, in fandoms I might be familiar with, feel free to recommend them in the comments.

In the meantime, I hope some of you lose many enjoyable hours reading these. 🙂

0 Responses to “my taste in fanfic”

  1. heygirlie

    This is so not the sort of post I should be reading half an hour before I leave for work.


  2. arielstarshadow

    The HP and LotR ones sound really interesting!

    • Marie Brennan

      I adore the HP one, though its posting rate has slowed down mightily. It occasionally gets a touch too didactic, but does a fantastic job engaging with various weird or troubling details of the setting. (Like the Time-Turner — you should see Harry’s rant about time-travel devices — or Azkaban, which is pretty much just morally indefensible, and this story says so outright.)

  3. la_marquise_de_

    I think I look for stories that add depth and complexity to canon. Like you, I don’t read that much. But favourites have included a marvellous, complex Sharp fic which explored the backgrounds of the Chosen Men (and had done its homework); a band-fic set in an alternate world that really deserved to be a stand-alone novel (both long gone from the web, alas) and a Potter fic with a real Alan Garner vibe going on (for which I have lost the link, but hope to find again).
    Oh, and my friend writes delightful, funny, twisty, charming short LoTR fics that I always love.

  4. marialima

    Dagnabit – there goes my weekend!! ::g::

  5. ellen_fremedon

    I wonder if that’s a style of fic that works better in general for readers outside the fandom. I have at least started most of the stories on that list, and it’s the ones in the fandoms I’m least fannishly engaged in that I liked most, and finished. “Carpetbaggers” and “The Chuck Writes Story” forged emotional connections to the characters and their canons that I didn’t have going in; while in fandoms like Harry Potter and LotR, where I am already very fannishly engaged, the meta wasn’t enough to keep me reading– once the novelty of the conceit wore off, neither story was doing the kind of character work that I look for when I’m in the fandom.

    • Marie Brennan

      Quite possibly. I’m starting from a position of not really being fannishly engaged with anything — not in that sense — so I don’t have any comparable examples in my own experience, but I could see that being the case. As I mentioned in a comment above, one of the things I like about these kinds of fics is that I’m much less inclined to compare them against the canon (and therefore feel they come short); the flip side of that, of course, is that they probably diverge a lot more from the canon, and may well lose people who are reading for those reasons.

      • ellen_fremedon

        The bar to entry is definitely set lower for a didactic story like Methods of Rationality. MoR was hardly the first story to point out that, as you say, wizarding justice is anything but and Time-Turners make no sense, but it doesn’t require that the reader have really thought about either issue beforehand. It walks you through all of the points it’s going to make and then tells you it’s made them– which makes it pretty boring to a reader who’s had all those arguments a hundred times. But the fanfic that weaves those points into the background and structure of more character-based stories is usually much harder for a casual fan of the books to pick up– it does a lot of its narrative and argumentative work through intertextual riffs, on the canon, or on fictional or critical fan-texts, and the reader who doesn’t have the details of those texts and those arguments at their fingertips is going to miss a lot.

        • Marie Brennan

          I think MoR weaves it into the character side as well — but the difference is that the character in this case is MoR!Harry, who has been established by the story up to that point. So yes, as you say, the bar to entry is lower. And conversely, if canon!Harry (or any other canon character) is what you’re interested in, MoR will fail to hold you, because it’s really about a different person entirely.

  6. wshaffer

    Eyes current fic draft So, no pressure there, then. Right. Phew.

    I do think fanfic is a great vehicle for a certain kind of criticism, because it lets you do critique from the point of view of love for the source material, which can be really difficult to do in a critical essay. It’s interesting to compare Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality with some of, say, David Brin’s essays on Star Wars. Both are about equally good at pointing out the logical absurdities of the source text, but Brin sometimes comes across as either mean-spirited or entirely blind to the virtues of the work in question, which isn’t nearly as much of an issue in Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

    • Marie Brennan

      I think there’s a lot of truth to that. I started reading Ana Mardoll’s journal for the Twilight deconstruction (inspired by Fred Clark’s deconstruction of Left Behind), and while I enjoy that one, I’ve bounced pretty hard off her similar analysis of Narnia. Neither one is starting from a position of love for the source, mind you — but in the case of the Twilight posts, I think she’s doing a better job of responding to the story Meyer was trying to write. The Narnia posts feel too much like they’re missing the boat, holding the story up to a standard it never intended to meet. The conclusion of the LLW analysis criticizes Peter for “Cowboy Rulership” in saying they’ve never backed down from anything they decided to do — but I find that critique of sovereignty in Narnia vastly less compelling than ‘s, which operates within the space created by (as you say) the virtues of the work, while still looking critically at those virtues.

      Then again, I have some amount of fondness for Narnia, and none at all for Twilight. So I might feel differently about that deconstruction, too, were it otherwise.

      • cofax7

        Yeah, I have to agree with you on the Deconstruction of Narnia posts. I read them, and while I agreed with at least some of her points (and those of her commenters), I kept finding myself rebutting them, as well, from within the text instead of outside it.

        In the end, all I could really do was point to Carpetbaggers as my argument, because I don’t have the time or energy to go through point by point. And it’s not that she or they are wrong, it’s just that… they’re complaining individual branches in the forest, when their problem is more that the forest is there at all, if you catch my drift.

        ::squints:: I don’t know if that makes any sense.

        • Marie Brennan

          I follow (I think <g>). It’s like . . . I would probably never try to do that kind of deconstruction of a romance novel, because I know I am not a romance reader. I am unfamiliar with or unmoved by the literary conventions of the genre, and would complain about things that are, from the standpoint of the reader, part of the buy-in for that book. In the case of Narnia, she keeps holding it up to a standard of realism that is not and never was intended to be part of the picture.

          Actually, I think she sort of does the same thing with the Twilight posts, but there I’m able to hold it more separate in my mind. I’m thinking of the “alternative version” she and her commenters have built up over time, where Bella has some kind of inner ear problem or other medical condition to explain her constant falls, suffers from clinical depression, etc — and while there’s critical value in inventing such an AU, it sometimes drags her commentary off-target, because Mardoll starts lambasting the rest of the text for not responding appropriately to a situation that doesn’t actually exist. Furthermore, it means she fails to persistently call out the flaws that are there: enough attention goes to how one ought to respond to AU!Bella (which is a valid thing to discuss in its own right) that there’s less attention left over for the problem of using fainting, clumsiness, etc. as markers for romantic femininity — which is what’s actually going on in the story.

          (And I find it interesting that she and her commentariat have devoted far more effort to inventing an AU!Bella for whom sympathy is possible than they have to inventing an Edward of that sort. The latter is a hell of a challenge, mind you — he really does come across as such a jerk — but the gap is telling.)

  7. lettered

    Oh hey, I’ve never read any of these before. Obviously I have a thing for this, so this is awesome. Thanks!

    You may have read it, but if you haven’t, I suggest you try Them Mean Ol’, Lowdown Lando Calrissian Blues. It’s a bunch of token African American characters of various canons . . . talking about how they’re token characters. It’s by . I only knew the canon for Angel when I read it, and I don’t even think you need to know that; it’s just that cool. Plus, it’s not very long at all.

    Thanks again for linking and your awesome comments.

    • Marie Brennan

      Eee! <runs off to read>

    • heygirlie

      I remember reading that years ago, all of her work is great.

    • Marie Brennan

      And, having read: thanks for that link. I quite enjoyed the story, and will probably look up other work of the author’s.

      (I noticed also that you’ve uploaded some other stories; all hail the subscription feature on the AO3! I’ll check those out later.)

      • lettered

        I reread it, when I linked you, because it’s just so good, and I haven’t read it in a while. I’m glad you liked it! I haven’t read anything by her in a good long while, but she’s brilliant, and does a bunch of cool things with world-building, startling premises, and minor characters.

        I’ve written quite a few things that are rather experimental and meta, but none of them are quite like Chuck Writes :o)

      • cofax7

        Oh, you should read everything you can by Yahtzee: she’s marvelous.

        My current fave is Relatives and Relativity, a Doctor Who/Austen crossover–especially the podfic recorded by Fayjay, who even does some pretty convincing accents. (You can find podfic on the Audiofic archive, courtesy of google.)

  8. gollumgollum

    The best thing about the Chuck Writes story is that Supernatural fandom is that level of ridiculous, adding to the metadiculousness. Like, these are the people who had breakdowns when Jared Padalecki and his wife announced they were having a baby, because how dare Jared and Jensen bring a poor innocent child into the world simply to cover up their gay love for each other.

    No, really.

    I mean, i usually try not to judge fandoms and kinks and whatever, but when you start getting devastatedly upset for real people not living the lives you want them to lead….. yeah.

    • Marie Brennan

      I . . . am not going to touch the topic of RPF, I think. Not here, anyway. If you want my (Rather Strong) feelings on the issue, e-mail me. 🙂

  9. carbonel

    I loved Methods of Rationality, but it kind of bogged down, even before the author (who, it turns out, is the son of a friend of a friend) stopped writing it. You might want to mention up above that it’s unfinished, and may very well stay that way.

    I read a lot of fanfic, but the ones that tend to stick in my memory are the crossovers that comment on both fandoms by the nature of their existence. Like, say, ‘s Old Country, in which Dean and Sam go to Hogwarts.

    • Marie Brennan

      You know, I was going to reply saying “damn you for sucking away [x hours] of my life!” . . . and then I remembered that I’d asked for recs. <g> So nevermind then. Thank you!

      • carbonel

        Heh. You’re welcome.

        Here are a couple more, by Marcus Rowland.

        Counter-Coup is Modesty Blaise crossed with Buffy. I think it’s brilliant, but it really only works if you’re familiar with the Modesty Blaise canon.

        Family Issues and The Rosenberg Inheritance are Buffy/Men in Black crossovers, both short-novel-length, one connected story. The premise is essentially crack, but the story works remarkably well.

        And if you like these, he has a lot more on AO3.

  10. cofax7

    Now that the week is over and I can comment: Thank you very much for the recommendation!

    I’m very pleased with that novel–it’s both the longest unified story I’ve ever written and likely the one with the broadest appeal. Not that many people will read my Stargate apocafic or my Farscape AUs, but lots and lots of people read Narnia as children, and I did my best (within the scope of the project) to stay consistent with canon, so as not to scare people away.

    It was an interesting project that way, challenging canon as much as I did and yet trying to stay consistent with it at the same time. I did very much enjoy giving the girls more CMOA (as the Tropers call it) than Lewis ever did, and digging a bit more into the likely political realities as well.

    Anyway, I appreciate the recs. And I totally agree with you regarding that SPN story: it’s awesome and brilliant and a ton of fun.

    Came back to add a rec: the Talking Stick Stories, by Macedon & Peg. They challenge the premises of Voyager in interesting ways, and really address a lot of the issues the show just glossed, like the integration of the Maquis and Chakotay’s ethnic heritage. They’re long and wordy, and a bit rambling, but the big climactic moment makes me cry nearly every time I read them. (I could do with less of the holographic cat, though.) But there’s a reason they’re still being read now, so many years after they were first posted.

    • Marie Brennan

      Sadly, I have seen a whopping single episode of Voyager, and not much Star Trek beyond that, so I fear that fic woudl be lost on me.

      It was an interesting project that way, challenging canon as much as I did and yet trying to stay consistent with it at the same time.

      While I can be entertained by a flagrant AU, this, honestly, is the kind of thing I love the most: where the author is managing to do something awesome within the confined space of canon. It’s like a really good sonnet or haiku.

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