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Find more Going Down with the (Relation)Ship
To date, my proudest writing accomplishment is probably the Quicksilver Quill Award for Best Canon Romance I won from the Harry Potter–themed MuggleNet fan fiction site in [redacted]. Sorry, but I’m not telling you the year. I’ve given too much away already.
There was no money involved. No publication anywhere except the website, where I uploaded chapters every few weeks. I didn’t even know about the annual awards, or that I was nominated, until I got an email from the site moderators telling me that I’d won. It was all very insular: just a community of people who all liked the same thing and hung out on the internet, reading and writing about it together.
The Harry Potter series, which, believe it or not, celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year, was not the first series to generate a large following (or fandom), and it was certainly not the first to inspire content creators to play around in a fictional world. But the sheer scope and popularity of the books allowed a young generation of fans to engage with the world in new and creative ways: online communities devoted exclusively to Harry Potter, like MuggleNet fan fiction and The Leaky Cauldron, gave fans a more-or-less safe and dedicated space where they could discuss theories and share writing and artwork during those years-long waits between books.
As Harry and company got older, those discussions started to take a very specific turn. At the feverish height, it was all-out war: ship war, that is. Romantic relationships were the talk of the town, and shipping characters together was (and remains) a popular phenomenon. People had strong opinions on which characters belonged together (and which didn’t). Friendships ended during the Hermione/Ron versus Hermione/Harry years. Those were turbulent times.
And this, again, is where fanfiction comes in. The ship you wanted didn’t sail? Write the characters the happily-ever-after you think they deserve. Of course, it’s often more nuanced than that—the ships and themes popular in fanfiction are often the ones that are most underrepresented on the page. What readers are hungry for, it’s evident, is more diversity: fanfiction and fanart give them a chance to portray beloved characters while also seeing themselves represented. In fanart, that often means characters who are drawn as something other than white (fan artists often choose to portray Hermione as black and Harry as Indian), and in fanfiction, relationships beyond the heterosexual (Draco/Harry and Sirius Black/Remus Lupin are two of the most popular pairings).
Now it gets meta. Fanfiction, fanart, and, in particular, shipping, have looped back around: they’ve begun popping up in YA. It was Rainbow Rowell who really got the trend off of the ground with Fangirl (2013), about a college freshman obsessed with finishing Carry On, her ultrapopular Simon Snow fanfiction before the final book in the Potteresque series releases; just to mess with us, Rowell actually wrote her own version of Carry On a few years later, in 2015. It is just regular fiction, although it sort of reads like Harry/Draco fanfiction. But that’s another story.
The fact of the matter is that fanfiction isn’t the internet’s dirty little secret anymore. In today’s YA books, fanfiction and fanart can be a lot of things. In some stories (Scarlett Epstein Hates It Here, 2016; This Adventure Ends, 2016; And We’re Off, 2017), it’s a coping mechanism, a way of rationalizing or escaping the real world. Others, such as Hannah Moskowitz and Kat Helgeson’s Gena/Finn (2016), show how the buck doesn’t stop at shipping: participation in a particular fandom can lead to true, lasting bonds between real people. On the flip side of that is Britta Lundin’s Ship It (2018), which reminds those in TV-show fandoms that actors aren’t their characters—and reminds TV-show creators that representation matters.
Then there’s the teen content creators whose online work is so popular that they get fans of their own: webcomic artists from Draw the Line (2016), Eliza and Her Monsters (2017), and a web-series maker in Tash Hearts Tolstoy (2017)—although since it’s a web series that’s based on Anna Karenina, it’s really just OG fanfiction.
The moral of the story here is that if you’re not getting the romance you want from the books you love, write it yourself. Slowly but surely, YA books are starting to come around, but until they’re all the way there, this solution is a match made in heaven.
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