The H Word

I remember the days when the h word was taboo. Saying that writing fanfiction was just a hobby meant that you couldn’t be bothered with the little details of spelling, punctuation, grammar, and characterization - and why should you? Why should a fangirl sweat the details? A hobby is just for fun.

Now, suddenly the h word is in style, as the newly-discovered answer to the Eternal Question, Why don’t you write original fiction instead? Certainly the h word is an answer to that question as well as to the more traditional questions: Why couldn’t you be bothered to spellcheck that atrocity? and Why don’t you use a beta reader like the big girls do? “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” is always a good answer, if you really don’t give a damn. But methinks the h-fen protest too much.

The other questions to which the h word is an answer imply that calling writing a hobby is primarily a way to avoid personal responsibility for the nature of one’s output - whether the issue is spelling or originality. The Eternal Question is not an attack on fandom - no one cares that tens of thousands of fans are writing hobbit smut. Contrary to popular belief, people do understand what it is to have a hobby - in fact, they understand it better than fanfic writers seem to.

The average short, pudgy sports fan has a snowball’s chance in hell of becoming a pro basketball player - but teenagers still dream of making the big leagues. There are few sports fans who would turn down the opportunity to play pro if they had it. After all, what kind of fanatic doesn’t give a damn? Most people who are as obsessed as fanfic writers are would pursue their hobbies full-time if they could.

The Eternal Question is not Why doesn’t everyone in fandom write original fic instead? although that’s a reasonable question, too. The Eternal Question is Why don’t you? Why do you, someone with an obvious interest in and talent for writing, waste it all on hobbit smut? Maybe your day job is saving lives and you’re morally torn between the two, but art, like sports and brain surgery, is a highly respected line of work. If you have the talent to be a writer, people will naturally ask you why you’re marking time as a CPA.

It’s a question of human potential. Imagine a waiter or a janitor who came home at night and wrote free software. Say he did it for years on end, for no recompense beyond geek cred, became well-known for his excellent and popular code, but never even tried to get a real job as a programmer. For one thing, this would never happen - the overwhelming majority of people who write software for free have day jobs writing software for pay or teaching other people to write software for pay. And they tend to be men.

People who write fiction for free don’t usually have day jobs writing fiction for pay, and they tend overwhelmingly to be women. IANAF (I Am Not A Feminist) but I sense a pattern here. Maybe the reason there are so few male fanfic writers isn’t that men can’t write (though they tend to be worse at it than women) but that men don’t consider their time and effort to be quite so disposable. Of the male fanfic writers I’ve known, I’d say a third to a half had pretensions to my knowledge of writing original fic. Of the females, only three come to mind and one of them is me. We are vastly outnumbered by the people who’ve said explicitly that they would not write original fic. The men are not.

I’m not counting those who’ve written for Strange New Worlds, since the Eternal Question isn’t about getting paid per se but about writing original fiction. Yet SNW is a good example of the phenomenon - the gender balance of the winners is at best even, and probably weighted slightly towards the male side, which is not the proportion one would expect from reading alt.startrek.creative. The female writers tend to come out of fandom while the men wouldn’t touch free fanfic with a ten-foot pole. Also, the men and those women who haven’t come out of fandom seem more likely to publish elsewhere (that is, outside of the media tie-in market).

I’m not against fanfic as a hobby, but calling it one does not absolve the individual writer of the obligation to answer the Eternal Question - if not for others, then at least for herself.

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