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  • Karen Frost

Are Lesbian Novels Worse than Fanfiction?

This week, a Twitter post (sorry, "X") went viral in which the author of the tweet questioned "why wlw books are atrocious and fanfic is so good. We are not sending our best to publication"? Every single lesfic author I know immediately tweeted their own thoughts about the issue, as did I. But for those who may not understand some of the factors involved, here's a fuller treatment of why this social media hot take is a misunderstanding of several complex factors.

  1. First and foremost, a sweeping generalization like that is misleading. Not ALL wlw books are bad, just as not ALL fanfic is amazing. There are plenty of outstanding lesbian fiction books just as there are mountains of terrible fanfic. In this case, it's best to think about proportions. If there are 100 fanfics about a particular couple, we can assume that only a certain percentage are truly excellent. Let's say that percentage is 10%, so 10 fics. But fanfic is not moderated. There's no editor picking and choosing the best fanfic to post, so readers have to sift through the content themselves. Publishers, however, try to separate that wheat from the chaff from the start. So I'm willing to bet that more than 10% of published books are truly excellent. Overall, there's quantitatively more fanfic. That means that as an absolute number, there's more high quality fanfic. BUT, qualitatively, published books will have a higher percentage of truly great writing. This is the benefit of having editors and publishers. So your odds of randomly picking a good book are higher than randomly picking a good fanfic.

  2. I don't know a single lesfic writer who isn't also a fanfic writer. So actually, we're talking about a Venn diagram in which some of the very writers this social media user is highlighting as being good fanfic writers are also putting out books. But this brings up what we might think of an economic problem for these writers--fanfic writers for the most part can't convert their fanfic readers into readers of their novels. This means that if I have 10,000 readers of my fanfic and then I write a book, zero of those readers will read my book. ZERO. I'll get into more of this in a minute, but this means that someone might think Archive of Our Own writer DawnTreader2016, who's had 21,918 hits on AO3, is a great writer, while Karen Frost, author of six books, is terrible. But they're the same person.

  3. I said this is an economic problem, and that's something the social media hot take doesn't take into account. People love reading fanfic in part because it's free. What the publishing industry (in general, not even just the lesbian publishing industry) has found time and again is that readers don't want to pay for books anymore, just as they don't want to pay for movies or music. Things like Spotify and Netflix (which isn't free but people act like it is) have changed how people related to content. But if readers won't pay for books, that changes not only how writers write, but what publishers publish. So a writer who might have otherwise written an AMAZING novel now knows it may not be worth writing, not if they'll only get 40 book sales. They may choose to write a 1k word fanfic instead. More readers and instant feedback, and while they don't make any money, they weren't going to make any from their book anyway. Similarly, we've seen some of the lesfic publishers drop entire genres because they just won't sell. So maybe a would be novelist sent the best lesbian fiction manuscript ever to a publisher...but the publisher couldn't take it because they knew it wouldn't sell. The social media user assumes we're not sending our best to publishers. I'd be willing to bet that there are plenty of great manuscripts that have been sent but there wasn't a market for them.

  4. Finally, we have to think about what fanfic is and why it's so popular. It is a format that takes pre-established characters and inserts them into new or modified situations. This means:

    1. The author doesn't have to come up with new characters. The characters, their personalities, and their relationship dynamics (and normally the setting, unless it's an AU fanfic) have been pre-established. This makes it immediately easier to write fanfic than a novel with original characters, lowering the barrier to entry for writers.

    2. There is a pre-established audience for fanfic that doesn't exist for original content. A fanfic author isn't starting at square one. Readers actively seek out the content and have an emotional connection to the characters. This makes them more willing to forgive things like less polished writing.

    3. The vast majority of fanfic is short--a few thousand words. Fanfic stories generally range from one scene to several. Novels, however, range from 60-100k+ words. It's easier to write a stellar 1k scene than a 100k novel. It's also easier to keep readers' attention.

    4. What audiences want from fanfic is very different from what they want from novels. It's no secret that the vast majority of fanfic is erotic fiction. While a minority of fanfiction stories have a story arc, a majority are lacking crucial components of a fully developed novel: character development, a plot that spans dozens of developmental moments, a full cast of characters, etc. Given that, it's not entirely fair to compare novels to fanfic. While the writing itself--word choice, beauty of language, etc.--may be comparable, they're two different forms of storytelling. For that reason, a good fanfic writer may not turn out to be a good novelist. And a reader who wants erotic scenes aplenty may be disappointed by a chaste 100k novel.

Having gone through a long list of factors influencing fanfic vs. lesfic, I want to end with my usual plea: good lesfic is best spread by word of mouth. If social media users complain there's no good lesfic, it's because social media hasn't done a good enough job letting them know what books to read. We can change that, but it takes effort. And if you find a fanfic writer whom you like, check to see if they also write novels. There are quite a few fanfic writers who turned their fic into a full-length novel (changing the character names and some details), and yet the fandoms didn't follow. So before we start claiming absolutes about lesfic and fanfic, let's be realistic about what readers want and how they want to consume it.

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