[Discussion] Let’s talk about the phrase “reads like fanfiction”

If you read book reviews, odds are you’ve come across a variation of “This reads like fanfiction” β€” perhaps followed by “but not in a bad way” or “I still liked it though” or some other qualifier.

But what does “reads like fanfiction” actually mean?

Let’s Talk About Assumptions

Everyone has a unique relationship with fanfiction: some have never read it and will never read it; some have not yet read it but are curious and may read it in the future; some have read it in the past but no longer read it; and so on, you get the idea. (I’ve previously written a full post on my own relationship with fanfiction, if you’re curious.)

So it makes sense that everyone has a correspondingly unique perception of fanfiction, but β€” speaking as a writer with a degree in linguistics β€” language doesn’t serve its purpose if we can’t agree on its meaning. Unfortunately, it seems that a fair amount of the time, the reviewer doesn’t actually specify what they mean by the phrase, expecting that the reader will understand their implicit meaning(s).

While I certainly can’t speak for everyone, I know that I personally tend to interpret a non-contextualized “This reads like fanfiction” with a negative or at best neutral connotation, specifically indicating that

  • The writing is unpolished on a technical level: poorly edited, may have grammatical/ spelling/ word usage errors, etc.
  • The book uses a lot of tropes, or at least a few fairly popular ones
  • The book feels like a retelling of another book (beyond, obviously, being an actual retelling of a fairy tale or public-domain work) and/or its cast feels like a version of the cast from another work
  • The book feels “fluffy”: another term open to interpretation, but to me typically suggests “lacking in substance” and/or “overly focused on romance” 
  • The book started out as a fanfic, or was posted online (e.g., Wattpad), and the reviewer can’t get over its origins
  • The book has some combination of the above and/or other flaws.

Of course, the list goes on, but hopefully that gives you a general idea of the position I’m working from, for the purposes of discussion. (To be clear, I’m not saying that any of these are inherently flaws or dealbreakers in any kind of written work β€” just that they’re often negative assumptions associated with the idea of fanfiction.)

Let’s Talk About Biases

As previously mentioned, it’s often implied or outright stated that the “reads like fanfic” comment isn’t meant in a totally critical way, though I typically still get the sense that the underlying assumption is that fanfic is “lesser” in some way than a published book should be. (This happens regardless of the reviewer’s familiarity, or lack thereof, with actual fanfiction.)

Quality

One of the biggest draws of fanfiction has always been its accessibility: it doesn’t have the same barriers as traditional (or indie or self-) publishing, so generally anyone can post it and anyone can read it. That does mean that the quality of fanfiction varies greatly … with an admittedly significant proportion of it being “poor quality” (due to the flaws listed above, among others).

But there is also a not-insignificant proportion that is as “high quality” as published bestsellers. Some fanfics are meticulously beta read and proofread, thoughtfully plotted, with consistent characterization and immersive storytelling. Some fanfics might even be β€” yeah, I’ll say it β€” better than the work that inspired them.

Meanwhile, I’ll bet you can name a book (or two, or twenty) that made you wonder, How did this ever get published? Was an editor or proofreader involved at any point in the process?

Originality

I’ll confess upfront that I’m on the fence about whether true originality exists or even really matters. Every idea has to come from somewhere, and nothing prevents people from individually coming up with the same, or very similar, ideas. Not to mention the impact of what you do with the idea; I’ve read incredibly creative remixes of tropes and archetypes, as well as mind-numbingly bland executions of seemingly-imaginative premises. 

The idea of derivative works being inferior has always frustrated me. Shakespeare wrote historical plays. Countless authors have borrowed from fairy tales and folklore. If you set aside the legal technicalities and focus on the artistic/ creative aspect, there really isn’t a meaningful distinction.

Besides which, we’ve been trained to have certain expectations for narrative structure. It doesn’t necessarily have to be three acts or exemplify one of the thirty-six dramatic situations, but things tend to feel off if the writer throws conventions to the wind. This may or may not be a dealbreaker for the individual reader, but it’s a factor in the storytelling and in the reading experience.

Let’s Talk About Community

Say it with me: reviews are for readers. Yeah, certain media outlets can greatly influence a book’s commercial success, and sure, authors can learn from reader feedback. I still maintain that, at their heart, reviews are shared to help other readers deciding what to read next. (And I say this as someone who originally started writing reviews just for myself, in a notebook, to better remember the books I’d read.)

This is the crux of the discussion, for me. Going back to the idea that language is a communication medium that relies on shared understanding of meaning, the question becomes why did the reviewer use the phrase “reads like fanfiction”?

They could have been more specific: “the writing was simplistic” or “the themes were superficial” or “the narrative was relationship-driven more than anything else.” Even if they couldn’t pinpoint their dissatisfaction, I’ve seen variations on “I just wanted more from this book” or “decent premise but I’ve read it a million times.” Instead, in opting for this reads like fanfiction, the reviewer assumes you know what they mean and that you share their biases regarding fanfiction.

Honestly, I didn’t write this post to call anyone out, or to start some kind of crusade against the phrase, rather β€” as is often the case with my discussion posts β€” to unpack a social phenomenon I’ve noticed, which often seems to be thoughtlessly dashed off, perpetuating some kind of cycle.

I guess my point is, what we say or write isn’t always what we mean, and vice versa. There’s a lot of conflict and friction due to misunderstandings and assumptions, some of which could be avoided if we were more deliberate about the words we choose.

tl;dr We live in a society and I don’t like how that society tends to look down on fanfiction.

  • Have you ever described a book as “reading like fanfiction”? What made you feel that way?
  • Do you ever find yourself going for fanfiction because you’re just not in the mood for published fiction? (Because I definitely do!) What do you think makes the difference?

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4 thoughts on “[Discussion] Let’s talk about the phrase “reads like fanfiction”

  1. I think sometimes fanfictions are even better than published books. Sometimes I’m just in the mood for something romantic without much worldbuilding and it can be just so freeing to just read a story about characters you know you love and it’s much easier to DNF a fanfiction than a book.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve never said something reads like fanfiction before, but my scope of original writing has dramatically lessened since I started reading fanfiction – though I’m definitely at a point with some fandoms where I actively search out that “better than canon” material, because I want to read less derivative work. I agree with everything you said above.

    Like

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