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Some musings on fanfiction literary trends, fandom, and the evolution of online culture (as seen in 15+ years of Tolkien-based fanfic from The Lord of the Rings to The Hobbit films) 

Reading 15-year-old Lord of the Rings fic is absolutely wild because the prose style for fanfic has changed so much during the intervening years. There was a huge focus back then (~2002) on mimicking Tolkien’s style with elevated language, a lack of phobia over using the passive voice, and otherwise formal “epic” dialogue patterns. 

At times it’s a bit hard for me to read, because my inner editor voice wants to rearrange sentences and remove “on the nose” description and dialogue (explicitly saying what the character is or is not thinking/saying like “He spoke nothing of his fears, which were great.”)*

It got me thinking about fashions in prose. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this style, just as there’s nothing inherently “wrong” about 19th c. romantic purple prose vs 20th c. spare, Hemingway-esque thriller prose. Yet writers and teachers of writing delight in creating long lists of what should and should not be done as if they’re ironclad laws of physics rather than extremely subjective matters of taste and changing times.

But back to fanfic, I’m fascinated by the unspoken linguistic trends that pervade fandom, from phrases ( “he smelled of X, and Y, and something all his own”), to aversion to adverbs, to casual vs elevated tone. Even tropes like A/B/O are fascinating in how they spread from niche fetish communities to fandoms that aren’t even tangental to one another, and from there become vehicles for dialogue on matters of society, gender, sexuality, and even history. The pace is rapid, less than a few years ago in The Hobbit community I observed that fanfic writers needed to make some sort of author note in the margin if there was a trans* or gender queer main character, in order to clarify that aspect of the story to unfamiliar readers. Today, such fics hardly need a disclaimer at all because the issue is so much more widely understood, this wider awareness seeming to rise in rough parallel with the IRL fight for trans* rights. Similarly, fifteen years ago in the Lord of the Rings fandom a story that contained slash of any kind (even if they lacked any form of explicit sexual scene) would often contain long, agonized explanations as to why these characters were “just friends” if it made the reader more comfortable, or that the chapter containing a slash sex scene was skippable if it made fans of Tolkien’s work uncomfortable. 

Another trend is the evolution of the acceptance of the Mary Sue. Again, 15 years ago in the Lord of the Rings fandom, it was possibly the most reviled concept out there. “Tenth member of the Fellowship” “Girl falls into Middle Earth” were easy and constant targets of ridicule. The frustration was somewhat understandable, given that at one point I remember counting the first 10 pages of Fanfiction.net, and at the time and fully 60% of the new stories involved a female self-insert character into what was inevitably the film universe. Fans of the book often fled to make their own archives where such stories were explicitly forbidden unless the reached a certain level of prose quality. One of the most popular comedy serieswas of partnered assassins who would “jump in” to various fanfic universes and waylay Mary Sues before they could make contact with the main characters (all tongue in cheek, I remember adoring these self-aware self-inserts as a teenager). 

Nowadays, I’d venture to say that level of vitriol towards Mary Sues is falling out of favor. I personally still struggle with reading any sort of self-insert fanfic, or any OC fanfic in general, which is a psychological leftover from developing as a reader and writer during that era. But I’ve observed that, like with slash, acceptance has grown and Mary Sues are now defended in a “live and let live” manner. Certainly I would rather avoid reading a Mary Sue fic by a new writer, but I wholly support their writing efforts and see it as an important step in their development as writers. 

For younger fans, you have to understand, this level of basic tolerance was not always the norm. If you’re puzzled by people asking readers not to “flame” it’s because in the early 2000s it wasn’t uncommon for trolls to go into fanfiction comment sections just to send insulting messages to the author for the very ideaof their story, to the extent that authors would have to beg in the notes “don’t like, don’t read”. “Don’t like, don’t read” has largely become an unspoken rule of fanfic as a result. (Though Tumblr has removed some of that tolerance, in my view, by the way dashboards work putting “objectionable” content in front of people’s eyes through the clusterfuck of a tagging system.) This evolution runs roughly parallel to the fading of legal “disclaimers” which were once necessary at the top of fics, as fanfic has gained wider acceptance and the need to defend oneself legally online against aggressive authors and creators has vanished in all but the most extreme copyright violation examples.

The greatest change in fanfic in the last decade+ though is without question the acceptance and then the prevalence of slash. It has gone from a small and passionate, but often disdained, niche group–that was seen by some as a fetish culture akin to furries or BDSM, with its own fan conventions–to practically the norm of fanfiction (at least on AO3, which is also relatively new and signaled a huge fundamental shift in the way fanfic is consumed online). I vividly remember in my early days of LotR fanfic seeing the passionate slash fans “over there” and how they were seen as a totally separate, rabid subculture rather than as part of the “mainstream” fandom community. Now, I would say they are the mainstream in fandom.

Meanwhile, “Gen” has gone from the more “respected” “elevated” subgenre to a struggling one. Again, to specify, this is based on my observations of changes in the Tolkien fandom spanning the LotR to The Hobbit film period, and a US-centric one at that. Het fics are still thriving, where I’ve observed a closer linguistic parallel to the language and tropes seen in popular romance novels than I necessarily see in slash fanfic, though there is bleed through. Het is no longer the accepted default along the lines of “canon relationships” that it was 10 years ago, i.e you didn’t even need to tag for romance if it was a het story with the usual main pairings, it just meant you were writing "canon adjacent” works.

It’s curious to watch these changes in fanfiction, as I daresay they mirror the changes seen in the literary world over the past 200+ years, the only difference really is how fluid and fast these changes are. A year online feels like a decade compared to IRL literary trends, and it has also been fascinating to watch what I perceive to be the bleed-through of ideas that fandom has been batting around for years entering the mainstream. For example, the growing acceptance of same-sex relationships in fiction, and a growing comfort with female-led stories with a push back against the automatic knee-jerk accusation of “Mary Sue” as a bad thing. It’s hard to say which came first, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that fanfic played at least a small part in the wider cultural acceptance.