Fansplaining: Queer YA and Beyond

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Podcast Episode
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Episode Title: Fansplaining: Queer YA and Beyond
Length: 1:20:26
Featured: Emily Roach
Date: December 15, 2016
External Links: Episode at

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Fansplaining: Queer YA and Beyond is a podcast by Flourish Klink and Elizabeth Minkel.

For others in the series, see Fansplaining


Flourish calls England to talk to both Elizabeth and Emily Roach, an academic (from fandom!) who specializes in queer literature, particularly queer YA. They talk about queer representation—or the lack thereof—in objects of fandom, especially the gap between YA and other parts of the mainstream media landscape. They also touch on Destination Toast's stats about fanfiction production in the wake of the US presidential election, and ask for listener feedback on the direction of the podcast.


Topics Discussed

  • Future directions for the podcast especially given the outcome of the 2016 American Presidential election
  • YA novels being ahead of the game with queer representation compared to adult fiction
  • Queer coding and representation
  • Considering the audience - in the mainstream publishing industry, or for fanworks
  • Normalization of queerness
  • The accessibility or inaccessibility of fanfiction - barriers to participation
  • Tropes and themes in popular fanfiction (as measured in kudos, likes, reblogs, and so on) influencing the kinds of stories which tend to be created in fandom spaces


ELM: ...Here’s the backstory: I’m in England right now, the place that I love, and I am visiting a friend of mine who I met at Leviosa this summer, Emily Roach, who is an academic who did a master’s in children’s lit and is now doing research on queer literature and queer YA in particular and also trans spoken-word poetry, I believe, which is very interesting and specific. And she was the moderator at my slash and feminism panel at Leviosa, and I thought she was a fantastic moderator, and because we befriended each other and I am now in her home, I thought she would be a great person to talk to—because she’s incredibly knowledgeable, and it’s an interesting topic that touches a bunch of different fannish angles, about queer YA, queer representation in media in general, intersections between books and fanfiction, and all this stuff. So I think it’s gonna be a pretty interesting convo.

FK: You and Elizabeth already know each other…but one of the things that excited me when Elizabeth was like “Hey, we should have Emily on!” was getting a chance to talk about queer representation in the objects of fandom. So you do a lot of work on children’s literature, thinking about YA and so forth, and I’m really interested in how, you know, I’m not as familiar with that side of things generally speaking despite loving Harry Potter, but it feels to me like there’s maybe more queer representation or centered queer representation in that space than there are in other media forms that fandom tends to get really into. So I guess, I don’t know, I’m just curious about why that is. Why is it different? What’s the deal?

ER: I think that’s right, and I think it’s something that I’ve always noticed. I’ve always said if you want to chart what’s going on with teenagers in society, you look to the YA market. You don’t look at how they’re being represented elsewhere, because the mainstream is typically a few steps behind. And I think what YA fiction has always done really well is it’s sort of picked up on the preoccupations of the teenager of the time that those books are being published.

So I think you’re seeing, for example, LGBT fiction in the YA market progressively a few steps ahead of LGBT fiction in other fields. I’m talking specifically about the more issues-based fiction here where the primary focus of the story is grappling with sexuality or gender identity. I think you’re starting to see a movie consciously more into intersectional stories coming out of the YA market, and although we need more of them also a move towards non-binary representation as well. As well as that, I think it’s also a market that’s a very good space for having LGBT characters represented in, let’s say, the next Harry Potter or whatever the equivalent might be. Or the next Twilight! So…

...The next text that occupies, or the next story that occupies that kind of mainstream attention, I suppose. The next story that takes off, that has that commercial success. It would be fantastic to see LGBT representation in that kind of story and normalized. And I think you need both, but I absolutely think YA fiction is certainly a good few steps ahead of where we are with mainstream film, television and so on.

ER: The issues stories in the YA market themselves have shifted and changed. So where they used to be very didactic and they used to be adult authors explaining to teenagers how they should come out or how they should grapple with gender or sexuality, and they focused very much on quite binary stories, now they’re being told in a very different way where the characters will grapple with sexuality and gender in a way that doesn’t feel as though the reader is being instructed or told how they should perhaps handle those experiences by an adult author. I think just in the way the “issues” story has moved on and developed, you are starting to see stories coming out of the YA market where the protagonist, the main character in the story, is LGBT. And I’m hopeful that that will find its way into genre fiction and will find its way into some of those genres where I think there is very little representation still.

ELM: It’s interesting. I’m trying to wrap my head around it because fandom seems so committed to genre characters and queering genre characters, and I’m wondering what that disconnect is. We were talking before, Flourish, you were arguing that Hollywood was getting a little better…

FK: In certain ways and not in others, yeah.

ELM: And I was saying well, think about where are the queer superheroes? And we were talking about Deadpool, and how…I don’t want to diminish anything but that feels a little incremental, where’s the queer Captain America? Maybe he’s right here. I don’t know. Maybe that’s the next movie!

FK: Yeah, Deadpool is complex because, as we were also talking about, there’s this question of the Schrödinger’s… maybe the queer-coded piece, or the Schrödinger’s, the Schrödinger’s queer. [all laugh]

ER: I wonder if part of it is to do with commercial success as well. I could be wrong about this, but I feel like big fandoms have come from big franchises that have garnered enormous commercial success, and it’s in those kinds of narratives that we’re still not seeing queer representation in the way we’re seeing queer representation in other areas. For example, in independent cinema you can see lots of queer representation and LGBT focused stories, the YA market you can see authors and texts that are grappling with preoccupations of LGBT teens, but I’m not sure that any of those stories particularly at this stage have reached the levels of success of a Twilight or a Harry Potter. And so therefore haven’t got the same kind of size of fandoms and so on that we’re observing at the minute.

ELM: Maybe it’s disingenuous, maybe that’s not the right word. As you’re talking I’m like “well, actually,” I don’t spend a lot of time in science fiction, fantasy spaces but I do know in my tangential absorbing it, being in the book and fan world, some of the most popular titles right now have plenty of queer representation. So I feel like maybe me saying “why doesn’t the genre,” whatever that means. Genre movies have more of this, and that’s not what I’m talking about I guess. There’s plenty of queer rep coming out of science fiction and fantasy books. We’re talking about the mass media, right?

FK: This is really funny cause I’m thinking about Ancillary Sword, it’s basically the queerest freaking book I’ve read in ages. The entire thing is basically “How do you feel about gender? Let’s deal with that! On every page! Massively! In ways you don’t even understand at the beginning!” But then you think about, like, one of the reasons why I’m very curious, I know it’s been optioned, but I have no idea how you’re going to achieve the same effects in a movie. For those who haven’t read it, Ancillary Sword is told from the perspective of a character who has no concept of gender and therefore calls everybody “she” whatever their gender identity is, whatever it is. And there’s different cultures that have different understandings of gender, some of which call everybody she, some of which have men and women, some of which do other things. And this is tied up in colonialism and all this other stuff, and in this case the colonial culture is the one that doesn’t do gender as opposed to the other way around, but…

ER: I think you’ve seen similar sort of online queries being raised about the decisions that are being taken in that regard, and I think one of the things about YA fiction, this is something we’ve discussed between ourselves previously, is that difference between a visual representation on the screen and that representation on the page. So you’re getting to the heart of the identity politics, or you should be to some degree, of a character when it’s a well-fleshed out character, it’s a character that’s got a story that people want to invest in. And I think this is why there’s this push for characters that are queer but they’re also something other than queer. They’ve also got this other story outside of their sexuality and outside of their gender of which those identities are going to be such a fundamental part of the way their lives might be lived or their stories might be told, but they have all these other things and all these other facets to bring to the story, to bring to the narrative.

And I think to see more of that in YA, to see perhaps even the story that does both, that has a character exploring sexuality while they’re saving the world from Voldemort, would be wonderful, and I think that’s really what’s missing, that really well fleshed out story which perhaps falls into one of the genres but it also grapples with issues of gender and sexuality in a meaningful way. I think we’re quite far away from that, I think certainly in the… “adult” market sounds wrong, but the non-YA mainstream LGBT book market at the moment, and I think in terms of mainstream representation you can do quite interesting things with the way characters are visually represented, even though you then veer perhaps somewhat into queer coding territory and whether or not that’s meaningful representation in a positive way. I think in the context of some of the shows that we’ve got at the moment there’s that combination of visibility but also coding which is quite interesting, but with YA you’ve obviously got the prose on the page that can help you grapple more with identity and avoid some of those risks perhaps.

FK: Yeah it’s interesting to think about this and then think about fandom and the ways people are fans of different stories. Cause I feel like there’s fandom around some of those more realism based YA stories, and there’s also fandom around the genre stories, and they don’t seem to meet as often. You know? People in fandom of genre stories include some things that started as YA books but often they’re more on the genre side, they get turned into movies or TV, right, and it’s more of a media fandom-y thing.

ELM: And I’m not sure that, I was separating out science fiction and fantasy, I know people who are in that world and also in the world of Marvel fanfiction, but I don’t know if those are necessarily a hugely overlapping Venn diagram. And I’ve written a lot about quote-unquote “book fandom,” which often tends to be very YA focused, you know, the kind of books that you’ll see high up on a Tumblr… Tumblr Fandometrics are coming out right now, it’s that time of year, and if you were to look at that, I haven’t looked at it, but the top books are usually mostly…it’s like Song of Achilles and then [laughs] a bunch of YA books, and then a bunch of things that are bigger franchises. Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter or something. But a lot of the standalone titles have historically been things like John Green books or whatever.

ER: I think you do still see that disconnect in mainstream publishing, as well, and I think this is one of the things that always has drawn me to fandom and fanfiction as an area of interest. Because it’s obviously a space which is free from the fetters of mainstream publishing, and what… just as perhaps Hollywood are making assumptions or the film industry, I shouldn’t I guess limit it to Hollywood, is making about who the film audience is ultimately going to be, and how a particular cast might affect that audience, or telling a particular story might affect that audience, I think you see that a lot in mainstream publishing as well. And one of the examples that we talked about earlier was the trans memoir narrative, and the way that mainstream publishers push that transition story. That’s something that people who are telling these stories are talking about at the moment. They’re saying, “We want to tell other stories. We don’t just want to tell a story that’s educating or is designed to educate a non-trans reader. We have other stories to tell.” And I think, you know, there’s been a number of interviews with people who have written high-profile memoir stories that have come out recently on that.

And I think again there’s that, the YA market has perhaps a better sense, or is slightly more advanced in terms of what its audience is looking for, because it’s engaging with audiences who are online and they’re asking for representation, they’re asking for intersectionality, they’re asking for diversity. And potentially that’s why the YA market can be a few steps ahead. It’s not always right there, but it’s a few steps ahead of the movie industry or the mainstream publishing outlets. Of course fandom, fanfiction, has none of those fetters, it has none of those bars. It’s speaking to, well, I suppose it’s speaking to…it’s not assuming a particular reader, I don’t think fanfiction is. And it doesn’t have to concern itself with commoditized art, which makes it a really interesting space.

ELM: I’m not sure I would say that’s entirely true at this point. I see discourse— discourse, I shouldn’t, that word has lost all meaning. I see discussions every day [FK laughs] about people talking about the presumed audience of their fanfiction or fanfiction in general. And I see people talking about the kinds of stories you should or shouldn’t right—I’m not talking about subject matter, whatever. But I definitely see people, this is within the sphere of where I exist, so it’s like AO3, Tumblr, intersections etc., I think that AO3 is partly responsible for this because it’s very transparent. People can see what’s popular and what’s not. Whereas you didn’t have that metric before, beyond how many rec lists something showed up on, right. So I see people every day— do you not see this on your dash, Flourish? People being like “I see this kind of story works but…”

Or look at all the responses to our fanfiction survey where we got tons of people… not tons, alright, we got a fair number of people being like “Oh, the thing I love writing is the thing that everyone hates most. I guess I just suck.” You know? So I definitely think that there’s no one out there who’s not thinking about their audience. Obviously it’s a different calculation within fanfiction, cause you’re not thinking about who’s gonna buy your product, right? But you are thinking about who’s gonna consume it.

ER: And I think you’re thinking about stuff that’s popular, and perhaps it is a commodity of sorts, but it’s a commodity of kudos, and it’s like, how many hits you can attract and how many, you know, how many readers you can get. But I do think there’s a distinction there because I think as an author of fanfiction, one of the things that I always think about is that I don’t have those fetters of mainstream publishing. And perhaps it’s not something that everybody thinks about, but we’re in a position where I think you know we can push ourselves, as authors, because we’re not pitching towards necessarily, well, we’re certainly not pitching towards an audience for financial gain, but I guess what you’re saying Elizabeth is that actually we’re potentially pitching ourselves differently and it’s about popularity and kudos and things like that, unless I’ve misunderstood…

[On fanfiction's accessibility or lack thereof]

ER: And I also think for fanfiction, to come to it in the first place you kinda have to be fannish, you have to be interested in the original canon, and I think if you’re not getting excited about the original canon because there’s just nothing there for you, potentially, because you’re not seeing yourself represented or you’re not feeling a story’s being told that you identify with, you might never find yourself stumbling across fandom or across fanfiction which is potentially offering alternative narratives.

So I definitely don’t think it’s accessible to everyone, and I think that’s why having that book or that text or the… as much diversity as we can get in YA is so important because while for me it might have been Harry Potter that brought me into fandom, for someone else it might be, you know, the next big thing or whatever it might be in YA that sort of really speaks to them, for example. And I think that’s really important, because if you’re not seeing sufficiently diverse stories, then you might never get to the stage where you feel sufficiently fannish about something to investigate the world of fanfiction.

ELM: Two things that immediately strike me, I think that Wattpad is very interesting in this regard. I don’t know how much time you’ve spent on Wattpad, Emily, but since so much of it—it’s only a fraction of it’s fanfiction. And you see it really breaks down barriers. People are writing original fiction, there’s a werewolf section and a vampire section, you know. They’re original stories. It kind of breaks down a lot of these hard divisions between original and fanfiction. Sometimes problematic divisions, problematic breakdowns in terms of people being confused about what’s plagiarism and what’s transformative and everything. So I think that’s interesting and that’s a very young demographic, so I’d be curious to know when that, when the people who are growing up with Wattpad, who are 12, 13, 14 reading Wattpad, when they’re in their twenties, when they’re starting to enter the writing world, the publishing industry, how will that group effect the publishing industry.

ER: And I think that extends beyond, say, even Wattpad as well. There’s a lot of poetry as well, poets of Instagram, poets on Tumblr, the spoken word poetry accessible on YouTube, I just feel there’s a lot of those creations out there that are coming in in different forms and it’s effectively the publisher is taken out of the picture, to a large extent, and it’s the online audience that are the ones that are disseminating the works by reblogging them, by tweeting about them, by encouraging other people to go and watch a spoken word video or to read a story on Wattpad. And I think that is very interesting and I think it really does change the balance between publisher and consumer to an enormous extent.

ELM: Totally. The second thing I was gonna say is, and I wonder what you guys think of this, and we’ve been talking about this a bunch, Flourish, one limitation I think of fanfiction as an entry into queer spaces in addition to if you’re not fannish about a thing you’re not gonna even walk through that door, is I think the extreme emphasis on shipping within fandom can be very limiting.

That’s not to say that I don’t think queer teens should have access to queer romance, I think that’s an incredibly important part, but I think it’s a lot harder to find queer stories of queer individuals within the fanfiction world. You might get individual stories that culminate in a romance, in a longfic or whatever, but if you want a story of just one kid dealing with being trans, trying to process it, I think you're—trans stories in general are I think a little bit hard to find, at least in the fanfiction spaces I’m in. Not impossible to find, but I’m not stumbling over them.

ER: And I think the interesting thing with fanfiction, the point that you were making about romance as well, I’ve often been surprised by the fact that my probably my most popular story is a very… well, it’s a coffee shop AU. And it’s very fluffy and I wasn’t terribly happy with it when I wrote it initially, it’s certainly not one of the ones that I’m prouder of from a sense of personal accomplishment. And I do wonder if, again, we talked about the audience and the currency of likes and the currency of kudos and reblogs or whatever it might be, depending on the platform you’re operating on. Perhaps that to some degree does drive the kind of stories that are getting written, because if you’re seeing a particular kind of story gain the most traction, or gain the most commercial success using that slightly incorrectly in the context of not-for-profit work, but perhaps that is driving those kind of stories that can then be off-putting or can be shaping a particular kind of narrative within the fanfiction space that makes it potentially harder to look at other stories.

I also think there’s something to be said in terms of some of the criticisms of fanfiction, and what people perceive to be good fanfiction and bad fanfiction. [FK laughs] Things that people don’t like to read, and the much derided Mary Sue construct I think does make people hesitate, it’s made me hesitate honestly with exploring gender fluidity in my slash ships. That might sound like a very odd statement to make, but it genuinely has, because I’ve thought “Are people going to think I’m writing self-insert wish fulfillment narrative if this is something that I’m exploring with the slash ships that I like?” So I think there’s also those kind of hangups that people have, that self-censorship that fan writers have that may be, again, make them gravitate towards particular kinds of story, following the form of what’s proved popular before.