“The interesting question at this point is not whether fan fiction can be good, by familiar literary standards. (Of course it can; cf. Virgil.) Rather, it’s this: What is fan fiction especially, or uniquely, good at, or good for? Early defenses presented the practice as a way station, or an incubator. Writers who started out with fanfic and then found the proper mix of critique and encouragement could go on to publish “real” (and remunerated) work. Other defenses, [focused] on slash, described it as a kind of safety valve: a substitute for desires that could not be articulated, much less acted out, in our real world. If women want to imagine sex between people who are both empowered, and equal, the argument ran, we may have to imagine two men. In space.
It’s true that a lot of fanfic is sexy, and that much of the sex is kinky, or taboo, or queer. But lots of fanfic has no more sex than the latest “Spider-Man” film (which is to say none at all, more or less). Moreover, as that shy proto-fan T. S. Eliot once put it, “nothing in this world or the next is a substitute for anything else.” It’s a mistake to see fanfic only as faute de mieux, a second choice, a replacement. Fanfic can, of course, pay homage to source texts, and let us imagine more life in their worlds; it can be like going back to a restaurant you loved, or like learning to cook that restaurant’s food. It can also be a way to critique sources, as when race-bending writers show what might change if Agent Scully were black. (Coppa has compared the writing of fanfic to the restaging of Shakespeare’s plays.)
Moreover, fanfic requires neither cultural capital nor much actual capital to make. You don’t have to take a class, or move to the city, or find an angel, or find an agent; most of your readers may never know your offline name. For all these reasons, fanfic can give its creators a powerful sense of participatory equality. In this respect, what Coppa calls its “defiantly amateur” scene is a far cry from the world of trade publishers and prestige novelists, and a bit more like the avant-garde-poetry world in the nineteen-seventies, where the slogan was “Work your ass off to change the language & never get famous,” or else like American indie rock before Nirvana, except that—and it’s a notable difference—the fanfic world is largely female.”