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The Delta variant of Covid 19 is raising concern about all those leisure activities everyone was hoping to get back to safely – concerts, theater, movies, gathering with friends at restaurants and bars. At the same time, many people are experiencing some type of pandemic fatigue, making it difficult to stick to only activities which are deemed safe. So much of what we do to unwind and so many of our preferred ways of spending leisure time involve getting together with other people, and most of us are longing to do more of that and frustrated that it may not be safe.
However, one type of leisure activity that is enjoyed by many fans is thriving. Reading fanfiction, which is fiction written about favorite characters, actors, shows, films, books and bands, is a more common pastime than ever. According to an article by researchers Lauren Rouse and Mel Stanfill in Flow, as the pandemic took hold, the amount of traffic at one of the most popular fanfiction posting sites, Archive Of Our Own, rose significantly in the first months of the pandemic, from 35-45 million views per day through February 2020 to 46-52 million views per day by the end of April. Readership continued to go up as the pandemic went on. In early 2021, the website crashed temporarily from the sharp increase in readers accessing the site.
Why the dramatic increase? In an ongoing international study of health and functioning during infection times, researchers found that one of the most helpful strategies that people are using to deal with the pandemic is internet usage, and that having hobbies that can provide some structure to the day are also useful for coping. Reading fanfiction on the internet as a hobby, in the safety of one’s home, may be the perfect leisure option and an effective coping strategy during a pandemic. It’s free to consume, there’s a seemingly endless supply, and because it’s written by fans simply for other like-minded fans’ enjoyment, the stories tend to provide a welcome escape from the real world.
It’s appealing to find a pastime that can provide some solace in a world that feels unsafe. Part of that solace comes from being able to lose yourself in a fictional world, which applies to any kind of fiction. All fiction can be a way of dealing with fears, losses and traumas in a safely displaced way, and fanfiction is no exception. In the case of fanfiction, that world is also one that is already both familiar and beloved, offering an even more compelling escape. The feeling of nostalgia and comfort that we get from favorite TV shows, films, books and music gives us a sense of safety, and we get that same comfort from reading fanfiction about them.
Because fanfiction is instantly ‘published’, the stories tend to reflect the current state of the world more closely than traditionally published fiction. Stanfill and Rouse found that over the past year, more and more stories which included the challenges brought by Covid 19 were written.
Source: Screencap Lynn Zubernis
Some dealt with anxieties around infection, illness and death, while others tackled the social schisms precipitated by the virus. Fanfiction uses favorite characters or celebrities to explore these fears and frustrations in a safe way, and to help the people writing and reading it make sense of all the challenges that the pandemic has brought. In fanfiction, it might be vampires who are concerned about contracting a deadly virus or Captain America who’s hoarding toilet paper or Luke Skywalker who’s battling panic attacks, but the issues are real ones.
A traditional subject for fanfiction is an examination of mental health issues; when popular characters or celebrities are written as dealing with anxiety, depression, loneliness or other emotional challenges, that can go a long way toward reducing stigma in the real world. That most fanfiction is written anonymously, posted under a pseudonym, facilitates people writing about their emotional and psychological struggles more openly. Individuals who may have been experiencing these types of reactions during the pandemic were able to explore their own challenges safely through fanfiction during a difficult time.
Another tradition in fanfiction is the “hurt/comfort” trope, which inflicts some kind of suffering on a beloved character and then writes in the comfort that the writer would like to experience in real life – a close loving relationship, some caretaking, a sense of safety. A pandemic fanfic that Stanfill and Rouse mention takes place during Covid, with the suffering characters eventually magically whisked away to a deserted island that’s free of both the virus and any other worries. In the midst of a pandemic that feels inescapable and has made many people feel helpless, fanfiction like this, crafted with a happy ending, can be a comfort.
The popularity of sites like “Archive of our Own” over the past 16 months suggest that reading and writing fanfiction is helping people work through the difficulties they’re experiencing during the pandemic. In an article in Forbes a few months into the pandemic, a fan in China who was relying on fanfiction to get her through the crisis said that reading about her favorite characters overcoming adversities gave her the strength to face the real life challenges that Covid 19 had brought to her life. Another woman interviewed for that article said that she had doubled her consumption of fanfiction since the start of the pandemic, a practice which she described as therapeutic.
While fanfiction might seem like a solitary pursuit, the practice often feels communal to fans. When a new piece of fanfiction is written in a particular fandom, it is often read by many people, who then post recommendations for others in the community and engage in discussion about it online and leave feedback or ‘kudos’ for the author. Friendships develop when people read each other’s works and comment on them, providing a source of support even if the individuals live on opposite sides of the world. The pandemic has made us all more aware of the reality of “distant sociality”, the kind of sociality at a distance that is made possible by digital technology.
As we continue to deal with the reality of a pandemic that is persisting, finding ways of coping with the resulting anxiety, loneliness and depression is critical to mental health. If you’re a fan of something – from sports to sci fi to K Pop – you may find that there’s more fanfiction about your passion than you expect.