Why do I find it so much easier to read fanfiction than new fiction?
When I was little, I was always the kid who was reading. I took a book wherever I went, whether it was a bus ride or a dentist appointment or a dinner party. When I was bored, which was often, the solution was always books. When I had free time, there was only one possible way to spend it: books. I loved being able to escape into another world, to read about all sorts of things: Mughal princesses, fairy godmothers, creaky houses haunted by family ghosts.
My school library borrowing list tells me I read almost four hundred books between the ages of 11 and 14. And that was on top of what I was borrowing from my local library chain — from where I borrowed so many books that I was given a “reader of the year” mug two years in a row.
So. When I was a kid, I read a lot. Then, it changed.
As I hit fifteen, sixteen, I found it harder to bring myself to start a brand new work of fiction. And when I did, I often found it difficult to read past the first chapter or two. It was like I’d hit a wall.
It wasn’t that I’d stopped reading. I had discovered something new; something I spent just as many hours reading, often at the expense of my newly heavy academic load. I was still disappearing into worlds whenever I had a moment to spare, and sometimes when I didn’t — and that’s still true for me today. I was just choosing to delve into the same world over and over again.
I had found fanfiction.
The term ‘fanfiction’ refers to stories or written work that are derived from existing pieces of fiction, borrowing its characters and worldbuilding. They’re written by fans of varying ages from across the world, for free and often without any association to their public selves.
Fanfiction gets a bad rep, sometimes, relegated to the annals of pre-teen girlish fantasy writing. And, to be fair, some of it is. But most of it isn’t. The world of fanfiction is as dense and complex as any original fiction I’ve ever read, with layers and foreshadowing and storytelling that rivals some of my favourite reads. It’s a niche community so a lot of people don’t know about it.
Their length isn’t particularly different. In fact, the fanfictions I enjoy often run into the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of words.
So what’s different about it that seems to make it so easy and fiction so difficult?
Back when I was in middle school, movie piracy was a done thing. Everyone would swap pendrives containing trending shows and movies, or specially curated recommendations. And it wasn’t just my social circle: a Slate article from 2009 laments the difficulty of accessing movies legally, driving the author himself to download illegal torrents instead.
Two years later, Slate published a follow-up article by the same author, who now said they rarely resort to illegal downloads. The reason? Netflix.
There are many reasons people gave for pirating movies: they were too expensive, the DVDs weren’t available in their country, or movie producers were greedy and evil and had too much money anyway. But the Slate article suggests another reason: perhaps piracy happens simply because it’s the most convenient way to watch something. Today, streaming services like Netflix and Hulu are widely used, and piracy has gone down dramatically.
In some ways, fanfiction websites are the Netflix for stories. They make extensive use of tags and filtering, to make their stories easier to find. Picture this — you go to a fanfiction website, such as Archive of Our Own. You aren’t exactly sure how to proceed, but a box in the corner catches your eye — the option to sort and filter what kind of works you see, and depending on your mood, you can pick exactly what you’re looking for. Something short? Something long? A sweet family story? A dark underworld tragedy? A 100k word slow-burn coffee shop meet-cute romance between this character and that character with no explicit content and no appearances by characters three, four, five, or six?
You want it; they got it.
But is it just a question of convenience? Something doesn’t sit quite right. Browsing fanfiction is certainly easy, but one could say the same of the ever-growing pile of “to read” books by my bedside. More diverse are ebook directories, and while I prefer physical books any day, I have read my fair share of PDFs. And let’s not forget that all fanfiction reading has to happen onscreen too.
So while choice and convenience is certainly a factor, it’s not a strong enough reason to prevent me from reading books. Perhaps it’s time to look more closely at the reading process itself.
Our actions are influenced deeply by the neurochemicals in our brain, and the things that trigger their release. I’m sure we’ve also heard of serotonin (the “happy hormone”) and dopamine (the “reward chemical” or the “molecule of more”). It’s no surprise then, that just like everything else, they play a pivotal role in how we approach and process reading as well.
As we make our way through a book, serotonin is released in moments of satisfaction, happiness, or triumph. Dopamine is what keeps us going back for more: more world, more character, more story.
So it follows, that in order to be able to get into a book, we’d have to experience a release of both those chemicals. And when an author does their job right, we do!
That cliffhanger at the end of chapter one; that mysterious side character that we want to get to know; that feeling of pain as we empathise with a hero that’s just lost a loved one: all of those are chemicals telling us that we’re on the right track. This way to happiness. This way to reward.
But sometimes, the reward is just a bit too far, and we have to work just a bit too hard to get there.
Physicists recognise a phenomenon called the photoelectric effect. When light shines on, say, a metal surface, there are sometimes electrons that are ejected from the composition of the metal. How does this happen?
Well, we know that electrons are held in place in their atoms by a binding force. When light hits the metal surface, it brings with it a certain amount of energy. That energy is transferred into the electrons closest to the surface, which gives them the energy to break away from the binding force that’s holding them there and escape away from the structure of the metal.
Now, electrons don’t always escape from metal surfaces: if they did, everything around us would be degrading at an astonishingly fast rate. But electrons still do escape, sometimes.
What accounts for this is a threshold. Only if the light brings with it enough energy to counteract the binding force of the nucleus, can the electron escape. Most of the time, light isn’t really that powerful. However, when the light is intense enough, it does. It transfers energy into the electron, and the electron leaves.
But most of the time, the energy isn’t nearly enough to overcome the binding force, and the electron is forced to stick around in the atom’s grip.
Getting into a book takes energy. The reader has to process the world that they’re being thrust into, understand its in and outs, and place the characters they’ve been introduced to within it. Then they have to find it in themselves to become invested in the story itself, to empathise with one or more characters; to build a bond that’s strong enough to sustain their interest through the book.
And if the author has done their job correctly, it should be fairly easy for the reader to do all this right? That’s the author’s job. To begin a story in such a way that it compels the reader to want to follow these characters, remain immersed in this world, and learn what happens next.
But sometimes, the energy isn’t quite enough, and the book is forced to stick around in the unfinished pile.
Not everyone is the same. We all walk, talk, dress, and speak differently. We also all read differently.
On a shelf in my school library hangs a Quentin Blake poster which is a beautiful little demonstration of this very fact. Called The Rights of the Reader after Daniel Pennac’s book of the same name, the ten “rights” in the poster run from “the right to mistake a book for real life” and “the right to read out aloud” to “the right not to read”, reminding ourselves that everyone has their own way of reading.
But there can be more to it than simple preference. For some people — especially, but not only, neurodivergent people — the way they process any experience is different than many others. People may have a higher threshold for what gets their neurochemicals going. And so, the process of immersing themself in a brand new story just seems to take more work before the fun kicks in. They just simply find it harder to wait.
So, what makes fanfiction feel so easy? It’s the low binding force.
When you begin a fanfiction, you already know what you’re getting. These are familiar characters that you already empathise with and love. You understand their essence. Even if it’s an alternate universe story, there’s simply less learning to be done before you get to the fun.
One of the first pieces that I fell in love with was an alternate Harry Potter universe where Hermione Granger is sorted into Slytherin instead of Gryffindor. Since I knew so much about the world and story already, it took only a 1000-word first chapter to set up the premise and tease the possible consequences. And I was hooked. One sleepless night later, I had read all forty-seven thousand words of it.
For me, this is a typical fanfiction experience. The dopamine and the serotonin can come in quickly and without fuss, easing the reading experience and making it just more fun. Your brain is getting exactly what it wants, at the pace and length that it wants.
Freed from the binding force of this world, you can, like an electron, simply escape.