The Internet is the Future of Queer YA Fiction

Growing up, I loved all kinds of books. I read everything Tamora Pierce wrote. Twice. I devoured classic novels like A Wrinkle in Time and A Separate Peace. I read half of the Animorphs and Saddleclub series and every Encyclopedia Brown. I was the bookworm tottering out of the library with a stack of books in my arms so high I couldn’t see over it. But in literally thousands of books, the one thing I never ran into until my second year of high school was a queer female character. That year, I saw a review of the book Empress of the World, published in 2001, in a newspaper and rushed out immediately to borrow it.

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Sara Ryan‘s Empress of the World wasn’t the first YA book with a queer female protagonist (the number of previously published books is approximately 12), but in 2001 queer YA fiction was so rare it was hard to know what others were out there and harder still to find them in a local library. 2003 was the literary tipping point, after which queer female characters began to appear more frequently, albeit still rarely, in YA fiction. From that year forward, several books with queer protagonists were published annually, finally providing young queer women their own books and characters.

While the presence of more queer YA books since 2003 is an overall win for the queer community, they are limited in scope. For example, they have remained mostly within one genre—bildgunsroman or “coming of age.” There have been very limited forays into fantasy, including former AfterEllen writer Malinda Lo’s fantastic Ash in 2009, its prequel Huntress (2011), as well as Tamora Pierce’s Will of the Empress (2005), sci-fi (Lo’s Adaptation), and Libba Bray’s hilariously psychedelic satire Beauty Queens (2011). Because queer YA books don’t fill the spectrum of genres that straight YA books do, readers interested in seeing queer characters in other genres have had to find it instead on the internet.

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And what choice they have! To say the last 16 years have seen an explosion of authorial creativity online in the form of queer fanfiction and original fiction is an understatement. Call it instead the internet’s literary Big Bang. Beginning in the early days with fanfic about Xena/Gabrielle from Xena: Warrior Princess, Seven of Nine/Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager, Buffy/Faith, Willow/Tara, and numerous other slash pairings on Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, and Olivia Benson/Alex Cabot on Law and Order: SVU, femslash fanfic particularly blossomed after the premiere of The L Word in 2004. Today it feels like there are more fanfics in the world than grains of sand on a beach.

Fanfic offers readers what traditionally published fiction does not: an unlimited panoply of possibilities. Want to read about Bella Swan dating Alice Cullen rather than Edward in a slash version of Twilight? Santana Lopez dating both Brittany Pierce and Quinn Fabray of Glee as part of a polyamorous triad? Discover what happens when Ginny Weasley kisses Hermione Grainger of Harry Potter? Whatever combination of characters and sexualities, genres and settings, there is probably a fanfic out about it, or at least, approximate it.

An infinite variety of twists, including crossovers, alternative universes, and gender bending, have enabled fanfic writers and readers to enjoy their favorite characters in re-imagined, non-cannon ways. Writing fanfic also lessens the burden on aspiring writers by offering pre-established characters, settings, and character “voices”—all the writer has to do is create a plot. Moreover, uploading fanfic is as easy as the touch of a button, and requires no editorial intervention or review, meaning shorter lead times to publication. In short, internet publication is a win-win for everyone.

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The internet is also changing the traditional publishing industry by allowing writers to self-publish original fiction, bypassing the arduous process of finding a literary agent and a publishing house. There are no queer female knights to be found in books in the library, but they can be found in abundance online. Writers publishing their works online may receive little or no compensation, but they can dialogue directly with readers and receive instant feedback on pieces. Stories no publishing house would dare to touch for fear of the absence of an audience can see the light online in places like fictionpress.comand wattpad.com, among others.

With a low bar to entry for authors (a computer, internet access, and a plot idea) and impossibly easy access for readers (the internet and an internet-compatible device), queer YA fiction on the internet almost certainly is the future of the genre. Whereas the publishing industry will only publish a handful of queer YA books a year, thousands of fanfic and original stories are published weekly online. No longer do young readers have to wait for a book review to notify them that a queer YA book has been published, then hope their library carries the book. Now young queer women looking to see themselves reflected in fiction can simply go online and choose from a smorgasbord of options. Although we’ll always need print books to benchmark our progress in representation in literature, the internet guarantees that young women growing up today have access to.

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Although we’ll always need print books to benchmark our progress in representation in literature, the internet guarantees that young women growing up today have access to queer fiction that older generations never even dreamed about. Proof the internet is more than just cats and the Kardashians.

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