THE RELUCTANT FANATIC
How Toronto-based Wattpad made the world of fanfic almost mainstream
Inside Toronto startup Wattpad and its sordid world of fan fiction.
IT’S ALWAYS TRICKY TO PINPOINT THE EXACT MOMENT TRUE LOVE BLOSSOMS, but the turning point in Kat and Justin Bieber’s prison-yard love affair probably comes when Kat sees the young convict delicately sketching a picture of a deer. Up to this point, Justin, a distractingly handsome teen in jail for murder, has been all snarling threats and tough guy bravado. But the drawing shows Kat another side of him. Justin isn’t a jerk. He’s just another Mr. Darcy — sensitive and awkward, a complicated guy whose gruff exterior and rock-hard abs shield a soft and gooey inner life. Justin quickly crumples up the drawing, embarrassed. “What would happen to my reputation if people saw me drawing a deer?” he asks. Later, they make out.
In Love With a Prisoner is a work of fan fiction published on Wattpad, the mobile-reading app that is home to a cornucopia of Hunger Games spinoffs, sexy Jughead fantasies, and Kendall Jenner adventures. Other than the murder charges, Justin Bieber is given a very true-to-life portrayal, which is to say he is sullen, bratty, and constantly licking his lips in a way that drives teenage girls wild. Kat is a shoplifter who has been put in an all-male prison because the female prison is full. Don’t dwell on it — the plausibility of the scenario isn’t important. What’s important is the vibe, the fantasy, the sheer pleasure of reimagining a beloved celebrity in a new context. The book is part YA novel and part Harlequin romance. It was written by a 13-year-old Australian girl and has been read by more than a million people.
I read the story on my cellphone the other day — self-consciously scrolling through the increasingly risqué novel on the subway — in an effort, as a grown man, to understand a world in which 60 million users spend 15 billion minutes each month reading horny amateur stories about Harry Styles on their phones. To spend a few weeks flipping through Wattpad is to encounter a literary universe that exists in parallel to mainstream publishing. It’s a world that’s home to an infinite supply of stories about normal teenagers having sex with members of One Direction, and just as many tales about members of One Direction having sex with one another. It’s a world where the Harry Potter universe expands forever, with stories about Harry’s children and Draco and Hermione hook-ups. Most of all, it’s a world in which fandom doesn’t just mean consuming favourite TV shows or movies or media narratives about celebrities but actively bending them to your own perverse purposes.
“The most traditionally accomplished story I read on Wattpad’s fan-fiction app is No More Selfies, a novel set in a dystopian present in which President Krump has taken control of social media and Kim Kardashian has become a freedom fighter.”
FAN FICTION IS HARDLY A NEW phenomenon. The tradition stretches from Sherlock Holmes knock-offs to Star Trek fanzines about Kirk and Spock boldly going where plenty of men have gone before. Fans have long been compelled to treat their favourite characters like so many plastic figurines — placing them in the positions and scenarios of their choosing. The genre has been a haven for writers left outside the publishing mainstream: queer authors creating queer narratives, teenage girls writing to meet female desires, proud weirdos diving deep into niche interests that might never appeal to a mass market but could mean everything to a small community of readers.
Wattpad, a Toronto-based start-up formed a decade ago with the aim of becoming “the Youtube of books,” puts fanfic onto your phone and into the frenzy of the modern social network. Stories appear on your phone as they’re written, chapter by chapter. Reader comments appear in bubbles in the margins, and readers and writers can message one another. The app makes no distinction between fan fiction and original fiction. Users can jump between a public domain version of Jane Austen and an unofficial Hunger Games sequel.
Over a few weeks on Wattpad, I dipped into Kaylor: a Timeline, which takes real-world social media clues from Taylor Swift and Karlie Kloss to create a gauzy romance. I read a twisted story that imagines the vengeful life of Poot Lovato, singer Demi Lovato’s untalented creep of a twin. In Possessive, one of many Drake-inspired stories on Wattpad, the Toronto pop star holds the protagonist’s hand for a beat longer than expected. The most traditionally accomplished story I read on the app is No More Selfies, a novel set in a dystopian present in which President Krump has taken control of social media and Kim Kardashian has become a freedom fighter. The novel is by a start-up incubator VP named Kevin Fanning, who has become a featured writer on Wattpad. It’s clever and fun and the kind of thing that Wattpad would like to be known for — the story executives always bring up in interviews when they’re promoting the app.
The company has dreams of becoming a Disney-like entertainment behemoth. Last year they announced a partnership with Universal Cable Productions, an arm of Nbcuniversal, to turn Wattpad stories into TV shows. They’re collaborating with Harpercollins Children’s Books, hoping to bring stories like Fanning’s into the mainstream. But despite the press, No More Selfies has just a fraction of the readers of the Justin Bieber fanfic. At its heart, the network isn’t for conventional publishers but for nutso fans — kids tapping away on their cellphones, conjuring entire goofy, dramatic, sexed-up universes and attracting millions of readers in the process.
Midway through In Love With a Prisoner, I got in touch with the novel’s author, “beamingbieber.” Minnie Zimmerman was just 13 when she began writing the book. “I did it because I was obsessed with Justin Bieber,” she told me. She posted the first few chapters on Wattpad and then forgot about it. When she went back, she saw 11 people had read it. “Honestly, I felt like a professional author then,” says Zimmerman. The fact that the story now has a million readers — with kids from across the world reaching out to Zimmerman to tell her about their favourite moments — is beyond anything she could have dreamed. As an adult man, the stories — most of them written by young women — are explicitly not for me. At times, reading the stories on Wattpad gave me the same uncomfortable feeling as when my 16-year-old nephew’s Instagram stories pop up in my feed, all moody selfies and world-weary captions that offer a window into a realm of teenage thirst I should not be witnessing.
For people like Zimmerman, however, fan fiction offers a way into a world that once seemed impossibly distant. Now 18 years old and in her last year of high school, Zimmerman has put aside her Bieber fandom. “I’m currently in the process of moving away from the ‘fan’ part of fan fiction,” she says. Instead, she’ll just write — maybe not professionally, but for the pleasure of it. It’s an idea of fiction writing that rejects the clichéd idea of the Important Author slaving over their opus in isolation. It makes writing more like playing music: something done by professionals, sure, but also by countless hobbyists playing songs around campfires and singing in high-school bands, creating art for their friends and followers and anyone else who wants to dance to their own strange melody.