How Toronto-based Wattpad made the world of fan­fic al­most main­stream

Sharp - - CONTENTS - By Ni­cholas Hune-brown

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.

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