As more people stay indoors due to coronavirus, everyone is looking for ways to keep entertained at home. Netflix. Singing to your neighbors. Indoor workouts. But one community is already well-prepared for this situation: fanfic readers. Fanfiction is free, it’s online, and the supply is constantly being replenished. It’s an ideal kind of media to consume in a crisis, because fanfic tends toward escapist, emotionally fulfilling stories that shamelessly cater to your id. For many people, it’s also a way to process complicated feelings in a relaxed, semi-anonymous creative environment.
Fanfic has a much faster turnover than other forms of pop culture, so real-world events can have an immediate impact. During the 2016 election, the fanfic site Archive of our Own saw a noticeable uptick in traffic, especially for new stories labeled “angst” and, to a lesser extent, fanfic about political figures. Something similar is unfolding with coronavirus. While movie studios delay release dates and authors cancel their book tours, fans are already publishing fanfic about the pandemic, using quarantine as a springboard for stories where characters get trapped together and fall in love—a new riff on a classic trope. And, obviously, some people are just writing to distract themselves. A friend of mine just wrote a 28,000-word Harry Potter fanfic in four days, which definitely holds more appeal than attempting to recreate King Lear.
As a longtime fanfic reader, I’ve noticed certain fandoms inspire more stories tying into real-world events. A lot of people use Captain America fanfic to work through their frustrations about American politics, and a few years ago there was a wave of Les Miserables stories where the revolutionaries are reimagined as modern anti-fascist/queer activists. It’s too early to guess if one particular fandom will inspire more pandemic fiction, but I’ve already stumbled across a couple of examples that stood out: a fic for Stephen King’s IT, where one character has lifelong neuroses about hygiene and disease, and a fic inspired by the popular Chinese novel Mo Dao Zu Shi, whose TV adaptation The Untamed is an international hit. That one was written by Lily Winterwood, who saw the outbreak in China firsthand.
Lily’s entire family are medical workers, she explained to me via Twitter DM. “They were working most of the time I was in China, overtime and on-call and everything.” She flew in from Japan for Lunar New Year in January, joining her extended family. By this point, the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan was starting to make the news, but Lily decided to travel anyway: This was an important family event, and their hometown was hundreds of miles from Wuhan. But as soon as she arrived, it was clear something was wrong. The streets were empty, everything was canceled, and people only left the house in masks. “While I was in China and stewing over all the fear, the worry, the anxiety about my family being okay as well as my chances of returning to Japan on time, I knew I needed an outlet.”
That outlet was a short story called “spring fever,” transferring the characters of MDZS into present-day China, experiencing the encroaching dread of a nearby outbreak.
MDZS is a fantasy drama telling an epic love story between two men in a historical Chinese setting. The main characters have magic powers and are embroiled in a war between aristocratic clans, but certain elements were easy to map onto current events: heroes motivated by duty and separated by difficult circumstances, and the recurring setting of Yunmeng, in the same province as Wuhan. However, “it wasn’t meant to be an accurate rendering of current events,” Lily explained. “My past experiences in fandom have taught me not to use tragedy as an excuse to make two characters fuck.” Drawing from themes in the original canon, her fanfic portrays one of the main characters as a doctor, while his husband gets stuck in a quarantine zone. Other characters come to terms with the outbreak at different paces, with optimistic denial gradually turning into uncertainty and fear. It’s a love story, but it’s pretty different from fandom’s tropey expectations about quarantine romance, focusing instead on the creeping anxiety of knowing your loved ones are in danger.
As the pandemic affects more of us directly, we’ll probably see more of this kind of personal story. But for now, escapist comfort-reading seems to be more popular. The podcast Fansplaining just published a survey with 1,263 fanfic readers, asking about their reading habits during the pandemic. You can click through for the specific stats, but the general gist is that while 30% of respondents have read some fanfic specifically tackling coronavirus, they were mostly interested in escapism. Some were more drawn to lighthearted, upbeat stories than usual, while others read a mixture of genres. An overwhelming majority (94%) said they turned to fanfic as a coping mechanism during times of crisis.
Robot Boy, a Star Wars fanfic writer, told me they were even starting to get coronavirus-related comments on a serialized story that had nothing to do with coronavirus: “A reader messaged me talking about their fears around college being canceled and their life being upended, finishing by saying the fic ‘is quickly becoming one of the only recreational constants in my life.'”
Another fanfic reader (with the poetic pseudonym, “Your Introduction to the Hectocotylus”) expressed concerns that “some random internet person might write something trite, uneducated, or otherwise handling the issue in a way that I hate.” They told me via email that while they enjoyed dystopian novels like Lilith Saintcrow’s Afterwar (“about a ragtag group of immigrants and other people like me hunting down neo-nazi doctors and generals”), they wouldn’t trust fanfic writers to be as sensitive or hard-hitting.
One person’s escapist fiction is another person’s “making light of a tragedy,” so we’re sure to see some coronavirus fanfic discourse down the line. But for the most part, fan communities have a head start on staying entertained and connected in a high-stress situation—whether that means writing quarantine romcoms or organizing the kind of outreach and fundraising efforts we’ve seen during other natural disasters.