Screenshot: "Top 10 Buffy/Angel Scenes" (YouTube)

Fan fiction is as pervasive as it is disreputable. Literary critics dismiss it out of hand as derivative tripe. Some professional writers feel that it violates the sanctity of their work. Lawyers may see it as an actionable breach of copyright and let loose the cease and desist notices. And yet, the tide of fan-created works based on previously published material never ceases, like the Fifty Shades Of Grey franchise, which started as Twilight fan fiction.

In light of all that, Vox is devoting a week-long series to discussing fan fiction, starting with an enlightening essay by Constance Grady. Grady’s article is written in direct response to film critic Devin Faraci, who recently wrote that the seeming purpose of fan fiction is to remove any trace of conflict or difficulty from the lives of popular characters. Young fans just want Captain America and Bucky to make small talk at a coffee shop somewhere, so they write stories where that’s all that happens. But is that strictly true? Grady’s theory is that, when properly done, fan fiction can elaborate upon the source material and even heighten a fan’s enjoyment of it.

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To illustrate this point, Grady writes about her own experiences with fan fiction, specifically as they relate to her fandom of The WB’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Like many viewers, Grady was deeply emotionally invested in that series and the fictional lives of its characters, especially the relationship between Buffy Summers and Angel. Buffy fan fiction allowed her to experience scenarios that would never have worked on the real show, including ones in which the characters lead normal, untroubled lives. The point is not necessarily to “correct” the source material. It’s to provide alternate realities and timelines in which the characters can explore other options for their lives. A good work of fan fiction might even remind a reader why a particular relationship would never work out in the long run. As for the never-to-be happy ending for Buffy and Angel? “I didn’t need that from the show,” Grady writes. “I had fanfic for that.”