Fanfiction is not alien to most people these days – many have at least heard of it. But while it is as global a phenomenon as fandoms in general, it doesn’t seem to appear entirely the same everywhere in the world.
Fanfiction is a subject I often try not to touch when I meet people for the first time. It is not that I was embarrassed of it, but I know what it can sound like to people out there. It is almost as strange to most Finnish people as saying I study Asian cultures. When I meet someone new and tell them about my major, I am met with raised brows and polite attempts at trying to avoid having to admit people had no idea the subject existed. In the case of being a writer, well – the reactions are either avoidant or politely curious.
“Hi, I write and publish fanfiction.”
Not to mention the slash.
In the right company it’s a sure way to make people remember my face (and I am not angry at all for being introduced as “that girl who writes gay porn”), but in the wrong one, well, you can just imagine.
I’d like to clarify that this post talks about South Korea, not North Korea. Whenever I say Korea, I mean South Korea.
A recap to those who do not know what it is I’m talking about: fanfiction is fan-made work of fictive literature about whatever pleases you, be it a TV show or a book or politicians, or even web browser personifications, you name it. Fanfiction does not have to be sexual; there is lots of fanfiction that is not.
Fanfiction has been written and talked about, and there is plenty of material about it on the web. There is speculation about the people who write it, even stereotypes about them, and myths even amongst writers, such as the assumption that getting most fanfiction published is nearly impossible.
I have heard people argue against fanfiction by saying it is against Creative Commons’ policies and that it is against the rights of the original creators. In the case of “real people fanfiction”, stories about existing people, I have heard it is plain indecent. “How can you write about real people?” is a common question outside the community where it’s everyday business, “I mean – they’re real people and you don’t even know them. Oh, God, don’t tell me you write about people you do know?”
Well, that’s exactly where the beauty lies: I don’t know them, and therefore I can make them say or do whatever I want. I can create characters of them, and they will no longer be real people. They are my characters that just happened to have their names borrowed from existing people. Do I take credit for them? No, because I am a fanfiction writer and I admit I write fanfiction; and I admit the people who appear in my stories exist. Thus I don’t make it seem like I had somehow created them entirely out of the blue. But I do take a little credit for that I plan for them, such as what jobs I assign to them or what will happen to them throughout the story. I write alternate universe fiction, stories that do not take place in our world and where the people do not appear in their real-life positions. In my stories, singers become lawyers, thieves, ninjas, and, in my most recently printed works, information specialists for a quasi-governmental data bank. And because it is fanfiction and I admit I write that, I’ll also admit I totally borrowed the latter from a certain Haruki Murakami.
Where does the slash come in? Slash, as you probably know, refers to pairings or couples, and oftentimes, the sexual relationship between them (but it’s not a necessity: a pairing can be there without the sex, gasp). I’ll give you a few examples and you’ll know what I’m talking about: Kirk and Spock, Sherlock and Watson. Not all of them are male pairings: the Doctor and Rose, Wolverine and Jean… Where the original plots were dissatisfying to the fans, fanfiction offers an alternative. For example, you know, a quick horny shag to please the readers.
So, a lot of fanfiction is like new-era Harlequins with less rules and codes to follow. In fact, fanfiction has no rules. And, in fact, getting fanfiction published is not as impossible as it would seem. While I’ve taken the under-the-radar way out and published my books independently via a printing service called Blurb to avoid extra costs and paperwork, some titles have become so well known that people choose to ignore they are fanfiction at all. (I’m looking at you, Fifty Shades of Grey.)
In the early 2013, Amazon announced it had negotiated licensing agreements in advance with various parties and would launch a licensing and publishing program targeted at fanfiction writers through Kindle Worlds. Amazon’s program pays both the fan-writers and the copyright holders for sold works of at least ten thousand words. For some, that might sound like an awful lot of text. On Word, 10,000 words equals a little over 22 pages; for a full-blown story, that does not seem too much, does it? For comparison, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone totals at 76,944.
But what I find especially interesting is that fanfiction as the average Western person thinks of it seems in a few ways noticeably different from that of the South Korean scene.
I prefer not to mention my hobby to the Koreans I meet. This is, again, not because I am embarrassed – but because I do not want to embarrass my listeners. The value of protecting and losing face is an important thing to my overseas friends, and while I might find it hilarious to say that I write (occasionally gay romance) stories about local public figures, my more or less conservative acquaintances might not take it as well. This is actually funny on a double standard level that we will come back to later.
Pop goes Korea
In Korea, the so-called idol business is everything. Since 2005, over 240 different idol groups have come to exist in Korea; in 2012 only, some 60 new groups debuted.
In the idol business, children as young as nine are scouted by professionals to be signed under huge entertainment companies to train at singing, dancing, rapping, acting, languages and variety shows. They culminate loans for the training that can last for years – not one or two, but even seven years of their lives, and all the practice might still not give them the opportunity to stand on stage. And it’s expensive both to them and the company.
Once a lucky group does debut, they are subjected to critique, mad requirements about weight and dress size, diet regimes, and mad schedules that consist of nearly no breaks at all. High schoolers sit in class during the day (possibly, unless their managers negotiate them more free periods) and rehearse at night, sleeping in the car in and out. It is likely they do not meet their family frequently: both trainees and debuted artists most often live in dormitories, eating, bathing, and sleeping with their group. To save time, some larger groups shower in pairs; lucky ones get to sleep some five hours a day. They are not allowed to have their mobile phones until they are popular (it is a way of motivating the often phone-addicted teens), and they are above all not allowed to date. There are frequent tabloid scandals revolving around company-reinforced dating bans.
(I must point out that in the early 2014, laws and rules to protect young artists and trainees were established. Here’s the news.)
Interviews are scripted to the point where radio programs are read from paper and interviewers have to submit their questions to the management for approval ahead of time. The management then has the time to write the stars appropriate answers that back up their company-built personas. Of course, scripted answers are all over the media everywhere in the world – but how strict the companies are about it in Korea came as a surprise to a French TV channel conducting a documentary on the idol business nevertheless.
And when a group hits it big – big enough to make sales records and win at weekly music shows – fans sporting billion dollar super cameras to match National Geographic’s equipment are snapping pictures of their every single move, pore to pore, documenting each moment of success and failure.
This is not all there is to it. Of course to some, the idol business is a life saver: idols have confessed it helped them leave abusive families, or that they used to live in a shaggy house without a toilet until becoming a trainee.
But on the other hand, the deeper you go, the darker the negative aspects get. Hacked Twitter accounts are only the beginning. Extreme stalkers breaking into a group’s dormitory style apartment to leave behind dirty underwear is only the tip of the iceberg. Some of the worst known stalker incidents involve spiking a boy’s drink with laxatives right before a live performance and driving people into suicide by harassment. There is a word for the obsessed stalker “fans”, too.
No matter how long I’ve been in the fandom, and no matter how often I read about rumours and actual incidents, it still surprises me every time that there is no proper means to keep stalkers from crashing a wedding. I could probably write another article simply about this dirty bit. (See this documentary for more on the topic.)
The management naturally creates its idols’ images: personalities they portray to the public. Technically, the faces their fans see on TV are already characters. Some companies eventually allow these characters to break, but it is still a performance for the camera. The show must go on. Girls dance in skimpy clothing and underage boys hump air, but a certain governmental body has the power to limit whether these acts are allowed on the daytime shows or not. K19, or NC17 rated dances and songs are only allowed screen time in the evening, and if it is likely a live concert will damage the minds of the underage fans, ticket sales might get monitored (where they can be – these are arena concerts we’re talking about, and tickets sold online usually run out in the matter of minutes). While overly suggestive songs and acts can be banned, sex sells, and stylists do their best to make the hot pants just long enough to pass the screening.
The management companies have figured out what sells even better than outrageous sex to fans with bright imagination. Boy band members – often titled “flower boys” for their cute looks, something that flies right in the face of masculine, unshaved Western movie stars – are more often than not seen sharing kisses, suggestive touches and head-to-toes looks on stage and on TV shows. The Korean culture values, above everything, hierarchy, and according to the rules, members call each other by certain age-dependent terms, such as “big brother” for older members, and the younger ones will sourly fake sweet to make their elders hug them or feed them that last strip of grilled meat. You can tell where this is going.
The double standard I mentioned comes along here. While the conservative culture still remains homophobic and in many cases refuses to acknowledge non-straight couples even exist, it is perfectly all right, cute, acceptable, sweet, or at least funny for twenty-something-year old men to kiss (with tongue!) on national television. The roots of this attitude lie in many phases in history. Various ideals and values clash in the modern South Korea, such as the family values of Confucianism and those of Christianity. While the law does not deem homosexuality a crime, anymore, and transgender individuals are allowed to change their gender on all legal documents after undergoing surgery, the general population prefers to not talk about it.
I’m talking about male idols, but that does not mean girl groups don’t get their share of fanfiction. Pretty girls meeting every Asian beauty standard sharing an apartment, working together, fooling around and calling each other sisters – I bet at least one of you is already thinking what kind of juicy stories can be written with just that information.
On top of that, the people writing fanfiction about the stars are experts on them: they can quote interviews, tell the names and ages of the members, their educational background, the names of their aunts, how many languages they know and most likely even what they can say in these languages. I’m not boasting, but I am a fan of a twelve-member boy group. If I could say as much about the many past dynasties of China in a single sentence as I can tell about the shoe, ring, and boxer size of these boys, I would be acing my tests.
Back to the point: as much as I would like to tell you that fanfiction about Korean idols is equal and give approximate fifty-fifty results for both girl and boy groups, I’m going to have to disappoint. I made a search on a site specializing on Asian fanfiction mostly in English, looking up two recently active groups that are popular overseas, as well, and briefly summed up the results in the non-rated (PG and PG13) and rated (R and NC17) categories.
Girl group SNSD gets about 20,000 hits in the non-rated category and a little over 2000 in rated; if searching for their alternate, English name, Girls’ Generation, the combined amount of non-rated and rated stories is around 450.
Now, boy group EXO gets over 4500 hits in rated category, and over 90,000 in the non-rated category.
12-member male group EXO on the other hand debuted in 2012 and sold over a million copies of their first album in 2013 (the first group in Korea for 12 years to do so, amusingly enough), and already has over 30 million views on their hit song Growl released last July.
Out on the streets of Seoul, both male and female idols are represented rather equally as they appear in adverts of all sorts, endorsing clothes, cosmetics, coffee, and whatever else you can imagine. On television, the popular eat the less known equally amongst girls and boys. Chart shows rate the leaders in categories varying from “sibling next door” to “best legs” – also amongst both boys and girls – and a group’s popularity on national level is measured both through physical and digital sales, as well as amount of subscribers on their official web forums.
Despite the equal visibility in media, however, especially overseas fans most often mention male groups before the ladies. The big difference between the popularity of male and female idols has been discussed in both Korean media and overseas. The best answer as to why male groups simply get more popular than girl groups, so far, is that both groups cater to female fans. An assumed 90% of K-pop fans are female. A girl group might aim to attract male fans – but it is difficult to secure any of that remaining 10% when groups appear with the same concepts, short shorts, long lashes and supposedly cute personalities.
So what exactly is the thing that makes fanfiction so different on the two fields as I mentioned? First of all, it would seem that fanfiction that deals with products of the Western market mostly focuses on characters rather than real people. Here’s two things to point out before you yell “but”.
Firstly: a small disclaimer on my usage of the word “Western”. Talking about the Western market and Western products, I refer to movies, books, shows, and the like that originated from either Western authors or Western countries. I do not mean the fanfiction writers or the fandom, but purely the original works, actors, and other people involved.
Secondly: I say characters, and I do mean characters rather than the people portraying them. While the writer behind that Aragorn/Eowyn story might’ve envisioned the characters to look like the actors in the movies, in the end they are characters from the original books, just like the gazillion Harry Potter stories are based on the books no matter how the writer might’ve thought of Daniel, Rupert and Emma as the leads. (By the way: J.K. Rowling encourages fanfiction to be written about her works.)
Of course one could argue against this statement. I am sure there are people who do not share my thoughts on this, and I am sure fanfiction about Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman exists. My point is: the “Western fanfiction” is not as exclusively about real people as it is more about the fictional characters the actors portray. There are shows that are not based on books, but even in these cases the writers are not focusing on writing about the actors behind the characters but rather focus on the characters of the show. They’ll write about how the characters behave and speak – not how the actors would out of character.
I wished to point these two details out, because there is a significant difference to be spotted at a glance. No matter whether the author is a native Korean or not, no matter whether the original language is Korean or English or whatever, as long as it is about something on the Korean market, it is without a doubt about the idol business.
The same Asian fanfiction site as earlier gives less than 40 hits combined in rated and non-rated categories for a TV drama The Heirs which tells about a love story between a rich man and a poor girl and various other more-or-less well-off people, and out of these, at least five are in fact crossover stories where the author has taken the drama setting to write about – you guessed it – that boy group EXO, instead. Not to mention that idols often star in these TV dramas and movies!
The range of characters’ origins in Western fanfiction would thus seem much wider. Characters come from comics, movies, animation, books, children’s stories, and public figures (because I know One Direction fanfiction exists, God forbid). The fanfiction produced by the fans of all things Korean is, with few exceptions, about idols. Whether it’s a good thing or not is up to the reader. I’m sure many would ask whether it’s any interesting to be reading about the same characters all the time; this is something we’re coming to, below.
Style and setting aligned
In both Western fanfiction and Korean fanfiction the reader will find the characters of the story remaining virtually the same while the setting of the story changes, but in my experience, in the Western fiction the characters remain “true to the original” more often, or the theme remains the same while the original story outcome changes. You have Sherlock and Watson, and they’re solving crimes in outer space. Or you have Kirk and Spock, and they are college students, but somehow Spock always ends up calling Kirk “captain” anyway. Neville is the Chosen One, not Harry Potter. Characters’ mannerism, speech, or story-driving decisions are the same as in the original product. This might have something to do with popularity: characters and storyline make the original product popular, and fanfiction writers want to extend the universe.
Korean fanfiction comes in two distinguishable types, if I may. There is type A, which (sort of sadly) dominates the whole genre by featuring the readers, themselves, as the main character. The stories are told from the point of view of the reader: these are called “you fanfiction” or “self-insert fanfiction”, and feature the reader’s “character” somehow ending up meeting (and falling for) the idol character. The storyline tends to be the same: you are a young woman who meets the idol character, and through telenovela-like events you fall in love with them. The format uses “you” to tell about the main character rather than “(s)he” or a random name. I cannot give a description of a typical ending, because I admit to never having read one further than the beginning. The Asian fanfiction site has, in fact, developed a code to use for these stories, where a certain word (for example, “you”) will change to the reader’s username when viewed.
Type B, then, is the “typical” fanfiction: a chosen character narrates it in either first or third person. Usually, the stories are love stories; and amongst these are the ones that are not, just as with Western fanfiction.
But as the stories all feature real people, what happens during the process of writing is a total re-creation. In each story the characters are created again, because there is no original.
Of course Korean fanfiction is by no means somehow more unique or special. Just as Western fanfiction, Korean fanfiction comes with character types that seem to get stronger the more slash there is in the story: a strong individual who tops in bed, and the helpless (most often somehow feminine) bottom, for example.
However, I’d like to make a claim. I think that in a way, it is easier to break the norm and cut loose from the mainstream when writing about Korean idols – or real people in general. Like I said, there is no original. Most often we do not know these people personally. They are blank sheets. Yes, I know that one of the idols whose music I listen to is a native Canadian of Asian descent and that he started to play the violin at six, but if I put that aside, I have but a name. Writers who focus on the Western products might often get too tied down by the original pieces: they might feel the details in the original are too important to leave out and add to a story getting popular. When you have but a canvas to fill with words it is much easier to create something new while spicing it up with a few details, like a habit of touching one’s ear, or describing the way one laughs.
And if Western writers are only starting to realize publishing their works isn’t difficult, in Korea it isn’t odd at all. In both China and Korea, it is more and more typical for popular writers to independently publish their works, and for bookstores and digital media to distribute their works. It is comparable to the “doujinshi” phenomenon of Japanese fan-made comic books. This leads to another point: it seems that only rather recently, Western actors have confessed in interviews to having read fiction about their roles and characters. I tried to look for the earliest interviews where the topic gets discussed on Korean TV, but faced a tall wall simply because I only listen to a handful of very new groups, and couldn’t imagine the right words to search by on Google. By what I’ve heard, this happened way before 2010.
I wished to leave links to popular authors’ works regarding Korean idols, but only a few weeks or so ago something happened when two well-known TV personas decided to ask for similar recommendations. The Canadian couple behind Eat Your Kimchi, specialising in delivering their opinions on all things Korean, wished to discuss fanfiction in one of their video logs, and asked on Twitter for people to recommend their favourites.
The result? The fandom shut down, locked their fiction, removed their works, and cried over the incident. I stayed at a distance wondering what was going on, and to date do not know for sure what triggered the reaction – I imagine people were worried their works would get quoted and analysed, but this was hardly the point.
Thus I’ve decided not to shake things up any more, although as many people wouldn’t hear my call for recommendations. Instead, I’ll leave you the link to some of my works below, and if you’re interested, you can have a look around.
The writer is an independently published fanfiction author.