Frank Herbert’s Dune, Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, and Neuromancer by William Gibson—these classic Hugo award nominees, everyone has heard of. But what about the thousands of fanfiction works all addressing the question, “what if Steve Rogers and Tony Stark from the Avengers fucked?”
This week, the Hugo awards—a set of literary awards given to the best science fiction and fantasy works of the year—announced that Archive of Our Own (Ao3), a massive internet fanfic archive, is a finalist in the Best Related Works category for 2019. If the archive wins a Hugo this year, hundreds of thousands of user-created transformative works—much of it horny, weird, and beautiful fan-made takes on existing pop culture like the aforementioned Avengers fanfic—will join the past and current honorees.
According to its website, Ao3—a project founded in 2008 by the Organization for Transformative Works, a non-profit organization dedicated to making fan-made work more widely accessible—contains 31,810 user-submitted fandoms (subcultures of existing works), 1,864,000 users, and 46,83,000 individual works, accumulated in the 10 years since its launch. All of these are now nominated for a Hugo.
Read more: The Forgotten Early History of Fanfiction
The winning award in the Best Related Works category is given to a non-fiction science fiction or fantasy work or collection. Basically, this is a catch-all category for works that don’t fit in other categories like Best Novel or Best Short Story. Past winners in the Best Related Works category have included encyclopedias, story compilations and biographies.
Becca Farrow is an illustrator and writer whose short story based on an alternate universe (AU) for the anime Free! Is archived in Ao3, and is now up for a Hugo. Farrow told me in an email that when she wrote the piece, she was just writing for herself: “In retrospect I wrote it as a coping mechanism for post-grad anxiety and stress,” she said.
She posted the story to Ao3, and didn’t expect the positive reaction it received from the community of readers.
“I've had so many people reach out and thank me for writing it because they were able to use it to help work through some of their own mental health things, and that's the part that I thought was the most important,” she said. “One of my favorite parts of fanfiction wound up becoming the connections I could make with people who were using it to create the stories they needed to hear.”
A lot of fanfic (some now Hugo-nominated) is also created just to make others laugh.
Writer Caelyn Ellis told me in a Twitter message that she doesn’t write a lot of fanfic herself, but does have one piece on the Archive of Our Own. The work is “an intentionally-terrible, 233-word piece of Dragon Age smut that I wrote for a group of friends based on a silly joke,” she told me, adding that she’s quite amused that it’s now, technically, up for the top prize in sci-fi literature.
“The fact that this is now a Hugo-nominated piece of writing is absolutely glorious and I'm going to be grinning about it for weeks,” she said.
Another writer, who goes by “spidersrorg” and sometimes posts stories about cannibalism to Ao3, told me in a Twitter message that this nomination is significant because fanfic authors aren’t often treated seriously as other authors. “It’s nice that all of our unrecognized work is being recognized,” he said.
A writer who goes by “sass” online (but whose Ao3 pen name is “yggsassil”) told me in a Twitter message that fanfic is important to him because it’s an accessible way to express love for a series or fiction.
“I think it’s actually pretty amazing that Ao3 got nominated,” he said. “It means that fanfic—or really transformative fiction in general—is finally getting taken seriously... Also, it’s just really cool to be able to say some of my weird fanfic got nominated for a Hugo award.”
Ellis told me that this nomination represents something bigger than the wild world of online fanfic going up for a prestigious award—it’s a moment to recognize marginalized voices.
“There are so many great writers uploading work there and it's such a valuable service the site provides, especially considering the rocky history of fanfic,” Ellis said. “At a time when minority groups are still struggling to find representation in mainstream media, fanfic writers are doing an admirable job picking up the slack.”