The Archive of Our Own has been nominated for a Hugo Award, finally recognizing the importance of once-dismissed legions of creators.
Though still gaining recognition in the mainstream, the World Science Fiction Society’s Hugo Awards are the most prominent prizes given to creators in speculative fiction. Outstanding novels, short fiction, film, television, and comics are awarded at the World Science Fiction Convention. Excellent work in other categories like Fanzines, fan artists, and fan podcasts are also recognized.
This year, for the first time, fanworks have been recognized in another category. The Archive of Our Own (or “AO3”), a massive fanfiction archive run by the Organization for Transformative Works, has been nominated for “Best Related Work.” This category recognizes “Any work… which has been substantially modified… and which is either non-fiction or, if fictional, is noteworthy primarily for aspects other than the fictional text, and which is not eligible in any other category.”
In other words, this is work that is in some way transformative — material that adds to the experience of the work rather than the work itself. The other nominees in the Best Related Work category are documentaries and retrospectives, or meta-textual essays on an author’s work. The nomination of the Archive of Our Own marks the first time that creative, transformative, co-fictional material has been recognized as equal to this kind of work.
In allowing for the nomination of AO3, the Hugo Awards are broadening what it means to contribute to the experience of fiction. This process, they have recognized, goes beyond interacting with a work of fiction as it is — it also encompasses interacting with what the work might be. The imaginations and creativity of fans also contribute to the story of that original story. Talking about art by working within it is not particularly different from talking about art from a remote perspective.
As any fanfiction writer will tell you, transformative works are constantly in dialogue with the original piece. That dialogue may take the form of a Coffee Shop AU rather than an essay, but it is equally as involved in the work of commentary and reflection. Far beyond the academic or critical space, fanfiction probes and challenges original works, bolstering themes and reworking flaws.
It just also happens to be done for fun.
(And yes, sometimes there’s porn. Get over it!)
The recognition of the AO3 is doubly important as fanfiction is overwhelmingly created by women and marginalized fans. Websites like the Archive of Our Own provide a space where marginalized stories and ideas can thrive beyond perceived limits and norms. A characters’ identity can be subverted, challenged, or disregarded entirely. Queer pairings can flourish. Female characters can lead the charge, and minority identities can be centralized in stories where they had never existed.
This is all part of the dialogue with these specific works and in fact, the constantly-shifting fandom canon. Fanfiction talks about what isn’t in these stories by putting it in and seeing what happens. Put more women in The Lord of the Rings. Create a Black Student Union at Hogwarts. Make manly Captain Kirk work the counter at Sephora. How does that change the art and our feelings toward it — and why?
The value of this kind of active experimentation goes beyond conversation. It’s also more than the self-contained fiction from which fanfiction develops. Transformative works allow women and marginalized fans to widen the window of what is possible in the stories of the future.
The work of diversity and representation can’t just take place in passionate op-eds or on convention panels. It also has to happen creatively, and the free world of fanfiction is prime real estate for that transformation.
So in recognizing the Archive of Our Own in its nominations, the Hugo Awards are doing more than nodding to a feat of sophisticated code or fandom collective. They are validating the reality of change; change in who has access to dialogue with art. Change in how that dialogue is crafted and regarded. And change in the very art itself, and the unlimited spectrum of people who are empowered to become creators.
The winners of the 2019 Hugo Awards will be announced on Aug. 18. Find out more information about the Hugos and the World Science Fiction Society at their website.