4:00 pm EDT, September 15, 2017

What the solution to the ‘My Immortal’ mystery means for the fanfiction community

How does the answer to a decade-long question change the image of fanfiction?

From My Immortal to Fifty Shades of Grey, the world’s impression of fanfiction has never been entirely positive, but the end of the longtime mystery of My Immortal’s author might mean a change in the tides.

For years, the mystery of who wrote My Immortal tormented the internet. Poring over old MySpace accounts and YouTube videos, everyone had a different theory, as if they were hunting some kind of modern-day Jack the Ripper who had serially killed the English language. But thanks to some mystery-solving Twitter users, Tumblr users and Buzzfeed, the author has finally been brought to the light.

Her name is Rose Christo, and her upcoming memoir will reveal the truth about what My Immortal was all about — among many other things. It’s very different from the badly-written fanfic that everyone loves to hate.

my immortal the trio

Now the internet feels a little less full of secrets, and many are mourning the end of a beloved mystery. But for fanfiction writers and readers, My Immortal’s prevalence in pop culture has always prompted mixed feelings. On the one hand, the story’s fame brought more attention to a community that’s often very insular; on the other, for a community of creative people working hard to produce quality content, the misconceptions it caused were disheartening.

Related: Why Harry Potter fans should support Voldemort: Origins of the Heir and other fan films

Not that fanfiction is never badly-written — many, over the years, believed that My Immortal was a self-aware parody — but the mocking of fan creations has always been something of a vicious sport. From My Immortal’s comically terrible inconsistencies to Fifty Shades of Grey’s low-quality smut, the cases of fanfiction making the news have been far from favorable. The impression outsiders have is one of badly-written romance riddled with overly-sexualized and inaccurate characterizations.

It’s a tragically inaccurate portrayal of a community that is actually revolutionary in its depictions of sexuality, diversity and trope subversion. In many instances, fanfiction succeeds where traditional literature has failed, making underappreciated characters of color the leads, showcasing underrepresented sexual orientations, and exploring themes the original writers are too afraid to touch. Fandom often takes ownership of prolific works, sometimes inspiring entire sub-genres occupying the universe of a particularly well-written fanfic. And it’s all free.

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Many creators keep their life completely separate from their online work, while others promote both their original content and their fanfiction equally. Some — like E. L. James — controversially take it another step and seek profit, while others delete their works years later. The diversity of approaches on the part of the writers themselves does sometimes hint at a sense of shame — society’s idea that they are not “real” writers and that fanfiction can’t stand on its own.

my immortal fifty shades

So why did My Immortal become so famous when other badly-written fics did not?

Until now, My Immortal belonged to everyone and no one at the same time, which was in part why it became so beloved. But it’s that very sense of anonymity that makes people feel justified in mocking fan creations. While studios and authors may no longer be as aggressive as they once were in protecting their original content, fanfiction and fan art are routinely ridiculed, sometimes even on Late Night shows or by the stars of the source material. Writers and artists are hardly ever credited, and sometimes unwanted exposure can even be dangerous. Creators have long been questioning the wisdom of exposing individual works without context: is fandom made to exist in a vacuum, or is it meant to be pulled out into the public eye?

Either way, My Immortal‘s author now has a name, changing the nature of an internet classic and making people question many of their assumptions about her. Most surprisingly, Christo seems to be a genuinely likable person. Given her decision to step forwards to condemn the fake NYT bestseller Handbook for Mortals, to her witty comments on Tumblr, and the profound story her memoir will tell — touching on “the challenges and issues that children in foster care, especially Native American children, face” — it’s clear that she’s both capable and compassionate. While her emergence may not have been entirely of her own will, she’s made the most of the situation and is using it to bring awareness to a very important cause.

my immortal luna

Whether or not My Immortal was a parody, it will no longer be the joke it once was. If it was deliberately badly-written, it stands as an excellent piece of comedy made by a talented writer. If it was meant to be serious, then it’s evidence of how far a writer can come — and more importantly, of the role fanfiction plays in raising adolescent writers to successful careers in writing. With this unique glimpse into Christo’s life, many of the misconceptions of what fanfiction is might begin to disappear.

Christo has proved that fanfiction writers have a story to tell; that the corner of the internet people like to imagine is solely populated by dramatic schoolgirls with terrible writing skills is actually a space full of talented people with fascinating lives, across all ages and backgrounds — creators whose work is a valuable contribution to our culture, and who are populating entire genres of literature all on their own.

Christo’s book, Under the Same Stars: The Search for My Brother and the True Story of ‘My Immortal’ will come out on May 29, 2018.

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