Love in the Time of Coronavirus
Lauren Rouse and Mel Stanfill / University of Central Florida
As COVID-19 infections spread in early 2020, prompting stay-at-home orders around the world, leisure practices had to shift as activities like attending concerts, visiting bars, or even hosting dinner parties became sometimes illegal but always risky. One notable sign of the pandemic’s impacts on leisure activities was increased web traffic on the Archive of Our Own (AO3), a fan fiction posting site, which went from averaging 35-45 million views per day from January-early March 2020 to averaging 46-52 million views per day in late March and April 2020 (see Figure 2).
However, fans didn’t just read fan fiction in increased numbers in the COVID-19 era, but also directly took the virus and the social changes it brought about as a subject as they wrote fan fiction; as of May 2021, a search for Coronavirus on AO3 returns more than 2,000 stories, and COVID-19 returns more than 3,500 (see Figure 1). The existence of a substantial number of stories about the global pandemic initially seems like a way to make sense of its challenges (see Figure 3). As Dominick LaCapra argues, when dealing with traumatic events, there are two fundamental forms of remembering: “acting out” and “working through,” which is a process in which a person seeks to gain “critical distance on a problem.”
Certainly, fan fiction has frequently been understood as a way for writers to think through important topics. As Kristina Busse points out, it “has often been a place for women to explore and negotiate issues of sexuality by reading and writing their desires, and by acknowledging and sharing sexual preferences.” While there is not yet any study of how this kind of exploration and negotiation occurs with respect to trauma specifically, research on literature in general suggests that “literary trauma might be understood as just one way of grappling with the crisis of subjectivity in which the experience of finding oneself at a loss points to a consciousness—and thus exposed as inadequate to the demands of reality.”
It is also common to characterize the work that fandom does as inclusive of many perspectives, such as arguing that “academic discourses create interpretations along very limited lines of well-supportable readings. In contrast, fan fiction displays a wider variety of potential interpretation.” While this is true, it’s also the case that fandom’s interpretive breadth is not unlimited, and indeed the range of interpretations on offer tends to reflect the experience of white, middle-class people. Through an analysis of ten works of fan fiction from AO3 that were both tagged COVID-19 and mentioned trauma or mental health, we interrogate whose experiences of the virus are present—and absent—in fan fiction.
First, the traumas being worked through in the COVID stories are only a subset of all the troubles people faced as a result of the virus. Specifically, more of them focused on mental health issues (like depression, loneliness, or anxiety) than other kinds of trauma. Without downplaying the importance of mental health, the absence of discussion of economic impacts, xenophobic hate crimes against Asian Americans, or much emphasis on sickness and death themselves in fan fiction explicitly labeled “COVID-19” is notable given how widespread all of these aspects of the pandemic were. To be lonely and isolated to the exclusion of any other kind of trauma suggests the white collar worker or college student suddenly eternally at home more than the essential worker going out each day to face possible exposure.
Second, the COVID-19 stories often sought to resolve this depression, loneliness, and anxiety through the comfort of a relationship, whether romantic or non-romantic. Many of the ship fics involved the characters being “stuck” together and having to quarantine, which led to the characters eventually admitting their feelings for one another and beginning romantic relationships. One author noted in a summary: “I’m so sick and tired of the whole COVID pandemic, so I decided to write my own little fic shitting on the entire thing. So, here in this story we’ve got: Dean being just as done, Castiel coming up with the perfect solution, a private island, and no viruses to even think about.” While it may strike us as distasteful to use mass death as a way to get characters to kiss, there is a history of such works in fandom. For example, one infamous story that has come to be known as “the J2 Haiti Fic” used the real-world event of the 2010 Haiti earthquake and its aftermath as a backdrop to imagine a romance pairing actors Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki from Supernatural (The WB, 2005–2006; The CW 2006–2020), using a similar device of forcing characters together through tragedy. Here again, the fact that quarantine was intended to prevent infection with a deadly virus drops out of the story, suggesting this was not at the center of this author’s experience of the pandemic.
Finally, more than simply acting as if trauma did not exist, some fan fiction authors showed that they were acting from a position of privilege by suggesting the socially powerful, not the marginal, were most harmed. As the summary of one fiction, posted in early June at the height of protests after George Floyd’s murder, noted, “This is an especially hard time for first responders, harassed and menaced every day by armed thugs. THIS SHOULD NOT BE ALLOWED! THE POLICE SHOULD STOP IT!” This story, whose title indicated it was about the pandemic, thus positioned the real problem as people protesting police brutality, not what happened to Floyd or the broader reality that the pandemic intersected with systemic racism to cause disproportionate death to Black Americans. Here again, we see that the author is writing from a position of not experiencing these traumas, and indeed not seeing them as valid traumas in the first place.
This isn’t in any way to say that people can’t write escapist fan fiction that ignores world events. But it does call attention to what kinds of stories don’t get told. We see the kind of individual trauma Lisa Lewis discusses: “When an event happens where I ‘feel’ dissatisfied or threatened [. . . ], fantasy can be a way to ‘travel’ the disruptive area, allowing me to ‘stitch’ my identity back together.” We don’t see collective kinds of trauma, however. Jeffrey Alexander’s social theory of trauma notes that “cultural trauma occurs when members of a collectivity feel that they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways.” Approaching COVID-19 as a matter only of isolation, to the exclusion of sickness and death and rising anti-Asian hate crimes, is making a case for what kinds of trauma matter—and don’t.
Ultimately, the narrow scope of COVID fic engages a longstanding fandom question that circulated through fan communities on Twitter and platforms throughout this pandemic: the question of whose trauma matters. Whose trauma is at the foreground and whose is in the background? Whose trauma do we privilege and attend to and whose do we turn away from? It also brings up a key methodological question: When we use internet writings to understand how people are making sense of social phenomena, it’s essential to ask which people we might (and might not) be capturing. The narratives about fans as having a wide range of interpretations are incomplete if we do not take this into account—and so are big data analyses of COVID-19 hashtags.
- Figure 1: Screenshots of search results for “Coronavirus” and “COVID-19” as of May 2021 (author’s screengrab).
- Figure 2: A graph of daily traffic from AO3 between January 2020 and April 2020.
- Figure 3: A tweet hinting at collective grieving processes by reading fan fiction.
- LaCapra, Dominick. Writing History, Writing Trauma. JHU Press, 200, p. 143-44. [↩]
- Busse, Kristina. 2017. Framing Fan Fiction: Literary and Social Practices in Fan Fiction Communities. Iowa City: University Of Iowa Press, p. 159. [↩]
- Fans have written about their own experiences, however. See, for example, Mitseva, Yana. “Lara Croft, Fan Fiction & Exploring My Very Own Trauma.” Medium, 5 Aug. 2018,https://firstname.lastname@example.org/lara-croft-fan-fiction-exploring-my-very-own-trauma-439d76f14690. [↩]
- Barnaby, Andrew. 2018. “The Psychoanalytic Origins of Literary Trauma Studies.” In Trauma and Literature, edited by J. Roger Kurtz, 1st ed., 21–35. Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781316817155.003. p. 22. [↩]
- Busse 106. [↩]
- Derived from “relationship,” shipping involves the desire to have two or more characters in a relationship with one another. [↩]
- The quotations from fan fiction throughout the essay are what Annette Markham calls an “ethical fabrication,” a representative quotation that is constructed in order to convey a sense of the data while maintaining anonymity, as the text cannot be found by search engines. See Markham, Annette. 2012. “Fabrication as Ethical Practice.” Information, Communication & Society 15 (3): 334–53.https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2011.641993. [↩]
- Lewis, Lisa A. The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media. Routledge, 2002, p. 116. [↩]
- Alexander, Jeffrey C. Trauma: A Social Theory. John Wiley & Sons, 2013, p. 6. [↩]