Chloé Zhao is more than just the latest award-winning director turning heads in Hollywood. While most of us can only dream of making it as big as Zhao has in a creative field, this two-time Oscar-winning director has a couple of tricks up her sleeve that only further solidify her standing as a tour de force storyteller. Chloé Zhao is a fanfiction writer.
Last year in an interview with Variety, Zhao revealed she not only writes fanfiction but that she still finds time between her many projects to write a fic or two. Let’s take a moment to imagine Zhao sitting down in between serving as Nomadland’s writer, director, producer, and editor to pen a chapter of a fanfic. Or maybe she’s doing exactly that right now as she finishes up her next project, Marvel’s The Eternals.
In the podcast interview, she said, “I’m an only child, you know, and it comes from spending a lot of time growing up on my own just writing fiction and putting it online and reading it back. If you know anything about fanfiction, you write the stuff for yourself. It’s what you want to see, and that’s probably something that I will continue.”
In the past, Zhao published works on Livejournal and fanfiction.net. But before you head to either of these sites to hunt down any username with “Chloé” or “Zhao,” know that we’ll probably never learn which masterpieces were written by Zhao herself. In the same Variety interview, Zhao said, “Never reveal your pen name. Many people ask me, but you will never find out.”
I am very comfortable with the energy Zhao has created in the studio today—because she’s right. If you’ve ever read fanfiction under any fandom, then you know there are so many incredible pieces of writing just existing in the ethers of the internet, and that’s part of what makes fanfiction so enjoyable. As Zhao said, fanfiction is self-indulgent. Even when it’s published online, it still exists as a passion project. Fanfiction writers are rarely compensated monetarily for their work, making each fic a labor of love that was gifted to anyone interested.
So, yes, Zhao’s fanfiction is probably just as incredible as the films she’s published under her actual name. However, until she chooses to share her username, I’ll stick to enjoying her public work for the time being.
While I’ve never read Zhao’s fanfics, I know they’re exceptional. However, the same cannot be said about all fanfiction. In fact, it’s a real tragedy that some of the most well-known pieces of fanfiction in the mainstream are absolute garbage. I’m talking 50 Shades of Grey and After. E.L. James doesn’t know how to write (sorry!), nor does she understand ethical, healthy, or consensual BDSM. Anna Todd romanticizes abuse and, you know, based her characters off of One Direction, which is controversial.
As someone who has been reading fanfiction since middle school, each of these authors and their respective works boils my blood. I have read plenty of fics that have done everything right, unlike the aforementioned works. I can’t count the times I’ve finished a piece of fanfiction at 3 am and said out loud in my dark bedroom, “Whoever wrote this was born to be a writer.” And, if you listen closely, you’ll probably hear me at any given moment ranting to my friends about how there are talented fic writers breathing new life into the craft of writing and succeeding at something that so many published writers fail at.
Again, I’m looking directly at E.L. James and Anna Todd. Sorry ladies, but each of you has only helped bolster the bad rap fanfiction receives from the general public. But kudos for achieving the impossible and getting published, I guess.
I just wish it had been those with more talent, poise, and writing ability who had made it big. On any given night, I’m reading a 100,000-word fic whose author is literally doing the lord’s work. It is these writers who should be household names. Because traditionally, these writers are often doing more for diversity and inclusion than those who are published.
Characters of color, neurodivergent characters, characters with disabilities, and characters of all gender expressions and sexualities are not lurking in the background of fanfictions like they so often are in books you see lining the shelves of the local Barnes and Noble (though this is changing). Instead, they are the protagonists fearlessly tackling more taboo topics and encountering experiences that are actually representative of today’s nuanced readers.
Good fanfic writers also know how to write a sex scene like no other. Again, while not every fic author knows what they’re doing when it comes to steamy scenes, I’d argue there are plenty of fanfic writers who handle consensual sex pretty well. Most of these writers also know how to sidestep trauma porn and create works that are the best kind of trope-y.
I doff my proverbial hat—or as a fellow writer, tip my pen—to Chloé Zhao. If she can make it big as a Hollywood filmmaker and a fanfic writer, then so can all of us. I hope her fanfiction admission will change how mainstream society sees fanfiction—because fanfiction shouldn’t be seen as the shameful cousin of published novels any longer.
There’s too much important work being done by fanfic writers that needs to see the light.
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