Katharine McCain is a graduate of Georgetown University where she received her Master’s in English and The Ohio State University where she received her PhD in Television and Media Studies. Her work focuses on modern fan culture, specifically fanfiction and the various transformative works that flourish on blogging websites like Tumblr.
Recently, she has published articles on Guy Fieri and celebrity fandom in The Food Network Recipe: Essays on Cooking, Celebrity, and Competition, the fannish nature of King’s novel The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon in Children and Childhood in the Works of Stephen King, and the cultural impact of Eliezer Yudkowsky’s fic Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality in Prequels, Coquels and Sequels in Contemporary Anglophone Fiction.
Katharine’s work can also be found at katharinemccain.com where she maintains a casual, fan-focused blog.
When I asked her about how she got into researching Coffee Shop AUs, and why they fascinate her so much, Katharine told me:
As often happens in academia, I didn’t so much set out to research Coffee Shop AUs as I stumbled into it. Being a fan of the genre myself, I’d noted its popularity over the years, but hadn’t thought much about the research potential until I found an old LiveJournal thread from 2011 where a fan asked their peers why coffee shops had become so prevalent in what they called “mundane AUs.” Though there were only a couple of short, uncertain answers in the thread, I found myself thinking over the suggestions—it was familiar, comforting, easier to write about than say, a bank—and wondering what kind of answer I’d give if pressed. That question led to “Fans Love It a Latte: The Rise and Participatory Nature of Coffee Shop AUs,” a paper I gave at the Fifth Annual Fandom & Neomedia Studies Association in 2017. I knew from the research I’d done that there was plenty more to say, a wealth of analysis I couldn’t pack into a twenty minute-presentation, and the response from fellow conference-goers demonstrated a marked interest in the topic. (Indeed, a couple of people were more interested in trading coffee shop fic recs than theories!) When it came time to devote myself to a dissertation topic, I knew the Coffee Shop AU both deserved and would keep my attention. After some work with my committee, my initial intention to focus solely on close readings turned into a need to define the genre itself, setting the stage for future scholarship. Now that I’ve completed that foundational work, I’m excited to continue my research!
After reading Katherine’s fantastic essays “Fans Love It a Latte: The Rise and Participatory Nature of Coffee Shop AUs” and “Today Your Barista Is: Genre Characteristics in The Coffee Shop Alternate Universe,” I was thoroughly intrigued. I had too many questions; and in the next few paragraphs, Katharine has been kind enough to answer all of them.
Anushka Bidani: How popular is this trope?
Katharine McCain: Quite popular! Though determining exactly how popular genres are, particularly in fandom spaces, is a difficult task due to a lack of reliable data. If we’re looking at hit counts on a fic, how do we distinguish someone who read the whole story through verses someone who exited out after just a few minutes? If we take a survey, how do we distinguish between someone who understands “I like Coffee Shop AUs” to mean “It’s my favorite genre of all time” verses “I’m not opposed to them and have read a couple over the years”? However, despite the nebulous nature of precisely how popular something is, the Coffee Shop AU is certainly well known and enthusiastically perpetuated. It has existed since at least 2001, there are nearly 27,000 fics on AO3 alone, you can find Coffee Shop AU t-shirts on sites like Redbubble, numerous prompts for the genre on Tumblr, and, in my own case, there’s been enough material generated over the last decade or so to write a dissertation on the form. For me personally, it likewise seems notable the number of times I’ve come across posts complaining about how pervasive the AU has become in fandom communities. There’s this sense that, for better or for worse, something has indeed become exceedingly popular if other people are complaining about it!
AB: What is the average length of a Coffee Shop AU?
KM: Coffee Shop AUs tend to be oneshots—fics that take place over the course of a single chapter, much like a short story—and those oneshots average between 1,000 and 10,000 words. There are always exceptions, of course, but Coffee Shop AUs tend to begin prior to the couple getting close (either by establishing that they have a casual but static employer/employee relationship, or by beginning the fic with a meet cute), they bond over the course of the story, and the fic ends with them confirming the first step in their relationship: a kiss, a phone number, agreeing to a date, etc. Though we tend to associate coffee shop runs with the hectic energy attached to getting to school or work on time, the Coffee Shop AU is meant to be a feel-food, escapist story and thus moves at an equally low-key pace. Though characters may fall in love rather quickly and experience the anxiety of whether their crush likes them back, the fic as a whole should evoke feelings of calm and comfort. You settle down with a Coffee Shop AU the way you do with an old book you’ve read countless times before. There’s no need to race towards the end; you already know it. Just enjoy the ride.
AB: You describe the coffee shop as “a generic yet customizable space.” What function does this perform? Is there any other fanfiction space or trope which performs a similar function?
KM: The purpose of the Coffee Shop AU’s setting is to provide readers with that sense of familiarity while simultaneously giving them something new to read. It’s akin to how the popularity of genres and tropes function more broadly. You’ve already read numerous stories of how these two characters fall in love, but you’ve yet to experience this fic’s take on the experience. Perhaps you know precisely what to expect of a de-aging fic—and actively hope to see many of those clichés repeated—but you’re also interested in this particular author’s take on the setup. Coffee Shop AUs exist to achieve that same balance where fans approach the genre because they’re looking for something specific, but don’t want to re-read the exact same fics. The “generic yet customizable space,” AKA the coffee shop itself, is identical in some ways to other shops of the genre, and in other ways it is unique to this pairing, this context, and this author’s style.
AB: Do writers ever utilize the coffee shop itself as a plot point?
KM: Absolutely! Though the coffee shop can simply be the space in which these interactions occur, the purpose of the genre is to utilize that space in compelling ways, often leading to the shop itself, or at least some aspect of it, functioning as a plot point. The threat of closure is a struggle that the couple might bond over. The act of standing in line, giving the same order, and receiving a cup with the character’s name on it might be the ritual that drives the relationship. The busy nature of the shop may be what creates a misunderstanding that the rest of the fic works through. Though Coffee Shop AUs are rarely plot driven outside of the romance itself, the shop is still the focal point and very much helps to forward the story.
AB: Does one of the characters of the primary pairing always need to be an owner or an employee at the coffee shop? What are the implications of none of these characters working at the coffee shop?
KM: Though I’d put my money on there being plenty of fics where neither character works at the shop, that dynamic is common simply because of the opportunities it offers the writer. For one thing, there’s no need to manage a number of coincidental encounters as two characters just happen to grab coffee at the same time while juggling their busy schedules. Perhaps that could be used as an indicator of interest—it’s not coincidental at all, but rather one character is adapting to the other in order to see them—though it is a little harder to pull off. With one character working the counter, the writer has the ability to craft as many interactions as they’d like without any coming across as stalker-ish, or stretching our suspension of disbelief. It likewise allows them to capitalize on the romantic opportunities built into the characters’ different statuses. Does the pining drag on because the customer believes the employee is just being polite and the employee believes the same? Does the employee pull any strings—an extra baked good here, a free size up there—to express their interest? Do worries develop when the customer suddenly disappears and the employee has no way to reach them? To say nothing of how an employee ties the relationship and conflict more firmly to the coffee shop itself, eliminating the question, “Why don’t these two just meet somewhere else?” Though making both characters customers offers its own, unique set of writing opportunities, splitting them results in a dynamic that many fans have come to enjoy.
AB: Why is it so important for the coffee shop to occupy a liminal space?
KM: The Coffee Shop AU specifically belongs to what is referred to as a third place: the space between home (first place) and work (second place) where people can find the comforts of the former and the social connections of the latter. In short, it’s a space where relationships can form and the community thrives. It’s no surprise then that such a place would function well within a romance-based genre, but third places, specifically privately owned third places, are also imagined as a refuge for queer individuals. Despite the increased popularity of coffee chains over the last few decades, Coffee Shop AUs tend to eschew corporations like Starbucks as a setting, simply because that strict, capitalist, uniform space works counter to the individuality that most writers are looking to celebrate in their fics. Thus, Coffee Shop AU third places tend to be owned by the characters themselves, the mom-and-pop café that might be struggling to make ends meet, but also has the power to make this shop quirky in a welcoming manner. Whether it’s including décor that references a specific character’s interests (and that deliberately reflect pop culture trends the reader may also be interested in), or filling the café with employees and customers who are likewise coded as queer, the third place of the Coffee Shop AU isn’t just geared towards the community at large, but specifically a fan community built on diversity and acceptance.
AB: Do you think a Coffee Shop AU can have an unhappy ending?
KM: Though it’s certainly possible given that fic authors can write anything they please, I personally have never come across a Coffee Shop AU with an unhappy ending. Ambiguous, perhaps, or even bittersweet, but never overtly unhappy. That’s simply not the purpose of the genre and any fic that doesn’t just include unhappy content, but allows it to win out in the end has, arguably, not written a Coffee Shop AU. At least, they have not written a fic that meets the expectations other fans currently attach to that term. Coffee Shop AUs aren’t simply any story that takes place in a coffee shop, but rather a particular story about characters falling in love in that space. Having them achieve their happy ending is the point of the work. If an author were to kill one of those characters off, have the relationship fall apart for another reason (without establishing that both characters are ultimately happier apart), if we end on a tragic note such as the destruction of the shop itself… then we’ve come across a fic that functions differently than a traditional Coffee Shop AU. It may be that someday we expand the term to include fics with more versatility, but for now attaching “Coffee Shop AU” to one’s work very much promises a happy ending.
AB: Which tropes do you most commonly see associated with the Coffee Shop AU?
KM: Though there are many Coffee Shop AU-specific tropes that tend to crop up—such as the barista communicating with the customer through notes on their takeaway cups, or sweets used as a means of reflecting one (or both) character’s own sweet nature—it’s worth acknowledging that many tropes are intentional revisions of mainstream Romantic Comedy tropes. Two that I discuss in my dissertation are the union-as-spectacle and stalking-as-love. Both of these, when used in Romantic Comedies, tend to put off a lot of modern viewers, leading to fans reworking the tropes in their own stories. The union-as-spectacle is the moment when one character, usually the man, proposes a long-term relationship, or more likely marriage, in a very public, over-the-top fashion, turning what many believe should be an intimate moment into the titular spectacle. Coffee Shop AUs deliberately re-work this by ending the story at the start of the relationship and confirming that change in semi-privacy: in the back storeroom, through that coffee cup communication, whispered when it’s the customer’s turn to order, etc. If the rest of the shop is privy to this development, the spectacle has lost much of its voyeuristic feeling due to the work accomplished in developing the third place. These aren’t so much strangers as members of a loving, supportive community. Particularly for a genre that is adapting such tropes for queer relationships, reworking the union-as-spectacle likewise acknowledges real-life struggles: one cannot announce a queer communion with the same safety one would a straight relationship. As for the stalking-as-love trope, that’s a more straightforward dislike of Romantic Comedies’ tendencies to frame a character’s invasions of privacy as proof of love, rather than a lack of respect at best, a warning sign at worst. Thus, fans work hard to acknowledge these boundaries and ensure that their characters only begin testing them with explicit consent. Or, if they are edging into Romantic Comedy territory, that becomes a moment of growth rather than a celebratory, “cute” moment. For example, I have come across numerous fics where a customer flirts with the barista, only for the barista to point out that the customer has all the power here. If they don’t maintain a polite persona, they risk being fired, thus making this moment of flirting feel like a dangerous invasion, not something they can respond to, even if they wanted. Thus, the customer undergoes a moment of revelation about how their actions were perceived, apologizes, takes a step back, and the relationship only continues when the barista chooses to reach out again on their own terms.
AB: Are these stories driven by a utopian impulse? How do more “realistic” fics within this genre then change our understanding of what the Coffee Shop AU means?
KM: There is indeed a strong utopian element to the Coffee Shop AU, one that has been challenged in recent years as many fans call for a more realistic approach. Significantly though, this change doesn’t seem to be undermining the wish-fulfillment aspect of the genre. Traditionally, the Coffee Shop AU imagines up a world where, even if things aren’t perfect, they’re able to become perfect in a relatively short period of time. Characters aren’t worried about homophobia, only whether this individual happens to like them. Soon, they’re not worried about whether their interest is reciprocated, but only how they can respond to that interest in a way that doesn’t make them look like a total fool. By the time a couple thousand words have passed, this character has overcome these comparatively small hurdles and experiences an ending that confirms only that they are, here and now, exceedingly happy. The Coffee Shop AU’s utopia stems largely from ignoring the conflicts that crop up in other stories and in the real world—imagining up a future where only those small hurdles still remain—but chipping away at that utopia, paradoxically, can be more reassuring. Much like this new blend of the Coffee Shop AU with Quarantine Fics, including some of those deeper challenges, like homophobia, while crucially still providing that happy ending, acts as a reassurance for queer writers and readers. Queer fans are no longer simply escaping their reality, but crafting fictional scenarios in which they’re able to overcome it. By eliminating some of those utopian aspects, writers allow their work to function more as a prize we can all work towards, rather than a pipe dream. It’s no longer a matter of simply providing that escapism for the queer community, but rather using fiction as a means of mapping out real possibilities for the future. Really, what’s so strange about wanting public, age-appropriate, community-based, queer friendly places where people can meet and even fall in love without fear of repercussion? That’s not a pipe dream at all and the change to the Coffee Shop AU’s utopian framing acknowledges that it never should have been treated as one in the first place.
Anushka Bidani is a poet & essayist from India.