Have you ever wished that a favorite book or movie didn’t have to end? Ever dreamed up alternate plots for your favorite characters to experience? Have you wondered “What if this had happened instead?” If you answered yes to any of these, you’re not alone. The fanfiction community is a group dedicated to the ‘what ifs.’ People write stories using the characters and settings of their favorite authors, called fanfiction. There has been a prolific fanfiction community for decades. With the development of fan websites, this community moved onto the internet, where it has become a topic of some debate: is fanfiction a good or bad thing?
I can’t answer that question, and I’m not going to try. Instead, in this paper I will discuss fanfiction as a discourse community and examine the existing research and popular opinions on fanfiction, before moving on to my own research into the interactions between the community members. These interactions can mean the difference between confidence and insecurity, and can heavily influence the direction a story takes. Fanfiction authorship is inherently collaborative in a way that is unlike traditional writing.
So, I’ll let you decide: fanfiction. Good? Or bad?
As defined by John Swales, “six defining characteristics [are] necessary and sufficient for identifying a group of individuals as a discourse community” (220). The first characteristic, a set of goals, is necessary to provide a basis for discussion. Secondly, members of a discourse community must be able to communicate with one another. There is no community if members do not or cannot interact. This communication must also be primarily a method of sharing information or feedback; this is the third characteristic. Swales’ fourth characteristic is that a discourse community must have at least one genre of communication, such as magazines or letters. The fifth characteristic is possession of a specific lexis of terms exclusive or mostly exclusive to the community. This lexis can be abbreviations or acronyms which mean absolutely nothing to the outsider, or it can be connotations associated with certain words which an outsider wouldn’t have. Lastly, a discourse community must have a reasonable balance between beginners and experts (220-221).
FANFICTION AS A DISCOURSE COMMUNITY
Fanfiction readers and writers fill all of the categories of a discourse community. This online community works together both to improve the writing skills of its members, and to create engaging, entertaining stories for public consumption. The rules are basic: use proper grammar, and be accepting of others’ ideas. Members interact through online forums such as fanfiction.net or archiveofourown.org, colloquially called FFN and AO3, respectively. Members communicate primarily to offer criticisms and encouragements to the authors, by reviewing the stories. There are many terms, abbreviations, and phrases which have specific meaning for members of the fanfiction community but which mean nothing to outsiders, fulfilling the lexis requirement. The fanfiction community is constantly in flux, new readers or writers constantly entering while the old leave. It is, however, the communication, and the ways that it affects various writers, that I intend to investigate in this paper. I will look at the ways that the fanfiction community uses feedback to affect their writing.
FANFICTION: AN OVERVIEW
Fanfiction is a subject of much contention. Some consider it unimaginative, poorly written plagiarism, while others see it as a harmless pastime or even as a tribute to the authors of the original works. Academically, fanfiction is often viewed with an educational lens. In popular culture, however, fanfiction enthusiasts are generally seen as weird and geeky.
FANFICTION IN ACADEMIA
Fanfiction is not a new community. Academics have been investigating this phenomenon for years, and much of their investigation has come from personal experience. Henry Jenkins, author of Textual Poachers, a book which many consider the pioneering study of fan culture, personally admits to being a fan, and to participating in the community he investigates. Many other researchers have investigated fanfiction as a way to engage students in writing. These authors include Rebecca Black, who presents fanfiction as a method to help English Language Learners (ELLs) become more confident in their English knowledge. According to Black, fanfiction communities can act as a sort of bridge, wherein the expertise that ELLs have regarding their home makes them an invaluable resource for writers who wish to be accurate in their depictions. This naturally eventually lets them develop a support base, so that when the ELL begins writing their own works they are surrounded by encouragement. Elizabeth Burns and Carlie Webber frame fanfiction as the perfect way to encourage young writers. According to Burns and Webber, “fanfiction helps develop reading and writing skills” by engaging the imaginations of young writers and by allowing developing writers to focus on elements of writing other than world building or character development.
This is all well and good, but not everyone believes that fanfiction is beneficial. Brett Jenkins argues that fanfiction makes characters immortal, that they never stop changing. This immortality then makes those same characters lose all meaning, because they are no longer defined by the choices they made in the canon. They can, effectively, choose to do everything. If choices are what define us, and characters in fanfiction effectively make no choices, then characters in fanfiction are not defined. They are “meaningless.” In the rudimentary research I have done, there is a lack of interest in the review process. Reviews are discussed as simple, when in truth they are anything but. There is also a lack of awareness of the effect a bad review can have. They seem to simply assume that the community will be welcoming and kind to new members. While this is often the case, the community is not an online utopia, and some people are simply mean. I will investigate the more varied effects reviews can have.
FANFICTION IN POPULAR CULTURE
Interestingly enough, the reaction to fanfiction in everyday life tends to be more negative. Just from my own personal experience, fanfiction is often looked down upon for “not being real books,” or for being “bad writing and bad grammar” by people who have never investigated this community for themselves. This opinion stems, at least partly, from a lingering association with nerdy or geeky culture combined with inaccurate impressions of fanfiction as the delusions of pre-teen girls. Unfortunately, this stigma is not entirely untrue. Pre-teen girls do write fanfiction, and a lot of fanfiction is bad writing or plain delusional. As Theodore Sturgeon once said, “Ninety percent of everything is crap,” and fanfiction is no different. But fanfiction can also be amazing. There are some works that are arguably better than the original. Others explore controversial or deeply meaningful concepts such as gay rights, PTSD, abuse, BDSM, and cancer. Some of fanfiction is bad, but a lot of it is stunningly beautiful. Despite the negative associations surrounding fanfiction, this is a thriving community of members who, by and large, are not ashamed of their hobby. Published authors are not afraid to admit that they once wrote fanfiction, or even that they still do (Romano). Fanfiction communities exist on mainstream websites such as tumblr, livejournal and Reddit. Fanfiction is prolific, and yet strangely marginalized.
FANFICTION INTERACTION: READING AND REVIEWING
A major staple of the online fanfiction community is the ability to review. On every site that I’ve visited, there has been some method for readers of a particular work to critique the writing or to offer encouragement. Previous studies have cited reviews as an excellent bridge into the community and as a helpful resource for the aspiring writer (Black; Burns and Webber). While I do not think that any of these previous researchers are wrong, I think that they have not considered all of the effects reviews can have on a new writer.
In this paper, I will examine the relationships between reviewers and writers. I will show how reviews can mean the difference between confidence and insecurity in a new writer, and why educators seeking to use fanfiction to encourage their students should be exceedingly careful. I will also look at the different ways that members of the fanfiction community use reviews to influence and direct their writing.
DATA AND RESEARCH
I used a variety of methods to collect the data presented in this paper. Primarily, I interviewed members of the online community of Reddit who also profess an interest in reading and writing fanfiction. I also chose several works from the community to serve as examples. Lastly, I used my own experiences as a five-year member of the community to support my arguments.
REVIEWS AND NEW COMMUNITY MEMBERS
Black states that “fans who do not feel confident enough in their English or writing abilities to compose and post fictions are still able to meaningfully participate within the fan community.” They can do this by posting reviews, which can be a simple as a quick “This is great, keep writing!” or as complex as a critique of the authenticity of the cultures being depicted within the fic (Black). These reviews allow members “who have not authored any stories to still construct themselves as legitimate fans…, interact with other members, and create a social base to support them when they do begin to author and post fictions” (Black). This is all true, but presents an idealized picture of the fanfiction community. Even just reviewing the first time can be daunting, especially for someone who might not have as great a grasp of English mechanics as others. Putting words out on the internet, even something so small and mostly inconsequential, can be terrifying. If the response is not positive, it can put a newcomer off of reviewing for years. As an example, the first time I ever reviewed anything, I believed that I was correcting a spelling error in a character name. I will admit that I was wrong and the author was right. But the author, instead of simply saying “actually, this is how it’s supposed to be spelled, here are some places it occurs” went off on a rant about how one of my favorite TV shows was entirely wrong, in the process proving that he didn’t actually know very much about the show itself, and making me feel like an idiot. I didn’t review again for over two years. So it is apparent that reviewing isn’t always an effective community builder. Since writing that first, disastrous, review, I’ve reviewed several other works, and never had a similar experience, but that first foray into participating in this community shattered any confidence I’d had in my own expertise.
Reviews are not only, or even often, used to correct spelling mistakes. Grace644 said “I think in the beginning I let them determine my worth as a writer.” This is often true. New writers need to be handled with kid gloves. They should be told that the work they are creating is good. The fanfiction community is usually kind and welcoming, but it is the internet. There can be no guarantees. Additionally, a lack of reviews can be just as devastating for a new author’s confidence as a single bad one. An author that gets reviews wants to keep writing, because people are interested in what they have to say. An author that doesn’t get reviews loses motivation, because no one cares. Unfortunately, it takes time and significant effort to build up the kind of network that would see someone getting reviews on their first attempt at writing. For inexperienced members of the community, a lack of response can be so discouraging that they don’t write again.
This lack of reviews for new members of the community is created by several factors. First, not everybody reviews. One author revealed that she only gets a review from about 1 in 10 readers. Another author, seeing this statistic, was incredulous and responded with “Wow, you see 1 in 10 readers leaving a review? For me it is closer to 1 in 100.” Despite the community’s professed interest in improving writing skills, many readers are ‘lurkers’- people who observe the community, but never really participate. The second factor contributing to a lack of reviews is the sheer size of the community. As of November 2015, Fanfiction.net, which probably constitutes the largest single fanfiction archive on the internet, has over 729,000 fanfictions for J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series alone. This is up from the October quantity of 727,000. There are hundreds of new pieces posted every day, and many of them will rarely get read. For a newcomer without a support base, this is again disheartening.
New members of the fanfiction community can find it difficult or intimidating to establish a support base for their writing. The lack of this support, unfortunately, can contribute to a loss of confidence in the new member’s writing abilities. Therefore, educators seeking to use fanfiction as a motivational tool should be extremely careful how they go about it.
ESTABLISHED AUTHORS: HOW REVIEWS AFFECT WRITING
Reviews, of course, don’t only affect inexperienced writers. They can have just as great an impact on experienced, confident authors. Reviews tend to have two effects on established authors. They motivate, and they inspire.
One author, when asked how he uses reviews, stated, “I use them to gauge interest. If I get no reviews, I assume no one cares.” This is a fairly accurate description of the effect reviews can have on any author. Even an author who is confident in their writing can be discouraged by a lack of reviews. As an example, one author on fanfiction.net stopped writing for a year due to a combination of no interest and a young family. The lack of interest made him unwilling to expend the effort required to write when he had children to raise. Unfortunately, his is not an isolated tale. There are thousands of abandoned stories on the internet.
Sometimes, however, reviews have the opposite effect. It is not uncommon for authors to admit that they continued a piece only because of the response it got. Often, works intended to be only one chapter long become epic sagas consisting of tens of thousands of words, simply because people liked what the author was writing.
Axel Bruns coined the term ‘produsage’ to describe a modern phenomenon. Unlike traditional models of product development and creation, recently there has often been little distinction between the producer and consumer. Large groups of consumers use the internet to collaborate on product ideas and details, many of them suggesting only small changes, if they suggest a change at all. The end product has no single designer. It was ‘prodused.’
Fanfiction is, by its very nature, prodused, but some fanfiction is more prodused than others. Reviewers often get to critique the work as it is being written. They can post ideas, thoughts, opinions and more in comments which the author will read. Rcobleigh says “I feel like I've generated maybe 75% of the ideas for the fic: the rest have come from readers.” They describe how reviewers often ask pointed questions which lead to whole chapters, or inspire a scene through a “joking aside.” Perhaps the most evident example of reviewer-led writing is by the author Ozhawk, who polled their followers while writing The Crackship Armada. This work is a collection of meet-cute moments between various members of the Marvel universe. Each chapter is devoted to a different relationship, and many are utterly ridiculous. The author used the input of reviewers to determine what relationships to write, whether to continue any of the stories past the initial meet-cute moment, and whether to continue the collection at all. This fanfiction wouldn’t have existed at all if it weren’t for the input of Ozhawk’s readers.
The Crackship Armada is something of an extreme example, but most fanfictions are a collaborative effort. Unlike the traditional methods of writing fiction, a single fanfiction might be influence by hundreds of opinions on what is happening, the quality of the writing, or the portrayal of the characters. This only happens because the fanfiction community is online, and therefore accessible to anybody who cares to go looking.
In conclusion, fanfiction readers should review. They should attempt to be constructive and kind, and share their interest in the story. Reviews are important, and the depressingly low number of readers who do review is discouraging to the writers of the community. The community has established and efficient methods of communication but does not use them as much or as effectively as they should.
A more in-depth investigation into fanfiction could yield interesting results. Each fan community is different, and these differences can and should be investigated. As a whole, fanfiction is an extensive community. There are millions, possibly even billions of works online, and people write more every day. The existing research on fanfiction focuses on its uses as an educational tool, and on the inherent ‘meaning’ in the characters it portrays. These researchers have neglected to acknowledge the negative aspects of the fanfiction community. There is also depressingly little writing on fanfiction as a collaborative literary phenomenon. This paper has attempted to fill a part of that gap. This paper has demonstrated how the interaction between members of this community can be damaging to the confidence of its members. It has also shown how the unique relationship between author and audience influences and even directs the stories being written. It is my hope that this essay has accurately depicted such a unique and fascinating online community.
Black, Rebecca. "Access and affiliation: the literacy and composition practices of English-language learners in an online fanfiction community." Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy (2005): 118.
Bruns, Axel. Blogs, Wikipedia, Second life, and Beyond: from production to produsage. New York: Peter Lang, 2008.
Burns, Elizabeth and Carlie Webber. "When Harry Met Bella." School Library Journal (2009): 26-29.
Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 2013.
Romano, Aja. The Daily Dot. 16 January 2014. 11 November 2016.
Swales, John. "The Concept of Discourse Community." Wardle, Elizabeth and Doug Downs. Writing About Writing. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2014. 215-229.
The complete text of the responses to my interview is available here