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Събота, 16 Март 2013 00:00

Literature Online: The Subversive Practices of Fan Fiction

Dessislava Lilova
Abstract: The article explores the effects of convergence culture (H. Jenkins) on the system of literary production and consumption. The study is focused on fanfiction culture with a special accent on Harry Potter fandom. The analysis investigates several areas where the creative practices of amateur writers challenge and subvert the corporate and state control over literary production: copyright vs. nonprofit literature, transformative work vs. plagiarism, literature vs. visual arts, author vs. audience, writer vs. reader, classical vs. popular literature, canon vs. fanon.

 

What happens to literature on the Internet? What changes occur to the author, the literary work, and the reader, under the influence of the emerging “hybrid media ecology” (Benkler 2006) – an environment in which professionals and amateurs, companies and consumers, states, non-governmental organizations and informal groups interact in an ever more complex way? As Henry Jenkins remarks (Jenkins 2006), it has to do with the “convergence culture” in which every participant assumes a new power and is transformed in the process of exercising this new power. The production and consumption of literature is part of the same process, and it would be ill-founded to suggest that reading and writing fiction texts follows different rules. The question is what are the follow-up changes.

It is difficult to give an unambiguous answer since technology is ideologically neutral and intensifies the power of whoever wishes to make use of it. The effect equally concerns the audience, passive until recently, and the old centers of control over the cultural production, namely the market and the state. Lev Manovich (Manovich 2001) describes those relations as a “remix culture” in which users create content simultaneously inside and outside commercial context. For that reason they simultaneously sustain and undermine corporate control.

Fan fiction as a transformative work

The fan fiction phenomenon seems to emerge as an outcome of the inclusion of literature into this new regime of convergence power. The term is coined on the Internet and refers to fiction texts based on motifs borrowed from original works of literature, cinema, television and comics. Their authors are amateurs and use characters conceived by professionals in devising their own storyline, which normally bears only a far-off resemblance to the original.

Using someone else’s work for creating a literary story of one’s own preordains the precarious proximity between fan fiction and plagiarism. The key differences are two: first, the fan fiction author explicitly specifies the original source which is used and transformed, and secondly, he officially declares that he is not making profit out of his work. Both statements are made at the beginning of the text in the so called “disclaimer” section – a law term meaning a legally binding renunciation of one’s rights.

No website would publish fan fiction without such a disclaimer since otherwise the holder of the copyrights of the original might take legal action against the website. Some professional writers (such as, for example, Anne Rice, author of vampire bestsellers) officially object to the production of amateur texts based on their novels. Their veto has a dubious legal basis because of the unsettled copyright status of many Internet cases but web site owners would rather not have to go to court and prefer to simply remove the works based on the forbidden sources from their archives.

It is noteworthy however that among fan fiction communities plagiarism is considered a most serious crime. Sensitivity on the issue is remarkably high, which explains the well-developed system of self-regulation. If found out that plot elements  or quotes from someone’s original are used without explicit acknowledgement, the plagiarizing author is immediately denounced, publicly castigated and forever expelled from the community. The determination to differentiate fan fiction from plagiarism is deliberately cultivated and ideologized. No wonder that the term by which the genre is defined within the community is “transformative work”. [1] The historical figure for the fans to look up to is no other but William Shakespeare, as it is well known that the greatest literary classic borrowed many characters and plots from works by other authors.

Literature as a Hybrid

The question that comes up next is what works are subjected to fan fiction transformations. What is remarkable here is that literature is merely one among many options. Fan fiction may be based on practically anything. The extremely broad range of sources is seen in the structure of FanFiction.Net – the largest fan fiction web portal with more than two million texts in 36 languages (including Latin and Esperanto), arranged in 9 sections: anime, books, movies, TV shows, theater plays, computer games, cartoons, comics, and miscellaneous. Each section contains a list of some 700 to 900 original works serving as a point of inspiration for fan authors to exercise their imagination. The most popular primary source for fan fiction writing appears to be the anime culture (1 264 580 texts), followed by literature (736 242 texts), television (588 004 texts), and movies (153 964 texts).

 

 

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Fig. 1. A typological ranking of works used as primary sources in fan fiction writing. (Source:
FanFiction.Net, December 2010)

On the one hand, this ranking corroborates the long established fact that literature is not a priority in the cultural consumption of the Internet generation. Obviously, it is no accident that works of pronounced visual character – comics, movies, TV serials, theater plays, computer games, music videos – come to be preferred as a point of departure. It is true indeed that literature takes the honorary second place as a source of artistic imagination, thus in terms of popularity getting well ahead even of television – the cheapest and most popular type of cultural production. But if compared to the overall number of texts in the “visual” sections literature-based fan fiction seems marginal rather than representative.

On the other hand, however, this is not a good enough indication that the Internet generation is losing interest in literature. The relevant evidence here is a different one, namely the spontaneous selforganization of millions of amateurs in a network for production and consumption of literary works. This means that the cybergeneration not only and not simply continues to read. It transforms into literature whatever was meant for visual perception. It goes the other way around too – literary works are transformed with ease and delight into movies, videos, drawings, photos, or theatrical forms such as LARP (Live Action Role Play). In other words, fan fiction communities do not take literature as an autonomous phenomenon, although they themselves are consolidated precisely through the production of literary texts. In the new “remix culture” literature functions as a hybrid integrating visual and musical art forms and it is owing to this very condition that it keeps and even strengthens its position.

The literary work as a never-ending story

The symbiosis with cinema, television, computer games, popular music and comics is not the single change taking place in literature under the influence of the shifting media ecology. Similarly, convergence transforms the classic trio of author, work and reader, as well. In practice it becomes harder and harder to draw a rigid line between author and public, or to define the beginning and the end of a work. What, for instance, are we supposed to understand by A Midsummer Night’s Dream or by Harry Potter? What is written in the book? What we see in the cinema? Or what is created on the Internet? The common logic yields priority to the literary original, since the screen version and the fan fiction work are only interpretations. The thing is that the new mode of cultural consumption does not always respect this normative hierarchy.

A growing part of the “new youth” gets to know the classics in both high and popular literature not from the books but from the big screen. Naturally, these consumers may be well aware of the fact that the film has a literary original. It does not mean though that they understand the differences between the book and its screen adaptation. Moreover, it remains uncertain whether they realize that such differences exist and they are significant. The practice shows that the viewers of movies based on literary works do not come out of the theater with the intention of going to the bookstore and buying the novel. For most people that would mean reading a book that they have already “read”. From this point of view it would be inaccurate to say that the screen version simply makes the literary original more popular. In fact, it rather replaces it.

Once the consumption of the already hybrid work shifts to the virtual realm, things become even more complicated. One could say that fan fiction communities are made up of expert readers. They are avid lovers of a certain work and know everything about it – they have an equally good knowledge both of the original and its screen adaptations, they have an opinion on the differences between them, they analyze and discuss them. This however does not imply a conservative trust in the traditional hierarchy between the author and his/her readers, or between the original and its interpretations. Quite the opposite, from the point of view of this audience the work does not reach its end with the last page of the book, nor yet with the last scene of the movie, but migrates to the virtual world of fandom instead. Here, it continues to evolve as a kind of a never-ending story which keeps constantly rewriting the offline text.

Thus what is understood by the concept of original work is no longer a text, but an imaginary world. The idea for its creation belongs to an author who is worshipped by the fan fiction communities. Nonetheless, they don’t assume that the imaginary world belongs to its creator. In their view it belongs to anyone who would like to move in there, in other words – to its fans. They, in turn, are granted the opportunity and the right to explore it in directions not treaded by the author, and to change it in ways unforeseen by the author.

In many ways this is an anti-normative behavior and the law-keepers uncompromisingly impose sanctions against the fans for being “frighteningly out of control, undisciplined and unrepentant, rogue readers” (Jenkins 1988: 86). The moral issue at stake here is that it is not the fan fiction communities who came up with the notion of the literary work as a world created by one, yet belonging to all, and for that reason permitting radical changes. The sustainable symbiosis between literature and other arts in the form of musical, theatrical, TV and screen adaptations and/or remakes has had a key role in this. It is true that here the authors are professionals working under institutional control. But to some extent or another they always change the literary original and in this sense the results of their labor are typologically similar to the “transformative works” of the amateurs on the Internet. The phenomenon of the TV serials is yet another catalyzing factor. With the arrival of television the serial established itself as the primary form of cultural production, and hence the notion of the work as a “never-ending story” became normative. From this point of view the “textual poaching” (Jenkins 1992) committed by the fans on the Internet has not invented, it has only democratized the already existing practices. In other words, the new technology enables millions of amateurs to do what until then has been accessible to professionals only.

Canon as fanon

The obliteration of the distinction between writer and reader puts yet another issue on the agenda: what is the relation of fan fiction to the literary canon? The answer is not an easy one. On the one hand, there are many fan fiction texts based on classical works. On the other hand, it would be an overstatement to argue that they are representative of the genre. In nearly all categories found in the FanFiction.Net website there are works which would qualify as high culture. None of them, however, ranks at the top of the list. In the “Literature” section, for example, the most popular work prompting the authors to exercise their imagination is the novel Harry Potter (430 709 texts). The front-runner in the “Anime” section is the comic Naruto (215 424 texts), in the “Television” section – the serial Buffy the Vampire Slayer (37 279 texts), and in “Movies” – the cosmic saga Star Wars (22 986 texts).

 

 

класация fanfiction 2

Fig. 2. The top four works on which fan fiction texts are based (Source: FanFiction.Net, December 2010).

There is an obvious predilection for popular culture, but this alone does not mean that fans take no interest in the literary classics. On the contrary, amateur writers are inspired by a plethora of representatives of the canon, such as Homer, William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Victor Hugo. It is hard to name a single work by these authors which has not been subjected to transformations. Certain works by other classical writers also enjoy special attention – for instance, Metamorphoses by Ovid, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Tess of the d\'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre, Tender is the Night by Scott Fitzgerald, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut.

The list is far from exhaustive, but even so it provides a convincing proof that an interest in popular culture is not incompatible with an interest in literary classics. This finding is further corroborated by the wide-spread use of quotations from classics in fan fiction texts based on popular culture. The fans of Harry Potter are particularly resourceful in this regard. In one story, for instance, the young magician Draco is teasing his girlfriend with a quote by Milan Kundera: “You are such a prude Granger. If you were wound any tighter you\'d snap. Soul of a taut string.” (wonderwall05 2006). In another fan fiction work the same teenage character turns to a quote by Charles Bukowski in order to console his sweetheart: “Granger, some people NEVER go crazy. Just think about what truly horrible lives they must lead.” (drcjsnider 2007). In yet another story the emotional state of the characters from Harry Potter is illustrated through a quote by Anton Chekhov: “Perhaps the feelings that we experience when we are in love represent a normal state. Being in love shows a person who he should be.” (SiriuslyPadfoot’sGal 2007).

How are we to interpret these results? In the first place, they clearly show that even in a domain of popular culture such as fan fiction, canon has not been dismissed. On the contrary, it is actively present in various forms and leaves no doubt that the fans of Harry Potter, Naruto, Buffy and Darth Vader still read Homer and Shakespeare, still like them and still need them. The fact that the classics are less frequently subjected to direct transformations speaks for the respect fans hold for their high symbolic status, rather than for the lack of interest in them.

On the other hand, one can’t fail to notice that as rich as the list of classics in fan fiction is, it is nevertheless selective. It does not include all the works recognized as world cultural heritage and included in the so called “literary canon”. From this point of view the list made by the fans is an alternative one. I’m tempted to refer to it by the term “fanon”. In the fan fiction jargon this is a fully legitimate term, but it is used in a different sense. What is understood by “canon” here is the imaginary world created by a professional writer in his/her work, whereas “fanon” refers to the departures from this norm in the worlds born out of the fantasies of the fans (The Fanfiction Glossary 2007). Anyway, the term is coined deliberately with the explicit idea of alternativity to the official culture, and thus pertains to the way literary classics are treated.

What is more, with the very invention of fanon the subculture of fan fiction finds itself in the epicenter of the big debate on the validity of canon. As it is known, the list of works by the so called “dead white males” has long been subjected to criticism by the left-wing, feminist and postcolonial scholars. This “triple coalition” is important since the ideological platform of fan fiction communities is to a large extent based on the same premises. This kind of literature is mostly written by women, which in turn predetermines the marked interest shown for the issues of gender. The voice of minorities, multiculturalism and the politics of difference are common topics for discussion both in the forums and in the fan fiction works themselves. [2] The absolute freedom of speech is declared a fundamental value and it needs to be pointed out that the battles waged on that front are a real part of fandom life, the reason being the censorship imposed by the conservatives in the net against the use of children books in transformative works which are not considered “edifying” for the underage. The leftist leaning of the fan fiction communities is gaining further ground as a result of their constant encounter with the copyright problem which motivates a critical attitude towards the market-driven rules for production and consumption of literature.

On the other hand, however, the principle according to which the crusade against canon is undertaken differs radically from the politics of the academically established ideologies. The subversive practices of the amateur writers are not targeted at the official public sphere and its institutions – for example, the list of sacral works studied in school or the criteria for awarding the Nobel Prize in literature. Fans do not question the right of both the state and the market to produce norms. They do however keep their right to validate or reject these norms by asserting publicly their predilections and by congregating themselves in a network which in turn legitimates the social significance of their literary tastes.

Millions of volunteers are mobilized in this revision of the canon, which yields results in the parallel public sphere of Internet each and every day. Fanon is being constructed on the move here, and it rests only with the will of the fans to demonstrate their love for a certain work by moving over to its world and transforming it into a work of their own. There are no preset rules here to determine which work is fitting for the purpose. The kings of classics and the kings of fantasy are equally eligible. This is a vote endorsed by an active act which combines reading and writing at the same time. Casting it may be unsettling for the custodians of morality and copyright but in my opinion it deserves respect for bringing constantly up to date a list of works truly loved by the “people formerly known as the audience” (Rosen 2006).

 

 

Dessislava Lilova holds a PhD in Philology. Her research interests are in the fields of nationalism and national identity, imagined geographies, popular culture.

 

Bibliography

Benkler, Yochai. 2006. The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. New Haven: Yale University Press. [07.01.2011].

Drcjsnider. 2007. \"Laid\". [15.01.2011].

Jenkins, Henry. 1988. “Star Trek” rerun, reread, rewritten: Fan writing as textual poaching. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 5: 85-107.

Jenkins, Henry. 1992. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge.

Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.

Manovich, Lev. 2001. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Organization for Transformative Works 2007. \"What We Believe\". [10.01.2011].

Rosen, Jay. 2006. \"The People Formerly Known as the Audience\". [07.01.2011].

SiriuslyPadfoot’sGal 2007. \"We Happy Few\". [15.01.2011].

The Fanfiction Glossary. 2007. [10.01.2011].

wonderwall05. 2006. \"Desperation\". [15.01 2011].

 
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[1]  A detailed definition of this term is found in the manifesto of the Organization for Transformative Works – the ideological center of the fan fiction communities on the Internet (Organization for Transformative Works 2007).

[2]  One of the most consistent accounts of the ideological foundations of fan fiction is published on the website of the Organization for Transformative Works (Organization for Transformative Works 2007).

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