Manifesto: write something your passionate about relating to new media.
Originally written October 25, 2011 for Media Histories university topic.
While fan culture and notions of “fandom” are certainly not new ideas when one considers Star Trek and the fan ‘zines that were released in the 60s, the Internet has certainly made it a much larger phenomenon, with thousands of online communities or “fandoms” available for users to take part in. What aspect of fan culture I would like to focus on in this manifesto is fan fiction. The Internet is home to millions of stories written by fans about different media; be it film, television, books or video games. FanFiction.Net, the Internet’s largest archive — although certainly not its only one — is home to two million of these stories. They range from short stories to full-length novels, and are about anything. Some follow the canon of the media, others take place in alternate universes, and some are even crossovers with other media.
According to Lev Grossman, fan fiction is ‘the cultural equivalent of dark matter: it’s largely invisible to the main stream, but at the same time, it’s unbelievably massive’ (1). What he means, essentially, is that writers of fan fiction are quiet. They write in their own time, at night or on the weekends, in between the routines of their “regular” lives. They don’t get paid for it; they do it solely for the pleasure of writing about something they love. ‘Fan fiction is what literature might look like if it were reinvented from scratch after a nuclear apocalypse by a band of brilliant pop-culture junkies trapped in a sealed bunker’ (Grossman 1). It is opinions like this which have caused writers of fan fiction to wish to remain invisible to the outside world. Social stigma surrounds it, triggered by assumptions of what fan fiction is, and by extension, what the people who write it are like.
The most common assumption people make about fan fiction is that it is only a step away from pornography; although in which direction that step is depends mostly on how you feel about porn. This perception is so pervasive that many of the people Grossman interviewed for his article refused to be identified by their real names (2). While sex is certainly a large part of the fan fiction culture (in fact, Grossman adds that you’d be amazed how many alien plants produce pollen with aphrodisiac properties), it is not necessarily its main aspect. Fan fiction is about exceeding limitations. It’s about crossing the boundaries that the original either couldn’t or wouldn’t. For example, Star Trek fan fiction brought to light hidden subtexts that the show could not address directly. While this certainly started a trend for future fanfic writers, the sex is meant as more of a “bonus” or “fan service” (which is a common practice in film and TV as well), rather than as its sole purpose.
Another assumption that needs to be debunked is that fan fiction is nothing more than plagiarism. As mentioned in the above paragraph, fan fiction pushes the boundaries of the original. It fills the gaps between scenes, chapters, episodes, etc. It’s not done for profit. As a writer myself, it seems perfectly natural to want to expand upon the worlds and creations of other people. It’s not about plagiarising characters or ideas; it’s about using your creativity to explore something you love, about fleshing out all the possibilities. Fan fiction is ‘joyful play,’ as Naomi Novak explains. ‘Any kind of writing looks like work to [non-writers], so they get confused as to why anyone would want to write fanfic instead of original professional material’ (2). I would argue that it is human nature to push at the boundaries of stories, to want to know what happens next or what happened between scenes, so why can’t we use our creativity to determine what those missing parts were?
While some authors, such as Stephenie Meyer and J.K. Rowling, have given their blessing to their fans to write fan fiction, others find it deeply offensive. Not only do they consider it a violation of their copyrights, but also a violation of their emotional claim to their own creations. For example, author Robin Hobb once wrote a rant regarding her dislike of fan fiction on her website. She argues several points, including infringement on copyright, and feeling as though it’s a criticism of her creative decisions. While we cannot control how authors feel personally, what must be considered is Roland Barthes’ theory regarding the ‘death of the author.’ Essentially, Barthes believes that readers are creators just as much as authors are. While he admits that the ‘sway of the Author remains powerful’ (221), popular characters, be they from film, television, comic books, video games, or some other medium, no longer belong solely to their original creators. Authors cannot control the reception of their works past a certain point. They exist in the public consciousness, taking on a life of their own as they pass into general circulation.
Since the development of the Internet and the Web 2.0, media audiences have changed drastically as well, shifting from simply passively viewing to actively participating in mass media and culture. The ‘readers’ Barthes talks about can be seen in this light. They are certainly not the ‘silent, couch bound consumers of media from the past’ (Grossman 1). Instead, they use fan fiction as a way to ‘tall back’ to popular culture. It’s homage; it’s a way for writers to express their love for and fascination with their fandom. No one seems to mind when musicians strum other musicians’ songs on their instruments either as covers or in “jam” sessions, so what is the difference between that and writing fan fiction?
Reading and writing fan fiction has developed into something akin to a shameful secret or guilty pleasure. It’s seen as taking the notions of fandom to the extreme; as obsession. People are afraid to admit to reading it to their friends and colleagues. But why should they have to stifle their creativity? This stigma should not exist. Fandom is about passion, it’s about groups of people sharing their love for something, and fan fiction is simply one form of expression of that love. Yes, there are poorly written fanfics out there that involve too much sex or unbelievable plots, but these mistakes are not exclusive to fan fiction. More importantly, both readers and writers of fan fiction are intelligent, normal people. They don’t live in their parents’ basements or in ‘sealed bunkers.’ They are not obsessed; they have lives outside of their fandoms, and they are among you. I should know; I’m one of them.
Barthes, Roland, ‘The Death of the Author,’ David Finkelstein & Alistair McCleery (ads.), The Book History Reader, London: Routledge 2002, p. 221–224
Grossman, Lev, ‘The Boy Who Lived Forever,’ Time Entertainment, pub. July 07, 2011, acc. October 17, 2011. Link.
Cobb, Robin, The Fan Fiction Rant (Way Back Machine), Acc. October 24, 2011. Link.