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2002-04-05 - 11:58 a.m.
The following paper was presented at a Western Australian Science Fiction Conference in 2001. I've posted a condensed version here because, as a fanfic writer, I found the emphasis on creativity in the responses to be interesting.
Even condensed it's still pretty long. Bear with me won't you?
Coming Out as a Fanfiction Writer
My experiences in fanfiction started from browsing the Internet for information about my favourite show which was, at the time, "Xena: Warrior Princess." I found fansites, interviews, reviews, FAQs, pictures etc but I also found fanfiction. I think my reaction was quite normal. I thought "How dumb. Writing stories about a TV show."
I've since written about twenty completed stories of varying lengths and branched out into other fandoms and fanfiction communities which include the X-Files and the West Wing.
As I got to know other writers I found that many wrote "in the dark" or in secret. I found that there was an acceptance of this - an expectation that one does not speak of their hobby off line. I also noticed that many writers used pseudonyms and spoke of RL, as a separate and oppositional existence. For example "I've been trying to finish the last chapter of this fic but RL keeps getting in the way."
The very notion of a 'real life' indicates an 'unreal life'. In the same way students often speak of post university life as being the 'real world', which somehow devalues the hardships, struggles and pains they endure in tertiary education as being nothing compared to what they will experience afterward. The 'real world' is the valid one. The 'unreal' is the frivolous, inauthentic experience.
This suggested to me that writers had some expectation of the way in which Real Life people would judge them based on their own notions of what fanfiction writers are.
Similarly, I found that we have a somewhat ironic situation where fanfiction writers fear narrow and ill informed judgment of their work and themselves, because of a prevalent discourse of negativity surrounding fanfiction that they perpetuate themselves.
My aim is to illustrate that fanfiction writers feel marginalized and misunderstood due to a perceived notion of themselves in the eyes of outsiders. A notion that is not only supported by negative stereotypes of fandom and fans in popular culture, but is perpetuated by the explanation of fanfiction as an extension of fandom.
I would then like to offer some empowerment to fanfiction writers by highlighting the diversity and complexity of fanfiction writers. A diversity and complexity that is consistent with other creative pursuits.
I asked fanfiction writers to articulate their thoughts and feelings on fanfiction by completing a questionnaire designed to elicit a lengthy response.
I forwarded this questionnaire to a number of email-groups, some of which are email groups some of which I am a member, centred on either Star Trek or the X-Files.
The e-groups I posted this survey to included two groups focused on a romantic relationship in Star Trek Voyager, two general Star Trek Voyager writers group, two general X-Files writers and groups, and one Star trek slash fiction group. These groups ranged in size from 10 to 100. The potential number or respondents was approximately from the X-Files groups was 135 and the number from the Star Trek groups was 145 although it is difficult to give exact number because many members were members of more than one group in the sample groups.
I did not choose writers for the relative merit of the work or for the type of story they wrote. Some of these writers were quite well known throughout the fanfiction community and some were not. I chose the groups represented because I wished to access a cross-section of fanfiction writers.
I received 37 responses. Mostly from writers in the Star Trek group. The respondents were predominantly female with only two male respondents. Earlier studies have shown this to be a fairly typical indication of the gender break up of fans and fanfiction writers (Penley, Jenkins). The respondents were mostly from the United States. I would say this is indicative of the predominant nationality of fanfiction writers on the web but I do not have an exact study to support this. The age of the respondents was rather neatly and surprisingly spread across the board from 18 - 50 with only one respondent over 50. Under 18-year old writers were asked not to participate in this study as obtaining their parental consent would have been difficult over email. Six respondents were from the slash writers group, however they were not the only writers in the sample group that wrote slash.
In the survey I asked the writers if they showed their work to anyone in 'RL' and if they did, what had been their response. Overwhelmingly, they articulated feelings of fear and hesitation in exposing themselves to a public that would not understand, and might ridicule their efforts as fruitless and obsessive.
Different authors made the following comments.
Only one RL friend knows about and has read my stories. Maybe I'm a little embarrassed to be writing fanfic. I already take a lot of (good-natured) ribbing by family members and friends for my continued interest in Star Trek.
I use a pseudonym and don't tell other people because on several levels of my RL this hobby would not go over well..
I don't show my fic to RL people. Why? They simply would not understand. Only another reader of fanfic or a writer or a real fan of the show can really appreciate or have any idea of what you are on about. Plus, it's kind of embarrassing. At my age, acting like a 14 year old.
most of the time this type of thing is not respected in RL unless the other person is also in the online community.
I found these responses to be quite typical. In fact while some indicated they had shown their work to a close friend or family member who had been supportive, more than half wrote that they would not wish to show it to a public who would not understand and which they feared would judge them negatively.
While respondents agreed that family and close friends had been supportive of their writing, very few respondents indicated they had shown their work to more than a few close friends and /or family and had a positive response.
Different authors wrote
In the beginning, I asked a few of my friends to read what I wrote. The basic response was, "nice writing, but why the hell are you writing about Star Trek, that's like the nerdiest thing."
I have shown one story to a good friend who said "You are such a good writer, shame it?s about Voyager.
my mother would enjoy a few (of my stories), but she'd consider it a waste of my time. (There's a recurring lecture in my family: "You kids could be brilliant if you'd stop filling your heads with that Star Trek junk!") She likes the show, but she certainly wouldn't understand my fascination with fanfic.
Whether the authors have had their fears verified or not, the overall feeling from the respondents is one of marginalisation and a lack of understanding and acceptance in the wider or RL community.
Writing about fans and fandom theorists such as Henry Jenkins and Ien Ang have articulated similar feelings held by fans. Whilst Jenkins indicates negative stereotyping of fans of Star Trek in the media and popular culture, Ang shows Dallas fans being set upon by ?ideologies of mass culture' that do not allow them to enjoy watching Dallas without feeling defensive or apologetic for their pleasure (pp 87 - 115).
This defensiveness and apologia is evident in fanfiction authors - but is this because they are fans and hence inheriting an already narrow perception of themselves via fandom?
It is certainly likely. But I also think it is now necessary to challenge explanations of fanfiction and its connection to fandom.
I say 'now' because the culture of fanfiction has changed dramatically since the days of fanzines and printed fan media.
The Internet has made fanfiction readily and easily available. It also makes anyone who wants to write it an author. A culture of instant feedback has made it a highly gratifying form of creativity which anyone with an ISP can participate in.
The Gossamer archive for X-Files fanfiction (probably the largest fanfiction archive on the internet for a singular show/ movie/ book and probably the largest fanfiction archive next to Fanfiction.net, has approximately 25 000 stories on the archive. Nine thousand of those stories were received in the year 2000 (the archive started in 1994/ 5) The archivists add anywhere from 400 - 900 stories an update and the updates happen about twice a month. At Fanfiction.net there are approximately 11, 000 stories on Harry Potter, most of which appeared in the last two years.
These numbers alone suggest a very different environment to the days of fanzines and snail mailed stories.
Obviously, attempting to break down negative stereotypes of 'fans' and their activities is one way of alleviating the apprehension that writers feel in displaying their work. However, I think that it is a limited assessment of fanfiction that assumes the practice of is a bi-product of a subject's fannish interest.
Writing about fanfiction has caused many popular culture theorists, the most famous examples would perhaps be Henry Jenkins' "Textual Poachers", Constance Penley's "NASA/ Trek" and Camille Bacon-Smith's "Enterprising Women," to speculate on the reasons behind fanfiction. Why do these people write what they write? What do they gain as fans?
This method of enquiry has been taken up by other investigators into the phenomena of fanfiction
Some use these earlier works as an established explanation of fanfiction. For example, in the following excerpt from Sue Hazlett's paper "Fanfiction a Case Study", uses Bacon-Smith's 'genres' as an introduction to the types of fanfiction available on the Internet. She writes;
"Bacon-Smith (1992) lists several well-established genres into which most fan fiction falls. These genres include the despised "Mary-Sue" stories, "lay" stories in which an adult heroine meets and has sex with a fictional hero, and relationship stories, which are similar to lay stories, but based on deep friendship rather than sex. Hurt/comfort stories involve an injury to a protagonist, such as illness, accident, or torture, and comfort given either by another series character or a character developed by the writer. A final genre is "slash".
Similarly, in their article "Creating a Pocket Universe: 'Shippers,' Fan Fiction, and the X-Files online" Christine Scodari and Jenna Felder use an explanation of fanfiction from Jenkins, saying "Since (the shippers) desires are not met in the given text, the online visibility of the mostly female Shippers mushrooms out of proportion to their numbers in the larger audience in accordance with textual poaching's compensatory role". This refers to Jenkins' assumption that fanfiction authors write stories to compensate for their desires not being met in the show. The authors of the piece see fanfiction as the resolution for shippers who are disappointed in their desires to see a Mulder and Scully romance in the series, The X-Files.
Slash writing has attracted particular interest from theorists. Jenkins has suggested slash is 'fandom's most original contribution to the field of popular literature.' Bacon-Smith and Penley discovered that the majority of slash writers were heterosexual women leaving many theorists to scramble for explanations as to why this might be the case.
Jenkins argues that slash is a reaction against repressive and hierarchical male sexuality, and in an article entitled "Private Uses of Cyberspace: Women Desire and Fan Culture", Sharon Cumberland writes that authors of erotic fiction centred on Antonio Banderas on the Internet use Cyberspace to express desire in ways that have been socially prohibited in the past, and which continue to be publicly and generally taboo for women in our society.
In these descriptions of fanfiction, with perhaps Penley as the exception, the phenomena is studied as an aspect of fandom. That is, the writers have made an effort to understand fanfiction in terms of how it can enhance the fan's experience of the original work. The shipper wants to see a relationship in the show that does not occur so she turns to fanfiction to resolve this desire, the slash writer expresses a homoerotic desire or is empowered from a powerless position by addressing sexual desire from a homoerotic perspective, Mary Sue fanfiction is written as a result of a fan's desire to further connect with the object of fan interest.
These explanations resolve the phenomena of fanfiction by seeing it as an extension of a fan's desire to identify with the original work , to turn it into something they want it to be.
I began to question this argument. Respondents to the survey had difficulty articulating their reasons for writing fanfiction. While some answered that their primary reason for writing fanfiction was to see a certain event played out that was non-existent on the show, many indicated that they had encountered fanfiction on the Internet and had simply wished to "give it a go". The following answers from different respondents indicate this:
I came across fanfiction on the Internet, and after careful consideration, I convinced myself that I could write this
The fanfic I found on the web was frequently of such a low quality that I thought I could do better. And, at the simplest level, I thought it was a cool concept.
I was inspired by some excellent fanfic writers. As I read, storylines began occurring to me and I decided to try some stories of my own.
Fanfiction seemed like a good way to experiment with fiction, since I didn't have to create the entire scenario of characters, etc., but simply the story.
While no one reason seemed particularly common, it was interesting to note that a vast majority of the writers emphasized the experimental or exploratory side to their writing. For example and once again from different respondents;
I focus mainly on character relationships, sexual and otherwise. I enjoy experimenting with different pov's,
I try to stretch myself by trying out new ideas, new styles and POV's.
Sometimes the stories (I write) are just about characters and sometimes it's just about trying a particular way of writing. I'm motivated by character interaction, mostly, and dynamics. Of taking an idea for a ride and seeing how it turns out.
You name it, I like to write it'I like to be creative and experiment with different styles,
I wanted to explore what happened between the lines of what we were shown. I wanted to expand on the relationships between the characters
The desire to create and to be imaginative is highlighted here. It suggests active minds looking to be challenged and exercised.
The responses in the slash group were similar. Different respondents answered with the following:
I write what I do because first and foremost I want to see a particular event played out and to be creative.
Basically, it's fun and it's also challenging to write about two women in love.
I love the challenge of a 'drabble' or '169', and occasionally, I try my hand at poetry . As for why I write what I do (slash) a way for me to indulge my fantasies, perhaps ... I'm really not sure.
I read a couple of completely awful f/f slash stories and thought 'I can do better than that'.
Whilst some cited fantasy fulfillment as their reason for writing a particular genre, most spoke of the challenge and the exercise of the imagination.
My involvement in fanfiction caused me to question the 'fan' status of many fanfiction writers. While the original work maintains its importance as the locus of the groups, it was clear that many writers were more concerned about the fanfiction itself. In fact it had come to my attention that some writers wrote fanfiction about a show they no longer cared about or watched.
Consider that out of the 37 respondents, 16 wrote stories in more than one fanfiction community (this is including all the Star Trek series under the one banner). Some wrote for as many as four or five different communities. These writers have established a history of fanfiction writing. A familiarity and experience that has led them into other fanfiction communities. It does not suggest the commitment to a fandom that is implied by the term 'fan' but rather a commitment to fanfiction and its practice.
The term fanfiction itself indicates the fanfiction author cannot get away from the notion of the 'fan' and all that it entails whether from a sympathetic viewpoint or from a stereotypical view perpetuated by popular myths of obsessive fans.
Further, if fanfiction writing is a result of a fan-ish interest in an original work, does it remain that way or is it just a vehicle by which writers come by creativity.
The survey asked whether the authors had any aspirations to write professionally. While some authors claim a definite affirmative and a few even claim to have submitted work to publishers and/ or had been published, most were similar to the answer below:
Writing fanfiction itself just simply gives me some joy as well as an opportunity to hone my writing skills with characters and situations that already exist. As for aspirations, one day I would love to write a book, but right now that is more a dream than anything. I'm quite content to write just for enjoyment purposes. Finishing a story that I've worked hard on gives me a great sense of satisfaction, and right now that is enough.
For whatever reason the author has started writing fanfiction, clearly the act of writing fanfiction is now a separate pleasure with its own levels of satisfaction and enjoyment being arrived at independently of the viewing pleasure of the show or the fandom associated. The writer goes from speaking within a fan discourse to speaking within a creative discourse using the fan discourse as a base.
The will to articulate imaginative or playful constructs is a complex characteristic of any writer just as it is for the writer of fanfiction. When we do not allow these writers this complexity we leave them feeling misunderstood and trivialized.
This enquiry has been necessarily brief. I have only touched on the extent to which fanficton is diverse and incredible in its scope. There are far more questions to be answered that could not be addressed in this study such as the cultural and social specificity of fanfiction (being mostly an American phenomenon as it is).
Thanks to the members of the following groups who participated in this survey.
The Femme Fuh-q Fest
With particular thanks to Elizabeth, Helen, August, Liz Barr, Kelly, Boadicea and especially the gang at Project S31.
ChristineCGB is a fanfic writer and some-time theorist. Further investigation into the fanfic phenomenom is being considered.