Essay: From Twelfth Night to 50 Shades: Fanfiction’s Place in the Digital Culture of Printedness

50ShadesofGreyCoverArt7f703a34089584d30a7c15d6f81bd3bb

by Haley Fox

COMM 271-003

Prof. Derek Vaillant

April 9, 2015

The Divine Comedy is fanfiction.

Okay look I half said this to be funny but… everything in modern narrative is fanfiction. The Lion King is a safari AU of Hamlet, every single beat novel is just Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in angsty college AU setting. When will mainstream media stop thinking they are the pinnacle of literary criticism because they like to put down transformative works? Stop making fun of queer escapism… We all know you wrote a second year English paper about Dante’s Inferno and his self-insert Bible fanfic.”
                                                                                     – Dakota Tiny, bittyjack.tumblr.com

Over the past few years, fanfiction has been dragged into the disapproving spotlight by the popularity of the erotic novel 50 Shades of Grey, originally posted online as a Twilight fanfiction under the name “Master of the Universe.” While the phenomenon of fans creating new stories using established characters is by no means new, the controversy surrounding the novel did not do much to make fanfiction, also known as fanfic or just fic, more palatable to the “normal” American consumer. Despite these preconceptions, the number of people participating in this type of media-responsive fan work has been steadily rising since the 1970s. However, the term “fanfiction” tends to be met with unease and embarrassment in the offline world, and the ways these fandoms operate from the inside is generally regarded as unworthy of academic pursuit. While today’s culture of printedness takes many different forms across a variety of platforms, one significant yet often undervalued aspect of this culture is this particular consumer-created participatory media outlet. Often, reporters will skim the surface and come to conclusions that “[fanfiction is] the lowest point we’ve reached in the history of culture” (Morrison, TheGuardian.com). On the other hand, some few scholars studied and spent time with this community, like Angelina Thomas, and found that young women in fandom had been looking for a uncencored space to create empowering narratives, explore their sexuality, and connect with others. It is unfortunate, then, that this massive response to the digital culture of printedness is often misconstrued, much like the discourse about print media in the late nineteenth century. Michael Warner, literary scholar and professor at Yale, wrote about this recurring myth of print as an inherently democratizing technology in his novel The Letters of the Republic, and came to the conclusion that the “meaning” of a printed material is dependent not on any predetermined characteristics of print itself, but on the complex social context in which one comes across it. By looking at the methods Warner used to study the meanings and use of printing by communal niches in pre- and Revolutionary-era America, one can begin to look beyond the similarly “inherent” meanings of fanfiction and thus delve into the actual ways these groups use fanfic to mediate larger personal and societal insecurities.

To better understand the current cultural context of fanfiction, it’s important to look at some of the historical discourse surrounding work of this type. While today’s fanfiction has its roots in the 70s, the tradition of using established characters to create new tales dates back to pre-alphabet oral storytelling. One of fanfiction’s most popular written precursors is Shakespeare himself, whose work was always based directly on a previously existing myth, legend, or historical event. Another early version of fanfiction presents itself in 1920s, when fans of the ultra-popular series Sherlock Holmes formed fan groups to author and circulate versions of  “self-insert” adventures. Two prolific fan groups that formed during this time, the Sherlock Holmes Society and the Baker Street Irregulars, still function today. However, fanfiction in the modern sense of the word truly began with Star Trek, when fans of the series would publish and distribute “fanzines” mostly focused on the idea of a romantic relationship between the characters Kirk and Spock. It is difficult to find empirical data about today’s internet-based fanfiction community, because of the nature of pseudonymity on the internet. However, one can look to the popular site FanFiction.Net, established in 1998, for some raw numbers. There are over 3 million registered users; around 80% of those users are female, and approximately one third of those users are under 18. There were over 6.6 million unique works as of March 2011; today, the Harry Potter fandom houses over 710,000 of them. The longest fic on FanFiction.Net clocks in at over 3.5 million words, well overshadowing the 1.9 million words of Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus, the longest novel ever published. And those are just the statistics for a single site–Archive Of Our Own, a site launched in 2009, reached it’s first million fanworks in 2014, and was named one of Time Magazine’s 50 Best Websites of 2013.

Since it is evident that there is an incredibly large community that actively participates in the creation and consumption of fanfiction, why is it still such a cultural taboo to admit to enjoying fan works? Fanfiction communities possess all the characteristics of a “normal” social media platform–they have massive amounts of daily traffic, activity is centered around users communicating with each other, entertainment is an important unifying medium, communities are niche yet explorable, and users spend a substantial amount of time engaged with the site daily. Actually reading fanfiction is just one aspect of being a part of these sites–users engage through forums, profiles, and even have direct communication with their readers about their work. In this way, fanfiction communities become less about the actual content and more about the sense of community created by building these collections of stories, comments, and kudos over time. Often, a user’s status in these text-based spaces is dependent on quantity and manner of interpersonal interaction, similar to the oral culture explored by Warner in the southern colonies. Browing through a comments section on Archive Of Our Own demonstrates this style of personal address as “an unmediated relation between two [users]” (Warner, 28), evoking a strong sense of friendship and even familiality.

Despite these social aspects, places like AO3 are seen as a “threat to culture” (Morrison, TheGuardian.com). While there is certainly no shortage of badly written fic, drawing the line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ fanfiction does not accurately answer the question, and in fact completely prevents one from being able to discuss the larger issue at hand. Perhaps, it is that the stigma against fanfiction stems from a deeply rooted tradition that Warner noticed in his work: that writing is a gendered technology, and that women are discouraged from writing “even where no outright prohibition from writing [is] in effect” (Warner, 15) because of a legacy of gender norms. Since society historically favors the written work of men over that of women, fanfiction as a genre is made to bear that stigma of femaleness as well. Warner noticed that “the male collectivity formation of writing meant also that the metonymic link between pen and gendered body carried over even into printed discourse” (Warner, 15),  meaning that a female person, seeking to achieve neutrality of gender through writing, could only achieve it by appearing male, because maleness equals unmarkedness. This led to authors making statements about their gender in their writing, thus reinforcing and transferring gender roles from oral to written discourse, bringing as well the notion that the “female pen” is inferior. The spaces where fanfiction thrive are not seen as respectable because they are places where the female pen is uncritiqued, encouraged, and consequence-less. These communities allow women of all ages to engage unapologetically with popular media however they choose, be it putting themselves into that fictional world or making two male characters fall in love. What’s more, fanfiction gives these young women, who do not yet have the experience or to write an original novel or TV series, a starting point into the male-dominated world of authorship and entertainment media. So, while it is true that fanfiction has evolved to be a female-centered community and thus carries the weight of femaleness, and that it would be ideal for femaleness to be an attribute instead of a detriment, the anonymity that society’s disfavor creates allows these young women to write freely without fear of censure.

Even in the “age of the Internet,” it is clear that divides along gender lines still exist in digital spaces, and many aspects of the culture of printedness from colonial America has shaped the dimensions of “high” and “low” digital culture. The culture of printedness in America today in heavily based in participatory media, and fanfiction is a significant yet understudied aspect of this culture. However, it is true that many of these fan spaces are relatively new, and so the scholarly research that fandom deserves could very well be taking place right now. Hopefully these studies will continue to get at the heart of what brings people to fanfiction, providing a deeper understanding of the contexts surrounding fandom is essential to the understanding of the phenomenon itself.  If fanfiction is ever deemed suitable for study, then it will not be sadly lost to time like so many eighteenth century texts that weren’t considered worthy to preserve (Warner, 26).  To requote Dakota Tiny, “everything in modern narrative is fanfiction,” and as more fic writers reach adulthood and become novelists, who’s to say the next Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings won’t come from a someone who got their start writing fanfiction? After all, in the words of Pablo Picasso, “good artists borrow. Great artists steal.”

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