Fanfiction and its Subversive Narrative Modes
The term fanfiction refers to stories created by fans about a source text—or a combination of multiple texts—which aims at expanding the narrative and world of an established work. Fanfiction in today’s terms has been traced back to science fiction magazines of the 1920s and 30s, but the definition has also been applied to older works with a recognizable precedent, which are therefore considered to some extent to be an adaptation of the original work. During the 90s, academic research dedicated various studies to this phenomenon, analyzing it from different perspectives: literary, ethnographic, psychological. Fan-made creative works have been considered subversive in their anti-consumerist characteristics, but other studies have found that power structures exist even within fandoms, subcultures whose members share interest in a specific person, team, TV show, etc. Although fanfiction seems to maintain conservative narrative traits, it still challenges many literary norms, like plot structure, as well as questions ideas on cultural ownership and authenticity.
Despite it being an object of academic study for some time, the practice of writing fanfiction still carries the stigma of being an underground and marginalized activity, in part due to the “popular and academic pathologizing of fans” (Fathallah, 2017, p. 21), which sees fans as obsessive outcasts and their writing as a product of their fixation. Recent years have seen the advent of digital media and participatory culture: people show active engagement with the content they consume through the creation of art, from writing spin-off stories to cosplay, the practice of dressing up like movie or video game characters. This shift in how people interact with the content they consume has allowed the formation of stronger fandom identities and has encouraged the proliferation of fan-created content. The consequential popularization of parcipatory culture has helped normalize these practices, whose cultural and social impact is slowly starting to be recognized. From literary, feminist, and queer theory to media and cultural studies, many academic fields have tried to interpret fanfiction, and the most common conclusion has been that a traditional qualitative analysis is not the most suited for this phenomenon, since it—often openly—defies most narrative schemes and rules. Based on these criteria, most texts are regarded as amateurish and naïve. Instead, a more fruitful approach would be to consider what effect this type of writing has, both on the texts that are produced and read and on the fandom that creates them, and “how it provides different perspectives on a familiar fictional world or set of events or allows fans happily to move in and out of various storyworlds” (Thomas, 2011, p. 15).
Linguist and professor of English and new media Bronwen Thomas identifies three waves in the evolution of fan studies, starting with sociologist Henry Jenkins’s Textual Poachers in 1992. Jenkins’s work introduces the idea that fans are not blind followers of dominant ideologies, but “subversives able to undermine commodification and corporatization through their collective power” (Thomas, 2011, p. 3). This democratic and Marxist approach highlights the collective aspect of fans that are able to oppose big corporations and consumerist culture by recreating a free and accessible subculture related to the commercialized works they care about. However, later waves of research have criticized such interpretation for applying overly polarized notions of power structures to fandom dynamics, and for considering the audience to be a homogenous group, disregarding the complexities and tensions within fandom communities.
The approaches that followed became more critical of issues of power. The second wave, which began at the turn of the century, focuses on the expansion of new media forms that facilitated a proliferation of fan activity and analyzes it as part of mainstream culture, which is not seen as functioning outside of social hierarchies but as participant in uneven power distributions. The third wave is instead characterized by an increased self-reflexivity on the modes and motives of analysis. This approach explores fan practices and contributions to contemporary culture. It pays attention to the theorists' own engagement with the texts they analyze and their authors, reconsiders the image of the isolated and naïve fan, takes their activity more seriously and treats it as an aspect of people’s everyday life. This last wave also recognizes the role of fanfiction in contesting elitist categorizations like those between “high” and “low” literature and culture.
Recent studies, like the one conducted by media and cultural studies researcher Judith May Fathallah in Fanfiction and the Author (2017), acknowledge fanfiction as a simultaneously “transformational and affirmational” phenomenon (Fathallah, 2017, p. 26). These texts challenge traditional notions of authorship because their creations do not follow established copyright norms and are often anonymous or disguised under pseudonyms; the authors also belong to specific social groups who are not usually represented by the classical definition of author, predominantly pictured as an adult male: marginalized communities like women, teenagers, and queer individuals, who throughout history have for the most part been denied access to literacy and culture production, are now the most prolific demographic in the world of fanfiction. Minorities have found in this type of writing a place of self-expression and are now navigating between pre-established narrative norms and a before-unknown literary freedom granted by the mostly uncontrolled environment of social media platforms.
Moreover, by expanding the original narrative and sometimes turning these additions into established characteristics of the original work, they question the extent to which the author of the original has control over their text. The world-building expands and sometimes becomes an official part of the fandom universe, as in the case of Seth Grahame-Smith’s parody novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009), which is clearly inspired by the cross-over genre of fanfiction. The notion of originality itself is questioned, since the main principle of fanfiction writing is to utilize already known material and recombine it in a potentially infinite number of ways. This defies the idea that to be original and enjoyable, narrative needs to tell something completely new, and actually unveils the impossibility of this expectation, since even canonically “original” works are arguably influenced by pre-existing texts.
Lastly, fanfiction is published on dedicated online platforms (like Wattpad, Archive of Our Own, or Fanfiction.net) chapter by chapter, based on the author’s discretion and without a fixed schedule. The readers have the possibility to leave comments and to directly message the author with their feedback and opinions, therefore potentially influencing the author’s intentions for future storylines. Digital media theorist Peter Lunenfeld describes these texts as characterized by “an aesthetic of unfinish” (as cited in Thomas, 2011, p. 13), since the story does not necessarily come to an end but continues indefinitely, or sometimes ends abruptly for unknown reasons dictated by the author’s private life. Fanfictions are therefore works in progress that are constructed by the shared effort of the writer and the audience, and that defy traditional norms on plot formation, by inflating it and not allowing it to reach a definite end, and genre distinctions, which are often disregarded (for instance, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies combines romance, horror, and parody). However, fanfiction is also regulated by normative measures that ensure that the texts are comprehensible, and the very interactive aspect of the creation process that lets the audience comment on what they are reading also allows it to judge and moderate the content that gets published.
In conclusion, like Thomas suggests, qualitative modes of analysis might not be fit for the emerging phenomenon of fanfiction, since it hardly ever respects the traditional framework of a literary text. Although readers and fandom members themselves do care about some conventional narrative and grammatical rules and operate a form of self-moderation through the constant feedback they provide, what academic research might find more interesting is considering what fanfiction does, instead of how it does it. Fan creative practices open up discussions about the literary world and challenge well-established ideas of authorship and originality, and, lastly, they unveil the role of new media in both the narrative process and in the formation of collective fandom identities.
Fathallah, J. M. (2017). From Foucault to fanfic. In Fanfiction and the Author (pp. 17–32). Amsterdam University Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1v2xsp4.5
Lammers, J. C., & Marsh, V. L. (2015). Going public: an adolescent's networked writing on Fanfiction.net. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 59(3), 277–285. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44011269
Rosenblatt, B., & Tushnet, R. (2015). Transformative works: young women’s voices on fandom and fair use. In J. Bailey & V. Steeves (Eds.), eGirls, eCitizens: Putting Technology, Theory and Policy into Dialogue with Girls’ and Young Women’s Voices (pp. 385–410). University of Ottawa Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt15nmj7f.19
Thomas, B. (2011). What is fanfiction and why are people saying such nice things about it?? Storyworlds: A Journal of Narrative Studies, 3, 1–24. https://doi.org/10.5250/storyworlds.3.2011.0001
Cover Image. Leta, V. (2018). Depiction of a fan in front of a laptop. [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://mashable.com/article/erotic-smutty-fanfiction-explore-sexuality
Figure 1. Polk, R. (2022). Cosplayers at Comic-con in San Diego. [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://www.wired.com/story/comic-con-2022-preview-what-to-expect/
Figure 2. Ganji, P. (2022). Fanfiction writer. [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://www.michigandaily.com/statement/what-fanfiction-taught-me-that-english-classes-couldnt/
Figure 3. Steers, B. (2016). Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. [Movie]. Retrieved from: https://www.cinesite.com/press-release-cinesite-starts-work-on-pride-and-prejudice-and-zombies/