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November 1, 2006

Fan Fiction: Historical Misconceptions and Paratextual Arguments

This week, the debate of fan fiction is popping up everywhere for me.

First off, Margaret Weigel with the New Media Literacies program here at CMS at MIT sent along a UK Observer piece by Edward Helmore on fan fiction.

Helmore points out the increased visibility of fan fiction by the Internet, particularly in helping the writers gain even more widespread followings and the ability of the net to sustain more developed online relationships and structures for ordering, maintaining, and evaluating the quality of fan fiction. He points to various success stories among fan fiction writers.

However, the article is clearly geared for those who know nothing about fan fiction and its history, and it seems that a lot of the generalities and misconceptions in the piece is glaring and even insulting for people who participate in these universes. For instance, Helmore writes: "Fan fiction may not have originality on its side, but it comes with fewer pretensions and it often has a lot of sex, especially within the subgenre 'slash', in which, for instance, Captain Kirk and Dr Spock find themselves in an intimate, space-based relationship."

Aside from pointing to the tried and true example of Kirk/Spock slash fiction, his argument that fiction based on already established characters is less original is somewhat insulting in several regards, both for writers who take on new iterations of established characters (think comic book writers, soap opera writers, etc.) and for quality user-generated content. There's no doubt that much fan fiction work is derivative, much of it is not interesting...but this is just as true of the commercial publishing industry as well.

Also, Henry Jenkins wrote several of us at MIT in relation to the article to point out that his claims about the stereotypical fan fiction writer traditionally being an adult male living with his mother is not historically accurate. Jenkins pointed out that this is confusing the stereotype of the fan fiction writer (historically female) with the stereotype of the fan in pop culture in general. He finds a reverse trend in fan fiction, in which more and more men are now becoming involved in what was traditionally a female genre.

Back in January, I wrote about The Paratext of Fan Fiction and a recent debate by a fan fiction writer, a fascinating discussion about the ways in which fan fiction is labeled and archived. For those who have not participated in the rather organized world of fan fiction that often exists in these online communities, the debate shows how much thought and detail are put into the organizations of the social structure that produces and ranks the quality of fan fiction.

At the time, I wrote:

OneStone32 and those who respond to him are discussing the importance of labelling techniques in archiving fan fiction stories. The art of archiving shows the importance this fan community sees in their work as an extension to "official" content in a fictional series or else as a body of work all in its own, an official canon of work in a particular film series.

This type of information--the labels for what a story or group of stories is--is the paratext, and labeling what a story is and what it means to the stories that surrounds it is an important part of not only "legitimate" published writing but fan fiction as well.

This week, reader K. Faith Lawrence attached some compelling arguments to that initial post in the comments section. Speaking as an archivist herself, Faith says:

There are two things which immediately spring to mind which OneStone32 does not mention, firstly that it is often the authors categorising their works not the archivists and secondly we are constrained by what the archiving system software allows.

Yes, the software is getting much better over the year and now does allow both multi-chapter stories and multi-story serieses but this has not always been the case and even when the software can do it the authors don't always understand *how* to do it. On even a medium size archive you have a couple of thousand stories and archivist just don't have time to go through and check that the author has got everything right - if they did they would be checking that the rating and content classifications were correct first off.

She has thought further about these issues as well.

Be sure to join in on the argument if you have any further thoughts.

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