Making the Case for Fan Fiction

At dinner last night with my screenwriter friend, I got into a discussion of the value of fan fiction, prompted by a comment I had made that indicated that I was fan of the Showtime show, The L Word, and that I read The L Word fan fiction. My friend stated that she could not fathom someone being so obsessed with a TV show as to take the characters and expand on their world and explore their lives.

“These people who are spending so much time and energy on fictitious characters and situations should spend that time and energy cultivating their real life relationships. Only people who are dissatisfied with their lives would spend that much on fan fiction, and reading about people who aren’t even real,” she argued. She was making the argument that people who read fan fiction are “nerds,” which I don’t completely disagree with. However, she was discounting the very real emotional attachment that people have to the characters and their stories, which also discounts the values of having a space in which narratives and storytelling are explored around common interests in order to form a participatory community.

So I replied, “But you, who are a screenwriter, should know better than anyone the process of getting into a fictitious character’s head in order to explore issues and stories through an emotional narrative plot line.” I was flabbergasted that she could not see how people would get emotionally attached to fictitious characters and would want to treat them like real people when, through the process of writing a screenplay, a screenwriter treats these characters like real people in order to portray them and make them feel as real as possible.

“Filmmaking is a business. People spend years and years on films so they can get paid. People spend tons of time writing fan fiction, but never get paid!” She did have a point, a broader topic, perhaps, of how art and creativity has become commodified, standardized with rules of conventions for what will sell. Her argument also touches upon ideas of gift economy and digital labor. Indeed, The L Word Fan Fiction site is completely free. People give freely of their own time to write stories, and others give of their time to comment and give feedback. I countered my friend’s argument, “What, then, do you think of people who make webisodes and short films on YouTube? The value in fan fiction seems to lie in the formation of community. The value of these communities lie perhaps not in economic capital. The Internet has enabled a platform on which people from geographically disparate areas can gather and form a community based on a common interest, with similar levels of obsession for that interest. Perhaps its value lies in the accumulation of social capital through participating in this community.”

Or something like that. I’m paraphrasing in quotations here.

There seemed to be two points here. On one hand, we were talking about real life versus fictitious life, and the time and energy invested in exploring fictitious worlds. My friend seemed to think that unless one is getting paid for their fantasy explorations, such explorations and expansions of pre-existing worlds are not legitimate uses of one’s life and one’s time, and that one must only partake in these communities because one’s real life sucks. This leads to the other point – the point about community in fan fiction, and the very real emotional investments people have in characters and their stories. Walt Fisher, through the narrative paradigm, talks about the “cognitive significance of aesthetic communication lies in its ability to manifest knowledge, truth or reality, to enrich understanding of self, other, or the world.” (Fisher, 1989, 13) Human truth or reality includes emotions and feeling. Fiction writing, being a form of aesthetic communication, ties itself to these human emotions, rendering them real through the narrative storytelling process.

In fan fiction, writers use familiar characters, popularized on television shows, as a means by which to explore deeper narrative plots and emotional entanglements, mostly for entertainment, but through a narration, and through sharing the narration, and interacting with others, a community is formed. Sometimes the community, like The L Word fan fiction community, are built around members of marginalized social groups (in this case, lesbians and queer women), giving people a space in which they can explore or affirm their identity among people who understand. Some of these people are geographically located in areas where being not heterosexual is not ok. Fan communities, then, provide them with a space filled with people who are like them and who will not stigmatize them for who they are or what they enjoy as entertainment. In a community of obsessors, no one is one.

Fan fiction and fanvidding (wherein people use actual clips from TV shows and remix and re-edit them to tell a narrative), have long been considered stigmatized. As my friend stated, it has a reputation for being the socializing grounds for people who don’t have lives offline. An L Word fan fiction writer with whom I’ve had conversations keeps her fan fiction writing from her family. Similarly, a maker of L Word fan videos with whom I have corresponded, keeps her fanvidding life behind closed doors. One is conventionally known only by one’s username on fan fiction sites. Perhaps in the case of the L Word, there is the added stigma of dealing with homosexuality in the stories, in a time and world in which being gay or lesbian, or queer, is still stigmatized, or at the very least, marginalized.

The L Word fan fiction seems to have a double-whammy effect in terms of its marginalization. First, it’s fan fiction. Second, it’s fan fiction based on a show filled primarily with members of a marginalized social group (lesbians).

When Showtime’s TV series, The L Word, first aired in 2004, it was hailed, on one hand, as a “groundbreaking” show which had a cast and plots centered around lesbians and their lives, and on the other, as a squandered opportunity, stereotypically Hollywood with their skinny portrayals of characters, that does injustice to the lesbian community as a whole. (http://www.offourbacks.org/LWordRev.htm) Shortly after the inception of the show, fan fiction communities sprung up on the Internet with stories revolving around the characters in The L Word, many addressing the unsatisfactory handlings of the canon storyline as seen on Showtime. The most popular of these is a site that is aptly named “The L Word Fan Fiction” (http://fanfiction.l-word.com/fanfiction_list.php). One of the more popular coupling on the site is Bette and Tina, a canonical couple who, in the canon storyline, had started out as a committed couple, and, after six years of twists and turns, end up back together. Many people on fan fiction sites see them as the epitome of love. Throughout the six canonical TV seasons, there are a few moments or events that happen that I call “points of trauma.” For the Bette and Tina relationship, there are about 3-5 major ones. I’ve noticed that many fan fiction stories revolve around explaining these points of trauma, expanding on the characters’ actions and thoughts, sometimes to the point of psychoanalysis, and using re-narration and re-telling of the canonical story, and taking it in different directions, as a healing process – to heal both the characters, and the writers, who, being fans with real emotional investments in these fictitious characters, experienced the trauma as well.

I will be talking about these points of trauma in more specificity in a future blog post, as well as the interconnectedness and cross-references of the stories within the fan fiction community.

38 Responses to “Making the Case for Fan Fiction”

  1. Tina L. Zeng Says:

    Hello there! Thanks for an insightful blog post about fan fiction. It touched upon some of the intriguing issues that surround the phenomenon and I think you did well in explaining and exploring these issues. I wanted to add my comment here about community and fan fiction.

    I, like you, believe that fan fiction builds community. To expand the idea further, I’d go as far to say that fan fiction writers no only make emotional investments in the characters and their stories, but that writers also invest time, energy, and effort in the fan fiction community at large.

    An element of participatory culture as outlined by Professor Jenkins that I see is unique to fan fiction is the concept of mentorship from the more experienced user to the novice. A relationship then develops and BAM – you have a community building. This is valuable.

    I say this because I’m fascinated by the number of writers who engage in putting energy into the proofreading and reviewing system that has sprung from Fanfiction.net. As a previous fan fiction writer, I know how wonderful the feeling is when someone directly responds to your work in a positive – and even negative way. Either way, someone is listening to what you have to say, what you have to show, and what you have created. This is the sentimental tie that is built from fan fiction writing; this is the community that fan fiction writing encourages.

    Yet, proofreading and reviewing goes further than the emotional. It can be very practical at times. Especially when you have a good writer (who is often unofficially dubbed or known by the community to be) to mentor a young writer who is just starting out on Fanfiction.net. It can also be practical at times. And can lead to some professional opportunities (search Harper Collin’s Inkpop, Leigh Fallon, book deal. )

    So what does this mean then? So what if fan fiction builds community and emotional attachment/investment on the internet? Some will argue that one then becomes detached from reality and therefore, is a waste of time.

    I’d argue the opposite.

    This is reality.

    I don’t believe that digital relationships are any less powerful than “real” relationships. Yes, I definitely think that there is value in relationships in the flesh, but I don’t believe in discounting relationships that are built over communication on the net. Ultimately, It is up to one to decide whether it is worth it or not to engage others on a different or a variety of platforms. This, of course, differs from one’s opinions to another’s.

    What do you think? :)

  2. Tina’s Comment on Civics, Popular Media, & Participatory Culture « Multimedia for Social Change Says:

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  3. Liz Krane Says:

    This quote basically goes against everything I believe: “My friend seemed to think that unless one is getting paid for their fantasy explorations, such explorations and expansions of pre-existing worlds are not legitimate uses of one’s life and one’s time.” Exploring, whether real or fictional, is one of the ways we first begin to learn as kids: playing with dolls or aciton figures and dreaming up adventures for them, creating imaginary friends… The point is to just create something, to be imaginative. That kind of thinking is the same kind of thinking that helps people find new solutions to real problems.

    And to say that it’s a waste of time if it’s not making money is implying that all hobbies are pointless! But don’t people need something to do for fun, when they’re not busy with work? I don’t see any difference between writing fan fiction for fun and writing original fiction for fun. Or gardening, or playing the guitar, or drawing pictures.

    Speaking of money, though, fan fiction CAN be profitable as well. Not all fan fiction is written by nerds to be posted on the internet. My favorite example of a “fan fiction” that did generate income is the play (and the movie based on it) called “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”, based on characters from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”. In this case, of course, it’s not exactly what you’d think of when you think of fan fiction. But that’s basically what it is: taking the characters and part of the plot from a previous work and building off of it. (By the way, there’s also an offhoot of this offshoot called “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead” and it somehow involves vampires.)

    Fan fiction, at the most basic level, has been around for a long, long time. It’s part of the oldest literary traditions: writers quote each other and build off of commonly told stories. Just take a look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fan_fiction#Precursors for some ancient examples. Way back when, the value of retelling and adding onto stories was to preserve them and, just like today, to create a sense of community. In a way, not much has changed, has it?

  4. RhysaJ "RJ" Says:

    What’s in a label? Fan fiction is way to tap into a person’s creativity. Sometimes people need an existing character to be inspired. You know that saying when you point one finger, three point back. Your screen writer friend is talking about their baggage. Ha ha ha. I don’t ever hear JJ Abrams (writer of Lost, Alisa and Star Trek 11 just in case someone doesn’t know) state that he writes or directs for money. There’s a great TED talk he gives about creativity. Look it up. Poor argument there. Everyone has their reasons in writing. Not everyone aspires to be film makers or be a part of the television industry. Um…enjoyment is a word that comes to mind.That is the most important thing is that they enjoy it. And who doesn’t like a bit of validation on a world wide forum. People do it for all sorts of reasons. Reading fanfiction is nerd thing? How so? It takes nerds to write most things. George Lucas and Spielberg weren’t exactly on the cover of GQ. Hmmm…think about that? Joseph Campbell, a person who inspired George Lucas and an amazing man (watch the dvd “Power of Myth”) stated so well, follow your bliss. There is power in story telling. Period. Where ever you get your inspiration, write away. I love fanfiction. I was introduced to it when I worked in a high school and one of my students wanted to go and print some anime fanfic. I person get caught up in DC comic fanfics. Tee hee. It’s like a soap opera. You know the characters so well that it doesn’t matter how the story changes you just love watching them go through their own stuff. Follow follow your Bliss!!!

  5. Sasha Costanza-Chock Says:

    I completely agree. In addition to enjoyment, I think the appropriation of narratives and media texts from popular culture (textual poaching) is the basis for some of the most important forms of 21st century civic engagement. I’m thinking here of read/write critical media literacies, where ‘the artists formerly known as the audience’ are able not only to engage with pop culture texts to extend and amplify the ‘given’ narratives but also to perform counterhegemonic narratives through remix and recontextualization. Jonathan McIntosh’s ‘Buffy vs. Edward’ remix is a great example (http://www.rebelliouspixels.com/2009/buffy-vs-edward-twilight-remixed). This doesn’t need to mean engaging in so-called ‘hard’ political engagement, although that happens too. Gender, race, sexuality, and other aspects of identity are also negotiated by fans appropriating and remixing the dominant narratives, eg the extensive histories / communities of Slash vidders (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tt0Ia4fT7DE&feature=related).

  6. Sasha Costanza-Chock Says:

    OK you *have* to see this. It’s not exactly fanfic but it’s a better illustration of the point I was trying to make in my last comment :) http://www.kaltura.org/demos/RemixGenderedAds/

  7. cweitbrecht Says:

    I always find it very funny when people claim engaging with on-screen personalities (or even celebrities for that matter) is a waste of time and useless. Why do we have these characters and their stories in the first place, then, if thinking about them and what they do is a waste of time? Why do people go to the movies or watch TV if you’re not supposed to relate to the happenings and characters on-screen?

    Good stories have always been about experiences and morals, and the people that learn about them. Be it Ulysses, Jesus, Tristan & Isolde, Dr Faustus, or, more recently, Captain Kirk, Mrs. Doubtfire, or Bette & Tina – these fictional characters are the ones that go through difficult situations in life (the point of any story) and learn from it. And by engaging with them, WE can learn from it. We look at what they did right or wrong under conditions that we can often relate to (for example, as you mentioned as a homosexual in a highly conservative community), we try to learn from their behavior and outcomes, and ultimately, like in any ‘real-life ‘ situation where we follow a certain person’s actions for an extended amount of time, we start to CARE about them, too.

    Needless to say, I fail to see what’s wrong with that. Some of the most inspiring and influential people in my life were fictional, and looking at my situation in life now I absolutely cannot say it harmed me. On the contrary, engaging with these characters has helped me develop and nurture character traits that I probably never would have otherwise, and I still find myself in situations where I kick myself in the butt saying “Would XY have accepted this? No? Then why do you?”

    It’s almost sad that given the amount of time people spend in front of TV and movie screens these days, many don’t seem to actually care about what they are seeing.

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