My newborn fanfiction book collection

I recently decided to start a collection of fanfiction books.

This may seem like a bit of an oxymoron, especially nowadays when most fanfic is published online and most fans aren’t even aware it exists in book form.  When you say ‘print fanfic’, most people think you mean fanzines.  But I’m talking about books, actual fanfic printed in book format. I can’t say exactly what spurred on my sudden decision to collect fanfic books, especially when a good portion of its contents already exist online, and free.  Maybe it’s just the bibliophile in me.  Maybe it’s just the librarian in me.  Maybe it’s just the collector in me.  Maybe it’s just the fan. Most likely it’s all of the above.

I was first introduced to the idea of fanfic in book form in the mid-2000’s when my sister’s friend sent her a beautiful illustrated book of her fanfic (which I briefly mentioned a long time ago in a previous blog post). It looked so gorgeous, so professional, that the concept stuck in my mind, and a few years later I published my own fic in book form. This was more for my own benefit than anyone else’s.  I just really wanted to hold my own words in my hands, to leaf through them, to annotate them, to put them on my book shelves just like the other treasured tomes I possess. It turned out that there were a small number of fans who also wanted copies, and so I opened up access to the books on Lulu.com

The first few books of my new collection…

It wasn’t until I started research on my Ph.D. that I discovered that the fanfiction book was more common than I first thought it was.  I was doing a random search for my ship on Amazon when I discovered a certain book that I may also have mentioned in a previous blog post. I bought a copy (for research purposes initially), mainly because I was intrigued that this book of fanfic was being sold (presumably for money) on a major online bookstore, and had an ISBN (Lulu.com will make these books available at major bricks-and-mortar bookstores, such as Borders, in this case). I haven’t linked to this particular book, since I don’t want to risk drawing the attention of rights-holders to the author, due to the work’s legally grey area.

At the Fan Studies Network Conference last year, I was shown some gorgeous fanfic books, also printed by Lulu, by an acquaintance, and this again reminded me that ‘this was a thing’. At this point, I actually did a little bit of digging into the phenomena and discovered the notorious case of Lori Jareo’s Another Hope, a Star Wars fanfic book that was sold in major bookstores, and was finally shut down by Lucasfilm in 2006. At the time, it caused significant ripples in the fan community, who were afraid that the furore would cause a backlash from the Powers That Be against fanfic itself.  Taking a look around the net, I was able to find that there was quite a sizeable amount of fanfic books out there, and since this seems to be a little-known area of fandom (and fandom research), I thought I would start up a collection of my own – for both research and entertainment purposes.

From a research perspective, there are three strands to my interest in collection fanfic books. The first centres around changing modes of publication.  In the digital era, print-on-demand (POD) has meant that self-publishing has become an affordable reality for many, and there is no longer the stigma of publishing through a ‘vanity press’.  This suggests that the internet has afforded yet more ways for fans to publish their work, apart from digital or amateur press avenues.

On the shelf…

The second area of interest revolves around the materiality of the book, and the fact that some fans still like to have their work presented in a physical format; and that others still like to buy physical written works, despite the free/gift culture that exists within the fan community.  I suspect that this may have something to do with idea of collectability – that there exists in the fan the desire to possess physical tokens of their fandom, the collective size of which may bestow fan capital.  This interest in owning physical works is especially interesting considering the recent decline in e-book sales. Could the phenomenon of fanfic books tell us something about why print books sales are once more increasing?

The last strand of interest for me is that old chestnut – copyright. Needless to say fanfic books occupy a grey area legally, and even if they are not being sold for profit (i.e. sales only going towards the cost of production and/or shipping), does this let them off the hook?  Do they still constitute fair use? And what drives fans to sell print versions of their fanfiction despite the legal nightmare experienced by Another Hope over a decade ago?

I’m not expecting my collection to answer any of these questions.  What it does make me think about however, is that fanfiction books occupy a unique place in the long history of print.  One day, I hope, my collection will be the basis of a public institutional collection that can be enjoyed by all.

* I’m currently taking donations to my collection.  If you’re interested in donating, please reply to this post, DM me at @ludiprice on Twitter, or email me at Ludovica.Price.1 (at) city.ac.uk. Thanks! 🙂 

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Review: Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom by Abigail De Kosnik

9780262034661Ten years ago Abigail De Kosnik introduced her concept of ‘archontic literature’, which describes fan texts (and indeed many other texts in the canon of Western literature) as additions to a global archive of cultural texts, an archive that writers draw upon to create their own works, thus expanding and enriching the archive that already exists (Derecho, 2006).  Works such as Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. James build upon the ‘archive’ of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice narrative; Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead builds upon Shakespeare’s Hamlet; countless tales around the world build upon the archive of ancient folklore and mythology that have enthralled us across many eons.  As a student of Library and Information Science (LIS) – and an avid fanficcer – the idea of fan texts as literal and figurative documents in an ever-growing and ever-expanding archive of human culture immediately appealed to me.  The appeal grew to reinforce my opinion – or intuition – that LIS and fandom are intrinsically intertwined.  For if fanfiction is archontic literature, part of a grand cultural archive, who then are the archivists?  The answer, of course, is the fans themselves.

In Rogue Archives, De Kosnik updates the concept of ‘archontic literature’ to ‘archontic production’, crucially expanding it to include other forms of fanwork that do not involve creative writing, such as fanart, fanvids, fanfilms, podfic, cosplay, mods etc.  This expansion of the ‘archontic’ concept here is much more satisfying in that it brings in the entire range of fan production and allows it a space within the cultural archive.  Fanfiction is no longer given precedence but is simply a part of the sum of fandom’s archontic outputs.  Whilst the expansion of the term bolsters its theoretical implementation, it also brings it more in line, both conceptually and metaphorically, with actual archives, which of course are not merely repositories of the written word.

As far as I know, Rogue Archives is the only book that explicitly links LIS to fandom.  Within fan studies, there have been several articles that comment upon classification practices and information behaviour within fandom (e.g. Versaphile, 2011; Johnson, 2014; Thomas, 2016), although few draw explicitly upon the field of LIS and its methodologies to do so.  Likewise, the field of LIS has done little to engage with fan information practices, despite a growing interest in information behaviour within leisure contexts.  LIS literature on fan information behaviour is few and far between, though some does exist, e.g. Hart et al. (1999), Adams (2009), and Bullard (2014; 2016), albeit with limited impact.  What Rogue Archives does is unequivocally link the language of both disciplines (admittedly with a focus on the fan studies angle, which is understandable given the context of the book) for the first time.  From my perspective at least this is a welcome surprise, if only to reaffirm that I’m not in a club of one.

What is also fascinating about Rogue Archives is the fact that it also incorporates concepts from performance studies – an angle which the library school I’m studying at, #citylis, is also heavily interested in (we recently held a symposium, Documenting Performance, which brought together parties from both performance studies and LIS to discuss the ways in which we (can) document complex documents such as live performance).  De Kosnik’s book was an enlightening foray into the idea that fanworks sit squarely on the boundary between the documents of the traditional analogue archive, and the embodied, temporal works of the performance arts. There is an apparent dichotomy between what we call the archive and what De Kosnik and others call ‘repertoire’, as she explains:

“Repertoire” transmits knowledge through processes of embodied mimesis, one person imitating what another person does, while “archive” transmits knowledge through recording technologies […], one person decoding the knowledge that another person has encoded in fixed form. (p.54)

What Rogue Archives does is to break down this seeming dichotomy, by showing how fans use both traditional archival practices and repertoire in order to build the ‘rogue archives’ that fan archives encompass (i.e. they are universal, community-driven and alternative).  Whilst fan archives, such as FF.net and AO3, do seem to be like the usual digital archives on the surface, they reject many of the practices employed in traditional archives.  There is no formal collection policy; archivists are ‘techno-volunteers’ who learn their tasks through repertoire, through following the example of more experienced fans or mentors.  They are based on passionate practice rather than professional practice.  They represent active cultural memory rather than passive cultural memory.

What is important here is that popular culture is constantly moving, evolving.  Fanworks (which are now largely born-digital) are also constantly shifting and dynamic.  They are subject to the whims of their creator, constantly edited, abandoned, unfinished, remixed, reworked, deleted, lost.  Ephemeral, dynamic and rarely instantiated in a single, fixed form, fanworks share much in common with performance art and it is therefore difficult to submit them to the rigidity of formal archival process.  This affinity with complex documents leads fan archivists – ‘techno-volunteers’ as De Kosnik calls them – to effectively bridge the gap between the immovable, analogue world of the traditional archive, and the performative, non-reproducible world of repertoire.

De Kosnik is skeptical of what LIS can do for fandom.  As she notes herself, fans have been “dedicating themselves to digital cultural memory work [since] the early 1990s, just as the Internet and the World Wide Web were becoming integral to daily life” (p.12) – ironically, fans have been digital archivists a lot longer than digital archivists have, and have the corresponding expertise.  This is mirrored in the responses of some current LIS students I surveyed earlier this year for my ‘Fanfiction in the Library‘ paper, delivered at FSN2016 in June (Price & Robinson, 2016).  There was the idea that fans manage their own archives ‘just fine’ themselves.  There is also a wariness of LIS imposing itself on the practices fans have already developed in order to preserve their own cultures.  That is why I believe that any attempt at collaboration should involve the utmost respect and understanding on the part of LIS in preserving digital fan culture.  It is also why I believe that there is a lot LIS can learn from fans, which is why I am researching what I am – and which is what Rogue Archives proves in spades.  I am reminded of the Games Culture Summit earlier this year, where one of the speakers talked about her institution working with gaming fans on the best methods for archiving and preserving videogames.  I think this serves as an encouraging example of what can be achieved when fans and LIS professionals work together.  Pooling together our different but equally important expertise can help create a ‘best practice’ for the preservation and organisation of a growing type of complex and/or dynamic materials that LIS professionals are currently finding a real challenge to deal with.

At the very least, what Rogue Archives proves to LIS is that ‘serious leisure’ (Stebbins, 2001) has been the breeding ground for many new, innovative and significant ways of preserving human culture, methods that it has taken little notice of in the past, but that may yet be able to inform the discipline’s future.

References

  • Adams, S. (2009). What games have to offer: information behavior and meaning-making in virtual play spaces. Library Trends [e-journal] 57 (4). Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/lib.0.0058
  • Bullard, J. (2014).  Values and negotiation in classification work. CSCW’14 Companion. Baltimore, USA, 15-19 February 2014 [online].  New York: ACM.  Available through: ACM Digital Library
  • Bullard, J. (2016). Motivating invisible contributions: framing volunteer classification design in a fanfiction repository. Proceedings of the 19th International Conference on Supporting Group Work – GROUP ’16. New York, USA, 13-16 November 2016 [online].  New York: ACM.  Available through: ACM Digital Library
  • De Kosnik, A. (2016). Rogue archives: digital cultural memory and media fandom. Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press.
  • Derecho, A. (2006).  Archontic literature: a definition, a history, and several theories of fan fiction.  In: K. Hellekson & K. Busse (eds.), Fan fiction and fan communities in the age of the internet.  Jefferson: McFarland, Ch. 1.
  • Hart, C., et al. (1999). The bibliographical structure of fan information.  Collection Building [e-journal] 18 (2).  Available through: Emerald Insight
  • Johnson, S. F. (2014). Fan fiction metadata creation and utilization within fan fiction archives: three primary methods. Transformative Works and Cultures [e-journal] 17.  Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2014.0578
  • Price, L., & Robinson, L. (2016). Fanfiction in the LibraryFan Studies Network Conference 2016, Norwich, Norfolk, UK, 25-26 June 2016.
  • Stebbins, R. A. (2001).  Serious leisure.  Society, [e-journal] 38 (4). Available through: Springer Link
  • Thomas, P. (2016). Wikipedia and participatory culture: Why fans edit. Transformative Works and Cultures [e-journal] 22.  Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2016.0902
  • Versaphile (2011). Silence in the library: Archives and the preservation of fannish history. Transformative Works and Cultures [e-journal] 6.  Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.v6i0.277
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A (very) belated report on #FSN2016

They do say that if you want to write a blog post about an event you have to do it straight after, otherwise the glow soon fades.  I regret to say that in the case of the Fan Studies Network Conference 2016, I fell prey to what seems to be the bane of the blogosphere – you go to the event, you leave all jazzed and inspired, you get home and real life distracts you, and then the ship sails and it’s too late.

But they also say ‘better late than never’, and so here I am, writing my blog post on #FSN2016 after nearly 5 months of reflection.

Selfie with Henry Jenkins. It had to be done. ;)

Selfie with Henry Jenkins. It had to be done. 😉

What I will say first is how much FSN had grown even since 2015.  There were so many more people, and the atmosphere was buzzing – there was a general feeling of excitement in the air.  Of course, the buzz may have been something to with the fact that Henry Jenkins was giving the keynote; but in my case it probably also had something to do with the fact that I was presenting this time, along with my supervisor, Lyn Robinson, on the ‘Using the Archive’ panel.  Our presentation, “Fanfiction in the Library”, sought to give an overview of fanfiction in libraries within the UK.  This might seem an unusual area of research, as one is very unlikely to have ever seen fanfiction in a library before.  I feel that our interest was prompted by two main areas:

  • The growing evidence (as seen in my doctoral research) for fans as accomplished practitioners of information work, who build their own collections (both on and offline), who display highly sophisticated information behaviours, and who work collaboratively to create, share and maintain collections;
  • The growing interest in the fanwork as a cultural document worthy of collection, not merely by fans themselves, but by memory institutions (e.g. the expansion of fanzine collections within UK libraries).

Three different methods were used to glean an overview of fanfiction (and fandom) in libraries within the UK:

  1. A literature review of past and present research into the concept of fanworks as documents, or as parts of a wider collection;
  2. A study of the collection policies of 10 UK libraries, and whether the collection of fanworks or fanfiction comes under their remit (it doesn’t);
  3. A survey of current #citylis students and alumni, asking them about their current awareness of fanfiction and fandom, and whether fanfiction or fanworks should be collected in libraries and other memory institutions.

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    Fanfiction in the Library!

The intention was not to promote the collection of fanfiction in libraries across the UK per se; rather it was to begin a dialogue between the LIS and fan studies communities on the subject.  Whilst there seems to be a strong feeling amongst the relevant literature and most of the surveyed students in our study that fanfiction is culturally important and worth preserving, there is an equally strong feeling that collecting it is fraught with issues.  Both fans and librarians can agree that fanfiction is not like the ‘usual’, standard literature one might find on the shelves.  Most fanfiction nowadays is born digital, and is rarely instantiated in one fixed state – it can be constantly updated, edited, reworked, rehashed, removed, and sometimes just never even finished.  What if the author does not care for their work to be collected?  What about the perennially thorny issue of copyright?

These are just a few of the valid questions raised both by the #citylis students and the audience during our panel.  It was heartening to find that there actually was a dialogue to be had about this topic, and that many people in both the LIS and fan communities were interested in preserving fanworks – or at least in entertaining the idea.  During the research phase, I was particularly interested to find that a large proportion of the interviewed students were aware of fanfiction and were fans themselves – and that some of them read or wrote fanfiction, or had created their own fanfiction collections.  This indicates that there will be a sizeable percentage of both future and current library and information professionals who are willing to entertain the idea of collecting, curating and managing fanworks and other non-traditional media in more mainstream and/or professional bibliographical contexts. Likewise, the interest shown from the fan studies audience at #FSN2016 indicated a willingness to start thinking of ways in which fan culture and its many outputs can be preserved for future posterity – or indeed, whether it should be preserved at all.

#FSN16 conference dinner at The Library, Norwich. Somebody knows me well ;)

#FSN16 conference dinner at The Library, Norwich. Somebody knows me well 😉

I think that goal – the goal of starting a dialogue – was achieved in abundance during #FSN2016.  I’m not sure whether the dialogue has continued, but I’d like to see it do so.  At the very least, I feel that there is so much that LIS can learn from the collaborative, participatory, creative and generous model of information behaviour that fans show.  But do fans want to make a concerted effort to preserve their creative work, and should information professionals become involved in that process?  The contributions of volunteer librarians and other professionals, as well as passionate amateurs, on AO3 shows the greatness that these kinds of collaborations can achieve.  The recent publication of Abigail De Kosnik’s Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom has convinced me that this is a more timely moment than ever for us all to work on the cultural preservation of fandom.  I’d be happy to carry on the conversation with anyone else who’s interested. 🙂

A long overdue thanks to the amazing folks at #FSN2016 and the fan studies community for the fun and intellectually stimulating conference!  I had a whale of a time and yet again met some truly stellar people.  I just wish I’d had the time to meet more.  But then, I guess there’s always next year! 😉

 

The “Fanfiction in the Library” presentation is available here.  (The paper is currently being edited with a view to publication).

You can read Lyn Robinson’s blog post on #FSN2016 here.

The #FSN2016 programme and abstracts can be found here.

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“NSFW: Fanworks and the Library” at #citymash

Alison Pope brainstorms Matt Finch's #citymash session, 'Death & Burlesque'.

Alison Pope brainstorms Matt Finch‘s #citymash session, ‘Death & Burlesque’.

On Saturday I had the good fortune to present a talk at #citymash: Libraries & Technology Unconference, entitled “NSFW: Fanworks and the Library” (click the link to download the accompanying handout).  The unconference, held at the City University London Centre for Information Science, was an opportunity for librarians, information professionals, LIS students, and all people with an interest in technology and libraries to pitch their own sessions, share ideas, network and discover. The idea was to learn lots and do it in as fun and engaging a way as possible; and whilst there were some moments of panic (last minute presentations, potential room swaps, and unresponsive computer pod monitors!), I was blown away by the enthusiasm, creativity and intelligence of everyone present.  I was particularly impressed by the willingness of the #citylis Masters students themselves in leading their own sessions and bringing forward some great ideas, both innovative and practical.  A taster of some of the things encountered during the day: a 3D printing maker cart, comics and creativity in libraries, open source software implementation and grounded theory.  So – very eclectic, very fun and very mentally and intellectually challenging.  A fantastic cauldron of stimulating things!

I was a little nervous about my presentation, to be brutally honest.  Fandom in libraries is not very techy and I was concerned that it might not be what participants were expecting from the day.  Nevertheless, the audience were very enthusiastic and had some interesting ideas to put forward that I had not thought of before.  My hope was that, in presenting some of the concepts that I have been exploring in my research (on the information behaviour of cult media fans), my audience would see some ideas and make some connections that I hadn’t recognised before.  The talk provided to be really successful in this area, and I was furiously scribbling notes throughout the hour, trying to get down the fantastic insights that people were able to feed back to me.

Me delivering my talk on fandom in the library.

Me delivering my talk on fandom in the library, via Lyn Robinson.

The great thing about #citymash is that the conversation continued well after the event had ended (and even after the after-event drinks that stimulated further conversation afterwards).  The live tweeting of the event brought some great discussions together, and it was my pleasure to have a fascinating online discussion with Imperial College’s Andrew Preater, library innovator Owen Stephens, and LibraryThing founder Tim Spalding about the usefulness of fan tagging.  This helped me to further articulate some of my ideas about bringing the passion of fans into LIS.  Owen was kind enough to point out to me the Visitors & Residents approach put forward by JISC, which lays out a continuum of information user behaviours: from the visitor, who seeks information to satisfice, to the resident, who is a social information seeker who thrives in a community.  What interests me is: where does the fan fit into this?  Do they fit at all?  And how can the passion of fans be harnessed by information professionals and educators to improve the way we organise, share and create information?

I don’t know yet if there are any answers to this question, but I’m really happy to have had the chance to put those questions out there and get back some fantastic food-for-thought from an intelligent and inspiring group of people.

You can view a Storify of #citymash here.

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User-generated representations and sense-making in fandom

Last Friday I happened to go to two very interesting talks hosted at City University London, one led by Simon Attfield, and the other by Blaise Cronin.  The latter was a walk through library and information science research and meta-research, given with the usual charismatic flair of the speaker.  The latter was a talk about how we make sense of material via user-generated representations, which I’m going to talk about here because much of it feeds into my research into fans and their information behaviour.

When presented with raw data, people choose to implement different strategies in order to make sense of what they are seeing/reading/witnessing etc.  They have to break down that raw data and arrange it in some ordered, coherent way that aids in transforming what is implicit into something explicit.  This is called schematising, and may take the form of diagrams, flowcharts, formulas, or narratives.  Attfield et al.’s studies showed that narrative was one of the more successful forms of user-generated representation when it came to making sense of a problem and the events related to it.  For example, witnesses to a crime were able to use narrative to better comprehend and cohere their thoughts and memories, even if their narrative did not follow any particular chronological order.  Witnesses would fill gaps in knowledge through narrative-making devices using what might be assumed to be their prior experience or understanding of the facts.  Whilst perhaps not strictly accurate, these sense-making strategies were successful because they were engaging and could explain investigatory activities more efficiently.  In other words, the more complex the sense-making process, the easier it is to elucidate our own cognitive processes.

This interests me because narrative structures are a significant proportion of fan sense-making activities.  Yes, I’m thinking of fanfiction in particular, but that isn’t the only form of narrative fans engage in.  There are also fan comics, poetry and essays, for example.  Chapter 5 of Henry Jenkins’ seminal Textual Poachers (2012; 1992) focuses on fanfiction and lists ten ways in which fan writers rework, remediate and renegotiate the source text.  It is striking just how many of these ways have to do with making sense of the inconsistencies in that text.

Producers of media narratives often do not have the same vested interest in a product and its characters that the fans do.  The entertainment industry is ratings-driven and therefore it is prone to tweaking characterisations, leaving plot threads untied, or cancelling a product before its narrative arc has been resolved.  Examples of this might be The Legacy of Kain series in videogames, Firefly in TV shows, and numerous comic titles that never found a readership.  This can leave many fans, who felt they had a personal stake in the characters and their development, or indeed, in the universe or narrative itself, feeling frustrated and let-down.  In some cases they may be left with many disparate fragments of a story or a character, that defy an easy or common-sense solution.  In other cases the producers will develop a narrative or a character in a way that some fans feel to be OOC (out of character), or outside the logic of the metatextual narrative (that is, the fan’s textual comprehension of the narrative as a whole entity).  In all these cases, fans may feel impelled to explore these shortcomings and fill in the gaps in their knowledge.  As Jenkins, referencing Star Trek: The Next Generation, opines:

[Fans pool] the information explicitly given about the character on the aired episodes… to offer a succession of speculations designed to account for a perplexing gap in the narrative information. (pp. 101-102)

and:

Just as other fan extrapolations override gaps in the narrative information, these speculations focus on kernels of excess information, background details tossed into ongoing stories.  Repeated viewings have placed increased attention on these narrative gaps and kernels, requiring fuller integration into the fans’ metatextual comprehension of the narrative world and character relationships. (p. 103)

In other words, the fan attempts to make sense of what they are presented with.  A series of television programmes, movies, books, comics, etc., can present a far more complex world, set of personalities or circumstances than we might encounter in our everyday sense-making activities.  For example, the Marvel Universe, its chronology and its hundreds of characters presents an entire world with its own internal logic, one that is often broken when a writer who has not done their research properly gets something wrong or develops a character in a way that ‘goes against the grain’.  Sometimes this may lead to a formal retcon by a later writer; mostly, fans – for whom these kinds of misrepresentations are important – struggle to fit them into the metatextual narrative they have of the Marvel Universe.  Mentally negotiating decades’ worth of a favoured character’s existence can be as challenging (if not more so) for the fan as arranging a witness statement of, say, a traffic violation or a criminal offence.

It is my contention that fanfiction is just one of the many sense-making tools that fans use to gain a better purchase on a complex body of information, or to reclaim a complex body of perceived conflicting information.  As Attfield et al. found in their studies, narrative structures better aid in the cohesion and exploration of complicated information ecologies, and, where there are gaps in knowledge, people draw on life experience to fill these in.  Considering this, it is perhaps natural that fans should choose to navigate their way through the metatextual narrative of fandom via narrative itself.  Indeed, fans seem to find this creative, expressive kind of documentary practice uniquely satisfying, engaging and rewarding.  Whether it is successful in terms of sense-making would make a fascinating area of further research.

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Yes, I’m going to talk about it. Fanfiction.

Whilst mulling over what to write for my first blog post, I got to thinking about one of my favourite guilty pleasures – fanfiction.  The other day I was lucky enough to have a chat with Michel Hockx (@mhockx), lecturer and director of the China Institute at SOAS, about his research into Chinese cyberliterature; I was doubly lucky to have had a sneak peak at the new book he’s writing on the subject.  The topic is fascinating because of the casualness and acceptance that Far Eastern markets appear to have towards these types of amateur, remediation-based activities.

In the West, there is still something of a ‘cult of the professional’: a finely delineated line between the expert and the amateur.  Professional writers are put on pedestals; fanfiction writers are perceived as emotionally arrested geeks who probably still live in their parents’ basements.  That isn’t to say that there isn’t a LOT of bad fanfiction out there: trawl through FanFiction.net (the largest fanfiction site in the world), and the odds are that 90% of what you read will be, ahem, unrefined drivel.  But there are gems in there.  You just have to know where to look (and have infinite patience).

In the Far East, fandom is not so much celebrated as merely a way of life.  In particular I’m thinking of Japan when I say this.  Take Mandarake, a chain of Japanese stores that sell anime and manga related products.  Each store has a huge section dedicated to doujinshi, comics written and drawn by fans (or sometimes a ‘circle’ of more than one fan) about their favourite characters.  And many if not most of these amateur publications are of an excellent, dare I say professional, quality.  What then is the real distinction between the expert and the amateur in such cases?

Doujinshi, Japanese fan-made comics. Photo by Danny Choo.

And then take China.  Michel Hockx pointed out a fascinating site to me, called Qidian.  Qidian features stories written by amateurs in a variety of genres, including fanfiction.  Sites like Qidian are far more sophisticated than anything you might find in the West.  Compare with FanFiction.net – Qidian offers downloadable content for mobile devices via apps, professional style ‘book covers’, and even pay-per-word reading models for some stories.  Some stories even make the jump into being published in special ‘web literature’ sections of Chinese bookstores. (Admittedly, Western sites like Wattpad are increasingly taking on the Qidian-style model; but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for the stories featured on amateur sites to find their way onto the shelves of actual bookshops).

‘Network literature’ or web literature on sale in a Chinese bookshop. Picture by the Beijing Review.

Several years back, a friend of my sister’s, reafre, who’s from Thailand, sent my sister a present.  It was a lovely book, with a textured cover, beautiful font, and gorgeous illustrations.  It was in Thai, and I couldn’t understand a word of it.  But I could tell what the book was about from the illustrations reafre had drawn for the book.  They were depictions of Viggo Mortensen and Orlando Bloom as Aragorn and Legolas from the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movie.  The book was slash fanfiction – in other words fanfiction featuring same sex relationships.  I was stunned (and just a little bit jealous) that reafre was able to create such a beautifully presented and polished product – that it was even possible to do so.  It was the first time I’d encountered fanfiction as a product to be proud of, rather than something to be hidden away in the maze of mediocrity and relative anonymity that is FanFiction.net.

Don’t get me wrong.  Since Fifty Shades of Grey, the West is opening up to the possibilities of fanfiction as a legitimate literary genre.  Take Kindle Worlds for instance (whose motto is ‘New stories inspired by books, shows, movies, comics, music, and games people love.’).  Here amateurs are given free rein to write about their fandoms and publish them as Kindle e-books, thus glossing their work with a sheen of professional respectability (book covers, royalties, etc.)  The only downside is, your fanfiction can only be about the ‘worlds’ (or fandoms) that have been licensed by Amazon.  So only a handful of fans get the privilege of being ‘published’ in a more traditional sense.

Kindle Worlds. Fanfic for profit.

According to von Veh (2013) in her article, Kindle Worlds: Bringing Fanfiction Into Line But Not Online?, this is a sterile venture that fails to recreate the interactive and participatory cultures that typify other amateur writing platforms such as FanFiction.net and LiveJournal.  On these sites, there is a strong sense of community – the ability to comment, rate, critique and even affect the outcome of storylines; and there is the opportunity to make friends with other like-minded fans, be they writers or readers.   These are all traits that are preserved in sites like Qidian (which, like Kindle Worlds, also make money out of writers’ work), but appear to be absent from the Kindle Worlds platform itself.

Is this a bad thing?  Does the participation factor in fan communities necessarily make for a better product than those offered by a top-down publishing industry?  Does the chance to pool resources, trade hints and tips, provide critiques and work on collaborative projects with other fans, hobbyists and amateurs make any difference when compared to the solo output of a professional or expert, or even the faceless creative team behind the latest corporate endeavour?

I’m not sure.  But I certainly aim to find out.

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