Dr. Lucy Pearson explores the radical potential of fanfiction for young readers and other marginalised groups, especially in a media environment which is still focused on the needs and desires of men.
Children’s books are not written by children. At least, not usually: a glance at the children’s bestseller lists will show you books not only written by adults, but also edited, sold and bought by adults. This sets up a potential power imbalance between the author and the reader; the children’s literature critic Perry Nodelman (1992) suggests children’s literature is an act of colonisation: we position children as ‘Other’, unable to speak for themselves and in need of control. Children’s publishers are in the business of publishing books children like, of course - there are good marketing reasons to do so. But there are equally good marketing reasons for making sure they are also the books that adults like: any children’s editor will tell you that they need to think about how a book will be received by adult ‘gatekeepers’. As Kimberley Reynolds suggests, this doesn’t mean that children’s literature cannot be radical. Nevertheless, it does tend to produce books which steer clear of some issues which are very much part of young people’s lives: sex and swearing are two of the things that tend to be toned down with these gatekeepers in mind.
This dynamic is turned on its head by fanfiction, where young people are both consumers and the creators. Children have always written stories for themselves, of course: the Brontës are the most famous example, but by far from the only one. The popularity of toy printing presses in the nineteenth century, for example, paved the way for teenagers to print and circulate their own newspapers. Similarly, the rise of the internet has facilitated an explosion in young people not only writing their own stories, but sharing them with readers across the world. A large percentage of these stories are fanfiction, based either on existing narratives (for example, The Hunger Games) or on celebrity figures (such as popular bands). Fanfiction sites such as Fanfiction.net, the Archive of Our Own, and Wattpad, not to mention social media sites such as Livejournal, Dreamwidth and Tumblr, have enabled young people to take control of their own reading materials. Although statistics on the users of these sites are hard to come by (not least because of the obvious issues surrounding minors self-identifying as such online) it’s clear that a high proportion of the fan community are aged 13-25 (see for example the fan-run statistics project FFN Research).
Fanfiction – especially fanfiction written and read by teenagers – often elicits either aesthetic or moral judgements. Mainstream media reports on fanfiction often highlight the popularity of pornographic material (which crossed over into the mainstream with E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey). Stories written by teenagers often come in for criticism even from other fans: as one commented, there is a ‘crowd that won't go near FFN [Fanfiction.net] because it's allegedly a simmering pool of fourteen year olds and all the fic is shit’ (quoted on Fanlore.org). It’s possible to defend against both these criticisms (not all fanfiction is sexually explicit, and not all stories written by teenagers are poor quality), but to do so is to miss part of the radical potential of fanfiction. It’s valuable to young readers (and to other marginalised groups) precisely because it bypasses the gatekeepers who make judgements about morality or aesthetic quality. In fan communities, young people can speak for themselves.
The notion of a ‘simmering pool of fourteen year olds’ underscores the way in which young people’s tastes and communities are often denigrated. Frequently this takes place along gender lines: female fans of popstars have long been characterised as hysterical while their male counterparts’ similarly fervent interest in football is seen as passionate. Fan communities offer a space within which these intense passions are celebrated rather than despised: much real person fiction derives its appeal from the fantasy of entering into the intimate leaves of celebrities, either by creating details of an imagined life behind the scenes or by directly inserting the writer (or reader) into the lives of the celebrities.
The popular appeal of such wish fulfilment narratives is evident: one of the most successful One Direction stories on Wattpad has over a million readers. To characterise these stories as ‘merely’ wish fulfilment, however, is to ignore both the complexity of many fanworks, and the significance of an enviroment which makes space for the interests and desires of young women. In a media environment which is still focused disproportionately on the tastes and desires of men (witness the recent dismay from male fans over the arrival of a female-led Ghostbusters) this kind of female fantasy is a political act.
Much fanfiction is more overtly political. Just as fairy tales have been an effective space in which to explore ideologies, so fanfiction based on well-known media properties has become a testing ground for the ideologies inherent in the original stories. Stories focused on same sex romance (commonly termed slash) have long been a major part of fan culture, while they have only just begun to become commonplace in published young adult fiction. Fanfiction is an act of creative reading, one which frequently critically interrogates the source text. In doing so, it also interrogates the world outside the text. One novel-length Captain America story, thingswithwings’ Known Associates, asks not only what might have been left out of Marvel’s official narratives about Captain America, but also what has been left out of official histories in the real world.
The story, about ‘how a tough little Brooklyn fairy got turned into Captain America, and then turned back’, casts Steve Rogers as a queer, genderqueer, bisexual. Steve’s conflict in the story is partly centred around the way these aspects of his identity have been erased from the historical record, a record which he ultimately seeks to put right. The story introduces readers to the long history of activism in America, making the point that the expectation that a figure from the past would be conservative overlooks the radicalism of previous eras. In doing so, it also invites readers to consider how they might enact activism in their own era. Although thingswithwings is not a teenage writer, hir writing is a good example of the way fanfiction can become a space which introduces both teenage and adult readers into new critical readings of the text and the world.