Transforming Fandom: The FF Word

A few months ago, the Collectiva Diva and I sat down and had a long discussion on what it means to be in a fandom. For us and others like us, a fandom is a safe place–a space where interests, theories, and ideas are expressed, validated, and transformed. For others, “fandom” is the margin into which society pushes those of us who take books/films/television/video games/comics “too seriously.” If you are in a fandom (and let’s face it, if you’ve been reading our blog, you are), you’ve inevitably faced fandom shaming at some point or other.

But why should we be ashamed? Fandoms are another means by which we express our identities, a line on our personality resume. Throughout the next seven weeks, the Collectiva Diva and I will be discussing a variety of fandoms and key issues surrounding them.  You may know us as fangirls afficionados, but the Diva and I will be putting on our academic caps and using our graduate degrees for good in this series of posts as we discuss what it means to be a fan, the power of fandom, and why we should never be ashamed of any of it.

The FF Word: Blurred Lines in Criticism and Copyright of Fan Fiction

Source: The New Yorker
Source: The New Yorker

Fan fiction holds a tenuous (and sometimes volatile) relationship with the canon on which it is written. Pieces written by fans have occasionally been dismissed by society at large as “copyright infringement” or “unoriginal” or, as it pertains to certain types of fan fiction, “vulgar.” The truth is that fan fiction can be all of these things or none of them. A loose definition of fan fiction is any fictional piece written by a fan using setting/plot/characters/etc. from a text authored by someone else. This definition, although workable in a day-to-day context, is unsuitable for a comprehensive guide to the history and legal issues surrounding fan works for the following reasons: 1) many well-known  texts have sources in older works, such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s incorporation of elements commonly seen in Norse mythology and legends in his Middle-earth histories; 2) the very act of reading is an implied collaboration between reader and writer to tell a story–the writer provides a description of the protagonist, but the reader interprets that description and creates his or her own mental image for it. This brings us to two questions: Who defines the text? And who owns it?

In short: is it the author who gives the story its meaning, or is it the reader?

Who defines a text?

Throughout the history of literary criticism, the changing tides of critical schools have placed the power of interpretation of a text varying hands. For Old Historicists, the author (or poet or playwright) was glorified. For New Critics, nothing existed outside the text itself; the focus was purely on the words of a text and all meaning was derived from them. Neither of these critical groups considered the power of the reader, however. Later critics (such as Reader Response critics) realized the power of the observer in creative works because “all encounters with textual structures thus require ideational activity that inherently ties the text to its reader. No text (and content) exists independently” (Sandvoss 21). Some critics, in particular Roland Barthes, have referred to this power-shift as “the death of the author.”  Yet as the field of fan studies has progressed, it has reached an apex in terms of its radicalism; once, it was shocking to consider the reader’s power over the author, but now, if “all that fan studies can do is to highlight the relative value of all texts and the inherent supremacy of the reader over the text, the field has reached its conceptual and empirical frontiers” (Sandvoss 27); this apex infers the apparent death of the reader, as well as the author. In this post-postmodern and post-poststructuralist age, we now recognize that the “aesthetic value” of a text stems  from the relationships between the author, the text, and the reader, and the act of reading becomes “a form of dialogue between text and reader” (28). In simpler terms: a text’s meaning is derived from authorial intent, reader interpretation, as well as the text itself.

Fandoms, or fans, have embraced this approach to interpreting texts in a way that most critical theorists have not. This is not to say that the fandom is a substitute for the critic (or even if such a thing is needed and or acceptable, but that’s another debate entirely), but rather that the fandom imbues a text, and thereby its author, with meaning that previously only the critic had the power to prescribe:

The fate of the author and reader are rather more intertwined than Barthes suggests; the process of reading as an act of communication spans like a line between two poles–one depends on the other. When the author is eradicated from the text, when all gaps disappear, the meaning that fans create is no longer based on reading but on audience activity…It constitutes a particular form of engagement with the text that presupposes familiarity and in which our expectations are more rigid, our determination to construct meaning in reference to the function of fandom greater than in other processes of reading. However, it does so in relation to no specific texts, but applies across the spectrum of textuality from romantic poetry to television cartoon programs. (Sandvoss 31)

Megan Abrahamson, in her article ” J.R.R. Tolkien, Fanfiction, and ‘The Freedom of the Reader'” suggests that it is by this “virtue of [the fans’] close relationship to and rereading of their fantexts, [they] actually develop critical interpretive power over a text similar to that of a scholarly reader” (58).  Unlike scholarly communities, however, interpretations and meta-commentaries often go hand-in-hand with fan works, such as art or fan fiction. Abrahamson offers the example of  Tumblr’s Tolkien fandom, who on a predetermined “Noldor Independence Day,” celebrated by “posting fanworks in various mediums that characterized the Noldor’s defiance of the Valar and journey to Middle-earth as a bold and positive move away from a corrupt system of government, in defiance of the narrative in The Silmarillion that describes this as Noldor’s ‘folly'” (62). In this scenario, the text and the author give no indication that the Valar preside over Valinor in any unjust or corrupt manner, but the Tolkien fandom has given the Noldor motive and purpose for this event in the narrative. Tolkien may have found such interpretations to be entirely off-the-mark, but as Abrahamson notes, he often encouraged readers’ personal interpretations of his works.

It is through this multi-lensed focus that we approach the subject of fan fiction. If reading creates the dialogue between the text and reader, how does fan fiction involve itself in the lives (and subsequent deaths) of the author and reader? What purpose does fan fiction serve to the canon?

Who owns a text?

The main and, some would say, most important issue surrounding fan fiction is the protection of intellectual property, or copyright. Those who would summarily dismiss fan fiction as “copyright infringement” or “unoriginal” may not be aware of what constitutes the former or of the implications of the latter. To those outside of fandom, “fan fiction” may be misconstrued as “plagiarism.”  To understand the current perceptions (or misconceptions, as the case may be) of fan fiction, we must look backward. While it is impossible to ascertain the exact start date of fan fiction (some credit the Star Trek fandom, but the Brontë sisters were known to have penned a fan fiction-esque story or two), the rise of literary piracy in the nineteenth century created tension on both sides of the Pond. Charles Dickens was especially mindful of his intellectual property, and in his 1842 trip to the United States, he “made himself unpopular by attacking America for not signing an international copyright agreement, and for pirating his works” (John 152). It wasn’t until 1891 that the United States passed the International Copyright Act, which protects foreign works as well as ones authored by American citizens.

Charles Dickens Source:
Charles Dickens

To the outsider eye, this history of plagiarism and piracy may seem peripheral to the issues surrounding fan fiction, but the long (and bitter) debate between authors, publishing houses, and governments to protect intellectual property is still showing its effects in today’s society. We cling to our rights as intellectual property owners without fully understanding what that means, and what it means to have those rights infringed upon. The International Copyright Act of 1891 (and its foreign companions) were put into place to prevent blatant thievery of such property. In Aaron Schwabach’s Fan Fiction and Copyright: Outsider Works and Intellectual Property Protection, he postulates three issues that an author can take with fan fiction:

First, the owner may object to the way in which the original material is used or depicted. U.S. copyright law recognizes only economic, not moral, rights in copyrighted works and characters, and provides no relief to the content owner in the absence of an actual infringement of copyright…Second, the owner may object because the fanfic, by anticipating the author’s future work, exposes the author to liability for copyright infringement in his or her future work. Third, the owner may object because the fanfic or other fan work borrows too extensively from his or her copyrighted work. (93)

In each scenario, the judgment of whether or not a copyright infringement has occurred rests solely in the hands of the presiding judge (although copyright infringement is more likely to be found in the latter two scenarios). If such concerns, and such examples of copyright litigation exist, why is fan fiction still a flourishing area in fandom? Aren’t fan fiction writers concerned about copyright infringement?

Before the advent of the internet, select fan fiction works circulated in zines, or small fan-published magazines containing fan fiction, art, etc. The advantage of zines existed in their small circulation–usually less than 1,000–and it was unlikely that the original content creators would ever stumble across them. Enter the digital age, and fan fiction quickly found a home amongst blogs and internet archive sites, usually sporting a disclaimer that the fan fiction author makes no profit from their work. The circulation of fan fiction, particularly in the larger fandoms, is in the potential thousands (or in some cases, such as MadLori’s “Performance in a Leading Role, or Fayjay’s “The Student Prince,” hundreds of thousands). If authors are truly concerned about copyright infringement, why are such prevalent and popular works allowed to exist?

Fan fiction, if appropriately approached, is considered to be “fair use” of the source material if its purpose is parody, such as Gryfindor777’s “Harry Potter and co Write Fanfiction” or if it is considered to be a transformative work. This means, that while a fan fiction piece is, by its very nature, derivative, it also contains “substantial transformations of the original works” (Schwabach 69). These transformations can be changing the relationships between characters (as is the norm in slash fan fiction), transporting the characters to a different setting (or occasionally, fandom), or by drastically altering the canon in which the characters appear. (This is, by no means, a comprehensive list of the “fair use” possibilities or the only definition of “transformative works.”) Although a content creator may own the intellectual rights to a text, such copyright does not exclude a fandom’s interpretation of such a work through the medium of fan fiction.

Why fan fiction?

In the past, texts that survived in the “literary canon” (and now appear in Norton anthologies) were chosen by the literary critic, the upper class, the highbrow culture. Charles Dickens is arguably the greatest British novelist of the 19th century, but in his time, he was far less popular than his contemporary, G.W. M. Reynolds, who sold over a million copies of his work in his lifetime. The tide is changing in the 21st century, however, because we live in a society that is beginning to realize the marketing potential and publicity power of the fandom, and fan fiction is becoming the new word-of-mouth in advertising. The “highbrow” may no longer be what survives into the anthologies of the next generation. Indeed, perhaps the time of the anthology is over, now that fandoms create archival data every day. Such data is not isolated either. Neighboring fandoms are familiar with the “ships” and the general plot of texts because of fandom-centric posting on social networking sites such as Tumblr, Twitter, or Pinterest. Fan fiction is even becoming marketable in its own right; the best-selling Fifty Shades of  Grey began as a Twilight fan fiction, after all. But, beyond fan fiction’s potential in the economic sense, it has become the decisive culmination of textual interpretation meeting reader response in collaboration with authorial intent. The engagement of fans in meta-narrative exposition and fictional narrative exploration has shifted the literary power dynamic once more; technology and social networking has lessened the divide between content creators and fans. We are now partners, collaborating together to create multi-layered, complex, and enriched canons, changing the tide  to the pull of the fandom culture.

-The Collectress

For more of my ramblings, follow me on Twitter. @dearcollectress

 Works Cited/Consulted

Abrahamson, Megan. “J.R.R. Tolkien, Fanfiction, and “The Freedom of the Reader”.”Mythlore 32: 55-74. Print.

Allingham, Philip. “Nineteenth-Century British and American Copyright Law.” Nineteenth-Century British and American Copyright Law. The Victorian Web, n.d. Web. 4 May 2014. <;.

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Image – Music – Text. Ed. and trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. 142-148.

John, Juliet. “The Novels and Popular Culture.” A Companion to Charles Dickens . Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.  Print.

Sandvoss, Cornel. “The Death of the Reader? Literary Theory and the Study of Texts in Popular Culture.” Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World. New York: New York UP, 2007. Print.

Schwabach, Aaron. Fan fiction and copyright outsider works and intellectual property protection. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2011. Print.