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  • What Is Fanfiction and Why Are People Saying Such Nice Things about It?
  • Bronwen Thomas (bio)

The term fanfiction (sometimes abbreviated as fanfic) refers to stories produced by fans based on plot lines and characters from either a single source text or else a “canon” of works; these fan-created narratives often take the pre-existing storyworld in a new, sometimes bizarre, direction. While the activities of fans may take many forms, writing stories deriving from one or more source texts has long been the most popular way of concretizing and disseminating their passion for a particular fictional universe. Fanfiction’s origins have been traced back to science fiction magazines in the 1920s and 1930s, but links have also been drawn with oral and mythic traditions; with traditions of collective interpretation, such as Jewish midrash (Derecho 2006); and with “profics” such as Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (Pugh 2005), which functions as a kind of prequel for Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Neverthe [End Page 1] less, fanfiction remained a fairly underground and marginalized activity until the advent of digital technologies and the World Wide Web. Now fans can access vast communities of people who share their interests, publish and get feedback on their stories almost instantaneously, and challenge boundaries between authors and readers, creation and interpretation. Much excitement has greeted this explosion of fan activity, not only within particular fan communities but also within fields of academic inquiry such as literary and narrative theory, ethnography, feminism and queer theory, and cultural studies.

This article sets out to explore the many nice things that have been said about fanfiction, revisiting—and questioning—some of the utopian rhetoric found in earlier studies. I also ask what contribution narratology and literary studies might make to the research on fanfiction, particularly with regard to understanding the processes involved in fanfic’s production and reception. The converse question is equally relevant: how might coming to terms with fanfiction require a rethinking of basic narratological methods and aims? Finally, I reexamine debates about the quality and aesthetic value of stories emerging from communities of fans.

In the next section I provide a thumbnail history of work on fanfiction, discussing three “waves” of scholarship on this form of narrative practice. The subsequent section furnishes a programmatic outline of key issues and directions for future work in the field, drawing on a range of illustrative examples. I then zoom in on one instance of fanfiction to demonstrate the salience of the issues outlined in my survey of the field and to sketch strategies for addressing those issues.

A Brief Overview of Fanfiction Studies

Up to now, the study of fanfiction has been dominated by media and cultural studies, with some anthropological and psychoanalytical work focusing on the behavior and motivations of fans. Issues of methodology and particularly the relationship between “academic” and “fan” tend to dominate, and close textual analysis is often denigrated on the basis that the identities and practices of fans cannot be abstracted from the sorts of texts they write, but must be analyzed as socially situated practices [End Page 2] and activities. Perhaps because of the need to defend and rearticulate the previously castigated category of the “fan,” there is a tendency to employ a rather idealistic rhetoric—for example, in Pugh’s (2005) claim that fanfiction represents a democratic genre, or Stasi’s (2006) claim that this kind of writing is “canny, sophisticated and resonant with postmodern textuality” (129). While studies such as these at least try to locate fanfiction alongside literary traditions and conventions, media studies approaches consciously steer clear of any attempt to evaluate fanfiction based on the quality of the writing, the plotting, or the characterization, for fear of being seen to be outside or “above” the object of study.

In his overview of fanfiction studies, Cornel Sandvoss (2005) claims that the first “wave” of theory was heavily influenced by Marxism and tended to assume a simple dichotomy of power in which the fans were the powerless opposing the might of the franchises and corporations that owned the rights to the characters and storylines fans loved and wrote about. For example, in one of the earliest studies, John...