You recently surveyed your listeners to get a clearer sense of how they defined fanfiction. What were some of the more interesting insights to emerge from this discussion?
Flourish: The survey was pretty provisional and unscientific! But for me, the most interesting takeaway was that the newer people were to fanfic and fandom, the less of a line they drew between fanfic and original fiction. Nearly everyone we surveyed agreed that it was really important that fanfic was based on a source text—that is, most people shared a formalist definition. But people who used a cluster of terms that we called “fanfiction is nonprofessional” (making statements like “fanfiction is unauthorized,” that it is “not written by the original creator,” that it is “not for profit,” that it is “distributed for free,” or that it is “amateur,” “unprofessional,” “noncommercial” or “nonliterary”) were more likely to have entered fandom earlier, often in the 1990s.
My unsubstantiated theory is that fandom was much more discrete in the 1990s, because the entertainment industry was more litigious. Today, companies like Wattpad have closed that gap. So people who have gotten involved with fanfiction more recently don’t believe that there is as much of a difference between fanfic and what older fans might call “profic.”
What I personally realized, more than any insights the survey gave, was how much I would love to do a properly representative study of the entire United States and learn about the wider public’s fannish behavior patterns and perceptions of fandom. The study we did, and nearly every study I’ve seen (with the exception of one completed by the agency Troika last year), involved only people who were tangentially aware of fandom or knew to call their own behaviors “fannish.” I’d love to see a study that was carefully designed to measure fannish types of behavior separate from the “fandom” label, and given to people who aren’t necessarily already part of fan culture.
I know when I was writing Textual Poachers there were certain topics which were basically taboo to discuss outside the fan community—at the time, real person slash was perhaps the biggest one of these. Are there still taboos within fandom? If so, are there any topics that you have discussed in the podcast that have drawn fire from people in the fan community?
Elizabeth: There are certainly topics that provoke a great deal of debate in transformative media fandom spaces these days—I’m not sure I’d describe them as taboo, since they are widely practiced and have strong defenders and detractors, but conversations about, say, whether people should be allowed to create explicit fanworks involving underage characters, or whether people should be allowed to depict rape in fanworks, are mainstays on my Tumblr dash these days. These are murky conversations, and we haven’t necessarily avoided these topics, but we haven’t devoted full episodes to them, just touched on them in passing.
Often complex intra-fandom discussions that we’ve devoted full episodes to include topics like racism in fandom and the intersections between queer shipping, queer representation, and queerphobia. I don’t want to call any of these topics taboo—at all. But they certainly are conversations that tend to be strongly critical of fans and fandom at large—the same critiques we have for the media and content creators extend to fandom’s consumption and creation as well.
For the racism conversations in particular we’ve worked to center as many fans of color, especially black fans, as we can; we’re extraordinarily aware of the limitations of two white women talking about race and fan culture. I definitely see a sort of defensive pushback from fans with these conversations about fandom and marginalized identities—the old “I’m just here to have fun” line—but the response to our fandom-critical episodes has been pretty positive. I mean, we’re not actively googling ourselves here, there could be plenty of hate out there for any of what we do, but we’re not getting angry messages in our inbox.
One topic we circle that I think tends to touch a nerve is the monetization of fanworks, specifically fanfiction—whenever we bring it up we get a good amount of pushback (often against things we aren’t even advocating—a fair bit of it feels like a knee-jerk response to another set of ideas). A few people have even included our podcast (and the work we do with fandom professionally) in their criticism: they disapprove of anyone “profiting off of fandom” in any capacity.
Perhaps tangentially related: we get a bit of pushback when we talk about the evolution of the culture of critique in a lot of fanfiction spaces, how it’s taboo (there we go!) in a lot of spheres to give critical or negative feedback on fanworks. Flourish and I are coming from tricky positions here: most of the work we put out in the world is in a professional context, but it’s also heavily scrutinized and critiqued. (I can tell you from editing Flourish that she actually expects—even welcomes!—her work being torn apart.)
Flourish: I agree with what Elizabeth has said, and want to note that I think the reason why some of those taboos have broken down is because of the way that fan culture has come more fully into contact with capitalism. (Only slightly kidding.) Take, for example, Wattpad. Fanfic archives didn’t prioritize mobile reading and writing, because they were run by people primarily seeking to serve the needs of their existing community, not to imagine the needs of a possible larger community and innovate to draw them in. So people who prefer to consume and create stories on phones found Wattpad and began creating fanfic there. Wattpad took notice and, to their credit, began learning about fandom and trying to appeal to a segment of fanfic authors. But in so doing they discovered real person fanfiction and began to publicize it. In other cases fanfic authors were doing this themselves, as 50 Shades of Grey began to break down the idea that if you file the serial numbers off your fanfic you should have the courtesy to hide it.
In other words, money is what has made these taboos weaken, and I don’t hide the fact that I think this is an inexorable force that ends in the commodification of all parts of fan culture. My main hope is that fans can leverage this change to protect their rights, be taken more seriously by the culture at large, and preserve spaces in which fans can create transformative works for love and not money. But, of course, not everybody shares this view.
Francesca Coppa recently published an anthology of fanfiction for use in the classroom. What criteria would you use to determine which stories to include in such a book? Do you have any general insights in terms of how fans assess the quality of fan works?
Elizabeth: I’m not 100% sure I would be publishing such a book! :-) But the question of how fans assess fanworks fascinates both of us—we devoted a whole episode to it, talking with my newsletter partner, Gavia Baker-Whitelaw, another fandom journalist. Gav and I have been collaborating on The Rec Center for nearly 100 issues at this point: it’s a weekly newsletter where we share fandom-related articles, our favorite Tumblr and Twitter posts, fanart (with permission!), and a dedicated fanfic section, 5-10 recs written by one of us, a guest poster, or culled from our one-off submissions form that readers submit to every week.
Early on we sent out a survey to readers asking for feedback and trying to get a sense of preferences—were people fandom-monogamous when they read? Did they prefer certain types of fic over others? It was a relatively small sample—only a few hundred readers—but I was really surprised to see how many people said they would read fic without knowing the source material it was based on. I cannot do this; I actually have a hard time reading fic from fandoms I’ve been in but have drifted away from, even though I remember those stories as being technically good as well as emotionally meaningful. For me, fic is wrapped up in my feelings about the source material at the time, so much so that I wonder sometimes if it affects my critical judgement of a work.
So to put together an anthology would be to strip out all that context—which I know is not an issue for a lot of fanfic readers! But it certainly is for some: fanfiction separated from that active fannish feeling about the source material—a friend recently described this, for her, as a lightswitch that gets flipped on and off—can be, for some people, missing some integral part of the work. For others, fanfic divorced from the communal is similarly incomplete, whether this means actual dialogue with fic writers and other readers or simply a fic’s contextual position within fanon or a body of fanfiction.
Flourish: Like Elizabeth, I don’t particularly love the idea of reading fanfiction without the context of the original work. So while I really like Francesca’s book, and think it’s a good idea, I would prefer to assign students fanfiction based on something I can assign them to read or watch in the context of the class. It’s not enough to assign a class an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and then give them Buffy fanfic to read, in my opinion. I’d rather give them an Inception story to read, after assigning them the movie to watch. In my experience, the new Star Trek movies have been a boon: students with Trek familiarity get a lot out of reading Trek fanfic, but even a student who’s never seen Star Trek can watch the 2009 movie and know enough to at least begin approaching fic.
I think emotional engagement with the source material is a significant part of fan reading and writing, but for me it’s only one of two pleasures I get from fanfic, and I don’t need every story to fulfill both pleasures. The other pleasure is the pleasure of seeing a clever argument made about the source material. This is the Wide Sargasso Sea model of fanfic and I think it’s much easier to teach. You can’t induce someone to feel a particular way about canon and so understand from the inside the feeling of reading a fic that is just perfectly about your OTP. But you can show someone a story that’s making a fabulously convincing and clear argument about a source text and they can understand that argument whether or not they have that affective response.
If I were picking stories to teach, I would certainly lead with that type of “argument story,” but I would try to include stories that are primarily valuable for emotional engagement reasons as well—tropey stories, stories that exist solely for shipping purposes, stories that are short and plotless and just drop you into a character like a warm bath. I think that these stories, which many people might dismiss as “bad” from an outsider’s perspective, actually get at the heart of a lot of what people love from fanfic, and so even if there’s not a hope in the world of getting that across, I’d like to talk about it. (Of course, this runs the risk of suggesting to students that fanfic stories are either great arguments or emotionally engaging, which is very far from the truth, but nothing’s perfect.)
Elizabeth: So to add on that, it’s my understanding that Anne Jamison, who teaches fic in the classroom, tries to choose works from very well-known source material—most of her students will have some knowledge of, say, Sherlock Holmes, or Harry Potter. So that gets to your understanding of the source text worry. But like I said, there are lots of fic readers out there who don’t care about the source text—maybe it’s a self-selecting pool of people who are really into fanfiction at large, but the fact that so many of The Rec Center’s readers don’t need source material knowledge was really telling to me—as is the popularity of things like high school and college AUs, soulmate AUs, Hogwarts AUs, some modern AUs for non-modern source material, and other intra-fandom tropes that often talk more to each other, across fandoms, than they do to the source material from which they’re derived.
And I know Flourish tried to backtrack a bit from creating a binary between “great arguments” and “emotionally engaging”—for me, a fic really needs to have both, so that blows the binary right there—but I also want to push back against the idea that “emotionally engaging” means things like “tropey stories, stories that exist solely for shipping purposes, stories that are short and plotless and just drop you into a character like a warm bath.” For me, a lot of the time that great argument is directly tied up in my emotional engagement with the source material.
But I think what Flourish writes here is directly tied up in how tricky it is to explain fic to non-fic people, and how difficult it is to talk about affect without resorting to “some stories make serious arguments and other ones are id-pleasing warm baths.” A lot of my journey as a ~fandom professional has been, I don’t know, maturing out of my desire to prove that some fanfiction was very Serious Literature, and today a lot of my work is getting people to take the practice seriously, rather than trying to lift up the “serious stories.” But that’s easier to teach in the context of fan studies, where you’re looking at fans and their practices, than it is to teach in an English class, when you’re primarily looking at texts rather than readers and writers. Luckily neither of us are compiling these anthologies or teaching these classes, so I guess we’re safe for now!
Flourish: And now all your readers understand what it’s like when we record our podcast and get into arguments in which we basically agree with each other! (We can’t help it.)
A central media narrative in recent years has centered around "toxic fandom", and in particular, white male fan backlash against diversity casting. Yet, we also know that many fans have been strong advocates of diversity and inclusion in popular media franchises. How would you characterize the current state of the debate within fandom around these issues?
Elizabeth: [long weary sigh] Fandom isn’t broken and fandom isn’t inherently toxic, but fandom is undeniably a mess right now. And the straight white male fan reactionaries are using the same channels, and often the same techniques, as the fans who are clamoring for increased diversity in pop culture media—I understand why people try to draw these parallels! But I also see “fans clamoring for more diversity” to be pretty muddled in practice: many, many fans are doing so in good faith (and the sort of pop culture texts that draw in fandom have a *particularly* bad track record on this front—has there been an explicit acknowledgement of any queer character in any of the superhero franchises onscreen? Don’t get me started on Star Wars...) but there are certainly fans who are using calls for diversity as a weapon to bludgeon other fans in ship wars, as justification for harassing creators who don’t validate their ship, etc.
Meanwhile fandom isn’t particularly good at cleaning its own house, as it were: within fandom, conversations about racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc, can be met with reactionary defensiveness.
People often suggest that when our screens become more diverse, when we actually see a broad range of queer characters, or characters of any given racial and/or ethnic background, or we finally dump the ratio of 7 dudes to 1 lady in every group teaming up to fight the bad guys, then a lot of this will die down. I’m skeptical, to put it lightly. Look at Harry, Ron, and Hermione: ship wars get ugly even when people are fighting about which white dude the woman should wind up with. (I’m feeling fairly cynical about all of this right now because my current fandom has a lot of queer rep, about half the main cast, and I still see the same fights and patterns replicated in fandoms where there are zero canonically queer characters.)
Fan/creator interaction remains one of the top things we discuss on Fansplaining, and it’s a fraught topic to explore right now—it’s easy enough to say that these are the “growing pains” of the mainstreaming of fandom and the exposure of both sides of that fan/creator divide to each other via social media, but in practice, it’s hard to see past that to a world where fans’ desires aren’t weaponized in the way they are now. Add on top of that my general sense that the “mainstreaming” only goes so far: people outside fandom only have a fraction of the whole picture, and wind up running with their assumptions.
I can see why fandom looks toxic to someone who hasn’t actually spent any time in the world. I can see why creators would be totally freaked out by the exchanges they see on Twitter. But I also see creators learning all the wrong lessons from these exchanges—and I’m not sure how we stop these cycles.
Flourish: And this goes both ways! One of the reason “toxic fans” are considered toxic, whether they are pro-diversity or not, is that they lash out directly at creators, many of whom don’t have the kind of power fans think they do. While I have more sympathy for the politics of some groups of fans that do this than others, the fact remains that whether you are sending threats to a creator for making a character queer or for not making a character queer, you are still sending threats.
But I think it’s wrongheaded to view this as “toxic fandom” alone. We see the same kind of behavior exhibited in politics and in every other arena of life. In my opinion, what we are really dealing with here is the result of the social media systems that shape our daily interactions, and these systems have the greatest impact on our behavior when we’re using them to connect with people we don’t know or rarely interact with in person. Most of the time we talk about this with regard to the increasing polarization of the public, not just in the United States but everywhere that social media exists (which is everywhere). But I think it has a great impact on fandom as well.
Unfortunately, neither fans nor anyone else seem to be talking about the structural problems that impact our behavior. It’s a lot easier to frame things in a personal responsibility narrative: “toxic fans need to not be such jerks,” “people who advocate for diversity but then use toxic tactics should be kicked out of fandom,” etc. But I don’t think that personal responsibility and good judgment alone will get us out of these cycles, which fundamentally continue (at least in part) because of the way our communities and communication methods are designed.
Flourish Klink is half of Fansplaining. She is Chief Research Officer and a partner in Chaotic Good Studios, where she develops entertainment franchises and helps companies and brands understand fan culture. She was formerly a partner in The Alchemists Transmedia Storytelling Co. and led fan strategy for the award-winning Hulu Original show East Los High. As a teenager, Flourish helped organize the first ever Harry Potter fan convention and was a co-founder of FictionAlley.org. She holds an MS from MIT and a BA from Reed College.
Elizabeth Minkel is the other half of Fansplaining. She's written about fan culture for the New Statesman, The Guardian, The New Yorker, The Millions, and more. She's the audience development editor at Storythings, where she helps both foster and study communities of
readers. She's also the co-curator of The Rec Center, a weekly fandom newsletter she writes with fellow fan culture journalist Gavia Baker-Whitelaw. She studied English at Amherst College and has an MA in the digital humanities from University College London.