Monday, August 20, 2012

Fan fiction: the bastard child in the literary corner making leaps for diversity

FAN FICTION is to the literary world what Tasmania is to Australia. It’s a pocket ecosystem plonked just off the more frequented mainland, happy in its distance and difference but altogether separated by rough waters. Rough waters that have become more turbulent with the rampant success of textbook case of fan fiction – Fifty Shades of Grey.

Fan fiction is an endless cycle of storytelling where beloved characters can live forever in the imagination of its readers. Where violently loathed villains can get their just desserts, Bella can choose Jacob and have his devilishly attractive werewolf babies, and Elizabeth Bennet can be a kick-ass zombie fighter.

Taking a text—be it a film, book, comic, play, musical or television show—and playing with its world and characters to create new stories is part of a grand tradition dating back to the likes of Homer and the Iliad. Fast forward a few millenniums and we have Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, a parallel narrative of Jane Eyre; Geraldine Brook’s March that tells the story of Little Woman from the point of view of an absent character; Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, a prequel to The Wizard of Oz; and Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, an alternative universe to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Popular culture is riddled with fan fiction; only it isn’t called fan fiction. To the mainstream, fan fiction is a dirty word interchangeable with soft porn and wannabe writers. From erotica about vampires, bodice-busting women, and men with washboard abdominals, to Romeo and Juliet soliloquies in broken iambic pentameter straight out of a Year Nine creative writing journal, the fan fiction community houses many of the sex-obsessed, semi-illiterates of this world.

Realistically, though, the bad and downright ugly in fan fiction get a disproportionate amount of attention. That is if fan fiction gets media attention at all—which it often doesn’t. It’s the bastard child in the corner no one in literary circles like to talk about. Unless the case in hand is Fifty Shades of Grey, which was originally Twilight fan fiction, and has now beaten J.K Rolling’s Harry Potter series to be the fastest-selling paperback of all time.

Love them or loathe them, fan fiction communities are on the rise thanks to the Internet. Fanfictiondotnet – one of the largest online fan fiction archives – holds over half a million Harry Potter stories and receives over six million hits per month. Australians make up a significant chunk of that traffic. A study of fanfictiondotnet users last year found Australia has the fourth-highest number of member accounts on the site, after the US, UK and Canada. Chances are your partner, sibling, children, friend or colleague reads fan fiction. They might even write it.

Whether they’ll tell you or not, though, is another matter entirely. It is common for authors to keep their fan fiction habits on the quiet. Dana Jenks, as she is known in the fan fiction community, is a high school music teacher and composer. Her students and colleagues don’t know that she writes fan fiction, and Dana is determined to keep it that way. Dana writes Phantom of the Opera stories to free up creative juices for her opera compositions, and finds fanfictiondotnet is a good testing-ground for her ideas. “I’m interested in learning what makes a story work musically and gaining insight into the minds of music-loving fans,” she says. “Fan fiction is a giant playground where it is fun to experiment without much risk.” It’s a private hobby that feeds into her public and professional life, but never the other way around.

Theatre stagehand, Caitlin Kenny, on the other hand, will happily tell anyone willing to listen about her love of River Song/Doctor fan fiction in the Doctor Who fandom and Sirius/Lupin pairings in the Harry Potter stories. Caitlin has battled in heated arguments on fan forums about why River – not Rose – is the Doctor’s true love. For Caitlin, reading and writing Doctor/River fan fiction is a legitimising, cathartic process for her own life choices. She says what makes a text appealing is the individual meaning and relevance people find in stories to their own lives. “[River] is beautiful, but she’s a size 12 and sexy, and the Doctor finds her attractive. I like that because it feels like my life is legitimised with my beautiful, English boyfriend,” she says. Just as writers of canonical texts insert their own values, romantic interests and personalities into their characters and plot scenarios, so too do fan fiction writers when re-crafting such stories.

It comes as no surprise, then, that fan fiction offers some of the most diverse insights into how readers make sense of themselves and the characters they interact with. Far from intellectual junk food, fan fiction academic at the University of Sydney Joseph Brennan argues that fan fiction is a useful anthropological object of study that reveals a lot about society and the way it makes meaning.

Joseph’s research focuses on slash fiction. That is, the “queering” of stories to reflect homosexual elements. In the slash community, Joseph says engagement becomes an exercise in asserting power and reclaiming a text to reflect the sexual diversity found in society. “When reading texts I look for gaps, and in those gaps I find problematic representations,” he says. The homophobic characterisation of Dean in Supernatural is a case point for Joseph. “Dean regularly cracks gay jokes on the show, but, by reclaiming Dean, [through slash fan fiction] readers can fix a lot of the negative stereotypes he projects,” he says. By allowing characters the happiness that is denied in the canon, writers and readers can share in a semblance of their happiness. “It’s quite personal,” he says.

Academically enlightening, personally fulfilling, and creatively gratifying, fan fiction fills a gap in many people’s lives. What makes Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead different from Jo Blo’s re-telling of Wuthering Heights through the eyes of Heathcliff can be whittled down to the quality of ideas and writing proficiency. This admittedly can be a deal breaker, but the action of the mind, of thinking beyond what readers are hand-fed, is the same. It’s human curiosity. In a word, it’s storytelling. The value lies in what you make of it. As fanfictiondotnet’s motto says, “unleash your imagination” and make of it what you will.

(NOTE that this is a re-working [and re-sizing] of an earlier fan fiction feature published on this blog).