Derivative By Any Other Name; or, A Cultural Approach to Fan Fiction Genre Theory

For the most part, fan fiction is like porn—we know it when we see it. And yet when asked to delineate its boundaries, the genre is surprisingly hard to categorize. The Organization for Transformative Works (OTW) recently requested input from fans surrounding the possible inclusion of original fiction into their central fan fiction archive, the Archive of Our Own (AO3). In turn, fans began debating what characterizes fan fiction and, more importantly, what doesn’t (for links, see metafandom). The central question to me is definitional and categorical, namely whether fan fiction as a genre is defined by textually intrinsic qualities or by paratextual and social elements. I believe that a text-intrinsic taxonomy of what constitutes fan works is highly problematic and its attempt to create stable categories will generate too many omissions and exclusions. Instead, I follow Jason Mittell, who argues for a cultural construction of genres as “cultural categories that surpass the boundaries of media texts and operate within industry, audience, and cultural practices as well” (Cultural Approach to Television Genre Theory). Or, said differently, by calling something a fan text, the community has ascribed it to the generic category in which it should be understood.

Of course, there is much to recommend a text-intrinsic definition, most of all that it’d be easier if we could create a taxonomy in which every text belonged to a given genre regardless of contextual information. The most obvious choice in defining fan fiction as a genre is to characterize it by its derivative/transformative character. After all, that is a generally accepted definition of fan fiction: fiction that expands/comments on/criticizes existing media texts. Creating a taxonomy that relies on the transformative process, however, expands the category to near uselessness. We suddenly need to include postmodern retellings, from Wide Sargasso Sea to The Hours, but also Biblical and mythological transformative works, from Paradise Lost to Ulysses. In short, given the intertextuality of literature generally and the central role of certain canonical Western texts specifically, much of the Western canon would suddenly fall under fan fiction.

While this problem could be circumvented by defining fan fiction as only those texts who are intertextual with commercial and copyrighted media texts, this definition is likewise flawed insofar as it relies on the fairly arbitrary copyright laws that often have more to do with protection of copyright owners than literary or genre categories. Moreover, such a definition would exclude large swaths of fan fiction that are, for the most part accepted as fan fiction by most, including historical Real People Fiction (RPF), Bible and mythological fan fiction, as well as fan fiction transforming Shakespeare and Austen and everyone who’s fallen out of copyright. In fact, one of the larger and more community building challenges in fandom has been the yearly Rare Fandom Yuletide Challenge, which includes all of these categories and others that might easily not fall under this more narrow definition.

Yuletide, however, indicates what for me is the central quality that distinguishes a fan-created Lizzie who runs off with Mr. Darcy against her parents’ will from Bridget Jones’ Diary or even Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I’d suggest that fan fiction exists within a fan community for its creation, distribution, and reception. As such, the two commercial Austen transformations cannot be fan works insofar as they are not culturally situated within a fan community: while they are clearly in intertextual dialogue with the source text, they are not so with one another or a community of fans and their interpretations. Fan fiction, on the other hand, is both–though depending on text and writer to varying degrees. But in the end, it is the writers’ decision to situate their story within the complex network of other transformative works and thus making it fan fiction: by labeling it as fan fiction; by following the shared paratextual apparatus of headers; or by submitting it to a fan fiction archive. Fan is as fan does, and the cultural context of a fan work indeed ultimately determines whether we are reading a New York Times bestseller, a tie-in novel, or a fan work—even if they do not differ in contents, quality, or reliance on the source text.


15 comments for “Derivative By Any Other Name; or, A Cultural Approach to Fan Fiction Genre Theory

  1. April 21, 2010 at 2:51 PM

    Great overview of the minefield of categorization. Fan is as fan does seems like it should be the guiding principle of any fan-generated space, although as the skepticism about OTW from some quarters (and other issues, as we’ve discussed) indicates, it’s easier said than done!

    I’m reading this just as I’m prepping a lecture and discussion on the Star Wars chapter in Convergence Culture (for my Cultures of Production course), and it’s an excellent reminder that the struggles over works and uses aren’t only between fans and TPTB (i.e., “the powers that be”: copyright holders). They’re also very much between fans. While these differences are valuable in the sense that they insure more diverse and dynamic fan cultures, they may also lead to excessive mutual exclusivity, where different fannish cultures may seal themselves off from each other, or even engage in perpetual war.

    This is why the OTW is so important, as a (not necessarily “the”) resource center for otherwise diverse fandoms, a sort of common currency or forum for conceptualizing what fandom is, and articulating its rights, in a democratic and participatory way. It’s not the way most of the world operates (including fandom in general), unfortunately, but it is an ongoing experiment, and should be supported accordingly.

    • April 22, 2010 at 9:31 AM

      Thanks, Derek!

      I think the borderpolicing is something that subcultures in general are prone to do, and I’m simultaneously immensely sympathetic to the feeling of wanting to find your own as it also quickly becomes exclusionary.

      And you’re right that if OTW achieves anything, it’s in modeling these debates openly, even if not everyone can or will be pleased with the final decisions.

  2. April 21, 2010 at 3:14 PM

    Not surprisingly, I’m sympathetic to this argument! (And it’s worth noting that this piece itself is transformative non-fiction, as it “expands/comments on/criticizes existing media texts” in building on my & others’ previous scholarship, which in turn built upon many others, and so on. Such is the nature of citational academic writing – but as you suggest, defining a genre just on that mode of writing makes it virtually infinite in scope…)

    My one reservation is how self-definition might reinscribe authorial intent as the defining attribute of a text – does an author’s self-positioning of fan or non-fan trump the community’s definition? Could there be a reception-driven set of definitions that defy authorial intent? It seems like within some fan subcultures, there are such cases, as in various vidding communities defining the boundaries of expectations and norms, or different communities regarding parody as either fannish or not. But is there an example of an author who resists the fan label whose works are widely defined as fan productions? And does an author whose publication status shifts from amateur to pro (or semi-pro) have the right to retroactively recategorize their works?

    Thanks for raising these thorny issues!

    • Kyra Glass
      April 22, 2010 at 12:31 AM

      Fascinating work, and like Jason, something I largely agree with. My only question is what happens to this formulation when a fan writer/text moves into the industrial/commercial space with the same text or type of text they circulated in the fan community? Some networks or television programs hold fan fiction contests and posts these works on official websites, rarely these writers may be asked to do similar work in licensed novels. Are this licensed novels still fan fiction? Are the winning stories posted on the official show site still fan fiction? I often find myself confounded when trying to identify the moment that a writer or text makes the transition in these scenarios, I would love to know the thoughts of others on this issue?

      • April 22, 2010 at 9:14 AM

        The boundary between “fan” and “commercial” is important, but somewhat paradoxically, it’s also porous. Virtually all of the “commercial” writers of my primary fandom, Doctor Who, over the past 20 years (in prose, comics, audio dramas, and television) originated firmly in fandom. Excepting the TV show, the licensed commercial work produced (e.g., the Virgin and BBC novels in the 1990s and 2000s, and the Big Finish audio dramas, since 1999) has exclusively served a fan audience, and has itself become source material for fanworks. Some of these writers even bounce back and forth between “fan” and “commercial” works.

        However, though the content and its resonance may be nearly identical to more traditional fanfic, I’d still want to posit a categorical distinction that agrees with Kristina’s fan-generated system above. That is, there is at least a legal difference between work that’s formally licensed by a copyright holder (with all the accompanying elements: contracts, advances, royalties, commercial distribution, etc.), and work that’s not. Neither is qualitatively “better” than the other, though each relies in part on this difference for its own self-definition.

        • April 22, 2010 at 9:47 AM

          Yes! All of that 🙂 Thanks, Derek, for showcasing this with the fandom, possibly most interesting in terms of changing position of fan works and fans themselves.

          And yes, legal and economic positions do make a difference. Which is why I don’t worry that such a definition would suddenly open up the floodgates to let in all the tie-in novelists and professional fan writers.

          [I think the biggest worry might indeed be original fiction (i.e., slash) writers using the site as a form of advertisement. But then fandom has been doing this for a long time as well, and I know I’ve followed writers to their original fiction…]

      • April 22, 2010 at 9:43 AM

        Thanks, Kyra!

        I think your question hits on a really important point, namely that the lines aren’t nice and clear, and may change over time. My personal position would be with Derek below, namely that the legal protection afforded “authorized fan fiction” and the often economic benefits do substantially change the status.

        I’ve long tried to pinpoint aesthetic markers (Liz Woledge has a great essay where she compares fanfic turned profic and analyzes the stylistic differences), but in the ends, I don’t think they exist. Or rather, the spectrum of both is so large that it’s impossible to tell from the text alone a lot of times. At that point, I think the context, the paratext, the author situating the text really do make a difference.

    • April 22, 2010 at 9:38 AM

      Indeed, one of the things by which I’ve always been amused is the similarities of academic lineage and citational practices and fan writing. Which doesn’t make them the same, as Matt correctly notes, but the work-in-progress idea where every new scholarship or fan text adds on to an imaginary/virtual collection of texts is not unlike one another.

      You’ve actually hit the nail on the head with your author question. I spent many years battling Wimsatt and Beardsley’s affective fallacy via reader’response, reception aesthetics, audience studies. I’m more and more beginning to wonder whether we may need to slay the intentional fallacy as well. I know! Readers interpret texts. But if you consider just how important paratexts are and how much different authorial positions do affect our readings…I’m seriously wondering whether the authorial position/intent might need to be folded back into the text, after all.

      But these are very tentative thoughts, so feel free to complicate them with me…

      • April 22, 2010 at 11:16 AM

        Someday I’ve got to carve out the time to write up my take on authorial intent. The blog comment version: intentionality is not lodged in texts, but readers create an implied author through their comprehension processes and then retrofit intentionality into the text and attach it to this author figure. I call it the “implied author function,” a cocktail of Booth, Chatman & Foucault – shaken & served over ice…

        • April 22, 2010 at 12:41 PM

          Great point, but I’d also add that “readers” also include the writing communities themselves, whether fanfic collectives, publishers, film studios, TV networks, etc. In other words, JJ Abrams gets meetings in Hollywood because there is a “JJ Abrams” that publicity and reception has constructed, just as (say) luminosity gets attention for her vids because there is a “luminosity” that publicity and reception has constructed.

          • April 22, 2010 at 8:29 PM

            Yes, I think the author construct is probably a better way to talk about it than the author…except that authors themselves are co-authors of their identity construction, right? And then we get into identity politics, and those are aspects that are central and yet only constructed in the largest and most systemic ways…

        • April 22, 2010 at 8:28 PM

          Yes, but…see, I’m actually really wanting to re-introduce the author, in particular authorial identity. Who writes makes a lot of difference, and that’s even more true in fan cultures i think, where the authors are RIGHT THERE, than in pro writing. Then again, noone who’s been to an author conference (Joyce, Woolf, Hemingway, Faulkner, etc) would say the author’s dead 🙂 [Or, in y’all’s field, it’d be the AUTEUR, right? ]

  3. April 22, 2010 at 10:46 AM

    To speak to Jason’s point about authorial definition, a brief and embarrassing anecdote: when I was a teenager, I wrote what I guess you would classify as professional wrestling fan fiction, except that I wrote out entire pay-per-views, scripting matches, interviews, storylines, and everything in between rather than prose fiction set in that universe.

    However, the community I was posting to was a “Figure Federation” community, where people “acted out” their storylines using their action figures and then transcribed the results. And when I casually mentioned to someone that I didn’t follow this guideline, simply writing without the assistance of my boxes filled with plastic wrestlers, it resulted in a forum-wide debate which revealed clear distinctions between textual comparison (in that what I was writing was not fundamentally different from what others were writing) and the methods of creation.

    In this example, the community expanded to include “Storyline” federations, but there was every chance that it could have created a spinoff forum, and that this difference could have outright divided the group based entirely on community reception rather than authorial intentions.

    While larger organizations like the OTW facilitate these sorts of debate, micro-debates happen within fandoms on a regular basis, and I think authorial intent and self-definition can very easily become less important than reception and interpretation (although we can all agree that the lines are often blurred, and that mode of writing is woefully inadequate for such clarity).

    Really compelling analysis, Kristina, and the fantastic discussion is evidence of that.

    • April 22, 2010 at 8:33 PM

      authorial intent and self-definition can very easily become less important than reception and interpretation Yes, I think that’s very true, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, is it?

      And thank you! It’s a fascinating and living debate, isn’t it? 🙂

  4. Claudia Rebaza
    May 2, 2010 at 8:42 PM

    One thing I haven’t seen many people mention in the discussion about what qualifies as fan fiction, is the issue of accessibility. In the past, this might literally mean whether or not the material could be found, shared, and circulated. Fan fiction was largely an underground production so the issue of accessibility was both literal and figurative.

    Now with the (widespread, but hardly universal) access to the Internet shared by writers and readers, actual access is a much simpler process. But I would say that figuratively, it remains an important element of the definition. Work that is marketed to a mass unknown audience (and by mass, I mean commercial audience of even a modest size), still differs from what is generated within fan communities through its presentation, its content, and its ability to be accessed by people who do not possess an insider’s knowledge of the topic. A lot of fanfic is still written by people with a known or imagined audience of just a few dozen people. Regardless of skill, it often contains a sort of informality in terms of presentation.

    Also, while sexual content was frequently a strong divider in the past, marking fan content as separate from “official” content, the spread of fan fiction online, as well as the boom in sexual sites in general, is leading to a tentative but, I am positive, growing entrance by large commercial entities into the erotic writing market.

    At the same time, content is often inhibited by what the local readership is likely to prefer reading, what they have likely already read, and even the debates they continue to have over the canon content. So I do think that authorial intent is important, but I feel that this is often seen within the text itself. Most fan fiction is quickly recognized as an “other” thing by people not immersed in the community — and rightly so, I believe. Commercial content doesn’t tend to produce such a strong reaction.

    That some fan writers are essentially writing commercial work for a local audience is interesting largely in how it reveals the increasingly porous nature of amateur and professional work, but I don’t think it changes what fan fiction essentially is.

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