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.