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Fannish Inquisitions: Countering Assumptions About Fandom

Happy 6th anniversay, KAT-TUN! Thank you for providing us this useful visual metaphor for what often happens when other communities and fandom, er, collide!


Hi, MB! This is the first of a series of posts about fandom being written in response to a series of posts about fandom. The romance review site Dear Author is holding a week-long examination of fandom and fanfic—with somewhat confusing results. It’s my goal, through these posts, to argue for a more contemporary view of fandom and fanwork that falls more closely in line with a) how fans actually act in fandom, b) how fanwork actually operates and what it actually does, and c) the actual status of fanwork under the law.

Starting with the first post in the DA series, we have “How I Came to Appreciate Fan Fiction.” This is, overall, a fairly positive post, but it has a lot of outdated assumptions about fandom that I’d like to unpack.

To give Sunita D, today’s contributor, credit where it’s due, there’s probably always a moment of shock upon a first encounter with fanfiction, or doujinshi or yaoi, just like there is with any new concept. Like sporks! Or literal cloud computing! We might think of this first encounter as a moment of simple culture shock. Sunita even describes hers:

Of course I’ve hated certain books’ endings, I’ve wished for sequels, and I’ve thought about the off-page lives of favorite characters. But I’ve never written to authors to ask them to keep writing about a particularly loved protagonist. And I’ve never wanted to write my own versions of books. Not because I thought doing so would be wrong, but because it just never occurred to me.

Whoa, hold on a tic. Already we’ve run into the first of what will be many false assumptions about fandom and especially fanfiction in general throughout the Dear Author series on fanfic.

False assumption #1: All fans long to interact with creators.

“I’ve never written to authors to ask them to keep writing about a particularly loved protagonist.”

Okay, but most fans haven’t either. Most fans don’t need to, because our interaction with a canon has very little to do with what’s going on in the author’s head. This is a key aspect of fandom that many people outside of fandom get wrong. Many fans get very nervous and gunshy when the prospect of interacting with creators comes up, because those fans prefer as little contact with the makers of their canons as possible. Please note that this impulse is often not, not, NOT out of shame or embarrassment or fear of reprisals, but rather from a desire not to have the gatekeepers poking their noses in our business. There are exceptions, of course, especially in RPF fandoms; we are seeing something of a cultural shift happen as Twitter puts celebrities and fans in touch with each other on a daily basis. But for the most part, fans go about their business with little regard for TPTB (The Powers That Be). Which brings me to the next mistaken assumption:

False assumption #2: Fanfiction = Do-Over.

“I’ve never wanted to write my own versions of books. Not because I thought doing so would be wrong, but because it just never occurred to me.”

Most fans don’t want to write their own versions of books either. That’s not what fanfic is. Many people think of fanfiction as the practice of trying to prove a creator got it wrong. Not at all. For most fans, most of the time, fanfiction is not about rewriting canon.

Sure, a fan can write fix-it fic—but then they’ll turn write around and write something completely different. Fans explore their canons and play around with the worlds they’re engaging with in order to do something completely new. Take, for example, what may be the most popular narrative genre of all: the post-canon fic. The canon ends—you write about what happens after. But that’s a story that can be told and retold forever, because the possibilities are endless.

In general terms, fanworks are about expansion, not re-creation.

Happily, this is also the conclusion Sunita arrives at: This path isn’t just about creating new romantic relationships or changing unhappy endings to happy ones. What if you think the most interesting character in the Harry Potter novels is Luna Lovegood and you want to read more about her?…. Even if you adhere strictly to canon, there’s plenty of scope for your imagination.

From this point on, Sunita’s post is a plain, fair and positive view of fanfiction; but it’s a simplistic one. It justifies rather than celebrates. Which leads me to…

False Assumption #3: Fanfiction is just a simple, fun creative exercise that has no serious repercussions!


My main problem with all of this justification/explanation of fanfic is that it’s just SO DATED. I have been hearing people “defend” fanfic or try to “explain” fanfic in exactly this way for the last ten years. Two thousand-fracking-two, folks (and incidentally those defenses were on the front page of the NY Times, hardly out of mainstream cultural earshot).

And yes, everyone’s experiences are different, and I’m sure Sunita’s explanation is helpful for many people. But REALLY. TEN YEARS, GUYS. COME ON. CAN WE MOVE THIS DISCUSSION FORWARD A LITTLE? How’s this for an advancement:

  • Fanwork is dangerous because it challenges your worldview and makes you think critically about pop culture, literature, art, and the world you live in.
  • Fanwork has serious repercussions because it operates outside of traditional modes of access to ideas, and it is predicated entirely on a culture of free exchange and non-monetary systems of value.
  • Fanwork is complex and diverse. It opens minds, educates, and introduces new cultural experiences to the fan participant. It is anything but shallow.


In lit-crit terms, fandom is the living, breathing embodiment of Bakhtin’s ideas about dialogic imagination. Canon is monologic, expressing a single worldview, because usually canons have single or very few creators with one narrative goal in mind. But fandom? Fandom creates fics within communities, fics that are partly meta-commentaries, fics that arise out of passionate debates, fics that get reworked and turned into original fic, fics that offer serious literary critique, fics that seek to actively engage other fans in responding to them. Fandom is dialogic imagination.

Canon has to stick to the narrative parameters that define its medium. (Unless you are Homestuck and you are your own medium. Yeah, yeah, we know.) But fandom has no defined parameters and expresses itself any way it wants. Fics written in fictional languages? Have several! Fanart? totally and 100% canon compliant! Fanvids? How much is that geisha in the window, Joss?

Fandom constantly critiques privileged narratives, challenges established sociocultural ways of thinking, and expands the parameters of a particular established worldview. Have some of my favorite examples of fics that critique canonical narratives:

WTF is this b.s. about fanwork being derivative? To quote Lev Grossman in his amazing Time magazine article, which you don’t get a link to because you have to SLOG YOUR WAY THROUGH THIS MESS WITH ME FIRST, these works “talk back to canon.” And they show their teeth.

We could have ended this post here (and I could have saved you 500 words, look, I tried, guys), because Sunita was on the right track! We could have worked with this! ugh, we were doing so good, Sunita. we could have been pals.

Except then we arrive at the money quote:

“Whether the changes authors introduce to these characters are sufficient to make the jump from derivative to transformative is not something we can usually predict in advance, but I think it’s important to have a conversation about what such a transformation entails and think about conditions in which authors might succeed or fall short.”

what. I mean. WHAT.



(this is one of the results I got when I googled “fanfic pony.” Looks legit.)

False Assumption #4 & #5: Fanwork is Derivative / Fanfiction May Or May Not Be Legal.

I hope that at the end of the week Rebecca Tushnet will come along with her shining orb of Transformative Justice and articulate this idea as part of the DA series much better than I ever could (ETA: YESSSS she has!), but in her stead: There are absolutely no court rulings on whether a work of not-for-profit fanfiction is legal or not. None. That means all fanfiction is legal under the fair use clause of U.S. copyright law, safe and legal until proven otherwise. This protection will most likely last as long as the Fair Use clause exists. To quote the OTW, “current copyright law already supports our understanding of fanfiction as fair use.” And as long as current copyright law supports fanfiction, fanfiction is legally transformative.

It’s dishonest to talk about fanworks as if they pussyfoot around the law when they don’t. The ‘sliding scale’ train of thought implies that “transformative” fics have narrowly succeeded in evading the clutches of copyright law while “derivative” fics are just hanging around waiting to be slapped with a Cease & Desist. This train of thought implies shame, illicitness, wrongdoing, and flat-out genre snobbery and elitism. Most importantly, since presumably all fanfics (in the U.S.) currently enjoy legal protection, many fans don’t act as though they’re engaged in something that’s illegal. So the “sliding scale” perspective doesn’t even apply to us.

For comparison, look at the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. You don’t see them going “Manga is not a crime! Except for the really, really dirty yaoi, and the shota, and okay, maybe we could really really do without the vore and the bukkake because honestly, people.” Their argument is simple: either all licensed manga, in all its forms, is legal and deserves protection, or none of it does.

By the same token, fanwork does not “succeed” or “fall short” by managing or failing to qualify as transformative.

And here’s the ultimate kicker—a concept that this series of DA posts sadly seems to completely miss: the meaning of ‘transformative’ creative work extends beyond purely legal contexts. It involves the power of creative expression to change the creator and the audience. To many fans, the act of conceiving and creating fanwork is a transforming act, before you ever write the first word. They are transformative because they transform the reader. You and me.


Fanworks Cited:

arboretum. “A Resolution of Territory.” Livejournal. May 5, 2008.

Dhobi ki Kutti. “Promise of the पुरवाई.” An Archive Of Our Own. June 30, 2010.

electrumqueen. “i am the hero of this story (i don’t need to be saved).” Livejournal. August 14, 2010.

eruthros. “Ephemera from the Avatar Collection at Republic City University with notes and commentary by the archivists.” An Archive Of Our Own. February 7, 2012.

Glock. “one last thing about Supernatural fanwork” and “Sam and Dean Winchestgopal.” Dreamwidth. June 15, 2010 and July 1, 2010.

Lierduoma. “How Much is the Geisha in the Window? (Firefly).” Youtube. July 24, 2009. (Fanlore listing.)

Shirozora. “So if Castiel was Zoe Saldana…” Dreamwidth. June 10, 2010.

Various authors. “Victorsverse Art and Artifacts. including the Ars Atlantiadae as well as Earth documents.” February 16, 2011.

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  1. To many fans, the act of conceiving and creating fanwork is a transforming act, before you ever write the first word. They are transformative because they transform the reader. You and me.

    Yes, this exactly.

    Also, this post took me forever to read because I kept following all your links, and of course I had to read A Resolution of Territory for the n-thousandth-whatever time.

  2. Holy moley, is this a good column!

    I have never taken a particular interest in fanfiction, and I think your comment on parameters might partially explain why. In works of creativity, I like parameters. I particularly like the way a creator manages to do X, Y, and Z while, to my amazement, staying in the parameters. Take off the parameters, and I lose interest, because without parameters of course X, Y, Z, theta, 風, etc. are possible – it’s not exciting (to me). It’s the different between playing a ball game with rules and playing with a ball – sure, one has a lot more freedom to do what one wants with a ball when there are no rules, but it is less exciting.

    I might have more to say later, but I think I need to digest a little so I knew how to say it.

  3. anatsuno says:

    You already know me and you already know I agree with you on all of this a hundred times, yeah? I thought I was going to read this article nodding my head and would come to the end satisfied tat you’d laid down the truth. What I hadn’t foreseen is HOW YOU MADE ME CRY WITH THIS IT IS SO TRUE AND PERFECT AND QSLDKGSDFLKHFGDHKGFJGFJH.

    I don’t do gifs and stuff but I’m feeling keenly the lack of some WILDAPPLAUSE.GIF thing at the moment. RENDINGGARMENTS.GIF maybe.

    ~MY EMOTIONS!!!~

    so, ahem. yes. thank you very much. <3

    *waves podfic flag also*

  4. # 3. I keep re-reading #3 because it is my favorite thing on this page.

  5. Erica Friedman says:

    I got my start in fandom as a fanfic writer, and even these days I sometimes write a story or two. Fanfiction is driven by the same impetus as bardic stories – the desire to spend more time with the characters we love. Derivative and transformative, fanfiction has spawned a whole lot of writers who went on to pen original works.

    Great column, a perfect morning read for me. I nodded like a bobble-head. ^_^

  6. Thanks for the link to that amazing HikaGo fanfic ^^.

  7. hostilecrayon says:

    Okay so, maybe it’s just me, but. Every time you write about fandom I get all misty-eyed because I love fandom so much, and you’re so passionate about it, and I just. I FEEL THE LOVE, AJA.


  8. Thanks for writing a much more articulate and clearly presented response to the whole Dear Author slate of articles. I’ve been catching up on all of the DA posts, and reading just reduced me to flailing at my computer screen and being unable to actually string a sentence together.

    And, having been a part of fandom since 1999, I complete agree about it being high time to get some new arguments. TEN YEARS. FOR GOODNESS SAKE. We deserve some other critique than the same old pearl-clutching. I am always interested in hearing all the opinions, but I am dreadfully tired of having to react/confront the same presumptions again and again.

    Much like how I get enormously tired still having to explain to people, “No, comics are not just for kids. No, comics are not all superhero comics. And no, manga is not all porn.” SIGH.

  9. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I often find myself wordless with rage when people start fanfiction shaming, and this is a well-written and clear argument that I wish I could call up at will in the real world. I don’t know how much of the shame people feel with fanfiction comes from the misconception that what they’re doing is illegal and how much of it comes from external pressures. For me, fanfiction shaming has often gone hand-in-hand with fangirl shaming and woman shaming in general. The idea that fanfiction is nothing but horny chicks fantasizing about two guys having sex, and anything that differs from a fanfiction writer’s personal work will somehow anger them because all fangirls are irrational and out of touch with reality. I don’t deny that there are some fans out there who are, for lack of a better phrase, batshit crazy, but that’s the minority. And fanboys can be just as rabidly devoted to their fandom as fangirls, but the stigma isn’t the same. Fanboys are usually thought of as pimply uber!nerds, while fangirls are deranged to the point of being dangerous.

    It also irritates me when fanfiction is dismissed as being “just” this or that, it isn’t any one thing. Thanks to the immediacy of the internet, fanfiction is continually growing and transforming into something new. One person writes a story which inspires another person to write a sequel which inspires an artist which inspires a fanvider which inspires a writer, and before you know it one idea has spawned countless others. It doesn’t even have to be a great idea, I’ll be the first to admit that not all fanfiction is top shelf literature, but the wonderful thing about fanfiction is that no idea stops once the story is over. Calvin and Hobbes has always been one of my favorite comics, and I hope you’ll know what I mean when I say that fanfiction is a lot like a neverending game of Calvinball. No one wins, no one loses, when one person drops the ball it’s picked up by another player and carried somewhere completely different. There’s no rhyme or reason that the outside observer can discern, but to the people playing, it makes perfect sense. And it is the most fun you will ever have.

  10. polytropic says:

    Aja, you are my *hero*. Seriously, you are a superhero made up of gifs and capslock and wonderfully articulate rage. The way you so effortlessly combine literary analysis and meta-genre savvy is inspirational and it makes me want to write passionate odes to fandom. Never stop, you are fabulous. <3

  11. In refrence to the CBLDF reference the key word is “licensed” as far as I can tell to hard Shotacon or Lolicon titles have ever been licensed and (this is important) released sure Kdomo No Jikin got licensed by Seven Seas a while back.

    But they than looked at it and essentially went “no we can’t put that out because we could be possibly be looking at being charged with dissemination of child pornography and nobody wants to carry it because of what it’s about.”

    I also think the second you make an either or argument of I have to defend everything on the basis of an almost fanatical interpretation of free speech or I’m opposed to free speech you’ve given up all credibility in my eyes.

    I mean I own and read titles like Gunslinger Girl, Blood Alone and Dance in The Vampire Bund but some things I won’t defend point blank; I don’t have to defend everything in order to believe in free speech.

    If I think something is immoral or offends me deeply I shouldn’t be asked to defend something that I see as wicked. Than theirs the fact that when your defend everything that means everything no matter how distasteful and everybody has their limits let us not confuse Liberty with Libertinism.

    In conclusion I take a stand but again in general as concerns Fan Fiction I was a pretty prolific writer for quite sometime but in all honesty I quit because I kept thinking what about the creator’s rights to their intellectual property? It also strikes me as at best moral sophistry and at worst moral hypocrisy to speak out against fan subs or Scanalations and in the same breath defend Fan Fiction. both are using some one else’s intellectual property for your own ends due IMHO to some warped sense of entitlement

    • Actually the CBLDF does *not* only defend licensed manga, and that’s clear in every statement they’ve ever made, and also in their efforts to assist in both the Canadian customs case and the Christopher Handley case, neither of which involved manga that was licensed for publication in the US. Their position is that all sequential art is protected by law. You can read Erica Friedman’s article on the difference between a drawing of a thing and the thing itself if you find that confusing.

      Edited to add: Aja can correct me on this if I’m wrong, but I suspect that her reference to “licensed” manga here was more an attempt to address the legality of licensed vs. pirated manga. Though the CBLDF would certainly defend *any* manga on the basis of freedom of expression, unlicensed manga is not legal for entirely different reasons.

      • I don’t and I have read Erica’s article I am simply saying I shouldn’t have to defend anything and everything on the basis of an civil libertarian interpretaion of freedom of speech. Also as far as drawings words and pictures and words do affect people for instance (I’m not using it to be needlessly provocative) the writings of Julius Streicher or the propaganda posters of Cultural Revolution era China effected people. Sure propaganda is different than “art” but images and words effect people of course this also boils down to a fundamental question about the nature of man and where ultimate truth is found but that’s a more general discussion but those questions undergird any discussion involving ethics or in a broader sense legal opinions or Philosophy.

        • You don’t personally have to defend anything you don’t want to. But that doesn’t (and shouldn’t) affect its status as protected speech under the law.

          • Fine than no problem but where it get’s sticky is defining what is protected speech or obscenity that’s the thing no one’s ever really been able to explain clearly to me.

            • polytropic says:

              Unless I am completely mistaken in my understanding of US law, all speech is protected speech unless it does direct harm to someone. Hate speech that incites violence is not protected because it hurts someone. Child pornography is not protected because it hurts the children it depicts. But hate speech that cannot be proven to directly lead to violence is, distasteful as it may be, protected speech. That means that the law can only restrict the time, place and manner of expression of that speech, not stop it completely. Thus we have laws that prevent groups of people (under 18, for example) from interacting with certain types of speech and we have laws or rules that prevent speech in certain contexts (workplace, educational institution, etc). Personal and communal judgements about what is “obscenity” versus “appropriate” can guide those restrictions, but they cannot outlaw the speech completely. So, for example, it’s legal to say “You may not have shota manga at school because it’s against school rules” but it isn’t legal to say “you may not have shota manga at all, because we think it’s wrong.”

              Does that help explain the distinction, Aaron?

  12. Welcome to MB, Aja! I admit to being one of those pearl-clutching, “Why would someone write fanfic?” kind of folks, so I found your article enlightening. Thank you. Bonus points for mentioning The Dialogic Imagination — now you make me wonder what Bakhtin would have thought of Naruto fanfic.

    Cheers, Kate

  13. Thank you so much for this essay — especially

    Fandom is dialogic imagination.


    [F]anwork does not “succeed” or “fall short” by managing or failing to qualify as transformative…the meaning of ‘transformative’ creative work extends beyond purely legal contexts. It involves the power of creative expression to change the creator and the audience. To many fans, the act of conceiving and creating fanwork is a transforming act, before you ever write the first word. They are transformative because they transform the reader. You and me.

    — these are two of my favorite things about fandom, and I’m so glad you highlighted them here.

    I would add, also, that while you’re right that some fanworks do “critique privileged narratives, challenge established sociocultural ways of thinking, and expand the parameters of a particular established worldview” — and hooray for that! — others don’t, and that’s okay too. I celebrate both the fanworks which challenge the established paradigm and critique systems of privilege, AND fanworks which “merely” allow fans (primarily, in my fannish community, women) to pursue and share our squee, our pleasure, and our joy.

    Thanks for this terrific piece.


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