How Fan Fiction Can Teach Us a New Way to Read Moby-Dick (Part Two)

Last time, I shared with you part of our teacher's strategy guide on "Reading in a Participatory Culture." Today, I am running the second part of our discussion of fan fiction. This time, we apply concepts from the study of fan reading and writing practices to talk about the teaching of Melville's Moby-Dick. I've received several questions off-line about the context of this material in the guide itself. We've heard two conflicting pieces of advice, which I think reflects two different kinds of teachers. On the one hand, we hear that teachers want lesson plans they can rip and read which are carefully calibrated to the standards and indeed, the first part of the guide provides precisely that. Because we are focusing on local schools for our testing phase, we've focused on our own state standards, though we are also attentive to national trends in this area. We've already started a small scale teacher training program for the folks field testing our guide this year. Teachers at our workshop were able to take some of our lessons, go straight to work, and produce good results without reading the rest of the guide.

We also hear, though, that certain teachers want to learn a new approach to teaching and want to understand more fully the philosophy behind the approach. While we are offering a wealth of resources specific to Moby-Dick, we also very much want the exercises and philosophy to be flexible enough that they can be applied to the full range of books that get taught in high school English and language arts classes. We've produced a seperate "expert voices" section that provides more detailed background. The material I am running on the blog right now is from that section. We have heard from some teachers so far that they do find this material very helpful but my bet, from interacting with them, is that other teachers won't ever look at it because the pace of their work life won't allow it. We've tried to design things so teachers can dig as deep as they want or work only on the top level.

One of the goals of the guide is to draw on several decades of ethnographic work on how and why people read in order to encourage teachers to be open to a much broader range of interpretations through their classes. One of the ways we do so is being very self reflective about the reading practices that shaped the guide itself. We have foregrounded four different readers who were involved in producing the guide -- Wyn Kelly as a literary scholar; Rudy Cabrera as a performer; Ricardo Pitts-Wiley as a creative artist; and myself as a media scholar and fan. I thought you might enjoy this video, created by Deb Lui, for the Guide, which introduces these four readers and the ways they approach Moby Dick.

Now, enjoy Part Two of the section on fan fiction and literature. And again, I would appreciate any feedback you may have about the approach we have taken to this section of the guide. Here, I introduce a new conceptual framework for thinking about what aspects of texts provide the most fertile openings for fan interventions.

Reading Moby-Dick As a Fan

Fans are searching for unrealized potentials in the story that might provide a springboard for their own creative activities. We might identify at least five basic elements in a text that can inspire fan interventions. Learning to read as a fan often involves learning to find such openings for speculation and creative extension. [1]

  • Kernels -- pieces of information introduced into a narrative to hint at a larger world but not fully developed within the story itself. Kernels typically pull us away from the core plot line and introduce other possible stories to explore. For example, consider the meeting between the captains of the Pequod and the Rachel which occurs near the end of Melville's novel (Chapter cxxviii). Captain Gardiner of the Rachel is searching for a missing boat, lost the night before, which has his own son aboard. He solicits Ahab's help in the search. In doing so, he tells Ahab, "For you too have a boy, Captain Ahab - though but a child, and nestling safely at home now - a child of your old age too." The detail is added here to show how much Ahab is turning his back on all that is human in himself. Yet, this one phrase contains the seeds of an entire story of how and why Ahab had a son at such a late age, what kind of father Ahab might have been, and so forth. We may also wonder how Gardiner knows about Ahab's son, since the book describes him as a "stranger." The John Huston film version goes so far as to suggest that Gardiner was also from New Bedford, which opens up the possibility that the two men knew each other in the past. What might their previous relationship have looked like? Were they boyhood friends or bitter rivals? Were their wives sisters or friends? Did the two sons know each other? Might Ahab's wife have baby-sat for Gardiner's son? Soon, we have the seeds of a new story about the relationship between these two men.
  • Holes -- plot elements readers perceive as missing from the narrative but central to their understanding of its characters. Holes typically impact the primary plot. In some cases, "holes" simply reflect the different priorities for writers and readers who may have different motives and interests. For example, consider the story of how Ahab lost his leg. In many ways, this story is central to the trajectory of the novel but we receive only fragmentary bits of information about what actually happened and why this event has had such a transformative impact on Ahab, while other seamen we meet have adjusted more fully to the losses of life and limb that are to be expected in pursuing such a dangerous profession. What assumptions do you make as a reader about who Ahab was -- already a captain, a young crewmember on board some one else's ship -- or where he was when this incident occurred? In fandom, one could imagine a large number of different stories emerging to explain what happened, and each version might reflect a different interpretation of Ahab's character and motives.
  • Contradictions -- Two or more elements in the narrative which, intentionally or unintentionally, suggest alternative possibilities for the characters. Are the characters in Moby-Dick doomed from the start, as might be suggested by the prophecies of Elijah and Gabriel? Does this suggest some model of fate or divine retribution, as might be implied by Father Mapple's sermon about Jonah? Or might we see the characters as exerting a greater control over what happens to them, having the chance to make a choice which might alter the course of events, as is implied by some of the exchanges between Ahab and Starbuck? Different writers could construct different stories from the plot of Moby-Dick depending on how they responded to this core philosophical question about the nature of free will. And we can imagine several stories emerging around the mysterious figure of Elijah. Is Elijah someone gifted with extraordinary visions? Is he a mad man? Does he have a history with Ahab that might allow him insights into the Captain's character and thus allow Elijah to anticipate what choices Ahab is likely to make?
  • Silences -- Elements that were systematically excluded from the narrative with ideological consequences. As Wyn Kelley notes in "Where Are the Women?," many writers have complained about the absence of female characters in Moby-Dick, suggesting that we can not fully understand the world of men without also understanding the experience of women. Some works -- such as the John Huston version -- call attention to the place of women in whaling culture, if only incidentally. Melville hints at this culture only through a few scattered references to the families that Ahab and Starbuck left behind. These references can provide the starting point for a different story, as occurs in Sena Jeter Naslund's novel, Ahab's Wife; we might imagine another version of the story where Ahab was female, as occurs in Moby-Dick: Then and Now, or we might use the plot of Moby-Dick as the starting point for creating a totally different story set in another kind of world where women can play the same kind of roles as the men play in Melville's novel, as occurs in the Battlestar Galactica episode, "Scar."
  • Potentials -- Projections about what might have happened to the characters that extend beyond the borders of the narrative. Many readers finish a novel and find themselves wanting to speculate about "what happens next." As Pugh writes, "Whenever a canon closes, someone somewhere will mourn it enough to reopen it....Even though we may feel that the canonical ending is 'right' artistically, if we liked the story we may still not be ready for it to end, for the characters and milieu that have become real to us to be folded up and put back in the puppeteer's box." For example, we might well wonder what kind of person Ishmael becomes after being rescued. Melville offers us some hints -- even if only because Ishmael chooses to tell this story in the first place. Yet, in our world, someone like Ishmael might be wracked with "survivor guilt," feeling responsibility for the deaths of his friends, or wondering why he alone made it through alive. How might Ishmael have dealt with these powerful emotions? How might these events have changed him from the character we see at the start of the novel? Might we imagine some future romance helping to "comfort" and "nurse" him through his "hurts"?

The examples above suggest several additional aspects of reading a narrative as a fan. First, fans generally focus on characters and their relationships as their point of entry. Clearly, Melville's novel, with its digressions and fragmentation, raises many more character issues than it resolves -- for example, the richly drawn but only occasionally explored friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg or the comradeship between Queequeg, Daggoo, and Tashtego, or the relationship between Ahab and Fedallah or... Second, fans look for worlds that are richer, have greater potentials, than can be used up within a single story. They are particularly interested in back story -- the untold narratives that explain how the characters became the people we encounter within a particular story. Many contemporary television series reward this fan interest by parceling out bits and fragments of back story over time. Here, again, part of the pleasure of reading Moby-Dick is absorbing all of the incidental details about the ship, its crew, the other ships, and life in New Bedford, and through chapters such as "The Town-Ho's Story," Melville tells us again and again that this world is full of stories beyond the ones the novel tells.

For the most part, fan reading practices are directed at popular television series or films, but there's no reason why they can't be applied to works from the literary canon. Teachers might find that students respond well to being asked to look at Moby-Dick and other literary texts through this lens. Here's a process you might follow:

  • Encourage students to find examples of Kernels, Holes, Contradictions, Silences, and Potentials.
  • Ask them to consider what purposes these elements play within the original novel.
  • Invite them to speculate on how these elements might provide the basis for additional stories.
  • Tell them to find other passages that shed insight into the core character relationships here.
  • Discuss what elements would need to be in place for a new story to feel like it belongs in this fictional world.
  • Have students write stories reflecting their insights.
  • Share stories between students, especially those working with the same elements, so that they have a sense of the very different ways writers might build upon these same starting points.

Ricardo Pitts-Wiley took a very similar approach with the students in the Rhode Island correctional program, asking them to select a character and explore the novel from their point of view. Students were encouraged to develop a character sketch which described what kind of person the character would be if he or she were alive today. These character sketches were then combined to construct a plot in which these characters met at the Spouter Inn and set out on a quest together. Such an approach might tap the techniques of fantasy role play games to sketch out the events of the story, and then the student writers might contribute to a shared narrative of the experience. Such techniques led to the writing of the Wild Cards series of fantasy novels, for example. [2]

The "Transformative Work" of Fan Culture

Fan stories are not simply "extensions" or "continuations" of the original series. They are constructing arguments through new stories rather than critical essays. Just as a literary essay uses text to respond to text, fan fiction uses fiction to respond to fiction. You will find all kinds of argumentation about interpretation woven through most fan-produced stories. A good fan story references key events or bits of dialogue as evidence to support its particular interpretation of the characters' motives and actions. Secondary details are deployed to suggest the story might have plausibly occurred in the fictional world depicted in the original. There are certainly bad stories that don't dig deeply into the characters or which fall back on fairly banal interpretations, but good fan fiction emerges from a deep respect for the original work and reflects a desire to explore some aspect of it that has sparked the fan writer's imagination or curiosity.

Fan fiction is speculative but it is also interpretative. And more than this, it is creative. The fan writer wants to create a new story that is entertaining in its own right and offer it to perhaps the most demanding audience you could imagine -- other readers who are deeply invested experts about the original work. The new story may operate within any number of genres that have emerged from the realm of fan fiction and which represent shared ways of reading and rewriting favorite works.

Novelist Michael Chabon is a fan of the creative works of fans and has written an essay discussing the value of fan fiction in relation to Sherlock Holmes. He argues:

All enduring popular literature has this open-ended quality, and extends this invitation to the reader to continue, on his or her own, with the adventure....It creates a sense of an infinite horizon of play, an endless game board; it spawns, without trying, a thousand sequels, diagrams, and web sites....Through parody and pastiche, allusion and homage, retelling and reimagining the stories that were told before us and that we have come of age loving -- amateurs -- we proceed, seeking out the blank places in the map that our favorite writers, in their greatness and negligence, have left for us, hoping to pass on to our own readers -- should we be lucky enough to find any -- some of the pleasure that we ourselves have taken in the stuff we love: to get in on the game. All novels are sequels; influence is bliss.


Not all writers would agree that writing fan fiction is a logical or legitimate extension of critical interpretation. Fantasy writer Robin Hobb has raised sharp concerns about how fan fiction impacts her own creative process:

Every fan fiction I've read to date, based on my world or any other writer's world, has focused on changing the writer's careful work to suit the foible of the fan writer. Romances are invented, gender identities changed, fetishes indulged and endings are altered. It's not flattery. To me, it is the fan fiction writer saying, 'Look, the original author really screwed up the story, so I'm going to fix it. Here is how it should have gone.'...The tragic ending is re-written, or a dead character is brought back to life, for example. The intent of the author is ignored. A writer puts a great deal of thought into what goes into the story and what doesn't. If a particular scene doesn't happen 'on stage' before the reader's eyes, there is probably a reason for it. If something is left nebulous, it is because the author intends for it to be nebulous. To use an analogy, we look at the Mona Lisa and wonder. Each of us draws his own conclusions about her elusive smile. We don't draw eyebrows on her to make her look surprised, or put a balloon caption over her head. Yet much fan fiction does just that. Fan fiction closes up the space that I have engineered into the story, and the reader is told what he must think rather than being allowed to observe the characters and draw his own conclusions.


By contrast, consider this statement from the introduction to an important anthology of scholarly essays about fan fiction:

Work in progress is a term used in the fan fiction world to describe a piece of fiction still in the process of being written but not yet completed....The appeal of works in progress lies in part in the ways fans engage with an open text; it invites responses, permits shared authorship, and enjoins a sense of community....Every fan story is in this sense a work in progress, even when the story has been completed....In most cases, the resulting story is part collaboration and part response to not only the source text, but also the cultural context within and outside the fannish community in which it is produced....When the story is finally complete and published, likely online but perhaps in print, the work in progress among the creators shifts to the work in progress among the readers....The source text in many cases are serial, in progress, and constantly changing, as are the fan stories set in these universes.


These writers see both the fan text and the source text as open-ended, subject to revision and expansion, providing raw material for further speculation and creative elaboration. This idea of the text as open and collaborative contrasts sharply with Hobb's notion that writers should have the last word on what happens to their characters and that any addition by fans is to be understood as signaling a flaw or error in the original work. Fans would find Hobb's suggestion that their stories tell the reader "what he must think rather than being allowed to observe the characters and draw his own conclusions" particularly baffling: since no fan story is regarded as in any way definitive or as precluding other acts of authorship. To the contrary, fans take great pleasure in reading and writing a broad range of different interpretations of the shared characters, and fan authors often may construct a number of mutually contradictory conceptions of the characters or situations even within their own body of work.

Some fans have adopted the legal term, Transformative Works, to defend their creative practices against such challenges. A transformative use is one that, in the words of the U.S. Supreme Court, "adds something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the [source] with new expression, meaning, or message." Moby-Dick: Then And Now is a transformative work in so far as it revises and updates Melville's novel. Moby-Dick is a transformative work in so far as it takes sources, such as the story of "Jonah", as raw materials for its own storytelling. And fan fiction is transformative in so far as it transforms the critical insights we are discussing here into the starting point for new stories, developing new conceptualizations of the characters or expanding the narrative in new directions.

The Organization of Transformative Works ( has emerged within fandom as an advocacy group defending the rights of readers to remix and rewrite the contents of their culture for the purposes of sharing their own interpretations and speculations. Here's part of the mission statement of the Organization for Transformative Works:

  1. We value transformative fanworks and the innovative communities from which they have arisen, including media, real person fiction, anime, comics, music and vidding.
  2. We value our identity as a predominantly female community with a rich history of creativity and commentary.
  3. We value our volunteer-based infrastructure and the fannish gift economy that recognizes and celebrates worth in myriad and diverse activities.
  4. We value making fannish activities as accessible as possible to all those who wish to participate.
  5. We value infinite diversity in infinite combinations. We value all fans engaged in transformative work: fans of any race, gender, culture, sexual identity, or ability. We value the unhindered cross-pollination and exchange of fannish ideas and cultures while seeking to avoid the homogenization or centralization of fandom.

The Organization for Transformative Works has been developing a series of short documentaries in partnership with Project NML that are designed to introduce students to the basics of another fan remix practice -- vidding. Vids are music videos which combine footage from the source text with music -- sometimes original, more often also appropriated -- for the purposes of critical commentary or artistic expression. The tradition of vids goes back to the early 1970s when fan artist Kandy Fong first began to set slides of scenes from Star Trek to music. [6] Through the years, this production practice has spread across many fan communities and in the process, fans have refined their craft and embraced new technologies that support their production and distribution. In these videos, vidders talk about this kind of transformative work in their own words, explaining what motivates them to re-edit the footage, discussing what they see as good or bad practices, and sharing some examples of their work. The videos excerpted in these documentary segments reflect some current popular fandoms, including Harry Potter, Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Will and Grace.

As with fan fiction, these vids start with a recognition of an unrealized potential in the original source material. While the fan fiction writer can create new situations for the characters, the vidder works with found footage, trying to use the images to illustrate a particular interpretation of the original text. The footage may be removed from context or shift perspectives to suggest alternative ways of understanding the characters. Some vids are playful and parodic, encouraging us to laugh with and sometimes at the original (see the Will and Grace video sampled here which has fun with the relationship between the music and the character's gestures); many others strive for a more serious and sometimes melodramatic tone.

The Organization for Transformative Works is seeking to document the history of this amateur media production practice and to provide a shared portal through which fan video makers can share their work. These videos are an extension of their effort to educate the public about their fan practices. The Organization for Transformative Works is mounting a legal and political defense of fan culture, one which acknowledges fan culture as a site of creative expression, as an alternative way of thinking about how stories get produced and circulated, and as a space which supports diversity and experimentation.

There has also emerged a strong set of arguments about the educational benefits of the fan community as a space of informal learning, especially for younger fans. [7] James Paul Gee has described the fan community, alongside other sites of informal learning, as "affinity spaces," asking why people learn more, participate more actively, engage more deeply with popular culture than they do with the content of their textbooks [8]. Affinity spaces offer powerful opportunities for learning, Gee argues, because they are sustained by common endeavors that bridge across differences in age, class, race, gender, and educational level, because people can participate in various ways according to their skills and motives, because they depend on peer-to-peer teaching with each participant constantly motivated to acquire new knowledge or refine his or her existing skills, and because they allow each participant to feel like an expert while tapping the expertise of others.

More and more literacy experts are recognizing that enacting, reciting, and appropriating elements from preexisting stories is a valuable and organic part of the process by which children develop cultural literacy. Educators like to talk about 'scaffolding,' the ways that a good pedagogical process works in a step-by-step fashion, encouraging kids to try out new skills that build on those they have already mastered, providing support for these new steps until the learner feels sufficient confidence to take them on her own. In the classroom, scaffolding is provided by the teacher. In a participatory culture, the entire community takes on some responsibility for helping newbies find their way. Many young writers began composing stories on their own as a spontaneous response to popular culture. For these young writers, the next step was the discovery of fan fiction on the internet, which provided alternative models for what it meant to be an author. At first, they might only read stories, but the fan community provides many incitements for readers to cross that last threshold into composing and submitting their stories. And once a fan submits, the feedback he or she receives inspires further and improved writing.

Many fan fiction website provide a process of mentoring, known as "beta-reading," through which more experienced writers critique and support emerging contributors. Fans learn both from the feedback they receive and from the process of sharing feedback with others. As a consequence, fans become better readers and writers. As educational researcher Rebecca Black argues, the fan community can often be more tolerant of linguistic errors than traditional classroom teachers and more helpful in enabling learners to identify what they are actually trying to say because reader and writer operate within the same frame of reference, sharing a deep emotional investment in the content being explored. [9] The fan community promotes a broader range of different literary forms -- not simply fan fiction but various modes of commentary -- than the exemplars available to students in the classroom, and often they showcase realistic next steps for the learner's development rather than showing only professional writing that is far removed from anything most students will be able to produce.

Much of what works here works because fan fiction exists outside of school and the people who participate do so out of deep personal and social motivations, rather than because they are assigned to write a story for a grade. Yet, this does not mean that educators can not learn a good deal from fan fiction, and this Teachers' Strategy Guide has been informed by our own research on fan cultures as sites for reading and creating stories. We believe strongly that there is a value in learning to engage with works of fiction creatively as well as critically, that the process of creating a transformative work often motivates much closer reading of the original text, that it is empowering for young people to think of themselves as authors and thus to find their own expressive voices, especially in the context of today's participatory culture. Pitts-Wiley's work with the incarcerated youth shows a similar understanding of how we might motivate reading by encouraging young people to look at established literary texts as the springboard for their own creative expression.


[1] Camille Bacon-Smith, Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth (Philadelphia: University of Pennsyvania Press, 1992).

[2] George R.R. Martin, "On the Wild Cards Series," in Pat Harrington and Noah Wardrip-Fruin (eds.) Second Person: Role Play and Story in Games and Playable Media (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007).

[3] Michael Chabon, "Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes," in Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands (San Francisco: McSweeneys, 2008)

[4] Robin Hobb, as quoted in Justin, "In Defense of Fan Fiction," Swifty, Writing, November 9 2005 (link).

[5]Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson, "Work in Progress," in Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse (eds.) Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2006).

[6] Francesca Coppa, "Celebrating Kandy Fong: Founder of Fan Music Video," In Media Res, November 19 2007 (link)

[7] Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006).

[8] James Paul Gee, Situated Language and Learning: A Critique of Traditional Schooling (New York: Routledge, 2004)

[9] Rebecca Black, Adolescents and Online Fan Fiction (New York: Peter Lang, 2008).