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

I'm back after an extended time on the road -- most of it I was able to spend off line, recollecting my thoughts. This is the longest time I've spent off line in almost a decade and I consider it a major moral victory. Don't get me wrong -- digital technologies have dramatically expanded my productivity, the computer has become an extension of my mind, but it also means that I sometimes can't hear myself think or separate out my own priorities from those that others, more insistent than I am, want to impose upon me. For that reason, I have come to really appreciate time when I am not online, time when I am out in the natural world and engaged with my closest friends and family all the more. I have lots to report on both my thoughts and experiences during this downtime and it's going to take me several weeks to fully catch up.

The weeks before the trip were a mad frenzy. I have spent a good portion of my summer focused on developing a Teacher's Strategy Guide on "Reading in a Participatory Culture," which will be deployed by six schools in the coming year and will eventually roll out to a much larger public. My partners in crime on this particular project include Wyn Kelly, a Melville scholar and colleague in the MIT Literature department; Jenna McWilliams, Project NML's Curriculum Specialist, and Deb Lui, a recently graduated CMS Masters student who is our primary documentary producer on this project. The initiative is funded by the MacArthur Foundation. The Project nml team is headed by Erin Reilly.

I've mentioned the guide here before. It is inspired by the remarkable pedagogical and artistic approach taken by Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, the Artistic Director of the Mixed Magic Theater. Ricardo worked to get incarcerated youth to read Moby-Dick by having them rewrite and update Melville's novel for the 21st century. Here's a section from an interview with him which I did for the guide:

I had an opportunity--and this was probably the best part of the experience for me--as a teacher to release their imaginations. Boy oh boy, no matter how much I write I'll never be able to fully capture the degree to which their imaginations were released and they released me, too, to say you don't have to play by the ABC game. You don't have to go by the numbers. You can rethink these characters and it's okay, and you can honor them and rethink them at the same time. When we started the writing process, I started by saying, "Pick a character and write a story about the character." They all chose their favorite character in the novel and wrote a story about just their character.

One of the young men who chose Ahab--it was a great story, too! Ahab was at home. He had just come back from a very successful voyage of drug dealing for WhiteThing, his boss. It was so successful that he worried that he was now a threat to the great omnipotent WhiteThing. He was making some decisions that it was time for him to either challenge the boss for control or to get out of the business. He's home, he's got this young wife, she's pregnant, and the drug lord sends agents looking for him. In looking for him, they kill his wife and unborn child. They don't get him. His revenge is based on what they did to him.

Another one chose Elijah, the prophet, and the awful dilemma of being able to see the future and no one believing or understanding what you're trying to tell them. "I'm going to warn you about this, but if don't heed my warning this is what's going to happen," and the awful dilemma that you face. His story was about 9/11. "I'm trying to tell you this is going to happen," and then nobody listened, and how awful he felt that he knew and couldn't stop it.

Another one chose Stubb, who is kind of cantankerous. He started his story, "I'm Stubb, linebacker, middle linebacker." That just was so right. I mean, you take a character and you sum it up just like that. He's playing a football game. His girlfriend, a cheerleader, gunned down on the sideline, drive-by.

Another one chose Queequeg and he made him a pimp. Wow, why a pimp? He says, "Well, when we meet Queequeg he's selling human heads, shrunken heads," so he's a peddler in human flesh. He's exotic. He's tall. He's good looking, and fiercely loyal and dangerous. That's a pimp.

Another kid chose Ishmael. He started off by saying, "Ishmael was a Navy Seal who was so high strung they kicked him out of the Navy." If you know anything about Navy Seals, I don't know how it's possible to be too high strung, but he was. Then you go back and you see he read that first chapter where Ishmael is saying, "I feel like I'm following behind funeral processions. I feel like I need to get into a fight with somebody. I better get out of here and go handle my own anxiety before I either commit suicide or lay a whole community of people to waste because I'm mad. Time to get out. Time to go to sea. I'll get away." It's a brilliant description: he was a Navy Seal who was too high strung so they kicked him out. That's exactly what Ishmael is. If you go back to Ishmael in the Bible, the discarded son, the one who got nothing, it makes a lot of sense.

Those are just examples. They were extreme, but at the same time the more extreme they got, the closer they got back to the root of the characters. And they met at the Spouter's Inn. Ultimately all these characters met at the Spouter's Inn and they rallied around Ahab who had been wronged and they knew it. In his story Pip was a soul singer, an entertainer, and they all came. He was there, but everybody thought Pip was crazy, but they took him on the voyage because they needed levity and entertainment even though they recognized that there was a message in his music, so to speak.

He later used these character sketches as loose inspiration for the creation of his own stage production, Moby-Dick: Then and Now, which remixed passages from the original novel with a more contemporary retelling set in the world of the drug trade. We are using the Mixed Magic Theater production as a point of entry into understanding the creative process and the relationship between readers and writers in new ways. When I first met Ricardo, I was taken by how much his approach had in common with what fan fiction writers do with more contemporary works. He was inviting his young students to become better readers by getting inside Melville's novel and reworking it on their own terms. What emerged might, in fan terms, be described as an alternative universe story, one where we understand the characters and their relationships better by inserting them into a new context. As the Strategy Guide has evolved, fan practices have come to play a larger and larger role in our pedagogical approach. We have, for example, been working with Laura Shaprio and Francesca Coppa (as a collaboration with the Organization for Transformative Works) to develop a series of short videos about fan vidding as part of the mix of materials we make available to teachers.

Today, I wanted to share with you a section from the guide which is intended to explain to teachers what fan fiction is and how it might inform their classroom practices. I am not so much advocating that they take existing fan fiction into the schoolroom. I suspect what is valuable to young fan fiction writers is precisely what would get lost if we imposed teacherly standards on their production. Rather, I am interested in drawing on the reading and interpretation practices that inform fan fiction to open up new ways for students and teachers to talk about fictional works. My hope is that we can teach students not only to read critically but also creatively and free them to make the books they read for school into resources for their own imaginative speculations.

I want to know what fans think of this material and so I am posting it here in hopes of soliciting your comments. There are so many teachers and librarians in fandom that I suspect you have a special stake in making sure we get this material right and a special insight into how we might bridge between these two worlds. We are in a process of iterative design with this material; we will be collaborating closely with the teachers and students involved in our study to refine and revise this material over the coming year. So, let me know what you think. Pass along your thoughts and suggestions -- through the blog comments or through personal e-mail at

Reading Critically and Reading Creatively

If there is a shared agenda within the diversity and fragmentation that has often characterizes the American media literacy movement, it has come through a focus on five core questions students and teachers have been taught to apply to a range of texts:

  • 1. Who created this message?
  • 2. What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?
  • 3. How might different people understand this message differently from me?
  • 4. What lifestyles, values, and points of view are represented in, or omitted from, this message?
  • 5. Why is this message being sent?

Throughout the Teachers' Strategy Guide, we address each of these core questions, although not always in the same language. When we talk about context in our discussion of remix, we are really trying to consider who created the message and why; we also encourage students to identify the techniques deployed within the remix. Our discussion of Motives for Reading helps to explain how and why "different people understand this message differently from me," and that recognition of differences in interpretation and experience are central to our understanding of how to negotiate a multicultural space. Throughout, we have reinforced the value of close reading. Through various case studies, we've applied these skills and inquiries to a range of different kinds of media texts including music videos ("Ahab"), films (several versions of Moby-Dick, Pirates 3, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan), musical recordings (Oceana), and television shows (Battlestar Galactica) as well as our central texts -- a novel (Moby-Dick) and a stage production (Moby-Dick: Then and Now). Within various media, we have focused on different critical approaches, including considerations of narrative (Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan), acting (Patrick Stewart in Moby-Dick), art direction (Pirates 3), and camera work/editing (John Huston's Moby-Dick). We have embraced the core goals of the media literacy tradition, but we are also expanding its vocabulary and introducing some new perspectives. We are trying to reflect through our pedagogy some significant shifts in the media environment at a time when more and more young people are entering the participatory culture.

In this section, we want to turn our attention to question 4 -- "What lifestyles, values, and points of view are... omitted from this message?" Here, pay attention to the word, "omitted." What's not in the text is seen here as consciously or unconsciously excluded; often there's a hint that certain ideas or perspectives are being silenced, marginalized, or repressed. This formulation sets the reader in ideological opposition to the text while maintaining a clear separation between producers and consumers. This understanding reflects a moment when the power of mass media was extensive and the average consumer had no real way to respond to the media's agenda except through critical analysis. In a participatory culture, however, any given work represents a provocation for further creative responses. When we read a blog or a post on a forum, when we watch a video on YouTube, the possibility exists for us to respond -- either critically or creatively. We can write a fierce rebuttal of an argument with which we disagree or we can create a new work which better reflects our point of view.

Schools have historically taught students how to read with the goal of producing a critical response; we want to encourage you to also consider how to teach students how to engage creatively with texts. Under this model, we should still be concerned with what's not in the text; the difference is in what we do about it. Yochai Benkler argues that we look at the world differently in a participatory culture; we look at it through the eyes of someone who can participate. [2] Just as we saw in the Motives for Reading unit, we read for different things depending on our goals, we also watch for different things if we want to use the experience of reading as the starting point for writing criticism or as a springboard for creative expression At its worst, reading critically teaches us to write off texts with which we disagree. At its best, reading creatively empowers us to rewrite texts that don't fully satisfy our interests. Keep in mind that we may rewrite a text out of fascination or out of frustration, though many writers are motivated by a complex merger of the two.

Reading Fan Fiction

Fan fiction represents a vivid example of reading creatively and critically. Fan fiction refers to original stories and novels which are set in the fictional universes of favorite television series, films, comics, games or other media properties. Some of the earliest fan fiction was inspired by Star Trek in the 1960s. Today, fans write thousands of stories each year devoted to hundreds of different media texts. The writers are often amateur; the stories are labors of love. Many of these stories are distributed online. Historically, women wrote the majority of fan stories, though men have become more actively involved as fan fiction has moved onto the Web. Some stories are written by teens; many more are written by adults. Harry Potter and various anime/manga fandoms have become central sites for youth expression.

Some of the stories are appropriate for high school students; some are more sexually explicit. Fans typically include some kinds of rating at the start of the story indicating its graphicness, often using the same G, PG, R, and X ratings used for motion pictures. There is no consistent relationship between the ratings of the "source text" (the original work which inspired the story) and the ratings of the fan text -- so one can imagine a Sex and the City story that only deals with shopping and a Harry Potter story depicting carnal relations between the characters.

Fan authors and critics have developed their own vocabulary for talking about these works with many of the terms reflecting fan-oriented genres or describing the complex set of negotiations between the fan text and the source text. Some of the terms reflect the desire of fans to be as respectful as possible to the original work, such as the distinction between stories that are "in" or "out of character"; others, such as "alternate universe," signal works which break more dramatically with the original material. Fans generally scorn "Mary Sue or Barry Sue" stories where authors insert idealized conceptions of themselves into the fictional world often at the expense of the more established characters. Fans often use Author's Notes (AN) to explain the relationship of their stories to the source text. Even the concept of the original work as a "source" tells us a great deal about the ways fans think about the creative process.

In her book, The Democratic Art, poet Sheenagh Pugh discusses what motivates large numbers of women to write fan fiction. [3] She suggests that some fans want "more from" the original source material because they felt something was missing and some write because they want "more of" the original source material, because the story raises expectations that are not fulfilled. Pugh discusses stories as addressing two related questions -- "what if" and "what else." Pugh's discussion moves between fans writing about science fiction or cop shows and fans writing about literary classics (for example, Jane Austen's novels). She focuses mostly on the work of amateur writers yet she also acknowledges that a growing number of professional writers are turning their lenses on canonical literature and extending it in new directions. She opens her book, for example, with a discussion of John Reed's Snowball's Chance (2001) which rewrites George Orwell's Animal Farm. Other examples might include Isabelle Allende's Zorro (based on a pulp magazine character), Gregory Maguire's Wicked (The Wizard of Oz), Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea (Jane Eyre), Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (Hamlet), J.M. Coetzee's Foe (Robinson Crusoe), Linda Berdoll's Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife (Pride and Prejudice), Nicholas Meyer's Seven Percent Solution (Sherlock Holmes), Alice Randall's The Wind Done Gone (Gone With the Wind), and Sena Jeter Naslund's Ahab's Wife (Moby-Dick).

While such works are sometimes described as post-modern, such practices run throughout the history of literature and as Abigail Derecho notes, this mode of creative reworking of canonical literature has been a way some female authors have asserted their perspectives onto their culture. [4] If anything, modern conceptions of copyright have slowed down a long-standing tendency of people to retell existing stories. Fan fiction revitalizes that creative impulse, operating in a world where many different people might retell the same story and in the process, expand the range of potential interpretations of the source material. Here, for example, a veteran fan fiction writer speaks about what motivates her to read and write such stories:

What I love about fandom is the freedom we have allowed ourselves to create and recreate our characters over and over again. Fanfic rarely sits still. It's like a living, evolving thing, taking on its own life, one story building on another, each writer's reality bouncing off another's and maybe even melding together to form a whole new creation. A lot of people would argue that we're not creative because we build on someone else's universe rather than coming up with our own. However, I find that fandom can be extremely creative because we have the ability to keep changing our characters and giving them new life over and over. We can kill and resurrect them as often as we like. We can change their personalities and how they react to situations. We can take a character and make him charming and sweet or coldblooded and cruel. We can give them an infinite, always-changing life rather than the single life of their original creation. We have given ourselves license to do whatever we want and it's very liberating.... If a story moves or amuses us, we share it; if it bothers us, we write a sequel; if it disturbs us, we may even re-write it! We also continually recreate the characters to fit our images of them or to explore a new idea. We have the power and that's a very strong siren. If we want to explore an issue or see a particular scenario, all we have to do is sit down and write it.


This statement beautifully captures our participatory model of reading: the text as written is the starting point; readers may be motivated to respond to the work by creating new works. Literary works do not simply enlighten us; they also inspire us or perhaps more accurately, they provoke us.

To understand this provocation, we might consider two closely related concepts -- negative capability and the encyclopedic impulse. The term, "negative capability," emerges from the writings of the poet John Keats, who first coined the term by explaining: "I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason." We use the term to refer to any meaningful gap or detail in a text which allows readers to draw on their own imaginations. [6] Consider, for example, a horror film where the monster remains in the shadows and thus becomes more terrifying as we flesh it out in our minds. The less the filmmaker shows us, the more we are able to imagine something that terrifies us. The minute the monster comes into the light, we are stuck with whatever the filmmaker thought we would find fearsome.

As we have seen above, all art works are incomplete and depend on the "beholder's share" to put together the pieces, to read across the gutter, to fill in the gaps, choose your own metaphor. Some artists purposefully create nooks and corners for their more creative readers to play in, while other authors want to close things down as much as possible. We might read J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter) as an author who is torn between these impulses -- sometimes wanting to encourage fan readers and writers to take the story in their own directions, increasingly attempting to close off speculations that differ with her own interpretations through verbal response or continued annotation of her fiction, even through legal action.

Closely related to this artistic practice of negative capability is an encyclopedic impulse on the part of readers who want to know all of the details of a favorite story. For a work to become a cult movie, Umberto Eco suggests, it must come to us as a "completely furnished world so that its fans can quote characters and episodes as if they were aspects of the private sectarian world." [7] The work must contain a rich array of information that can be drilled, practiced, and mastered by devoted fans. Yet, the text will ultimately fall short of the fan's hunger to know everything, and so part of what motivates fans to write their own stories is this desire to get "more from" and "more of" a work that has given them pleasure. Negative capability describes this phenomenon from the point of view of the producer, who wants to create opportunities for audience engagement and participation; the encyclopedic impulse describes it from the point of view of the consumer who demands coherence and continuity and who is motivated towards further speculation and expression.

Many literary critics would describe a great book as one where everything is there for a reason and nothing is missing that wouldn't detract from our experience as a whole. Director's cuts and DVD extras suggest otherwise. At least in the worlds of film and television, many things remain on the cutting room floor -- some of what gets left out improves the work by its absence, some of it might have made a meaningful contribution, and some may radically transform our understanding of the whole. DVDs often label these segments "deleted scenes," inviting us to take pleasure in seeing behind the scenes in the production process and second guessing the creative decisions of the producers. For example, the DVD for Aliens includes a scene where Ripley reacts to the news that her daughter has grown up and died during the time she has been in suspended animation in space; the scene can provide a different understanding of what motivates her intense efforts to protect and rescue the young girl Newt. A scene added for the Director's Cut of Bladerunner, linking Deckard's dream of a unicorn (in the original cut) with a shot of an origami unicorn left outside his dorm (in the director's cut) implies that he may be a replicant, because people from the Corporation know the contents of his dreams.

We might contrast this focus on deleted scenes with a genre of fan fiction called "missing scenes." Here, fans add to the fiction, offering their own versions of what might have happened during scenes absent from the original source. These scenes may be as simple as showing how other characters reacted to the news of the events shown in a particular episode; they might show us what happened before or after a key turning point, allowing us a deeper understandings of the character's motivations or the impact of their actions. So, the term, "deleted scenes," holds onto the idea that authors get to determine what belongs in their story, while the term, "missing scenes," allows fans to decide for themselves what parts of the story they want to see. Both can represent creative contributions to our understanding of the work but they have different kinds of status because our culture tends to value the original author over their readers. Many fans will distinguish between canon (elements contributed by the author) and fanon (speculations proposed by fans), with the first providing an agreed upon baseline in their conversation while the second is taken as apocrypha.

[1] Center for Media Literacy, "Five Key Questions Form Foundation for Media Literacy,"

[2] Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).

[3]Sheenagh Pugh, The Democratic Genre: Fan Fiction in a Literary Context (London: Seren, 2006) . See also Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (New York: Routledge, 1992).

[4]Abigail Derecho, "Archontic Literature: A Definition, a History, and Several Theories of Fan Fiction," in Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse (eds.) Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2006).

[5] Henry Jenkins, "'Normal Female Interest In Men Bonking': Selections from the Terra Nostre Underground and Strange Bedfellows," in Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2006).

[6] Geoffrey Long, Transmedia Storytelling: Business, Aesthetics, and Production in the Jim Henson Company, Master's Thesis, Comparative Media Studies Program, MIT,

[7] Umberto Eco, "Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage," in Travels in Hyperreality (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1986).