Bringing Fan Fiction into the Classroom: An Interview with Francesca Coppa (Part One)

Across the fall, I am sharing a number of different interviews showcasing the current state of fandom and fandom studies. Over the next year, a range of new books are going to transform the landscape of this particular corner of the academic universe, bringing new voices to the table, adding new approaches and issues to our research agenda, solidifying ground gained over the past few decades, and calling into question established wisdom. As I have in the past, I hope to use this blog to direct attention onto this scholarship and also illustrated how it is connected to a wider agenda of work on participatory culture, learning, and politics.

Today, I am welcoming Francesca Coppa, one of the founding board members of the Organization for Transformative Works, a long time fan and fandom scholar, and one of my favorite thinking partners on these topics. Through the years, she has served as an important advocate for fans in struggles over intellectual property and censorship; she's directed attention onto the historical roots of vidding as women's media practice; and now, she's helping to reshape what it might mean to bring fan fiction into the classroom. More and more academics are teaching about fan fiction, and more of our students come to college already having some experiences as writers as well as readers of fanfic. Yet, how do scholars, who may or may not themselves have roots in fandom, decide what fan works to put on their syllabuses and assign to their students? How do they give students, who may or may not have background in a particular source text, the preparation they need to read such stories thoughtfully and receptively? Given that fan stories emerge from the creative and critical conversations of the fan community, how do we help people to see the signs of that process at work if they are reading texts that have been isolated from that larger context?

The Fan Fiction Reader addresses these pedagogical and methodological needs, offering a carefully curated selection of fan stories drawn from a range of different fictional universes and reflecting a diverse set of fan genres. Each story is given a critical context in terms of its relationship to its source texts, to other works in the same genre, and to critical conversations within the fan community. A rich introduction provides an overview of current understandings of what fan fiction is, why it matters, and what motivates its study. One could not ask for a better guide than Coppa, whose many years of active participation as a fan and her authority as an academic, work together here to enable her to make meaningful statements about what we are reading. 

Over the next few installments, I will be talking with her about the project, its goals, and the compromises which have to be made to make such a book possible in the first place. For a long time, both commercial and academic presses would allow scholarship on fan fiction but would not reproduce the stories themselves.  I admire Coppa and her publishers for the courage they showed in challenging those taboos.

Henry Jenkins:  You have edited the first anthology of fan fiction for use in the classroom. Can you share some of the factors that led you to believe that such a collection would be valuable or necessary? In particular, what are the limits or risks of faculty members sending their students to read fan fiction “in the wild”? What kinds of background would teachers and students need as they engage with fan fiction in the classroom?

Francesca Coppa:  The truth is, the first person who needed a fanfiction anthology was me!  While many students discover fandom on their own - some of my students already have AO3 accounts and are suitably impressed that I’m one of the founders - you can’t count on any group of students sharing a fandom even if they know what fandom is. I tried having students go off and find stories based on their interests, but--well, it takes some expertise to find a good piece of fanfiction if you’re new to it. And then, even if students find stories they like, they have no shared, common experience. So one of my reasons for doing the book was to put together a collection of accessible texts that we could all read together. I picked stories in mega-fandoms that were likely to be culturally relevant for some time. I was also looking for stories that showcased fannish tropes and that would teach well. I tested a lot of fic in my classes at Muhlenberg and also as the Visiting Professor of Television Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.  One of the things that I learned was that if a story got too sexually explicit, then that was all the conversation would be about: we just couldn’t get past it. It was like, “I saw Harry Potter’s penis!”  Okay, yes, but what else was going on?  So while I was committed to putting sexually explicit fanfiction into the book (sex and sexual relationships are such important themes in fic) I also had to choose stories where the sex wouldn’t bring class to a grinding halt. 


HJ: The legal challenges of producing such a volume were considerable, given long-standing debates about the legal status of fan fiction in contemporary Intellectual Property law. Can you share some of the process that you went through and what insights this might have provided as to the current legal status of fanfic?


FC:  You and I had a conversation at the 2008 DIY Festival (actually captured on film) where I told you I’d learned that you could do quite a lot in fandom if you were willing to tolerate a little uncertainty. The Fanfiction Reader is the result of me being willing to tolerate that bit of uncertainty--well, me and my editor Mary Francis, and the wonderful University of Michigan Press, and all the fanfiction authors who were willing to trust me when I said that I wanted to put their stories into a book. I believed this book was needed: there are so many courses that want to talk about fanfiction: in fan studies, remix, media and transmedia, audience studies, film and television studies, adaptation. I also believe that fanfiction is a transformative fair use, and so legal to publish in certain contexts (and in this I’m backed up by the Stanford Fair Use Project, who reviewed the manuscript and committed to defending it in case of any legal challenge.)  But really, all kudos to the University of Michigan Press, because it’s institutions being willing to defend fair use - institutions and their lawyers - that makes the difference. There’s a chilling effect out there, a culture of fear. But as my colleague Rebecca Tushnet likes to say: fair use is a muscle that needs to be exercised. So I think this was worth doing on those grounds alone, and I hope other people will use this as a model of fair use in practice. You really can do a lot!


HJ: There are also political and ethical issues within fandom that shaped what stories to select and how to approach these authors. Share some of your thinking process about the best way to deal with these fan writers through this process.


FC:  I’m lucky that between my own years in fandom and my time on the board of the OTW I’ve come to know a lot of terrific fanfiction writers and I have some ground on which to approach those I don’t know personally-- I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck. I started by soliciting stories from writers who I knew would be on board ideologically with the project of publishing a curated, academic collection of fanfiction with a university press - writers who’d be willing to tolerate a bit of legal uncertainty with me. But after that, I just approached writers cold, because I’d read and liked their stories!  “Hi, you don’t know me, but…”  Incredible as it is to say, I didn’t have anyone turn me down. Actually, I drew a lot on the practical experience I gained when Laura Shapiro and I made the “What Is Vidding?”  documentaries with you and the MIT New Media Literacies lab a few years ago, so thank you for that. Dealing with pseudonyms and releases and all that was easy because I’d done it before; I’d thought through issues of fan privacy.

Francesca Coppa is Professor of English at Muhlenberg College and a founding member of the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW), the nonprofit which built and runs the Archive of Our Own. She writes in the fields of dramatic literature, performance studies, and fan studies, and is currently writing a book about fan music video. She is a passionate advocate of fair use.