Bringing Fan Fiction Into the Classroom: An Interview with Francesca Coppa (Part Three)

HJ: Often, the claim is made that the power of fan fiction lies in our ability to imagine many different versions of the same characters and situations. For the most part, you stick here with one story per fandom, though some stories do show multiple conceptions of the characters. How might educators help to communicate the importance of this diversity in the classroom?


FC:  Oh, you don’t know how it hurt to only pick one story per fandom!  Believe me, I’m fully aware that it’s wrong: as I say in the preface to the book, it’s like eating one Pringle, one Dorito, or one Oreo--and you can’t eat one potato chip unless you’re some kind of monster! It’s why I was biased toward “5 things” stories and others where a multiplicity of interpretation is built in. And then I caved and put together a unit of three Harry Potter stories, figuring that could be a model for teachers and students to emulate if they wanted to. But there’s no way that this book could be anything but the barest scratching of the surface of fic; I’ve tried to be super clear that it is in no way a canon. Ideally this book is seen, as Steph Burt described it in the New Yorker, as an “on-ramp” to fanfiction, not a final destination!


HJ:  Fan fiction, as you note, is embedded within the conversations of the fan community, and we often face the challenge as educators that most of our students do not know the source material well enough to really appreciate the transformative uses fans make of it. You provide rich notes in front of each story designed to partially address these concerns, but they remain limitations anytime we bring fan fiction into the classroom. Thoughts?


FC:  It’s true; I’ve had the most success teaching fanworks as part of general transmedia courses where I’m also teaching at least some of the source material. So for instance, in my course Sherlock, James, and Harry, my students consider fanworks after exposure to both the textual canon and to professional adaptations: movies, TV shows, video games, etc.  In courses where I don’t have time or it’s not appropriate to teach source texts, I’ve found it useful to take a poll and see what students are actually familiar with: I’m often surprised.  One year, the Sherlock Holmes adaptation that the greatest number of students was familiar with was House--so great, I showed House vids!  I’ve had classes where nobody could identify Severus Snape. This is why I went for the biggest ongoing franchises I could think of: Star Trek, James Bond, Doctor Who, Harry Potter. Game of Thrones is the biggest show in the world right now, but will undergrads know it in a year, or in three? (Keep in mind those students are fourteen now; they’re probably not even allowed to watch it.) But Star Wars is back and is likely to be around for some time!


HJ:  Much work on fan fiction has stressed that it provides a space for its mostly female readers and writers to think through issues of gender and sexuality together. There has been growing debate in recent years about how well fan fiction has operated as a space for thinking about race, ethnicity and cultural difference. What do you see as the strengths and limits of fan fiction’s response to the more diverse cast of a franchise like Star Wars, which you use as your concluding example in the book?


FC:  It’s great that we’re finally talking more about race and trying to deal with racism in Hollywood and in fandom internally. There are some exciting academic projects on the horizon too, including a special issue of TWC on Fans of Color, Fandoms of Color edited by Gail De Kosnik and andré carrington. I do think that it’s particularly hard to talk about race in fanfiction because, as as genre, fanfiction is so embodied and identificatory and personal, and so often explicitly sexual. Fandom knows that there’s power involved in writing fanfiction: that it’s about taking control of a character and changing them as well as identifying with them. But, as in the theatre, as in transmedia, it’s precisely by having lots of different people engage with and inhabit a character that the character becomes iconic and broadly meaningful. So we need to find a way through. In the case of The Force Awakens, not only did we have the first juggernaut slash pairing of color in Finn/Poe (also called stormpilot), but we also we saw female fans identifying with Finn as a revolutionary figure--as someone who has consciously defied power and resistedboth his own oppression (Finn is basically a slave) and his role as a cog in a machinery that oppresses others (Finn is also a stormtrooper). So Finn’s narrative really spoke to fans in terms of race and gender both and promoted a broad and multivalent fannish identification with him. We see this on display in LullabyKnell’s story, “The Story of Finn,” in which an entire community is radicalized by Finn’s actions: he is a figure of liberation, inspiring an elaborate folk culture (a fandom, really) as well as an underground railroad for other escaping stormtroopers. And finding unusual and delightful points of identification like this is what fandom does best.

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.