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

HJ: Your book is organized around specific fandoms but also around distinctive genres of fan fiction writing which cut across fandoms. The status of genres in fan fiction always interest me, since some would argue that genres are commercial categories and sometimes depicted as constraints on the creative process. What insights do you get into how and why genres persist in fandom as a result of your process of mapping the territory to be covered in this book?


FC:  Genres are fascinating, I agree! In the case of fandom, I think that genres are a way of naming the things we like and giving new fanfiction writers a structure for reproducing them. So a fan says, I like slash, I like het, I like long, plotty gen; I like bodyswaps; this story is an mpreg crackfic. That naming also helps us sort through the huge wash of fanfiction that’s produced. That said, the AO3’s tagging system has really put all this labelling onto a new level, moving beyond fannish genres to a really granular listing of storytelling ingredients. I’ve talked about AO3’s curated folksonomy with professional librarians and archivists, and Casey Fiesler did a fantastic paper on the AO3as “A Case Study of Feminist HCI and Values in Design,” which describes how our tagging prioritizes inclusivity and user control. In this era of triggers and warnings, fandom is again ahead of the curve: fans don’t just categorize by genre but also create elaborate content labels for fic both as a way of both attracting the readers who’ll want what’s on offer and warning away the ones who don’t (and the AO3 also provides options to conceal this information from those whose first preference is to be surprised.) Most of the genres in the book are well established: crossovers and 5 Things and racebending and a very meta Mary Sue. That said, I had a definite bias toward stories that incorporated multiple interpretations within themselves, so a teacher could draw out that contrast. If I got to do a Fanfiction Reader: Volume II, I’d love to do two or three long stories that have a lot of elaborate worldbuilding: those kinds of stories are sadly absent from this book.


HJ:You define fan fiction, in part, as “fiction produced outside the literary marketplace.” How is this aspect of the definition changing as more and more fan fiction writing women are going pro or at least being courted as potential Pro writers following the success of 50 Shades of Grey? Does the commercial interest have implications long term for fan fiction regardless of whether any particular writer does or does not want to stay outside the marketplace?


FC: Well, fans have always gone pro, and some fans have always already been pro. What’s new is that more people are willing to admit writing in both worlds. And what we’ve seen is that many working writers also write fic precisely because they want to keep making things outside the marketplace - because it’s fun!  Another new thing is the publication of original work that shares some of fanfiction’s literary values and aims to produce a similar range of emotions: I’m thinking about, say, C.S. Pacat’s Captive Prince trilogy (which are much better books than the 50 Shades books, IMO!) While Kindle Worlds was a scam that fans were rightfully wary of, Amazon’s self-publishing arm has let some fans sell their queer science fiction or werewolf erotica. Literary agents (many themselves fans) are soliciting work from their favorite fan writers. I think that’s all great; I’m 100 percent down with fans also writing for the marketplace if they want to, though realistically most things aren’t going to sell because most things just don’t sell.  


That said, I am not in favor of commercializing fanwork itself, whether through Kickstarter or Patreon or whatever; that’s the edge I fear, to be honest. I’m not against it for legal reasons - I think transformative works can be sold in certain contexts; witness this book! - but just because I think it’s bad for fannish art and bad for our culture. Money changes things and people make different things for money. Fandom is a place where people work together for love--but it’s different if at the end one person is cashing a check. It can poison relationships. Just to say: it was important to me with The Fanfiction Reader that all the stories remain online as they’ve always been, free to read. The authors didn’t get paid other than a trib copy; I didn’t get paid, either, and I’m donating the book’s royalties to OTW. So it’s a labor of love all around.


HJ: The term, “transformative use,” has really taken roots in fandom over the last decade or so, thanks in part to your work at the Organization for Transformative Works. There are some differences between the legal, academic, and grassroots understanding of this concept. But, at a core level, there’s some interesting friction between long-standing traditions within fandom which measure the value of a story based on how firmly grounded it is in the source text and a newer definition that stress what it changes or transforms as evidence of its creative contribution. How are fan writers today working through these competing pulls on their work?


FC:  Well, some fidelity to canon is important because that’s why we care: we read fanfiction because we have a pre-existing relationship to a story and its characters. But transformation is important because that’s the intervention that makes a fanfiction story worth reading: that’s how you fix things in the universe: alter and tailor and extend the story for your needs and those of your readers. So if you don’t recognize the characters, then it’s what slash fans call an “any two guys” story (which is the worst insult!) There’s no investment in the characters. But if you don’t transform the characters and the story, then you’re not satisfying your readers’ needs. You might as well just watch the original movie again, or go read a tie-in novel that colors within clear lines. Remarkably little fic actually replicates the source in terms of style or genre: like, go check out some Sherlock. Almost none of it has Sherlock solving mysteries! Captain America almost never fights supervillains or alien invaders. If you want that, go read a comic book: there’s plenty of that story out there already. We want to see Cap talk to Kim Kardashian at a party. Or  fight for workers’ rights.


HJ:  I have struggled a bit with your suggestion that “fan fiction is speculative fiction about characters rather than about the world.” For me, characters are part of how we define worlds, and conversely, for many fan writers, characters are defined in part by how they were shaped by the worlds they inhabit. Sure, we can write AU stories which move characters into different worlds, but these are as often as not about how these character’s lives and personalities would take different forms under different circumstances. Reactions?


FC:  Yes, I see what you mean; in some ways it’s a false distinction, in that worlds produce characters and characters produce worlds. For me, though, it’s like what happens in theatre, how a character becomes richer for being embodied by many different actors in different productions. We see something analogous with transmedia characters like Sherlock Holmes, who has been played by so many different people in so many settings. He’s been in World War II, contemporary London, Brooklyn, Harlem, he’s a mouse, he’s in the 22nd century, he’s a Muppet, he’s House--and yet he must still be Sherlock Holmes. The different worlds are typically interesting only to the extent to which they showcase and complicate the character; they’re not typically interesting in themselves, or innovative the way that speculative fiction worlds so often are. Sometimes fandom does invent interesting worlds, which often become tropes: I’m thinking of something like the A/B/O (Alpha/Beta/Omega) stories which invented an entirely new system of gender.  But then the fun is putting your favorite characters into that world and seeing who they are: so if it’s a Supernatural story, who’s the alpha, who’s the beta, who’s the omega?  But the characterization in fanfiction is almost always innovative; say what you like, you typically don’t see fanfiction characters outside of fanfiction. They’re still too unusual for prime time: queer or ace or pregnant or elves or socialists or winged or telepathic or werewolves or into bondage or what have you, even though in life, of course, real people are--all right, fine, not telepathic or winged or werewolves (mostly), but a lot more than the mass media lets us see.  (Even if you want to say that fanfiction characters are feminized, girly - in some undefinable way like girls - well, half the damn world is girls, so I say: bring it. It’s not the same old thing anyway.) And in fanfiction, our characters get even more interesting as we get deeper inside them, which we do because it’s prose and not a more external medium like film, television or theatre. We’re interested not just in a character’s actions and dialogue, but in their innermost thoughts and desires. That’s different than traditional speculative fiction, which tends to focus on confronting the external rules of a world rather than the endless internal landscape of the self. But fans are interested in subtle shadings of character and also in suggesting multiplicities and possibilities within the self. So there’s more than one kind of transformative work going on here, I think!


HJ: Real Person Slash was once one of the major taboos within fandom. Many had asked me not to mention the genre in Textual Poachers and I kept that trust. But now, it has become widespread and you even include an example in your collection. How do we account for this change? Are there any remaining taboos amongst fan fiction writers?


FC:  Yeah, the boat on Real Person Fic has pretty much sailed, at least for overtly performative celebrities: those who seem to be obviously telling a story about themselves through the entertainment media. It’s still not done to show that kind of work to the celebrities in question, though, and fans resent it when non-fans do it on talk shows to have a bit of a laugh at the celebrity’s (or fandom’s) expense. Right now we’re also having a flare up about darkfic, rapefic, and other genres that depict behaviors that everyone agrees are wrong in real life. Some fans tend to feel that any representation of rape, violence, child abuse etc. is wrong; others feel that writing (and even enjoying) these “problematic” genres can be a way of working through personal traumas; still others feel like you shouldn’t have to profess a history of abuse before writing or enjoying what are clearly fantasy scenarios. I’m anti-censorship and pro caveat lector, but I lived through Tipper Gore and the ‘80s and I don’t think sane people do terrible things because of Judas Priest or the Hydra Trash Party. The AO3 provides tools that help responsible people avoid seeing content that disturbs them. That said, this is an argument that probably has to come up in feminist circles at least once every couple of years, and it’s not a bad thing to have it, I guess, just as a moment of community reflection about speech and art and power and responsibility.

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.