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Fanfiction is Research

You heard me right. Not fanfiction and research. Not fanfiction requires research. Not even fanfiction should be researched. All of those are true statements. But today I want to do a quick argument: fanfiction is research.

Literary stuff
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I want to clarify something: I’m pro-fanfiction but I don’t really write fanfiction. This is not because I think I’m somehow above fanfiction. It’s quite the opposite: I think fanfiction is too hard, so I tend to avoid it.

This is not to say I’ve never tried my hand at fanfiction. I’ve done a few minor forays into the genre, but never really gotten deep enough to say I write (or draw or otherwise create) fanfic. Which may sound odd coming from someone whose dissertation was literally about fan communities. I don’t claim to be a fanfiction expert. I claim to be a fanfiction ally, in the same way that I can be an ally for LGBTQIA+ folks without myself being LGBTQIA+. (I will defend the comparison in part because a lot of LGBTQIA+ writers, readers, and characters wind up relegated to the realm of fanfic, because marginalization).

But I want to use my various fanfic experiences and my research experience to argue that fanfiction is research. That is, to do fanfiction is, in some important ways, to do research as much as most literary criticism counts as research. Perhaps, though, it would be more precise to say fanfiction is literary criticism. And it’s filling a niche that a lot of conventional, mainstream literary criticism isn’t filling, and it’s a niche that needs to be filled. Popular culture scholarship is often slow and behind the curve, but fanfic is often right on top of it, if not even ahead of it. Fandoms move swiftly in ways that scholarly communities could never hope to do. Moreover, fanfiction touches the texts that most literary critics would sacrifice their career if they glanced in that direction–but those are often the texts that are making up the cultural moment, that are feeding the zeitgeist, and that most need to be examined.

When I was a master’s student, I was taking a course on 19th century fiction, and we read Vanity Fair. [SPOILERS FOR VANITY FAIR AHEAD] As a Serious Scholar(TM), I knew full well the limits of my interpretation; I knew any argument I made required extensive evidence from the text itself. But sometimes there is a hole in the text, something the author either decided not to address or simply didn’t include. There is one such hole in Vanity Fair (at least one!): When William Dobbin (the ur-Nice Guy) returns from war, about halfway through the book, without his rival in love George, there are very few witnesses to George’s death, and William is hailed as a hero for his efforts in the battle. But the story of what happened in the battle is only ever told in the story filtered through the characters who stand to gain from a valorous telling of it. But what if–hear me out–Dobbin killed George? He certainly has the motive, opportunity, and means available. And how then does that change our reading of poor Dobbin? He certainly begins to align more closely, then, with modern understandings of how toxic masculinity can mix fatally with possessiveness and unrequited desire. There’s nothing in the text to say that’s what happened but… there’s also nothing in the text to say it didn’t.

This is not the sort of speculation that formal research allows. But it is the sort of exploration of an interpretation of a character that creative work–adaptation (which is more socially accepted) or, yes, fanfiction–would welcome.

Fanfiction likewise has a way of exploring the gaps, holes, and cracks in a text. Anne Elizabeth Jamison writes in her extensive study of fanfiction that “The best fic writers are fantastically close readers,” meaning that the work that fic writers do to open up the space for their stories in the texts they’re expanding is very much the same work that literary scholars do.

Also, a LOT of “great Literature” is really fanfic, and deep down you know it.
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Identifying the spaces where something more can be said (or isn’t being said) is as important as identifying what is being said, but our methods of literary research in the canon of scholarship are ill equipped to do that compared to the massive crowd-sourcing and creative leaps that fanfiction is allowed to make. Admittedly these are some of the spaces that adaptations, translations, and other creative interpretations can fill–but what, apart from official cultural sanction, is really the difference between a fanfic and an adaptation?

One November I attempted to write my own fanfiction. I was in the beginning stages of my dissertation, and I wanted to know what it was like to do more than small one-off speculations and parodies as I had done before. It was, admittedly, a strange project: I was writing a deliberate misinterpretation of lyrics by the fantasy symphonic metal band Rhapsody of Fire. I had misheard a few lines, and in so doing, it changed the meaning entirely–taking the story from a fairly conventional epic fantasy about a hero taking down a dark lord to a deep, layered internal struggle and ultimate downfall of a hero who, driven by his consuming need for revenge, becomes the dark lord himself. That is, it became less Lord of the Rings and more Star Wars, I suppose.

But writing the fic was exhausting. It required constantly going back to the source material to check details. It required intense documentation. I had to have character lists, annotated lyrics, everything–probably as much note-taking as if I were writing a historical fiction. In fact, the process is very similar. Playing in someone else’s world requires all the research skills that writing about the real world takes, only you don’t have the advantage of lived experience to help you.

Fanfic is hard work, yo. It’s a LOT of research.
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I have deep respect for fanfic creators (here including not just writers, but all artists who do fan work). They do real research. They do real cultural work. They stay on the cutting edge of the zeitgeist and explore all the possible directions. They test the boundaries of genres and texts and even culture itself. The battles over cultural spaces in fanfiction spaces are ultimately the battles over cultural spaces that the mainstream will also have to face, but fanfiction spaces often see it first.

If academic culture can’t learn to respect fanfiction culture, then academic culture is the problem, not fanfiction culture, and I’ll be happy to tell you which one needs change to change first (hint: we can go in alphabetical order here).

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