Fandom and Fiction
"There's a time and place for everything, and I believe it's called 'fan fiction'" ~ Joss Whedon ("Fanfiction Quotes"). I have been reading books for about as long as I can remember; my obsession with characterization and emotion began soon after that. I wanted to read, I wanted to act, I wanted to be. But mostly, I just wanted to write. I discovered the existence of fandom when I was in seventh grade and was immediately intrigued: Due to a mixture of my obsession with the Maximum Ride novels by James Patterson and the Harry Potter novels by J.K. Rowling, I vowed to become more involved at once.
What I then discovered about fandom was that it was a whole new world with its own distinct language and culture. It was basically a place where all of the crazy, obsessive fans of pretty much anything were able to unite. A 'fandom' is the general term for a group of people who are fans of a particular book, series, TV show, or anything of that nature. It is also used more exclusively, as in "The Harry Potter Fandom" or "The Lord of the Rings Fandom."
I myself came to write fan fiction, fan-written stories based on books, television, movies, comics, etc. I eventually started to feel as though that world, the world of stories and unconditional love, was the world in which I truly belonged. I assumed that this was how many people feel about being a part of a fandom, about making "fanfics," "fanvids," "manips," and more. Even with this obsession, I never really thought about fandom's origins. I assumed it started on the internet, because the internet is now, essentially, the heart, soul, and stomping grounds of any good fandom. But how did it really originate? What was the initial purpose of it? And most of all, why are those fans so obsessed with doing the things they do?
Getting started on answering these questions was pretty simple; I was fairly certain that there weren't exactly many books written on the subject of something that was now known as an internet phenomenon. So off to the computer I went to stalk down any information I could in regards to the origins, the purposes, and the overall obsession with fandom and fan fiction.
What I found was a little more than surprising. Not only did I discover that the existence of fandom and fan fiction was not merely an internet pastime, but I also found that both had actually been around since the nineteenth century. Yes, you read that correctly: Fandom has existed since the 1800s (Brown). Obviously, fan obsession is not a new concept that sprang up only years ago. Throughout history, religious figures, politicians, authors, and war heroes have all had their share of a proper following. But in regards to literature, how far did that following go? Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes collection is considered to be the beginning of fandom culture as we know it. Though not referred to as fandom, multiple fan clubs began to pop up sometime after the publication of the first Holmes novellas in the late 1800s ("Sherlock Holmes"). They met to discuss the mysteries, to write their own fan fiction—though at the time, and often still today in the Holmes fandom, those stories were known as parodies or pastiches—and, during a tragic time in 1893, to mourn the death of their beloved detective (Brown). Holmes was later reborn, of course, and the fandom only continued to flourish, with spin-offs, multiple television series, and now a major action movie franchise to keep it alive.
Other works that had pre-internet fan followings were the stories of Jane Austen. The Austen fan movement didn't really seem to take off until the 1920s and 30s when fans began to submit their own stories based on the works and characters of Austen to what are known as fanzines, and truly began to flourish after television series and movies appeared as the twentieth century went on ("Jane Austen"). While not quite as explosive or as well-known as the Holmes fandom or the soon-to-be-mentioned Star Trek fandom, Austen's fandom has transcended a century and continues to make women, Mrs. Darcy t-shirts worn proudly, weak in the knees ("Mrs. Darcy Gifts").
Though clearly chronologically succeeding both the Holmes fandom and the Austen fandom, the Star Trek fandom is commonly known as the beginning of modern fan fiction. The very first modern fanzine, or a magazine intended for amateurs to express their love for a particular celebrity or show, ever to be published was the Star Trek fanzine Spockanalia (Verba 32).The first issue was published in 1967 and included fan fiction, Star Trek-inspired poetry, and even a letter of encouragement from Leonard Nimoy, the actor who played Spock in the original Star Trek (Verba 1). This was the dawn or true fan fiction: It was the beginning of pairings (romantic relationships in fan fiction), RPF (fan fiction in which real people are the characters), and slash (male-male relationships in fan fiction) as we know them today ("Fan Fiction").
After researching the origins of fandom and fan fiction, I moved on to the purpose. Obviously, I figured that the purpose would be different for every individual, so instead of scouring web lexicons and wikis, I searched for quotes and polls from fan fiction readers and writers discussing why they did the things they did. "Being a part of fandom is like being from a different country," fan fiction writer Memi2 said in her online journal. "We have our own customs and language." ("Why? Fanfiction"). That's the truth, too: Fan fiction has developed so many terms over the years that its language has its own Wikipedia page ("List of Fan Fiction Terms"). Phrases like canon, which refers to the "real" universe of a book or movie, slash and femmeslash, which are homosexual relationships, and AU, meaning Alternate Universe, are commonly accepted as actual words among members of fandom. This language is a unifying force, just as languages of real places in the world are. That unity, that sense of family, gives fandom members purpose. "It puts me into my own little world to escape to when everything else is too much for me," wrote fan fiction reader and writer lexxinstero. "That's why I do it." ("Tumblr Poll"). Just as reading a book can draw you in, so can writing your own version of it. This unity, this allowance for escape, and all that inspiration explain perfectly why anyone would want to be a part of fandom.
The obsession involved is another matter. Certainly, it is true that the above reasons are common and legitimate reasons for fan obsession. The concept of making new discoveries in your own writing about your favorite characters, especially, is a fascinating part of being a member of fandom. Still, a huge part of the obsession stems from the fact that fans don't always get what they want in canon. In canon, people die, couples break up, best friends fight. But in the world of fan fiction, anything goes ("Why? Fanfiction). Want to put a new spin on Romeo and Juliet? Write about their afterlife! Tired of the same old sex-and-booze plot lines of stories written about your favorite members of musical sensation Panic! At The Disco? Make them bakers! Or, better yet, make one of them a baker and the other a surly law professor who drops by to get a cinnamon bun every morning. Fan fiction has been criticized as being cheap copies of the canon works, but it is so much more than that (Brown). It is a doorway to your own creativity, a path not only leading to the betterment of your own writing skills, but also to the expansion of your imagination. The obsession doesn't only stem from previous obsession with the canon work; it comes from feeling the power and energy flowing through you as you kill off that girl you've always hated, as you finally reconcile that couple you've adored. It comes from being able to take a world and bend it to be whatever you want it to be. With these things discovered, it was time to move on to the interview, which I hoped would bring to light some of the less concrete questions I had to ask.
Setting up an interview with Ryan Crum was simple enough. I used the most straightforward way I could think to contact a member of the online world: I formally emailed her, in business letter format, to ask about getting together and talking. Though in the past Ryan and I had mainly interacted over the web, I'd met her for the first time at a concert nearly two years ago, and twice more since then. She is an avid fanfic reader and writer; she also writes highly popular original stories which she posts on . Her original characters have their own facebook accounts, each with hundreds of online friends. There may be professors and students of geek culture in the world, but Ryan was the perfect interviewee. She didn't simply study the fandom world; she lived init.
She agreed to meet with me at a Starbucks that was approximately a halfway point between our homes on a lovely afternoon that we both probably would have otherwise spent indoors on our computers. When I arrived, she was already seated at a little table in the corner of the shop. She waved me over and I sat down across from her, ready to get to business. Her hair's gotten longer, I noted. She was wearing her glasses and a white button-down shirt over a tank top; her legs were crossed at the ankles. We greeted each other awkwardly before diving right into conversation.
I first asked her why she herself had become involved in fandom. "Harry Potter," she replied without a second thought. "When I was a kid, my life revolved around that." Then she giggled, leaning her head forward. "My life still revolves around that." She then went on to explain her initial steps into entering the world of online fandom beginning with her obsession with the Harry Potter series. "It said you had to be thirteen," she confided, "and I was only eleven. But that's when the obsession began!" She accompanied her last few words with a triumphant raise of her first, and I laughed.
"What about the fandom life holds your interest?" I asked, then clarifying, "Or obsession?"
Ryan's face exhibited a scrunched up expression, before she said, "It kind of just becomes your life… It's like moving to a new city or something. You just meet all these great people… who like the same crazy stuff you do, who obsess over it as much as you do, and you don't want to leave." She looked into the distance for a moment before turning her attention back to me. "Why would you?"
"So you've been in the Harry Potter fandom for quite some time," I confirmed, and she nodded. "And other fandoms, I presume." She murmured an affirmative, and I continued with, "In all that time, you've gotten a pretty good glimpse of the sort of people who frequent fan fiction sites. Why do you think they're so into it?" We discussed this topic for quite some time. It was, we determined, a matter of feeling like something of a family on one level. On another level, Ryan and I eventually concluded, it was all a matter of too much subtext plus too much imagination.
"When fans don't see what they want to see," Ryan said, "they make it up. Then they get obsessed with the things they make up, and soon they're writing spin-offs of their own stories, and alternate endings and all that. People write fan fiction for other people's fan fiction, you know? I'm pretty sure that's a lot of it. AU fics are so common nowadays, too, and I think that's the explanation for it." Surely this is exemplified, she went on to say, in the Supernatural fandom. Within the television series, there are not very many instances of romance. Within fandom, however, demon hunters are raising children with angels, fathers and mothers are being brought back from the dead, and both age regression and male pregnancy seem to flourish. "The subtext is more fun for them than the, well, text," Ryan laughed. "The stuff that happens in the show triggers something in those crazy, wild fangirls, and the next thing you know they're selling hardcover copies of their latest 'masterpiece.'" She did, in fact, insert air quotation marks with her fingers as she said this. "And the best—or weirdest, I guess—part is that people will buy it. Because they're obsessed too."
"Do you think that fans might be trying to live through the characters they write about?" I then asked.
"Oh, definitely," Ryan replied, leaning back in her chair. "I mean, you like a particular character or whatever… with fan fiction you can make them do anything in the world. Just look at My Immortal." Oh God. My Immortal. My Immortal is known throughout the Harry Potter fandom as being the worst piece of fan fiction in the history of, well… ever. I won't go into detail, but it involves an original character of the author's dating Draco Malfoy and having him take her to Simple Plan concerts in Hogsmeade; it's not exactly Harry Potter canon.
"I think," Ryan concluded, "that once people find out that they really can do whatever they want, the fandom world becomes their sort of playground… You get to choose what happens, you finally are given control over the plot lines and characters you fell in love with. It's empowering, in a way. I think—it sounds really creepy to say this—but I think that we get kind of addicted to that power. I can't imagine going back to being a casual fan of anything. It's all or nothing now."
That was what I needed to hear; that confirmation of the reasoning behind the obsession. It's something that builds. You may start out as a casual fan, but once you get involved with fandom it can never stay that way. Ryan and I chatted for a while longer before she had to leave for work. What she had said at the end of the interview intrigued me. As she picked up her bag to go, she looked at me. "You know," she said, "I think that inside every person, there's a spastic fangirl just waiting to come out. They just need to find what they love. Then there's people like us out there to teach them how to love it properly." Though I had gotten a lot of information from this interview and from my research, I had also learned that a lot of what made a fandom a fandom was that everyone has a different opinion. Just because Ryan and I viewed the idea fandom one way didn't mean that everyone did. Is that all there was to fandom obsession? Exactly how far could that obsession go?
I set off to observe more opinions to ultimately answer my questions. Amusingly enough, I decided that this observational portion of this project would involve spending some time attempting to write fan fiction and then more time observing an online community of fans… which is a typical night for me. I chose to do this for a few reasons: Firstly, have you ever considered what it would be like to observe a person writing fan fiction? Well, for every person the experience might be a little different, but for me, sitting in the corner of a dimly lit home office or bedroom of a teenage girl who tippity-taps away at a computer for hours on end sounds less like a good way to observe the process and more like there's a wall-sized mirror in front of my life. Secondly, the world of fandom is a particularly difficult place to observe—to use the common internet phrase—"in real life." The only way to truly do that is to go to a convention of some sort, which, incidentally, I did in January. However, because I had not been taking notes or observing anything closely other than Supernatural star Jensen Ackles, I instead chose to attempt an observation within a less tangible world.
I began my observation the way I begin most things: By procrastinating. I honestly sometimes think I legitimately have focus issues. When I was finally mentally prepared enough to begin, the process of thinking and observing started to flow smoothly. I began to write a piece of fan fiction about Sam Winchester, a character from the television series Supernatural, writing fan fiction. This part definitely aided in seeing for myself the purpose of fan fiction. I have cited quotes in the past from writers who view fan fiction as a sort of escape; as I sat on my bed, leaning against my wall with my laptop on my knees, I felt that. For however long I was immersed in writing my story, I wasn't thinking about anything else. In fact, I might even go so far as to say that I wasn't even thinking as myself; in those moments, I was Sam Winchester. I was a brother, a warrior, a hero, instead of a crazy little girl with too much time on her hands. So that's different.
But it did, like most things involved with my short attention span do, get old pretty fast. After confirming firsthand those ideas about escape in writing fan fiction, I moved on to the second part: fandom. Tumblr, a blogging website, is not only full of hipster children who take pictures of sunsets over train tracks and wish they could have been alive for Woodstock, but also the freakiest of fanatical fangirls. In going there, I hoped to immerse myself fully in the completely uncensored world of either the Supernatural or Glee fandoms, both of which I consider myself to be a part.
All alone in my room with the quiet sounds of UCLA's a cappella group singing their version of "I'll Make A Man Out Of You" from Mulan playing in the background, I began to observe my dear fandoms. When I arrived, the Supernatural fans were already exploding over the apparent leak of star Misha Collins' youtube account. He'd posted a video of his young son attempting (and, frankly, failing) to crawl across smooth, hardwood floors, and it had been discovered by the fandom. I watched as Collins' subscription number on youtube doubled in less than two hours after the video was passed throughout the fandom via tumblr and facebook, and had quadrupled when I looked an hour after that. This, to me, was the perfect illustration of a fangirl's obsession. As one very frightened anonymous commentator put it, "Your fandom terrifies me. I feel like I should have a ring of salt protecting me from Supernatural fans."
At one point, my mom came in to tell me to go to bed. "I'm doing homework!" I insisted.
"You're on tumblr," she replied.
"Yeah, but… it's complicated!" Though, really, it was quite simple. The fans, six days after the latest episode had aired, were still crying over the events that had taken place and coming up with conspiracy theories, bowing down to their favorite writer of the show, Ben Edlund, and, of course, freaking out about the baby. West Collins—Misha Collins' young son—probably has a bigger fan base than his less-than-a-year-old mind can even comprehend. That, right there, is the power of fangirls. What I ended up discovering through my observation of the Supernatural fandom is that the origins, purposes, and obsession with fan fiction and fandom are not separate things; they are all connected. Obsession with the canon once led to those original fandoms; the obsession also continues to aid in explaining fans' purposes for what they do; and, of course, everything involved in fandom at all only leads to greater obsession in the end.
I discovered, after that long process of interviewing, researching, and observing, that all of these things (excluding the origins) are very much opinion-based; the reasons vary depending on who you ask. Fandom involvement, I learned, can be a means for connection, for escape, or simply for the improvement of one's own writing skills. In researching the origins, I discovered things I never knew before; I'd heard that modern fan fiction had begun with Star Trek, but I'd never known about the Sherlock Holmes fans or the Jane Austen following.
I feel that the secondary source research did help a lot when I was looking for that information on the origins, but that the interview and site observation were better suited to give me information on those personal opinions of what fandom means to each individual. That prior research did not aid as much as those other methods did in those areas.
It continuously seemed, throughout this project, like I was watching my fandoms through a one-way window mirror; I could see every move they made, an outsider looking in, and they were none the wiser. Being in this position allowed me to discover things about fandom life that I'd never thought about previously. This experience taught me that fandom and fan fiction have transcended decades, generations; that they help people feel like they belong; and, most importantly, that underneath all that crazy lies a whole lot of love. I now believe that perhaps Ryan Crum was right: Perhaps, inside everyone, there really is a wild, crazy fangirl just waiting to get out.