Fanfiction and the Concept of the Author
Writer Number: 21361801
Introduction: The Empire of the Author and the Shadow World of Fanfiction
1968 was the year of uprising throughout the Western world. It was also the year Roland Barthes, one of the most famous and daring critics of the twentieth century, published his most influential essay, entitled The Death of the Author. His essay takes the form of an obituary, announcing not just the death of the Author1 but "the removal of the Author" and the end of "the Author's empire", an empire which he describes grandly as the culmination of English empiricism, French rationalism, Reformation individualism, and capitalist ideology. The death of the Author, Barthes says, in the style of 1968, "liberates an activity we may call countertheological, properly revolutionary, for to refuse to halt meaning [by assigning it to an Author] is finally to refuse God and his hypostases, reason, science, the law."2
Looking at the publishing industry in 2012, it is hard to understand the fuss made in 1968. While there has been no shortage of postmodern playfulness about authorial voices, it seems on the surface that there has been no major threat to the sovereignty of the Author. Magazines, reviews, advertising, publicity tours and literary festivals still celebrate – and promote – the Author; Authors still claim their royalties and copyright; plagiarism and cases of disguised Authorship are still enjoyed as major scandals, including the threats they pose to "Literature"; Authors still send out lawyers to protect the fictional characters and worlds they claim as their personal property.
Here is one of the Authors who defends his sovereignty fiercely, the fantasy writer George RR Martin:
"A writer's creations are his livelihood. ... Those of us ... who prefer not to allow fan fictioners to use our worlds and characters are not doing it just to be mean. We are doing it to protect ourselves and our creations. Furthermore, we have to do it [because of copyright law]. ... "Fan fiction" – or whatever you want to call it – has been around for a long time, but never like now. The internet has changed everything. Whereas before the fanfic might be published in obscure fanzines with a circulation of a hundred, now then or thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, can read these, well, let's just call them "unauthorised derivative works".".
In defending the sovereignty of the Author, Martin points to its underside, the world of "'Fan fiction' – or whatever you want to call it". These are the literary slums that surround, and in some ways support and in some ways threaten and in some ways depend upon, the Author's citadel. As a worker in the fantasy genre, Martin should know that he risks making these slums look intriguing. Where would you look for an alternative literary worldview, a potential rebel alliance, except in overcrowded and shadowy alleyways?
The aim of this work is to explore this literary shadow world through a combination of theoretical and empirical research. While the Author thrives in the sunshine of the printed word, I want to discover if in the internet there already exists the literary culture that Barthes prophesised, a literary culture that is not itself based on the figure of the Author, even if it exists in the Author's shadow.
Fanfiction is a term that came into existence in the 1960s for writers who wrote original, amateurish works of science fiction in sci-fi journals. With the development of the internet, the term and its variants have taken on a different meaning, and importantly one that raises questions about the nature of authorship and originality. Fanfiction now refers to the sites which allow people to write unofficial spin-off stories from famous plays and books: just as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is to Hamlet, and Stoppard to Shakespeare, the fans are to their favourite Authors and fanfiction to the work of those Authors.
The internet has now added two profound twists to this formula, the first deriving from the active communities of fans congregating around fanfiction sites. Favourite Authors connect fans, in the process becoming conduits for the relationships of fans with each other. Fans read and edit and rate and review each other's work, establishing a dialogue that can be thought of as a form of communal mind, like those associated with anonymous folk cultures. To appreciate this, it is necessary to realise that these sites can be incredibly popular: the most prominent one ( ) has around 2,400,000 account-holding members who edit or write stories, and includes spin-offs of many thousands of movies, plays and novels (there are, for instance, 412 spin-offs of To Kill a Mockingbird, and over 1800 assorted Shakespeare spin-offs). In sites such as these, where people edit each other's work, where readers are writers and writers are readers, where reviews appear almost instantaneously, shaping a work as it is being written and uploaded chapter by chapter, just who is the Author? Is it the original writer alone, or the writer of the spin-off, or perhaps the reviewers, or perhaps the fanfiction community? Do the "secondary" fanfictions change the way the "original" work is read?
The second twist made by fanfiction websites on the internet derives from the strange blend of anonymity and exposure that often accompanies publication on the internet. Websites such as allow people to post their own stories and review other people's work under the cover of profiles. There is no way of checking the truth of a person's profile: the name is usually a nickname or pseudonym, and most authors include "personal" information, such as age and gender, which can't be verified and which is often another form of fiction. Despite this elaborate concealment, however, writers on the site still want to be acknowledged by readers for their writing abilities, as is seen in the attention seeking nature of the profiles and in the pleas at the end of stories for "comments and criticism or reviews". Writers want to hide but also be praised as writers. Intrigues about real identity are familiar in the empire of the Author (with its tradition of the nom de plume), but internet fanfiction has made this the norm and not the exception.
In order to study the implications of fanfiction to the concept of Authorship, I conducted independent research using textual analysis and a detailed survey3. Both were based in the section of that is dedicated to Discworld, the fantasy world that Terry Pratchett has developed in over 40 novels, as well as in games and films and stories and calendars and cookbooks and tourist guides. Pratchett, it happens, is an Author who says he is relaxed about the fanfiction underworld, as long as it doesn't get in his way. Of the more than 1300 Discworld fanfictions on this site in late 2011, I sampled every fifth, sending each writer an invitation to participate in a SurveyMonkey questionnaire (via SurveyMonkey.com). In all, 47 writers, from 16 countries, responded to my survey, answering 33 questions which included 17 open-ended ones and asked about their fanfiction experiences as fans, writers, readers, reviewers and community members. As well, I read 50 stories and did a close literary analysis of five (though I won't here have space to develop this literary analysis). My aims were to discover how this community experienced and felt about the concept of Authorship and to understand the literary qualities that drew them to this form of publication.
Review of Debates on Authorship, Tradition and Originality
This section reviews the key issues that arise in debates on the concept of authorship. These are the issues that later help me understand fanfiction and which themselves will later be reconsidered in the light of fanfiction.
According to Roland Barthes, the concept of the Author is all about cultural power, in the form of the authority to interpret meaning. The idea of the Author legitimates certain readings of a text and discredits others: a "brake" is put on the play of the text by the need to explain it in terms of the Author's life, thought, intentions and individual genius: "To assign an Author to a text is to impose a brake on it, to furnish it with a final signified, to close writing. . . Once the Author is found, the text is 'explained'".
Barthes aimed to liberate the text from this restriction, to insist that the text is not a line of words with a single meaning, but "a multi-dimensional space in which are married and contested several writings, none of which is original: the text is a fabric of quotations, resulting from a thousand sources of culture." It is not just that writers use quotation; more than this, quotations live and operate through writers even if writers do not know it is happening. It is not possible to say who is using what or what is using who. Writers no longer come before the text; like their readers, they are 'born at the same time as [their] text". Barthes claims to announce the death of the Author so he can "restore writing to its future", by celebrating "the birth of the reader". This is clearly a more free, equal and multicultural prospect, for Barthes.
Barthes is one of the heroes of postmodernism, and often treated as an Author himself. Postmodernism is usually seen as deriving from the claim that truth is multiple and produced through cultural power. It contests the modernist idea of progress and enlightenment. It is interesting, therefore, to compare Barthes' argument with that of TS Eliot, who is often described as a "pioneer" or "leader" of modernism. One thing that is interesting is that Eliot as the so-called modernist often speaks for Tradition, and another is that Barthes and Eliot are in many ways similar on the issue of Authorship.
When he speaks for Tradition, Eliot can be "modernist" because he doesn't see Tradition as the past but as the living present and the potential future. When he gives voice to it, he isn't simply repeating the past or using the past to give him cultural power. He is channelling Tradition, and not speaking as an individual Author. As modernist as Eliot is, he is here calling on the idea of the potential of a collective culture or the formlessness of a spirit being given voice by a medium.
Eliot's argument appears in several essays, but especially in the linked pair The Function of Criticism and Tradition and the Individual Talent. In the second, Eliot criticises the tendency to reduce poetry to an appreciation of the individual poet, praising them only for literary qualities that distinguish them from predecessors. Instead:
"if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously . . . What happens [with the good poet] is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality."
Eliot goes on to insist that he is not referring to "blind or timid adherence" to tradition. On the contrary, it is when the writer is most original that they are most traditional. Eliot's point is that originality is not a single forward step in time. Originality revives the sense of origin; it returns the moment of origin to life. In one sense it is alive again but it is also alive as it has never been known before:
"No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists . . . The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. . . The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be . . . altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new."
Eliot and Barthes insist separately on the importance in literature of a loss of a sense of individual Authorship. Both insist on the open and unfinished nature of literature. But where Barthes uses a language of breaking away and rebellion, Eliot uses a language of living tradition.
One place where Eliot uses a vocabulary that Barthes might have enjoyed is the essay Phillip Massinger, in which he says that "immature poets imitate; mature poets steal".4 This saying has taken on a life of its own in popular culture. In slightly varying forms, it was cited repeatedly in recent obituaries of Steve Jobs, as one of his life principles, and it appears on lists of Jobs' favourite quotations ( wiki/Steve_Jobs). Curiously enough, Jobs and internet websites usually attribute the quotation to Picasso or Stravinsky, not mentioning Eliot. The claim proves itself in the very way it lives on.
In their different ways, both Eliot and Barthes urge us to reconsider the idea of traditional cultures, and this reconsideration will help us understand fanfiction. Where George RR Martin sees fanfiction as a parasitic form that steals and dilutes the creative rights and values of the Author, perhaps instead it is an expression of usually unseen traditions where cultural creation exists without ownership or individual Authors. This could be seen as stealing, if you want to use that word, but it is shameless stealing. This is an ethic that is central to folk culture, of course, as illustrated by Woody Guthrie's put down of a rival musician: "Oh, he just stole from me. I steal from everybody" ( 2007/02/19/a-little-plagiarism-a-little-book). The point Guthrie is making is that his genius is not inside him, as an individual: it exists in an open-mindedness which allows him to call on a wider cultural reservoir than he could if he was a nervous or self-conscious thief. Guthrie's genius is that he doesn't let his ego – for example, his sense of pride or shame – get in the way of what a good song needs.
Exploring this question of genius, Barthes actually gives too much ground to the concept of the Author. He says:
"[I]n ethnographic societies, narrative is never assumed by a person but by a mediator, shaman or recite, whose 'performance' . . . can be admired, but never his "genius". The author is a modern figure, a product of our society as it emerged from the Middle Ages."
Barthes restricts the word genius to its modern usage, without realising that it has an older usage that supports his case. The Latin word genius did not suggest individual ability: it referred to the guardian spirit that links a person or place or institution to their fate. This idea is closer to the idea of muse than it is to the modern idea of the genius. Indeed, according to Psychology Today, when genius acquired its modern meaning in the Enlightenment, it was derived from a separate Latin word ingenium, meaning innate ability. And, interestingly, it was Francis Galton, who played a decisive role in the development of the IQ, who wrote the influential 1869 book Hereditary Genius (see blog/sudden-genius/201011/can-we-define-genius-0). In the word genius, therefore, there is a modern individualist notion that hides a notion of spirit and inspiration that is more in line with what Barthes and Eliot and Woody Guthrie have to say about ideas writing coming to writers and speaking through them.
The same logic of speaking through others is suggested by Barthes' reference to the role of the shaman and the reciter. A shaman traditionally allows mythological spirits to possess and work through them. They get their power not from inside themselves but from their openness to the cultural and natural world around them. When Barthes talks of reciters, I imagine he is referring to the theory that Homer was the culmination of a long tradition of bardic performance, where oral poets were actors who got so involved in their stories that they could improvise "new" performances of the "same" poem, calling on a vast collection of phrases handed down through generations (see Bernard Knox, 'Introduction', The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fagles).
This idea of writing coming not from an individual but from people who are the voices of living cultural communities is obviously applicable to fanfiction. The anonymous writer of fanfiction is free to show the characters of the canonical source-work as seems right to them and to their extensive and intensive fanfiction community. In doing so, they can treat the Author's original intentions like those of a distant god who might have created the characters but who no longer influences them. The individual fanfiction writer makes a contribution, but this embodies a living tradition that is unfolding across the whole website in what Bakhtin might call a polyphonic or carnivalesque style.5 They embody the thought of a whole community, which is engaged as both writers and readers.
My argument, therefore, is that in order to understand fanfiction we need to set aside the Authorly idea that the appropriate unit of analysis is the individual story or the individual fanfiction writer. Going that way leads to George RR Martin's conclusion. Instead we must think of fanfiction in terms of whole living heteroglossic communities6, as networks of relationship where the attributes of individual stories and individual writers are less important than the intertextual potential that the website produces as a whole. My hypothesis is that "fans" use these websites because the sites are able to generate a rich and living sense of the world of the "original" source. Martin would say that this is a derivative sense but Eliot's idea of originality shows one reason to question this claim of being derivative. Another reason is that writers like Martin are themselves deriving their work from the "same" cultural traditions upon which fanfiction draws. Literary culture has always relied on folk cultures, even when these have been illiterate.
Analysis of the Fanfiction Community
Fanfiction is vastly more community-based than any standard literary culture. Undertaken almost exclusively via the internet, fanfiction encourages and supports participatory writing by many. It features free international availability, voluntary editorial assistance, instant submission and publication, near-immediate comments and criticism, a discussion board that acts like a classical forum, and the ability to participate on the site with virtual anonymity. These features make available writing and reading opportunities for a wide variety of people at many stages of confidence. Since 2000, the number of Discworld stories published each year on has been gradually increasing, with a corresponding increase in the length of stories and the number of multiple-chapter stories, and an increasing number of reviews.
The Discworld fanfiction community is a diverse and inclusive community. Females write the majority of works (114 to 83 males in my random sample), though their works are on average shorter. Respondents in my sample of 47 represented 16 countries; they ranged in age between 15 and 63 (with a mode of 21 years); they ranged widely in experience (from 1-160 stories, with a mode of 15; from 1-15 years of writing fanfiction, with a mode of 3 years); they wrote in a variety of Discworld sub-genres, although most in Comedy, followed by Romance.
To publish on , you only need a valid email address, a username and a profile, and the latter can be created in ten minutes and without validation. Almost no one uses their real name as their username and anyone may write with whatever profile identity they choose. Interestingly my survey showed that only in 17.1% of cases was the profile entirely or mostly fictitious, but the effect of anonymity is much greater than this, both because of the lack of real names and because no one can tell which of the profiles are real and which are not. When asked whether anonymity encouraged people to write, 72.5% agreed while only 20% disagreed. Asked to explain the appeal of fanfiction websites, survey respondents rated anonymity most highly, even more highly than they rated the ease of being published on fanfiction sites. Almost a third of respondents said they wouldn't write at all but for the internet. "Internet anonymity is a fantastic thing", said one respondent. Clearly this anonymity enhances the polyphonic and carnivalesque quality of the sites, but it also allows writers to more easily shed the self-consciousness that limits creativity and aliveness, according to Eliot.
Readers, too, are integral to the fanfiction community culture. "Beta editors", used by 36.6% of my respondents, are volunteer editors, who give writers confidence by checking their work for obvious problems. They are, in other words, trial readers, who protect writers from embarrassment and with whom writers sometimes develop ongoing relations. But more important by far is the fact that fanfiction sites can turn isolated fans of Discworld from all around the world into a community, into a connected and dedicated readership. The fact that 65% of my respondents cared about size of their readership indicates the encouragement that the website provides through its ability to assemble potential readers. This closeness with readers turns out to be more important for fanfictioners who write longer and complex stories than for those who write short "one-shot" stories. My survey showed that writers of stories of 50,000 words and above are especially encouraged by their readership, taking a stronger interest in its size, learning from the reviews (57.5%), and acknowledging a debt of influence (51.5%). Survey results like these reveal that the relation with anonymous readers changes the initial intentions of the anonymous writers. In a way that Barthes would appreciate, these anonymous readers also operate as creators, participating in the crafting of stories, and changing their meaning, and drawing out unexpected potential in the original intentions of the writers. In the fanfiction community, writers and readers are uniquely and directly connected. One respondent remarked on how appreciative they were of "the comfortable and supportive atmosphere. It feels like every reviewer is a fellow writer who has praise or advice". Another said, "As a reader, doing some of the work myself makes me feel that the author trusts me. As an author, I trust my readers to find more in the story than the exact words I have left for them."
The final point I want to make concerns people's motivations for writing fanfiction. (I did not specifically ask for their motivations for reading fanfiction, but I think they would follow a similar pattern.) Of my respondents, 97.8% wrote to "practise [their] writing skills", 95.6% wrote to "draw out potential from a story", 87% wrote to "keep a story going", 70.3% wrote to "honour the original author", 60% wrote to "learn how the original author wrote", and almost no one wrote to point out a weakness in a story or to attack a story. The most common answers are all linked to drawing out potential, from the stories, from Discworld, from Terry Pratchett's writing, and from the fanfiction writer. Some of the most evocative comments by respondents were made on this issue of the potential provided by the community:
"Fanfic authors put in writing what everyone does in his/her mind after finishing a movie, show, story, etc.; this is both very brave and experimenting in a safe zone."
"Fanfiction allows readers to go beyond "The End"."
"Certain of the characters have developed more of a life of their own through my association with fanfiction."
"In some characters I now see more potential; they appear more rounded than they do in the books."
"It's a great chance to shine a bigger spotlight on great characters that don't get as much attention in the original work."
Conclusion: Fanfiction, the Writer, the Reader and Living Culture
To contextualise my argument, let us return to Tom Stoppard's appropriation of Hamlet. In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Stoppard cleverly demonstrates the truth of the critical clichés of Shakespeare: that Shakespeare wrote in a way that honoured every character's unique life, which only sometimes intersected with the actions onstage. In his story Everything and Nothing, Borges attributes this capacity to the fact that Shakespeare was many and no one.7 He imagines God speaking to Shakespeare: "Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one." This understanding of Shakespeare offers us an alternative to the standard model of Authorship: Shakespeare could write as he did because, while he was fully involved in what he wrote, he didn't identify with it, as an expression of his self. He gave voice to the living culture in which he lived and which lived through him.
I am not suggesting that you will find great individual works, like Shakespeare's, in a fanfiction website. Fanfiction works vary enormously in quality, and individually some are frankly uninteresting. Even if we shift our attention from individual works to the communal process on a website like , it is clear that the communal writing process is not able to generate the thematic concentration that often characterises great writing. Nevertheless, I think that there is one quality of great writing that is to be experienced through this communal fanfiction process. This is the experience that Eliot most values, of being part of a living culture, of experiencing an imagined world come to life as a real presence. And this can occur because fanfiction sites are also guided by the principle of "many and no one".
When my survey respondents emphasised the importance of unfolding potential, of a life beyond the printed ending of a book, of characters who seem more rounded, they were showing how the fanfiction community allows characters and places to escape the confines of Pratchett's particular narrative purposes. Discworld becomes real when the bit players in the published novels have their own lives and don't simply disappear when they leave the stage of the published novels, when the Discworld continues even when Pratchett isn't watching. This is the quality of a real world: it is not necessarily fractured and multiple in the postmodern sense, for it is made up of connections, but there are always more connections than can be known from any one perspective. The anonymous, voluntary and participatory nature of the fanfiction community allows writer/readers to know this world both from many perspectives and from no one perspective. The outcome isn't artistic integrity, but it is an artistic sense of a fictional world as a living whole, where the unfolding of the world unfolds the potential of the fanfiction writers and readers.
This returns me to the idea of the writer as bard. This is an idea that escapes the logic of George RR Martin's Author. The bard produces original performances that are new precisely because they are also old, because they have brought the old stories to life, here and now. No one owns those stories. Bards give voice to them but cannot speak for them, as Authors can. Whereas the Author, in contemporary society, is a product and a producer of products marketed and sold to cultural consumers, the bard can only work as part of a living cultural tradition, as much a consumer as a producer of culture. I am drawn to this bardic model of the writing process because it allows the communal creativity of the fanfiction process to be understood in its own terms, and not simply as a parasitic derivation from the work of Authors. Fanfiction is not the work of a number of Authors, it is the work of a community of participants in a living culture.
1 In this essay I use "Author", with upper case, as Barthes does: to indicate the figure who is fantasised as the source of writing and the basis of authority for any reading. Where this meaning is not intended and the word is used in its everyday sense, I revert to using "author" or writer.
2 Comparable claims are made in Michel Foucault's essay "What is an Author?"
3 My survey questions and answers are included as an appendix to my major work. Although the survey is not to be read as part of the text and falls outside the world limit, the conceptual whole of my work requires acknowledgment of existence of the paratext.
4 Compare to de Certeau's essay Reading as Poaching
5 see Sue Vice, Introducing Bakhtin
6 see Sue Vice, Introducing Bakhtin
7 see also Sue Vice's discussion of Bakhtin's concept of polyphony, in Introducing Bakhtin
(AN: A few problems uploading this here, mainly Website links vanishing. Hopefully I fixed the problem, but I apologise in advance for any sentences along the lines of "on websites like [BLANK SPACE], or any messed up formatting or paragraphing.)