The Cultural Gutter

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Fandom is Magic

Gutter Guest
Posted July 28, 2011

In the year 2001 I discovered a magical world. Not Harry Potter (that was a few years later) and not the Internet (although it was responsible), but a world that captured my attention and hasn’t let go ten years later. It has to do with fanfiction; unpaid fiction that is written by fans of a cultural product such as a movie, television show, comic book, novel, or anime. But fanfiction wasn’t the magical world I discovered; it was the community of fanfic writers.

I first encountered it one evening when, bored at work, I searched the internet for episode reviews of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The fansite I ran across had stories. Stories written by fans to explore the show’s world and characters in greater depth. I was intrigued. I tried “gen” stories that explored the show’s mythology and asked questions like, “What if Buffy hadn’t been resurrected?” I tried “het” ones that took the Buffy/Spike relationship just developing onscreen and turned it up a notch. I tried “femslash” with the sweet onscreen couple Willow/Tara. But none felt right until I discovered the “slash” (male-male) pairing of Spike/Xander. It shouldn’t have worked, it had never occurred to me to think of them as a pairing, but there was something about how skilled fanfic authors explored their rapport (and made Xander more relatable than I’d ever found him before) that just clicked for me.

I spent a number of years “lurking”–quietly reading these slash stories, not sending feedback, and certainly not telling friends of my new hobby. Then I discovered a thriving community of fanfic authors on LiveJournal.com, a blogging site that remains a hub for fanfiction writers. Here writers shared new fic, and often information about their lives and their process. It was like stumbling upon Jane Austen’s diary and reading her first ruminations on a character called Mr. Darcy, except that these authors were talking to each other and to readers!

It took me time to work up the courage to actually comment on my favourite authors’ work, but the results were amazing! The women who responded–most fanfic writers are women–were warm and welcoming. When I finally dared to post my own stories, I was shocked by the compliments and encouragement I received. Soon I began to chat on LiveJournal and Instant Messenger with my favourite authors, learning about them as people, getting tips on writing, and providing feedback on their work. It was a heady experience!

I had stumbled across the community pop culture scholar Henry Jenkins defines as fandom:

‘Fandom’ is a vehicle for marginalized subcultural groups (women, the young, gays, etc.) to pry open space for their cultural concerns within dominant representations; it is a way of appropriating media texts and rereading them in a fashion that serves different interests, a way of transforming mass culture into a popular culture (1988, p. 87).

Jenkins articulates something that continues to resonate for me about fanfic: those of us who don’t feel represented by mainstream culture can appropriate and reinterpret it so it works for us. If we love Lord of the Rings, but were frustrated that it’s so male-dominated, we can write from a female perspective using existing or new characters. We can “fix” things we think are wrong with the original text. Those passionate Harry Potter fans who believe Harry and Hermione are perfect for each other can bring them together in their fics. Also–and this is why I love slash–authors can add gay content to original texts that, like most entertainment, has a predominant heteronormative perspective. If, like me, you didn’t like the few gay-focused shows, like Queer as Folk and The L Word, you don’t have to wait for something better. Slash offers a way to imagine favourite fictional universes as more representative of the worlds we live in.

But fandom isn’t just a vehicle for marginalized subcultural groups, fandom is a way for marginalized subcultural groups to come together and form a community. We’re not just sitting in our apartments writing our Kirk/Spock fics, we’re doing it as part of a community of like-minded folks. A community of friends. Of course, one need only skim Fandom Wank  to discover its infighting and dysfunction, but at its heart fandom is similarly-interested people with similar beliefs and identities creating a powerful and positive subculture out of a mainstream cultural product. And there is great joy in that creation.

In 2006, I experienced this community in-person at WriterCon. Unlike other fan conventions that meet with creators and actors of original texts, WriterCon was a meeting of fanfic readers and writers, sharing our knowledge and ideas, and fangirling each other. I shared a room with three other Spike/Xander writers, but met authors with a diversity of fandom interests. Despite our differences in style and relationship and romantic pairings, it was this amazing harmonious experience which I left with friends for life.

I also left in love. I finally met an author I’d communicated with every day for months. Amazingly, our connection continued in person, and continues today. We aren’t the only queer women writing Buffy slash who fell in love and found long-term partnerships; I can think of four others off the top of my head. (Not all slash writers or fanfic writers are queer, but recent analysis by slash writer, melannen, suggests that the majority of slash writers are indeed queer women). I feel we’re not finding each other by accident; through the wonders of the Internet we’re finding others similar to ourselves and creating communities where we can flourish. Communities where we embrace diversity, creativity and reinterpreting mainstream culture to represent us.

Ten years later I still identify as a fanfic reader and writer. (Just the other night I spent five hours reading and crying over an Albus Severus/Scorpius fic.) All my close friends from outside fandom know and I’ve “outed” myself during classes only to find other writers (apparently aspiring librarians love fanfic!). I have shifted fandoms over the years and dabbled in Veronica Mars, Star Trek, Glee, and Harry Potter, but have kept old friends, supporting them when they face hard times, celebrating their victories, and getting the same in return. Ten years later, I’m still finding the magic.

 ~~~

Rebecca Saxon is newly graduated librarian in search of a library. While she hunts it down she continues her passion with fanfic as well as the TV show Community, Harry Potter, and Anne of Green Gables.

Spike/Xander fanart by katekat1010

References:

Jenkins, Henry III. (1988). ‘Star Trek rerun, reread, rewritten: Fan writing as textual poaching.” Critical Studies in Media Communication, 5(2): 85-107.

Melannen. (2010). Science Y’all. Retrieved on July 20, 2011 from: http://melannen.dreamwidth.org/77558.html.

Comments

One Response to “Fandom is Magic”

  1. NefariousDro
    July 31st, 2011 @ 1:57 am

    I think I enjoy reading fanfiction for similar reasons. I’m impressed at the number of younger writers who are just finding their way, and I like the idea of learning your craft by working with a more familiar and comfortable setting. It’s like Lego or tinker-toys: the pieces are there, all you have to do is think of a new way to put them together.

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