by Maya Itah
Have you read the Harry Potter series? Do you remember the part where Harry and Hermione decide to ditch Ron and get married? Well, that plot twist does not exist in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter—but it is present in many fan versions. Fans have taken great liberties with Rowling’s texts. They have written stories where Voldemort defeats Harry, Sirius returns to life, and Draco drops out of Hogwarts to become a vampire. This kind of writing is called fan fiction: it uses characters, setting, and situations from established texts to produce new narratives. The internet has played a massive role in the spread of fan fiction, increasing the phenomenon in both size and visibility. Even people outside of fan communities have begun acknowledging its significance. In the past five years, reputable media outlets—from The Washington Post to The Wall Street Journal—have given fan fiction “an unusual amount of . . . attention” (Young 14). However, reactions to the mainstreaming of fan fiction have not been universally positive. Authors, in particular, have labeled fan fiction as “intellectual laziness” at best and “intellectual theft” at worst (Young 14). Nevertheless, this creative outlet allows fans to interrogate original texts and challenge societal norms.
Modern fan fiction—which is based around fan communities called fandoms (Fanlore, “Fandom”)—first existed through magazines, limiting the phenomenon in scope and variety. As such, fan fiction lacked the power to seriously challenge original texts. Modern fan fiction can be traced back to 1967, when a group of Star Trek fans published a fan-based magazine called Spockanalia (McCardle 440). Spockanalia was so popular that other fans began creating more magazines devoted to the Star Trek fandom (McCardle 440). Soon, the magazine became the dominant form of fan fiction distribution (McCardle 441). That distribution did not come for free, however; cost was always a factor in publication.
The costs of magazines put two main limits on the interrogative power of fan fiction. First, costs imposed a certain amount of editorial control over fans’ stories. Only fans who had the money to create magazines were able to control distribution, so fan fiction was “subject to the whims, preferences, and limited resources of [magazine] editors” (Tosenberger 188). To cover their investments, editors also published with the traditional influences of supply and demand in mind. Popular works guaranteed profits; if a greater number of fans enjoyed a particular interpretation of an original text, editors were more likely to publish it (Tosenberger 188). Less popular interpretations fell by the wayside. Second, the costs of magazines excluded many kinds of people from fandom. Fan fiction was “available only to those who knew the right people in order to be put on mailing lists, and who had the financial resources to order [magazines] and attend conventions” (Tosenberger 188). Fans who did not have a sufficient amount of freedom and disposable income could neither read others’ interpretations nor share their own interpretations with a wider audience. Along with discounting the views of many fans, this exclusion made the world of fan fiction much smaller.
Today, the online presence of fan fiction increases the number of potential fan fiction readers and participants. To date, FanFiction.net hosts over two million stories (Grossman, “Lived Forever”). Fans no longer need to pay, travel, or get their names on mailing lists. Fans who were once blocked off from the world of fan fiction can now participate extensively. “Being a fan is no longer a matter of merely signing on for a commercialized relationship involving unilateral communication with a corporate marketing department. Just as media has evolved, so has fandom” (Gutiérrez 227). One can see the impact of this development on adolescent fans of the Harry Potter series. Harry Potter is marketed particularly to younger audiences. In a magazine-based fandom, most younger readers would have never been able to share their interpretations of the texts with others. However, internet use “enabled young fans . . . to write and distribute” fan fiction as extensively as adults (Tosenberger 189). The internet gives adolescents a unique opportunity to add teenage perspectives to the stories they love.
Amid the negative attitudes of her peers, J. K. Rowling’s positive take on fan fiction stands out. In 2004, Rowling’s spokesperson stated that although Rowling opposes profit-driven fan fiction, she is “very flattered” by fans’ dedication to her books (Waters, “Rowling Backs”). Fans have responded to Rowling’s go-ahead with great enthusiasm. In July 2011, the Harry Potter section of FanFiction.Net—one of the most popular venues for fan fiction—had over 525,000 entries (Grossman, “Lived Forever”). Rowling’s stance on fan fiction marks her as an author of the twenty-first century. Rowling does not fight the fan culture brought on by the internet; she does not fight fans’ power to interrogate her texts in ways that garner widespread attention. Fantasy author Robin Hobb published a common complaint on her website: “The first step to becoming a writer is to have your own idea. Not to take someone else’s idea, put a dent in it, and claim it as your own” (Young 14). Hobb claims that fan fiction harms authors and fans alike. According to her, fan fiction stunts fans’ writing skills and dilutes original texts. Rowling, on the other hand, recognizes that fans who interrogate her texts develop creativity and enrich their lives. Moreover, she understands that the rewards are mutual. Inquisitive fans keep the Harry Potter series fresh while giving Rowling free promotion: Time has described fan fiction as “a viral marketing agent for [Rowling’s] work” (Grossman, “Lived Forever”). Authors should learn from J. K. Rowling’s willingness to embrace the internet-enabled fan culture of interrogation and encourage readers to join the world of online fan fiction.
By opening fan fiction to a greater number and variety of people, the internet enables fans to write more creatively and in a more interrogative manner. Fandoms, much like all communities, develop “cultural norms for what is or is not acceptable” (Tosenberger 190). However, the emergence of new media technology has changed the extent to which these norms can be created. This is particularly evident in the Harry Potter fandom, which has one of the largest fan bases on the internet: “The enormous number of people participating in the online fandom almost guarantees that however outré your fan fictional desires, someone will share them—and will have written a story, or be willing to read yours” (Tosenberger 191). Not all fan fiction gains wide acceptance; some stories barely gain readers. Still, the internet gives fans confidence that their interpretations of the Harry Potter series are, at the very least, worthy of publication.
This knowledge empowers fans to truly stand by their interpretations. Empowerment is especially important when writers use fan fiction to investigate themes that challenge social norms. One example of this usage is slash, a type of fan fiction that focuses on homosexual relationships occurring outside of the canon—that is, the established world of the original texts. For example, one might imagine a scenario where Harry and Draco recognize their mutual attraction and start dating. In the real world, this interpretation of the characters falls far outside the mainstream, but the “egalitarian, cross-generational” nature of online fandom makes it “ideal . . . for exploring many varieties of non-heteronormative discourses” (Tosenberger 186).
The internet’s anonymity gives fans a safe space to rethink concepts like gender and sexuality. In many instances, fans choose to challenge the canon head-on by putting forth their interpretations as superior—truer, even. Although the Harry Potter series never states that Remus and Sirius share anything more than a close friendship, many fans claim that a romantic relationship is implied: “Rowling’s lack of explicit commentary upon Remus/Sirius has certainly not altered some fans’ willingness to read the pairing as canonical” (Tosenberger 196). Are such challenges completely unreasonable? Rowling’s actions would suggest otherwise. Shortly after Rowling published the last book in the Harry Potter series, she announced that Dumbledore—the esteemed headmaster of Hogwarts—is gay: “I had to give you something to talk about for the next 10 years . . . . Just imagine the fan fiction now” (Vineyard, “Rowling Outs Dumbledore”). Although she never made clear references to his sexuality in the texts themselves, she revealed that she had always thought of him as gay (Tosenberger 187). Rowling’s statement on Dumbledore shows that, when it comes to original texts, one should never assume that “queer readings are always readings ‘imposed’ from the outside” (Tosenberger 187). The internet simultaneously gives fans an audience and provides them with the protection of anonymity. Thus, it allows fans to fearlessly question the rules of both original texts and of the societies they inhabit.
In this creative world of challenges and inquiry, some “super fans” garner enough respect and nororiety to have authority. These fans often lack traditional offline credibility and most are neither scholars nor published authors. Some super fans are not even legal adults. Nevertheless, other fans see them as authorities: “One such self-professed ‘super fan’ is the webmistress of The Leaky Cauldron, Melissa Anelli . . . . People who run the main fan sites are looked up to, she says, as much an object of admiration as the books themselves” (Bartlett 33). Super fans benefit fandom by amassing enough followers to get serious attention, the kind of attention individual fans would never be able to get on their own. For example, in 2001, Warner Brothers lawyers began threatening to shut down Harry Potter fan sites for copyright violations. The owners of the websites fought back, led by a 16-year-old super fan named Heather Lawver (The Economist, “Potter Economy”). To the delight of fans, this team prevailed: “Hollywood studios now understand that fans are not content to sit and passively absorb stories, and that they can wreck a film’s prospects if affronted” (The Economist, “Potter Economy”). The support acquired from online fandom allowed a media-savvy teenage girl to convince Warner Brothers to share Harry Potter with the readers. This kind of victory would have been unthinkable in a previous era. Without the uniting power of the internet, fans would have never been able to assert such ownership over a copyrighted work.
All too frequently, people see the relationship between copyright owners and fans as a zero-sum game. Supposedly, any gains on one end decrease gains on the other. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking creates a false dichotomy. It prevents both sides from reaping the rewards of an active, interrogative fan culture. At the end of the day, Rowling acknowledges that as long as fans are not cutting into her profits, more interrogation is better. Fans who interrogate Harry Potter—fans who assert some ownership over Harry Potter’s meaning and direction—feel more connected to the texts. The Leaky Cauldron demonstrates this effect. The website functions as Hogwarts’s fictional school newspaper (Jenkins 171). On The Leaky Cauldron, fans write about non-canonical happenings around the school; they also insert themselves into the world of Harry Potter by inventing alter egos (Jenkins 171). Essentially, writers on The Leaky Cauldron modify the canon in ways that make them feel closer to the original texts: “These kids came to understand Harry Potter by occupying a space within Hogwarts . . . . Much as an actor builds up a character by combining things discovered through research with things learned through personal introspection, these kids were drawing on their own experiences to flesh out various aspects of Rowling’s fiction” (Jenkins 176). Through near-literal participation in the Harry Potter world, fans come to understand the original texts on their own terms.
Fiction authors strive to make readers feel emotionally and intellectually invested in the worlds they create. In short, they strive to make readers care. Rowling fans care so much about the Harry Potter canon that they are willing to engage with it, challenge it, and even insert themselves into it. Instead of suppressing these impulses, Rowling gives them her approval. By allowing fan fiction to flourish, she cultivates an active, dedicated audience. In fact, Rowling’s next big Harry Potter-related venture capitalizes on an audience that is eager to participate. Rowling’s Pottermore is a “unique online reading experience . . . built around the Harry Potter books” (Pottermore, “About Pottermore”). The website encourages Harry Potter fans to “share and participate in the stories, showcase [their] Potter-related creativity, and discover additional information about the world of Harry Potter from the author herself” (Pottermore, “About Pottermore.”). At its most basic level, Pottermore serves the same purpose as FanFiction.net and The Leaky Cauldron: it allows fans to reinterpret the texts in ways that align with their preferences and values. Pottermore’s only real distinction comes from its authorial seal. It is true that fans will have an easier time seeing the information on Pottermore as canonical; after all, it comes from the author herself. Still, thanks to the free and egalitarian nature of the internet, Pottermore will not dominate the interrogation of Harry Potter. As long as the strong desire to interrogate texts remains, fans will always have a creative, interactive outlet to voice their opinions.
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