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Crowdsourced definitions of ‘fan fiction’ hint at a sprawling, formless genre

Crowdsourced definitions of ‘fan fiction’ hint at a sprawling, formless genre


The creators of the Fansplaining podcast do a loose academic study

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Flourish Klink and Elizabeth Minkel, co-hosts of the fandom podcast Fansplaining, recently conducted the loosest of academic studies, all about literature’s most controversial genre. Their survey — nine multiple choice questions, one longform response — has the herculean goal of defining “fan fiction.”

Fanlore, the wiki of record for all things fandom, says fan fiction must be “a work of fiction written by fans for other fans, taking a source text or a famous person as a point of departure.” But that’s just one definition, and bits of it are controversial. Hence the survey.

With 3,564 responses to their survey, Klink and Minkel have an enormous data set, which they’ve made public for anyone who’s curious and wants to poke around. Klink has also published an essay exploring the survey’s broadest findings on Medium, drawing up two basic schools of thought. On one side, respondents were interested in a “formal” definition of fan fiction, with 88 percent emphasizing that it must be a derivative work. On the other, respondents were more interested in a “context” definition of fan fiction, delineating what is and isn’t fan fiction based on who it is written for and by.

is a formal definition of fan fiction useful?

The people who took the survey agreed on almost nothing — whether fan fiction must be written by someone other than the original author of the original work, whether fan fiction can be based on real people, whether it can be for profit — and when you’re done sifting through the findings, you’ll likely be left with more questions than you had before you started. But it’s still a fascinating heap of information, full of as many insights about what people get out of fan fiction as it is hints about how the genre is coming to be defined. The definition of fan fiction has, of course, already been crowdsourced — it’s been in the process of being crowdsourced ever since it became a thing. Trying to put that to paper is a gargantuan task, even when trimmed down to a few thousand voices.

To get a better sense of what research like this could be used for, I talked to Klink about the process, her favorite insights, and all the ways the label “fan fiction” can be used.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What’s your background in fandom? Why did you decide to do this research?

I started off as a fan, running a major Harry Potter fan-fic website, and through that met this guy Henry Jenkins who’s one of the founders of fan studies. I did grad school with him. And then Fansplaining is a podcast that the journalist Elizabeth Minkel and I have been doing for almost two years now. We have two episodes every month and they’re an hour each, and we talk to fans and people who work in the entertainment industry.

Before this, we ran another survey that was about people’s favorite tropes in fan fiction. That was a shorter survey, and it was taken by about 10,000 people. And through that we got a lot of attention from folks. Fandom really loves taking surveys and hearing about themselves. So when we did this one all we had to do was say, “Hey, here we are, we’re doing this survey.”

“this is not actual research that I would rely on for anything, but it can help us to get a baseline idea.”

Please be clear on this, this is not a scientific survey or anything. Honestly, it’s just for fun. I say this as a serious researcher: this is not actual research that I would rely on for anything but it can help us to get a baseline idea. If I really wanted to do this for real, it would have to be promoted in different ways and we would have to make sure that it was representative and well-designed.

This research is just something you do in your free time, it’s not funded or anything?

Absolutely not funded. This is a podcast that we make for fun. We have a Patreon. Our Patreon supporters, generally speaking, donate a dollar a month. It doesn’t cover our costs.

What kinds of spaces were you promoting the survey in? 83 percent of the respondents were women, which didn’t surprise me, but the age range was very diverse.

[For the podcast], we try to reach out to really diverse groups of people in terms of age, race, and what kind of a fan they are. For instance, we’ve had people talking about baseball fandom, music fandom, and, of course, a lot of people from fan-fic fandom. So, the idea is just to broadly talk about topics that relate to fans. Because we talk to so many different people from so many different corners of fandom, that’s probably where that diversity you’re thinking of comes from.

When we were promoting this, one thing we were really excited about was that some people on classic science fiction and fantasy fandom sites shared it, so we got some of those older people responding. It’s not like fan fiction was just invented on Tumblr. Fan fiction, depending on how you define it, of course, has been around for a really long time.

Elizabeth Minkel and Flourish Klink.
Elizabeth Minkel and Flourish Klink.

Was there anything you saw in the responses that surprised you?

It was remarkable — and again this is highly unscientific — that people who had entered fandom in the ‘90s were much more likely to talk about fan fiction as being not-for-profit, as being separate from the creators, and separate from the powers that be. Again, I’m not saying that this is a watertight case, but I thought that was a very interesting correlation that appeared. If I was going to do another study that was more scientific, I would definitely have that as a hypothesis now.

I was a little surprised that so many people mentioned that fan fiction can be of any length. Other types of stories, other types of novels, poetry, etc., those things all have limited length. They have to be a certain length in order to be published. Fan fiction can be any length that you want, from 100 words all the way up to literally the longest work of fiction ever written. That’s a formal aspect of fan-fic that I was not very attentive to, but Elizabeth was like “of course, duh.”

Obviously you have a huge pile of data to go through. Do you know what kind of stuff you’re going to pull out next?

We’re actually asking people about this. First of all, the data is available for anybody to look at. We’ve made that available under a creative commons license for anyone to use, any other researchers who want to dig into it absolutely should. I know there are a lot of other fan studies people who are getting at it. I’m sure that there will be third-party research done on this data that will come out in the future.

We have a bunch of questions where we asked people to talk about individual edge cases in fan fiction. Stuff like Fifty Shades of Grey and The Master of the Universe, which is the fan fiction it was based on. Stuff like Anna Todd’s After or Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On, which are edge-case fan-fic in a very different way. We’ll do little mini dives into each of those questions, or if we see patterns emerging we’ll talk about that.

Because not everybody has read every edge case, those will necessarily come from smaller data sets. On those we’ll probably stick to just doing little pop-up Tumblr posts. We also asked our Patreon patrons a question about how to define “fandom,” which was basically a test balloon for some future survey. We don’t know if we will run it or not, but we would do the same thing as we did for this, which is coding the responses and then pulling them out. And we would probably put that in our next quarterly zine.

You mentioned in the results that there’s been some overlap between fan fiction and the entertainment industry in the last few years. What do you think is causing that?

The blend between fan fiction and professional fiction wouldn’t exist if not for changing ideas about fandom and changing understandings of fan fiction on the part of the public. Not just entertainment. Personally, I think this has to do with the advent of the internet and the fact that now more people have access to this tiny subculture. In the past, in the ‘80s, you had to be a big enough nerd to go to science fiction conventions and find the fan fiction that people were selling in zine format. With the internet, you no longer have to do that. You can stumble upon it, and more and more people have done that. It’s become normalized.

“in the ‘80s, you had to be a big enough nerd to go to science fiction conventions.”

And in the process of that, the entertainment industry has seen that fan fiction is a great breeding ground for new talent and that it actually serves to promote the things that it’s about. Of course there are lots of other reasons to write fan-fic besides coming to participate in the commercial enterprise, but from an industry perspective that’s why it matters.

Obviously the big example everyone always pulls out is Fifty Shades of Grey. Can you think of others that have bridged that same gap that don’t get talked about as much?

Oh, completely. There’s a ton of stuff that bridges that, throughout history. You can look back at things like Sherlock Holmes pastiches, which are fan fiction that’s published. That includes things like Laurie R. King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. She’s a huge Sherlock Holmes fan, she’s a mystery writer, so she created this series of stories where Sherlock Holmes has a new female partner. These are professionally published fiction, and they are also partaking in a lot of tropes of fan writing. That’s one way you could talk about it.

There’s also a lot of science fiction writers that start out writing fan fiction, and then realized “Oh you know, this is actually about original characters, I’d rather have it be original.” I don’t have confirmation on this, but I’ve certainly heard that Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, which is an incredibly well-known science fiction universe, started off as a Star Trek fan-fic. It got the serial numbers rubbed off and moved on.

Can you explain that phrase? “The serial numbers rubbed off?”

So, you know when you steal a car? Stolen engine parts or whatever, they have serial numbers on them so that they can be traced. If you rub the serial numbers off, you don’t know where it came from, you can’t trace it. When people rub the serial numbers off their fan-fic, what that means is they take out all the things that make it fan-fic and just leave the story itself, the archetypes of the characters, and rename everything. Fifty Shades of Grey is like this. It started off as fan-fic with Edward and Bella, [E.L. James] rubbed the serial numbers off, and now it’s a professionally published story.

There are a bunch of other examples, but unfortunately when people “rub the serial numbers off,” often they don’t want it to be very public. Fifty Shades was the first one where that was very public.

Illustration: Maia Kobabe

You mention in the survey results that this distinction makes it a little bit hard to differentiate between fan fiction borrowing and the borrowing that any literature does naturally, or does consciously.

Completely. There are lots of examples of things that are borrowing traditionally. For example, let’s take the current hot thing in the literary world, [George Saunders’] Lincoln in the Bardo. How is that not fan fiction about Abraham Lincoln?

There are some reasons I could think of. It wasn’t written in the context of a fan fiction community, so maybe that makes it not fan fiction. It was written for money, although probably not that much money because it’s literary fiction. It was written for status, it was written for all these things that are not usually what fan fiction accomplishes. But I would guess that it was also written out of a sympathy for Lincoln, and an emotional affection. I can’t imagine writing something like that without that being part of it. And in that respect, especially if you admire Lincoln or see him as a person to emulate — which I mean, who wouldn’t? — where do we cross over that line from it being not fan-fic to it being fan-fic?

“How is ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ not fan fiction about Abraham Lincoln?”

Some people in the survey were defining fan fiction based on what it is in itself and other people were defining it based on its context, or who it was made by or made for. Is that a divide you expected?

I think we expected that both those things would appear. If people can take away something from this survey, I think I would want it to be that those two definitions are both important in different ways. There’s the definition that fan fiction is just like literary fiction — anyone can do it, it’s just borrowing. [By that definition], The Aeneid is fan-fic of The Iliad, Ulysses is fan-fic of The Odyssey, Lincoln in the Bardo is real person fan-fic about Lincoln. That is an argument that helps fan writers talk about the respectability of their practice. If you’re writing fan fiction you can say, “Look, I’m part of a great tradition of taking inspiration very directly from other things.”

Fan fiction is also a specific culture that’s developed, and it’s been really looked down upon by a lot of people. In this culture, there was this whole thing about secrecy for a long time because people didn’t want to get sued. It’s a very female culture. When men write something that looks like fan fiction, they get paid a lot of money for it. When women write fan fiction, they have to hide it, in order to not get sued. This is a big deal culturally, subculturally. When you think about that, then it becomes very important that fan fiction is made in the community.

There are certain tropes and certain styles. There’s even phrases that I can identify. If I’m reading a book I’ll go, “Oh my god, I think that person wrote fan-fic,” and then I look into it deeper and they totally did. One of the things is that people are always “toeing out of their shoes” in fan-fic. I don’t know why, but like three years ago this became a thing. And now everybody toes out of their shoes. The influence is so strong within the community. And that’s something that, for example, Lincoln in the Bardo is not part of. I’ve read it and certainly there are other fan-fic writers have read it, but he’s not writing it for us. No one toes out of their shoes in Lincoln in the Bardo.