Harry Potter and the Fan Fiction Factory

Teachers, and perhaps especially teachers of English, understand how difficult it often is to convince young people that writing is a worthwhile activity. This is especially true where there is little incentive beyond ‘this will improve your final grades’ – always the last resort of a desperate teacher – but I wonder whether the opportunities afforded by access to the Web have just introduced a whole new set of  challenges as well as opportunities. Could it be that unless teachers can guarantee a real purpose and audience for those youngsters who are already motivated to write – possibly via wikis and blogs – they will increasingly look elsewhere for more meaningful outlets?

In Convergence Culture – Where Old and New Media Collide, the American author Henry Jenkins considers the shift which new technologies have brought in the way we think of our relationship to media, and how the skills we acquire initially through play may have implications for how we learn, work, participate in the political process and connect with other people around the world. Dismissing talk of a ‘digital revolution’, he prefers instead to think of a ‘digital evolution’ where popular storytelling increasingly takes place across different media platforms (transmedia), in a world where passive consumers have been replaced by active  participants or ‘players’.

In the chapter Why Heather Can Write, Jenkins examines the phenomenon known as ‘fan fiction’, and the ways in which it exemplifies the new media landscape. On fan fiction websites like Fiction Alley for example, the largest of a number of websites dedicated to fans of Harry Potter, young writers come together to write, collaborate and share stories about their favourite characters, and sometimes to invent new characters of their own. New writers are mentored by an army of unpaid volunteers known a ‘beta readers’ – a term derived from the world of technology where ‘beta’ means ‘in development’ – and criticism, while it is always positive and constructive, is also focused and direct, dealing with issues of grammar and style as well as plotlines. The beta readers are also contributing authors and what all the writers have in common is that they are looking to improve their work, not simply to have it praised. On another fan fiction site, FanFiction.Net, beta reader Cat Foxglove describes her strengths as ‘Very picky about grammar and continuity. If tenses constantly change, words are continually misspelled, or the very flow of a story contradicts itself, I have no problem saying so.’ Night Monkey, who describes herself as a college writing major from Pennsylvania has written 23 stories for Batman and Dr Who, and says in her beta profile, ‘I’ll read just about whatever you’d care to give me, but I would prefer humor above all else. I’m also, oddly enough, a fan of horror. If you do fanfiction based off (sic) books, there’s a good chance I’ve read or at least heard of it. I’d be tickled to work with Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or Stephen King fanfiction. I won’t say no to Twilight, but don’t bring me senseless crap.’

This relationship between learner and mentor, based on the trust of peers on what is effectively a shared journey is, by definition, quite different from the formal teacher-pupil relationship found in school and allows the young writers to experiment with their craft within the safe confines of a pre-existing fictional world. For many of the writers who contribute to the fan community, the journey begins by simply reading the efforts of others, before they are comfortable enough to submit their own stories. Once they are committed however, the feedback provides the incentive for them to develop and improve. They quickly come to regard themselves as real ‘authors’.

Critics of fan fiction argue that it is unoriginal and imitative, but as Jenkins points out, this kind of ‘apprenticeship’ model is common in other cultural spheres, and historically young artists learned their craft by initially imitating the great masters, sometimes contributing to their work, before establishing styles, techniques and content of their own. Whether the same conditions for writing can be created within a formal school setting, is a different matter. Again, as Jenkins points out:

“Schools have less flexibility to support writers at very different stages of their development. Even the most progressive schools set limits on what students can write compared to the freedom they enjoy on their own. Certainly, teens may receive harsh critical responses to their more controversial stories when they publish them online, but the teens themselves are deciding what risks they want to take and facing the consequences of those decisions.”

Armed with this knowledge, it might be tempting for teachers either to write off fan fiction entirely as inferior or worthless (despite its massive popularity), or to wholeheartedly encourage their students to get involved and even to join them in the endeavour, but the growth in such online communities raises a number of questions for teachers and schools.  Could it be that part of the attraction of fan fiction writing and its devotees is that they are outwith the formal structures of the education system? Should teachers simply accept that there are some elements of a young person’s literary (and literacy) development which should be left alone, and, whether or not teachers embrace the new orthodoxy which determines that we are all learning together, will there always be a gap between formal and informal learning? I’d be interested to hear your views.