Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Beyond Spock/Kirk

My initial plan for this week’s blog entry was to focus on the question of whether science fiction reading and writing is still something of a “boy’s club”. After reading the second portion of Constance Penley’s NASA/Trek, however, I’ve decided to reroute myself in order to contrast Penley’s experience with “fanfiction” with my own. The topics are certainly related—after all, fanfiction writing seems to create an almost exclusively female niche within “fandoms”.

In addition to being primarily female, the modern world of fanfiction is also primarily dedicated to works of fantasy and science fiction. I went to, the largest online database of fanfiction, to collect some statistics. The most popular “fandoms” are as follows (the number of fics currently uploaded are in parentheses):


1. Harry Potter (507, 944)

2. Twilight (178, 188)

3. Lord of the Rings (44, 628)


1. Star Wars (26, 080)

2. Pirates of the Caribbean (18, 4345)

TV Shows

1. Supernatural (46, 725)

2. Buffy: The Vampire Slayer (41, 561)

Although fanfiction as we think of it today arguably traces its roots back to Star Trek fanzines, I believe Penley’s description of fandom to be exceedingly limited—or at least outdated. (Of course, mine is necessarily limited as well, though in a different way; I’m not trying to invalidate hers so much as offer an alternative perspective). Nowadays, the fanfiction community is chiefly virtual, almost wholly anonymous, and much larger and broader in scope. Because of this, it is much less united. With the rise of fanfiction websites and online journals over “fanzines”, overall quality drops but participation skyrockets. This has allowed many younger writers to get involved: In my experience, most writers are women in their late teens or early twenties, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if girls in their mid to late teens actually outnumber older writers, even if the typically poor quality of these early works keeps them from achieving any recognition.

Penley describes the fanfiction writers she encounters as “an underground group… who have ingeniously subverted and rewritten Star Trek to make it answerable to their own sexual and social desires” (2-3). I would argue, however, that while some fans do seek to “subvert and rewrite”, this is only one of the motivations behind fanfiction writing. Another is to enhance. Fanfiction allows fans to expand upon the material offered on screen or in published print. For example, I remember years ago enjoying some of the very popular “Marauder-era” fanfiction set in the Harry Potter fandom years before the actual series began. Nothing in the stories I’m remembering contradicted the published work; rather they enriched it, adding detail to a time period only alluded to in the books. Similarly, another subgroup of fanfics extends beyond the original work, continuing the lives of beloved characters long after the last chapter has ended or the screen has gone dark. Fanfiction can also be used, particularly for movies and TV shows, to get inside characters’ heads in ways that visual media does not often allow.

Although Penley focuses heavily on the “slash” aspect, in my experience homosexual subtext is just one theme that a subgroup of fanfiction writers like to explore. Rather, I would argue that fanfiction as a whole is characterized by an emphasis on the emotional (and, yes, often romantic). Although this can manifest itself as a “slash” relationship (perhaps in the absence of female characters or relationships that meet the author’s approval) this hardly forms a majority. (I also wouldn’t be as quick as Penley to glorify explicit “slash” works as some sort of revolution—sometimes porn or erotica is just porn or erotica. I don’t think anyone would be feeling too congratulatory over a man drawing or writing a highly sexual scene between two women.)

A third purpose of fanfiction is what Tom Moylan calls “inside” or “popular” criticism (36-37). Although presented in the form of a narrative, some fanfiction is clearly written as a way for the author to express his or her evaluation or interpretation of a controversial aspect of the original work, such as an episode of a TV show that seems to break character continuity.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the community that fanfiction writing offers, which Penley briefly describes. Although the fanfiction community as a whole has expanded far past the point of unity, authors still tend to clump together (usually by original source material or, in the case of large fandoms, by the character or pairings they most enjoy). In my experience, these authors not only encourage each other’s writing, but often go out of their way to offer real-world support as well.

"This is honestly about fandom in general - everyone’s a fan of something - and it’s a tribute to it. The point about LINDA is that they forget the Doctor after a while, and make friends. They’re genuinely good mates. That’s what good fandom does. It’s real passion, and connection, and fun. And that’s not said often enough." - Doctor Who showrunner Russel T Davies concerning the episode in which the Doctor gets a fan club ("LINDA")


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