May 4th, 2010

A note on fanfic and cultural capital

Everyone has been amazing about adding to and suggesting clarifications to my post/s on published works of transformative literature/recursive literature. Thank you all so much. :)

I've been having a lot of conversations lately about the value of fanfic. The thing I keep coming back to is that fandom has its own self-generated currency system. This is the concept that seems hardest for people outside of fandom to get, but to me it's the concept that's the most vital to understanding why we all love fandom so much, good god.

A fanfic author expresses themselves creatively, and then other fans create currency around that expression, by adding other expressions to it: Reviews. Recs. IM conversations where you paste each other lines from the fic as you read it and giggle a lot. Emails to the author. Requests for sequels. Icons with the author's fic quoted on it. Fanart. Podfic of the fic. Requests for the author to archive the fic on a beloved archive so everyone there can read it. People following the author's LJ, or trying to interest the author in other fandoms they love so the author will write fic for them there too. Vids based on the fanfic. Requests for the author to write certain fics or participate in fic challenges. Interest in the author's appearances at cons. Interest in that author's opinion about everything under the sun. Memorabilia related to the fanfic. Snail mail. Postcards from across the world. Messages in your inbox that tell you that today, somewhere on the other side of the world, someone you've never met read your fanfic, and it made them happy.

People who recognize you at cons and want to hug you. People who want to read your original fiction. People who call you one of their favorite authors, and mean "favorite authors in a universe of literature, not just fanfic." (Which I know, because that's how I feel about my favorite fanfic authors.)

Personally, I think that the ultimate terrifying nature of fandom, for a lot of people, is that it functions as a thriving creative community entirely free from capitalist systems of value. It challenges the idea that to be a successful writer is to receive profit from writing, and that that profit is money.

Last week, Dr. Catherine Tosenberger, who is totally one of my personal heroes (like you meet in fandom), taught a high school class on the culture of Harry Potter. You guys, it was amazing. I saw the syllabus. It had, like, days devoted to Sorting, Potions, Charms, & Transfiguration, and covered everything from censorship of the books to Wizard Rock. :DDDD And the most amazing part for me is that there was a whole day devoted to fanfic, and one of the required texts was a fanfic that I had written. I cannot even tell you how much of an honor that is. There are no words in my vocabulary for it.

I'm pretty much convinced that I could write original fiction my whole life, and the likelihood of it ever being used as anyone's curriculum in a high school course would be slim to miniscule to impossible. That's because the way we value and talk about original works is based on certain rules of engagement with stories: they have to prove themselves through certain cultural channels as being worthy of further study; they have to be bestsellers or win awards or become critically acclaimed or be an Oprah Book of the Month. Not to mention the hardest channel of all: first they have to get published.

But fandom is actively subverting those rules of engagement right and left, and it is creating whole new systems of value, the kind that allows certain fanfics to be read by literally tens of thousands of readers; the kind that allows a fanfic writer like Sam Storyteller to successfully self-publish his original fiction and forge an instant and loyal audience; the kind that allows an increasing number of fanartists to include fan work in their professional portfolios; the kind that allows entire degrees to be created around the study of fan culture and fan capital. The kind that allows a random fic writer like me to have their work taken seriously and discussed in an academic setting.

The argument against this kind of subversion goes something like, "well yes, but it's all because of Jo Rowling; without her the fandom culture wouldn't have existed to begin with." Absolutely true; but without us, the culture of Harry Potter wouldn't have existed at all.

People who argue against fanfic assume that some kind of theft is involved, that we're devaluing someone else's property. The truth is that the moment we started creating our own culture around canon source materials, we began expanding the value of that canon, and adding to its net worth.

It's just harder to see, because the things we're adding can't be measured using money.

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