Introduction: Understanding fan fiction
The origins of fan fiction can be traced back to the 1930s pulp magazine Fanzines, and it enjoyed a surge in the late 1960s with the popularity of Star Trek (Jenkins, 1992). Since then, according to Black (2004), it is 'an element of popular culture that is ever growing in popularity as new technologies enable native and non-native speaking fans from all over the globe to meet online to share, critique, and build upon each other's fictions' (Black, 2004, p. 1). Borrowing settings, plots, characters and ideas from all forms of media and popular culture, fans weave together new tales, sometimes within the accepted canon (the real works from which they are borrowing), sometimes blending several ideas from different sources (e.g., Star Wars meets Middle Earth) together in a type of fiction called 'Crossovers', and sometimes imagining new possibilities for additional characters, different histories or different settings to build on existing stories, called 'Alternative Universe' fiction.
With the flourishing of fan sites online, the number of fan fiction sites has become prolific with thousands of sites dedicated to the writing of fan fiction borrowing from such diverse sources as Harry Potter (Rowling, 1997), Anime cartoons (e.g. Takahashi, 2000) and Lord of the Rings (Tolkien, 1955), to name just a few. Academic attention is now being focused on fan fiction, with Henry Jenkins (1992, 2004) leading some of the foremost debate about its value for the development of children's writing. His observation that 'not everything that kids learn from popular culture is bad for them: some of the best writing instruction takes place outside the classroom' (Jenkins, 2004, online), sparked a furor in the US and spread quickly across the internet. Jenkins observed that through posting fan fiction online and receiving critical feedback from peers, many young people, particularly female adolescents, were gaining considerable insight into the writing process.
Another of Jenkins's claims was that the fans should be considered active designers and transformers of content, whereby they draw upon the canon, or literate texts that are available, and then manipulate them and integrate them with their own resources, knowledge, backgrounds and identities to construct something new. In further explicating some of the literacy skills developed by 'fanfic' writers, Lewis (2004) discusses the value of pop culture in providing a rich scaffold for children's writing. She claims,
What fan fiction offers to these young writers is a great, existing
storyline; interesting, three-dimensional characters that have
already been developed; and a wealth of back-story to both pull
from and write about. The inexperienced author doesn't have to
spend all his or her time developing something original, but
instead can focus on the actual skill of writing. It allows young
authors to practice their craft without expending huge amounts of
time and energy developing something 'original'. As they build
their 'writing muscles', their writing improves and they tend to
stray farther and farther from the source material. (Lewis, 2004,
If we accept these two ideas, we are able to re-conceptualise an image of young fanfic writers without the stigma associated with Jenkins's use of de Certeau's term 'poacher' (Jenkins, 1992). Instead writers of fan fiction can be described as active manipulators and designers of original texts, using given cultural artifacts as a scaffold and launching point from which to develop considerable and worthwhile originality. This paper focuses on fan fiction created in online spaces, with an emphasis on the social and discursive literacy practices in which young people are immersed.
Social practices of fan fiction
In exploring the social practices of fan fiction I am drawing upon research I conducted with one online community, Middle Earth Insanity, and in particular two adolescent girls who ran the community, Tiana and Jandalf. …