Monday, June 7, 2010


This blog aims to analyse the affect media structure can have on content. I have used the broad category of fan texts, a form of textual ‘poaching’, to investigate structural influence over substance. Fan texts are produced by fans for fans and creators are allowed great freedom in what they produce. Fans can bond through their common love and share with each other the texts that they create, forming communities which are easily accessible online.

What is 'fandom'?

Science fiction fans at a convention (Knoxnews)

The term ‘fandom’ describes a group of people who are connected through their love and appreciation for something, such as a movie, sport or book (RalSt, 2010). They create a subculture based on their shared beliefs and feel a sense of connection to fellow fans. However the ‘fandom’ relates only to those who are devoted to their movie/sport/book etc, as opposed to casual followers and people who get enjoyment only for a fleeting moment. This blog will focus on science fiction and fantasy fans as they have shown to be an extremely active audience who engage with their texts. They can also be considered the stereotypical fan whose devotion is the butt of jokes in mainstream society. For this very reason, fans feel a sense of safety within their community, hence reinforcing their fandom status (Jenkins, 1992). The rise of the internet has made it more accessible for fans to connect to share their passion. Websites run by fans for fans make it easy to share thoughts, discussions and creations. Even though fans may build strong online relationships, it is not uncommon for them to never actually meet each other in real life.

Examples of unofficial fan sites
Harry Potter
Harry Potter fan art

A collection of Science Fiction fan texts and communities

What is 'textual poaching'?

Star Treck fan art (BenCurtis)

The term “textual poaching” was first developed by the French scholar Michel de Certeau in The Practise of Everyday Life (1984) and later developed by Henry Jenkins in Textual poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (1992). De Certeau argues that audiences are not passive consumers but instead active interpreters. This follows Stuart Hall’s encoding/decoding model of communication (1980) where each person will create their own meaning from the same text, depending on their situation and unique background. The Practise of Everyday Life discusses how people individualise mass culture by interpreting texts beyond the dominant meaning which has been decided by the elite (academics, teachers, authors etc) who monopolise the readings. De Certeau links audience members to poachers by describing how they, “move across lands belonging to someone else, like nomads poaching their way across fields they did not write, despoiling the wealth of Egypt to enjoy it for themselves.”(1984)

This ‘poaching’ is a resistance strategy for the individual, however it is inherently weak compared to the dominant culture and will generally be an act, like poaching, which is pushed underground. Jenkins’ book then takes the active audience theory and applies it to fan cultures which ‘poach’ from their beloved text to create new texts such as fan fiction, filk (folk songs) and manuals/dictionaries to ‘fill-out’ further details not originally explained in the text. Jenkins' extension of the term “poaching” discusses how a fan can simultaneously interpret a text through both the dominant and oppositional reading, allowing readers to stick as closely to the ‘canon’ (official rules and principles put forward in the original text) as they wish. Poaching blurs the line between producer and consumer by giving the reader power to produce their own work based upon their own interpretation. It also offers a form of escapism from reality through the sub cultures and fan communities created.

An article on the benefits of fanfiction - features quotes from authors who do not like textual poaching

The structure of fan texts

Twilight fan art (noeling)

The rise of the internet has allowed textual poaching to become more widespread and fan produced texts are easily accessible online. Generally the authors of fan texts write anonymously under a pseudonym. This is greatly enabled by the anonymous nature of the internet. The internet also allows anyone to publish anything. Smith (2000) writes that anyone can be a text producer. Texts will either be submitted to a host site, which may filter, organise or edit texts as they see fit, or people can start their own pages, often in a blog form, to publish their own work without any alterations. Host sites generally receive more hits as they can provide a greater variety of texts in one place, so texts published there are more likely to receive an audience than ones published on personal blogs. These sites are generally not for profit, meaning that no one is making an income from the creation and distribution of fan texts. Thus, they are published online for the passion, rather than the money or recognition.

Generally speaking, fan fiction cannot be published commercially due to copyright restrictions (Chilling effects, 2010). There is much debate about ownership of fan produced texts, particularly fan fiction, as characters and plots are the intellectual property of the authors of the original texts which have been poached by fans. There is not a clear definition of what is right and wrong when it comes to fan fiction. For most original texts fan fiction is beneficial as it shows an interaction between audience and text and confirms fans’ devotion to the original publications. Therefore it is unlikely that a writer will take legal action against a fan fiction author or distributor for breach of copyright. So although fan fiction is the property of the author, certain characters, plots and sayings may be copyrighted by the original creator, although it is unlikely that they will act upon this as fan fiction and textual poaching is beneficial to the survival of the text. Those companies that do not like fan fiction, notably Viacon and Fox Television according to Chilling Effects (2010), have been known to issue cease-and-desist letters against unauthorised fan creations. However for a company to win a cease-and-desist claim they must prove that the fan text has caused them to suffer financial loss, which is difficult as fan texts often boost sales.

A Lord of the Rings page on a host site
A private fanfiction site with one author

How does the structure of fan fiction affect content? - Slash fiction

Lord of the Rings slash (deep pencil)

Slash fiction is fan-fiction that focuses on romantic relationships (often, but not necessarily, homosexual). Tosenberger explores the high levels of Harry Potter slash fiction as a form of twenty-first century poaching in his essay, “Homosexuality at the Online Hogwarts”. Slash can help provide a supportive community for adolescents, to guide each other through a time of growth and development. The structure of slash allows fans the opportunity to become text creators, “outside the classroom and beyond any direct adult control”. Textual poaching allows young writers to “take on the mantle of author, a role which traditionally publishing reserves for the cultural elite”, thereby giving fans a level of power in a secure, anonymous environment, increased by the easily accessible internet.

There is a great amount of freedom for slash authors and they can stick as closely to the original canon as they want. Some fans claim their slash pairings or relationships are based upon a reading of subtext which they find present in the original. Jenkins discusses the consumer/producer relationship in Textual Poachers and the audience involvement which is encouraged by fan groups. This line is often blurred with the fan reader becoming the fan writer, such as in slash. Relations can be hostile with some fans happy to fill out the blanks while others look to the creator for direction. In the online slash fiction world almost every Harry Potter pairing can be found in thousands of different situations. Some of these follow closely to the series while others poach just a character pair and all of the dialogue and fiction details are imaginary.

Host sites will sometimes use the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) ratings system as a guide for viewers so that they are aware of the level of sexual content in the individual stories, while other's just use 'adult' or 'all ages' (eg. Slash Fan However this is done only as a guide and there is no official policing of slash content. Slash fiction is a popular way for fans to actively express their interpretations and subtext readings and the freedom and anonymous nature of the internet allows every fan the opportunity to be who they want to be and pen whatever they want to write, which ultimately results in a variety of slash fiction content.

How does the structure of fanzines affect content?

A selection of zines (University of Oregon)

Fanzines are nonprofessional and nonofficial publications produced by fans and circulated amongst fans (Duncombe, 1997). Originally they were printed and distributed for free or a minimal charge to cover postage, however with the increase in accessibility and popularity of the internet, many fanzines are available online in the form of webzines. Although fanzines are not necessarily influenced by science fiction/fantasy texts, this is where the idea originated and the focus of this investigation is on science fiction fan texts.

Like fanfiction, zines allow marginalised communities the opportunity to express themselves and connect through their common fandom. Topics are covered which are relatively untouched by mainstream media (Duncombe 1997), thereby giving a voice to fans so that they can openly express their displeasure and delight. Generally zines are composed of various submissions by readers, resulting in a collaboration of a range of points of view on the same issue. The independent structure of zines allows fans the opportunity to celebrate their marginalisation. For some fans, their poaching is not just a hobby but a way of life in that it assists them in dealing with the dominant society by allowing them an escape in the form of a shared subculture. The independant production and distribution of zines also allows radical views to be expressed without the fear of retribution that commercial mainstream media publications experience.

Although zines, especially e-zines, are free and easy to access, their readership is generally very limited as the content is written for a specific fan audience. Zines are independent small-scale media and they may be marginalised by the mainstream, however their readers have particular expectations of their own. Somes zines are known for their entertaining content while others are expected to be weighted with debates and discussions. Science fiction fans are known for their letter writing and lobbying and will voice their distaste at the perceived lack of continuity in their favourite texts.

A host site of online fanzines


Digital fan art of Hermoine from Harry Potter (gradle)

The structure of independent fan produced texts allows a level of freedom far greater than anything produced by the mainstream media. Text producers are able to keep their anonymousness while still forming relations and communities based on their shared interests and beliefs. In mainstream media anything published anonymously or under a pseudonym is void of credibility while it is the norm for fan texts. The rise of the internet has meant publication and distribution of fan texts are far easier than 20 years ago when fans communicated through hard copy zines letters sent through the slow post. Through the internet anyone can be a text producer, distributor and consumer. Fan writing can be distributed independently by producers or as a contribution to collaborative host sites. The advantage of publishing fan writing independently is that nothing will be filtered or edited by another party allowing complete creative autonomy. While the advantage of submitting to a host site is that they attract a larger audience, hence a text will gain more readers and recognition. Also, a higher quality of work on host sites can be expected as everything submitted must be approved.