Regarding Your Last Comment: What the Study of Fanfiction Has to Say About the Study of the Humanities

By Shaun Ee
Merle Kling Undergraduate Honors Fellow

On March 3, the Merle Kling Undergraduate Honors Fellowship brought Anne Jamison of the University of Utah to campus as part of the fellowship’s annual guest speaker program. Her talk, “Pop Prof: The Perils and Possibilities of Public Professing,” focused on fanfiction — its content and its broader significance.

“Fanfiction,”at least in its most commonly conceived form, is a recent phenomenon: It refers to the practice of writing works using the worlds and characters of already established authors. (Or, more succinctly, it is fiction written by fans.) While the practice of borrowing other authors’ material has been around for quite a while (fanfiction first took hold around the fandom of Star Trek), it was only with the rise of the Internet that its modern incarnation truly took off. An incredible plurality of retellings has accompanied this rise, as amateur writers have seen fit not only to chart different plots but to transform the characters they write about. Personal history, gender, sexual orientation — all are fair game, as long as the characters keep their core traits.

But to choose fanfiction as a subject of study is to risk the raised eyebrow of both the layperson and academic, albeit for quite different reasons. To the casual reader, fanfiction might seem simply esoteric: It might be all well and fun, but is there anything of scholastic interest in what a pseudonymous author thinks about Harry Potter dating Draco Malfoy? To the professor of literature, though, the departure from traditional subject matter might seem even more striking. The proper subject for literary study used to be the works of dead white men. Nowadays, one thankfully finds many authors who are none of those things. Even so, it is uncommon to find one that falls under the umbrella of “popular culture,” much less one that represents “spin-offs on popular culture,” and even less “spin-offs on popular culture that are published online.”

To be sure, this is at least partly due to simple indifference. “Going popular” in literature is a bit like telling your hipster friend that you really love Starbucks. I mean, technically, yes, it’s made with coffee beans — right, I get that — but is it really coffee? Yet, even should we take this into account, another type of confusion still surrounds fanfiction and the study of contemporary work. Literature as a discipline is built around critical analysis. How can one fairly critique an author’s work if he or she never really offered it up to be critically analyzed?

Jamison sought to conjure some of this perplexity in her talk. For her opening scene, she adopted a tableau from the television program Hannibal: the fascination of an inventor with monstrosity leads him to be devoured by it, and to become monstrous himself. Much like the curious inventor, Jamison reasons, the academic who approaches itinerant knowledge without adequate precautions risks being caught up in forces quite beyond them — in her particular case, the unbridled wrath of the Internet.

It turns out that while some members of the fanfiction community greet scholarly interest with open arms, there are plenty others who resent having the critical eye of the academy turned on them. Jamison related for us the comments of those fanfiction authors who saw her as an intruder, the critiques of those convinced an institutional review board should have nabbed her for major ethical violations, and even the responses to the misguided attempts of a peer who encouraged their students to leave comments on works studied in class. (Hint: The denizens of fanfiction communities are not terribly amenable to the online equivalent of having a bunch of college students pore into their favorite bar and slap sticky notes on the counter about the quality of the beer.) These rebuttals all tend to center around one common fact: Fanfiction research does not constitute an interaction with a “dead text,” but instead with the work of an organic and still-adapting community. Or to put it another way: The author is quite far from dead and will in fact write you a sharply worded email at 5 p.m. this evening.

As a Merle Kling Fellow myself, these “perils” were not unfamiliar, and hearing them from a more senior figure was in fact decidedly welcome. At one point or another, most of the fellows I’ve known have had to struggle with the possibility of needing Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval. Most of us who have done so have struggled with an IRB framework decidedly not meant for the humanities and social sciences. (Or, to paraphrase one of our seminar leaders: “Cancer patients? Why would you ask me if I’m working with cancer patients? I’m dealing with farmers in Ghana!”)

None of this is particularly new. For as long as the humanities have existed, they have needed to deal with, well, actual humans. Worrying about what they think is par for the course. But as Jamison characterizes it, this problem has become particularly pronounced in this age. The printing press guaranteed the broad circulation of knowledge; the Internet today guarantees its broad circulation and return. In writing about communities, academics have always had the ability to shape the nature and fate of those they write about. What is new is both the rapidity with which this shaping is done, and its ubiquity. The zone of uncertainty that is the humanities’ effect on the real world is only growing larger.

Yet it is hard to see this as purely a bad thing. The humanities should not be wholly exempt from the strictures of ethical review; if anything, the confusion that arises from our lack of an existing framework suggests the exact opposite. Perhaps we don’t need to ask questions about cancer patients — but we do need to ask hard questions about how the work we do affects the people we write about. I have had this experience myself in the course of my project, which deals with the regulation of broadcasting media in Kenya after independence. When the senior civil servant from the Ministry of Information, Communications and Technology smiled, hugged me and told me to send her my report when I was done, my first thought was, “Oh man, oh man, oh man,” but then I paused and took stock. If the historical details of my project would not stand up to her scrutiny; if the terminology I used would seem unfairly harsh; in short, if I could not narrate the text of my project to her and (at least mostly) look her in the eye, how much credibility would my project have had anyway? This then has been an instruction to always Google twice, to avoid the word “regime,” and to think again before writing so simply about “the invention of tribe.”

Shaun Ee.

This creates an opportunity for a more engaged study of the humanities — one that is more compassionate and deliberate in the space of its discussion, one that is more intent on making room for the people that it speaks about. To borrow a fabled buzzword of the humanities, it’s almost as if expanding the conversation expands the agency of those who get to join it. None of this is to say that the humanities are currently lacking in compassion, or that they devalue human lives. It is only to say that expanding one’s audience expands the way in which one writes. Being aware that your own academic work is just another post in a long comment thread will do that — and it doesn’t look like this comment thread is stopping anytime soon.

So, returning to the topic of fanfiction: Let’s celebrate that conversation and the people taking part in it, both the scholars and the authors of fanfiction, who, if they have one thing in common, share a love for words and a good story. If anything, we can only anticipate that theirs is a comment thread that will continue to expand, proliferate and grow new offshoots, in all their marvelous and unexpected mutations. Let’s wish them all the best. Or, to give a nod to the fandom that started it all — let’s hope that they live long and prosper.