Dr. Anton Vander Zee
28 March 2016
To Each His Own Interpretation, Or How Reader Response Theory Informs Fan Fiction
We all remember the end of our favorite book. Regardless of if the novel concluded satisfactorily or not, a desire for more still burned within us. But do characters’ adventures really end at the finale of a book? Although the official authors may not produce new material, there is no reason that the characters’ stories must conclude. This is where fan fiction enters the scene. These extra-textual productions are unofficial stories written by fans about an original, published work. While often stigmatized as a cheap imitation of the original work, fan fiction is a dynamic medium in which fans can interact with and react to media. Fan fiction encompasses a wide variety of writing, from short, 150 word “drabbles” to novel-length stories. In addition, the quality of fan fiction varies widely. Although some are in fact poorly written wish-fulfillment stories (a notable example being the infamous Fifty Shades of Grey), some masterfully probe an imaginative characterization, or how a situation could have played out differently in a way that the original author was unable to explore. Though it was once relegated to the dark corners of fan subcultures, fan fiction has broached the mainstream with the advent and proliferation of the internet. However, as fan fiction by definition plays with characters that belong to another writer, it come into conflict with copyright. No ruling has been passed regarding fan fiction, leaving it in a nebulous legal limbo. Without a definitive ruling, professional authors have issued their own statements governing the creation of fan works, which range from strict intolerance to shrugging indifference to open invitation.
As fan fiction has grown into a more widespread and increasingly accepted phenomenon, it has garnered both literary and sociological critical analysis. While sociologists often comment on the structure and dynamics of fan communities and interactions, literary critics have focused on themes prevalent in fan fiction and how these trends connect to the wider media experience. However, fan fiction is still widely ignored and even shunned due to its association with poor quality of writing, lack of originality, and dubious legality. As fan fiction has only recently begun to break into mainstream culture, literary analysis of it will likely be forthcoming in the near future. In this essay, I hope to explore fan fiction in light of reader response theory. Although some critics have analyzed trends and themes within fan fiction itself, I intend to delve into the theory behind the production of fan fiction. The way that fan fiction writers consume and engage media, as evidenced by the physical production of fan fiction, serves as a particularly interesting manifestation of reader response theory.
In this essay, I ask you to set aside your preconceived notions of fan fiction and view it as a literary production. Personally, I find it fascinating that some works linger with readers in such a way that they express their thoughts and feelings by bringing the characters to life on their own. With the so-called death of the author, critics have sought to discern who holds the power of interpretation. Fan fiction brings an interesting perspective to this discussion, as its production echoes reader-response theory in that each individual makes meaning from the text.