Critical Essay—"And the story goes on....": Harry Potter and Online Fan Fiction
Vandana Saxena, University of Nottingham Malaysia
The success of J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series spans an eventful decade – the decade when the adolescents read about the adventures of Harry and his friends was also a decade of tremendous social and cultural changes.
Though Harry Potter’s growth in J.K Rowling’s series seems to end with the triumph of normativity, the subversive impulses that the series explored seem to have overcome the textual boundaries and filtered into the everyday lives of the fans. Paper explores the fan activities that have appropriated the subversive impulses of the Potter plot. ‘Poaching’ on their favourite series, the young fans have used it as a means of self expression through fan fiction, fan art, interactive gaming and other similar pursuits. Sexuality, violence and other such issues, excised from official storyline as it is filtered through networks of adult supervision, find space in the online fan communities in defiance of the practices of censorship in children’s and adolescent fiction. In these spaces away from adult supervision the adolescent fans create narratives that appropriate the official story and make it a medium of expressing adolescent concerns. The advent of the Internet has played a major role in reshaping the dynamics of fandom and fan communities.
The paper explores the online world of Potter fandom as a site of defiance, deviance and resistance where the young fans negotiate through the gaps in the official story line and open the text to the demands of individual readership and concerns.
In Pottermore launched earlier this year, J.K. Rowling, the author of the 7-book Potter series, promises to provide the back stories, additional information and create a unique interactive online space for its fans. The website is meant to fill in the gaps in the narrative. But if one goes by the Harry Potter archives on the Net, Pottermore is clearly late.The gaps have been explored, filled and refilled as the Potter universe has acquired gargantuan proportions on the Internet. It is a colossal world that has been created and inhabited by the young readers and fans of the series. In Potter fandom on the Net, technology has become inseparable from fannish rituals and cultures.
The fannish appropriation of digital technology in context of Potter fandom has far-reaching implications for the field of literary studies. Fan activities like fan fiction and fan art embody a postmodernist approach to a literary text. They not only undo the grand narratives of the source text but question the very notion of a source. Numerous narratives co-exist in the world of Internet fandom. Harry Potter, who emerges as the savior and lives "happily ever after," co-exists along with the existentialist Harry who cannot find a purpose in life once the Dark Lord is vanquished, or, in another variation, the Harry Potter who is the false savior while Neville Longbottom has all along been "the chosen one." In this endless play of narratives, the source text is constantly deconstructed, its apparatus taken apart and reassembled with new meanings supplied by the fans and fan communities. While the adolescent fans of the Potter books add new variations to the themes of rebellion, the gay fans of the series read the queer subtext that underlies the world of magic. The personal histories of the fans mingle with the source to create new texts and contexts. Hence, in the world of fandom, the "work" – the 7-book series --becomes a "text" which Barthes describes as the "methodological field", "activity of production" (157) "woven entirely with citations, references, echoes, cultural languages, antecedent and contemporary, which cuts across it through and through in a vast stereophony" (160). The virtual world, by its very nature, becomes a fitting space for multiple realities to flourish. In the Internet fan archives, writing becomes a "multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original blend and clash” (Barthes 145).
The present paper explores the way digital technology allows the adolescents to express their concerns, anxieties and also their resistance to the generic ideologies underlying children’s and young adult literature, and the way the Potter series has helped in shaping that resistance in the digital space. Central literary concepts like canon, textuality, authorship and readership are modified by the incursion of technology. Potter fandom is central to such study. The decade of publication of the series coincides with the rapid emergence of the digital space, the spread of Internet technology and the development of the World Wide Web. And the growing Potter fandom came to be intricately linked with the emerging cyber technologies. With over 600 million Internet archives, more than 2500 discussion forums and 500,000 stories on single fan site like fanfiction.net, number of blogs and web sites discussing every aspect of the series – Potter fandom on the Net is a huge network. There are sites dedicated solely to Harry Potter fan fiction like Sugar Quill, Fictionalley and Harrypotterfanficiton, sites like The Daily Prophet and The Leaky Cauldron which keep up with the news surrounding the series and fandom, and podcasts like Pottercast and Mugglecast that have played a crucial role in connecting fandom.
Adolescence, a prominent theme of the Potter series, seems to have found resonance in the fandom on the Net. Not only is the Potter series aimed at the young readers, a significant number of its fans and fan writers, especially those experimenting with the digital tools, belong to the age group. This study approaches Harry Potter fan fiction archives through the concept of adolescence which carries the connotations of fluidity, movement as well as the impulses of resistance, subversion and experimentation. The defiance of the status quo that characterizes adolescence in the Potter series can be linked with fan activities which defy the authority of the official plot by appropriating and rewriting the narrative.
Henry Jenkins, in one of the seminal studies of fandom, Textual Poachers, discusses fan activities like fan fiction through the metaphor of poaching, where fans appropriate the ready made characters offered to them on popular media like the television to create their own narratives which often challenge or add on new meanings to the source text. While Rowling and Warner Brother’s retain the copyright of the Potter series, the creative impulse flows freely beyond the mandatory disclaimers, foregrounding the distinction between creativity and ownership.1 The notion is echoed by Derecho’s conceptualization of fan fiction as archontic literature that comprises of texts that are archival in nature, that is, always open to new entries, new interventions and new content. Fan fictions as archontic texts that "build on a previously existing text are not lesser than the source text, and they do not violate the boundaries of the source text; rather, they only add to that text’s archive, becoming a part of the archive and expanding it" (Derecho 64-65). Such postmodernist conceptualization of fan activities undoes the negativities in the accounts of fannish appropriations of a text as "poaching" "thieving" or "despoiling." Though de Certeau describes fans as nomadic readers who "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 themselves" (174), he emphasizes the creative impulse is such reading. Fan reading is a communal strategy of "advances and retreats, tactics and games played with the text” (175). In their ever-changing, fluid network that resists the attempts of containment and closure, adolescence and Internet fandom emerge intricately linked. Away from supervision and censure, the young fans on the Internet form communities and tell stories that resonate with their life and experiences.
The Politics of Children’s Literature
The incursion of digital technology has complicated the discourses that surround children and adolescents. Nowhere is it more evident than in the intensely political arena of adolescent literature. Most adolescent fiction follows the coming-of-age pattern where an adolescent protagonist, after going through a temporary phase of rebellion and resistance, is finally integrated into the folds of normativity. In Rowling’s series, Harry Potter, the adolescent boy-hero saves the magical world by defying its official establishment. Yet his growth is guided by powerful adult mentors who shape his quest till he is ready to assume the responsibilities of adulthood. In the epilogue, we see him with his family preparing to send his children to Hogwarts, a father, a husband and a model citizen. This constitutes the "correct" pattern of growth that is handed down to children in their everyday life, through parents and teachers, and also through authors and publishers of children’s literature.
Tendency to moralize and instruct powers the impulses of socialization and acculturation. Scholars like Jacqueline Rose have pointed out the fundamental impossibility of children’s literature since it expresses the concerns and desires of the adults: "Children’s fiction sets up a world in which the adult comes first (author, maker, giver) and the child comes after (reader, product, receiver), but where neither of them enter the space in between" (1-2). Young characters and thereby the young readers are cast into the role of a vulnerable naïve outsiders in need of help and instruction before they could be integrated into the social networks. The impulses of play, exploration and experimentation are given a tightly controlled space. Hence, watched over by adult networks, children’s literature often becomes an institutional field that "sets up the child as an outsider to its own process, and then aims, unashamedly to take the child in" (Rose 2).
Therefore the fiction meant for children and adolescents is shaped by the dominant ideas and ideologies of the adult world and its socio-cultural milieu. According to Stephen "The intelligibility which a society offers its children is a network of ideological positions, many of which are neither articulated nor recognized as being essentially ideological" (8). Rowling’s Harry Potter not only sets the correct pattern of growth, his story also underscores the conventions of heroism in a late capitalist postcolonial world. He is an orphan but belongs to an ancient and powerful family of wizards. His Cinderella-like transformation from rags to riches is an oft-repeated fairy tale. Surrounded by aides and by virtue of owning some unique magical objects, the white English boy overcomes all evil to save the world. As a school story, Harry’s relationship with his friends and teachers eventually reassert the boundaries of gender and race that are inherent to the culture from which the text emerges. His "girl trouble" has been pointed out by critics such as Jack Zipes, Nicolas Tucker and Christine Schoefer. So Rowling’s series is a particular kind of discursive narrative, contained within the ideological system of the culture in which it is produced, received and which it upholds.
At the same time, within the overt narrative of adolescent growth in the Potter books, scholars have traced the elements of childhood resistance (Chappell), views on education and training (Schanoes, Hopkins) and queer sexualities (Tison Pugh). Though Harry and his friends occupy various positions of disadvantage in the hierarchies of power, they emerge as heroes who take on not only the dark wizards but also the corrupt official establishment of that world. Harry’s peer group comprises of adolescent witches and wizards who are inherently the disadvantaged in the adult-adolescent binary. His adult friends include werewolf, a feared monster, a half-giant who seems inept, oafish and prone to errors of judgment, an outlawed criminal on the run and so on. His main supporters, the Weasley family are poor and wield little power in the magical world. Adolescent groups in the series like the Marauders or the Dumbledore’s Army continuously evade the efforts of containment by the adult community. The process of growth depicted in the series is replete with elements of resistance that surface insistently.
These elements of resistance mark the Potter series as an adolescent text. Adolescent protagonists constantly challenge and modify the norms and conventions that govern the world around them. Their two way relationship with the adult community often challenges the ideological conditioning that dominates children’s literature. Trites characterizes adolescent literature in terms of "the very determined way that YA novels tend to interrogate social constructions, foregrounding the relationship between the society and the individual..." (Disturbing 20). Adolescence emerges not as a stage of life, but as a state-of-being - an existence on the margins and in a constant dialogue with the center, always challenging and negotiating with the attempts at containment. Thus, adolescent literature emerges as a volatile field of constant negotiations between the impulses of youthful subversion and attempts of cultural containment.
Adolescent fiction in Digital Times
Digital fandom extends adolescent subversion and experimentation in to the Potter series beyond boundaries of the official text. The new versions and spin-offs surrounding the series that have appeared on the Internet for over a decade now, challenge not only the "real" world power dynamics between an adolescent and adult, but also the institutional control exerted on young adult fiction. Digital space is a space for the adolescents where they can escape adult supervision, where the rules and conventions, unlike most other facets of adolescent life, are not mediated by the teachers or the parents. This world creates its own social context "that most adults are aware of but do not understand" (Bradley 58). As the adolescent fans "mis-read" and re-write their own versions of the source text, fan writing undoes the hold of the author and publisher; the authority of parents and teachers is evaded as the stories are shared across the online communities.
Hence outside the text and in the world of online fandom, digital technology has opened space to explore the forbidden meanings within a highly institutionalized arena. The "era of media convergence, collective intelligence and participatory culture," Jenkins insists, has ushered in "a world without gatekeepers" (Convergence Culture 170). Challenging the authority of the official plot itself, the stories fork off from various points of the source. "Neville The Chosen One" by a 14-year old writer, The Spirit Gift, forks off right at the beginning of the plot where instead of Harry Potter, timid and shy Neville Longbottom is the potential savior of the world. However, the author introduces new and interesting variations in this short story. Not only is Neville "the chosen one," Voldemort, the Dark Lord, chooses to spare Neville’s life; he is then brought up by Severus Snape and trained as a Death Eater by Voldemort. The subtitle of the story "A Manipulated Child" shows a deep awareness of the possibilities of manipulation of childhood that goes along with parenting and education. The theme is integral to the Potter series and to children’s literature at large. While the children’s fiction repeatedly tells the story in a manner that voices adult concerns and anxieties, in the story by The Spirit Gift, socialization and acculturation acquire sinister meanings like manipulation. Numerous young storytellers like The Spirit Gift use the freedom and space offered by Internet technology to voice alternative perspectives - perspectives that are absent in traditional children’s literature.
Thus, corresponding to the magical skills of the witches and wizards, the digital technology can be seen as the magical prowess of the adolescent fans who use it to challenge the status quo and tell their stories. In the Potter series, magical skills, though common to all, are special power the adolescents. Though there are numerous witches and wizards, what sets Harry and his friends apart is that they use magic to challenge the rules and orders which are meant to govern their lives. Magic, in their hands, becomes a truly subversive force, an illegitimate force in the social arena, characterized by secrecy and ubiquity.2 The adolescent heroes use their magical skills to upset the corrupt organizations of the magical world. In a similar manner, like the magical youngsters of the Potter series, who not only possess a "different" set of skills but are ready to wield it as their unique form of power, the adolescent fans of the series use tools offered by digital technology to escape control and supervision and engage in wider socio-political discourses to which they are usually the outsiders. Internet offers unique tools for the readers and writers to undo the formulas of growth and the narratives of coming-of-age handed down to them, enabling them to tell their own versions. In Derecho’s words, fan fiction "opens up possibilities not just for oppositions to institutions and social systems, but also for a different perspective on the institutional and social" (76). Fan writing on the Net uses the new media to put forth new ways of thinking, and challenging top-down power and hold over storytelling. In this sense, the world of Internet fandom like Hogwarts - the school of magical technologies - resists the official frameworks and hierarchies; it is open to all who possess the power of magic, accommodating their stories without privileging any.
Sexuality, violence and other such issues that are excised from official storyline, find space in the online communities defying the practices of censorship in children’s and adolescent fiction. Following the assumption that the reader has a sexual naiveté in need of correction, the impulse of adolescent literature when it comes to the issue of sexuality is "to curb teenager’s libido" (Trites 85). Hence the message that "sex is more to be feared than celebrated" (Trites 85). Most texts, including the Potter series, seek to contain adolescent sexuality within the parameters of what is acceptable to the adult sensibilities. At the same time, scholars like Tison Pugh have pointed out the series’ flirtations with a variety of discourses surrounding the issue of sexuality. The genres that Rowling writes in – the boarding school story and the heroic quest – are replete with homoerotic subtext. The occluded presence of sexual subtext in the series is further complicated by Rowling’s public announcement of Albus Dumbledore’s sexuality. Therefore, unlike the sexually sanitization and compulsory heterosexuality that marks children’s and adolescent literature including Rowling’s text, the ambiguities surrounding the sexual content of the series makes it conducive for exploring non-normative sexualities.
Sexuality and its variety of configurations have been staple to Potter fandom, drawing from the insistent yet occuluded subtext of the series. Potter fan fiction teems with sexual experimentations ranging from heterosexual romance narratives to slash fiction. On the one hand, there have been "shipping" wars between those who read hints of Harry/Hermione relationship and those who advocate the Hermione/Ron pairing. On the other hand, since alternate world of magic can be read as a queer space (Pugh and Wallace), the queer subtext, latent in fantasy and boarding school fiction has been explored to the hilt by slash fiction. Unlike the source text which insists and stops at one pairing (compulsorily heterosexual in case of most adolescent fiction), pairings flourish in the digital archives. In the world of fandom, Harry is paired not only with Ginny or Hermione; it is possible to pair him with Draco, Ron, Snape and many others. Slash fiction, mostly referring to same-sex pairing , is one of the most popular genre of Harry Potter fan fiction. Harry/Draco, one of the most popular pairing since the earliest days of Potter fandom, recasts the animosity between the two characters in the source text into sexual tension; aggression becomes a cover for hidden desires and longings. Sirius/Remus, another popular pairing follows the buddyslash model predicated on the erotics of male friendship and intimacy already popular in earlier fandom like Star Trek. There are other models like powerslash figuring most prominently in Harry/Snape stories.
Rather than a challenge to the source text, in the case of the Potter series, these stories seem to be derived from the series itself. Tosenberger points out that Sirius’s "character trajectory in Phoenix follows the trope in early gay-themed YA literature that homosexual characters must be lonely, tormented and then die…" ("Homosexuality" 197). Similarly, the background of a British boarding school offers a fertile ground for exploring male friendships and intimacy. Sheenagh Pugh points out that slash has been "from the beginning, a genre which picked up on perceived subtexts and made them visible, and it was a genre which accorded great importance to non-verbal signals. It was, by its nature, a genre of unaware protagonists, who were also often unaware narrators of their own stories" ("The Erotic Space").
Slash fandom unearths the subtextual currents immanent in the text. Politics of containment in adolescent fiction dictates that homosexuality be represented as "discrete, isolatable behaviour that need not be assimilated as an enduring aspect of identity" (Fouss 166). Hence the politics of children’s and adolescent literature and its publication demands the neutralization of the queer subtext in favour of the heteronormative conclusion. Since popular adolescent fiction, as Fouss, Trites and Tison Pugh point out, works on a homophobic model that insists on heterosexuality, slash pairings of fan writing are often non-canonical and transgressive. But in case of the Potter series, the slash fiction revels in the sexual ambiguity that characterizes the series; it explores the subversive subtext that lies beneath the heteronormative discourse of the text. Rather than being non-canonical, Harry Potter slash fan fiction builds on the non-normative discourses about sexuality, especially adolescent sexuality within the text.
Thus in the unguarded world of Internet fandom, rather than alerting the reader to the dangers of sex, the narratives queer the process of growth itself. Challenging the linear pattern foregrounded by literature and other institutions of childhood, fan narratives reveal growth, development and adolescence as a continuous ongoing process in which queerness and transgression are implicit. Though the fans following the canon closely towards its heterosexual resolution are criticized for the conservative and restricted nature of their narratives (tasha 203), a closer look reveals preoccupation with issues considered a taboo for children’s writing and publication. "Yellow Submarine" by deadwoodpecker, described as "romance/hurt/comfort", is about the canonical pair of the series– Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley. It revolves around Ginny Weasley who is kidnapped from the school in the last book and sexually abused by the Death Eaters – an event that Harry, Ron and Hermione as well as the Weasley family and ultimately the readers are unaware of. The story picks up from the moment of Ginny’s rescue and moves through the years of shame, recovery, to the search for justice. Explicit sexuality, threats of violence, and sexual violation are integrated with the conventions of a romance. Sexual tension and violence also looms large in "Protection" by princesspotter. In "Protection", Ginny Weasley, a strong and independent woman working as a healer at St Mungo’s, is threatened by Draco Malfoy, who intends to take on the mantle of the Dark Lord by the sacrifice of a young witch. Harry Potter, now an auror, is given the task to protect Ginny Weasley. The plot turns intriguing as Harry himself feels a violent impulse to hurt Ginny. He grapples with the "He-who-must-not-be-named" within himself (an innovative interpretation of the textual portrayal of Harry and Voldemort as doppelgangers) that seeks to inflict pain on Ginny since his better self is in love with her. He becomes the antagonist as well as the protagonist; the tension between the two drives the plot till it is resolved by love, more specifically through sex. Characters like Ginny Weasley become intriguing in the world of fandom precisely because of her (non)presentation within the source text. She is an important character because she is essential within the text as Harry’s love interest, the princess in waiting; at the same time, she is a part of a vast cast of peripheral characters who, with their limited presence in the source text, make the Potter series a center of intense fan activities. The gaps in characterization and incomplete plot developments, Pennington insists, are the reasons that "on aesthetic grounds the series is fundamentally failed fantasy" because "she (Rowling) violates the integral rules of the fantasy game, never capturing the integrity of the very fantasy tradition that she is mining for riches. And thus the aesthetic trouble with Harry Potter" (79). Yet this aesthetic trouble makes it an apt "producerly" text since, for fannish activities, a text needs "to be open, to contain gaps, irresolutions, contradictions, which both allow and invite fan productivity. They are insufficient texts that are inadequate to their cultural function of circulating meanings and pleasure until they are worked upon and activated by fans, who by such activity produce their own popular cultural capital" (Fiske "Cultural Economy" 42)
While the literature catering to adolescents occludes the issues of sexuality and simultaneously frames them into heteronormative discourses, the environments of the World Wide Web offer freedom, anonymity and openness to explore sexual curiosities without the fear of censorship and disapproval. Fan writer Ellen Fremedon, in a discussion on the Livejournal uses the term "Id Vortex" to describe the customized writing that caters to the writers' and/or readers' kinks, "that creates stories that not only move us emotionally because we already care about the characters but also because it uses tropes, characterizations, scenes that appeal very viscerally." In fandom, she insists, "we've all got this agreement to just suspend shame." Though Id Vortex is integral to fandom3, with the Internet, it has gained a greater visibility. Though the Potter series itself provides ample space for the play of Id Vortex, its conjunction with Internet technology in the world of fan fiction has ensured wider readership. Though many of the writers may be adults, the stories can be accessed by anybody with little difficulty. What marks Potter fandom is that
…it operates outside of the institutional paradigms that control children’s and YA literature; unlike the Potter books themselves, it is not bound by publishing conventions that obligate it to contain sexuality within parameters of age (of both characters and readers) or of pedagogy. What makes Potter fanfic different is that teens have unprecedented license not only to read stories that might not meet with adult approval but also to write and distribute them (Tosenberger "Homosexuality" 188).
So the unorganized and chaotic world of Internet fandom is oriented towards the subversive potential of adolescence and adolescent fiction. Popular reading emerges as a bricolage through which a community of readers fragments the text and reassembles it according to their own blueprints. Fan narratives carry forward such engagement where far from consuming the meanings encoded within the text, the stories illustrate a strong allegiance to popular culture and emphasize the value of communication, social interaction and pluralism. Logicalraven’s "The Eye of the Phoenix," picks up the narrative from the fourth book of the series and tells the story from the perspective of a minor character – Cho Chang, an East Asian girl, who gains importance in the official plot as Harry Potter’s first girl friend. In "The Eye of the Phoenix," Cedric’s death, her emotional turmoil and her relationship with Harry – all are retold from Cho’s point of view. The story recounts the adventures of Cho Chang – the descendent of a great Chinese empress, the Guardian of the Phoenix. The plot integrates Cho’s ancestry and her racial difference with her adventures at Hogwarts. At the beginning of the fiction, the author cites her reason for writing the story: "Yes, this is a story about Cho. You don't find many Cho/Harry romances, so out of frustration, I wrote one myself." In Ginny Weasley Potter’s "Killer Instincts" Harry is married to Parvati Patil. Placed in context of a cross-cultural marriage, the story explores intercultural encounters and diasporic issues. The author again begins the story by revealing her nationality and her wish to be a part of the Potterworld. Since the text allows little space for races other than white and nationalities other than English (Anatol, Saxena), the Internet fan fiction becomes a medium to overcome the cultural and ideological barriers by writing yourself in the text.
The author is no longer catering to the general readership; writing as well as readership outlines the individual histories and preferences. As the amateur writers "unleash their imagination," fans move across communities looking for narratives that might hold their interest. They pick up the strands of narrative that interests and excites them; the like-minded fans adhere and the subcultures within the online communities become smaller, exclusive and more specialized. Black refers to these "imagined communities" as affinity spaces that provide alternative and new contexts for learning and socialization, where acculturation is replaced by transculturation, where a popular text becomes a point of affiliation - a dialogic resource that youth appropriates both in its writing and in its interactions. Hence popular culture and technology converge to provide a context in which an adolescent can develop "a powerful transcultural identity that is discursively constructed through the different cultural perspectives and literacies that she and other fans from across the globe bring to this space" (76).
Ludism and Learning
While Rose has questioned the very existence of the category of children’s literature, digital fandom has given an unlimited space for play and experimentation, a space for adolescent readers and writers to explore their curiosities and a medium to articulate them. Referring to the environments of the new media for fostering the culture of ludism, Booth points out that the impulse behind these experimentations of digital fandom is with the "philosophy of playfulness". Play and pleasure are frequently the avowed motif behind fan writing. Rather than a sacred source, the text is available to the adolescent fans to play with irreverently and endlessly. The stories are inherently intertextual since they draw on their connection to the official text. Song fiction is a common genre in which the author uses a popular song as a framework and then incorporates the characters from the anime series into the song. Authors interlink plots from different movies and texts to create their own version. Generic boundaries are pushed by the merging of media, specially the digital media. "This means war" by Jeconais is a comic fiction where the story is told through conversations and through e-mails and text messages. In another comic fiction, "The Literal Deathly Hallows" by cbstvp,the characters of the series become one with the actors of the Potter films as the story intermingles cinematic screenplay with the narrative. Yiroma’s "Magic and Machines"is a cross-over fiction where the magical world of the Potter series collides with the machines of Transformers. In the alternate universe of the fantasy, the Potterworld fuses with The Lord of the Rings, Batman, even Shakespeare. Practices of peer review and constructive criticism ensure sophisticated writing in an unintimidating atmosphere.
Such ludic experiments in the virtual communities emerge as an alternative to the traditional learning spaces like a classroom. Online fan fiction sites like fanfiction.net, Black notes, undo the binary distinction between the writer and the reader; the space is intended to maximize discussion and allows a great deal of space for interaction. Identity, growth and socialization are mediated through online interactions with shifting affiliations with certain social groups that individuals make in different contexts.
Rather than endlessly practicing their creative writing skills, the authors and readers of online Potterfanfiction have created virtual communities that engage in complex cultural and political issues. Scholars and literacy experts often see fan fiction as a tool to hone literary skills. Jenkins argues that online fans benefit greatly from the space "outside the classroom and beyond any direct adult control” (Convergence 177). Bond and Michelson discuss Harry Potter fan communities in terms of media literacy tools "creating a virtual writing workshop atmosphere" (110). Black also highlights the role of online fan fiction communities in literacy and composition practices of English Language Learners.
However, a close look reveals strong currents of active political and cultural engagement. MagEd’s "When Darkness Did Surround Us" is an intensely political, dystopian fiction that explores that gaps opened by the resolution of the official text. While Rowling’s series ends with the death of the Dark Lord, MagEd’s story concentrates on the deteriorated official establishment of the magical world which is thrown into further anarchy by the death of Voldemort. Such fan fiction on the net that illustrates a cosmopolitan attitude, shared appreciation of different cultural perspectives and alternative modes of seeing, interpreting and understanding. It undoes the power hierarchy that structures an adolescent’s world placing him/her mostly in a subordinate position, whether in a classroom or at home or in the fictional world. Bond and Michelson observe that
…the Harry Potter phenomenon has changed the experiences of many young readers. Because children and adolescents are reading these texts primarily outside of the classroom, they are establishing their own environments. Young readers of Harry Potter are entering a literary world and exerting upon it a creative force of their own (111).
An oft-stated fact of about the Potter series is that it brought children back to reading in droves. If one goes by the fan fiction archives on the Net, the series has also inspired active readership, a readership that is not satisfied by reading the series passively, but seeks to rewrite and recreate the plot in a politically engaged and vocal manner.
A Live Network of Stories
Modeled on the technical environment in which it functions, the Internet, the world of Internet fandom is a vast network of networks. As fans write in response to challenges, gift stories to each other, modify the plots and respond to the readers and reviewers of the stories, fan fiction is a world of hybrid textualities where, as Thomas points out, "writing is a response to reading, an exploration and critique of texts, an assemblage of new ideas about texts, and an active collaborative process of understanding, creating and imagining". The digital space not only preserves the fan narratives, but also allows for a dissemination that is speedier and wider than ever before.4 Hence the digital world of fan narrative runs live, growing with the ever-expanding interconnected network of constant storytelling. It is like adolescence itself which Julia Kristeva describes as "“open systems” of which biology speaks, concerning living organisms that live only by maintaining a renewable identity through interaction with another, the adolescent structure opens itself to the repressed at the same time that it initiates a psychic reorganization of the individual" (9).
Hypertextual environment of storytelling on the Net turns from linear, structured and hierarchical forms of storytelling towards a decentralized and changeable media where the narratives constantly shift along with the hyperlinks. Constantly in flux, and renewing itself with each narrative, the Internet offers a world where stories are never complete. There are possibilities for endless versions. After the publication of the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, several fan fiction sites ran contests asking readers to write alternate versions. On the other hand, fans often write several ends to their own stories, asking the readers for their opinions. Mikki 1105, a young writer gives two alternative endings to her story about the battle of Hogwarts. At the beginning of her story "Sweet Vengeance: A HP Fanfic with Two Endings", she writes "I couldn't decide on an ending, so I just put both. It's a one shot about the Battle of Hogwarts. Please let me know what you think and which ending you like better!" Certain stories are written is different ways to suit the reader’s taste and sensibilities. Princesspotter offers a "friends only" version of her story "Protection" on her Livejournal while a sanitized version appears on another fan site. The hypertextual nature of storytelling allows the reader to click and choose the course of the narrative or even write her own version contributing to the postmodernist fragmentation of the textual universe.
Hence, unlike the academic and scholarly modes of critique – books, journals, papers, adolescent writers on the Net engage with the source text on its own turf. Storytelling is understood and revealed through the process of telling other, multiple stories that interpret, read and mis-read the source. While the source text like the Potter series locates itself and its ideologies vis-à-vis the literary tradition in which it places itself, fan narratives rarely suffer from such "anxiety of influence."5 Unlike hierarchies of the literary world where a text is placed and judged alongside its literary precedents, in the fan narratives, a text, separated from the context of commerce and ownership, is defined in terms of community affiliations, its sexual leanings (het, gen, slash), the modes of storytelling (drabbles, son-fic). Hellekson refers to fan fiction in its own term, as "work-in-progress," a piece of fiction still in the process of being written (Fan Fiction 5). Through the technologies of the digital world, a work turns into an eternal "work-in-progress", thoroughly intertextual and always open to intervention creating a new alternate literary cultures and practices. Booth insists that "Fans use digital technology, not only to create, to change, to appropriate, to poach, or to write, but also to share, to experience together, to become alive with community. Fans rewrite not just the extant media object, but also the state of media studies itself" (Booth 39).
Digital fandom issues an aggressive challenge to the stereotypes of adolescence, fandom as well as the Potter series. As an obsessed neurotic loner or a part of a frenzied hysterical mob, a stereotypical fan is characteristically a young and vulnerable teenager. Like adolescents who are the others with respect to privileged position assigned to adulthood, the fans are pathologized as the "others" with respect to art aficionados and critics (Jenson 9). From its start, the Potter series has been the subject of a deep divide between the highbrow art and popular writing between the learned readers in the academies and the fans who buy and "consume" literature. As early as 2000, Harold Bloom criticized Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the Wall Street Journal insisting that its 35 million buyers were indeed wrong. Prominent literary critic Jack Zipes, discussing the institutionalization of children’s literature in his book Sticks and Stones, cites the case of Harry Potter. Zipes’ summation of the "phenomenality" of the Potter books rests on their ability to conform to the tastes of the hegemonic groups driven by "institutional corporate conglomerates" (Sticks 172). Hence, the fans of the series are categorized into the stereotype of cultural dupes, social misfits and mindless consumers taking a delusional escape route that ends in the reproduction of conventional ideologies and clichés.
However, the critical understanding and engagements in the alternate worlds of Potter fan fiction challenges the image of juvenility and immaturity that goes along with the stereotypes of fan cultures. Though the fan activities do not validate the literary merit of the series, they do raise questions regarding the fan culture, the image of the young fans as "cultural dupes" and their potential for critical engagement. Fan narratives on the Net therefore need to be looked at closely at what they say regarding the marginalized groups like the adolescents and their world. Fan fiction has been studied as the discourse of the marginalized. Camille Bacon-Smith's Enterprising Women discusses appropriations of popular television dramas by women viewers. For Jenkins, fandom has been a "vehicle for marginalized subterranean groups (women, the young gays, and so on) to pry open space for their cultural concerns within dominant representations; it is a way of appropriating media texts and rereading them in a fashion that serves different interests, a way of transforming mass culture into popular culture" ("Star Trek" 40). Potter fan fiction voices the concerns of the adolescents which are usually sidelined in the discourses of growth, development, education, adulthood that surround them. For the techno-literate adolescents who spend a great amount of their day online, Internet fandom, especially activities like fan fiction offer a new mode of interaction with literature where they can respond critically to the authors they read and play with the characters they love. For a fan who crosses over Harry Potter with Hamlet, the Internet offers probably the only and certainly the most readily available space to build narratives that would find acceptance and readership. Like adolescence, this is a liminal world, defined in terms of fluidity and movement, constantly under revision and reconstruction. Fan writing, therefore, preserves the impulse of adolescence from the teleology of growth; in the digital world of Potter fandom, adolescence is permanent and forever renewed: its subversive impulses flourish as the story of growth is set free of adult control; Harry Potter, in the world of fan fiction, is no longer obligated to grow up and give up his boyhood in favor of adulthood.
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1 Fan fiction, despite the freedom on the Net, has to deal with copyright issues. Often fan writers deal with discouragement and threat of legal action. Author Anne Rice, for instance has often voiced her disapproval of fan fiction. The Potter fans and writers also had to deal with the constant interference with the Warner Brothers.
2 Marcel Mauss, in his anthropological study of magic in society, The General Theory of Magic, describes magic as "unauthorized, abnormal, and the very least, not highly estimable," "a kind of religion, used in lower spheres of domestic life" (29).
3 For instance, much of Star Trek fan fandom, one of the earliest to have a widespread impact, focused on the homoerotic subtext underlying the homosocial bond between Kirk and Spock interpreting it . Explicit fiction and fan art appeared in Trekkies fanzines in the 1970s. Same sex relationships frequently feature in other fan fictions including The Lord of the Rings, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and more recently Hunger Games.
4 Fan communities have been shaped and reshaped by changing technologies of publication, circulation and distribution, especially since the emergence of the World Wide Web. Fan art and narratives in early decades of the twentieth-century were produced and circulated through fan magazines (simply called fanzines). Fanzines were the nonofficial, nonprofessional publications of fans of a particular cultural phenomenon. Limited in terms of production and distribution, these fan narratives operated within their specific socio-political context. However, since the fanzines still depended on circulation among fan communities, the fandom appropriations were dictated in terms of popular readership within fandom. In other words, though appropriated and retold by the fans who shunned any commercial return, the experimentation of fan fiction still depended on the interest of the majority within the community. The emergence of the Internet shifted this dynamic.
5 Harold Bloom in The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry insists that poets and writers are hindered in their creative process by their ambiguous relationship with their precursors. Bloom argues that every writers writes in context of another's work. This need to surpass the precursors to create an original piece marks the work of the living writers with the constant anxiety of influence. However, in the world of fandom, the relationship with the other writer and his/her influence is not only acknowledged, it becomes a source of playful creative experimentations. The fans are openly acknowledge the derivative status of their writing and hence are not limited by the anxiety of influence that might hinder their literary counterparts.
Biography: Vandana Saxena currently teaches at the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus. She did her PhD from Indian Institute of Technology Delhi (IIT D). Her recent publications include The Subversive Harry Potter: Adolescent Rebellion and Containment in the J.K. Rowling Novels. Her research interests are in adolescent fiction, popular culture and cultural studies.
© 2012 Vandana Saxena, used by permission.