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'Canonisation' of Fanfiction

How fan creations are reshaping cultural canons

Harry Potter becomes a scientist, 'Hermione has changed a lot over the summer', the Bennet sisters from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen are fighting against zombies, and Ilya Oblomov from Turgenev’s novel has taken to online dating. A daring and fun game, an unwillingness to part with one’s favourite characters, an attempt to correct the author's 'mistakes' and to rewrite the 'bad' endings — all of this is fanfiction: reader and viewer fantasies based on literary and film classics. Fan creations, on one hand, draw on cultural canons, and on the other hand, challenge them and offer an alternative vision. High art can no longer ignore fan practices — both as its own mirror reflections and as a space for new opportunities. A paper by HSE researcher Ksenia Romanenko helps us delve deeper into the culture of fanfiction and examine its relationship to the cultural canon.

Rewriting 'Tolstoevsky'

To quote the patriarch of fan studies and the author of the participatory culture concept, Henry Jenkins, 'from the perspective of dominant taste, fans appear to be frighteningly out of control, undisciplined and unrepentant, rogue readers'. The famous American scholar is perhaps too harsh in his judgment; fan creations, be it fan stories, fan videos or fan art, can reflect a complex mix of sentiments towards literary and film classics.

Fan attitudes towards the cultural canon often resemble a love-hate relationship. Enchanted by the hypnotic worlds created by Pushkin, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Conan Doyle, Tolkien, and other gods of the literary pantheon, one sometimes feels a desire to change something in their writing, e.g. help Prince Andrei Bolkonsky survive, have Pushkin’s Onegin and Lermontov’s Pechorin meet and become friends, teach Bazarov from Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons to conduct investigations, and introduce Rodion Raskolnikov from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment to Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye.

In fan fiction, according to culturologist Natalia Samutina, an artistic world with its unique configuration is constructed 'from borrowed and original fragments, large and small clusters of generally accepted and new information'. Typical representatives of Jenkins' 'participatory culture', fanfiction writers want to be co-authors of their favourite books.

Bold plot twists in fan texts reflect both an infatuation with the originals and the rejection of them. Fanfiction grows in the fertile soil of classical works but bears outlandish, at times shockingly tasting fruit. Even eminent writers and film directors have been drawn into this strange garden, finding themselves inspired and guided by fans’ fantasies.

Why not, for instance, tell the backstory of Mr. Rochester and his first marriage prior to meeting Jane Eyre from Charlotte Brontë's novel? In 1966, this story was indeed told and made into a book and then, in 1993, into a film, followed in 2006 by a television adaptation.

One could imagine a love story between Eugene Onegin and Tatyana Larina as a married woman and tell it through her husband's diaries. And why not give the limelight to Harry Potter's classmate Neville Longbottom? Or explore the backstory of the insidious Cruella from The Hundred and One Dalmatians. Leo Tolstoy's wife Sofia could visit the dying Andrei Bolkonsky from War and Peace to bring him back to life and thus undo the harm done by her famous husband whom she nicknamed 'Lyovushka'. This would seem fair: how dare the author kill our favourite hero?

Culturologist Ksenia Romanenko, Associate Professor of the HSE Institute of Education, refers to a paradoxical aspect of fanfiction: 'It is based on a certain canon — collectively chosen films or literary texts — and driven by admiration, emotional attachment and contemplation; yet at the same time, fanfiction sets out to oppose, criticise and alter the canon'.

To explore this complex relationship, Romanenko analyses academic literature on fanfiction and uses findings from her own empirical research conducted since 2013, including interviews and digital ethnography. She has studied fanfiction based on the Harry Potter film and book series, Doctor Who (1963 — present) and Sherlock (2010-2017) TV series, and fan texts and sequels to novels by the 19th-century English writer Jane Austen.

In particular, her research focuses on fanfiction based on Russian classics, 'in which Tolstoy's and Dostoevsky's characters are on a par with Professor Snape from the Harry Potter saga, Sherlock Holmes from the TV series, or the trickster god Loki in Marvel Comics'. These characters, according to the researcher, populate numerous fan stories and either drift far away from their canonical prototypes or 'merge with them, becoming canonical once again, this time in fanfiction'. Fans engage with these cultural idols in a variety of ways: from obsession, affection and play to transformation, destruction and re-creation.

Fanfiction Terminology

Fanfiction or fan fiction is a body of texts created by fans based on an existing work of fiction. Fanfiction can include sequels and alternative plots of famous films, TV series, books, comics, games, and celebrity biographies. These are usually amateur, non-commercial creations. In addition to fanfics (fictional texts written by fans), fan work includes fan art, fan videos, and more. All of them can be the subject of fan fiction studies.

Fanfiction also refers to the community of people involved in fan production and consumption.

Fanfic writer refers to any author of fan texts.

Fandom is a group of fans of a particular work of fiction or a particular author, and also means a body of related fan creations.

Crossover is a fan text featuring characters, items and sets from multiple fandoms. Some crossovers result in fan worlds such as that of the 19th-century Russian literature, populated by characters from different classics, e.g. Chatsky and Pechorin, Bazarov and Raskolnikov.

Pairing refers to a romantic and/or sexual relationship between certain characters in a fandom. They could be in a relationship in the original work, but not necessarily. More often than not, they dislike each other in the original canon and can even belong to different canons when the fan text is a crossover. Special names can be coined for pairings, e.g. Dramione — Draco plus Hermione.

Canon is the original on which fan work is based. This can be any source, such as a book, a film or a TV series, for which fans have created alternative endings or character stories.

Fanon, a portmanteau of fan and canon, refers to a particular interpretation of the original work or its part which is widely accepted by fans but not confirmed or endorsed by the original author.

Headcanon refers to 'canon in one's head', i.e. a fan's personal interpretation of canon, e.g. its plot or character backstories, as opposed to fanon that refers to a shared interpretation.

There is an established literary canon (and a school canon, or required reading for students). However, in the context of today's convergence culture and the emergence of transmedia storytelling [terms introduced by Henry Jenkins in his 2006 Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide] characterised by interpenetration of different media and genres, it can be difficult to draw clear boundaries between a canonical literary work, its adaptation, criticism, and reception, according to Romanenko.

Therefore, the author refers to the concept of 'cultural canon' as an extension of the literary canon, considering it an institutional phenomenon based on convention and used as an 'instrument of social control' (according to American literary scholar John Guillory) by means of the educational system.

Fanfiction in the System of Cultural Hierarchies

Thus, the term 'canon' can be understood both in an academic sense and in fan parlance. The common denominator between the two is that canon is perceived as a certain code of rules to be followed. Romanenko describes several levels of canon.

The first refers to canon as a set of established hierarchies in cultural production and consumption, including authors, readers and viewers of high and mass culture. In contrast, canon in fanfiction is more democratic, with blurred boundaries between creators and consumers of cultural products. The second level refers to canon as the original text, and the third level concerns fanon and headcanon. There can also be a national literary canon (e.g. the Russian classics).

At the level of cultural hierarchies, fanfiction undermines or transforms canon by approaching it in a casual, unceremonious and virtually unconstrained manner. Fanfiction depends on the established cultural canon in a number of areas, such as legal, commercial and aesthetical, and opposes it at the same time.

Since they are based on copyrighted material, fanfiction, fan art and fan videos can unintentionally infringe on copyright. Therefore, disclaimers are often included in fan work to credit the original author and to indicate that the fan does not get paid for their work. Other disclaimers have also been used, e.g. those which refer to the story background or contain trigger warnings about potentially disturbing content.

By being non-commercial, fan work stands out from popular culture's obsession with ratings and commercial success. But fan fiction has its own popularity rankings, e.g. fanfic contests, and is sometimes commercialised by selling physical merchandise or print-on-demand books. But these small-scale initiatives do not run even close to the 'cyclopean' production of popular culture.

However, in situations free of copyright constraints, popular fandom-themed entertainment has emerged. Romanenko's other study looks at how Jane Austen's popularity in the 1990s and 2000s led to the emergence of themed tourism and costumed Regency balls, Austen-inspired home decor merchandise, and numerous Austen novel sequels and spin-offs, many of which have been published and filmed.

'High literature' differs from fan fiction by its professionalism and aesthetic attitudes and, quoting the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, by its monopoly of literary legitimacy. In contrast, no particular training is needed to join the fan fiction culture. As a substitute for membership in literary associations, official awards and festivals, fans register on fandom forums, follow fandom conventions, attend fan meetups, and review peers’ work. Fandoms have created websites posting advice for novice fanfiction writers.

Reassembling Worlds

Fan fiction uses the cultural and literary canon as a gateway to an imaginary universe. Fans treat fictional characters in film and literature as if they were alive. According to Jenkins, fans enter a 'realm of the fiction as if it were a tangible place they can inhabit and explore'.

Fan writers might choose to promote characters who, in their opinion, deserve more attention than afforded by the author. Once a Russian fan said in an interview, ‘The main relationship triangle — Pierre, Natasha, and Andrei — is given a lot of page space in [Tolstoy’s] War and Peace. In contrast, Princess Maria and Nikolai Rostov, who are my favourites, get mentioned only in one and a half [of the four] books which also cover the 1812 [war with Napoleon], when nobody cares about much else’. This fan wanted to reconstruct a storyline which she found ‘neglected’ by Tolstoy.

computational analysis has found that fanfiction tends to deprioritise the main protagonists of canonical texts and shows a statistically significant difference in how much attention is given to female characters (perhaps because many fanfic writers are women). Researcher Derek Johnson explores the phenomenon of ‘fantagonism’ (portmanteau of ‘fan’ and ‘antagonism’) that refers to tensions within fandom, fan struggles to 'correct' the original author, acute dislike of some characters and the wish to redeem some others.

Thus, fans have narrated Odyssey from the witch Circe’s perspective, as the American novelist and ancient literature scholar Madeline Miller did ; explored the fate of Princess Yelena ‘Hélène’ Bezukhova, Tolstoy's anti-heroine; and married Ivanhoe to Rebecca thus calling into question the ending of Walter Scott's classic, as William Thackeray did in 1849.

Samutina wrote about the moral aspect of fan writers’ tendency to present the original story from the perspective of someone on the losing side. What Jenkins calls 'moral realignment' — transforming antagonists into protagonists of their own narratives, and 'refocalisation' — shifting attention away from the central figures and onto secondary characters, are among the dominant approaches employed by fan writers.

'Poaching' and 'Desecration'

Many fanfiction websites publish reflections on various styles, repost academic research on the topic, and provide how-to guides for aspiring fan writers. One such essay advises them to ‘ cancel the canon’.

Indeed, canon limits the options for transforming the source text. However, without canon, there would be no fanfiction. A good understanding of canon is important for fan writers who are ' judged by how well they stick to or depart from canon'. It is no coincidence that Jenkins describes the phenomenon of fanfiction both in terms of convergence culture and textual poaching.

According to a female fan writer interviewed for the study, 'Being told that my work desecrated the classics motivated me to do even more of it'. Thus, fan creations can be at least partly driven by protest and challenge; this comes as no surprise, since many fans report a complicated relationship with the school literary canon.

Fanfiction has a variety of internal styles and genres: some are borrowed from film and literature (drama, adventure, crime detective story, etc.), and some others invented by fans, e.g. fluff, a light-hearted story, or angst, one characterised by heavy themes and character suffering.

Fan texts use different approaches to altering the original work, e.g. they can fill a 'missing’ scene or ‘fix’ a perceived inconsistency or ambiguity in the original. Some fan stories are OOC (out of character), meaning that a character’s personality or actions do not conform to those presented in the canon, and some others are AU (alternative universe), i.e. set in a different universe from the canon. According to fanfiction researcher Sheenagh Pugh, most of the above categories answer one of two questions: 'what else?' or 'what if?'.

Alternative Universes

AU stories include those with unexpected plot twists, e.g. a character not dying, contrary to the canon, or getting transposed into a different context. An example of AU fanfiction is Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (HPMOR) by the American AI expert Eliezer Yudkowsky. Departing from J. K. Rowling's original books, the backstory has it that Harry's aunt Petunia Evans married an Oxford professor and raised Harry in an intellectual environment where he learned to approach magic from a scientific perspective.

Fan stories use a variety of sources and media to create imaginary worlds: in addition to a book or film series, fans can be inspired by illustrations, adaptations, drafts, biographies, and media statements made by the original authors, directors and actors.

By discussing J.K. Rowling's tweets or comparing Pushkin's and Gogol's biographies, 'fans are pushing the canon's boundaries to accommodate their own stories', according to Romanenko. Thanks to fan interpretations, some canons get revisited and examined more thoroughly.

Enthusiastic fans depicted in the television series Only Murders in the Building (2021) are so attentive to details as to help the authors of a true crime podcast solve a mystery. Henry Jenkins refers to the fan community's ability to explore every detail of the canon as collective intelligence.

Eternal Return to Classics

Fans' meticulous knowledge of canon means that they keep revisiting these imaginary worlds, finding something new each time. In this sense, fan fiction is similar to cult movies which are believed to be more about viewers' engagement with a film than about the film itself.

Some fan texts emphasise the cosy and alluring aspects of canon making one want to come back time and again. Crossover stories based on Russian classics and merging A Hero of Our Time, Eugene Onegin and War and Peace into one imaginary universe of the 19th century Russia, or sequels to Pride and Prejudice featuring endless balls and romantic dates without Austen's social satire create an entirely comfortable, therapeutic atmosphere.

Fan writers can experience guilt when they associate their writing with 'vandalising' the cultural heritage.

It is noteworthy that those authors of fan texts inspired by Russian classics who report the feelings of responsibility and guilt tend to be particularly careful with fact-checking and historically accurate speaking styles; some fans imitate the original author's technique such as the Onegin stanza. While fan texts are often eroticised, this is very rare in fanfiction based on Russian classics whose authors appear to restrain themselves out of respect for the original.

Revisited, reinterpreted and replayed over and over like a palimpsest, canon eventually generates its fan version: fanon.

Canon of Fandom

Fanon is the body of concepts and ideas used in fan fiction, including internal rules and accepted styles of canon transformation. An example of fanon is demonstrated in Season 3 of Sherlock television series, where fans of the brilliant detective come up with various theories concerning the events at the infamous Reichenbach Falls. Consistent with the 'fix-it' fanfiction style, they interpret Sherlock's disappearance by creating alternative universes in which their hero survives and fantasising about a possible pairing between Sherlock and Moriarty.

Fanon cliches are often ridiculed. 'Hermione has changed a lot over the summer' is a meme making fun of fan stories about heroines who suddenly become prettier. But most of the time, fanon is widely accepted and each new fanfic references earlier fan texts and discussions. Some fan writers explicitly frame their story as part of the collective fanon. In this sense, fanfiction serves as a lens for examining the original canon more closely, while further shaping the fanon.

Romanenko’s study of fan texts based on Russian classics reveals the critical role of fanon. Many informants had engaged in fan practices even before learning about the canonical texts in class. As a result, the students perceived Fathers and Sons or A Hero of Our Time from a fanon perspective, e.g. that based on the Warrior Cats series of adventure novels for teenagers. This mix has produced unusual fan stories, e.g. featuring Pechorin who returns from the world of the dead.

Original Worlds

A fanfic story must contribute something new while remaining consistent both with the original canon and with fanon. A balance between originality and the accepted fanon is observable even in the so-called 'original fanfiction' whose imaginary universes are not based on any existing classic. An example is Summer in a Pioneer Tie, a novel by Elena Malisova and Katerina Silvanova about love between two teenagers. Originally posted on Ficbook.net, the novel was published by Popcorn Books in 2021. But even 'original fiction' follows fanon conventions in terms of genre, typical plot moves, and emotions conveyed.

A balance of novelty and tradition in fanfiction is achieved mainly through a combination of individual and collective processes. Fan reception is always shaped through input from other fans and driven by a sense of belonging to a larger social and cultural community.

Here is how it works. Fans of a certain canonical work transform it through a series of headcanons (individual interpretations of the original content) which collectively form a fanon approved by the entire fan community. The communal nature of fanfiction also allows it to cater to most readers' expectations — something a single author is not capable of doing.

Mirror of New Cultural Matrix

Thus, fanfiction, first, is based on canon (collectively chosen films and/or literary texts), second, challenges canon, and third, creates its own interpretation of canon, i.e. fanon. To quote Jenkins, ‘fans assert their own right to form interpretations, to offer evaluations, and to construct cultural canon’.

Equal treatment of any number of alternative versions of the same story makes fanfiction resemble ancient mythology. It also bears a similarity to academic writing by containing a mix of already known and new information, such as the established theory and citations as well as novel findings.

Active audience engagement with cultural products is increasingly common. Practices once treated as 'excessive investment and the purview of socially outcast fans' (such as the incorporation of media texts into personal identity narratives and the creative rewriting and remixing of texts) are becoming less extreme and more familiar to larger audiences.

Popular culture uses transmedia products and multiple-ending stories, encouraging the audience to take an active role in creating narratives.

A boundary between canon and fanon is blurred in epic franchises such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Star Wars. The authors of the most recent series of Doctor Who admit to having been fans as children and eventually bringing their fantasies to life, and it means their work is a fanfic as well as the original.

On one hand, fanfiction chimes with the already established cultural phenomena ranging from film sequels and prequels to literary parody. On the other hand, by moving from individual imagination to collective enterprise and from author-controlled to audience-driven content, fanfiction is 'a mirror of cultural canon in the process of remaking', according to Romanenko.

Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, August 19, 2022