Interview: Francesca Coppa, “The Fanfiction Reader: Folk Tales for the Digital Age”

by Kathryn Beaton on August 29, 2017

Our author Francesca Coppa recently answered questions from our editorial director, Mary Francis, about her new book The Fanfiction Reader: Folk Tales for the Digital Age. 


When I first got the manuscript for this book I couldn’t stop reading: some of these writers are just great storytellers.  Was it hard to choose among the fanfic you know and love?

Oh, it was brutal, actually; there’s so much terrific fanfiction out there you wouldn’t believe it.  And there’s no way anyone can read all of it.  So I had to set rules very quickly. Length was a big one: these stories are all about 5,000 words. There was also the question of accessibility – there are many wonderful stories that you simply need to be immersed in the culture to “get.” I also kept the purpose of the book at the forefront of my mind: it’s for teachers and students. So I tried teaching different of stories and these were the ones that made for the best discussions. Sometimes the students’ choice surprised me: Kaneko’s *NSYNC story, “The Vacation,” was always a hit even though I thought that they wouldn’t know *NSYNC. But they got it instinctively!


How did the theme of tropes start to develop to guide your selection?

I think it’s important to note that fandom has its own literary and critical languages. One of the big points of the book is that fandom is a fully developed artworld. So I wanted to give examples of genres familiar to anyone in fandom: slash, gen, a 5 Things, an alternate universe, a racebent story, a crossover, a Mary Sue, a really meta story. This gives students a language that they can use, and it’s also interesting to think about these tropes and genres as compared to the more traditional or commercial categories developed in literature and by the entertainment industry.


You do a lot of work on behalf of artists who transform existing materials into new art via your engagement with the Organization for Transformative Works;  tell us something about why you think that is important for our society, for creative culture?

I just think that capitalism is telling some serious lies about how culture gets made! I mean, my job as an English professor is about tracking chains of influence and allusion – everybody makes stuff out of other stuff, whether it’s Virgil rewriting Homer or Kate Bush singing “Wuthering Heights” or Quentin Tarantino doing shot-for-shot remakes of the B-movies he loves. The Ramones wanted to be The Ronettes – just, who are these original artists who work in a vacuum, cutting new things from whole cloth? These ideas have nothing to do with culture-making, they’re about creating clear lines of ownership and profit. And they’re bad for art: culture is conversational. They’re also ruining the lives of regular people who want to be creative just as a way of being human–who want to sing, dance, paint, draw, tell stories, make movies, play in a band, without a waiver or a licence. I’m in favor of people doing as well as spectating, making as well as buying. Watch Dancing With The Stars, sure – but dance, too!  Don’t just watch The Poker Channel–play a hand!  Play baseball, read and write fiction, paint. Buy music, go to concerts–but don’t be afraid to be in a band or sing in the shower.  You shouldn’t need a performance licence: what kind of songwriter wants people not to find their song catchy enough to sing?


Are there parallel creative cultures of reuse out there?  Do they connect up with one another?  

Well, I think all culture is a culture of reuse, that’s my point. I think the more interesting distinction is one that Rebecca Tushnet once made: that there are some artworks where you have to squint to see the antecedents and others where it’s open, declared and obvious. In fan work, we purposefully use existing characters because, like Henry Jenkins said, they’re our contemporary myths, our folk tales, our pantheon. They just happened to be owned by corporations, but they are the figures we use to understand ourselves: Captain Kirk, Luke Skywalker, Wonder Woman. We can’t stop ourselves from embellishing and altering them: it’s ridiculous to think we’ve locked down culture after 1923. Like I say in the book, the stories that tie us together right now are not about knights but about Jedi Knights, not lords but Time Lords. So no fanfiction writer or artist is pretending to have invented Batman or Buffy when they write or paint them; similarly, in remix video, the art is in the editing and the alterations: nobody thinks that the vidder shot the original footage. My next book is about fan vidding, and it looks at how and why fans make music videos, which tend to have very different formal and thematic qualities than the works they’re made from. To edit seven years and however many episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer into a 3 minute music video that makes its audience cry is a very deliberate artistic act.


I know there is a lot of nervousness about there about using commercially successful franchises to create new art; hence all the pseudonyms in the fanfic community.  What do you think is the most misunderstood aspect of artists’ rights to create new work in this way?

For what it’s worth, I don’t think pseuds are entirely, or even mostly, about legality: there’s something wonderfully liberating about having a pen name, an art name, a play name! That said, I think that the rising visibility of fandom has clarified a couple of things for the entertainment industry. First, that fanwork doesn’t compete with the source material and in fact has no interest in doing so; rather, if you’ve got fans making fanworks about your franchise, the odds are that you (or the corporation that owns you)  are going to be very, very rich. Fanworks are part of what makes a franchise special and popular; in fact, the transformations wrought by fandom can help sell your story to people who aren’t its target audience. (Consider how fandom has made grownups care about what are essentially stories for kids: Harry Potter, Captain America, Batman, Doctor Who, etc. Now grown-up fanboys like Stephen Moffat, Russell Davies, and J.J. Abrams are writing more adult versions of these stories for a grownup market.)  Having a lot of people passionately invested in your franchise–investing themselves in it, their creativity!–is never a bad thing for the bottom line. The woman who writes Harry Potter fic is probably going to buy the books and watch the movies – and she might well take her family to the theme park and buy a wand and a t-shirt and the collected filmography of Alan Rickman. You won’t lose money on her. But all economic arguments aside, fanworks are just a basic human response to stories: creativity is contagious. Many of us dwell on stories, or retell them in our heads to make them better; if we’re critics we write reviews and articles, we make interpretations and tease out subtext. Lots of people come out of a movie wondering what comes next? Fanfiction writers are just more committed than the average bear: they actually write the stories down and share them.


There are a lot of stereotypes about fan fiction writers: which do you think are the worst, or the most unfair?

Well, the first is simply that “fan fiction” is bad: I hate it when someone says, “It’s like fan fiction!” when what they mean is, “This is sloppy or bad.”  You know what’s like fan fiction?  Hamilton: The Musical – which is a racebent alternative universe, as fan journalist Aja Romano nailed right off. You know what else is like fanfic? Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Ian McKellen’s 1995 Richard III where he sets the whole story in a 1930s-style fascist universe. Productions of The Importance Of Being Earnest where they cast Lady Bracknell as a man in drag. Books like Ahab’s Wife and Lo’s Diary and Wide Sargasso Sea–all the works where we take an old story that’s meaningful to us and use it to make a new story that’s meaningful to us.  And it’s much better to enrich and deepen the characters of King Arthur or Sherlock Holmes or Mr. Darcy or Captain America than it is to create sort of second-rate knock-offs: Rex Folder, FBI profiler and his partner Morna Tully.  This relates to a second stereotype: that fanfiction writing is a form of lazy pre-professional writing: that’s wrong on both counts. It’s not lazy; it’s not interested in doing what you think it should be doing. And in most cases it’s not pre-professional either – it’s done for the joy of the thing, and the author may already be a professional writer, in fact.  Which brings me to my last unfair thing–not that fanfiction writers are teenage girls, because many fanfiction writers are indeed teenage girls (I’m tempted to quip that fanfiction writers are teenage girls of all ages, many of us in our thirties, forties, and older) – but that the writing of teenage girls is ipso facto bad. I have written so much feedback to young women writers telling them: hey, if I’d written as well as you at your age, I would RULE THE WORLD. That said – while there are teenage girls represented in The Fanfiction Reader: Folk Tales for the Digital Age – and while I hope that students will be inspired to try their hands at writing fic themselves – many of the writers in the book also write professionally because fanfic provides its own distinct pleasures.


Are there canons of fanfic developing?  Are there particular writers, or connected stories that are well-known among fanfic writers?

God, I hope not. One of my big fears was that I would be thought to be creating a canon, when in fact what I wanted was to create what Steph Burt, reviewing my book for The New Yorker, called an on-ramp for newcomers. And as I say in the book, fandom has a way of sucking you in. The first story leads to a second. The second leads to a third – and then to the three-hundredth, the three-thousandth. And reading fanfiction has a way of leading to writing–or making art, or podficcing, or vidding, or cosplay. Canon should just be the stories you like. While there are so-called BNFs (Big Name Fans) whose stories are broadly liked within a particular fandom, it’s a shibboleth that one fandom’s BNF is another fandom’s “Never heard of her.”  Which is good, actually, because I think that it’s the sprawling, unregulated, defiantly amateur nature of fanfiction that makes people feel like they can just join in if they want to. It’s like a crazy dance floor: sure, probably some people dance better than others, but who cares? Get out there and shake your groove thing, yeah yeah. It’s a party not a performance.


The New Yorker  article you just mentioned is one of a sequence of mainstream media pieces that have come out recently on fan cultures.  Sometimes these strike me as a little safari-like (Those kids! What will they get up to next?); but is fandom going mainstream?  Or is the point that fan cultures transcend categories like “mainstream”?

I actually don’t want fandom to get too mainstream! Fandom’s crazy, chaotic nature is part of what makes it special. It’s also what gives people the confidence to come in and make stuff: people think, hey, I could do that!  I’m also not generally in favor of the commercialization of fanworks, mostly because I think people write different things for money than they do for love: that’s what amateur really means–amare means love.  That said, I’m always happy to see fan writers, artists, and vidders celebrated and appreciated as artists. This book was part of that agenda: I put it together because there are so many courses being taught in fan studies and remix and audience studies and transformation (I teach them myself at my home institution of Muhlenberg College), and I wanted fans to be seen as artists with agency and creative vision and not just as ethnographic subjects.  I’m happy that fanvids have been shown in museums and been written about in academic journals; I’m happy that there’s a flourishing Fan Studies interest group at the Society of Cinema and Media Studies.  And I’m obviously happy that the University of Michigan was willing to take on this book: it shows we’ve come a long way in demonstrating that transformative works have a legitimate place in contexts like this one.

But there are dangers, too, and tradeoffs, to this new legitimacy. Fans – female fans in particular – should be wary of doing too much unpaid work for the entertainment industry. [Editor’s note: she recently spoke about this on the podcast “Strong Opinions Loosely Held” in an episode titled “Teenage Girls Are Magic.”] They should also worry about signing away the rights to their own creativity: platforms like Kindle Worlds really tried to pull a fast one by turning fanworks into works for hire. Most fanworks are born noncommercial and will forever stay that way, but fans do have rights over their own transformative, creative work, which can sometimes evolve into a draft of something else. In terms of tradeoffs: we’re already seeing more mainstream commercial work that’s in, like, “the style” of fanwork or remix art – it’s like what happened to punk, you know?  People started buying and selling “punk” garments, Vivienne Westwood made a dress with a fake vomit stain of gold thread. Some days I feel a bit depressed when I walk into a bookstore, or Hot Topic: like, wow, the mainstream commercial world is really rushing to catch up with this and commodify it. And I feel like a bitter old punk some days (or what fans call a BOFQ – a bitter old fandom queen).  Like–yeah, okay, that TARDIS dress is cute and all, but you really should come down to the club and hear the bands play. Read this crackfic, look at that art with the tentacles. Pow!

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