Convergence Culture: Fan Fiction
(This is part 2 of a three-part post; part 1 is here.)
Enter the world of fan fiction. Fans create new content using the characters and settings of the original. This is really the heart, as Larry Lessig puts it, of the extent to which popular culture on the Internet is going to be read-only vs. read-and-write. Fan fiction predates the Internet—Textual Poachers is a 1992 work—but the Internet makes available to the world what had been private writings circulated in small groups. Jenkins focuses on Harry Potter and Star Wars.
We should start by understanding these two worlds, as defined by their creators, and then see where fan fiction fits. The Harry Potter canon consists of the six novels; two add-on books penned by Rowling for charity (Quidditch Through the Ages and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them); and the movies made of the first four books. The books are written by Rowling herself and the movies are derivative works made pursuant to licenses granted by Rowling. This is a property, if I can call it that, at an early stage in its life (though sufficiently far along that Rowling is now richer than the Queen).
In contrast, the Star Wars Extended Universe is just that: an alternative universe of characters and setting that extends far beyond the six movie “episodes.” It is hard to grasp the full extent of this, but the holocron is a good place to start. The holocron has a fictional status in the Star Wars legend, but is also the name given by Lucasfilm to the database used to track the individual creations of the Star Wars universe. As of August 24, 2006, the holocron contained roughly 27,000 entries, including 8,742 characters and 3,419 planets (I don’t know whether they still count Pluto).
The Star Wars canon is multi-tiered with the top tier—level G—defined as “anything in the films and from George Lucas (including unpublished internal notes that we might receive from him or from the film production department).” I assumed that the G stood for God, but maybe it is just George. The canon then moves to level C, meaning the content created as part of the extended universe. That universe is defined by Lucasfilm through its licensing arm; the website describes 60 million books in print and more than 60 New York Times bestsellers. Walk into a bookstore and pick up a Star Wars novel and you will see a chronology of the books available. Copyright on the book is almost certainly held by Lucasfilm, as Lucasfilm engages authors to write new authorized novels and in so doing produce new parts of the level C canon. It would be interesting to know the financial terms between Lucas and its authors (“wookies are cheap, but Boba Fett is gonna cost you extra?”).
So we have on one hand the canon, that is, the authoritative version of the story, told over multiple books and films. And then we have fan fiction. Try www.dprophet.com, an online version of The Daily Prophet, the fictional wizarding world’s only newspaper (other than perhaps The Quibbler, (think The National Enquirer for wizards)). Current stories on the online version of the Prophet cover the picketing of the Ministry of Magic by a group devoted to preserving unicorns and a discussion of the status of werewolves. Another site is the The Sugar Quill, which allows fans to post their own stories and coordinates feedback on the stories. The Sugar Quill is limited to authors who represent themselves to be 13-years old and up (though no one knows on the Internet if you are a dog), while The Daily Prophet is aimed much younger and indeed was founded by a young teenager.
How should we situate fan fiction relative to the content created or licensed by the originating authors? Here is how Jenkins sees it (p.255-56):
We might think of fan fiction communities as the literary equivalent of the Wikipedia: around any given media property, writers are constructing a range of different interpretations that get expressed through stories. ... [M]ass media has tended to use its tight control over intellectual property to reign in competing interpretations, resulting in a world in which there is one official version. Such tight controls increase the coherence of the franchise and protect the producers’ economic interests, yet the culture is impoverished through such regulation. Fan fiction repairs the damage caused by an increasingly privatized culture. ... Fans reject the idea of a definitive version produced, authorized, and regulated by some media conglomerate. Instead, fans envision a world where all of us can participate in the creation and circulation of central cultural myths.
On Monday, I will turn to fan fiction and fair use.