Fan Fiction Syllabus

I originally posted about a potential syllabus on fan fiction back in 2008 on my old blog, and thought it might be time to bring it back given my last few posts have been about teaching and developing courses I may never get to teach. Here’s what I wrote then:

Over at Cranky Epistles, the Cranky Lit Prof has a post where she complains about the fact that someone in her school wants to create a three credit course on fan fiction:

I cursed out loud in a faculty meeting. Once again, the barbarians are rattling the gates of Rome!

The subject on the table: creating a for-credit, interdisciplinary seminar around fan fiction stemming from books and films — both reading it and writing it.

Without thinking (or engaging the filter that should exist between my brain and my mouth, but often does not), I uttered, “Are you fucking kidding me?!” Shocked glances followed this desecration of academia’s amour-propre.

Aside from the copyright issues that plague the entire genre…who makes the call as to what “fandom” the readings are plucked from? Who determines what is “canon?”

What the Hell?

I’ve read fan fiction — I can admit that. There are some stunningly good authors who will never publish in the “respectable” fields, but whose work is seen by hundreds on line. Creative writing is smething to be encouraged as an artisitc outlet. However, three credits for perusing and writing reaction papers to a Harry Potter/Ron Weasley love story, or writing your own take on the subtext of a Col. O’Neill/Daniel Jackson relationship from “SG-1″ seems a bit ridiculous. Even as a cross-departmental exercise.

I made a comment on the post that I would like to expand, for the academic exercise of it all (and to procrastinate on things like writing my papers and doing laundry and cleaning). Basically, the rest of this post is my first thoughts towards creating a syllabus on fan fiction. What Crazy Lit Prof describes is not an academic class, but it could easily become one with just a little tweaking and fleshing out.

Step One: Beef up the theory. There would need to be a lot of literary theory and sociological studies of fan communities. I’d probably start with some Jameson, as well as Benjamin and Adorno (you know,Frankfurt school of cultural criticism). I’d include some of the theoretical work that’s been done in Shakespeare and Popular Culture, which is where some of the heaviest debates about appropriation and adaptation happen. We’d read some Iser and some of the more phenomenological reader response critics, maybe even Lisa Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction. Then we’d hit one or more of the academic books on fan communities: Henry Jenkin’s Textual Poachers is the classic text, but dated. A search on Amazon shows at least five books on fan fiction alone, not counting broader studies of fan communities, all published in the last three or four years. At least one of these would probably be worth using.

Step Two: Choose your fan fic carefully. Crazy Lit Prof wants to know what would be “canonical” in this class. Personally, I would probably start with fan fiction actually about canonical texts: Shakespeare, Jane Austen, The Brontes, maybe Milton. By dealing with a “real” canon of literary texts, all of which are out of copyright, you can actually require students to read fan fiction that is published: Mr. Darcy Takes a WifeThe Jane Austen Mysteries, etc. I’d probably include Jasper Fforde because while not strictly fan fiction, there are a lot of elements of fan fiction in his novels, he has a lot of commentary on appropriation and adaptation of texts, and he’s an author that seems to encourage fan fiction based on his books. Anyway, I’d pair the reading of these novels with the novels they are actually based on: with this particular list, students would have to read Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, and Hamlet. Not bad for a class that could be lacking canonical credibility.

As for TV/Film fandoms, Star Trek would be the most logical fandom to include because so much scholarly work has been done on it, and there are a substantial number of published fan novels by both professional and amateur novelists. Buffy the Vampire Slayer could also work because of all the scholarly work that has been done through Slayage. (And really: isn’t Slayage proof that there are academic fan communities? The two things do not have to be mutually exclusive!) I’d probably include an assignment that lets students choose any fandom they like and then do an analysis of it, but Crazy is right that deciding on fandoms to include could get really arbitrary.

Step Three: Spend some time talking about the problems with fan fiction. For example, Robin Hobb (major fantasy author) posted a while back on the problems she has with people writing fan fiction about her novels. Then there are the copy right issues with fan fiction. This is the section that might help make the class truly interdisciplinary. Bring in the legal debates and fights, discussions of how intellectual property work in our society, etc.

So, that’s a start on what I think a syllabus on Fan Fiction should look like. Teaching fan fiction could be a great way to talk about the relationships between texts and audiences, about reader response theory, intellectual property, communal stories, etc.

Obviously, there are some things about this syllabus I would want to update now.  I’d want to make sure Julie Sanders’ Adaptation and Appropriation was a framing text for the course.  I’d include more on intertextuality, probably in the form of Kristeva, as well as Michel de Certeau’s Practice of Everyday Life. I’d change some of the canonical fan fiction that we would read: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies on the one hand, and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries video blog on the other (just to be clear: PPZ is annoying, LBD is awesome). And so on.

But, why did I decide it was appropriate to repost this? I was at jury duty this morning, waiting to see if I would have to serve.  And because I cannot turn off my brain, I was contemplating what a class on urban fantasy might look like, and thinking especially about both the necessity and difficulty of justifying such a course to most departments (which is what made me think about the Cranky Lit Prof post). I think my justification for a course on urban fantasy would be similarly sociological and theoretical to the justification I was implicitly providing in my original defense of a truly academic class on fan fiction: we aren’t studying the texts (fan fiction or urban fantasy) for the sake of studying the texts because they are beautiful or–on some level at least–true, the way we might with Shakespeare, Milton, or other traditionally canonical texts. Instead, we are studying the texts in order to get at larger questions about our culture: why vampires and werewolves now, at this particular cultural moment? Why is this “urban” fantasy–what do space and place have to do with these stories, and why do they matter at this particular time? How do these texts fit into larger movements and issues?

I’m interested in book history for the same reasons I am interested in fan fiction and these sometimes oddly popular fantasy novels: I want to know how and why people respond to texts in the ways they do. Fan fiction, whether by writers like Milton who write canonically accepted Bible fan-fic or the writers on An Archive of Our Own, is the ultimate reader response, because it allows for much of the complexity (or lack thereof, I suppose) of a reader’s response to a text to become visible to those of us who are scholars, just the way commonplace books and marginal notes do for us who work on the sixteenth century. Purchasing histories are similarly important for understanding readers and culture, whether they are of Bibles and religious books (as in Ian Green’s Print and Protestantism in Early Modern England), or of Twilight, Sookie Stackhouse, and American Gods. This is the sociology of literature, the study of why we read what we read, and how we respond to it.