Gather 'round the Campfire: Fanfiction.net and Participatory Writing
by Lucy Gillam
Ah, Fanfiction.net. Love it, hate it, but you can’t ignore it. Well, actually you can, depending on which fandoms you frequent, but it’s certainly getting more and more difficult, especially as writers who have entered fandom (or rather fanfiction) through Fanfiction.net begin to move out to mailing lists and fandom-specific web archives.
I’m sure I’m not revealing any secrets by saying that, at least in what might be termed mailing-list fandom, Fanfiction.net is not highly regarded. More precisely, the fiction found there is not highly regarded. Certainly there are good, even great, stories on ff.net, but the common wisdom is that most of what you’ll find there is dreck.
I wish I could say I was going to debunk the myth that ff.net has proportionally more dreck than your average fandom-specific archive, perhaps argue that only the greater volume overall makes it seem like there is more dreck. But I’m not. Granting that I’ve only really explored three fandoms in any depth there (Harry Potter, Batman, and LOTR, since you ask), I can safely say that I’ve seen more atrocious grammar and spelling, more hideously obvious Mary Sues, more just plain awful stories than in any fandom-specific or even multi-fandom archive.
And then there’s the author’s notes. God, the author’s notes. Notes at the end of a chapter that giggle over the cleverness of the cliffhanger. Notes that ask for direction on where the story should go (which, hey, I’m social invention girl, but to me, that’s something that happens in the rough draft stage). Notes that address the various people who’ve posted in the review sections. Worst of all are author’s notes in the text itself. These range from cute little asides (“Aren’t they adorable?”) to information (“He’s the leader of the group”), and they drive me batshit. Right smack in the middle of the story. I mean, even Terry Pratchett, who does these well, has the sense to make them footnotes. The first time I saw one of them in a list-posted story, I almost choked on my Diet Coke.
Which brings me to the inevitable part of this column where I say “however.”
However, the more stories I read on ff.net, the more I encountered these author’s notes, the more it occurred to me that I might be missing the point. Much as the notes annoyed (and still annoy) me, they point to something crucial about ff.net: whether by design or accident, fanfiction.net is less an archive in which finished stories are housed than a community in which the participatory process of constructing the story is as important if not more so than the finished product.
Participatory storytelling is nothing new. Even just confining ourselves to net fandom, IRC has become a frequent venue for either collaborative composition of stories or composition by one person that includes immediate audience reaction. As Renae points out, this can have mixed effects on the writing itself, but certainly people do do it. Author lists and blogs can sometimes serve the same function, allowing a writer to play with a story and get immediate feedback on it.
In some cases, the stories written in these ways are revised, edited, and generally polished before being submitted to a list or archive. In other cases, the writer might choose not to pursue the story, leaving it on the blog or an IRC log. However, with a few exceptions, the focus, the point if you will, is on a final product, a story which the audience participation has helped shape.
What strikes me about some of the stories on ff.net, however (and I stress this is only some), is that the participation is itself the point. The goal seems to be less using feedback to create a polished story than to have the experience of interacting with the audience. In some ways, it’s almost more like storytelling around the campfire. The point is less the story than just having fun with friends.
And again, this is nothing new: it happens in IRC, on lists, on blogs. The difference here, I suspect, is that Fanfiction.net presents the appearance of being an archive, thus leading readers to expect the conventions of other archives, which focus on the final product.
The difficulty, then, is that the reader who is not a part of that experience, particularly a reader whose goal is reading the product, is likely to be bored or even annoyed by what she sees as its intrusion into the story. Sentinel fans may recall the posting of a series of list posts to SFX and thus to the archive. The posts did contain what might be loosely considered a collaboratively authored story, but also contained jokes, comments, and various other discussion-type posts. The reaction of some readers (myself included) was that while there might have been an interesting story to be compiled and polished from the posts, we really had no interest in reading what was essentially the interaction of a list that we weren’t members of.
At the same time, if I accept my own premise, that the very conventions on ff.net that drive me batshit are what appeal to those actually participating, I do have to somewhat reevaluate my own reaction. While I don’t necessarily hold that I have to be uncritically accepting of every fannish practice, I have been on the other end of the “you shouldn’t do that” spectrum – more precisely, I’ve been in the position of enjoying an activity (namely, this one) that others object to. So I’m not about to say to those who enjoy this participatory writing experience that they should cut it the heck out just because I have no interest in it. And I’m certainly not about to walk into the space they’ve established for that activity and complain about it.
Which brings me to another “however.”
However, while I’m prepared to quit kvetching about author’s notes and other ff.net conventions, and to take responsibility for avoiding those stories on ff.net, I reserve the right to complain as they start to creep out of ff.net and on to lists.
In fairness, the only place I’ve really seen this is Harry Potter fandom, which is a fandom that is heavily represented on ff.net. And again, I generally think that lists can and should determine their own norms and practices. However (there’s that word again), I would argue that mailing lists, at least larger ones, really aren’t suited for the kind of participatory writing that occurs on ff.net. If nothing else, ff.net is set up so that a reader who isn’t interested in the participatory aspect can at least avoid the feedback entirely. Mailing lists are not designed for this: even if a member doesn’t read the feedback messages, filtering them out is difficult at best.
At the very least, I would argue that writers who began their “career” on ff.net and expand out to lists need to take the time to learn list practices and observe them. It is, of course, always a good idea to learn the conventions of any on-line community before posting, but moving from a community that focuses more on the participatory process to one that focuses on the final product may make it more crucial. This may mean figuring out which lists do (and do not) tend to have WiPs, which do (and do not) tend to have frequent public feedback.
And for the love of God, no cutesy author’s notes, okay?