Olicity is my OTP: An exploration of literacy within the highly context specific domain of fan fiction
Author: Gemma Bothe, University of Western Australia
The ability to communicate effectively in an online fan fiction website requires users to have a number of literacies. In this paper I seek to show that being digitally literate and language literate are not sufficient to be able to effectively participate within a fan fiction community. Participation in fan fiction requires a participant to be both digitally literate, English language literate, as well as fandom literate. Therefore, I will demonstrate that although aspects of digital literacy and English Language Literacy can be universal, being literate in any domain online is highly context specific. I conclude by arguing that being culturally literate in any situation is not simply a matter of being literate in a particular area or skill set; but involves the ability to be literate (or competent) in a way that is context specific.
* All names underlined in this paper are screen names used by individuals who participate in fan fiction.
Literacy is an awareness, attitude and ability to use tools to engage, create and interact (Black, ‘Language’). In everyday life, language literacy is used often used to describe a competency in engaging and negotiating a particular skill, whether related to language, technology, or particular cultural knowledge. The concepts of digital literacy and language literacy are routinely promoted within the Australian education system. This promotion, however, hinges upon the notion that types of literacy are broad universal concepts. Despite aspects of digital literacy and English language literacy (ELL) being universal, being literate in any domain is highly context specific (Horst and Miller; Miller; Miller and Slater). The specificity of some literacies are glaringly obvious; the ability to read a neuro-scientific paper requires knowledge of jargon, terminology used, how academic papers in that discipline are structured, and background knowledge of the subject. While the ability to navigate an educational institutions website requires knowledge of how subjects are characterised, labelled, and organised. Contextual information is necessary to understand and interpret the information presented. Like these examples, engagement with fan fiction requires individuals to understand and engage with the context in which they are taking part. Although fan fiction is a part of a practice that people have always participated in, storytelling, engagement with stories online through the lens of fandoms highlights how all practices occur within a specific cultural context. Fan fiction and fandom literacy frame the ways in which the tools of English language and digital literacy are used and refined.
Black (‘Adolescents’ p24) states that “literacy… might may carry and transmit a wealth of historical and ideological perspectives that play a part in reproducing social and material contexts…” Black is stating that literacy is affected by, and affects the construction of the social world surrounding it. In regards to fan fiction, the context surrounding both digital and English language literacy is the fandoms and online fan fiction space in which the fan fiction stories are disseminated and engaged with. The ways in which these online fan fiction spaces are organised and negotiated are predicated upon cultural knowledge and norms. In light of this I seek to show that being fan fiction literate is not simply a matter of being generically digitally literate and ELL, but requires individuals to engage with these literacies within the context of being fan fiction and fandom literate.
What is fandom and what is fan fiction?
First, a brief explanation of what fandom and fan fiction (also written as fanfiction, fan fic, and ff) are. A fandom is the community of fans that surround a television show, book, movie, or other kind of media. For example; the fandom around the television series Arrow would include those that are involved with fan fiction, who attend fan conventions, cosplay, follow the actors or actresses on social media, produce fan art, or actively engage with the media in some way. Engaging with fan fiction is just one way in which individuals can be part of a fandom.
There are varied definitions of fan fiction that exist (Black Global Identities; Black Language ; Busse; Derecho; Hetcher; Matthew and Adams; Stein; Tosenberger; Wilkinson; Young; Jenkins Textual Poachers; Jenkins Media Convergence; Schaffner); however, at its most basic, fan fiction can be described as a written story based on a pre-existing work, generally known as the canon. For example, a story could be written where Harry Potter is actually Harriet Potter, where Sherlock and Watson are romantic partners, or a story that explores life after marriage for Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. According to Schaffner, “at its core, fanfiction is simply the practice of writing fiction based on other people’s work (164).” Fan fiction can, and often is written about any story that can be thought of. There is fan fiction on Home and Away, Pride and Prejudice, Glee, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Marvel’s Avengers and many many more.
Numerous pre-existing definitions of fan fiction predicate themselves on constructed dichotomies such as; professional vs. unprofessional, commercial vs. non-commercial and quality writing vs. amateur writing. A sufficient examination of these dichotomies would require extensive exploration, and is not possible within this article. Therefore, for the purpose of this paper, I will be using the term fan fiction to refer to written texts, produced for a non-commercial purpose, that have been posted on an online fan fiction site that is, or is similar to, sites such as archiveofourown.org (AO3), and fanfiction.net (ff.net, or fanfic.net).
Fan fiction stories can range in length from a few hundred words, called a drabble, to full novel length stories. The James Potter series by G. Norman Lippert is now four, novel length stories that have been written about the adventures of Harry Potter’s son. Originally written in English, these stories have now been translated into several languages, and are widely distributed online in a variety of formats, including through their own website
Fan fiction is commonly distributed online through an assortment of websites. Community sites such as AO3, and fanfic.net, are dedicated to a fan fiction from a variety of canons. Additionally there are websites dedicated to a particular canon. For instance, the websites, The Derbyshire Writers’ Guild, The Meryton Assembly and The Republic of Pemberley, are all websites dedicated to Jane Austen fan fiction. Other web forums, such as the micro blogging sites LiveJournal and Tumblr, are also used. On these sites, personal pages are created and then used to post fan fiction. LiveJournal is no longer particularly popular, while use of Tumblr is rapidly growing. Fan fiction participants often use a combination of these sites at the same time; posting stories on one site, and then later reposting them on another. Participant’s site preferences often change over time with readers and writers moving between sites.
Engagement with fan fiction can occur in several ways; individuals can read fan fiction works that are posted, write fan fiction works, participate in the community boards and conversation threads, or beta read for another fan fiction writer. All these avenues of engagement require different levels of participation; however they do all necessitate a level of competency in ELL, digital literacy, fan fiction literacy and fandom literacy.
English Language Literacy
A large majority of fan fiction written on both AO3 and ff.net is in English. The interfaces of both ff.net and AO3 are also written in English, although ff.net does allow Google Translate to convert the page into other languages. A basic level of written ELL is required to engage in fan fiction on these sites; however the level of competency in written English can vary greatly. Rebecca Black (Adolescents; Global Identities; Language), and others, (Lewis, Black and Tomlinson) have written extensively on how adolescents utilise fan fiction as an avenue for assisting learning English as a second language. This sentiment, as it applies to adolescents, could arguably be extended to all those that participate in fan fiction of a variety of ages. Black (Adolescents) outlines how adolescents use writing fan fiction as low stakes writing, which places no external pressures though official networks such as school or language classes. Individuals of any age who write fan fiction are able to practice their writing skills, while receiving feedback from the community in which they are distributing their stories.
Below is an excerpt from a fan fiction story titled when kurt has a problem written about the television show Glee. Glee is set around a show choir at the fictional William McKinley High in Ohio and the individuals within the choir.
kurt was glad that he had been given the role of the councellor but he couldnt help feeling a pang of jealousy when blaine was given drama teacher, but he pushed his feeling to one side andcongradulated his boyfriend. blaine told kurt that he would come to his office at lunch and they could go to luch together. kurt nodded and then went to his office that reminded him very much of a broom cupboard. he felt glad he had come back to mckinley.
“hi plase come in a what can i do for you,” he said with a smile on his face. the girl came and sat in a chair and kurt could see that she was having trouble starting the convosation. however, she did finally speak.
(purple5901) [Text is reproduced here as it was published on ff.net]
As you can see from the extracts above the writer’s story contains a variety of structural, grammatical, and narrative mistakes. The story is understandable, but the lack of grammar makes the story difficult to engage with. Despite this, the story has still received three reviews, one “fav” (where a reader marks the story as a work they have really enjoyed), and two “follows” (the website sends the reader an email notifications when a new chapter is published on the site). According to the writer’s profile, they have not participated in fan fiction for long, having joined fanfiction.net in April 2013, and written 11 short stories for a variety of fandoms since then.
This can then be compared to the level of ELL displayed by the fan fiction writer an-extraordinary-muse. an-extraordinary-muse’s profile states that she has been engaged in various fandoms on ff.net since 2005, and has been writing on and off during that period. Here is an excerpt of one of her stories We Might be Hollow (But We’re Brave), based on the television series Arrow. The story has received 255 reviews, was “faved” by 161 people and “followed” by 371 people.
Six days Felicity has been here, locked in the grey room that has become her prison and denied anything more than some water and a few slices of bread; just the bare minimum to keep her alive. She only knows how much time has passed because he tells her- because every day when he comes to visit, he kneels in front of her and watches her with that one cold eye as he tells her what truth he’s going to teach her.
She was taken from the street outside her apartment six days ago, and as far as she knows there’s been no rescue attempt. Digg and Oliver have never taken this long before; that knowledge and the lack of nourishment have steadily eroded what little hope she started out with.
Felicity is coming to terms with the very real possibility that she won’t be getting out of this one.
(an-extraordinary-muse) [Text is reproduced here as it was published on ff.net]
The story is generally grammatically correct, and as evidenced by the audience reaction to the story, highly engaging. Fan fiction writers, Lolliliscious, redtoes and an-extraordinary-muse have all commented during interviews that they are often embarrassed, or “can’t believe” the quality of the first fan fiction stories they wrote and posted online. Since their first story, through practice, the feedback of reviewers and in some cases the assistance of beta reader they have refined their writing, and storytelling skills.
Fan fiction stories are usually posted one chapter at a time. Chapters can range from few hundred words to several thousand. Standard practice amongst fan fiction writers is to leave a period of time from a couple days to, in some cases several months, between posting a new chapter. Individuals learn to write stories in short episodic chapters, to not include character descriptions, or engage in world building practices. Readers then engage with fan fiction in an serialized way, much like how episodes of television shows are aired. These practices exist due to the background knowledge that participants of a particular fandom are assumed to have. This background knowledge usually includes all of the material that is available from the canon. This information could be superficial knowledge; such as, Felicity Smoak, a character from the television series Arrow, loves red wine, and mint chocolate ice cream, to information pertinent to the plot for example Oliver Queen, from the same series, familial and personal background, or information in regards to the “rules” of the universe, such as the existence of superpowers. This assumed knowledge results in writers not including character descriptions and relationships, descriptions of setting, explanations of the “world” in which the characters live and past plot information; as the writers assume that the reader will be familiar with this information. The outcome of these practices is that fan fiction writers construct stories in a way that is not only fan fiction specific but fandom specific.
Lilbit846 describes fan fiction reading and writing as “instant gratification”. Writers launch immediately into plot points, and do not have to provide context in terms of setting, descriptions, and characters, unless it diverges from the canon. This can be seen in the extracts provided earlier. For example in the fan fiction when kurt has a problem it is not explained that in the canon Kurt was a student at William McKinley High school who experienced intense bullying due to his sexual orientation. In the story, the student who entered into Kurt’s office goes on to say she thinks she may be gay and is not sure how to talk to her friends and family about this. Background knowledge of Kurt’s character is important to fully understand the scenario that the writer is trying to portray. This is also evident in the fan fiction We Might be Hollow (But We’re Brave) as the writer does not provide descriptions of the characters, or their relationship to each other. Additionally she assumes that the readers will know who Felicity is, and recognise Slade Wilson (the antagonist) as the man who has kidnapped her. If this story was read without having watched the television series Arrow, specifically without having watched the show until episode 9 of the second series, the reader would most likely be left confused, and unable to understand the plot. Writers of fan fiction implicitly assume that the readers of these stories are current fans of the canon. Knowledge of the canon on which the story is based then becomes necessary to understanding and engaging with fan fiction stories that are written. Writing stories this way is common practice.
Fan fiction’s historical roots in fan based magazines (fanzines) and letter writing has been well documented (Jenkins Textual Poachers; Coppa). Today, fan fiction is primarily engaged with online (Busse and Hellekson); therefore, a base level of digital literacy is required to be able to begin interaction with fan fiction. Digital literacy is generally understood to be an ability to understand and use information from a variety of digital sources. Koltay (216) describes four core competencies of digital literacy; internet searching, hypertext navigation, knowledge assembly, and content evaluation. Both fanfic.net and AO3 rely on the individual to have the basic knowledge to navigate hyperlinks, be able to search the site for content that interests the individual, and the ability to determine what would or would not be of interest. These competencies are necessary to access fan fiction websites such as ff.net and AO3, as well as to negotiate the way in which these pages are organised. Again, like ELL, digital literacy is refined and engaged with in fan fiction through the fannish context in which the interaction takes place. Much of how the information is organised on ff.net and AO3 has occured through a fannish frame. In order to have the ability to navigate these sites effectively, despite an ability to navigate most websites, an
individual needs to have knowledge of the context in which they are in.
Many participants have commented that their first engagement with fan fiction is through ff.net. Simply because, as fan fiction writer a-contradiction stated “when you type fan fiction into Google ff.net is pretty much the first thing that pops up”, resulting in many fan fiction participants beginning their engagement with fan fiction through the website. The ff.net website engages in a system of categorisation and organisation of fan fiction stories. Fanfiction.net sorts fiction into two distinct categories one which they label “Fanfiction”, and one as “Crossovers”. Stories placed in the Fanfiction category only engage with a single canon, while stories placed in Crossovers are able to engage with two canons. Within these categories, stories are initially organised according to medium of distribution and then canon; rather than genre, length, rating or any other category. Access to these stories is through the navigation of hypertext links. Readers can sort the stories through the use of drop down filters that allow an individual to filter for a specific character, length of story, rating, genre, language, or when the story was updated last, within the selected canon. Only options that have been entered in by the website can be filtered for, individuals cannot search for a character or category that has not been acknowledged by the website.
The way in which the website determines the organisation of the fan fiction stories stored there directs the ways in which fans think about fan fiction stories, as well as being informed by them. The hierarchy in which ff.net organises the categorisation of these stories places the greatest importance upon the medium of distribution and canon of the text. The characters, rating, genre or language are all placed in a subordinate position, to be only considered once the canon has been selected.
The division of fandoms based on the canon’s medium of distribution is also present in AO3. Like ff.net these hyperlinks then take the user to a list of canons. The organization of works into the categories of the medium and canon reinforces and constructs the way in which individuals engage with fan fiction. It places an emphasis on the canon, and forces participants to orientate themselves within fan fiction along these lines. The sites assume that individuals will be searching for a story based around a particular television show, movie, or book; rather than be searching for a particular genre of story. This demonstrates the importance that fandom places upon the canon of the text. As both ff.net and AO3 initially sort stories by canon, for the users this suggests that this is a primary categorisation by fans.
The organisation of stories through the website AO3 takes a slightly alternative format to fanfic.net. The home page of AO3 highlights a notice from the creators of the site rather than clickable links. Several individuals, lilbit846, Michael, and JD have commented that they have found navigating AO3 more difficult than the format used on ff.net. Michael and a-contradiction have even stated that they are “used to” the way that ff.net works, and are reluctant to learn how to use another website that is organised differently. One of the main differences between AO3 and ff.net is that AO3 is primarily organised through a tagging system. Attached to each story is a series of words, characters, and phrases that the author can choose to link to the story. All of these words or phrases become “tags” that are hyperlinked. Individuals can choose to use any word or phrase they choose, whether it is commonly used or not. For example, SpicyPepper_SweetSugar’s story Alternative uses tags such as “olicity-freeform”, “Mentions of 2×13”, “post2x13 au”, “AU”, “Team Arrow friendship”, “Friendship”, “Love”, and “unestablished relationship.” This allows a level of autonomy for how fan fiction participants wish to categorise their stories, as well as allowing for categorisations to “bubble up” from the fan fiction participants themselves, rather than being determined by the website administrators. The tagging system also allows for terms, and labels that are distinct to both fan fiction, and the fandom is question to be used in the ordering and characterisation of the stories posted on AO3, resulting in readers needing to recognise and understand these terms in order to be able to locate and identify fan fics they wish to consume.
Fan fiction and fandom literacy
Many of the tags used on AO3 use a series of terms that are specific to fan fiction, and fandoms. Terms such as canon, fanon, beta reader, kudos, favs, follows, slash, ship, AU, AH, crack, flash fic, OCC, OC, oneshot, OPT, post 2.14 and many more, are all terms that fan fiction readers and writers use on a regular basis in order to convey information about the story that they are engaged with. Understanding these terms allows fan fiction writers to signal to those reading fan fictions what their story is about, how it was written, the genre of the story, the romantic pairing that will happen in the story, and where the story sits in term of the canon timeline. These terms are usually used in author’s notes (A/N or AN) at the beginning or end of each chapter posted on ff.net and AO3, or used in the tagging system on AO3. Many of these terms, or phrases are standard, and used by the majority of fandoms, or adjusted to convey fandom specific information. For example, in the AN at the beginning of We Might be Hollow (But We’re Brave) (an-extraordinary-muse) she states that she “uses 2×09 as a kicking off point, but no real spoilers.” This is used to warn readers that the story may contain spoilers if they have not seen episodes of Arrow up until this point, as well as to orientate the reader as to the context of the characters, and storyline. These terms serve as tools to assist readers in filtering the fan fiction stories written about a particular canon.
Many phrases are quite common, and their use standardised. For example, the forward slash (/), as in, Oliver Queen/Felicity Smoak, is used to denote a romantic relationship between the two characters, while an & symbol between the two names indicates a non-romantic relationship. However, fandoms more often refer to romantic relationships through the creation of a portmanteau name that is specific to the fandom. Olicity indicates the romantic pairing of Oliver Queen and Felicity Smoak in the television series Arrow; Outlaw Queen is the romantic pairing of Robin Hood and The Evil Queen in the television series Once Upon A Time. The acronyms AU and AH are used to indicate that the story is based in an “alternative universe” or with an “alternative history” retrospectively. For example, one of the main characters in Arrow was killed at the end of the first season. There is now a significant amount of AU or AH stories tagged on AO3 as “Tommy Lives!” or “Alive Tommy”.
More general acronyms and conventions such as AU, AH, forward slash (/), couple names, or season and episode numbers are used across fandoms on these websites, and can be easily recognisable for their general meaning. However, specific meanings require knowledge of the fandom, and trends within the fandom. Without having watched the second series Arrow the tag “post 2×13”, does not provide the reader with additional knowledge about when the story is set. The general use of acronyms across fandoms, and fan fiction sites demonstrates a general organisation and categorisation of fan fiction works. Recognising these labels and being able to navigate them is reliant upon being knowledge of fan fiction culture. However; giving meaning to these labels is dependent upon the individual being literate within a particular fandom.
Knowledge of fan fiction conventions, the fandom, English language literacy, and digital literacy are all required to be able to effectively navigate the organisation and engage with fan fiction. Without being basically English language or digitally literate, individuals would not be able to initiate interaction with fan fiction, or fan fiction communities online. Although these generic literacies are needed to initiate interaction, the social and organisational context of the fan fiction sites influences the way in which literacies are developed. This results in context specific knowledge. Individuals learn to write stories in short episodic chapters, to not include character descriptions, or engage in world building practices. The ability to navigate hyperlinks and searches on either AO3 or ff.net requires fannish background knowledge in order to be able to understand terms, acronyms, and organizational categories. These skills are refined through continued engagement, resulting in increasing ease in participation, as context specific knowledge and skills are gained. The fan fiction and fandom literacy is the context that shapes how digital and ELL literacies are used and engaged with, resulting in the development and engagement of these literacies being context specific.
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About the Author
Gemma Bothe is a PhD Candidate at the University of Western Australia in the departments of Anthropology & Sociology and Communications. Her work is focussing on online fan fiction communities and the ways in which fan fiction participants interact.
 Cosplay: an abbreviation of ‘costume play’. A form of performance art which involves individuals wearing costumes, accessories and props to represent a from any kind of media including; anime, manga, film, television, and comic books.
 A beta reader functions much like an editor. The term beta reader is an appropriation from computer programming. When a computer programme is ‘in beta’ it is a semi-final draft version of the programme that is released to selected individuals for testing, to find any problems with the programme. A beta reader in fan fiction reads over the fan fiction before it is released to the general public, to find any grammatical, typographical, or plot problems with the story.