Fan Fiction is What a Polity of Literature Looks Like

Fan Fiction is What a Polity of Literature Looks Like

The 23rd piece in the Polity of Literature series considers which metaphors are best-suited to the writing and reading of fan fiction.

In “fan fiction” the readers of popular stories, such as Star Trek and Harry Potter, write their own invented episodes, torquing the “original” to serve their concerns and preferred narratives. It’s not merely, as Michel de Certeau described, “reading as poaching,” but a wholesale reinvention of the relationship between writers, readers, and texts. In fan fiction, to read is also to rewrite, so that both activities become inherently political—practices negotiated within a conflicted plurality.

Fan fiction is what a polity of literature looks like. While it might sound like an outlier or a niche, fan fiction is so strikingly similar to the essential operations of interactive gaming that one could reasonably argue that it is the dominant mode, by far, in the current encounter of readers, writers, and texts.

After de Certeau, and following scholar Henry Jenkins’s influential 1992 book of the same name, fan fiction writers called themselves “textual poachers.” But other metaphors proliferated, and, as American “fanfic” scholar and writer Juli Parrish argues here, it matters which ones we use as we try to understand our political experience as readers and writers. Parrish looks back, before Jenkins, to a less well-known scholar, Constance Penley, who borrowed from de Certeau the more complex metaphor of “Brownian motion,” a term in physics for all of the minor, invisible events that are only ever seen in tiny shifts on the macro scale (as in the weather).

Parrish argues that this metaphor—Brownian motion—correctly focuses our attention on processes, like literature, and not on heroic actors, such as “poachers” and “authors” and “the writer.” In a polity of literature, riven with Brownian motion, we focus on our collective achievements, not on who gets to claim ownership of them.

He felt like he were missing a limb. He hadn’t realised just how much a part of him Draco had become; it wasn’t just his mind that now felt too empty but every part of him. Even his bloody toes missed Draco.

It surprised him just how potent the physical affects were, alongside the mental ones. It was almost like a layer of clothing that he’d been wearing day in and day out had been stolen away from him, leaving him cold and unprotected. God, he and Draco really had been wrapped up in the link together, more than he’d truly realised.

It was ridiculous really, how Harry was loathe to let go of Draco’s hand even to let him through the portrait hole as they reached it. It was like he now needed the physical connection with him to make up for the loss of the mental one. Draco didn’t seem to mind; the moment they were through the portrait hole he reached out for Harry’s hand again, threading their fingers together and then holding on with his other hand for good measure as well.

— Sara Holmes, “Mental”, Archive of Our Own[1]

This description of Harry Potter reflecting on his intense physical connection with ostensible nemesis Draco Malfoy appears nowhere in any of the seven books of J.K. Rowling’s series. Instead, it is part of a 32-chapter work of “fan fiction,” a story that takes the familiar characters and settings of the Harry Potter books and rewrites them in ways that diverge, sometimes radically, from Rowling’s series. The author, Sara Holmes, published this story on the fan fiction site Archive of Our Own and has attracted thousands of readers.

Fan fiction is a form of reading—writing one’s own “original” story based on or interacting with the source text in some way—that erases the line dividing writers and readers. For many years, it has been considered to be an exemplary case of Michel de Certeau’s “reading as poaching.” Far from being passive consumers of various media franchises and cultural products, fans—of television shows, graphic novels, fiction, sci-fi, anime—produce texts of all kinds: discussion, interpretations, scholarly work, literary criticism, and fan fiction. Scholars have suggested any number of metaphors to try to capture the position and work of the fan: minstrel, performer, steward, pilgrim, apprentice, gamekeeper, and puppeteer, to name just a few.[2] But no metaphor for media fans has been as persistent as that of “textual poachers,” a vision of the textual and media fan that Henry Jenkins crystalized in his landmark 1992 book of the same name.

A drawing of 10 pennants, each with a different saying on it.

Building on Michel de Certeau’s notion of “reading as poaching,” Jenkins described fans as desirous readers whose every act of media consumption is also an act of invention. Fans are readers who don’t just acknowledge the “indefinite plurality of meanings” that de Certeau notes any text allows, but who actively create those meanings. Fan fiction writers—Jenkins’ textual poachers—see in texts countless “what-if” moments. They take something a text has offered to us as inevitable—a plot, a character trait, a setting—and unmake it. They branch off into new stories that weren’t part of the original; they fill in gaps they’d like to see; they transplant familiar characters into entirely new time periods and realities: Harry Potter goes to Narnia; or, in the classic example that prompted some of the earliest academic work on fan fiction—Captain Kirk and Dr. Spock are not just colleagues on the S. S. Enterprise, but lovers.

Fans collapse the distinctions between reading and writing. Their work, usually unpublished and unpaid, is posted on internet forums or sometimes printed and bound samizdat-style and read by like-minded fans. Their reading creates new possibilities, inventing new relationships between things as they are and things as they might be.

In this way, we might say that the creative work of fans demonstrates one way that readers contribute to and create a polity of literature, in which, as the essay that launched this series argues, “every reader has full and equal authority to make meanings” (“Potatoes or Rice”). The metaphors we use to describe these operations offer us a way to consider how a polity of literature is sustained, joined, and activated by countless small acts of reading and writing, as well as by the literary landscape that published authors create.

The Inventive Work of Textual Poaching

Adapting Michel de Certeau’s claim, in The Practice of Everyday Life, Jenkins described his “textual poachers” as, “readers who appropriate popular texts and reread them in a fashion that serves different interests, as spectators who transform the experience of watching television into a rich and complex participatory culture” (Jenkins 1992, p. 23). Jenkins takes care to distinguish his model of fan activity from what he calls “the passivity and alienation” that de Certeau observed in his chapter, “Reading as Poaching.” De Certeau constructs writing as an activity that happens in time and space, one that can be documented and preserved and that achieves a kind of agency, “resist[ing] time by the establishment of a place and multiply[ing] its production through the expansionism of reproduction” (1984, p. 174). By contrast, reading, de Certeau wrote, “does not keep what it acquires, or it does so poorly” (174). De Certeau’s sense of reading as poaching rests in this distinction: that writers actually make and inhabit a landscape, while readers are only travelers—nomads and poachers—who pass through the “private hunting reserve[s]” of texts, as if through a physical territory, taking what they need or want, but unable to put down roots or raise their own stock.

Jenkins’ textual poachers have more agency than that. Jenkins resists the ultimate separation between reader and writer, suggesting instead that “fan practices blur the distinction between reading and writing” (1992, p. 155). He argues that fans who engage in speculation, criticism, and fictionalizing are not only active readers but indeed writers, whose “scribbling in the margins” of media texts constitutes an explicit counter-position to de Certeau’s claims. De Certeau envisions a reader who, although able to recombine textual fragments in unintended ways, is always under the thrall of the media, which “extend their power over his imagination, that is, over everything he lets emerge from himself into the nets of the texts” (176). Jenkins’s poacher is, by contrast, an active agent, making choices about what to take, what to criticize, and what to reinvent.

In scholarship, it is well established that Jenkins’s “textual poaching” was a game-changing concept. Another writer, Camille Bacon-Smith, also published a book-length study of fan fiction writers in 1992, but academic scholarship has tended to privilege Jenkins’ version of fans as well-intentioned transgressors. Many scholars identify the reading of Textual Poachers as foundational to their own interest in fan studies (Aden 1999; Lancaster 2001; Hills 2002). Sara Gwenllian Jones (2003) writes that, in fact, “it has become something of an orthodoxy for scholars to elevate television fans to the status of modern-day Robin Hoods, folk heroes busily snatching back ‘our’ popular cultural texts from the greedy global conglomerates who claim to own them” (p. 163).

Robin Hood holds a bow and arrow, standing in a forest where the leaves are replaced with books.

Jenkins has acknowledged that the metaphor of “textual poachers” took hold in the 1990s because it “had resonance within the academy, particularly within a leftist academy that wants to identify things as guerilla semiotics, underground, resistant, and so forth, and because once it was fully understood, it had resonance in the fan community which also wanted to see itself in those terms and who could link the metaphor, ‘poaching,’ to Robin Hood” (1996, p. 266). This widespread appeal—to both scholars and fans—made sense; textual poaching is an apt metaphor for those who want to reframe and celebrate the work of fan artists and writers, to position them and their acts of reading as original and inventive.

The metaphor has persisted over three decades, even as we have complicated our understanding of fans, who they are and what they do, and how they negotiate multiple fictional universes and diverse digital spaces. It’s not a perfect metaphor (Jenkins himself said so in a 2012 essay) in that it focuses our attention on the individual actors who poach from texts in order to create their own stories and art. Although it leaves undisturbed the idea that those who “own” a preserve remain in control of their property, it is clear that fans don’t just take, they invent: the stories they encounter are stories that they take ownership of, that they find countless ways to retell. Individual fan fiction writers may be doing something quite small—revising a story offered to them—but they are in that moment helping to build a polity of literature by contributing to a vast network of shared stories that sustain other readers.

The Collective Process of Brownian Motion

Even before Jenkins developed the influential concept of the textual poacher, another cultural studies scholar drew a different metaphor from de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life. Constance Penley found in de Certeau’s consideration of “Brownian motion” a concept that could organize her analysis of fan fiction, in the 1991 essay, “Brownian Motion: Women, Tactics, and Technology.” Brownian motion is a term in physics, used to describe the almost immeasurable minor movements of nearly invisible things, which, together, effect observable phenomena by causing changes that appear to have no cause. Weather systems are a festival of Brownian motions. Constance Penley applied this as a metaphor for the myriad writings of fans, and the effects they can have on the “macro texts.”  As Jenkins would  do a year later, she focused largely on fans of Star Trek and similarly ascribed to them great critical and creative agency. Penley celebrated the ways in which female fans resist and rewrite storylines, suggesting that “slash fiction writers” (writing about same-sex, romantic relationships between characters who often were not involved romantically in the source text) were engaged in a process of Brownian motion: a kind of creative guerilla action in which fans rewrite the relationships in the stories they take in.

Some typewriter keys float above a pair of hands. Arrows connect various keys.

Penley was deeply interested in a gendered reading of slash fan fiction, arguing that Star Trek slash fiction focuses more on technologies of the body than of the spaceship. Slash writers are more likely to focus on men having babies than on, say, the intricacies of warp drive; more likely to write about emotional turmoil than intergalactic battle. In other words, as Penley put it in her 1997 book NASA/Trek: Popular Science and Sex in America, “slash writing devotes as much time to inner space as to outer space” (p. 148). Emotional ties, friendships and romantic entanglements, family and community structures—these become the machinery of slash writing for Penley. More broadly, where de Certeau suggests that acts of reading ultimately leave no trace, Penley argued that fan readings are subversive cultural acts that can result in permanent cultural products: literally, fanzines, but also a revised and ongoing understanding of complex sets of relationships among genders, cultures, and technologies, among textual and media producers and the audiences who receive and resist them.

As a metaphor, Brownian motion has also found many applications in market analysis, flood and drought prediction, or other arenas in which it is useful to have a model that can represent changes in an unpredictable system over time. For a long time, many scientists held that “Brownian motion is much too weak and much too slow to have major (if any) consequences in the macro world” (Holden and Kelly 2005), which might help explain how the reference worked for de Certeau. In his text, the Brownian motions of readers are ultimately unproductive—reading is a process in which weaker agents bump up against more powerful agents in ways that don’t change anything and are invisible to the eye.

De Certeau could not have anticipated that in our time Brownian motion would be identified as a major factor in nanotechnology, which relies on minute movements in place of larger, more visible ones to aid in the process of assembly at the biomolecular level. In many ways, Constance Penley’s use of the metaphor anticipated the new understanding in physics: that no line divides the micro from the macro and that Brownian motions might be capable of much greater effects. Penley asks us to apply that framework to the collective energy of fans whose work negotiates and transforms the cultural systems they encounter. The process of Brownian motion makes possible ongoing change to the way things are. Further, the concept of Brownian motion itself, decoupled from its associations with tactics and power structures, offers us a glimpse of a nearly invisible process, an apparently random set of movements that on their own seem to amount to little but can be harnessed to produce and predict how things might be.

Why didn’t Penley’s metaphor gain the traction that textual poaching had? Any number of reasons could account for the difference in reception and circulation, from marketing to medium to circumstance. My own speculation would be that the robust Robin Hood figure that textual poaching calls to mind is familiar and appealing; it’s a narrative that we can understand, and it suited the transgressive sensibility of cultural studies work on fans in the early 1990s. Unlike popular metaphors that have centred fans—textual poachers foremost among them—Brownian motion centres processes, and in the context of fan fiction, a focus on processes might let us see more easily the making and unmaking of texts and textual relationships that happens when fans exert agency in their acts of reading.

The Practice of Building the Polity

I have been discussing metaphors that attempt to capture the work that fans do: fan fiction writers and media fans who create stories based on other people’s characters and who post those stories on the internet to be read by relatively small audiences of fans who share their interests. These are fans of science fiction and fantasy, anime and graphic novels, young adult dystopic fiction, and cable television shows. They may not be writers who see themselves as doing anything particularly revolutionary, or who see themselves as “reaching for an impossible imaginary,” as in the call to action that frames the Polity of Literature series. So, how can such simple acts of reading and writing matter?

The scholar John Fiske has noted that de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life is marked by “a series of metaphors of conflict—particularly ones of strategy and tactics, of guerilla warfare, of poaching, of guileful ruses and tricks. Underlying all of them is the assumption that the powerful are cumbersome, unimaginative, and overorganized, whereas the weak are creative, nimble, and flexible” (1989, p. 6). Both Henry Jenkins’ image of textual poachers and Constance Penley’s vision of Brownian motion offer us ways to understand and amplify the work of the “creative, nimble, and flexible” fans they study. Jenkins shows us the individual agent who takes in order to create, while Penley shows us the effects of that creation: the collective energy and result of so many readers doing so much writing, sometimes in isolation, sometimes in conversation with other readers, always in conversation with the texts they have encountered and want to revise.

The inaugural essay in this series, “Potatoes or Rice,” poses a question: “Lacking the robust physical immediacy that is so useful for politics, what will help literature fully host its contentious plurality of readers and writers?” One answer comes from Stephanie Burt’s 2017 New Yorker piece on fan fiction, in which she wrote that “fanfic requires neither cultural capital nor much actual capital to make. You don’t have to take a class, or move to the city, or find an angel, or find an agent; most of your readers may never know your offline name. For all these reasons, fanfic can give its creators a powerful sense of participatory equality.” Fan fiction makes everyone a potential author, able to contribute their own imperfect contribution.

A woman holds up the character Spock, who is typing on a laptop.

To write fan fiction is to re-author a story that already has a place in the vast landscape of literature, even if we might not think of it as “literary,” even if we might not think of this writer as an “author.” It is to claim a place, to assert one’s own right to storytelling. Perhaps most importantly, it is to refuse to accept that the stories one has received must be left as they are: unquestioned, unchanged. And reading fan fiction involves allowing oneself to revel in the what-if’s and might-have-beens that come when people can encounter the familiar stories and characters as new, each time. In this, fan fiction confronts us with both the “lived experience” and the “bold provocation” that the Polity of Literature inquiry invokes—the lived experience of readers who write; and the provocation their texts pose to bodies of work that can seem static or finished, yet become open and available to those who are willing to take up their own pens. Fan fiction reminds us that the polity of literature includes an invitation to universal authorship: all readers are welcome to contribute, to resist and rewrite the texts that they encounter. To participate.


1 This excerpt comes from Sara Holmes’ “Mental,” a Harry/Draco fanfic, published on Archive of Our Own. Archive of Our Own

[2] To read more about the metaphors scholars have suggested to understand media fans, see these texts: minstrel (Hellekson 1997), performer (Lancaster 2001), steward (Davis and Brewer 1997), pilgrim (Aden 1999), apprentice (Borah 2002), gamekeeper (Hills 2002; Bury 2008), puppeteer (Pugh 2005).


A longer version of this piece appeared as “Metaphors We Read By: People, Process, and Fan Fiction” in the journal Transformative Works and Cultures, volume 14, September 2013.

Works Cited

Aden, Roger C. 1999. Popular Stories and Promised Lands: Fan Cultures and Symbolic Pilgrimages. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Bacon-Smith, Camille. 1992. Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Booth, Paul. 2010. Digital Fandom. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

Borah, Rebecca Sutherland. 2002. “Apprentice Wizards Welcome: Fan Communities and the Culture of Harry Potter.” In The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter: Perspectives on a Literary Phenomenon, edited by Lana A. Whited, 343–64. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

Burt, Stephanie. “The Promise and Potential of Fan Fiction.” The New Yorker, 23 Aug. 2017.

Bury, Rhiannon. 2008. “Setting David Fisher Straight: Homophobia and Heterosexism in Six Feet Under Online Fan Culture.” Critical Studies in Television 3 (2): 59–79.

Davis, Boyd H., and Jeutonne P. Brewer. 1997. Electronic Discourse: Linguistic Individuals in Virtual Space. Albany: State University of New York Press.

de Certeau, Michel. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Derecho, Abigail. 2006. “Archontic Literature: A Definition, a History, and Several Theories of Fan Fiction. In Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, edited by Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse, 61–78. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Fiske, John. 1989. Understanding Popular Culture. Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Hellekson, Karen. 1997. “Doctor Who Fans Rewrite Their Program: Mini-UNIT Minstrels as Creative Consumers of Media.” Popular Culture Review 8: 97–108.

Hills, Matt. 2002. Fan Cultures. London: Routledge.

Holden, Jason, and Kevin Kelly. (2005) 2007. “Brownian Motion.” Connexions, May 29.

Holmes, Sara. “Mental.” Archive of Our Own, 23 Dec. 2010.

Jenkins, Henry. 1992. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge.

Jenkins, Henry. 2012. “Textual Poachers Turns Twenty!” Confessions of an Aca-Fan, November 26.

Jones, Sara Gwenllian. 2003. “Web Wars: Resistance, Online Fandom and Studio Censorship.” In Quality Popular Television: Cult TV, The Industry and Fans, edited by Mark Jancovich and James Lyons. Bloomsbury Press.

Lancaster, Kurt. 2001. Interacting with “Babylon 5”: Fan Performances in a Media Universe. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Penley, Constance. 1991. “Brownian Motion: Women, Tactics, and Technology.” In Technoculture, edited by Constance Penley and Andrew Ross, 135–62. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Penley, Constance. 1997. NASA/Trek: Popular Science and Sex in America. New York: Verso.

Pugh, Sheenagh. 2005. The Democratic Genre: Fan Fiction in a Literary Context. Bridgend, Wales: Seren Books.

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