Just Wild About Harry? The Fan Fiction Phenomenon

I’ve long been an avid reader of fantasy, and even at the tender age of 39 I don’t hesitate to read books classified as for children or “young adults” (I’ll recommend a few at the end of this article). But I didn’t rush to read the Harry Potter books when they came out, and don’t consider myself a rabid Potter fan. Still, the books were fun, and I figured the movie would be, too.

Then I heard that Alan Rickman was in the film, and seeing it suddenly became imperative. In case you don’t remember, Rickman, as the evil Sheriff, upstaged Kevin Costner in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, and later upstaged the cute younger guy in Sense & Sensibility (if the younger sister had had any sense, she’d have preferred Rickman from the start; but the story was mostly about her lack of sense).

Rickman has a luscious baritone voice that it’s a crime to dub over, so I didn’t want to see “Harry Potter” until I could see it in English. To my delight, one cinema in Milan decided to show it in English for the first week of its run. (They were hardly committing commercial suicide: it’s a multiplex cinema, and the Italian version was showing on its deluxe big screen, while we English-speakers were relegated to a 126-seat hall in the basement.)

Rickman, as Harry Potter’s nemesis of a teacher, Severus Snape, didn’t get much screentime, but he made every second count… and I think I’ll stop there lest I begin to gush. Suffice to say that the critics – and Rickman’s legions of female fans – seem to agree with me.

The great thing about the Internet is that, no matter what you’re obsessed with, you can easily find thousands of other people similarly obsessed (well, sometimes that’s a bad thing). So, when I decided that a picture or two of Alan Rickman would be a fine addition to my Windows desktop, it wasn’t hard to find several very nice ones, both in and out of his Snape guise (er, waitaminute… nope, sorry, didn’t find any naked pictures).

While I was hunting for Snape pictures, I was surprised to also find a lot of fan fiction dedicated to this particular character. “Fanfic,” a phenomenon familiar from my exposure to Star Trek and Star Wars fandom, is what you get when fans make up their own stories set in the fictional universes they love, involving at least some of the original characters, often in situations that their original creators might find surprising. Fanfic runs the gamut from well to appallingly written, from humorous to depressing, and from G-rated to XXX.

Of course it’s the X stuff that gets people, ahem, exercised, especially “slash” fiction, so-called because it’s about relationships, “somebody / [slash] somebody”. Specifically, both somebodies are male. The classic example is “Kirk/Spock” fiction, which postulated that the heroes of the original Star Trek series were a good deal closer than Starfleet duties demanded.

Years ago, Richard Pini (of the husband-and-wife team that create and publish Elfquest) said in an editorial that he was aware of such stories circulating about their own two main male characters and, while not at all offended by homosexuality, he felt that it simply wasn’t appropriate for those two characters (and he felt the same about Kirk/Spock).

I wrote to him that I felt the stories were a compliment, proving the richness of what the Pinis had created: their universe had enough depth that people could picture themselves within it, and use their imaginations to help work out their own feelings and lives. This was over 15 years ago, when there weren’t many positive homosexual role models available in popular culture, so I thought it might be a psychological survival strategy for young gays: create your own gay role models, based on heroes you already love and admire.

At the time I had not actually read any slash fanfic, and was only guessing as to who was writing it. But a quote I just found online seems to bear out my thesis: “As a gay man, I don’t get to see any characters representing my experiences or viewpoint, so I co-opt one of the existing ones… and fill in their background. [The show doesn’t] seem to think my kind exist, so I have to make the themes relevant to myself.”

It appears, however, that most of the Snape fanfic, even the slash, is written by women. On one of the sites I found a link to an amusing article (“Severus Snape, Love God“), which linked to a further article (“The Trouble with Harry,” by Christopher Noxon, San Francisco Chronicle), about Harry Potter fanfic, and the predictable reaction of AOL Time Warner, guardians of the multi-billion dollar licensing property that Harry has become.

Says Noxon: “According to Henry Jenkins, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology scholar who has tracked it since its appearance in photocopied ‘zines circulated at fan conventions, slash porn appeals to young women because it lets them experience romantic bonds in a mythological universe far removed from the more familiar (and far scarier) world of boyfriends, dating and sex.”

Given the real risks sometimes associated with boyfriends, dating, and sex (such as date rape drugs), I don’t blame these young women for preferring to work out their feelings about sex in imaginary situations as far as possible from their own reality.

Jenkins’ theory also agrees with something I read years ago, in a book about Japanese comics (manga): In Japan there are entire genres of comics aimed at adolescent girls and young women, about – you guessed it – romantic relationships between androgynous young men. That author similarly believed that these fantasies were a way for girls to indulge romantic feelings, at a comfortable remove from their own realities.

Judging from some other quotes I found online, Jenkins has very interesting things to say in his 1992 book on fanfic, Textual Poachers : Television Fans & Participatory Culture (Studies in Culture and Communication). (Amazon  UK | US) I have a few more thoughts on the phenomenon myself, but I’ll read the book before I carry on with this topic.

Oh, and the movie? It was fun.

More on Fanfic

Good article

In case you are wondering: Yes, I’m tempted to write fanfic. No, I’m not going to tell you when/if I do. <grin>

Recommended Reading

If you do like the Harry Potter books, and even if you don’t, have a look at these as well:

His Dark Materials trilogy) by Philip PullmanSearch for Philip Pullman’s books at Amazon UK | US

The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown, by Robin McKinleySearch for Robin McKinley’s books at Amazon UK | US
Anything by Diana Wynne Jones – Her Chrestomanci stories are quite Potter-esque (very English, and very, very funny), but they pre-date Harry Potter by years.Search for Diana Wynne Jones’ books at Amazon UK | US

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