Tolkien Fan Fiction Genre and Attitudes Toward Fan Fiction

After last week’s slog of mostly unsatisfying data, I’m ready to give demographics a break for a week and, before taking a look at genre and reader demographics, considering a question that I hope will be a little more interesting. (Sorry if you were desperately awaiting evidence on whether slash readers are older on average than genfic readers!) Specifically, I want to know whether a writer’s identification with a particular genre correlates with their attitudes on issues of morality, canon, and criticism in fan fiction.

If you’ve been involved with Tolkien fanfic for any length of time, then you know the argument. Some people will insist that sticking to Tolkien’s values–including his perceived intentions–is the only way to respect his work, and respecting his work is essential to taking the liberties of using it. Others will insist that fan fiction is by its very nature a vehicle of criticism, and authors are perfectly within bounds to use fiction to challenge his ideas and beliefs. Still others don’t really care about the purpose of fan fiction; they just want to have fun with the texts and a fictional world that they enjoy imagining beyond what the author provided. Of course, most writers fall somewhere in the mix between these extremes. Do writers who feel one way or the other tend to write (or avoid) particular genres?

Remember that the statement concerns identity with a genre, not simply writing it: “I identify myself as an writer,” where X is either femslash, genfic, het, or slash. I didn’t simply want to know if a person had ever in their (sometimes very lengthy) time in the fandom authored a story of that genre but what genres they see as shaping their identity as a fan fiction writer.

Why So Serious?? Genre and Escapism

Writers often identify escapism as a motive for writing fan fiction. One of the statements in my survey asked participants to respond to the statement, “Writing fan fiction is a form of escape for me” (response options for all statements were Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree, and No Opinion/Not Sure). This question confirmed the popular wisdom: 85.4% of participants agreed or strongly agreed with the statement.

I was interested in the question of whether writers who identified with any particular genre had escapist motives more (or less) often than writers in general. Slash writers were the most likely to agree or strongly agree with the statement. The percentage was pretty similar for participants who agreed or strongly agreed for the other three genres. Below are the percentages who agreed or strongly agreed with the statement for the four genres, in order from greatest to least:

Slash writers: 92.4%
Het writers: 
88.5%
Femslash writers: 
 86.8%
Genfic writers: 86.0%

The most interesting results I found, however, occurred when I looked at the numbers for those who’d agreed or strongly agreed with the statement about escapism but disagreed or strongly disagreed that they identified with a particular genre. For every single genre, the writers who didn’t identify with that genre had escapist motives less often than those who did. And it didn’t matter what genres you were comparing between, e.g., a person who identified as a genfic writer has escapist motives more often than someone who didn’t identify as a het writer. Seeing the numbers may make clearer what I’m trying to say. The percentages below show how many participants agreed or strongly agreed with the statement about escapism but disagreed or strongly disagreed that they identified as authors of that genre, again in order from greatest to least:

Non-slash writers: 84.8%
Non-genfic writers: 
84.7%
Non-het writers: 84.4%
Non-femslash writers: 83.6%

The opposite is true to: These “non-genre” writers are more likely to disagree or strongly disagree about escapism than their genre-embracing counterparts.

What to make of this? That the authors who resist identification with the major genres of Tolkien fanfic (and the not-always-serious tropes and conventions that go along with them) view their their fan fiction as having a more serious purpose than “mere escapism”? That those who identify with a genre or few are more likely to cut loose and let their imaginations wander off on a romantic fling with Fingon or to a fluffy family cuddle with the Fëanorians or a ridiculously fun space AU? It does seem that way to me. (If you see a different interpretation, let me know in a comment!)

Genre and Morality

One of the statements I included in my survey was “It is important to keep my stories consistent with Tolkien’s moral beliefs.” This statement has a loaded history in the Tolkien fan fiction community, where morality was often invoked as a reason to exclude or even attack writers of certain genres and pairings. Amy Fortuna, the founder of Least Expected, the Internet’s first Tolkien slash archive, wrote in a comment on the post Reading and Writing Habits Related to Fan Fiction Genre:

Speaking as someone who was around in the early days – pre-movie LOTR slash fandom circa 1999, in particular – slash fandom was specifically a safe space from the more mainstream parts of the fandom. The archives of tolkien_slash, the first [mailing list] specifically for slash and femslash fandom, make interesting reading; I recently reread some of the first few messages, and they are very much about *finally* having a safe space! I used to go and fight pitched battles about slash on general Tolkien forums – perhaps naively believing I could get people to understand.

Ten years ago, it wasn’t pleasant, but 17 years ago it was constant uphill fighting every step of the way, outside of our safe places.

Arguments like “Tolkien wouldn’t have approved of that” or “that wasn’t Tolkien’s intention” were used against a range of interpretations, but slash writers probably heard these kinds of remarks the most. These kinds of arguments are definitely less common these days, but I was curious if the different genres still attracted fans with particular views on what role–if any–Tolkien’s morality should play in what authors should write (and what archives should allow them to share).

The short answer is: Yes, writers of the different genres have very different views on this question. The data below show what percentage of participants agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “It is important to keep my stories consistent with Tolkien’s moral beliefs,” for each genre, in order from greatest to least. (Once again, I am stuck using the awkward non-genre terminology to identify writers who chose Disagree or Strongly Disagree when asked about identity with a particular genre. Of all participants, 21.4% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement about morality.)

Non-slash writers: 36.2%
Het writers: 32.9%
Non-femslash writers: 29.0%
Genfic writers: 28.5%
Non-het writers: 12.7%
Non-genfic writers: 11.7%
Slash writers: 11.4%
Femslash writers: 7.55%

In other words, those writers most likely to value Tolkien’s morality in writing their own stories are those writers who do not identify as slash writers. Those least likely to value Tolkien’s morality in their writing are femslash writers.

I was initially surprised at the fact that the genfic writers fell solidly in the middle of the pack (although still above the average for all writers). I thought they’d be the group most likely to try to keep their stories consistent with Tolkien’s morality; after all, genfic is by definition not explicitly sexual (whereas the other genres all can be). The more I think about it, though, the results are probably capturing a lot of authors like me who write mostly (or all!) genfic but nonetheless use the genre to criticize and comment on Tolkien’s views. Walking a narrow moral line is as antithetical to our purpose as it is to those who write fanfic for the purpose of writing slash pairings.

It was the het writers who were most likely of the four genres to view Tolkien’s morality as important when writing their stories. This surprised me; about a third of them agreed or strongly agreed with the statement. It’s hard to know how to interpret this. Perhaps it includes those writers who enjoy writing romance or erotica but who balk at writing same-sex relationships that they believe Tolkien would have disapproved of. Perhaps it includes writers who embrace canonical relationships, all of which would have been het, and reject noncanonical pairings entirely as inappropriate use of his work.

Femslash comes up as the genre where authors are least likely to pay heed to Tolkien’s morality and by quite a bit: the only genre with numbers in the single digits. This didn’t surprise me. This continues to support the view of femslash as a genre often embarked upon by authors with progressive purposes for writing, such as seeing more diverse characters represented or exploring the experiences of characters from underrepresented groups.

Overall, these results show that, while the Tolkien fan fiction community has become a much more tolerant place than it was a decade or two ago, issues of morality and genre continue to be bound to each other like a Dark Lord to his favorite jewelry. Although a majority of authors who don’t write slash avoid the genre for reasons unrelated to morality, for more than a third of them, it seems that Tolkien’s morality may play some role in their choice of genre. This perhaps explains some of the continued tension between fans of the various genres, even in the absence of the flame wars that characterized the fandom a decade and more ago.

Genre and Critical Purpose

The results above concerning morality are almost an exact mirror the responses to the statement, “Writing fan fiction lets me challenge Tolkien’s worldview.” The percentage of participants who agreed or strongly agreed with the statement by genre is shown below, from greatest to least (52.2% of participants overall agreed or strongly agreed):

Femslash writers: 79.0%
Slash writers: 60.9%
Non-genfic writers: 59.3%
Non-het writers: 51.1%
Genfic writers: 49.3%
Het writers: 44.8%
Non-femslash writers: 43.0%
Non-slash writers: 42.2%

Once again, femslash writers are the most progressive (by a huge margin!) in their purpose for writing, and those authors who don’t identify as slash writers are the least progressive. As with the results above, dividing the eight groups into groups of four, the most progressive are femslash and slash writers, along with writers who don’t identify with genfic and het.

As above, het writers are more conservative in their approach to fan fiction than genfic writers are, which continues to surprise me given that the het genre often contains graphic sexual content, which is somewhat antithetical to Tolkien’s beliefs. However, as discussed above, embracing canonical (therefore het) pairings may be a reaction to viewing morality as important to fanfic and criticism as inappropriate.

In all, the statement about morality and the statement about challenging Tolkien’s worldview show that genre is strongly associated with attitudes toward common purposes for writing fan fiction. Femslash and slash writers, as a general rule, embrace progressive social values in their stories and view fan fiction as an ideal medium for challenging Tolkien’s conservative worldview. Genfic and het writers, on the other hand, are far more likely to find it appropriate to adhere to Tolkien’s values in their writing. The understandable conflict that can ensue from these differing views explains how you get vitriol lobbed at all of the genres by writers of the other genres: genfic is boring, het is offensively heteronormative, and slash and femslash are immoral. (Although I think it is also fair to recognize that outright attacks, often from a position of power of authority, was/is far more common in my experience against slash and femslash writers, and these writers were excluded explicitly or implicitly from many groups and archives related to Tolkien fanfic.)

As a monofandom participant myself, I don’t know if anything like this happens in other fandoms. I am familiar with the concept of “ship wars,” but these don’t seem to have the same basis in one’s essential views on appropriate and inappropriate use of an author’s source text in transformative works as the conflicts that have long beset Tolkien fandom. Correct me if I’m wrong. I think this grows from the deeper history of the Tolkien fandom, not just the fanfic community. Tolkien has always attracted people from extremely disparate backgrounds. He perhaps meant for his work to appeal to readers familiar enough with the myths and literature that inspired it to understand his own transformative uses of those materials. Instead, he attracted everyone from hippies to religious fanatics, and the fandom has had the tendency to view other’s interpretations of the texts not just with suspicion or disdain but as flat-out wrong.

A final adminish note: Within the next two weeks, I will be relocating from Maryland to Vermont (in a effort to fully realize my own eco-nut hippie dreams of goats and honeybees, self-sufficiency, and trees instead of traffic jams, or to quote Bilbo: “I want to see mountains again, Gandalf, mountains“). My goal is to get enough posts scheduled that the upheaval of my life is imperceptible to my readers here. However, I’m likely to be slow on answering comments. In fact, I’ve already become slow in answering comments. I will catch up once I’m back online and will also then resume my goal of responding in less than 24 hours.


Creative Commons License
“Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey” by Dawn Walls-Thumma is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

You may use, share, repost, or reprint the statistics and information in this post in any nonprofit project. If you do so, you MUST credit me with my name (Dawn Walls-Thumma in academic/professional contexts or Dawn Felagund in fannish contexts) and link to the Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey category on my blog: http://themidhavens.net/heretic_loremaster/category/tolkien-fan-fiction-survey/

For permissions not covered by this license or any questions, email me at DawnFelagund@gmail.com.

See the Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey masterpost for more information on this project, permissions, et cetera, et cetera.

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6 Responses to “Tolkien Fan Fiction Genre and Attitudes Toward Fan Fiction”

  1. Oshun says:

    Once again, femslash writers are the most progressive (by a huge margin!) in their purpose for writing, and those authors who don’t identify as slash writers are the least progressive.

    I wonder how one is defining progressive here? It is easier for me to define backwardness and conservative views and reactionary policies than to define progressive. I should not try to open this can of worms. I’m probably only being cynical and still smarting from being slapped around when I first started visiting Tumblr.

  2. Independence1776 says:

    I don’t really have much to say; the data doesn’t really surprise me. After all, SOA was founded for the specific purpose of having a “safe” archive to avoid all the “immoral” fics.

    As a monofandom participant myself, I don’t know if anything like this happens in other fandoms. I am familiar with the concept of “ship wars,” but these don’t seem to have the same basis in one’s essential views on appropriate and inappropriate use of an author’s source text in transformative works as the conflicts that have long beset Tolkien fandom. Correct me if I’m wrong.

    I think it’s more likely to happen in single-author fandoms. Group-written things like TV shows and movie franchises are far more muddled in authorial morality and intent.

    That said, I can think of a few examples:

    1. While I’ve read only a handful of fics, I did read enough author’s notes to know that Narnia fandom has much the same divisions Tolkien fandom does and undoubtedly for similar reasons.

    2. The fannish reaction against newest Captain America comic (which is thankfully not connected to the movieverse) is an argument for original authorial intent. But it’s a reaction against the sheer blindness, privilege, and thoughtlessness of the current writer and Marvel comics folk, so not really fic-oriented.

    3. Star Wars fandom, back in the years right after the Prequels came out, had plenty of fics that dealt with the Jedi Order’s no-attachments rule. But they weren’t, unlike a lot of fics today, bludgeoning I-think-you’re-wrong-and-I’m-fixing-it fics; the critiques were worked in as logical outgrowths of the plot and character development. (Mind, this was a decade ago, so rose-colored glasses are possible.) There were just as many fics that accepted the rule as-is and didn’t critique it. I did not see flame wars erupting over this, but in large part, I think it’s because I participated in the fandom on theforce.net’s forums, which were heavily subdivided. And I stayed in the fanfic forums, which weren’t supposed to have discussion posts unrelated to fanfic. So there’s more than a fair chance I did miss fights about it.

    4. Some ship wars do have a morality component to them, of the “you’re a terrible person for liking it” variety. The fandom surrounding the newest Star Wars movie is apparently horrible for this. (The most kudosed fic in the fandom’s AO3 tag is nothing more than an attack against a specific ship and its shippers.) The MCU fandom has its own morality police, too. There exists in some segments of fandom the idea that if you explore something in fiction, that means you actually approve of it in real life.

    the fandom has had the tendency to view other’s interpretations of the texts not just with suspicion or disdain but as flat-out wrong.

    This, on the other hand, is common across the board for fandom.

  3. Amy Fortuna says:

    I’m trying to think back over the many fandoms I’ve been in to see if I’ve ever heard the “Creator didn’t intend…” line of thinking as a reason to try and stamp on someone else’s fic. I know for a fact that the vast, vast majority of the times I have heard that, it’s been in Tolkien fandom, and I’ve heard it lots and lots of times – as I’m sure everyone who has written slash or femslash in this fandom for any length of time has done.

    I think there may have been some “Lucas didn’t intend” rhetoric around when Star Wars prequel fandom was producing lots of Qui-Gon/Obi-Wan fanfic. But this was usually fanboys who had never encountered slash before and were horrified at people ‘gaying up’ Obi-Wan Kenobi. We didn’t really have to share a fandom with them in the same way that people in Tolkien fandom do – they weren’t fanficcers.

    I’ve certainly never heard it in Highlander, Sentinel, due South, or any other fandom for a television show. In fact, other than in Tolkien fandom, I’ve not heard anyone express those particular sentiments for years – not since the early 2000s. It wouldn’t surprise me to find ‘Creator didn’t intend’ sentiments in Narnia fandom but I’ve not seen any – and I so would’ve liked to see something along those lines on my Rilian/Puddleglum fic, I would’ve absolutely written back, “No kidding Lewis didn’t intend it I wrote it anyway hahaha” or something similar, which is frankly all the reply those sorts of comments deserve.

    I think it is because Tolkien fandom, in general, has consisted of a wide spectrum of people – as you say, everyone from hippies to religious fanatics. I was raised in a very conservative Christian environment, and I remember loving Tolkien’s work with just as much fervour then as I do now. My former religion may have stopped appealing to me, but Tolkien’s stories never have.

    Because there’s such a wide spectrum of people who are so invested in Tolkien’s work, inevitably there will be clashes. Even to this day, I’m still seeing ‘Tolkien didn’t intend’ – there’s a very good demonstration of exactly this in this goodreads forum question about Aragorn and Arwen’s virginities or lack thereof. However, I think it’s more than that – there’s a lot of fiction that appeals to a wide range of people without getting this sort of rhetoric as a response to fanfic.

    Many people who really love Tolkien’s work tend to be very interested and invested in fine detail – which is certainly something that I share. But they also can’t seem to see beyond that detail – they miss the forest for the trees. People who think that LaCE is 100% total canon because it’s buried in Morgoth’s Ring, people who confuse ‘I’ve read this thing by Tolkien’ with ‘Tolkien absolutely meant this for public consumption’ and ‘Tolkien never would have changed his mind or reconsidered’ and ‘Tolkien’s last revision (i.e., Galadriel’s backstory) was clearly his best’ and ‘Tolkien’s sense of morality should be everyone’s guiding star when it comes to writing fanfic about his work’.

    This is all obvious patent nonsense when it comes to you and me, of course! I don’t necessarily feel the need to use any particular sense of morality at all when writing fanfic – including my own sense of morality – much less the morality of a Catholic who died before I was born, no matter how much I love his work, no matter how much I appreciate or agree with some of the moral opinions expressed in his work. The moral standards of characters (no matter how positively or negatively represented) within a story need not be the author’s.

    And I think that point escapes a lot of people. They confuse their own taste with morality, and their own morality with Tolkien’s. And so we get ‘Tolkien didn’t intend’ when what they really mean is ‘I don’t like’.

  4. Independence1776 says:

    I think there may have been some “Lucas didn’t intend” rhetoric around when Star Wars prequel fandom was producing lots of Qui-Gon/Obi-Wan fanfic.

    Ooh, I’d forgotten about them. I avoided that pairing (student/teacher relationships are a huge squick), which is why I ended up on tf.net. No slash allowed (because of a site owner, and people did constantly try to get that policy changed, which finally happened a couple of years ago after he left*), which meant that I was no longer stumbling across it unlabeled.

    * The one person arguing against the rule change was completely convinced that slash means pornography, so she didn’t mind allowing same-sex relationships but she didn’t want to allow slash. So a huge chunk of the thread was trying to get her to see that same-sex relationships = slash and that the rating cap for fics would remain the same, so her concern was completely unfounded. She never was convinced. Before I saw that, I’d honestly thought no one was defining slash that way anymore.

    The Narnia stuff was for a specific author, and I don’t remember how I stumbled across her. I’ve only read a handful of Narnia fics; it’s not something I’m usually interested in (I didn’t even finish reading the books).

    That GoodReads thread… I think they need to reread LACE, where it rather says the opposite about sex being only for procreation. I rather think that person is remembering the Catholic Catechism and conflating it.

    And I think that point escapes a lot of people. They confuse their own taste with morality, and their own morality with Tolkien’s. And so we get ‘Tolkien didn’t intend’ when what they really mean is ‘I don’t like’.

    Yes! I’ve read fics that purported to follow Tolkien’s morality when it was quite clearly written from an evangelical Christian standpoint, which is fairly different from a pre-Vatican II Catholic perspective. If people really want to write from his supposed morality, they’ll have to do research. But most of the “Tolkien didn’t intend” that I saw– still see– was absolutely “I dislike this.”

  5. Brooke says:

    Authorial intent/morals played (and still does, to an extent) a large role in the Harry Potter fandom. Not so much about slash/femslash/etc in and of itself, but certainly about who was appropriate to ship with who, if writing ‘good’ Slytherins was allowable because Rowling clearly intended the majority to be evil, etc. Except I can remember far more instances of websites being hacked and changed/owners pressured into deleting them/writers being kicked off websites for questioning the mods and what was appropriate based on Rowling in that fandom than I can in the Tolkien fandom. This is also why it doesn’t surprise me that het has the most writers concerned with the writer’s morality. My experience in the HP fandom suggested the same thing, such as the ideas that Dumbledore/Grindelwald is the only slash pairing, and since Rowling said it was unrequited, why don’t we all write said canon pairings instead? It wasn’t the most common viewpoint, but it’s common enough and part of why there’s a lot of little sites focusing on one pairing. Within het there were the same arguments – Draco/Hermione is evil, but it was all rooted in the idea that the author knew best and the other group should quiet down because they didn’t agree with her. Hermione/Harry versus Ginny/Harry had accusations and arguments over whether the other side needed to shut up because Rowling said such and such.

    I’m one of the (apparently odd) writers who both refuses to identify with any genre and uses fanfic as escapism (criticism as well, but escapism is frequent). Probably because my refusal to identify with any of those is an escape in and of itself – I spend all day in the real world having to fight for every last thing I do identify as and argue against what other people want to say, why would I wander into another box in fandom? *shrug* Though I think I put not sure on all five, so I’m not sure where I am in this data.

    Much like you, I write tons of genfic. It’s more critical of Tolkien’s world in a lot of ways than most of my slash or femslash is, because it’s where I write about the Sindar-Noldor divide and how the Noldor in many ways reflect a sort of White Man’s Burden mentality and feelings of superiority, among other things. I doubt Tolkien’s morality and mine agree with each other about the cultural developments among the Sindar and Silvan in the absence of the Valar, so his morality gets tossed over the side.

    Minor quibble – I’m not sure that femslash and slash writers are close enough to be lumped together as seemingly equal on one side of the issue about being critical, and genfic and het lumped together on the other. There’s a large difference (18.1%) between femslash and slash, then 11.6% between slash and genfic writers (and 4.5% between genfic and het, for a 16.1% difference between slash and het). The numbers place slash writers closer to genfic levels than they do femslash. Slash writers are more progressive, and 10 or 20 years ago I believe they were likely in the same place femslash is now. But slash isn’t radically forward thinking anymore, unlike femslash. It’s just middle of the road progressive. I mean, half of the writers of genfic stating their writing is used to be critical is nothing to be sneezed at.

    Given the environment I came from, I would have been pleased if 20% of people thought it was okay to be critical of a writer. Challenging/criticizing authors was not an encouraged part of my education, which I would think would make it harder to go into fanfic and start doing exactly that. I’m honestly pleasantly surprised at how high the het number is, because over 40% challenging worldviews through their writing seems high to me.

  6. […] are the most open in their obvious enjoyment of the sexual aspects of their genre!) My last post, Tolkien Fanfic Genre and Attitudes toward Fan Fiction, showed that femslash writers tend to embrace critical purposes the most, while non-slash and het […]

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