NY Tolkien Conference: “The Borders of the (Fictional) World: Fan Fiction Archives, Ideological Approaches, and Fan Identity” (Video)
Two weeks ago*, Janet McCullough John and I co-presented a talk at the New York Tolkien Conference on Tolkien fan fiction archives. This presentation grew from my work on the Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey, specifically from some data I’d run while writing a paper (in press) for the Journal of Tolkien Research. Investigating how fan writers respond to narrative bias in The Silmarillion, I’d looked which characters authors from different sites generally write about and was rather surprised to find a divide based on the site I was looking at: On some sites, characters ignored or disfavored by the narrator were preferred, and other sites showed no effect at all. In an attempt to explain this, I turned to some of my survey data and found, again, that users of different sites varied noticeably in how they responded to the different items in the survey. This prompted me to look closer at differences in responses among the various archives.
Janet begins with a review of the history of the Tolkien fandom. One of our theses is that the cultures on the various archives have developed from conflicts within the fandom that extend back to the fandom’s origins. There has always been disagreement over the “right way” to interpret Tolkien’s books, which often boils down to who is allowed to interpret them. There have been large injections of new fans into the fandom at various points in its history–the unauthorized Ace Books version brought the book to the attention of American fans, especially within the hippie counterculture, and two blockbuster film trilogies rocketed Tolkien back into the pop culture consciousness decades later–and veteran fans have tended to react negatively when these newcomers bring readings of the texts that stray from what had been conventional in the fandom to that point.
This tendency was picked up by the Tolkien fanfic community as well. Janet describes how the simultaneous rise of Web 2.0 in the early aughts and the first of the Peter Jackson films not only opened a floodgate of new fannish activity but enabled it to be shared online. We see our first online fanfic groups at this time–often based on Yahoo! Groups–followed by the creation of independent web archives for Tolkien-based fan fiction. (Fanlore has an excellent timeline of what happened when, both for traditional and Internet fandom.) But these new fans brought new ideas, often movie-inspired, that sometimes conflicted with how veteran fans read the texts. This provoked the creation of resources and discussion and reading groups aimed at new fans, but it also provoked hostility and gatekeeping practices aimed at excluding new fans or certain uses/interpretations of the texts (which were often typical of new fans and so served the same purposes).
We chose an archive for our study if it was used by 5% or more of survey participants who filled out the field asking what archives they used to post their writing. We looked solely at writers, not readers, in this study. This gave us fifteen archives: AdultFanFiction.org, Archive of Our Own (AO3), Dreamwidth, Faerie, FanFiction.net, the Henneth-Annûn Story Archive, Library of Moria, LiveJournal, LotRFanFiction.com**, Many Paths to Tread, the Silmarillion Writers’ Guild, Stories of Arda, Tolkien Fan Fiction, Tumblr, and Yahoo! Groups.
The Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey consists mostly of statements to which participants have five choices of response: Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree, and No Opinion/Not Sure. (Participants were also able to skip any question aside from the eligibility screening question, “Do you read and/or write Tolkien-based fan fiction, or have you done so in the past?”) We pulled out seven of these statements and looked at how responses varied by archive:
- It is important to me to write stories that I think Tolkien would have approved of.
- It is important to keep my stories consistent with Tolkien’s moral beliefs.
- When writing fan fiction, it is important to me to stick to the facts that Tolkien gave in his books.
- Writing fan fiction lets me challenge Tolkien’s worldview.
- Writing fan fiction lets me criticize Tolkien’s world.
- Writing fan fiction helps me to correct problems with race, gender, and sexuality that I see in Tolkien’s books.
- Writing fan fiction allows me to explore or enjoy my sexuality.
We could see clear differences between the archives on these questions, which isn’t surprising. (For the full data, see the presentation Powerpoint here.) What was more interesting was the lack of intersection between archives. In other words, each archive was a little different in what its members valued as important in their fan fiction. For example, it is easy to assume that slash writers are concerned with social justice issues related to the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals. This isn’t always the case, however. Users of a site like AO3 where slash is popular also tended to agree with the statement about correcting problems with race, gender, and sexuality in Tolkien’s books. On the Library of Moria, however–a slash site–its users were among the least likely to agree with this statement. Archives either arise to serve a specific niche in the fanfic community, or members of similar sites differentiate the sites’ cultures over time. The graphic below shows where the responses to the seven statements above show each archive’s purpose to lie, according to that archive’s membership.
This last point was also an important takeaway from our research, and one that also surprised me a little. There are two ways in which a site’s culture is created. There are formal controls from the site’s administration: the site’s purpose (what is included), gatekeeping practices (what is excluded), and rules and policies. Then there are informal controls from members: what people write, what people read, the kinds of reviews left on different stories, popular stories and authors on the site, and opinions and views expressed by the site’s members, often off-site (since few fanfic archives also include discussion forums, although some have associated discussion groups on social media sites like LiveJournal, Yahoo! Groups, and Tumblr).
Members exert significant control over a site’s culture. Stories of Arda, for example, is a genfic archive and the archive with the most stringent rules and gatekeeping policies of all the archives we studied. Authors have to pass muster with the administration before being granted posting privileges. They forbid slash, crossovers, parodies, adult-rated fiction, Mary Sues, and even “general silliness.” Nor are these empty threats: They not only remove stories but ban authors who post the “wrong thing.” Many Paths to Tread, on the other hand, is also a genfic archive, but unlike SoA, MPTT’s site policies were designed with inclusiveness in mind. (I know–I was there!) The only thing the site doesn’t allow are stories above an R-rating because, again, it is a genfic site: Slash is okay, crossovers are fine, and you can be as generally silly as you want. On the basis of these formal controls, one would assume that MPTT would attract more authors with critical and reparative motives, or authors open to using sexuality in their fiction. The opposite is true. The two most consistently conservative sites were Many Paths to Tread and Tolkien Fan Fiction–the latter, again, a site with no formal controls on content (even allowing the graphic content that MPTT does not). This shows the power that the members of a site wield over its culture.
(And lest one think that this culture is imperceptible to authors posting there, let me offer my own anecdotal evidence: I eventually stopped posting at TFF because I not only received no comments on my work but only had about a dozen people even clicking on it. [Actually, I received precisely one comment during my time there: ironically, from pandemonium_213, who on the basis of the ensuring conversation we had would become one of the major “heretical” writers on the SWG.] Despite being a moderator on MPTT, I also receive very little attention for my work there either. My work–also “heretical” and falling very much under the critical umbrella–just doesn’t match well with what the majority of users of those sites are interested in.)
Finally, our data hinted at a transformation that the Tolkien fanfic community has been undergoing in recent years, since the release of the Hobbit film trilogy. The Tolkien fanfic community has always been insular. Tolkienfic writers tend to be monofandom at a higher rate than writers of fan fiction in general. Our concerns and our purposes for writing have also typically differed from fan fiction writers as a whole. Scholarly consensus claims that the act of writing fan fiction shifts authority from the author and editors–where it traditionally resides–and onto the fan to make decisions about the story. Fan fiction, therefore, reflects the personal experiences and interests of the fan rather than the author and editors (who overwhelmingly tend to be straight white guys). As a result, fan fiction is often critical, reparative, or erotic in nature (again, according to what fan studies scholars would tell you).
It’s not so simple in the Tolkien fanfic community. As we’ve seen, some archives and some writers put a lot of weight on Tolkien’s authority. If they don’t believe Tolkien would have approved of an interpretation or story element, then they don’t write it. They stick close to the books and what they believe the author would have wanted. While many fandoms have had a significant social justice component among their fanfic writers, Tolkien fandom remained largely oblivious to this until fairly recently. Instead, much of Tolkienfic provides story internal criticism or commentary rather than connecting Middle-earth to the concerns of Modern-earth. Additionally, most Tolkienfic is genfic, which Centrum Lumina’s data on “categories” of fanfic preferred by readers and writers on AO3 suggests is not the case for fanfic in other fandoms.
In some ways, much of this is changing. Our data showed that Tolkienfic writers on newer multifandom sites like AO3 and Tumblr tended to reflect the concerns of the broader fanfic community rather than those typical of Tolkien fanfic community. I believe that this is a result of the Hobbit film trilogy, although I have not fully gathered evidence in support of this hypothesis yet. Prior to the Hobbit films, many Tolkien fanfic writers discovered Tolkien fanfic because of a specific interest in Tolkien, either generated by the books or by the LotR film trilogy. When the LotR films came out, there was not yet a massive fannish presence online for most media, so you didn’t have fans enticed by the movies to write Tolkienfic who had already written for a dozen media fandoms prior to that point. Most authors were writing fanfic for the first time or had played in other venerable pre-Internet fandoms like Star Trek. With the Hobbit trilogy, you had just the opposite taking place: a popular film series that attracted people already writing fanfic for other fandoms and accustomed to the norms of those fandoms rather than of the Tolkien community. As a result, we see more cross-pollination between the fanfic community as a whole and the Tolkienfic community than we ever have before.
What does this mean for the Tolkien fanfic community? I honestly don’t know. The Tolkien fanfic community has always largely centered itself either on Tolkien-specific archives–Fanlore lists more archives for Tolkien fanfic than for any other fandom except Harry Potter—or on groups that use various social media platforms for sharing and discussing Tolkienfic. In a way, what is happening now is similar to what happened in the early 2000s: the simultaneous advent of new technology and a boom in Tolkien fandom popularity due to the release of a new film trilogy. In this case, the new technology is sites like AO3 and Tumblr with massive amounts of multifandom activity already in place, and the new film trilogy was The Hobbit. We already saw how the LotR film trilogy resulted in fandom fragmentation, enabled by Web 2.0 technology that made setting up a group or a website within reach even for people with big dreams but little tech savvy (like me, when I founded the SWG!) So what happens next? Will the Tolkien fanfic community slowly homogenize with the fanfic world at large? Will we continue to bleed independent, fandom-specific archives and groups, as we have been for the past several years? Or will those of us who remain dig in our heels and maintain our site cultures and our community’s independence? Or maybe there’s a middle ground in which we become able to celebrate our own take on Tolkien and fanfic about his world without denigrating those who view that world and writing about it differently, and we can finally leave that conflict on the “right way” to read Tolkien in the dustbin of fandom history? It remains to be seen.
Additional Resources and Reading
- Initial poll: “What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Tolkien fan fiction?” via PollEverywhere
- Presentation Powerpoint (including data charts for each of the seven survey statements)
- Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey (questions only; I am happy to share the data with other researchers–please email me at DawnFelagund@gmail.com for a copy)
- Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey (weekly results posts here on the Heretic Loremaster)
- Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey Tumblr tag
- “Timeline of Tolkien Fandom” via Fanlore
*TWO WEEKS. Let me tell you. Putting this video together felt like the Siege of Angband. Let’s just say that a lot of things went wrong. I’m mortified to think that I blithely promised this a week and a half ago. Thank you if you kept a lookout for it despite the delay.
**I’m not linking to LotRFF because Keith Mander has left that site in such disarray that the damage done by hackers makes me sick to see. I’m seriously considering telling him I’ll take it over just to stop the ruination of a historic Tolkien archive. Talk me out of this, please. (Or not.)