Meta on Meta, Part 1: In Which I Try to Convince You to Write Nonfiction

August is the LotR Genfic Community’s annual nonfiction challenge. The challenge is simple: Write and post a piece of nonfiction on any Tolkien-related topic of your choice. Yet this month’s challenge never fails to overwhelm people, even the same people who effortlessly write fiction–including commentary on the legendarium–about Tolkien all the time. Nonfiction–or meta, in fandom-speak–is admittedly intimidating. It shades into the scholarly side of the Tolkien fandom, where fanfic writers often haven’t felt welcome. It recalls high school and college essays, MLA format, grades, outlines, and all sorts of other stuff that fiction writers often unpleasantly recall. It’s a totally different format and tone, and it uses completely different conventions than fiction. One doesn’t simply walk into writing nonfiction! (Well, just like Frodo and Sam did indeed “simply walk into Mordor,” nonfiction is easy and natural for some people, not because they’re better writers but because they are experienced in the structure, conventions, and practices of nonfiction writing.)

I have always loved writing nonfiction. As an undergrad writing minor, my favorite classes weren’t the creative writing classes I took but the nonfiction classes. Because I love nonfiction writing so much and because I am a teacher of writing, I have decided that this year, during LotRGen’s nonfiction month, I am going to post a short piece on writing nonfiction, at least once per week on Tuesdays (and possibly more often). I hope this “meta on meta” will remove some of the misconceptions surrounding nonfiction and empower more people to try sharing their ideas in this way.

There is sometimes a misconception among fiction writers that nonfiction is rigid, strict, and without room for one’s voice. Many people believe it is restricted by rules rather than guided by creativity. That it’s inherently unfun. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Brilliant writers of nonfiction are brilliant because they hold their reader’s attention, often through their creativity and masterful use of a voice that is appealing and relatable to their audience. The worst nonfiction writers, in my not-so-humble opinion, are those who try too hard to sound learned or academic. They intentionally use words that they know will send 90% of their readers scrambling to the dictionary. They use sentence structures so complex that they have to be read multiple times to be understood, and they allude to things that they know most of their readers won’t know. In short, they try very hard to appear smarter than their readers.

Good nonfiction writers–again in my not-so-humble opinion–converse with their readers. That implies a relationship of equals. Even if they are sharing something they know that their readers probably do not, which is often the purpose of nonfiction writing after all, they speak to their readers as equals capable of not only understanding but using the information they present and contributing to the conversation surrounding its significance and meaning.

Tolkien was a brilliant writer of nonfiction. His essays were relatable and engaging. He didn’t use a five-syllable word when a two-syllable would do, he didn’t use jargon to keep non-experts from accessing his ideas, and he didn’t name-drop obscure academics. He used creativity, especially metaphor, to illustrate his concepts. His essays are beautiful as well as insightful. If you’ve never read his nonfiction, reading even part of one of his essays will probably do more to convince you of what can be done with a work of nonfiction than anything I say will. On Fairy-Stories is his well-known theory of fantasy. Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics is widely considered to be the most influential work of Beowulf scholarship ever written. (And as a Beowulf scholar myself, trust me–that’s a lot of scholarship and by some pretty heavy hitters.) It convinced critics to stop plumbing the poem simply for historical and linguistic details and to read it as a work of literature. Both essays show his easygoing style, his distinct voice, and most of all, his willingness to let his skill with creative writing aid him in his nonfiction writing as well as his fiction.

As fan fiction writers, we are uniquely poised to write nonfiction on Tolkien. We’re not only extremely well read and knowledgeable of textual minutia but used to putting those details together to express our ideas and theories about the texts. Fan studies scholars recognize fanfic as a vehicle of criticism, and while it is far from that simple in the Tolkien fanfic community, most Tolkienfic writers become experts on one or several parts of the legendarium simply from writing them so much, even if they don’t identify their purpose for writing fanfic as critical.

So, you might ask, if I believe that fanfic has a critical purpose and that fanfic writers are learned about the legendarium–and I do–then why advocate for writing nonfiction? Why not just handle criticism and commentary in our fiction?

  • Nonfiction is a format specific to handling critical and informative topics. In fanfic, we mix our criticism and commentary with a healthy dose of artistry, including imaginative invention. Short of meticulous footnotes explaining where everything comes from and how we arose at every inference, there is no easy way to distinguish in fiction what is critical and what is creative/imaginative.
  • So nonfiction is one way of not only explaining but documenting the ideas that you use in your stories. Sometimes I write nonfiction because I get weary of writing the same explanations over and over again when talking with readers about my work, and it’s easier to point to that particular resource.
  • Nonfiction also expands the resources available to other Tolkien fans, including other fanfic writers. If you’ve ever been assigned a prompt in a ficswap about a character, event, or place you know little about and turned to fan-created resources to help you write your story, then you appreciate the role that nonfiction can play in fanfic. You’re most likely an expert in something about Tolkien’s world and can use your expertise to similarly help fellow writers.
  • Nonfiction opens discussions specifically about canon and criticism. Discussion of a story concerns writing technique and the reader’s reaction in addition to the canonical and critical basis of the story. If you’ve ever wanted to discuss Tolkien’s origins of Orcs or what he meant when he called The Lord of the Rings a Catholic book or why only mortal males get to marry Elves, then nonfiction is a way to open such a discussion.
  • As a fan fiction writer, you view the text different from a Tolkien scholar and are very likely already engaging in ideas that haven’t reached the scholarly side of the fandom yet. I put that in bold because I often feel that fanfic writers don’t believe they have a place at the table when contributing to Tolkien scholarship. And it’s true that scholars engage with ideas that we as fanfic writers really don’t … but just as often, we are engaging with ideas that the scholars aren’t. A different sort of creativity is at the heart of fanfic writers’ readings of the texts, a sort of creativity that isn’t taught to scholars of literature. We have a lot to say, and I hope that some of us will stand up and say it.

This month’s nonfiction challenge is as good a place as any to begin. If you think you’d like to try nonfiction, I hope you’ll join us on the challenge and in the discussion here. On Tuesday, 2 August, I will share some tips on choosing a topic for nonfiction writing, including 101 approaches to writing Tolkien meta.

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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:

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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

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Portrait of the Slash Author as a Young Man? Tolkien Fanfic Genre and Writer Demographics

A couple weeks ago, on my post We’re Not Just Teenagers: Tolkien Fandom Participant Age, I noted that the oldest group of participants tended to respond most conservatively to the statements “It is important to keep my stories consistent with Tolkien’s moral beliefs” and “Writing fan fiction helps me to correct problems with race, gender, and sexuality that I see in Tolkien’s books.” This caused quite a stir! Obviously, saying that more members of one group answered a particular way slightly more often than members of the other groups doesn’t mean that, upon turning 37, Tolkien fanfic writers button their  frumpy blouses up over their collarbones and become Dana Carvey’s Church Lady (to borrow Oshun’s memorable way of describing the high-handed moralistic tone reminiscent of both our early years in fandom). But I think most people want to see their demographic groups reflect beliefs and behaviors that match their own; I’ll cop to experiencing a little thrill of satisfaction when I saw the middle group–to which I belong–was the most progressive on the question about Tolkien’s morality (although we came in beneath the whippersnappers on the question about fixing problems with race, gender, and sexuality). This is also why one of the few comments to drive me to spar in comment sections is negativity toward millennials, even though at age 34, I’m barely one myself. We want “our” groups to make positive contributions in ways that matter to us.

That’s why, when genre was chosen as the topic that people wanted me to look at first and I knew that a post about demographics was the logical next step after last week’s post, I shuddered a little bit. I wasn’t sure my followers–I wasn’t sure that I, to be perfectly honest–was ready for more sweeping demographic statements about who does what based on age and gender. But–it really is the logical next post, so here we go.

However, this is the first set of data that I’ve yet run that honestly doesn’t show much in some areas of analysis. I’ve definitely observed effects based on gender, but age doesn’t have much of an impact at all on what genre a person writes, nor does the number of years the person has been writing. This week’s post is going to look at the four genres (femslash, genfic, het, and slash) and how authors identify as writers of those genre based on three demographic variables: gender identity, age, and years writing Tolkien fanfic. (I will cover readers another week. This week’s post involved a higher-than-usual amount of data-crunching, so I’m just beginning to write the post when I’d usually be polishing it up and scheduling it.)

Genre and Gender

The author’s gender identity definitely correlates with the genre they write. (This is a good time to say those words that I think I heard in every single social sciences course I took as an undergrad: Correlation is not causation! It is possible that gender causes a person to identify as the writer of one genre or another, or there may be other factors at work.) Some of these correlations I expected. In other cases, they’re more surprising.

This week’s data is resisting distillation into friendly little pie graphs (unless I have a dozen little pies, which is also not friendly, especially to the person who has to make those pies–me!), so I’m going to present the data in a chart, highlighting in red those numbers that I’m going to discuss below. For simplification’s sake, I’m combining Strongly Agree with Agree, and Strongly Disagree with Disagree; anyone who wants the more granular breakdown can let me know in a comment, and I’ll email the complete charts to you.

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Writing and Reading Habits Related to Fan Fiction Genre

Genres of fan fiction won my informal little survey of what data people wanted to see me present next. Thanks to everyone who participated and saved me from having to make this decision for myself!

“Genre,” in this survey, referred to the broad fanfic categories of genfic, slash, femslash, and het. As a bit of fandom history, in the Tolkien fan fiction community, these classifications have been particularly fraught. Early Tolkien archives often focused on or excluded particular genres. (I struggled over my wording there: Archives varied in whether they phrased their posting guidelines in terms of welcoming a specific genre or disapproving of/excluding a specific genre. The exclusionary tendencies of some corners of the Tolkien fanfic community continue to be felt today–the discussion of last week’s post on age touched on that–and I do not want to brush over this ugly aspect of our history, but it also doesn’t seem totally fair to lump in archives trying to curate a particular genre with those phrasing their guidelines to keep out certain genres; I feel like intent is really important here.) Tolkien fan fiction history shows that early online fan fiction groups were overwhelmingly slash-centric, and non-slash groups sometimes seemed to be responding to that, i.e., the Open Scrolls Archive splash page. In any case, genre is something that participants in the early Internet fan fiction community remained very cognizant of. As such, I was interested to see how writers and readers currently identified themselves and their genre preferences.

This week, I’m going to start relatively simple, looking at the responses to two series of questions on the survey: “I identify myself as a X writer” and “I enjoy reading stories,” where X is one of the four genres identified above.

Genre and Writers’ Identity

One criticism I received when the survey was still open concerned the wording of this series of questions: “I identify myself as a writer.” Some participants didn’t like my wording here and the emphasis on identity versus merely authoring a particular genre of story, but this was quite deliberate. I didn’t want to know at what rates authors wrote stories in the various genres; this information would be relatively easy to glean from many archives. Rather, I wanted to know how authors saw themselves as creators. For example, most authors have technically written genfic: stories without any romantic or sexual pairing. However, these authors may not identify as genfic writers. Likewise, if an author writes ninety-nine genfic stories and then pinch-hits a mildly slashy ficlet for an exchange, that author has written slash but probably would not agree with the statement, “I identify myself as a slash writer.” At the opposite extreme is someone like me: Slash also comprises a relatively small percentage of my total writing (which is mostly genfic), but one of my most important stories, By the Light of Roses, is a slash story, so I’d probably agree with the statement, “I identify myself as a slash writer,” because I see my writing of that story as a sea change in my career as a writer.

The graphs below show the percentage of participants to respond to each statement using each of the five options: Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree, and No Opinion/Not Sure. I’ve tried to arrange and color-code the pie slices to make a few comparisons relatively easy. Strongly Agree/Agree and Strongly Disagree/Disagree are of course colored similarly, but I’ve also made the two “strongly” responses a darker hue and situated them beside each other to make it easier to see what proportion of participants had strong feelings on a particular statement. (Click here or on the graphs to view them full-sized.)

Graph--Author Identity and Genre

  • More participants identified as slash writers than any other genre, with 46.9% agreeing or strongly agreeing with the statement. (It is important to note here that the survey did not specify m/m slash.) To compare, 38.8% of participants identified as genfic writers, 28.9% identified as het writers, and 26.7% identified as femslash writers.
  • Slash also provoked the strongest reactions, both positive and negative. 36.3% of participants felt strongly about their identity as a slash writer (either choosing Strongly Agree or Strongly Disagree). The other three genres elicited fewer strong reactions: 27.9% for femslash, 19.9% for het, and 18.1% for genfic.
  • Participants experienced much more uncertainty about their identities as genfic and het writers: 35.7% and 31.3%, respectively, chose No Opinion/Not Sure. In comparison, only 21.0% and 18.9% selected that response for femslash and slash, respectively.

Genre and Reading

The statements about reading were more straightforward and therefore less controversial: “I enjoy reading stories,” where is the genre. The graphs below show the percentage of participants to respond to each statement using each of the five options: Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree, and No Opinion/Not Sure. As above, I’ve used similar color-coding to show at a glance how many people agree or strongly agree (purple), disagree or strongly disagree (red), and feel particularly strongly about a statement, whether positively or negatively (darker hue). (Click here or on the graphs to view them full-sized.)

Graph--Reader Preferences by Genre

  • My main takeaway here: Most people like reading most stuff. The only genre where a majority did not select Agree or Strongly Agree was femslash.
  • Genfic and slash were equally popular among readers, with 73% of participants agreeing or strongly agreeing that they enjoy those genres. In comparison, 64% of participants enjoyed reading het, and 48% enjoyed reading femslash. (Again, “slash” did not specify “m/m slash.”)
  • As with authors, readers felt most strongly about slash. 47% of participants selected Strongly Agree or Strongly Disagree for the statement about slash. In comparison, 32% felt strongly about reading genfic, 29% about femslash, and 17% about het. Femslash, however, is the genre participants generally felt strongly negative about reading. The number of participants who chose Strongly Disagree for slash, het, and genfic are all relatively close to each other: 7%, 4%, and 2%, respectively. The number to choose Strongly Disagree for femslash was nearly twice that for slash: 13%. This also matches the data for writers, who were least likely to identify themselves as femslash writers.
  • Participants felt equal amounts of uncertainty about their preference for femslash, genfic, and het: 21% chose No Opinion/Not Sure for these three genres. They felt far less uncertainty about their preference for slash, with only 11% selecting this option.

Analysis

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We’re Not Just Teenagers: Tolkien Fandom Participant Age

This week, we wrap up the series on Tolkien fan fiction community demographics. (Although if there is a demographic-related question I did not answer, just ask in the comments!) So where shall we go next? I’d love to know what data my readers and followers would most like to see. Please take a minute to take this brief survey on which topic I should explore next! These are not the only topics left in the works–just those that I’ve thought about doing–and if there’s something you’re dying to know more about, I have provided a space to share your ideas.

Now onto this week’s topic: age in the Tolkien fanfic community!


 

In the popular imagination, fan fiction writers are teenagers penning awkward homages to their fictional crushes. It is hard for the mainstream media to write about fan fiction without using the term teen somewhere in the article. And while there is nothing wrong with young adults writing fan fiction (no matter the sneering, patronizing tone of most of those mainstream articles), in the Tolkien fandom, imagining most fanfic authors as teenagers is far from accurate.

This week, as I continue to present and analyze the data from my Tolkien fan fiction survey, I want to look at the age of participants in our fandom. I asked simply, “What is your age?” and participants could fill in their response. The number of participants to respond was 1039. Thirteen people chose not to respond to the question. One data point had to be dropped because the response was “8.” While not impossible, it is doubtful that an eight-year-old participated in the survey, so I suspect this was a typo and is therefore unusable. Three people, for some reasons, entered valid ages but as negative numbers. I am also assuming these were errors and corrected them to positives. Therefore, the for this question was 1,038.

Never Trust Anyone over 30? (There Goes the Neighborhood …)

As of this writing, I am 34 years old, and most of my fandom friends are older than me. The Tolkien fan fiction community is not universally young (especially compared to fandom in general, as you will see below). Defining “teenager” as anyone between the ages of 13 and 19, inclusive, only 25.6% of readers and writers of Tolkien-based fan fiction are teenagers, making teenagers a minority within the fandom. To offer a point of comparison, 28.5% of Tolkien fan fiction readers and writers are 30 or older, according to my survey. (I’m eagerly awaiting acknowledgement of this from the popular press, but I suspect I will be waiting a long time.)

The graph below shows the age distribution of participants in my survey (n = 1038).

Age Frequency in the Tolkien Fan Fiction Community

The graph shows that participation in the Tolkien fan fiction community spike in the late teens through mid-20s. Participation decreases dramatically into the mid-30s. But then something happens that isn’t true of the fandom community as a whole: Participation more or less plateaus, only showing another slight drop-off once participants reach their early 60s.

The Fan Fiction Community vs. the Tolkien Fan Fiction Community

Using Lulu’s AO3 Census as a point of comparison, the Tolkien fan fiction community is older than the fan fiction community as a whole and shows greater diversity with respect to age. The AO3 Census shows that most respondents fell into a rather narrow age range: late teens into their twenties. More than three-quarters (77.2%) of respondents to her census fell between the ages of 16 and 29. In comparison, only about two-thirds (67.1%) of respondents to my survey fell in the same age range. The table below compares Lulu’s data and mine using her age categories.

Age Frequency Comparison between the Tolkien and AO3 Fan Fiction Communities

What is interesting to me is that the data march almost perfectly lockstep with each other except in a few key areas. In young adulthood, AO3 had greater participation than the Tolkien fan fiction community. However, in the 40-and-older categories, we see much greater participation in the Tolkien fanfic community than on AO3. It is illustrative in and of itself that Lulu lumped everyone over 50 into a single category whereas I would have broken this into three decade-sized grouping for the Tolkien community. This group, after all, contains almost one in ten Tolkien fan fiction participants.

Not surprisingly, averages for the Tolkien fanfic community are larger as well. The mean age is 27.93 years (standard deviation of 12.39 years) compared to a mean age of 25.1 years (standard deviation of 8.2 years) for the AO3 data. The median average (the more statistically accurate for the Tolkien fanfic survey data) was 24 years; for the AO3 data, Lulu gives the range of 22 to 24 years.

Both show that there is a “sweet spot” for fan fiction participation that begins in the late teens and extends through the twenties. This isn’t particularly surprising. This is an age of exploration for many people and a time when young people are breaking free from constant adult supervision to have more freedom online. This is also the age where fewer people have demanding career and family obligations. The Tolkien fan fiction community, however, retains participants into adulthood and far beyond the point where fan fiction writers in general have stopped participating.

Other Factoids Related to Age and Tolkien-Based Fan Fiction

  • Not surprisingly, there is a moderate positive correlation between a participant’s age and the number of years they had been writing (n = 614). The correlation coefficient r between participant age and years writing Tolkien fan fiction is 0.48. For the nonstatistical types out there, this means that older participants are more likely to have more years experience with writing Tolkien fan fiction. However, this is still a moderate correlation, which means that it is not just young people who begin to write fan fiction, and entry into the fan fiction community can occur at any age (even though it is more likely when the participant is young). A future post will look at initiation into the fan fiction community and will explore this further.
  • Age is a major determining factor in whether the participant wrote for fandoms other than Tolkien. I divided the data into three age groupings at the two points where participation experiences a major drop-off: age 25 and under, ages 26 through 36, and age 37 and older. The older participants were far less likely than the younger participants to write for fandoms other than Tolkien. The data below shows the percentage in each age group that answered YES to the question, “Do you write fan fiction for other fandoms?” (n = 634).
    25 and under: 80.2%
    26-36: 77.8%
    37 and older: 66.4%
  • The assumption tends to be that people become more conservative as they grow older. In the Tolkien fan fiction community, it is more complicated than that. As an indicator of conservative beliefs, I looked at responses to the statement, “It is important to keep my stories consistent with Tolkien’s moral beliefs,” within the three age groups described above (n = 632). The oldest group (37 and older) was the most conservative, agreeing or strongly agreeing 28.7% of the time. However, the youngest age group (25 and younger) was slightly more conservative than the middle group (ages 26 through 36): 20.4% of the younger group agreed or strongly agreed with the statement compared to 16.1% of the middle group. Also interesting was that the youngest group chose No Opinion/Not Sure at about twice the rate as the two older groups: 21.3% for the youngest group compared to 10.6% and 11.9% for the middle and oldest groups, respectively.
  • Responses to the statement “Writing fan fiction helps me to correct problems with race, gender, and sexuality that I see in Tolkien’s books” showed that progressive views of fan fiction as a revisionist genre tend to belong to younger fans. Between the two younger groups, the differences in the numbers who agreed or strongly agreed with the statement were relatively small: 70.8% for the 25-and-under group and 66.4% for the 26-to-36 group. However, the younger fans were much more likely to strongly agree with the statement: 40.3% strongly agreed compared to 30.4% for the middle group. The oldest group of fans was much less likely to approach fan fiction with a revisionist purpose in mind, and only 37.7% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement.

Analysis

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Gender in the Tolkien Fan Fiction Community

This post is part of the ongoing Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey series. For more details on the survey, hop on over to the Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey masterpost.

I am beginning with community demographics, asking the essential question: Who are we and how do we compare to fan fiction writers as a whole? To answer the latter part of the question, I am using Lulu’s AO3 Census for comparison. Obviously, the comparison isn’t perfect: Lulu looked at only one archive, albeit one of the largest on the Internet, and recruited her participants primarily on Tumblr. In comparison, my study included and recruited participants from multiple groups and sites used by Tolkien fanfic community members (although not all; Fanfiction.net was a major site that was unreachable unless the authors participated on other sites as well, since the site is very stringent about posting external links).

The survey asked participants, “What is your gender?” at the beginning of the survey, prior to beginning the questions directed specifically at writers and at readers of Tolkien-based fan fiction. Participants entered their response into a text field that allowed them to enter any gender identity rather than choosing from a limited list of options. As described in the survey introduction, twenty-two participants were removed from the data because they either didn’t consent to participate (n = 1) or they didn’t meet the criteria for participation, which required that the participant write and/or read Tolkien-based fan fiction (n = 21). These participants were not included in the data discussed here, even though some of them did answer the question, “What is your gender?”

Since participants typed in their response to this question rather than selecting from a list, then there was some variation in responses. For example, some participants entered “F” as a response, while others entered “female” or “woman.” I classified responses within four categories: female, nonbinary, male, and no response. I did not ask whether participants were transgender or cisgender. Some participants provided this information as part of their response, however, and were included in the gender with which they identified, regardless of whether they were cis or trans. For example, someone who entered “trans male” would be counted under “male.”

Most Participants Identify as Women

Gender Identify in the Tolkien Fan Fiction Community

Fan fiction is widely known as a genre that is dominated by women. My survey showed that this was true for the Tolkien fan fiction community as well. An overwhelming majority (88.5%) of participants identified themselves as female.

Similarly, males were a minority: only 3.61% of participants identified as male. Just as Lulu found in the AO3 Census, more people selected nonbinary/genderqueer identities (5.99%) than identified as male.

Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey AO3 Census
Female 88.5% 80%
Nonbinary 5.99% *
Male 3.61% 4%
No Response 1.90% 0.2%

*Lulu’s survey allowed participants to select multiple identities from a checkbox but also add other responses in a text field. This makes her data difficult to include in tabular form. The AO3 Census gender results page shows the breakdown of her results.

Other Factoids Related to Gender and Tolkien Fan Fiction

  • Women were most likely to list escapism as a motive for writing fan fiction. When asked to respond to the statement “Writing fan fiction is a form of escape for me,” 86.0% of women agreed or strongly agreed. In contrast, 83.3% of nonbinary participants and 77.8% of males agreed or disagreed.
  • Participants who entered a gender identity that was not male or female were far more likely to view representation of underrepresented character groups as a motive for writing Tolkien-based fan fiction. When asked to respond to the statement “Writing fan fiction allows me to explore the perspectives of female characters,” 90.5% of nonbinary participants agreed or strongly agreed, compared to 77.5% of female participants and 74.1% of male participants. When asked to respond to the statement “Writing fan fiction allows me to explore the perspectives of LGBTQ+ characters,” results were even more dramatic: 92.8% of nonbinary participants agreed or strongly agreed, while only 57.0% of women and 80.4% of men agreed or strongly agreed with the same statement.
  • Slash is often identified (and sometimes criticized) as a genre written by women. Survey results, however, showed that this was not the case. When asked to respond to the statement “I identify myself as a slash writer,” women and men agreed or disagreed at fairly similar rates, with the men agreeing slightly more than the women: 45.9% of women and 48.1% of men. Participants who identified as nonbinary were most likely to also identify as a slash writer, with 54.8% agreeing or strongly agreeing with the statement.

Analysis

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Wrangling with Elwing, or Confronting My Own Sexism in Reading Her Story

This post is in honor of Mother’s Day. Yes, I know … Mother’s Day was on Sunday. But since I debuted my Tolkien fan fiction survey data on Sunday with two posts, I did not want to inundate my blog with three posts in one day, two of them lengthy. So this post comes with much belated appreciation to all the moms out there making the kinds of tough decisions I don’t think I could make. <3

Let me confess right off the bat: I have not been kind to Elwing over the years. I have been highly critical of her decision to abscond with the Silmaril, deserting her helpless young sons in the process. I have often levied that criticism in the context of defending the Fëanorians using “yes but” rhetoric: Yes, the Fëanorians did wrong in assaulting Sirion, but Elwing also did wrong–perhaps more so–in abandoning her sons, knowing full well that they might be killed by the assailants. And, yes, the lack of scrutiny given to Elwing’s actions (and Eärendil’s) is indicative of the historical bias that I have spent the last decade trying to show, but my own ensuing scrutiny of Elwing (again, more so than Eärendil) hasn’t exactly been a good look.

So after ten years of subjecting Elwing to the third degree, I want to unpack why I did, how my thoughts are coming to evolve, and what all of this shows about how even feminist readers can fall into the trap of sexist reasoning, especially when that reasoning comes conveniently to hand.

Elwing follows the same path blazed by the holders of the Silmaril who came before her: She made a stupid, potentially deadly decision in the interest of retaining the stone. (It worked out okay for her in the end, but generally, flinging oneself off a cliff to protect a shiny gemstone isn’t exactly a prudent course of action. We don’t know what she expected to happen, but I’d wager that turning into a bird and flying into the West wasn’t high on the list.) What makes Elwing’s case uniquely perilous to me as a feminist reader was the circumstances of that foolish decision: In the course of it, she left her two young sons in the hands of the same family who deserted her brothers in the forest. It is Elwing’s perceived failure as a mother that draws so much scrutiny.

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Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey: Reader, Writer, or Both?

The Tolkien Fan Fiction survey was open to both readers and writers of Tolkien-based fan fiction. As the Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey masterpost explains, that requirement was too steep for twenty-one participants, who didn’t read or write Tolkien-based fan fiction (and presumably misunderstood the purpose of the survey), in addition to one person who did not grant consent to participate. That left 1052 participants providing responses to answer my first question: How many participants in the Tolkien fan fiction community read stories, how many write them, and how many do both?

pie graphs of how many people in the Tolkien fan fiction community are readers and writers

We Are a Community of Readers

The Tolkien fan fiction community overwhelmingly consists of people who read Tolkien fanfic. Probably this is not a surprise: 99.5% of respondents answered YES to the question “Do you read Tolkien-based fan fiction, or have you done so in the past?”

Only two (0.19%) participants answered NO to the question. (Three people or 0.29% preferred not to answer.)

A majority of participants were also writers, with 61.0% answering YES to the question “Do you write Tolkien-based fan fiction, or have you done so in the past?” (37.7% answered NO and 1.24% preferred not to answer.)

Other Reading & Writing Factoids

  • Participants who identified as women are slightly less likely than participants who identified as male or nonbinary to be writers: 89.1% of respondents who answered YES to the question about whether they were writers identified as female, whereas 92.0% who answered NO identified as female. While the difference is not huge, I found it interesting, since fan fiction is roundly considered to a genre dominated by women. And of course it still is–but men and nonbinary people in the Tolkien fan fiction community are more likely to be writers as well as readers.
    F NB M
    Writers 89.1% 6.80% 4.11%
    Non-Writers 92.0% 5.15% 2.84%
  • Participants who write are slightly older than those who don’t. Writers had a mean age of 29.52 years and a median age of 25 years (n = 631). Nonwriters had a mean age of 25.27 years and a median age of 22 years (n = 391).
  • Writers are much more likely than nonwriters to leave feedback on the stories they read. I asked, “Do you leave comments or other feedback on Tolkien-based fan fiction stories?” and 86.5% of the writers answered YES. Of the nonwriters, only 59.3% answered YES to that question.
  • Responses to a similar question confirmed the same trend. I also asked readers of Tolkien-based fan fiction to “[e]stimate the percentage of Tolkien-based fan fiction stories that you leave comments or other feedback on.” Once again, writers tended to leave feedback more often than non-writers. The mean average of the percentage of stories on which participants reported leaving feedback was as follows (n= 899):
    Yes = 40.1% (n = 562)
    No = 23.3% (n = 325)
    Prefer not to answer = 34.6% (n = 11)

Analysis

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Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey: Introduction

I am going to begin regular postings here of statistics and analysis of the Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey that I ran in 2015. New posts will appear as often as I can manage. I will post links as well on my Tumblr under the tag tolkien fan fiction survey, so Tumblrites may find it easier to follow me or my tag there. I’ll also do periodic roundups on the Silmarillion Writers’ Guild Dreamwidth community.

This post introduces the survey and will be where I collect links to other documents, important background information, et cetera.

Background on the Survey

The Tolkien Fan Fiction survey was an online survey conducted using Google Forms. It was submitted for and approved by the Institutional Review Board of American Public University, where I was a graduate student at the time. You can find the consent form and the questions asked in the survey here.

(If you’d like to see results discussed here for any particular question or topic, please ask! I’d love for this to actually be interesting to people other than me.)

The survey opened on 24 December 2014 and closed on 30 November 2015. It was open to both readers and writers of Tolkien-based fan fiction.

When the survey was closed, 1,074 respondents had submitted responses. Twenty-two of those responses had to be eliminated for one of the following reasons:

  • The participant did not consent to participate (n = 1).
  • The participant answered NO to the first question: “Do you read and/or write Tolkien-based fan fiction, or have you done so in the past?” An answer of NO to this question to the participant immediately to the thank-you page and did not allow further responses (n = 15).
  • The participant answered NO to the questions “Do you write Tolkien-based fan fiction, or have you done so in the past?” and the question “Do you read Tolkien-based fan fiction, or have you done so in the past?” (n = 6).

The final number of participants (n) used in calculations for this study is therefore 1,052.

Use of the Survey and Results

The data from the survey is available to other researchers who want to use it. Please email me at DawnFelagund@gmail.com if you would like a copy of the data.

Each week, I intend to present some of the results of the survey, including graphs and charts. All of this is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. What the heck does that mean??

  • You may use anything I post about the survey for nonprofit purposes. You can use the data or results in your own work. You can reprint/repost whole graphs and posts if you want. You don’t have to ask first! However …
  • You must credit me clearly and explicitly for anything you use. Please credit me as Dawn Walls-Thumma in academic or non-fannish contexts and as Dawn Felagund in fannish spaces and either link to the post you are using or to the general Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey category here: http://themidhavens.net/heretic_loremaster/category/tolkien-fan-fiction-survey/
  • I very much appreciate a heads-up if you are using or discussing my work, not because I want to check up on you but because I want to read what you and your followers have to say about it! :) A link left on the post you are using is great, or email me at the address below.
  • If you want to use my work outside the conditions of this license, please email me first at DawnFelagund@gmail.com. (For example, if you want to use my results in a for-profit project or if you can’t meet my requirements for credit, contact me first. I’m most likely going to be cool with it, but I reserve the right to make that decision.)

Master List of Posts

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