Gather 'round the Campfire: Fanfiction.net and Participatory Writing

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Title: Gather 'round the Campfire: Fanfiction.net and Participatory Writing
Creator: Lucy Gillam
Date(s): August 8, 2002
Medium: online
Fandom:
Topic: Fan Fiction, Feedback, Fanfiction.net
External Links: Gather 'round the Campfire: Fanfiction.net and Participatory Writing, Archived version
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Contents

Gather 'round the Campfire: Fanfiction.net and Participatory Writing is an essay by Lucy Gillam.

It is part of the Fanfic Symposium series.

Excerpts

Ah, Fanfiction.net. Love it, hate it, but you can’t ignore it. Well, actually you can, depending on which fandoms you frequent, but it’s certainly getting more and more difficult, especially as writers who have entered fandom (or rather fanfiction) through Fanfiction.net begin to move out to mailing lists and fandom-specific web archives.

I’m sure I’m not revealing any secrets by saying that, at least in what might be termed mailing-list fandom, Fanfiction.net is not highly regarded. More precisely, the fiction found there is not highly regarded. Certainly there are good, even great, stories on ff.net, but the common wisdom is that most of what you’ll find there is dreck.

I wish I could say I was going to debunk the myth that ff.net has proportionally more dreck than your average fandom-specific archive, perhaps argue that only the greater volume overall makes it seem like there is more dreck. But I’m not. Granting that I’ve only really explored three fandoms in any depth there (Harry Potter, Batman, and LOTR, since you ask), I can safely say that I’ve seen more atrocious grammar and spelling, more hideously obvious Mary Sues, more just plain awful stories than in any fandom-specific or even multi-fandom archive.

And then there’s the author’s notes. God, the author’s notes. Notes at the end of a chapter that giggle over the cleverness of the cliffhanger. Notes that ask for direction on where the story should go (which, hey, I’m social invention girl, but to me, that’s something that happens in the rough draft stage). Notes that address the various people who’ve posted in the review sections. Worst of all are author’s notes in the text itself. These range from cute little asides (“Aren’t they adorable?”) to information (“He’s the leader of the group”), and they drive me batshit. Right smack in the middle of the story. I mean, even Terry Pratchett, who does these well, has the sense to make them footnotes. The first time I saw one of them in a list-posted story, I almost choked on my Diet Coke.

Which brings me to the inevitable part of this column where I say “however.”

However, the more stories I read on ff.net, the more I encountered these author’s notes, the more it occurred to me that I might be missing the point. Much as the notes annoyed (and still annoy) me, they point to something crucial about ff.net: whether by design or accident, fanfiction.net is less an archive in which finished stories are housed than a community in which the participatory process of constructing the story is as important if not more so than the finished product.
Participatory storytelling is nothing new. Even just confining ourselves to net fandom, IRC has become a frequent venue for either collaborative composition of stories or composition by one person that includes immediate audience reaction. As Renae points out, this can have mixed effects on the writing itself, but certainly people do do it. Author lists and blogs can sometimes serve the same function, allowing a writer to play with a story and get immediate feedback on it.

In some cases, the stories written in these ways are revised, edited, and generally polished before being submitted to a list or archive. In other cases, the writer might choose not to pursue the story, leaving it on the blog or an IRC log. However, with a few exceptions, the focus, the point if you will, is on a final product, a story which the audience participation has helped shape.

What strikes me about some of the stories on ff.net, however (and I stress this is only some), is that the participation is itself the point. The goal seems to be less using feedback to create a polished story than to have the experience of interacting with the audience. In some ways, it’s almost more like storytelling around the campfire. The point is less the story than just having fun with friends.

And again, this is nothing new: it happens in IRC, on lists, on blogs. The difference here, I suspect, is that Fanfiction.net presents the appearance of being an archive, thus leading readers to expect the conventions of other archives, which focus on the final product.