Taking Liberties With Harry Potter

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News Media Commentary
Title: Taking Liberties With Harry Potter
Commentator: Tracy Mayor
Date(s): June 23, 2003[1]
Venue: Boston Globe Magazine, print
Fandom: Harry Potter
External Links: at the journalist's website: Tracy Mayor - Writer, Editor, Journalist, Archived version
Taking Liberties With Harry Potter.jpg
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Taking Liberties With Harry Potter is an article written by Tracy Mayor and published in The Boston Globe Magazine on June 23, 2003.

It opens with this question: "Thousands of spinoffs of J.K. Rowling’s novels--many steamy with graphic sex--can be read on the Internet. But why is this fan fiction, often of questionable legality, allowed to flourish?"

The article looks at fan fiction through a critical and somewhat dubious lens. Slash fan fiction, as is often the case, bears the brunt of disapproval.

Some Topics Discussed

  • the majority of fanfic writers are female
  • "Draco Malfoy can be any number of things, including a leather-pants-wearing hottie who’s after Hermione’s goods."
  • makes it known that some writers of explicit slash fic are, gasp, mothers
  • the existence of slash
  • the legalities of fanfic
  • the desire to transform and fill in gaps in canon
  • describes or mentions some fans, including Heidi8
  • quotes some copyright lawyers and scholars, including Henry Jenkins
  • FictionAlley and FanFiction.net
  • the statement that most fanart and fanfic is copyrighted


Is fan fiction part of a newly energized publican movement to put art back in the hands of the consumer class, or is it a cynical exercise in ego that rides roughshod over a living author still working to create her oeuvre? The answer depends largely upon which side of the copyright document you happen to sit.

“There’s no question that J.K. Rowling is the author of the original work, but Hogwarts [Rowling’s imaginary wizarding school] may have room for more stories than she wants to write,” says Henry Jenkins, the director of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies Program who writes frequently about fan behavior. “And she might not be the best writer for every possible story set in Hogwarts.”

Either way, fan fiction isn’t going away, far from it. There are literally thousands of Web sites dedicated to Harry Potter fan fiction. One popular destination alone, FictionAlley.org, hosts upwards of 15,000 short stories or book chapters, supports 24,500 registered users who have posted 563,000 fanfic-related messages, and receives on average more than 100 new pieces of writing every day. That’s enough to make The New Yorker’s slush pile look anemic by comparison.

Another popular site, the entry-level FanFiction.com, houses a whopping 71,600 Potter fanfics and regularly appears in Nielsen/NetRating’s list of top “stickiest” Web sites (places where surfers spend the longest amount of continuous time). And that’s after the site’s operators kicked all the NC-17-rated material off its pages last year.

For “Irina,” a 22-year-old Boston-based art history grad student, that would be romantic entanglements between Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley, his best friend’s little sister. Irina has two novel-length fanfics and a handful of shorter stories under her belt, she’s a volunteer moderator on FictionAlley.org, spends between 4 and 7 hours online a week, and doesn’t think her hobby is any more unusual than, say, the hours her boyfriend devotes to burning CDs and playing computer games. Still, she doesn’t want her real name to be used.

“Liza” is a Ph.D. candidate in classics at an Ivy League university who writes literate, lyrical fan fiction peppered with quotes from Russian poets, references to Roman philosophers, and chunks of dialogue in untranslated French. There are frequent footnotes. What Liza wants to see, and therefore what she writes, is “slash”--relationships, often sexual, sometimes graphic, between two characters of the same sex, nearly always two men. In fact, everything Liza writes is slash, and because of this, she doesn’t want to use her real name either.

Though their carefully guarded anonymity might suggest otherwise, writers and readers insist that fan fiction is just one of many perfectly valid ways of responding to pop culture. “With Harry Potter, people are always trying to figure out what’s going to happen next. Fanfic just puts that speculation into narrative form,” says Heidi Tandy, a Miami intellectual-property lawyer who has no problem using her real name online and in print.

Like many other fanfic writers, Tandy makes is very clear that she’s not a frustrated novelist who can’t think up plots or characters on her own. And she bristles at the suggestion that fan fiction is somehow a lesser calling because it’s derivative work.

“I have heard people say that if something isn’t completely original, it’s not creative, that it’s bad bad bad,” says Tandy. “Do they mean bad like `West Side Story’?” she asks of the 1957 theatrical reworking of “Romeo and Juliet.” “Or bad like `Clueless?’” the 1995 movie based Jane Austen’sEmma.” “Fan fiction has made me a better writer and a better reader. And you get instant feedback in two days! There’s an emotional benefit, even if it’s hard to quantify.”

Tandy was so attracted to that emotional uplift and instant feedback, two years ago she formed FictionAlley.org. Like many other fanfic sites online, FictionAlley functions like a highly organized, self-policing support group with its own rules, language, and publishing structure. “Beta” readers provide workshop-like story critiques for work in progress. Message boards and email links let readers instantly comment on stories they’ve read. Stories are rated with the same G/PG-13/R/NC-17 system used by the movies, and people take the ratings seriously.

“The fan community will tolerate an incredible array of interpretations, but they do have sets of rules. If you do it wrong, you’ll get flamed,” observes MIT’s Jenkins. “There’s a moral economy around what’s right and wrong.”

Cross-posting of stories—linking to one story from another Web site—isn’t done unless the original author gives permission. Plagiarism isn’t tolerated—one writer was kicked off a board for failing to fully disclose that her plot was lifted in part from an old “Buffy” episode. [2] And, apparently without irony, most fan artwork and some fan fiction is copyrighted.

Scratch the surface of a few slash sites online, and it doesn’t take long to find tales of bestiality, rape, sexual torture, and Weasley twins sodomizing one another. This is by no means mainstream fan fiction, it’s not even mainstream slash fiction, but it is out there and available to anyone willing to click “yes” when a little warning box pops up on-screen saying, “I am old enough to read this.”

No one wants to put words in J.K. Rowling’s mouth, but it’s safe to assume that when Rowling hails her readers’ creativity, she has in mind something other than tales wherein Professor Snape is fellated by the Sorting Hat.

“Ulysses” this isn’t. And when James Joyce wrote his 1922 master work, Homer had been dead for 27 centuries. Rowling is a living, breathing, solo artist in the midst of what she and her publishers, and many critics, consider a work of serious artistic merit.

Fan fiction, then, is actually a kind of literary karaoke, with fans taking the words out of the author’s mouth as she’s still trying to writing them. Harmless, ultimately, but perhaps not the best of manners, either.

Reactions and Reviews

[padfoot05]: I think they should do what they want to do but the shouln't do pornographic things and stuff like that[3]

[Imperio]: Some of this material is awful, they are degrading the integrity of HP and to think that they believe it is good fiction is honestly bewildering. How can they call themselves fans?[3]

[Jacksynlittrell]: I think that it is fine for people to write this stuff, after all, we do have freedom of speech in the US, but I do think it is their responsibility to put warnings on it. If people wish to read (and write) it, so be it, but make sure that it is only put in the hands of responsible, and mature, readers.[3]

[Cheeser]: "Slash" as a type of fiction has a long history in the fandom world (not just Harry Potter), and to berate it in one fandom and not another is hypocritical. It comes down to choices - if somebody chooses to write it, great. If you choose not to read it, equally great. Live and let live, I say.[3]

[Imperio]: I totally agree with you that fanfic is fine, I do recognize that there is freedom of speech but not when it is using copyrighted material to make pornographic fantasies that are clearly a violation of JKR's great work.[3]

[Shawtysccrplya]: I think that fan fiction is somewhat a reflection of the person writing the story. I don't know about other people but I do not enjoy reading or hearing about "slash" stories etc...but its a free country in the good ol' USA so its really up to the person writing it. I know most of my friends enjoy reading the fan fiction that I write, but I keep it simple you know. Making out..kissing..holding hands etc..but nothing beyond that. Porn context degrades JKR's story and I dont think its very respectful towards her hard work.[3]

[SoWeirdo80]: I don't want to stir up trouble, so I'll keep this brief. I don't see the problem with fanfiction in any shape, size and/or ship. That's not to say that nothing squicks me, but people choose whether or not to read something. If you don't like it, then don't read it. And besides, like that article said, any legal action taken will just draw attention to what's being fought.[3]

[lisashes]: hmmm, well in my oh so humble opinion, I wont read any fanfic whatsoever. I have come across way too many bad ones and it just ticks me off. Most of that stuff should just stay in the writers late night dreams. And I dont think it takes a real talent to write fanfic cuz its all ripped off. Sure, use harry potter or Lotr or whatever as your inspiration but its just lazy and unimaginative to just build on what someone else has already written. I know there are a FEW good fanfics but they are rare. These are just my opinions, I mean no offense to anyone. This is a HPANA site.[3]

[Bennie Robbins]: A thoughtful examination of the Harry Potter fanfic phenomenon, tastefully interspersed with excerpts and art. (Although who the blonde is supposed to be is beyond me. Hermione's brown-haired, Ginny's red-haired, and Cho presumably has straight black hair ... 'shipping out of canon, are we? How very intriguing. LOL ...) Henry Jenkins gets a nod, as does Fiction Alley (whoo hoo! Go FA!), FF.net and the Potter Slash Archives. The author, evidently not a ficcer herself, does a witty but respectful job of deconstructing fanfic rationality and netiquette. It's interesting to look at an outsider's view, isn't it? [4]


  1. ^ The author's website says 29 June 2003. (Accessed 01 April 2012)
  2. ^ Cassandra Claire?
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h The Internet sex life of Harry Potter, links to the Boston Globe article. This is a HPANA site. The Internet sex life of Harry Potter, 02 July 2003. (Accessed 09 April 2012)
  4. ^ Metafic (Accessed 01 April 2012)