Under the Waterfall: A fanfiction community's analysis of their self-representation and peer review

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Academic Commentary
Title: Under the Waterfall: A fanfiction community's analysis of their self-representation and peer review
Commentator: Kristi Lee Brobeck (Thevina/thrihyrne)
Date(s): March 31, 2004
Medium: online
Fandom: Tolkien
External Links: skyehawke :: Under the Waterfall, Archived version Under the Waterfall: A fanfiction community's analysis of their self-representation and peer review in "Refractory: A Journal of Entertainment Media"
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Under the Waterfall: A fanfiction community's analysis of their self-representation and peer review is a 2004 paper by Kristi Lee Brobeck.

"How do the members of Henneth-Annun see themselves? A paper documenting responses to a survey taken in Nov. of 2003 which reveals members' disparate feelings about the archive."

This paper was posted at the multi-fiction archive skyehawke. It was also printed in "Refractory: A Journal of Entertainment Media."

Some Topics Discussed


Such a rich density of texts, accompanied by Peter Jackson's overwhelmingly popular movie interpretations of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, has inspired an almost unfathomable number of people to write their own stories using Tolkien's works and/or Peter Jackson's films as a starting point. The Tolkien online fanfiction community ranges in the tens of thousands, using the number of authors at FanFiction.net as only a starting point.

There are many Tolkien-based fanfiction archives on the web. Only a few are all-inclusive; most have particular guidelines or character focuses: slash only; non-slash; Legolas/Gimli stories; Frodo-centric hurt/comfort; R-rating maximum stories; to list only a very few. HASA accepts all kinds of stories, regardless of time period, story genre, and rating level in regards to violent content or sexual explicitness. This attribute alone makes it unique within Tolkien fanfiction archives, though there are additional differences which set it apart from similar sites. At the time of writing this essay, there were around 460 active members at Henneth-Annûn.

Though almost all authors at the archive write under a pseudonym, those assumed names can be well known within the community. I wished for the people who replied to my survey to be completely candid and honest, so I specified that I would not use anything other than a numbering system when quoting responses in this essay. In November of 2003 I sent an email survey to everyone who had a member biography and a publicly listed email address. At the time, there were 183 people who I could contact, and from that, 50 people chose to reply to my questions, a response rate of 27%. As an active member of Henneth-Annûn myself, I recognized some of the names on the list that I knew had not contributed anything to any part of the archive in several months, and I do not believe that all 183 people on the list were still active at HASA when I contacted them

Having been active in this particular part of Tolkien fandom for a year, I had discovered that fellow writers and readers tended to be more vocal about this particular archive and held definite biases toward or against it. The archive is not merely a "bookshelf," or place where all fanfiction is posted without any sort of selection process (ie. the FanFiction.net model), and therefore there is "…a profound tension in the site between the attempt to be inclusive in the members area and the need to be exclusive in the archive." Implicit within the private and public side of the archive is an ever-changing, anonymous, self-selected group of people who have taken on the mantle of becoming objective judges of other people's writing. This is indeed an emotional and, to use a title of one of Tolkien's story collections, "perilous realm," whose sentiments are echoed in the words of this respondent:

[…] I'm less concerned about the process than I am about those who participate in the process. Institutions (and yes, HASA is one), after all, simply are; it's people who make them fair or unfair, whether by perverting the original intention of the institution unacceptably or by instituting an unfair standard in the first place.

As mentioned earlier, one of the primary differences between Henneth Annûn Story Archive and other Tolkien fanfiction archives is that it is composed of two parts: the members' section, which is private but has no requirements for membership outside of joining a public yahoogroup; and the public side, which showcases fanfiction which has been evaluated by a nine-person, self selected reviewing pool. Any person who has been a member of the archive for thirty days is eligible to be a reviewer. Reviews are encouraged to be anonymous, though some reviewers include their pseudonym and email address in their comments.

My final question in the survey was an open-ended one to encourage the respondents to think about the reviewing process and articulate their feelings about it. I wrote, "A unique attribute of this archive is its 9-person, self-selecting reviewing process to approve or decline stories for the public side of the archive. If you have been involved with this process, whether as a writer, reviewer, or both, please describe your feelings about it."

The comments I received about experiencing the judging end, being a writer submitting stories to HASA's reviewing pool, varied significantly. I categorized the replies into those who felt primarily positive, predominantly negative, and those who either did not address that aspect of the quest or were not published authors. Twelve people, or 24%, were in this last category. Of the remaining 38 respondents, half wrote that they felt mostly positive about being a writer and having submitted works in the reviewing pool. The other 19 people felt that their experience in the process was a negative one, or as one person replied, "It's a mixed blessing."

Despite a shared commonality of a love of Tolkien fanfiction, whether as a producer of works or a reader of them, the members of the Henneth-Annûn archive are neither unified in their perception of the archive itself, nor in their observations about their participation in the archive. Given how many people are involved with the community, and the differing backgrounds of the authors (age, culture, length of time in the fandom), this is not surprising.

Henneth-Annûn is not the sole archive in cyberspace whose goals are to house quality works of Tolkien-based fanfiction. The definition of quality, however, differs from person to person. HASA is most definitely an ensemble of individuals who are there to write, and to learn, and to share ideas. Included in the stated aims of the archive is this sentence: "The purpose of the site is to collect the very best examples of JRRT fanfiction writing from around the Web, and to provide a collaborative work environment in which site members can appreciate and create quality JRRT fanfiction." The archive is there to promote all writers to improve their craft, as well as freely share a wealth of detailed analysis of Tolkien's characters, languages, politics, and much, much more.

What it is not, and I believe this is what addled many people who replied to my survey who were frustrated by a lack of personal attention to his/her works, is an educational institution. Like all archives with which I have been involved, Henneth-Annûn is administered by, and prolifically attributed to, volunteers. My impression from the replies received is that most people who become members of this archive do so to house their fanfiction. That is only a part of the reason, however. They wish to learn, and to collaborate. I did not get the sense that people join HASA for the sole purpose of improving other people's writing, which creates yet another Catch-22 for the archive. Newer writers are there to solicit constructive criticism and feedback, but the more established writers are still at work on their own stories and have a higher profile, therefore there are more writers seeking their advice. From my personal experiences at the archive, I do firmly believe that no new author is purposefully ignored. There is an adage which sums up this situation, though: "perception is reality." Even if what is revealed through surveys and statistics is that overall, members have a positive experience in the archive, what each unique writer undergoes during their time at the archive is what remains the ultimate truth for that person.

This community, as with all communities which are internet-based, is also in a constant state of flux, which makes analysis a challenging endeavor. While the information garnered from my survey hopefully illuminates the many complex and contradictory purposes and emotions which surround this particular fanfiction archive community, it is obviously only a few trees in a forest the size of Fangorn.