Steve Vosloo
Steve Vosloo

Fan fiction: Improving youth literacy

For many fans of Harry Potter, the last book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, does not signify the end of the story. There are thousands of young people who write their own additions to, subplots within, and alternative endings or continuations to the world of sorcery and Hogwarts. At the time of writing, there are 339 374 such works of fiction on Fanfiction.net, ranging in length from a few paragraphs to hundreds of pages.

One such story, Resolving a Misunderstanding, is a whopping 755 298 words long! Francisca Solar, a 23-year-old Chilean journalism student, was so disappointed with the fifth Harry Potter book that she wrote her own online version in Spanish, Decline of the High Elves, which drew rave reviews and generated 80 000 views (an English translation of the piece has started). She now has a five-book writing contract with publisher Random House. Solar told BBC: “All the things I know about literature, about writing, I learned in the fan-fiction world.”

So, what exactly is fan fiction — or “fanfic” to insiders? Wikipedia defines it as “fiction about characters or settings written by fans of the original work, rather than by the original creators.” Fan fiction can be based on television shows, movies, books, music and video games. While fan fiction has been around for years (see Henry Jenkins’s 1992 seminal work Textual Poachers for a history of this phenomenon), the internet has provided a platform for fanfic communities to publish, read and critique each other’s work easily and quickly. Fanfiction.net is the most popular fanfic site, but many others exist around the world catering to popular and as well as niche works.

Rebecca W Black, assistant professor at the University of California’s Irvine School of Education, is a researcher of second-language acquisition and literacy who has taught English as a second language for years. She is also a long-time fanfic writer. She conducted research to explore why in her English class many of her students were reluctant to write even a one-page essay, and yet on fanfic sites there were adolescents voluntarily writing piece upon piece, while also reading and reviewing the fiction of others in the community. What made this space so compelling?

In her study, Black spent a year observing the behaviour of fans of the Japanese animation, or anime, series Card Captor Sakura on Fanfiction.net. She asked: In what ways does this site provide English-language learners with access to literacy learning in areas where many school-based programmes have not succeeded? The findings are fascinating.

Integral to the success of the site — 20 947 works on Card Captor Sakura have been authored — is the way it allows for social connections to develop between users. Fans create bio pages (with the usual likes and dislikes for music, video games, movies and so forth) where they list their favourite authors and stories on the Fanfiction.net site. This means fans who do not yet feel confident enough in their English or writing abilities to contribute fiction to the site can still meaningfully participate in the community by “favouriting” the work of others. Fans can establish themselves as legitimate members of the community before they actually author any works by reviewing the work of others.

An unofficial rule of the site is: I review your work, you review mine. (The long Harry Potter work linked above has had 1 831 reviews.) Black found the peer-review style to be one of constructive criticism, often involving assistance with culturally specific symbols, folklore and themes that appear in the anime, for example typical home and school practices in Japan. Sometimes “beta readers” proofread draft versions of the works. Beta readers are integral to the online fanfic community and comment on story elements such as plot, characterisation, grammar, spelling and adherence to genre.

Fanfic communities represent youths who self-organise and voluntarily engage in narrative writing, reviewing and metatalk about writing. Fanfic sites scaffold the development of these literacy skills.

So, what does this mean for the shockingly low literacy levels in South Africa? In a time where the youth apparently don’t read, fan fiction holds potential promise. All young people are ardent fans of something, whether it be of Harry Potter or Kaizer Chiefs. And that is the key attractor to fanfic communities, which straddle age groups, gender and socio-economic backgrounds.

Black quotes a number of sources that show how technologically mediated literate activities (such as emailing, chatting, gaming and publishing to the web) provide English-language learners with the “freedom to use and practise English with native speakers, develop an ‘authorial voice’ and take on an identity as an English-language user”. The technologically mediated space not only enables young people who speak English well to co-habit comfortably with those who are still learning the language, but sees these groups actively engaging and supporting each other. Given the multilingual nature of South Africa’s population, where many people are not particularly strong in another language, Black’s research is relevant.

Fanfic supports informal learning. But what is the potential for formal educational settings? In Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins describes the many challenges to harnessing the power of fanfic in the classroom. In his description of the Potter Wars, he also highlights the ongoing issue bedeviling fanfic creators everywhere: the accusation of copyright infringement by media owners.

While these challenges are being explored, educators should at least recognise the catalytic aspects of the informal, voluntary world of fan fiction and apply those to school-based literacy instruction. Firstly, the content is relevant. This is not to suggest that Shakespeare or Steinbeck should be done away with, but that other forms of literature should be included.

Secondly, Black explains that reading and writing are not discrete skills that can be learned independently of social interaction, or within a vertical subject area such as the English language. Instead, the learning of these skills is heavily embedded in specific social contexts. Fanfic sites support the intrinsic socialness of young people (think about the popularity of MySpace and Facebook) in the context of reading, writing and reviewing original fiction.

The networked fanfic community means that fans write for an audience — which generally improves writing quality — that is immediately responsive and sympathetic. This is a dramatic break from the classroom practice of writing for one person (a much older teacher) who takes a few days to review or mark the work.

As we look at ways to improve literacy skills in South Africa, I think we should definitely consider fanfic. Perhaps the first major foray into this phenomenon could be a Supa Strikas fandom?