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Fanfiction gets a good reception

FanArt - Harry Potter and Hedwig

FanArt - Harry Potter and Hedwig

22 October 2010

Dr Ika Willis links the worlds of reception theory and popular culture.

The worlds of academia and fanfiction may seem far removed at first glance, but through the research interests of one University lecturer, they are getting closer and closer.

Dr Ika Willis, from the Department of Classics, is interested in the ever-growing connections between reception theory — her academic specialism — and fanfiction. Fanfiction refers to stories written by followers of specific series, such as Harry Potter or Blake’s 7. It has its roots in the 19th century, when a large community or ‘fandom’ built up around Sherlock Holmes. It was with the arrival of Star Trek in the 1960s, however, that a large-scale process of creative practice started, in which people responded by writing and publishing their own stories about particular characters.

“I’m interested in the uses people make of texts, particularly unusual readings outside mainstream culture,” Ika said. “The prolific nature of fanfiction demonstrates a passionate engagement with literature and a linkage with a real community or ‘fandom’ that has developed around it.”

Mainly written by women, fanfiction is built on a ‘gift economy’ centred around exchanging stories and providing feedback, made all the more possible now through the advent of social media. This has seen the development of strong, caring communities sharing friendship and love, whose stories are published, circulated and discussed, mostly online. 

Ika started testing ideas from reception theory — the active process of creating meaning from texts and how these are interpreted by different readers — in fandom. Given that fanfiction is precisely that; reading, interpreting, then creating something in response, its practice can offer space to explore academic concepts. For example, Ika was struck by how academic theorists discussed ‘undisciplined reading’ or ‘the bliss of reading’ (for example Roland Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text) which reflected   the response of fandom through fanfiction.

“To my mind, this line of thinking seemed in parallel what was already going on in fanfiction and it seemed counterintuitive to return to a more traditional response to reading,” she said.

Through fandom’s commitment to and engagement with the world of their characters, a rich seam of practice is available to Ika, whose own involvement in fanfiction has allowed her privileged entry to such communities. This unrivalled access to a body of people who care passionately about their texts and critically analyse them from a non-disciplinary perspective, throws up unexpected insights from fresh perspectives.

Ika’s research is starting to draw together the very different spheres of classical reception theory and popular culture fanfiction. By writing academic articles and participating in events, both academic and fandom-related, she is bridging the gap between the two worlds. She can apply fanfiction experiences to traditional and classical texts in her teaching and even has some students preparing dissertations related to fanfiction.

“There is a growing body of people interested in this area,” she says. “It’s very exciting to talk about passion and devotion to texts in the academic context, and drawing from evidence derived through fanfiction enhances our academic experience.”

Further information

Dr Ika Willis; email: See the Society of the Friends of the Text group blog at Find out more about the world of fanfiction at Roland Barthes (1975), The Pleasure of the Text. Hill and Wang, New York, ISBN 10-037-452-1603