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Essay: Harry Potter has changed attitudes towards fan culture & transformed fan culture itself

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  • Subject area(s): Media essays
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  • Published: June 12, 2021*
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  • Harry Potter has changed attitudes towards fan culture & transformed fan culture itself
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The effects of media have changed drastically in the last decade itself, on consumers and publication houses alike. Earlier, media, whether in the form of films, televised serials or books, was seen as something to be received and consumed. In contrast, today’s consumers are taking an active role. The participation of these fans is increasing day by day, giving rise to what Henry Jenkins calls “participatory culture”. One aspect of this participatory culture manifests as fanfiction. Fanfiction is defined as a fictional piece of literature undertaken by fans of a book, movie, television series or any other work of fiction where the author uses established characters, settings and/or other intellectual properties from an original creator as a basis for their writing. The earliest forms of fanfiction in the modern era were in the form of fanzines produced by female fans of Star Trek in the early seventies. With the advent of the internet in the early 90s, various websites sprung up with the sole purpose of providing these amateur authors, who were also fervent fans of a specific movie or television show, a platform to share these stories. Although most of the sites from the late 90s are outdated and no longer operable, some of them are still going strong. For example, fanfiction.net was founded in 1998 and is still being updated with newer works. Others like archiveofourown.org, founded in 2008, have gained a massive following with over four million works published since its conception. These websites work by classifying the fan written works on the basis of the original established story, or canon.

Out of the stories available on these sites, Harry Potter is a favourite. In this paper, the Harry Potter series will be the focal point. On fanfiction.net, there are over 650,00 stories based on Harry Potter. On archiveofourown.org, it is the most written about book, boasting over 200,000 works. Additionally, there are websites that exclusively cater to Harry Potter stories such as harrypotterfanfiction.com. These staggering figures make the Harry Potter “fandom” a force to reckon with. The Harry Potter books were revolutionary because of their immense popularity. The first instalment in the series, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” has sold over a hundred million copies, making it one of the best-sold fiction books in modern history. According to J.K Rowling’s very own site, it has also been translated into over fifty languages. The impact of these books, the first of which was published in 1997, continues to be felt today. Firstly, Rowling’s series completely transformed how the world treated children’s literature. All the young-adult novels that were conceived in the years immediately after the boom of Harry Potter which primarily dealt with a young teenage protagonist fighting against some imminent evil owe their success and to some part, their genesis, to Harry Potter. This series single-handedly help popularise the genre of children’s fiction, amongst readers and publishers alike. In the U.S., the market for children’s books exhibits more growth than the overall book market. While the overall book market has grown 33 percent since 2004, the children’s book market has grown 52 percent growth since 2004, with a four percent compound annual growth rate. The popularity of the Potter books has also helped boost the sales of other children and/or teenage fiction books, such as Hunger Games and Twilight. Apart from positively impacting authors, these books also helped children regain their passion for reading. It encouraged more and more young minds to pick up a book and start reading.

Not only has Harry Potter changed attitudes towards fan culture; it has transformed fan culture itself. For the first time, it was considered as “cool” to be a nerd. Fans began forming online communities, making art and composing works of their own. Fanfiction became especially relevant during this period. Many were inspired to pick up their pens and start writing, by re-imagining events and interpreting them as their own. It served as an outlet for they creativity. Sometimes, these stories completely invert the entire story. For example, a story called “Deconversion” by the user Lomonaaeren, imagines Harry as Draco’s lover, having embraced the dark side. Numerous fanfictions explore underlying and sometimes non-existing relationships between characters. In “Pet Project”, the author writes about the budding romance between Hermione and Snape. What must be remembered here is that Hermione is one of Harry’s closest friends, a student, whereas Snape is their professor. One can’t fathom why anybody would compose a 338,844 word story about the illicit relationship between a teacher and a student, especially a teacher who explicitly bullies said student in the original novels.

Harry Potter has also given rise to one of the largest network of online fraternities or as they are colloquially called, “fandoms”. Fanfiction has a huge role to play in this. What is unique about this community and vibrant fan culture is that the author does not mind fanfiction. In fact, she endorses it to a point that she has created something which can only be called “official” fanfiction. In early 2011, J.K Rowling launched a website called Pottermore. It promised to be the one-stop destination for all things related to the series, expanding the already vast saga. Pottermore is the first of its kind, an interactive website formally authorised and conceived by the author for their literary works. Pottermore allows fans to deeply engage with the books and the universe in which they were set in. Viewers can buy e-books, play games and communicate with other Harry Potter fans. It is revolutionary in the sense that it utilises the shifting media culture to further the author’s goals. From interactive quizzes to snippets of information about the characters previously unheard of, it gives readers a chance to glimpse behind the curtains. Rowling has written extensively for this website: short stories, articles and much more. Through this, she has expanded the narrative from the original seven books to include other character arcs. For the longest time, Pottermore helped satisfy the cravings of insatiable fans, hungry for more details.

Although in the past few years, readers have started to encounter a new problem. Fans are refusing to accept any information shared by Rowling in the subsequent years, after the publication of the seventh book, as canon. Rowling is infamous for revealing shocking information related to the series during interviews, in Pottermore articles and more recent times, in tweets. Fans are growing increasingly tired of Rowling’s constant extensions to the stories. Initially, when she dropped the bomb that Dumbledore was gay, she was hailed for promoting diversity and inclusivity in her books. However, without incorporating the struggles of queer people in her writing, people started to feel that Rowling was doing this as token activism. Her recent tweet about plumbing in the fictional universe and its lack thereof was deemed as not only unnecessary but also gross by fans and critics alike. Rowling became the butt of several jokes. She was mocked by none other than her loyal fans, who had grown sick of her incessant tweets. In Michel Foucault’s essay on the essence of authorship, he brings into question the extent of what constitutes as an author’s “work”. He gives an interesting example. Suppose one is undertaking the publication of Nietzsche’s work. While going over the manuscript, what all will be included in the final issue? Foucault says, “Everything that Nietzsche himself published, certainly. And what about the rough drafts for his works? Obviously. The plans for his aphorisms? Yes. The deleted passages and the notes at the bottom of the page? Yes. What if, within a workbook filled with apho­risms, one finds a reference, the notation of a meeting or of an ad­dress, or a laundry list: is it a work, or not? Why not?”. This example is pertinent to the case of J.K. Rowling and her bizarre tweets. Till what extent must her fans keep acknowledging her additions to the stories?

Another reason why most fans have refused to take what Rowling has said into account as people have their own interpretation of the events that transpired in the series. Fans vehemently reject Rowling’s words because they prefer their personal interpretations. With the internet, they have the space to present the same. According to Jenkins, there is a cultural shift taking place due to the interplay of different forms of media. The relationship between the author and the reader has changed; fans are not just mere spectators, they are active participants. Thus, the control that media producers exert over their intellectual property is diminishing. The internet serves as a medium and helps facilitate this shift.

Fanfiction is exceptionally important as writing has always been seen as a form of liberation. Just because fanfiction is not aligned to the original story does not mean it should be discarded and viewed as inferior. When the author forces their interpretation or “true” meaning of their work on readers, they are taking away from fans what they cherish the most— the ability to interpret works as their own. Thus, while reading the text, the intentions of the author become irrelevant and all that matters is what the reader makes of it. Roland Barthes, in his famous essay “The Death of an Author”, emphasises on this very claim: the author is not some God-like figure whose words require precise interpretation. According to him, extracting the “pure” and “perfect” meaning from a text is a futile exercise as simply, there isn’t one. Thus, Rowling has no more authority over her books than the readers who end up writing fanfiction. What she intended to portray in the books and her ideal universe is in no way better or more correct than what the fans interpret.

Furthermore, fanfiction cannot be dismissed merely because it is deemed unoriginal. The notions of originality in modern times are heavily based on the Romantic ideals of what constitutes as art— something absolutely unique, singular in its conception and completely uninfluenced. Any expression of art that does not conform to this is considered as unworthy and substandard. However, literary works produced in recent times cannot be subjected to these standards because of the revolutionary changes in media culture. According to Barthes, no work created in the modern era is ever truly original. He writes, “The writer can only imitate a gesture forever anterior, never original”. Hence, the problem of originality ceases to exist. Looking at Rowling’s work though a Barthesian lens proves that she has not written something utterly original and thus, untouchable and immutable. Rather, her writing was affected by various factors such as her upbringing, exposure to various media in her youth and her only power has been to “combine the different kinds of writing”. Barthes makes the distinction between the God-like Author that precedes the modern era and the writer, whose only skill is to string together words from a preexisting idea. Thus, both the fanfiction creator and Rowling become “writers” by Barthes’ definition, making neither superior to the other.
At the end of the day, it is up to the reader to enjoy the books however they want to. If somebody delights in taking the character out of the book and weaving stories around them, then so be it. Fanfiction is essential to one’s understanding of the shift in media culture due to its widespread nature. Fanfiction is important because it embraces the original works and adapts them in a way which allows readers to explore situations beyond the reach of mainstream fiction. The internet has provides a platform for this. It has given readers the opportunity to change and create the narrative in a meaningful way to their identities, increasing the scope of representation. Through fanfiction, it is evident that not only is the manner of a media producer’s interaction with a consumer changing, the medium through which this shift is taking place is also changing.

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