Methodological model for fictocritical fan fiction as research

Shayla Olsen

University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia

[0.1] Abstract—Distanced and objective research methodologies that generate a divide between the practitioner and their practice present a need for an authentic model that is more representative of the immersive, connected, and subjective experience of the writer-researcher. Fictocritical fan fiction as research methodology suggests a means of investigating the field of fan fiction studies from within through engagement in the practice of fan fiction itself. An exemplar study of X-Files (1993–2018) fandom shows how the creative researcher may authentically engage in fandom research and fan fiction practice while maintaining the necessary level of rigor appropriate for research.

[0.2] Keywords—Autoethnography; Creative work; Exegesis; Fictocriticism; Practice-led

Olsen, Shayla. 2020. "Methodological Model for Fictocritical Fan Fiction as Research." In "Fan Studies Methodologies," edited by Julia E. Largent, Milena Popova, and Elise Vist, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 33.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Fan fiction has been explored through many lenses in fan studies' short but rich lifespan as a discipline—as a creative writing practice, as performance art, as a form of social commentary, and much more. In designing my doctoral research project, "Fandom Files: Fanfiction, Fictocriticism, and Creative Writing Pedagogy," which explores fan fiction as a pedagogical tool and a method of creative arts research, I found a need for an appropriately sensitive and rigorous approach that builds upon the foundational work of those who came before me. Such an approach needed not only to accommodate research into fan fiction but also to establish fan fiction itself as research, that is, as an outcome of research practice.

[1.2] This short paper focuses on a specific methodological process for investigating fan fiction and the communities that generate it through engagement with the dynamic social and creative practices of fan fiction. Founded on the principles of practice-led research, this bricolage-like approach mimics the multifaceted and fluid nature of online fandom by reappropriating best-fit methodologies from the field. It draws, in particular, on the noninvasive methods of ethnography and autoethnography—such as immersion, case study, informal interview, and field observation—and fictocriticism. Fictocriticism, an originally anthropological research methodology blending fact, fiction, archival research, and ethnography, is an approach in which findings are explored, critiqued, and ultimately presented seamlessly as a single multipurpose, often memoir-like text (Gibbs 2005). This model, fictocritical fan fiction as research methodology, enables the creative researcher to engage in fandom research and fan fiction practice in an authentic manner while maintaining a level of rigor appropriate for postgraduate and postdoctoral research.

2. Practice-led research and the creative arts

[2.1] Practice-led research adopts the postmodernist perspective on the nature of knowledge, emphasizing that knowledge is not absolute and may be embodied in an artwork or an act, not only in numbers or formal texts (Smith and Dean 2009). It also requires, by its very name, both practice and research, both act and reflection. While both elements vary wildly between projects, in maintaining its validity as a methodology, practice-led research must be appropriately robust and rigorous (Smith and Dean 2009; Stewart 2001).

[2.2] In the creative arts, practice-based research is very often considered to be research involving an act of artistic creation, such as of a painting. However, artist-researchers have questioned the merit of creative works generated for the sole purpose of research, noting the impact of strict methodological restrictions and controls, as well as the demand that practitioners be distanced or removed, upon the creative process (Buckley 2014; Gibbs 2005; Stewart 2001). Are works created solely for research still art? Are they even worthy of study? The creation of art for art's sake without the boundaries and measures expected in most other forms of research may support the belief commonly held among other disciplines that arts practice research is frivolous and lacking in critical depth, whereas art created as research output devalues the practice of artistic creation itself (Webb and Brien 2011).

[2.3] The careful selection of best-fit methodologies to form a bricolage approach avoids limiting, misrepresenting, or impacting findings by applying inappropriate methods considered correct according to more rigid methodologies (Barrett and Bolt 2007; Stewart 2001; Webb and Brien 2011). Attempts to force an alien methodology upon a research subject may fail to fully encapsulate its true nature or even, as in some fan fiction research involving the study of a community of human participants, invalidate or unduly influence findings with its invasiveness. Selecting methodologies native to the field of research allows the practice to unfold naturally, ensuring both a genuine creative process and a product worthy of critical reflection and analysis (Smith and Dean 2009). In keeping with methods already natural to the practice of online fan fiction writing, this model employs autoethnographic tools—those being the methods of community observation, communication, and assimilation in the community under observation—and the tool of writing itself, in this instance presented as a form of fictocriticism.

3. (Auto)ethnography and online fandom

[3.1] Online fandom has become an immersive, multisite social environment with a wealth of embodied and objectified cultural capital (Johnson 2004, as cited in Barrett and Bolt 2007), not unlike a traditional community. As such, autoethnography has become a popular methodology in fan studies, as it is a social research methodology that explores cultural experience through personal interactions with communities (Ellis, Adams, and Bochner 2011). As fan studies research is usually concerned with a creative practice that is inextricably tied to the community in which it is situated, autoethnographic approaches enable the researcher to engage effectively with both the social creative process and critical research without compromising the integrity of either. Autoethnographic research challenges more traditional academic representations of people, communities, and experiences by objective outsiders by instead seeking to capture the lived experience of those it studies through socially conscious interactions, noninvasive qualitative research methods, and honest, holistic, personal depictions of findings (Ellis, Adams, and Bochner 2011). However, traditional ethnographic methods, such as fieldwork, community observation, surveys, interviews, case studies, and secondary data/document analysis (Whitehead 2005), are also employed in fan studies.

[3.2] Some previous studies of the fan fiction community have used online ethnography (Black 2008; McGrath-Kerr 2006). In such studies, which do not include a research focus on the creative practice of writing fan fiction, the need to include the perspectives of the practitioner-researcher has been less significant. For instance, Rebecca W. Black (2008) explored the role of fan fiction practice and community engagement in English language acquisition by teens learning English. Similarly, though on a smaller scale, Rachel McGrath-Kerr (2006) employed an ethnographic approach in her study of female fans of the sci-fi television show Stargate SG-1 (1997–2007) and their perceptions of female identity and portrayal in the source media.

[3.3] Using a different approach but also examining female fans and their interactions in the real world, Katherine Larsen and Lynn S. Zubernis (2013, 2011) undertook a long-term autoethnographic study chronicling the early years of the Supernatural (2005–) fandom. The study, which was not originally intended to include the researchers themselves, resulted in two different texts: a critical, objective analysis of findings from the ethnography, published as Fandom at the Crossroads: Celebration, Shame, and Fan/Producer Relationships (2011), and a nonfiction account of the personal learnings and memorable experiences of the researchers, as well as the emotional costs of their research and fannish activities, published as Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls (2013). Read together, these texts convey the full scope of knowledge and experience gained from this research. Autoethnographic methods used include fieldwork, both structured and informal interviews, participant observations, secondary data analysis, and, differing significantly from more distanced ethnographic studies, the researchers' personal feelings and their reactions to and perceptions of their experiences.

[3.4] What is significant in these examples is the use of the specific ethnographic tools, both classical and innovative, qualitative and quantitative, that best fit the project and most effectively enable the researcher to understand the community or cultural system being studied (Whitehead 2005). As in the aforementioned autoethnographic and ethnographic studies (Black 2008; Larsen and Zubernis 2013, 2011; McGrath-Kerr 2006), using fictocritical fan fiction research enables the researcher to explore their research questions through engagement with a single popular fandom by employing ethnographic methodological tools, including fieldwork, case studies of career fan fiction writers, textual analyses of samples of fiction works, surveys, and interviews (Whitehead 2005), and autoethnographic tools, such a reflection or affective response. Unlike prior studies, my PhD project also explores the practice of fan fiction writing, revealing knowledge about the artform not discernible simply through reading it or reading about it (Perry 2007), in a creative form through which further inquiry may be taken: fictocriticism.

4. Fictocriticism and fan fiction

[4.1] While relatively new, even radical (Gibbs 2005), fictocritical creative writing is gaining ground as a legitimate research practice in the humanities and arts (Brewster 2013; Haseman 2007). The term fictocriticism was coined by anthropologist Michael Taussig and continues to be used as an ethnographic, autoethnographic, and biographic research tool, both as a method of inquiry and a means of presenting and disseminating research findings (Brewster 2013). As a method, fictocriticism takes an interdisciplinary approach to human subject research, employing various techniques and conventions from traditional genre forms, both scientific and literary, in order to explore, interpret, critique, and represent many facets of knowledge simultaneously (Brewster 2013; Gibbs 2005; Nettelbeck 1998). This use of fictional forms allows researchers to more truthfully investigate and reflect the human experience, making room for such elements as doubt, contradiction, ambivalence, and feeling, which are likely to be excluded in traditional research reports (Brewster 2013; Gibbs 2005). In representing a community or cultural system, the socially just ethnographer is charged with using the best tools available to her, in both data collection and data presentation and dissemination (Ellis, Adams, and Bochner 2011; Whitehead 2005).

[4.2] Fictocriticism offers researchers a means of resistance against restrictive, rigid, even boring (Richardson and St. Pierre 2005) forms such as the essay or report, forms that have been condemned by some for their failings in communicating the complexities of human and creative research (Brewster 2013; Buckley 2014; Gibbs 2005; Haseman 2007; Richardson and St. Pierre 2005). At the same time, this patchwork approach to exploring through writing mimics the fan fiction experience—characters from Fandom A thrown into the world of Fandom B, faced with mature ethical themes and written as a series of songs. In fan fiction, we cherish any combination that allows writers to bring out the meanings, truths, and motives they seek to know or express, without their being expected to write PG-rated screenplays simply because this is the original form of the source media.

[4.3] Far from writing for art's sake, fictocriticism represents a blending of creative and critical forms to explore the practice under study through writing practice (Perry 2007). Demands for its rigor and integrity come from within, as Richardson and St. Pierre (2005) and Haseman (2007) have expressed in their works. Similar to Larsen and Zubernis's (2013, 2011) study, fictocritical fan fiction research will produce two textual products—one critically reflective, one personal and creative—that together represent a fuller, more holistic understanding of the project's findings than can be gleaned from only one or the other (Perry 2007).

[4.4] In "Fandom Files: Fan fiction, Fictocriticism, and Creative Writing Pedagogy," a full-length, case fic–style X-Files fan fiction is woven into the thesis, allowing the iconic characters of Mulder and Scully to enthusiastically chase wild ideas and then critically analyze the findings against established theory. They mount their investigation in the research aims, explore the case history and background in the literature review, justify their approach in the methodology, and unravel continuing mysteries as the chapters progress. A chapter about copyright is narrativized as a higher authority shutting down the case, to the protests of a vocal community, with Mulder and Scully then left to argue about their place in a shaky, terminated investigation. This allows me to examine the literature around these issues while unpacking the concerns and opinions of interviewees, and to contrast the two viewpoints both in critical text and through the characters, but also to explore and give voice to my own position as someone participating in this community.

[4.5] An ongoing aim of this research is to explore the learning enabled through fan fiction practice, and this is supported by the fictocritical fan fiction through self-exploration, self-insertion, and reflection. The integrated nature of the two textual components is, while somewhat experimental (Gibbs 2005), intended to bring together the meanings simultaneously being brought about by creative and reflective practice while honoring the bricolage nature of online fandom, the writing process, and this model's multifaceted design (Baker 2012; Webb and Brien 2011). In situating the author as central and fundamental (Brewster 2013; Nettelbeck 1998), and by employing the elements of fictional, playful writing as methodological research tools (Brewster 2013; Gibbs 2005), fictocriticism dovetails ideally with autoethnographic methodologies in a practice-led approach.

5. Conclusion

[5.1] Several decades of quality research establishing the vast and diverse fields of fan fiction studies has provided us with many exemplary methodologies on which to model future studies, and this very brief paper does not intend to suggest that there is a single, correct way to do fan fiction research. In this discipline, such a suggestion would be akin to claiming that only canon got the ending right or that one ship is more legitimate than another. Rather, this paper intends to contribute to the discussion around methodologies being used in fan fiction research and to offer a model for positioning fictocritical fan fiction writing practice as both a mode and a product of research. The use of such a model assures the researcher that the study's design is appropriately robust, without compromising the authentic fan fiction writing process being studied, and, hopefully, without undermining the unbridled joy of the fandom experience.

6. Appendix

The fictocritical component of this paper and its corresponding chapter in the final thesis is live on Archive of Our Own at

7. References

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