Diving into the lacuna: Fan studies, methodologies, and mending the gaps

Dawn Walls-Thumma

[0.1] Abstract—With its autoethnographic tradition, fan studies research sometimes draws from similar intellectual and emotional impulses as the creation of fan works themselves, namely the perception of a lack and the need to repair that gap. Likewise, methodologies can intentionally or inadvertently respond to gaps in the scholarship.

[0.2] Keywords—Fan fiction; J. R. R. Tolkien; Surveys

Walls-Thumma, Dawn. 2020. "Diving into the Lacuna: Fan Studies, Methodologies, and Mending the Gaps." In "Fan Studies Methodologies," edited by Julia E. Largent, Milena Popova, and Elise Vist, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 33.

1. Origin stories

[1.1] My fan fiction origin story begins, like many others, with a lacuna—a gap, an interstice in the text. I had recently discovered fan fiction based upon J. R. R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion (1977), the myths and history that precede his more famous The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954), and I was reading it voraciously, hours of it each day. It satisfied hungers about the book I didn't even know I had. But there was something missing, a perspective not taken—or not fully taken: a lacuna. It was like a hole burned in the middle of the page. It drew one's notice, it inspired wonderment that turned to sorrow that turned to frustration—because it was always there, this hole, seemingly irreparable and eternal—until the day when I read a comment on a poem that screamed the lack of this essential perspective, and the frustration turned to anger. I knew then that I could either turn into the kind of person who rails at strangers on the internet—creating more lacunae—or I could repair the lack.

[1.2] I opened a new Word document and got to work.

[1.3] Fan fiction is a genre of lacunae. Sheenagh Pugh first classified fan fiction as wanting "'more of' or 'more from'" texts; fan studies has run wild with the "more from" and its implied landscape of lacunae (2005, 19). Henry Jenkins writes of "build[ing fan] culture within the gaps and margins of commercially circulating texts" (2013, 35). Camille Bacon-Smith documented a lack of satisfying relationships and plot simultaneity as provoking fan works (1992). Abigail Derecho notes how a lack of nonwhite and female characters encourages the production of "literature of the subordinate"—fan fiction (2006, 71). Lack of representation is likewise cited by fans in their meta as a motive for their fan works (note 1). Anne Jamison identifies "not knowing" as an essential element of fan fiction because of fandom's tendency to push past "familiar ground": in short, to enter the lacuna (2013, 3). Obsession_inc writes in her influential essay about affirmational and transformational fandoms of fan fiction's purpose in "fix[ing] a disappointing issue," especially a "lack of sex-having between two characters" ( There is the gapfiller, that ubiquitous genre unique to fan fiction, often called a "missing scene" in media fandom, that smooths and repairs the rifts in the story. In all instances, fan fiction is less an act of embroidering an existent and coherent whole than an act of mending.

2. The lacuna

[2.1] I'm uncertain whether I share an origin story with other fan fiction studies scholars because I'm still not entirely sure I qualify as one. My BA is in psychology, my graduate studies were in Old English literature, and I'm now a middle-school humanities teacher. I fell into fan fiction studies by accident, into a lacuna.

[2.2] In front of me on my desk, right now, is Framing Fan Fiction by Kristina Busse (2017). On its cover is a word cloud of fan fiction terms and fandoms. I remember taking it to the beach to read for the first time. Under a brilliant summer sun, I sat in a beach chair and perched it on my knees, searching the cover for my fandom in the word cloud. It must be there. It's a huge, old fandom.

[2.3] It wasn't there.

[2.4] It took weeks to finally find it. It's the smallest word in the word cloud and tucked between the arms of the letter "u" within the word "subject": The Lord of the Rings. It is a literal illustration of the lacuna I perceived and into which I fell, although I doubt that Busse intended it that way. Tolkien-based fan fiction is profuse and old. The first known Tolkien fan fic appeared in a 1958 zine called I Palant^#237;r, and from 1958 onward, there was always Tolkien fan fiction and Tolkienfic zines ( When fan fiction made its great leap online, Tolkien fan fiction authors seized the opportunity as enthusiastically as any. Susan Booker, in 2004, estimated that nearly 10 percent of fan fiction websites were Tolkien-based. As of this writing, in 2019, Tolkien-related categories are in the top five book fandoms for both and an Archive of Our Own (AO3)—#4 on both. The only other fandom to make the top five on both is Harry Potter (note 2).

[2.5] At least Busse included The Lord of the Rings, illegible though it may be and stuck literally into the middle of another, larger word. Anne Jamison's 2013 Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World doesn't index a single mention of Tolkien. Nor is the issue limited to scholars: FAN/FIC magazine lists big fandoms. Tolkien fandom isn't there. Then there are the nods to the fandom that are outright erroneous. Busse and Hellekson's introduction to their 2006 collection Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet uses Tolkien as an example of a complex canon (which is true) but identifies Ralph Bakshi's animated films as a part of that canon (which would surprise the hell out of any Tolkien fan fiction writer). Even the tendency to index mentions of Tolkien-based fan fiction under "Lord of the Rings" betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the fandom, since a not-insignificant number of Tolkien-based stories are grounded in The Silmarillion or, after the 2012 film release, The Hobbit. (As of this writing, on AO3, there are about twice as many Hobbit fics and nearly as many Silmarillion fics as there are stories based on The Lord of the Rings.) Even reading broadly about fan fiction, I find myself in awe of something that feels so wonderful and needful and strange—and very often not at all what I know of fan fiction from belonging to the Tolkienfic fandom. My fan studies books are littered with marginalia that echo "not true in Tolkienfic" throughout and across books.

[2.6] So the word cloud on Framing Fan Fiction felt illustrative to me. There is Lord of the Rings, as small as can be, because I think fan fiction studies scholars often know that Tolkien-based fan fiction deserves mention but don't much know what to do with it beyond that. The result: Tolkien-based fan fiction is barely studied, and most of what exists is undertaken by scholars who also work in Tolkien studies, not fan—much less fan fiction—studies. I am a case in point, my graduate work in Old English literature having situated me perfectly for Tolkien studies but—aside from a comfort with methodology and statistics from my days as an undergrad psych major—leaving me fumbling whenever I stagger into fan studies. But it's that hole, that lacuna again, that drives me to wonderment, to sorrow, to irritation, to action.

3. Fix-it fic

[3.1] From the Latin word lacus comes both the words lacuna and lake, the latter a gap in the very bones of the earth that is filled with something different and strange, something glinting and pliant and sustaining. It speaks to the promise that comes with a lack: that it will be fixed, filled. When I felt the lack of that certain perspective in the Silmarillion fic fandom, I spent a year pounding out the story that would fill it and ended up with a 350,000-word novel, and so I became a fic writer.

[3.2] When I felt the lack in fan fiction studies, I responded similarly. What other choice was there, really? Like the Silmarillion fic writers with whom I disagreed but whose work had brought me such sustenance and joy, I was and am deeply appreciative of the work of the scholars whose work I discuss above. But it seemed to describe a different world than the one to which I belonged, where affirmational and transformational impulses can be so deeply entwined as to be indistinguishable (and fan fiction studies has tended to emphasize the latter).

[3.3] I was a graduate student at the time when I noticed the lacuna in fan studies and so had access to many of the tools of academia, namely an Institutional Review Board. The Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey was the result this time, a 169-item survey that sought to document the values and practices of the people who wrote and read Tolkien-based fan fiction. Between December 2014 and November 2015, 1,052 participants recorded valid responses (note 3).

[3.4] The methodology was one that demanded recognition. It generated numbers that could be held up as a quantifiable yawp: "Here we are! Here is what we do!" My roots are planted in the social sciences, and having been schooled in how to quantify human behavior, in reducing psychoemotional and social complexity to a table of numbers, I was/am perhaps guilty of revering quantitative data above the complicated social/emotional welter that is the actual community and its actual practices beneath the numbers. The chief criticism I received during and after the survey was the lack of any free-response fields for participants to clarify (and complicate) their responses. Because complexity wasn't what I wanted, not yet anyway. I wanted the relative certitude—of definition, of mere existence—that numbers seemed to promise.

4. The lack

[4.1] I first began to notice that Tolkien-based fan fiction was almost never mentioned on Metafandom in the mid-2000s. Metafandom—a group that collected links to discussions in fandom—is where I developed the taste for fan studies that would someday lead me to that lacuna that produced the Tolkien Fan Fiction survey. Like published fan fiction studies, the posts featured on Metafandom mostly ignored the Tolkien fan fiction community of which I was a part, and its generalized discussions of fan fiction often did not apply to us. Nonetheless, I loved it, and when it closed, I mourned.

[4.2] Initially, I blamed us, the Tolkien fan fiction community itself, for why we weren't included. We were isolationists. We had built our online spaces and communities and didn't tend to intermix with other fandoms or show much interest in what they were discussing or doing. We disdained the confluence of social justice and fan works. We resisted new technology. We didn't migrate to Dreamwidth when the rest of fandom did. We never used Delicious or other social media sites. We adopted Tumblr only because the Hobbit film fans did, and as they discovered the books, they generated enough fannish activity there to coax even us out of our bucolic, hobbitish online villages. (And many fans hated it, and many fans still do.)

[4.3] All of these things remain factors. But my survey and other data have highlighted other reasons why perhaps those isolationist fans felt they didn't fit in the wider fic fandom, and why fan fiction studies researchers didn't feel that Tolkien fan fiction fit what they were doing. Why it may have been difficult to know even where to begin with us.

[4.4] One reason is the marriage between media fandom and fan fiction. Fan fiction studies have tended to focus on media or transmedia fandoms, and while with two blockbuster film trilogies and nearly two dozen books, the Tolkienfic fandom is undoubtedly transmedia, it tends to operate in the opposite direction of the transmedia fandoms that receive the most attention. The films almost universally drive fic writers to the books and the book canon rather than the other way around, which is notable. Compare Sherlockian fandom, the existence and fan fiction of which is even more venerable and enduring than Tolkien fandom. The BBC series does not drive fans to the stories and novels of Arthur Conan Doyle; for some, it certainly does, but the Sherlockian and Sherlock (2010–17) fandoms remain separate entities. The Harry Potter fic fandom, like Tolkien, places high value on the books, but both Chris Rankin (2013) and Amy Sturgis (2004) observe that the films, sanctioned as they are by J. K. Rowling, have become an inextricable extension of the book canon. This is not to say that the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films have no influence. They do, mostly in terms of imagery (Sturgis). Pure movieverse fan fiction, however, is essentially nonexistent. The Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey, distributed at the zenith of the Hobbit trilogy, had three participants out of 1,052 who used only the films for their stories. Furthermore, there is a large contingent of the fandom—the Silmarillion fandom—where there is no film.

[4.5] Tolkien-based fan fiction is in many ways nearer to a literary fandom, despite the nearly gravitational force of the films, with the idiosyncrasies that literary fandoms bring to the media fandom landscape. Fans' relationships to and perceptions of authority differ, for one. Motives for writing and the community's focus do not align with media fandom. Social justice is one prominent area of difference. Out of curiosity, I compared discussions linked on Metafandom in January through March of 2007 and the discussions conducted on the Silmarillion Writers' Guild (SWG) Yahoo! mailing list that same year; 16 percent of the linked discussions on Metafandom concerned social justice in some way. Social justice wasn't mentioned once on the SWG that entire year, and it's not like Tolkien doesn't provide fertile ground for such discussions; they just were not, until recently, of much interest to Tolkien fan fiction writers (note 4). (I should note also that SWG members, on the survey, were among the most likely to view their fan fiction as having a social justice purpose; their reticence here reflects the broader fandom culture.) But given the emphasis in fan studies on resistant reading, on flipping the power differentials between original creators and their fans, on the twisting of media texts to make room for fans of myriad identities and experiences to see themselves in media texts, to discover a conclave of fans—however large and venerable it may be—who were more content to debate Elvish grammar or the parentage of obscure characters, who used their stories to comment on Middle-earth and not modern life, might have been unsettling when so much of fan fiction studies elevates the radical and transgressive.

5. The lake

[5.1] And so our methods trace a route that dives into the gaps we need to fill even as it weaves amid the ones we don't yet dare.

[5.2] My survey, five years later—and as I've begun work on preparing the second iteration, hopefully to be distributed at the end of this year—plummets into the abyss with all the noisy grace of a cannonball. I look back at it with emotions very similar to that first fic I wrote: a little mortified but cognizant still that it felt imperative at the time. I see in its shape my need to affirm our existence from the depths of the lacuna. And that my recognition of the need for a subtler touch next time comes from the diminishing sense of urgency: the lacuna, the lack, the lake; the glint in the darkness of something silver, liquid, scintillating. Sustaining.

6. Notes

1. For example, the LiveJournal user hesychasm engaged in a project that surveyed the number of characters in their fan fiction from various racial groups, noting that, "speaking as a person of color, I am not comfortable with using the lack of minority characters or minority actors as an excuse not to write about them." Hesychasm provides a list of links to other fan fiction writers who have undertaken similar analyses of their work (

2. An Archive of Our Own's system of categorizing fan works makes it impossible to get a hard count of fan works in fandoms like Tolkien, Sherlock, or Harry Potter where fans are creating based on multiple texts. Creators can not only choose specific texts (e.g., "The Silmarillion and other histories of Middle-Earth") but broader categories (e.g., "TOLKIEN J. R. R.—Works & Related Fandoms"), and they can select multiple categories as well, so there is neither a single category that contains all the works for a broadly defined fandom, nor is it possible to add up all the works under the various categories to generate a total for that fandom. Nonetheless, the fact that "TOLKIEN J. R. R.—Works & Related Fandoms" is the fourth most popular literary fandom shows the current relevance of this fandom in addition to its longevity.

3. The Tolkien Fan Fiction Survey was reviewed and approved by the Institutional Review Board of American Public University on December 23, 2014.

4. In contrast, a 2010 Dreamwidth post by Marina argues the influence of social justice in fandom (

7. References

Bacon-Smith, Camille. 1992. Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Booker, Susan. 2004. "Tales Around the Internet Campfire: Fan Fiction in Tolkien's Universe." In Tolkien on Film: Essays on Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, edited by Janet Brennan Croft, 259–82. Altadena, CA: Mythopoeic Press.

Busse, Kristina. 2017. Framing Fan Fiction: Literary and Social Practices in Fan Fiction Communities. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Busse, Kristina and Karen Hellekson. "Introduction: Work in Progress." 2006. In Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet: New Essays, edited by Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse, 5–32. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Derecho, Abigail. 2006. "Archontic Literature: A Definition, a History, and Several Theories of Fan Fiction." 2006. In Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet: New Essays, edited by Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse, 61–78. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Jamison, Anne. 2013. Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World. Dallas: Smart Pop.

Jenkins, Henry. 2013. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. Updated edition. New York: Routledge.

Pugh, Sheenagh. 2005. The Democratic Genre: Fan Fiction in a Literary Context. Brigend, UK: Seren.

Rankin, Chris. "An Excerpt from Percy Weasley's University Thesis." 2013. In Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World, edited by Anne Jamison, 157–64. Dallas: Smart Pop.

Sturgis, Amy. 2004. "Make Mine 'Movieverse': How the Tolkien Fan Fiction Community Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Peter Jackson." In Tolkien on Film: Essays on Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, edited by Janet Brennan Croft, 283–305. Altadena, CA: Mythopoeic Press.