Fan fiction as a valuable literacy practice

Stevie Leigh

Drury University, Springfield, Missouri, United States

[0.1] Abstract—The future of literacy requires an incorporation of the new texts that are emerging from the evolution of popular culture. Though curriculum reform is a complex task, the source material is readily available to educators in the form of fan fiction. Fan fiction is a valuable literacy practice and should be used in the classroom because it encourages creativity and literacy appreciation, promotes socialization, offers a platform for self-exploration, and motivates students to advance their writing skills.

[0.2] Keywords—Classroom; Fandom; Pedagogy; Pop culture; Students

Leigh, Stevie. 2020. "Fan Fiction as a Valuable Literacy Practice." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 34.

[1] With the rise of the digital age has come an increase in discourse about the relationship between technology and literacy. Scholars contend that the future of literacy requires an incorporation of "relevant technologies" and a consideration of "changing textual and media landscapes" (Bruce 1997, 304; Luke and Elkins 1998, 7). Though curriculum reform is a complex task, the source material may already be available to educators: adolescents and young adults have begun to generate new forms of literacy that reflect the emerging ideas and mediums of their time. Michele Knobel distinguishes these "new literacies" from conventional literacies by their participatory and collaborative natures. New literacies are also distinctly "less-published" than traditional forms of literature (2017, 37). These characteristics are familiar to those who regularly study and engage with fan communities because fan fiction is a prime example of a new literacy. This well-known fan practice is a creative product of remix culture in which fans create fictional stories that derive from preexisting elements of popular culture (Knobel 2017). However, the "less-published" aspect of fan fiction incites skepticism among some educators, leaving them hesitant about implementing it in the classroom. Teachers also express concerns about the unprofessional, misanthropic, and often sexual nature of the content. Additionally, they question the legality of producing and endorsing derivative works. Despite these concerns, education and media research show that fan fiction can be a valuable literacy practice because it encourages creativity and literacy appreciation, promotes socialization, offers a platform for self-exploration, and motivates students to advance their writing skills.

[2] In Cultural Studies and the Study of Popular Culture, John Storey (2014) debunks the common misconception that fandom is a phenomenon centered on consumption. He reminds readers that "it is also about the production of texts made in response to the professional media texts of fandom" (127). The texts fans respond to include songs, movies, television shows, books, and celebrities themselves. In doing so, fans "attribute new values to existing stories" and "create new textual relationships" (Plate 2011, 17, 14). For this reason, the creation of fan fiction is a process that offers fans an opportunity to use their imagination to fill in the blanks of a source text (Lamerichs 2018). This practice is comparable to textual reinterpretation, critical analysis, and oppositional response, all practices that are commonly used in literacy curriculums. Additionally, Lamerichs notes that "derivative writing has a larger history and presence than fandom itself," one that began with reinterpretations of classic novels by Arthur Conan Doyle, Lewis Carroll, and Jane Austen (17). With the rise of derivative writing came an increase in literacy appreciation among mainstream readers (Landow 2006). In the same way, fan fiction has its proven potential to inspire an appreciation for literacy among fan communities.

[3] Another way fan fiction aligns with the goals of literacy education is through its shared value of social interaction among writers. Like many forms of modern remix literacy, fan fiction is largely produced and disseminated online on fan-run websites. These collective, online spaces are highly interactive and depend on a certain "generosity of spirit" that encourages resource sharing and remixing of others' original works: "Deep interactivity, openness to feedback, sharing of resources and expertise, and a will to collaborate" are central to the practice of fan fiction (Knobel 2017, 37, 43). Through the promotion of this "generative discourse," fan communities are introduced to the foundational literacy practices of reader feedback and peer review (Rosenblatt and Tushnet 2015; Black 2005).

[4] Fan fiction websites are also characterized by a sense of participatory equality that allows anyone to engage in the production of literature, regardless of social status or access to educational resources. In terms of accessibility, fan fiction is also unique because it offers amateur writers a predetermined audience with a guaranteed interest. Because its characters are most often derived from popular culture, writers are destined to inherit audiences already invested in their subject matter. In regard to these "wholly voluntary, non-paying audiences," Stephanie Burt (2017) claims that "no clearer path from new writers to potentially interested readers has existed in the history of civilization" (¶ 10). As a result, fan fiction is arguably more inclusive and more accessible than traditional literacy practices.

[5] Fan fiction also serves as a valuable literary practice because it has been proven to encourage self-exploration. Burt (2017) argues that for many individuals fan fiction provides a safe space to express "desires that could not be articulated, much less acted out" in real life (¶ 7). This is especially likely when the writer's source material is a celebrity or fictional character. In addition to the exploration of desire, fan fiction offers fans a platform to reflect on and ask questions about their personal experiences. Readers may do so by imagining themselves as one of the characters in a particular story. Similarly, writers may create characters based on an ideal version of themselves. In doing so, they create narratives that help them understand their own identities outside the fictional narrative. Betsy Rosenblatt and Rebecca Tushnet (2015) insist that the practice of fan fiction helps young women and girls, specifically, "to develop selfhood [and] emotional maturity" (386). Additionally, the participatory nature of the fan community ensures supportive feedback from other fans, which encourages a continuation of self-exploration rarely found in the traditional literacy curriculum.

[6] Perhaps the most significant argument in favor of fan fiction as a valuable literacy practice is the fact that it provides fans with a unique opportunity to advance their writing skills. In his book Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, Henry Jenkins (2013) recounts the experiences of fans who discovered their writing skills through the practice of fan fiction. For these fans, the participatory environment of the fan community offered encouragement and support "lacking from their interactions with other institutions" (280). Unlike the classroom, online fan sites provide "safe and unintimidating access to the many resources of [the] writing community" (Black 2005, 125). Their shared interest in the source text motivates both writers and readers to engage in constructive processes of editing and revision that improve the quality of the writer's work. This mediated process of peer review prepares new writers to produce professional work in the future (Burt 2017). Fan and writer Sarah D. says her experience as a fan fiction creator gave her the confidence to further her writing skills and advanced her vocabulary and critical thinking (quoted in Rosenblatt and Tushnet 2015, 394).

[7] Rebecca Black (2005) even offers evidence for fan fiction as a tool for English language learners in her article on the topic. This was the case for Nadja R., who said she had been motivated to improve her English skills by her interest in writing fan fiction. She attributed her success as a PhD student in English to her experience of reading fan fiction from an early age (Rosenplatt and Tushnet 2015, 398). Though Nadja's experience may be unique, the influence fan fiction can have on fans' writing abilities is not. Whether through passive or active influence, the practice of fan fiction motivates fans to further their literacy skills.

[8] Despite the potential contributions the practice of fan fiction might have in the literacy classroom, the issue of copyright infringement remains pervasive. Because fan fiction is a derivative form of literature that repurposes literary elements of other texts, it is reasonable to question the legality of its production and endorsement. Jenkins (2013) admits that fan fiction appropriates from raw materials, "celebrat[ing] creative use of already circulating discourses" (279). In doing so, the practice "challenges the media industry's claims to hold copyrights on popular narratives" (279). Based on Jenkins's assessment of the practice of fan fiction, it does seem to violate the general aim of copyright law. However, a closer look at US law regarding transformative works reveals that fan works are protected under the doctrine of fair use. According to this doctrine, even "substantial copying" of source texts is authorized when the new product is noncommercial and creates a "new meaning, message, or creative vision" (Rosenblatt and Tushnet 2015, 397). These requirements align with the majority of fan fiction works, granting them legal permission to be produced, analyzed, and used as a learning tool in literacy classrooms.

[9] Based on the research of education and media scholars, fan fiction has the potential to serve as a valuable literacy practice. Commercialized productions of fan fictions, such as the 2011 Twilight spinoff Fifty Shades of Grey and the 2019 One Direction–inspired film After, have tainted perceptions of fan fiction among educators (Burt 2017; Pham 2019). The unprofessional and highly sexualized connotations portrayed by the media discount the ability of fan fiction to encourage creativity and literacy appreciation, promote socialization, offer a platform for self-exploration, and motivate students to advance their writing skills. For these reasons, Donna Alvermann and Margaret Hagood (2000) endorse the integration of fan fiction and literacy as a "timely project" (438). They suggest that implementing fan fiction into literacy curriculums will increase student engagement with literary materials and allow educators to better understand their students as literacy consumers and creators (445).

[10] Implementation may or may not include assigning fan fiction works as assigned readings; but at the most basic level, it would allow students to select works of fan fiction as texts for critical analysis and peer review. It might also include using the topic of fan fiction to lead discussions about copyright infringement and intellectual property rights. Allan Luke and John Elkins (1998) argue that technology-inspired literacy practices of this kind are more important than "mastery of a particular teaching method or knowledge of a particular research or curriculum" (4). Therefore, it is in the best interest of literacy educators, and their students in turn, to consider the practice of fan fiction as a valuable addition to literacy curriculums.


Alvermann, Donna E., and Margaret C. Hagood. 2000. "Fandom and Critical Media Literacy." Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 43 (5): 436–46.

Black, Rebecca W. 2005. "Access and Affiliation: The Literacy and Composition Practices of English Language Learners in an Online Fanfiction Community." Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 49 (2): 118–28.

Bruce, Bertram C. 1997. "Critical Issues Literacy Technologies: What Stance Should We Take?" Journal of Literacy Research 29 (2): 289–309.

Burt, Stephanie. 2017. "The Promise and Potential of Fan Fiction." New Yorker, August 23, 2017.

Jenkins, Henry. 2013. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. London: Routledge.

Knobel, Michele. 2017. "Remix, Literacy and Creativity: An Analytic Review of the Research Literature." Eesti Haridusteaduste Ajakiri/Estonian Journal of Education 5 (2): 31–53.

Lamerichs, Nicolle. 2018. Productive Fandom. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Landow, George P. 2006. Hypertext 3.0: Critical Theory and New Media in an Era of Globalization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Luke, Allan, and John Elkins. 1998. "Editorial: Reinventing Literacy in 'New Times.'" Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 42 (1): 4–7.

Pham, Jason. 2019. "How Anna Todd's Harry Styles Fanfiction Became a Bestselling Book—& Now a Movie." StyleCaster, April 12, 2019.

Plate, Liedeke. 2011. Transforming Memories in Contemporary Women's Rewriting. Basingstoke, United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan.

Rosenblatt, Betsy, and Rebecca Tushnet. 2015. "Transformative Works: Young Women's Voices on Fandom and Fair Use." In eGirls, eCitizens, edited by Jane Bailey and Valerie Steeves, 385–410. Ottawa, ON: University of Ottawa Press.

Storey, John. 2014. Cultural Studies and the Study of Popular Culture. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.