Every month the OTW hosts guest posts on our OTW News accounts to provide an outside perspective on the OTW or aspects of fandom. These posts express each individual’s personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of the OTW or constitute OTW policy.
Dr. Brit Kelley is a Lecturer in the University Writing Program at the University of California Davis, where they teach introductory and advanced writing courses to undergraduate students, and work with faculty across the university to develop best practices for teaching writing. Brit has been a massive fan in one fandom or another for a long time—from Nirvana to Harry Potter to Mass Effect to anything and everything Octavia Butler has ever written—and is just now settling back into writing fic. Today, Brit talks about their book Loving Fanfiction: Exploring the Role of Emotion in Online Fandoms,
How did you first find out about fandom and fanworks?
From one perspective, I’ve been a huge fan since I was about 12 years old, and I saw Kurt Cobain’s solo performance of “Pennyroyal Tea” on a late-night replay of their Unplugged Performance in New York. This would have been a solid four years after it actually happened. The intensity of this moment for me was powerful, and it led me to my first brush with a kind of fandom: I collected everything I could about Nirvana—CDs, books, VHS documentaries, clothing, etc. I was obsessed. But, though I was a huge collector, and could not stop learning and talking about Nirvana, especially Kurt Cobain, I didn’t really have any fan connections, aside from friends who put up with me talking about Nirvana non-stop.
Strangely, though I definitely had a Live Journal account in high school (which I started around 2001, I think), somehow, I never discovered fanfiction there. I didn’t actually experience fanfiction for the first time until my final year of college, in 2007, not long after finishing the final book in the Harry Potter series. I had been introduced to Harry Potter by friends in high school, and I became, if it’s possible, even more obsessed than I had been with Nirvana. When I finished the final book in the series, I felt totally bereft, so I went looking for more. I stumbled across something called “fanfiction” on Muggle Net, and I thought, “Well, why not?”
I was not entirely sure how I felt about it until I stumbled across Savageland’s “Somewhere I Have Never Traveled”. Only a few chapters were available on Muggle Net, but Savageland thankfully provided information about where they had moved their work. I followed the story to Sycophant Hex, and I stayed up until 7:00 in the morning reading it. After that, I couldn’t stop reading fic. Almost every free moment after finishing homework and/or coming back from sorting mail in the mailroom, I would be reading fanfiction. My addiction had become Hermione Granger-Severus Snape. Within, maybe(?), a month, I began writing my own romantic fanfic with Severus Snape and an original character. Some chapters of this story are now posted online to Sycophant Hex, but I have yet to complete it (I hope I will be able to soon).
The study for your book covered several major fandoms. What were some of the factors guiding your choices?
The study for my book took place over three phases, really. The earliest phase began while I was still in my PhD program, in the spring of 2012, in a class on Archival Research Methods. Because I was so familiar with Sycophant Hex and Harry Potter fic, I decided to start my work there, especially within the Granger-Snape ship community.
In early 2014, as my study went live, I was contacted by an X-Files fanfiction writer, which worked for me, because I had been a huge fan of the show growing up, and it was something I watched with my family. I was happy to re-experience it fully as I was reading this writer’s stories and talking to them about their fanwriting experience. I also decided to go searching for something I did not know as well. I wanted to see how looking into a different fandom and different fanfiction website would expand my understanding of what it meant to be a fan.
I did a lot of reading across different fandoms on Fanfiction.net during that time and ran across WWE fanfiction. WWE was something I didn’t know anything about, but when I began to read the fanfiction, I was struck by the depth of the characters, the vivid storytelling, and the enthusiasm of the fans in these spaces. I reached out to a few fan writers within this fandom, and I was lucky enough to have three respond, happy to talk to me about their own fandom histories and writing habits.
In 2018, in the process of turning my doctoral dissertation into a book, I shared my study on Twitter, so I got a wider range of responses, which included whatever fandoms people wanted to talk about in depth with me. This brought me The Lord of the Rings, The X-Men, Gotham, and Twilight.
Emotion is so central to fandom but not a frequent focus of research. Why do you think that is?
Emotion is really centralto research on fandom too, but, often, fan studies has tended to call emotion something else—“affect,” or to highlight the sociality of fandom, or the process of making in fandom rather than the emotions fans feel. Henry Jenkins (1992; 2005; 2006, etc.) has seen the value of emotion from the beginning, though he tended to refer to “affect”; Camille Bacon-Smith (1992; 2000) saw the value of emotion, too, but she focused more on the possibilities fandom provided for women in a patriarchal world.
Even lately, works such as A Companion to Media Fandom and Fan Studies (edited by Paul Booth, 2018) and The Routledge Companion to Media Fandom (edited by Melissa A. Click and Suzanne Scott, 2018) have touched a lot on emotion, but not in every chapter, and often not referring to it as “emotion.” The closest recent books to do so are my own book which was published in 2021 and Everybody Hurts: Transitions, endings, and resurrections in fan cultures edited by Rebecca Williams (published in 2018), which focuses on the potential negative emotions that can come along with and within lifelong fandom, especially when one’s beloved show, book (series), etc. comes to an end.
I think more and more research is directly addressing the key component of emotion and theorizing it, because there is more space to talk about emotion in academia than there was even five years ago, and certainly when Jenkins and Bacon-Smith started their work 30 years ago.
Your book discusses fans’ relations to both found fandom family and their own families. How did this reveal itself in your study?
This developed fairly slowly in my work, actually. It wasn’t something I really considered at all in my early work (circa 2014-2016) when I was finishing my doctorate. Though I noticed a lot about the depth and power of the relationships that fans could and did sometimes forge in their fandoms, especially the more they engaged with beta readers, I didn’t really consider the role of family, found or otherwise at that point.
It was only when I was revisiting the fandom history of a WWE fan I discuss a lot in my book, liloweewoah, that I began to see the central role that family played in her fandom experience. I began to think about how my own engagement with media—movies, TV shows, music, etc.—had been shaped by my earlier experiences with my parents, and, later my friends that my fandom would always be tied to that experience to some degree. It dawned on me that if I wanted an in-depth account of what I was beginning to call “emotioned literacy,” I needed to look at family.
So, I decided to go ahead and reach out to participants to talk about it directly. I wanted to know whether fans talked to biological family members about fandom, and how their early experiences with family might have shaped their fannish participation. I also wanted to know whether they felt like they had forged family-like relationships with other fans in these spaces. Finally, I wanted to know how their own experiences with family might have affected (or not) the way they write about family relationships in their own stories.
What I didn’t expect was that almost all of my participants began to see how much their own views of family, and their own experiences, shaped how they wrote about families in their fandom, whether they had realized it before or not. Most felt that their own family histories had not affected their fanfiction writing until they began to annotate some of their stories for me, to explain to me how they made certain decisions in their writing. This seemed to demonstrate for them, and for me, the strange split we are taught is so important to “good” writing and “good” research—that we have to leave ourselves out of it. Our feelings, our bodies, our histories, everything. But, in reality, that’s impossible. We can’t leave them behind, and maybe there’s a lot more value in understanding how these things do play a role in our work—in our reading and writing—rather than pretending we can leave ourselves behind.
How did you hear about the OTW and what do you see its role as?
I’ve known about the OTW since about 2013-2014, when a friend introduced me to Archive of Our Own. Before that, I had largely been in small, niche fanfiction communities, so the new, huge space was fantastic and also overwhelming. I was really impressed with the legal guidance and the spaces for fanfiction, A03, as well as an open access journal for fan studies, Transformative Works and Cultures.
I see the OTW’s role in fandom as a protective one: it’s there to make sure fans have the spaces they need to carry on their work. These spaces not only need to be easy to navigate, which is something the fantastic tag wranglers have been doing well, but they also need to be safe. This is something of a new frontier for fandom sites across the board, I think, but it’s the next important step: How can we create safe spaces for all fans, truly? OTW is centrally positioned to play a key and necessary role in that conversation, and I’ll be interested to see where it goes.
What fandom things have inspired you the most?
I mentioned earlier that I fell deeply and immediately in love with Savageland’s story, “Somewhere I Have Never Traveled”. I have the PDF saved to my computer now. This story had a huge impact on what I wanted to see from fan writing, especially when it comes to complex plots and characters.
On a more general level, I’ve always been most inspired by the fanwriter-beta reader dynamic. That all of these people would donate their precious time to read and respond to other people’s writing, often without ever meeting them in person, to be their cheerleader, editor, and even proofreader. This has always and continues to strike me as the most impressive and beautiful part of fandom, and it’s something I’d really love to get to understand better. It’s this kind of generosity and partnership that is so key to learning literacy practices, and it shows us how teaching and learning do not have to be top-down and unemotional, but rather can be horizontal, emotional, friendly, etc. I’m still chasing after how to create something similar in a classroom; I’m not sure if I ever will, but it certainly inspires both my research and my teaching.