Fan Fiction is a Polity of Literature

By Juli Parrish

In “fan fiction” the readers of popular stories, such as Star Trek and Harry Potter, write their own invented episodes, torquing the “original” to serve their concerns and preferred narratives. It’s not merely, as Michel de Certeau described, “reading as poaching,” but a wholesale reinvention of the relationship between writers, readers, and texts. In fan fiction, to read is also to rewrite, so that both activities become inherently political—practices negotiated within a conflicted plurality.

Fan fiction is what a polity of literature looks like. While it might sound like an outlier or a niche, fan fiction is so strikingly similar to the essential operations of interactive gaming that one could reasonably argue that it is the dominant mode, by far, in the current encounter of readers, writers, and texts.

After de Certeau, and following scholar Henry Jenkins’s influential 1992 book of the same name, fan fiction writers called themselves “textual poachers.” But other metaphors proliferated, and, as American “fanfic” scholar and writer Juli Parrish argues here, it matters which ones we use as we try to understand our political experience as readers and writers. Parrish looks back, before Jenkins, to a less well-known scholar, Constance Penley, who borrowed from de Certeau the more complex metaphor of “Brownian motion,” a term in physics for all of the minor, invisible events that are only ever seen in tiny shifts on the macro scale (as in the weather).

Parrish argues that this metaphor—Brownian motion—correctly focuses our attention on processes, like literature, and not on heroic actors, such as “poachers” and “authors” and “the writer.” In a polity of literature, riven with Brownian motion, we focus on our collective achievements, not on who gets to claim ownership of them.


Fan Fiction is What a Polity of Literature Looks Like

1 March, 2022