Expanding Literate Landscapes: Persons, Practices, and Sociohistoric Perspectives of Disciplinary Development. The Case Study of Kate Sharer.

Chapter 4 | A Lengthy Trajectory of Interweavings:
Knotworking English Studies and Fan Activities

“Being a fan”: Kate’s Fan Fiction and Fan Art

Whereas Charles’s early literate activity centered around reading the newspaper, a key facet of Kate’s early literacies involved creating fan fiction, a kind of textual poaching wherein fans of a popular movie, novel, or video game use that cultural text as a source “from which to generate a wide range of media related stories. … stretching its boundaries to incorporate their concerns, remolding its character to better suit their desires” (Jenkins, 1992, p. 156). Barton and Hamilton (1998) included the many forms of literate activity associated with “being a fan” among the host of other self-sponsored and informally-learned vernacular literacies that are “not regulated by the formal rules and procedures of dominant social institutions and which have their origins in everyday life” (p. 247). In contrast to the more dominant literacies,(those associated with and serving the formal purposes of organizations such as school, law, and work), vernacular literacies “are rooted in everyday experience and serve everyday purposes. They draw upon and contribute to vernacular knowledge” (Barton & Hamilton, 1998, pp. 251-252).

As early as she could remember, Kate was making up fan fiction stories based on what she had seen or read in the popular media and writing them down in the diary she said that she had kept: “Since I was a kid I would always make up stories in my head about the stuff I watched, like I liked the show Duck Tales, and so I would make up stories about them and write them in my diary.” Kate described the earliest stories that found their way into her diary as single-sentence plot summaries of the elaborate tales she constructed in her mind. Reading from her diary, Kate offered the following as an example of one of her early stories written in her diary when she was eight years old: “The Ninja Turtles went to Los Angeles today.” Other stories from her diary, however, were much longer, like the multi-page tale written with what Kate described as her “eight-year-old spelling and punctuation” that combined the characters from the Duck Tales and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons.

Kate’s fan stories would find their way into the public sphere when she acquired a home computer around age fifteen. According to Kate, her initial encounter with other writers' fan fiction stories via the internet was a pivotal moment toward publishing her own fan fiction. Kate describes that initial encounter in the brief video clip below.

Video Transcript

Her computer and access to the Internet provided Kate with a way to read others’ fan fiction and make her own available to others. As a result, her fan fiction expanded exponentially over the next few years as she wrote and posted stories for an increasing number of fandoms. “Basically, if I was interested in it, I was reading and writing fan fic about it,” she stated. The dozen or so stories she wrote and posted for one popular cultural text, the cartoon Daria, including the seven-part final story, earned her a great deal of recognition. Kate describes her fan writing about the Daria cartoon in the brief audio clip below from one of our interviews.

Audio Transcript

The acclaim she received from members of the Daria fandom did a great deal to enhance Kate’s confidence as a fan writer and deepen her engagement with fan fiction.

Working on her fan fiction several times a week consistently for the past ten years, often in stretches of four to five hours a day during particularly intense sessions, Kate has published a 40-chapter novel, dozens of short stories, and a variety of other texts from the popular texts at the center of the more than 50 fandoms she participates in, including those dedicated to movies such as Alien, Little Shop of Horrors, and Cars; comics like Spy vs. Spy; video games such as Final Fantasy, Manhunt, and Dragon Quest; drama including Shakespeare’s The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and a wide range of books, anime, cartoons, and television shows. Both in terms of the amount of time she invested in it and the amount she wrote, Kate’s level of engagement with fan fiction is consistent with other published accounts of this and other types of fan activity (Jenkins, 1992, 2006). “Basically,” Kate stated, “there’s never been a time over the past ten years when I haven’t been writing some kind of fan fic. It’s important to me, and so I make the time to work on it.” According to Kate, her goal in reworking these various texts centers around creating a more coherent and satisfying whole. As she states, “I like adding on to the original stories, kind of filling in the blanks. I like to make the story focus on what I want it to focus on or make things happen that I wanted to happen. Sometimes I want to develop characters more or introduce new ones.” In order to do so, she draws upon the kinds of strategies for interpreting, appropriating, and reconstructing these texts that Jenkins (1992) outlined in Textual Poachers, including recontextualizing original material by filling in gaps or extending the timeline, refocusing attention toward more secondary or underdeveloped characters or elements, or weaving together elements of various original texts into what is known as a “crossover.”

The various fan fiction texts Kate has created based on Treasure Planet, a 2002 Disney animated movie, which is in itself a piece of fan fiction based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, published in 1883, provide a representative example of Kate’s fan fiction and fan art. In repurposing Treasure Planet, much of Kate’s efforts have focused on Navigational Error, the 44-chapter novel she started during her MA program that is accompanied by a number of stand-alone short stories that relate closely to but are set outside of the novel. In her retellings of these texts, Kate continues and extends the exploits of Jim, a young man yearning for adventure, and John Silver, the cyborg first mate, the movie’s main characters, as they journey throughout the universe. And yet, Navigational Error does not draw solely upon Disney’s Treasure Planet. It incorporates characters, settings, and other elements from a dense network of movies (Willard, Dagon), video games (Final Fantasy, Treasure Quest), cartoons (Sailor Moon), television programs (Red Dwarf), science fiction stories (H. P. Lovecraft stories, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series), novels (Stephen King’s Desperation, Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur), as well as figures from Greco-Roman mythology and other historical events (i.e., the French Revolution).

Popular texts are not the only ones woven into the fabric of her novel. Kate states that she often draws upon texts of her own as well. One such resource has been the science fiction writing that she had been doing since she was around 13 years old. Like a good deal of her fan fiction, much of Kate’s sci-fi was set in futuristic techno-worlds occupied by robots and/or aliens and tended to focus on the relationship between humans and robots or cyborgs. Kate describes the close linkages between her fan fiction and her science fiction in the brief audio clip below from one of our interviews.

Audio Transcript

Kate draws from the text of her own life as well, employing elements of experiences with friends and family into the novel. She sees her fan fiction novel, for example, as,

a crossover with my real life. Like, Jim and his little crew end up working for a lawyer as runners. My roommate when I was an undergraduate worked as a runner for a lawyer. So when I was trying to think about what they could do on a ship that few people could do I thought “Oh, well, they could run errands for a lawyer.” And, some of the behaviors that Jim’s mother exhibits are things that my mother does to me. Like, there’s this one part toward the end [of the novel] where she is telling Jim that she is just giving him advice and he doesn’t have to follow it, but he knows that if he doesn’t follow it he’ll be in big trouble. And it’s like, that’s my mom. Oh, and I have these characters that run the boarding house where Jim and everybody live named the Uffords and … I made them these walrus-like people and they’re southern and they have southern accents; they say “ya’ll” and everything.

It is important to note that Kate’s fan fic productions are not limited to the written word. Consistent with Barton and Hamilton’s (1998) statement that “being a fan involved a range of literacy activities spanning reading and writing and incorporating other media” (p. 249), Kate also engages in a number of other forms of fan art. The stories she creates are often supplemented by the many drawings she does. She started doing these drawings for her stories during her high school years:

I haven’t taken an art class since kindergarten, but my mom used to do a lot of art with me when I was little so I think that had a lot to do with why I like drawing now. The first fan art I can remember doing were a bunch of pictures of robots from Mystery Science Theatre 3000. Now a lot of the art is mostly illustration purposes, to show what certain characters or scenes I write about would look like.

According to Kate, “I have such a vivid picture of them in my mind I just wanted people to really see what they look like. I can describe them in words, but I think people can understand them better if they can see them.” Elaborating on how her drawings have progressed, Kate stated “At first I did them just with pen and paper, but then I got a tablet, a digital tablet, for drawing my fan art. You can just draw it on the tablet and it comes up on the computer screen, and then I can color it in using Photoshop. Basically, I do the line art and then layer the color under it, that’s how animators do animation cells.” As examples, we’ve included two samples of Kate’s fan drawings below (see Figure 2 below).

Figure 2
Kate's Fan Fiction Art
(Click to Enlarge)

  • Kate's Fan Fiction Artwork, 1 of 2 (Use Arrows Below to See 2 of 2)
  • Kate's Fan Fiction Artwork, 2 of 2 (Use Arrows Below to See 1 of 2)

In addition to the drawings, Kate engages in a variety of other forms of fan art as well. She has also made a number of costumes based on her fan fiction characters, and created a number of music videos as well using video clips from popular movies and setting them to music. She has also commissioned other fans to create a number of Barbie-doll sized figures of some of the original characters she had created for her various stories.

Kate’s fan fiction is a textual playground in which she repurposes, combines, works across, and remediates (Bolter & Grusin, 1999) an array of vernacular texts, genres, media, and technologies. And yet, however much Kate draws upon the vernacular in creating her fan fiction, it is also linked into a larger nexus of practice that includes her disciplinary participation in English studies. The following sections of this chapter elaborate the interplay between Kate’s fan fiction and the literate activity of English studies throughout her undergraduate and graduate coursework and as she prepares for her MA exams. We argue that Kate’s engagement with fan fiction figures prominently in her disciplinary enculturation and vice versa.

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