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Hyperreality and Spheres of Interpretation, Or Why Fanfiction Is SODEEP

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Writing stories is one of those things that for some reason people seem to think is a cheap and easy thing to do until they actually get around to trying it themselves. Fanfiction authors have it the worst, of course. In theory, people know that a fanfiction can be good. Unfortunately, most fanfiction is crap. The reason that this is so is because, even more so than regular writing, fanfiction is incredibly hard to pull off convincingly.

I wrote this post to shed some insight on the fanfiction writing process – but of course most of this does apply to original writing as well, so anyone interested in stories and how they’re constructed should find this useful in some way. It’s a lot more involved than it looks.

Note: This is a lengthy post, which delves into academia and literary theory. I’ll try to explain it all in an accessible way, but nonetheless, I wouldn’t call this light reading.

Introduction and Background Context

I should start this off by saying where I got the inspiration for writing this post. Righteous indignation at the poor reputation fanfiction gets is one motivating factor, I suppose, but the really interesting thing for me was entering the academic sphere and discovering that fanfiction is a serious area of study. This shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise as it did, since academics write papers about everything, including the snot that comes out of your nose.

Still, a couple of ideas stuck with me: that fanfiction is an example of a cybertext (Viires, 2005). Being written and distributed primarily through the web means that fanfiction creates its own culture that transcends culture and physical space. You have a bunch of random strangers from any number of countries coming together and forging their author identities through a common interest. When you pause to think about it, that’s pretty amazing. Academics are seriously interested in whether engaging with fandom affects how students perform in regular English studies (Black, 2005; Chandler-Olcott & Mahar, 2003), but my thoughts went into another direction. It got me thinking about the nature of fandom and how we interpret media in general.

You see, fanfiction actively pushes the boundaries of traditional literacy by drawing from multiple mediums and visual texts. This is where the term multiliteracy comes from (Cope & Kalantzis, 2000). When you’re writing fanfiction, what you’re doing is drawing a general interpretation – usually from a variety of mediums, since franchises tend to spread themselves out quite a bit – and then channeling your ideas into one particular form, usually a written story. It’s actually not much different from the art of adaptation, only it requires much more original input from the author.

It’s this process of interpretation that I’m going to focus on in this post. My argument is that fanfiction and simulacra (the ‘imitation’ of reality) is a conscious product of the author’s interpretation. This goes without saying, of course, but then we can also go deeper than that. What about the consumers of fanfiction? By reading fanfiction, one’s interpretation of the original work (i.e. the canon) is expanded to incorporate new ideas, depending on whether you accept or reject the fanfic author’s vision. This is where we get widely accepted theories of fanon from. What this then leads to is a “flattening”, so to speak, of the original source. As fanfic culture flourishes, the consumer’s interpretation of an anime becomes much more deeply personal. This effectively breaks down the barriers that generally arise when we go from interpreting a text to actively taking it in as a creative influence.

Don’t worry if you didn’t understand that last paragraph. I’ll be breaking down the ideas in that paragraph one at a time. But tldr; fanfics do make you a more versatile writer/reader, whether you realise it or not. Yes, even bad fanfiction can have this effect!

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Processes of Interpretation

First off, I’ll start with describing the process of interpretation that occurs when we consume media.

In his post about “Interpreting Interpretation“, Joshspeagle described ‘interpretation’ as follows:

(1) The process of associating meaning with images.
(2) The process of associating deeper/underlying meaning with images beyond those that are readily apparent.

This is a pretty good definition for practical purposes, but I’m afraid from here our takes on the subject differ. Joshspeagle goes on to describe types of anime fans but doesn’t really go into much detail about detailing why interpretations differ from person to person. (You should still definitely check out his post because the conclusions he makes are utterly brilliant, although alas not related very much to this topic.)

So here I’m going to propose an alternate model for interpreting media, which I call the Spheres of Interpretation Model, which you can see below:

Diagram 1

Fig. 1: The Core Being

In any person’s Sphere of Interpretation, we have in the middle the person’s core being, which determines one’s general perspective – the default lenses, so to speak, through which we look at the world. Our manner of interpretation is generally wider than what our core being suggests, though. This is usually because of our experiences, which make up a multitude of factors, summarised broadly as follows:

  • Extrinsic influences: Our relationships, family, friends, education, reading material, etc. all push us towards incorporating certain values systems and beliefs into our own thinking. These influences tend to push the sphere outwards. Interacting with the outer world broadens one’s sphere of interpretation.
  • Intrinsic influences: One’s personal values, motivation and focus. These attitudes determine which external influences you choose to accept or reject into your own being. Often, this is subconscious, although this can be controlled. For example, when you are focusing very hard on something, you tend to block out distractions. Intrinsic influences tend to narrow or refine one’s sphere of interpretation.

The relationship between extrinsic and intrinsic influences is complementary, meaning they constantly affect each other. But it’s also symbiotic, which means that while contact with others may prompt us into broadening our thinking, it also makes us more aware of our inner self, which wants to retain its individuality. So as people, we’re always in a state of conflict about interpreting ideas through a pre-established method or through our own gut.

Diagram 2

Fig. 2: Extrinsic and Intrinsic Influences

I’m starting to realise how pathetic my MS Paint skills are at this point, but bear with me.

As you can see from the diagram, the clash between a person’s inner and public self is what makes us so dynamic as human beings. It explains why we are all so different, despite superficial similarities. This is also what makes us able to engage with a story on multiple levels, or to form completely contrasting interpretations of the same event.

The size of one’s sphere of interpretation matters. Theoretically, you can interpret something however you like – but this is physically impossible if your mind has not been exposed to a reality that you can link the interpretation to. Readers of the Bible a thousand years ago would never have interpreted the messages as offensively anti-gay or sexist, for instance, but these are valid interpretations today. No one back then would have written a Naruto yaoi fanfiction, either.

So when you write a story – or express yourself in any form, for that matter – your work is formed out of a subset of your own interpretation of life and is limited by the range of your own perceptions and insights.

Diagram 3

Fig. 3: Stories as a Subset of Interpretation

Arguably, the more a story crosses over with our core being, the better, more focused and “truer” to life it feels.

Now here’s where it gets slightly complicated. As soon as you write a story, it ceases to be a part of you. You, the writer, will from then on continue to constantly develop, but the story remains static. The way you interpret your own story is therefore guaranteed to change over time.

So the author and reader thus become consumers of the same work, each perceiving it through their own distinct spheres of interpretation.

Diagram 4

Fig. 4: Author and Reader Interpretations

The diligent reader can position himself to stand partly within the author’s sphere of interpretation and thus attempt to perceive the work in the spirit it was intended to be written. Yet because we can never be fully exposed to the same ideas and influences the author had, we can never fully connect with his experience – and neither can we fully connect with that of a fellow reader, for that matter. In this case, broadening one’s sphere does not capture the same depth of the experience. The outer edges of one’s sphere of interpretation constitute shallow understanding – interpretations we can accept on an intellectual level but don’t accept on a deeper, emotional level.

Let’s use an anime example for this. Say you watch Death Note and you’re convinced Light is evil. Now you might, if you were an open-minded person, accept another person’s justification that Light was really a good guy all along, but you would not be able to accept that interpretation with the same conviction that you would have about Light being evil. Becoming open-minded or learning more doesn’t necessarily change the size of our core being.

To gain a broader, deeper understanding of the story in all of its complexities, what you need to do is position your core being closer to that of the story’s core.

That’s nice, but what does it have to do with fanfiction?

Fanfiction is the tool that allows the reader to position their core being right into the story by making the original material part of their own creative process.

Diagram 5

Fig. 5: The fanfiction draws on both the story and its reader for influence

The difference between the quality of fanfiction can be seen from this model: bad fanfiction is drawn from only the outer layers of both the fanfic author and the original material, while good fanfiction draws much more deeply from both spheres. The closer the fanfic author positions his core being towards the centre of the canon story, the more “in-character” the fanfiction becomes.

The skilled fanfic author thus absorbs the influence of the canon story entirely and becomes able to shape it according to his writing needs. This is where we get the different styles of fanfic, which can range from Original Flavor (attempting to copy the tone and style of the canon) to Alternate Universe (keeping the characters and thematic elements recognisable but placing them in a different setting). If the fanfic author has done his job particularly well, the fanfiction holds up as its own work of art, which then exerts its own influence back on the canon.

Diagram 6

Fig. 6: The fanfiction causes the canon influence to expand

It might seem strange and contradictory that a static piece of work can become fluid and dynamic because of someone else’s interpretation. But this is how art interpretation works in general; fanfiction merely exaggerates the process. In truth, we are all fanfic authors in a sense when we engage deeply with a text. We think about possibilities that will never happen or we think up details about characters that seem likely, given what we know about their personality/background, but was never stated in-story or by the author elsewhere. Fanfic authors call this headcanon, but more widely accepted headcanon is called fanon. In the Naruto fandom, for instance, the identity of Naruto’s father was generally accepted fanon well before it was formally revealed. Fanfiction authors were already using this implicit fact as part of their own stories, thereby further influencing each other to continue acknowledging this speculation as actuality. The distinctions between canon and fanon become blurred.

To understand this phenomenon in full detail, it might be helpful to draw on the ideas of Jean Baudrillard and his theory of hyperreality. Instead of being the canon, fanfiction is an encoded representation that both reflects what it’s trying to be and distorts it. Think of it like a slanted mirror. Things get really postmodern when the fanfiction author inserts a character representing himself or herself into the story or projects personal issues into a story, deliberately disregarding the context altogether. What we get is often a very disjointed piecemeal-like narrative (most readers can spot a “Mary Sue” miles away) that actually succeeds as a “vicious cycle” in postmodern literary terms – when a “real” character interferes with the fictitious. It’s all very meta, but you can also say that’s just shit writing and no one would argue with you there.

Putting It All Together

  1. Author produces a story.
  2. Consumer reads the story and forms an interpretation.
  3. The consumer reads more deeply into the narrative and starts to put himself directly into the core of the story.
  4. The consumer writes a fanfiction, becoming a creator in his own right.
  5. The fanfiction is a work of interpretation that is itself open to further interpretation.
  6. Fanfiction culture influences the canon and alters fan perceptions of the work.
  7. Fanfiction breaks down the barriers between the story and the consumer.

This last point is the most important of all. This is why fanfiction, for all its seeming stylistic constraints, is useful in developing an author’s range of creativity. By allowing the consumer to engage with a story on a far deeper and more personal level than simple interpretation, analysis or discussion can allow, fanfiction allows writers to apply their creative influences in original ways.

I think that it gives you a sense of flexibility, most of all. If you’re skilled enough, you can watch almost anything and make a fanfic out of it. Like anything, it becomes an intuitive process. Stories can be melded in whatever shape you like.

So, even if you don’t actually read or write fanfiction yourself, by tapping into your inner fanfic author, you can start to apply a more flexible understanding of the structure of stories, literature and art itself. A story is a work of art that an author and reader create together. An interpretation is something that you create by yourself – no one else is in charge of that. The deeper, more nuanced and more flexible that interpretation is, the more you ultimately gain from being a fan.

(tldr; I got back into writing fanfiction lately and it’s really exhausting but really, really fun.)

Further Reading

I only touched on this idea very briefly in this post, but fanfiction is very much like adaptation – you need to be conscious of what conventions work for different media before your work can be effective. So, keeping that broad idea in mind, why not try reading these two posts and see what happens when you mentally substitute ‘adaptation’ for ‘fanfiction’?

A Dialogue About Auteur Theory and Adaptations

Square Pegs, Round Holes, and the Art of Adaptation

List of Academic Citations

For this post, I used sources where I own the articles in question (except for the third one). So if you want to read the sources I used, you can just ask in a comment or something and I can email them to you – as long as you promise not to redistribute them.

Black, R. (2005) Access and Affiliation: The Literacy and Composition Practices of English-Language Learners in an Online Fanfiction Community, Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 49(2).

Chandler-Olcott, K., & Mahar, D. (2003) Adolescents’ anime-inspired “fanfictions”: an exploration of multiliteracies: the authors explore “fanfiction” as a valid literacy practice in the context of the multiliteracies framework, Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 46(7).

Cope, B., & Kalantzis, M. (2000) Multiliteracies: Literacy learning and the design of social futures. New York: Routledge.

Viires, P. (2005) Literature in Cyberspace, Folklore (Tartu), 29.

Postscript

Congratulations for reading this 2.5k word post all the way to the end. Holy crap. Give yourself a pat on the back. I hope you learned something.

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Posted on September 21, 2013, in Editorials and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 35 Comments.

  1. Wow. I read the whole thing. Are you sure you aren’t a college professor?

  2. I’m very much interested in writing, though not confined to fanfiction. This really gave me some insight into what I should do in preparation. I never thought of fanfiction as interpretations nor did I think of what the author tried to depict from their interpretation of the source.
    I have a long way to go *sigh*

    • A lot of the stuff I detailed here is really very intuitive – you just do it instinctively when you write, so there’s not a lot you can “apply” from this. I say don’t worry about it so much :) The theory is not so important during the actual process of writing. Just keep practicing and getting feedback and that will be enough.

  3. It wasn’t only Useful !! this ARTICLE IS VERY EDUCATING !!
    & I even learned some vocabulary (mainly: interpretation)

    Now that you mention it, it’s something that I subconsciously knew “someone” always sees the Canon (like manga/anime) through his own mind.
    reading others fanfics (not only that even opinions on blogs/forums works it) really expands that “someone” view on it. after many fans agree the same “view” we get the Fanon!!

  4. *Pats myself on the back*

    Oh, I learned something, alright.

    I learned that you’re absolutely correct… you’re MS Paint skills are pretty pathetic! XD

    On a serious note, that was a great read through, Froggy-Kun! Writing really does develop you as a person, no matter how outlandish the story is.

  5. tried to make a bleach fan fic once…….
    did research had my facts straight even made sure that the OC had a believable back story
    problem was the execution of the writing and the time commitment involved
    im impressed with anybody who can write a good fan fic
    froggy kun has my respect

    • Technically, you haven’t seen any fanfic I’ve written so for all you know, I could be producing shit! I’m glad you have appreciation for how hard fanfic writing is, though. I’m always thinking about how difficult it is myself.

  6. I think you might want to read up on Henry Jenkins as well. Good to see you using Rebecca Black, though. Cool!

    What you wrote is interesting (and I’ve somehow read before in the course of studying Japanese popular culture) and while I’m more into Henry Jenkins’s works, your sources have provided me food for thought.

    On a more personal level, I did start out writing with fanfiction as well. My experience began with a fanfiction in the Cardcaptor Sakura universe. But then my original character was so fun to write about, I thought, hey why not give him his own story? And then his own original story began from there. Funny how things work out eventually.

    • Much thanks for the feedback and recommendation!

      But then my original character was so fun to write about, I thought, hey why not give him his own story?

      Hmmm, I was never a big fan of writing OCs into my fanfiction unless they were secondary to the plot. But I admit fanfiction is a great way of writing mostly original plots with some original characters and to get feedback on that from a large number of people. If you just jump into original fiction, it’s harder to find readers. It’s a good stepping stone if your goal is to write stories in general, although I would argue that fanfiction as a medium has its own particular strengths that can’t be replicated anywhere else. That’s why I still write fanfiction, even now that I’m confident in my own storytelling skills.

      • Yeah, I get what you mean, because fanfiction by its very nature is “original” in that you’re adding an original plot to an already established universe. Uh oh, Azuma Hiroki and his Otaku Database will come back to haunt us here. Basically fanfiction might turn out to be yet another form of consumption and production, much like the doujins we see in Komike (Comic Market).

        Fanfiction definitely has its own strengths when compared against original fiction, but it depends on what your goal is, really. As you said, fanfiction is a good stepping stone if my goal is to write stories in general (which it is, actually), but it is fun to read and write fanfiction once in a while. The drawback, of course, is that to write a good fanfiction you have to know the established universe very well, inside out, do research and go to great lengths to ensure your story is consistent with the existing canon.

        On the other hand, if fantasizing, or plain having fun is the goal then it would be all right to ignore all that canon and write the fanfiction however you want it (for example rewriting what you wished happened in the story rather than bother with consistency). Either way it works, I guess.

        And there are terrible fanfictions (like My Immortal for Harry Potter that are worth reading, if only for the laughs. ;)

  7. This was a fantastic discussion of fanfiction that I think is really something! I’m actually excited thinking about incorporating some of the ideas espoused here more explicitly into my own thinking.

    As to why interpretations differ from person to person, I think you’ve got it decently fleshed out here in the abstract. Trying to pin down the exact motivations, however, still bother me more often than I’d like to admit.

    • Heheh, can’t wait to see how you build on these ideas and come up with your own more in-depth theory about why interpretations differ from person to person. The relationship between extrinsic and intrinsic influences is something I would like to have elaborated on but felt beside the point in a post about fanfiction. Glad it all got you thinking, though.

  8. Wow, I just read the whole thing and I’m a little proud of myself.
    But it was very interesting for me since I have taken a literature course in the past, and I personally enjoy reading/writing (fanfiction and other stuff). I like your models on the core being of a person and a story, and I never even realised how much fanfiction can broaden our perception of a work. I just, wow, I really like this post.

    • Thanks, I’m glad this post could be useful to you!

      Also, I’m curious – what sort of fiction do you write? You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.

      • Hah, no it’s okay! I’ll try to answer as well as I can, although I never quite know what to say when people ask me this. In all honesty, I just write about people. Regular people in the regular world and how they cope with their lives. For the past few months I have been focusing on mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and solitude as the themes. And sometimes I write video sketches but I’m not a very good actress so they remain ideas on paper rather than becoming complete products.
        I have yet to try my hand at fantasy or sci-fi, but that would be really cool to do one day. I also would like to try scriptwriting and theatre in the future. I plan on studying creative writing next year, and I just want to try all genres of writing, really.

        I’m not very interested in non-fiction like articles and stuff, but I must admit after creating my blog that my interest in this is increasing. It’s a lot of fun when I can share my thoughts and opinions on things I enjoy in everyday life.

        What about you? Do you write any fiction? Or do you just stick to blog articles and fanfiction?

        • Truth be told, my question was secretly a trick question and you passed it. I get dubious about writers who answer with just a genre – it implies a close-mindedness to their thinking. I see you’re very much a “theme comes first” sort of writer, which very much implies your stories could have a transcendent quality to them. Now I’m interested! Where can I read your stories?

          As for what I write, if you stick around for my next post, you’ll find out the answer ;)

  9. Uhm wait whaaaat? You really got me there then… glad I passed! About reading my stories tho… I don’t really upload my original work on the net, as most of it is unfinished and a lot of it is in Norwegian as well ;/ For the moment I have one fanfiction online but really, it’s crap since I’m just a beginner and I just wrote it for practice and cause I was bored, so I’m hesitant about showing it since I doesn’t represent my writing in general. However if you’re really interested I can send you the link… but really it’s not worth your time. Better wait until I am a published best selling author (; (lol just kidding ;_;)

    Looking forward to your post though! This blog is so interesting.

  10. I never realized I was a part of all of this when I write fanfiction, but now that I have read this well written and enlightening diatribe I now understand why 2 of my stories hit it out of the ballpark (I still get fan email years later for stories written in 2006) and my others were flat and only generated a dozen or so fav’s / follows. The two successes were when I shared my core being and put my heart and soul into the stories. There others were written in the context outside my “core being” because I was searching for new topics, genres and plots, and chose to write outside my sphere of experience just so I could claim variety in my writing.
    Thank you very much for sharing your opinion of fanfiction.

  11. Well, certainly not something I expected from an anime blog. A pleasant surprise.

    However, don’t let yourself too engrossed into just one perspective/character of your story. You’re God, after all.

    And not everyone could smell Mary Sue. Quite the opposite. Check out the Infinite Stratos and Kamen Rider Crossover community.

    The Instrinsic and Extrinsic part is also an idea of Marx, after all.

  12. if you are further interested in the topic, you might want to read some of axel bruns works about produsage and maybe sheenagh pugh books about fan fiction literacy.

    nice essay, really good work – I am doing an oral exam on the media scientific view on ff, so I enjoyed it a lot and it was a great help. Thanks”

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