Harry Potter and the Fan Fiction Phenomenon

1The Harry Potter (HP) Fan Fiction (FF) phenomenon offers an opportunity to explore the nature of fame and the work of fans (including the second author, a participant observer) in creating and circulating cultural products within fan communities. Matt Hills comments (xi) that “fandom is not simply a ‘thing’ that can be picked over analytically. It is also always performative; by which I mean that it is an identity which is (dis-)claimed, and which performs cultural work”. This paper explores the cultural work of fandom in relation to FF and fame.

2The global HP phenomenon – in which FF lists are a small part – has made creator J K Rowling richer than the Queen of England, according to the 2003 ‘Sunday Times Rich List’. The books (five so far) and the films (three) continue to accelerate the growth in Rowling’s fortune, which quadrupled from 2001-3: an incredible success for an author unknown before the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 1997. Even the on-screen HP lead actor, Daniel Radcliffe, is now Britain’s second wealthiest teenager (after England’s Prince Harry). There are other globally successful books, such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the Narnia collection, but neither of these series has experienced the momentum of the HP rise to fame. (See Endnote for an indication of the scale of fan involvement with HP FF, compared with Lord of the Rings.)

3Contemporary ‘Fame’ has been critically defined in relation to the western mass media’s requirement for ‘entertaining’ content, and the production and circulation of celebrity as opposed to ‘hard news’(Turner, Bonner and Marshall). The current perception is that an army of publicists and spin doctors are usually necessary, but not sufficient, to create and nurture global fame. Yet the HP phenomenon started out with no greater publicity investment than that garnered by any other promising first novelist: and given the status of HP as children’s publishing, it was probably less hyped than equivalent adult-audience publications.

4So are there particular characteristics of HP and his creator that predisposed the series and its author to become famous? And how does the fame status relate to fans’ incorporation of these cultural materials into their lives? Accepting that it is no more possible to predict the future fame of an author or (fictional) character than it is to predict the future financial success of a book, film or album, there is a range of features of the HP phenomenon that, in hindsight, helped accelerate the fame momentum, creating what has become in hindsight an unparalleled global media property.

5J K Rowling’s personal story – in the hands of her publicity machine – itself constituted a magical myth: the struggling single mother writing away (in longhand) in a Scottish café, snatching odd moments to construct the first book while her infant daughter slept. (Comparatively little attention was paid by the marketers to the author’s professional training and status as a teacher, or to Rowling’s own admission that the first book, and the outline for the series, took five years to write.) Rowling’s name itself, with no self-evident gender attribution, was also indicative of ambiguity and mystery. The back-story to HP, therefore, became one of a quintessentially romantic endeavour – the struggle to write against the odds.

6Publicity relating to the ‘starving in a garret’ background is not sufficient to explain the HP/Rowling grip on the popular imagination, however. Instead it is arguable that the growth of HP fame and fandom is directly related to the growth of the Internet and to the middle class readers’ Internet access. If the production of celebrity is a major project of the conventional mass media, the HP phenomenon is a harbinger of the hyper-fame that can be generated through the combined efforts of the mass media and online fan communities.

7The implication of this – evident in new online viral marketing techniques (Kirby), is that publicists need to pique cyber-interest as well as work with the mass media in the construction of celebrity. As the cheer-leaders for online viral marketing make the argument, the technique “provides the missing link between the [bottom-up] word-of-mouth approach and the top-down, advertainment approach”. Which is not to say that the initial HP success was a function of online viral marketing: rather, the marketers learned their trade by analysing the magnifier impact that the online fan communities had upon the exponential growth of the HP phenomenon. This cyber-impact is based both on enhanced connectivity – the bottom-up, word-of-mouth dynamic, and on the individual’s need to assume an identity (albeit fluid) to participate effectively in online community.

8Critiquing the notion that the computer is an identity machine, Streeter focuses upon (649) “identities that people have brought to computers from the culture at large”. He does not deal in any depth with FF, but suggests (651) that “what the Internet is and will come to be, then, is partly a matter of who we expect to be when we sit down to use it”. What happens when fans sit down to use the Internet, and is there a particular reason why the Internet should be of importance to the rise and rise of HP fame?

9From the point of view of one of us, HP was born at more or less the same time as she was. Eleven years old in the first book, published in 1997, Potter’s putative birth year might be set in 1986 – in line with many of the original HP readership, and the publisher’s target market. At the point that this cohort was first spellbound by Potter, 1998-9, they were also on the brink of discovering the Internet. In Australia and many western nations, over half of (two-parent) families with school-aged children were online by the end of 2000 (ABS). Potter would notionally have been 14: his fans a little younger but well primed for the ‘teeny-bopper’ years. Arguably, the only thing more famous than HP for that age-group, at that time, was the Internet itself. As knowledge of the Internet grew stories about it constituted both news and entertainment and circulated widely in the mass media:


the uncertainty concerning new media, and their impact upon existing social structures, has – over time – precipitated a succession of moral panics … Established commercial media are not noted for their generosity to competitors, and it is unsurprising that many of the moral panics circulating about pornography on the Net, Internet stalking, Web addiction, hate sites etc are promulgated in the older media. (Green xxvii)

11Although the mass media may have successfully scared the impressionable, the Internet was not solely constructed as a site of moral panic. Prior to the general pervasiveness of the Internet in domestic space, P. David Marshall discusses multiple constructions of the computer – seen by parents as an educational tool which could help future-proof their children; but which their children were more like to conceptualise as a games machine, or (this was the greater fear) use for hacking. As the computer was to become a site for the battle ground between education, entertainment and power, so too the Internet was poised to be colonised by teenagers for a variety of purposes their parents would have preferred to prevent: chat, pornography, game-playing (among others).

12Fan communities thrive on the power of the individual fan to project themselves and their fan identity as part of an ongoing conversation. Further, in constructing the reasons behind what has happened in the HP narrative, and in speculating what is to come, fans are presenting themselves as identities with whom others might agree (positive affirmation) or disagree (offering the chance for engagement through exchange). The genuinely insightful fans, who apparently predict the plots before they’re published, may even be credited in their communities with inspiring J K Rowling’s muse. (The FF mythology is that J K Rowling dare not look at the FF sites in case she finds herself influenced.) Nancy Baym, commenting on a soap opera fan Usenet group (Usenet was an early 1990s precursor to discussion groups) notes that:


The viewers’ relationship with characters, the viewers’ understanding of socioemotional experience, and soap opera’s narrative structure, in which moments of maximal suspense are always followed by temporal gaps, work together to ensure that fans will use the gaps during and between shows to discuss with one another possible outcomes and possible interpretations of what has been seen. (143)

14In HP terms the The Philosopher’s Stone constructed a fan knowledge that J K Rowling’s project entailed at least seven books (one for each year at Hogwarts School) and this offered plentiful opportunities to speculate upon the future direction and evolution of the HP characters. With each speculation, each posting, the individual fan can refine and extend their identity as a member of the FF community. The temporal gaps between the books and the films – coupled with the expanding possibilities of Internet communication – mean that fans can feel both creative and connected while circulating the cultural materials derived from their engagement with the HP ‘canon’.

15Canon is used to describe the HP oeuvre as approved by Rowling, her publishers, and her copyright assignees (for example, Warner Bros). In contrast, ‘fanon’ is the name used by fans to refer the body of work that results from their creative/subversive interactions with the core texts, such as “slash” (homo-erotic/romance) fiction. Differentiation between the two terms acknowledges the likelihood that J K Rowling or her assignees might not approve of fanon. The constructed identities of fans who deal solely with canon differ significantly from those who are engaged in fanon. The implicit (romantic) or explicit (full-action descriptions) sexualisation of HP FF is part of a complex identity play on behalf of both the writers and readers of FF. Further, given that the online communities are often nurtured and enriched by offline face to face exchanges with other participants, what an individual is prepared to read or not to read, or write or not write, says as much about that person’s public persona as does another’s overt consumption of pornography; or diet of art house films, in contrast to someone else’s enthusiasm for Friends.

16Hearn, Mandeville and Anthony argue that a “central assertion of postmodern views of consumption is that social identity can be interpreted as a function of consumption” (106), and few would disagree with them: herein lies the power of the brand. Noting that consumer culture centrally focuses upon harnessing ‘the desire to desire’, Streeter’s work (654, on the opening up of Internet connectivity) suggests a continuum from ‘desire provoked’; through anticipation, ‘excitement based on what people imagined would happen’; to a sense of ‘possibility’. All this was made more tantalising in terms of the ‘unpredictability’ of how cyberspace would eventually resolve itself (657). Thus a progression is posited from desire through to the thrill of comparing future possibilities with eventual outcomes.

17These forces clearly influence the HP FF phenomenon, where a section of HP fans have become impatient with the pace of the ‘official’/canon HP text. J K Rowling’s writing has slowed down to the point that Harry’s initial readership has overtaken him by several years. He’s about to enter his sixth year (of seven) at secondary school – his erstwhile-contemporaries have already left school or are about to graduate to University. HP is yet to have ‘a relationship’: his fans are engaged in some well-informed speculation as to a range of sexual possibilities which would likely take J K Rowling some light years from her marketers’ core readership. So the story is progressing more slowly than many fans would choose and with less spice than many would like (from the evidence of the web, at least). As indicated in the Endnote, the productivity of the fans, as they ‘fill in the gaps’ while waiting for the official narrative to resume, is prodigious.

18It may be that as the fans outstrip HP in their own social and emotional development they find his reactions in later books increasingly unbelievable, and/or out of character with the HP they felt they knew. Thus they develop an alternative ‘Harry’ in fanon. Some FF authors identify in advance which books they accept as canon, and which they have decided to ignore. For example, popular FF author Midnight Blue gives the setting of her evolving FF The Mirror of Maybe as “after Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and as an alternative to the events detailed in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, [this] is a Slash story involving Harry Potter and Severus Snape”. Some fans, tired of waiting for Rowling to get Harry grown up, ‘are doin’ it for themselves’.

19Alternatively, it may be that as they get older the first groups of HP fans are unwilling to relinquish their investment in the HP phenomenon, but are equally unwilling to align themselves uncritically with the anodyne story of the canon. Harry Potter, as Warner Bros licensed him, may be OK for pre-teens, but less cool for the older adolescent. The range of identities that can be constructed using the many online HP FF genres, however, permits wide scope for FF members to identify with dissident constructions of the HP narrative and helps to add to the momentum with which his fame increases.

20Latterly there is evidence that custodians of canon may be making subtle overtures to creators of fanon. Here, the viral marketers have a particular challenge – to embrace the huge market represented by fanon, while not disturbing those whose HP fandom is based upon the purity of canon. Some elements of fanon feel their discourses have been recognised within the evolving approved narrative . This sense within the fan community – that the holders of the canon have complimented them through an intertextual reference – is much prized and builds the momentum of the fame engagement (as has been demonstrated by Watson, with respect to the band ‘phish’). Specifically, Harry/Draco slash fans have delighted in the hint of a blown kiss from Draco Malfoy to Harry (as Draco sends Harry an origami bird/graffiti message in a Defence against the Dark Arts Class in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) as an acknowledgement of their cultural contribution to the development of the HP phenomenon.

21Streeter credits Raymond’s essay ‘The Cathedral and the Bazaar’ as offering a model for the incorporation of voluntary labour into the marketplace. Although Streeter’s example concerns the Open Source movement, derived from hacker culture, it has parallels with the prodigious creativity (and productivity) of the HP FF communities. Discussing the decision by Netscape to throw open the source code of its software in 1998, allowing those who use it to modify and improve it, Streeter comments that (659) “the core trope is to portray Linux-style software development like a bazaar, a real-life competitive marketplace”. The bazaar features a world of competing, yet complementary, small traders each displaying their skills and their wares for evaluation in terms of the product on offer. In contrast, “Microsoft-style software production is portrayed as hierarchical and centralised – and thus inefficient – like a cathedral”.

22Raymond identifies “ego satisfaction and reputation among other [peers]” as a specific socio-emotional benefit for volunteer participants (in Open Source development), going on to note: “Voluntary cultures that work this way are not actually uncommon [… for example] science fiction fandom, which unlike hackerdom has long explicitly recognized ‘egoboo’ (ego-boosting, or the enhancement of one’s reputation among other fans) as the basic drive behind volunteer activity”. This may also be a prime mover for FF engagement. Where fans have outgrown the anodyne canon they get added value through using the raw materials of the HP stories to construct fanon: establishing and building individual identities and communities through HP consumption practices in parallel with, but different from, those deemed acceptable for younger, more innocent, fans.

23The fame implicit in HP fandom is not only that of HP, the HP lead actor Daniel Radcliffe and HP’s creator J K Rowling; for some fans the famed ‘state or quality of being widely honoured and acclaimed’ can be realised through their participation in online fan culture – fans become famous and recognised within their own community for the quality of their work and the generosity of their sharing with others. The cultural capital circulated on the FF sites is both canon and fanon, a matter of some anxiety for the corporations that typically buy into and foster these mega-media products. As Jim Ward, Vice-President of Marketing for Lucasfilm comments about Star Wars fans (cited in Murray 11): “We love our fans. We want them to have fun. But if in fact someone is using our characters to create a story unto itself, that’s not in the spirit of what we think fandom is about. Fandom is about celebrating the story the way it is.”

24Slash fans would beg to differ, and for many FF readers and writers, the joy of engagement, and a significant engine for the growth of HP fame, is partly located in the creativity offered for readers and writers to fill in the gaps.


25HP FF ranges from posts on general FF sites (such as >> books, where HP has 147,067 stories [on 4,490 pages of hotlinks] posted, compared with its nearest ‘rival’ Lord of the rings: with 33,189 FF stories). General FF sites exclude adult content, much of which is corralled into 18+ FF sites, such as, set up when core material was expelled from general sites. As an example of one adult site, the Potter Slash Archive is selective (unlike, for example) which means that only stories liked by the site team are displayed. Authors submitting work are asked to abide by a list of ‘compulsory parameters’, but ‘warnings’ fall under the category of ‘optional parameters’: “Please put a warning if your story contains content that may be offensive to some authors [sic], such as m/m sex, graphic sex or violence, violent sex, character death, major angst, BDSM, non-con (rape) etc”. Adult-content FF readers/writers embrace a range of unexpected genres – such as Twincest (incest within either of the two sets of twin characters in HP) and Weasleycest (incest within the Weasley clan) – in addition to mainstream romance/homo-erotica pairings, such as that between Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy.

26(NB: within the time frame 16 August – 4 October, Harry Potter FF writers had posted an additional 9,196 stories on the site alone.)