If, like me, you're the kind of person who catches on to "LOL" just as everyone else moves on to "LMAO", then fan fiction is probably still alien to you. But it won't be for much longer, because it's about to be everywhere. And it could be the key to academic and personal development in your classroom.
For the uninitiated, fan fiction is where fans take characters from their favourite books, TV shows, cartoons, comics and films - or even a popular celebrity - and create stories about them. From plot rewrites to alternate universes, epic romances and explicit sexual encounters, these tales can (and do) go just about anywhere.
The phenomenon has existed in its own shadowy corner of pop culture since the 1960s, when Star Trek fanzines took off, but it is now entering the mainstream. The success of Fifty Shades of Grey, which began as fan fiction based on the Twilight books, and the six-figure publishing deal signed by the author of a One Direction story called Loving the Band have brought the genre into the limelight.
Teens are at the forefront of the movement. In their thousands, the youth of today are reading these tales and writing reams of creative, peer-assessed and regularly redrafted prose. For any teacher who has struggled to motivate students to even look at a book, fan fiction has all the makings of a transformative classroom tool. It could have a huge impact on pastoral development, too.
"Look, Miss," 15-year-old Yasmin says indignantly as she scrolls down the screen of her MacBook. "You say I don't read but look how many books are in my library."
She is on Wattpad, an online reading and writing platform. I take a closer look. It's my first introduction to fan fiction.
"I've read them all!" Yasmin says. She is scrolling too fast for me to see the pictures and titles on the covers.
"What are they about?" I ask her.
She looks a little abashed. "Mostly Justin Bieber and One Direction."
My immediate reaction is to dismiss fan fiction. I assume that, like my own teenage diaries, it's an outpouring of adolescent desire complete with appalling spelling and grammar. I feel relieved that the internet wasn't around to witness my own celebrity crushes; thankfully, my cringe-worthy scribblings were lost for ever.
Nevertheless, in the spirit of not knocking things until you've tried them, I access Wattpad at home and read some fan fiction about Harry Styles from One Direction - the piece Yasmin singles out as the best story she has ever read.
While I am reading it, I feel my long-buried "fan" re-emerge, full of yearning. It doesn't matter that I'm reading about Styles (not particularly swoon-worthy, in my view) because he's an archetypal, timeless heart-throb. I am overcome with adolescent vertigo, once again teetering on the brink of all that could be while steeling myself for inevitable heartbreak.
I find myself reading several other stories. The appeal quickly wanes: it's all pretty formulaic. For the One Direction fan, it doesn't matter whether the band are gay werewolves or students at Hogwarts, the stories really only head in.
Fans, fiction and friends
Emily is 17 and reads stories about characters from the "massively multi-player online role-playing game" World of Warcraft. She thinks that "real-people fiction", which is about celebrities, tends to be written by younger, less experienced writers and that the stories suffer as a result. Decent stories, she says, are likely to come from the more mature fandoms.
It's true that real-people fiction is dominated by young teens like Yasmin. The category includes "Mary Sue" fan fiction, where the author describes a protagonist who is a thinly disguised version of herself, usually with a tragic past, and who sends the chosen celebrity crazy with desire despite her averageness. All very affirming for young girls, but tedious for the rest of us.
The teen version of fan fiction could, then, be dismissed as a silly fad, the embarrassing underbelly of the more serious fan fiction aimed at older readers. But you have to remind yourself that you are not the target audience: the stories are written by and for the teenagers themselves. And if you dig deeper and talk to teens, it becomes clear there is more to these stories than meets the eye.
Indeed, fan fiction is an excellent tool for exploring important and confusing issues. Several students told me that the stories helped them to come to terms with depression or family difficulties, including abuse. For them, real-people fiction is a way of dealing with "real life" problems. "Mary Sue" is loved despite all her troubles - in fact, she usually ends up in control of the relationship.
Helen is a "Gleek" (a fan of US TV show Glee). She tells me that she was unpopular at school, but through Twitter, Tumblr and fan sites she found a community of other Gleeks. She now has thousands of followers - online friends with whom she can share her love of the show and discuss the issues raised. And she says that Glee made her realise that she might be bisexual.
Helen reads fan fiction about couples from the show - for example, she'll read about "Faberry", the pairing of female characters Quinn Fabray and Rachel Berry. The "shippings" (relationships) that she reads about are either "femslash" or "het" (female homosexual or heterosexual) and they allow her to explore her sexuality safely and comfortably. Helen says that sometimes she wants to read about sex - "it's a nicer version of porn" - but sometimes she just wants the romance.
Adolescence is all about constructing relationships and a huge part of this is to do with sex. Sex consumes teenagers: when to do it, how to do it, who to do it with. There is no shortage of material out there to feed these adolescent urges. The internet is swamped by porn, but it is usually an anonymous act that objectifies women. The entertainment industry bombards teenagers with images of "sexiness" and beauty that are unattainable to all but a few. And sex education in schools is mostly concerned with birth control and sexually transmitted infections. Where is the discussion about consent and its implications? What about love and romance? Or intimacy and break-ups? Where is the conversation about sexuality other than the heterosexual norm? In fan fiction, apparently.
Brave new world
The more I delve into fan fiction, the more inspired I become by the young women who are taking control of their sexuality and writing stories that empower them. Young men are doing it, too. I discover that a boy at my school is into superhero fan fiction when his friend dobs him in for writing "Spider-Man porn".
Female or male, these teens are questioning the conventional narrative. In a sense, fan fiction is literary and cultural rebellion: teens are sticking it to the Establishment because they refuse to accept the images and storylines that they are fed by a mainstream, male-dominated entertainment industry.
But fan fiction does not only bring personal or cultural benefits: the primary reward is academic. I am incredibly excited to hear about students who are reading, but when I discover that they are having a go at writing, I'm in raptures. Fan fiction sites are, in a sense, an English teacher's dream classroom. Imagine having a whole class of students who are inspired enough to come up with a narrative, explore difficult topics, share their work and edit it.
The stories enable complex narrative concepts and analysis. Teens read and write fan fiction so they can explore love and romance from an equal power base, without negative gender stereotypes getting in the way. They can also challenge the traditional "boring" ending of marriage and children. There is something wonderfully liberating and even feminist about the movement.
Be a Belieber
There are dangers, of course. Plenty of efforts at fan fiction are shudderingly dismal, and I was disturbed by published comments on these stories that ranged from the catty to the obscene. And what if our students' imaginations never develop beyond wish fulfilment and idolisation? Or they become involved with the more hardcore sexual content?
However, even the literary canon contains arguably abysmal efforts. And you'll find awful comments on every site from YouTube to Twitter and we still use those in class. As for the sex, fan fiction is one of the safest ways for adolescents to explore their sexuality; for non-heterosexual teenagers it can provide affirmation and acceptance. Although the sex can be shocking to sensitive readers, at least it involves intimacy and consequence, which are largely absent from traditional porn.
And there are warnings aplenty. The huge glossary of terminology that has grown alongside fan fiction allows the stories to be categorised according to type and content. Ratings and warnings are supplied, too, which means you know exactly what you are getting into.
But does fan fiction have any place in an English classroom? My answer is an unequivocal yes.
I am not suggesting that we try to teach fan fiction or force students to engage with it; I like the genre's rebellious and subversive reputation. In class I will continue to educate students in good grammar and provide examples of well written and original work; I will not be deconstructing Harry Styles stories. But I won't dismiss fan fiction, either. I will encourage it, discuss it, validate it. I will acknowledge how much teenagers are doing online without our interference - it's not all narcissistic photos and inane updates. We should encourage, not deter. We have to accept fan fiction as a way for students to develop not just academically but also personally, creatively and culturally.
Yasmin and her friend Krystal eventually invite me to follow them on Wattpad and I regularly scan their libraries, read their stories and "like" them. I am honoured. Neither of them is academic, neither has a parent with a university education, and yet they are both engaged in a form of literary discourse. Fan fiction is to thank for that. We may think it is silly fantasy, but it's making a difference and teachers need to learn from and respect that.
Ellie Ward teaches English in Western Australia
`Your ideas just flow': a young writer's view on fan fiction
Ailsa Bailey, a 14-year-old student at Yarm School in North Yorkshire, writes:
In my opinion, one of the most important journeys of all time happens all around us, day and night, across the world. Sometimes we just don't realise it. Namely, the journey of a pen being put to paper, which can be an extremely long one. Many people think writing a novel is an impossible task. They consider all the effort and hard work that authors put in and decide it is not for them. They also assume that all authors are older than 21.
That, however, is not the case. Young people also participate in the world of fiction, even if it does not involve publishing in book form or even conjuring up their own original world.
This is where fan fiction comes in. The term doesn't mean what you think. Fan fiction stories can be written in response or in answer to a novel, such as the Harry Potter or Hunger Games books. Fan fiction authors are at liberty to deploy a character or plot line that they have read about and pursue it further. You find yourself jumping into a world you have already cherished. Familiar with the fictional characters that you have met, you can bring out sides of them that have never been shown before. Since the main plot is already mapped out, you don't feel the need to plan. Instead, your ideas just flow.
After you've published your story on a fan fiction website, you can view your story stats and interact with other authors. The feedback you receive helps you to improve your style of writing. If you are interested, you can even co-author or sign up to become a beta reader, which involves mentoring other writers on the site and guiding them in their writing journey.
The first stage is to read; the second is to write about what you have read and to practise; the third is to let loose and publish something phenomenal.
This is an extract from some work that I put together when I was 12. The character in question is lost and finds her brother. He is dead: someone murdered him because he had information that he shouldn't have had. The character lives in a fantasy novel that is set in the future, although the novel is a hybrid of several genres.
"I walked through the cold damp streets, enclosed in my pod of fear, saying his name over and over. It was almost like a chant, a ritual praying for his safety. If only words could have willed him away from the brink of death. Circles. I was going round in endless circles. The thoughts inside my head convinced me that since I had not found him, hard and cold, everything would be okay. But the scarlet liquid, once spotted, is a word, a sealed deal. Death. No way around, under, over or back. Permanent blackness, eyes sealed over, barriers over the black caves, lifeless eyes never to open again. It was then that I saw it - the lump sagged down onto the sharp pebbled ground. I drew in closer. A hologram, a dream, a hallucination. Anything but this. It. Wasn't. Real."
Emboldened by the experience of reading and writing fan fiction, I now find myself at stage three: I am writing my own novel, which I hope to publish in the new year using Blurb, a platform that allows you to independently publish your own work (www.blurb.co.uk).
Who said 14-year-olds can't be authors?