Break the System – With Fan Fiction


Laurie Penny

Fan fiction is not only transforming popular culture, as Laurie Penny explained in her session, "Change The Story, Change The World", on Day 3 on the main stage. For the author and activist, it even has the potential to overthrow the powers that be.

Laurie Penny wants nothing less than to change the world. Once the activist, journalist and self-proclaimed "gender punk" has shyly come on stage, the audience starts waving pink pompoms in the air. "I am not a fairy", she says, "but we should be nicer to them. We are not nice enough to fairies." Giggles from the audience. Penny is a phenomenon, in Germany in particular. She is even more popular over here than in her native Britain, where she can still walk the streets more or less unrecognised.

Actually, the reason why her almost 130,000 Twitter followers love her is simple enough: Laurie Penny is a storyteller. Her stories are not all new, and for the most part, not just written by herself. But she is able to share them with a sensationally large audience. Which is another reason why telling stories – or more precisely, changing stories – is the central topic of her talk.

"The collective imagination keeps trying to produce an accurate image of reality. But it mostly gets it wrong", says Penny. With the rise of English Literature as an academic discipline, only specific narratives had prevailed, she says. So we still have this literary canon, which is mainly made up of heroic stories, mainly concerning male protagonists, plus the occasional Jane Austen, which in principle is still valid today.

"But in the early months of 1977, the history of literature was to be changed forever: Desert Heat was released", says Penny with a twinkle in her eye. Desert Heat was one of the earliest, most popular fan fiction pieces of the day, detailing a homoerotic encounter between Star Trek’s Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Spock; as a couple later abbreviated to a simple K/S.

"The fans instantly understood that there was something there: the fact that the two of them were much more than friends was something that couldn’t be shown on TV," she says. This was a decisive moment, Penny explains, as readers and viewers began to tell their own stories, rewriting and sharing alternative versions of their beloved stories. "Fan fiction was way ahead of the Internet in that respect." But then again, at some point, it was the Internet that really let the genre flourish.

Penny herself encountered fan fiction through her own early idols: "Buffy" and "Harry Potter". "Harry Potter was so important to me! I was ten years old, and finished the first volume on the night of my eleventh birthday. I sat there all night, waiting for my letter from Hogwarts." The audible sighs in the audience are countered with: "I know, right. But in the end, the letter did arrive in a way." Smiling again.

Moments like these show the ease with which Penny intersperses the academic with biographical and literary detail, with her talk transformed into story time, and her audience glued to her lips. She constantly interacts with her audience, asking who studied literature (about a third), asking who recognised her numerous obscure fan fiction references, and explaining them to those who hadn’t. In this manner, her presentation manages to connect Star Wars and The Hunger Games to British colonial history, narrative theories, and feminism.

"The interesting thing is that fan fiction is a genre firmly in the hand of young females. Girls read more and more, and became frustrated that there were hardly any stories in which they were well represented," says Penny. This wasn’t necessarily about rewriting the original stories: "Fan fiction is a supplement." The original stories, their characters, and not least the style and form of the heroic tale, would still captivate people in the same way. But they also craved other characters, different plotlines. So the fans went about and modified their gender, their sexuality, their origins. "That’s all you need to write radical stories today."

By now, there are millions of these alternative narratives. "The girls who used to write fan fiction are by now in their late twenties", says Penny. "They have important positions in the media industry, and have come to expect something more from our collective storytelling."

Most recently, for instance, just the notion of a black Hermione was cause for uproar. "The Internet went crazy. So a lot of people are fine with imagining dragons and Polyjuice potion, but not a black Hermione..." But just the mere fact that established narratives are challenged in this way, is good news in itself, says Penny. Fan fiction can promote diversity, and allows for the creation of new stories. But the element of resistance is understandable too, she says: "Everyone who has ever felt ostracised will understand this kind of anger." And that is what she is trying to address; she calls for new narratives, for more imagination. "You can only become that what you can imagine. Changing the world isn’t easy, it takes a lot of courage. Another thing I learnt from Harry Potter."

Photo credit: re:publica/Jan Zappner (CC BY 2.0)