“Harriet Potter must not return to Hogwarts.” Wait, Harriet?
Imagine an alternate universe where a female person of color replaces Harry Potter in J. K. Rowling’s classic series. The result might read something like this:
“Harriet Euphemia Lily Potter has survived her first year at Hogwarts, having made friends and enemies, become the youngest girl to play for a House Quidditch team on record, won the House Cup for Gryffindor, and killed a teacher (it was an accident, okay?!). But a strange visitor brings a stranger warning, and Harry is starting to learn that perhaps Hogwarts isn’t the safe haven she once thought it was.”
In the world of fandom, this is not considered plagiarism, and authors always cite their inspiration. The quote is from a work by Jasmine_Black, posted on Archive of Our Own, a place where writers and readers come together.
Traditional book publishers aren’t too pumped about fan fiction as it grows in popularity, and “Companies are increasingly issuing cease-and-desist demands to third parties using their creative capital” according to Madhavi Sunder of Georgetown University Law Center (in When Fandom Clashes with IP Law, Harvard Business Review, 7/13/19). But suing your fans is a lot like roasting the goose that lays golden eggs. That’s why creative work by ardent fans will continue to be tolerated despite legal friction around the margins.
Why is fan fiction important? Because many younger readers are NOT reading traditional literature, but they ARE reading a lot of fan fiction.
To have an account on the new Archive of Our Own (run by Organization for Transformative Works, a nonprofit that plans to help with the legal defense of fanfic), you just have to be thirteen or older. I set it up an account this morning and I’m already enjoying Harry Potter fan fiction. I particularly like how Archive of Our Own has a rating system and lets you screen out stories with adult content if you want. I’m an author with 11 and 16-year-olds and I write mostly for younger teens. I think Archive of Our Own is a potentially safe and sound place for teens to be reading if they use the screening.
Here’s another place younger readers are reading and writing: tumblr.com, where I just ‘liked’ this quote posted by a user named thoughtkick: “When I was young, I used to admire intelligent people; as I grow older, I admire kind people.” It’s from Abraham Joshua Heschel, a noted philosopher, and teacher who was active in the civil rights movement—but not someone I would’ve read this morning were it not for Tumblr. There are less serious posts too, like this one: “Did you know? Painting the walls is a great way to introduce a splash of color into your life—and to cover up evidence.” People post short stories art, photos, and comics. Anyone who visits Tumblr is reading—sometimes quite a lot.
I’ve been a Wattpad user for a long time because, as an author writing for and about young people, I can’t ignore a platform with 90 million monthly users and 665 million stories! I sometimes post free versions of my novels there in order to reach more readers. Sometimes I’m put off by a lack of editing, but the writing more than makes up for it by being fresh and new; and, most importantly, read.
I’m starting to read a novel on Wattpad called The Dragon Chase by Arveliot (or Gordon A K Pyper) in his Everburning City series—which makes me reader number 78,701 for that title. It’s well written, cleanly edited, and free of typos (it was edited by jgfairytalesservices.com). There is a lot of good writing to be found on Wattpad.
I’m also enjoying the proliferation of slash fiction, the generic term for fan fiction that features LGBTQ+ characters. Readers who don't feel represented in conventional stories can find more relatable options in the fanfic world. But between unconventional formats and publishing platforms, murky copyright issues, a tendency to have more people of color, and LGBTQ+ representation, there is a lot of resistance.
Yet more kids are getting turned onto reading by Kohei Horikoshi’s My Hero Academia and related fanfic than by anything offered to them in school.
I don’t know of a school district that is encouraging students to read on Tumblr, Wattpad, Archiveofourown, or similar venues, let alone sharing stacks of mangas and comics in the classroom and library. It’s not ‘real’ writing. It’s of dubious quality. It doesn’t teach good grammar. It keeps students from reading real literature. It’s scandalous and should be censored.
This is exactly what they said a hundred years ago about pulp magazines, those sensationally colorful covers stuffed with cheaply printed stories that used to blanket newsstands—but were never allowed in a proper bookstore, library, or classroom. The traditional skepticism about comic books now applies to manga and graphic novels. None of it is real literature. It’s not ‘good’ reading.
The thing is, there is no such thing as bad reading unless it’s NOT reading. That’s bad. We know that most young people are not reading books for fun. Pushing traditional hardcovers at them won’t change that. What we need is to encourage fun reading in all its myriad and wonderful forms. This is something we can do as librarians, parents, writers, uncles, aunts, or friends. And as teachers or school board members, we need to think of these so-called alternative forms of publishing as great entry points for future readers.
If you get a kid hooked on fan fiction and mangas in middle school, I guarantee they’ll become lifelong readers.
If you force them to read wordy, outdated novels before they’re ready, you’re going to create a generation dominated by lifelong nonreaders instead.
Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure—both of which would have been classified as pulp fiction in the old days and not permitted in any respectable classroom. You can find his work at Amazon.