The Meaning of ‘Quality’

The imagined communities of FanFiction.Net don’t care what you think is good writing—they have their own stipulations for ‘quality’

Tori Elliott

Quality writing—it’s what all writers strive to produce and all editors hope to acquire.  It helps authors get published, compels readers to comment, and persuades juries to hand out awards. But what is ‘quality’? As a writer, I can tell you that there is no concrete answer to that question. Quality can be determined based on personal preference, popular opinion, or prescribed conditions. It is an elusive concept and, as John Maxwell has stated, it is entirely relative.

Perhaps the most extreme example of the relativity of quality—in regards to publishing—can be observed in fan fiction and the community that reads, writes, and supports it. There are easily hundreds of online blogs, forums, and sites dedicated the genre. There are millions of authors, and perhaps tens of millions of readers. There are popular stories and not-so-popular stories, and there are stories that are popular because they are infamously unpopular. Of course, with so many people participating in this culture, there are bound to be submissions that are heralded as ‘quality writing’ and pieces that are denounced as ‘crap’. But what is most notable in this culture is that they couldn’t care less about what outsiders think about fan fiction. As a community, they have their own conditions for quality, some of which are nowhere near conventional.

To narrow the focus, we can look to Described as the “the largest and most popular fan fiction website in the world,” (Wikipedia) it has over two million registered users and features stories written in over thirty languages. As of August 2013, nearly 655,000 of those stories were created in, based on, or revolve around the Harry Potter characters and/or universe.

Now, it is of notable mention that authors of fan fiction are not in it for the money. “The writers write it and put it up online just for the satisfaction. They’re fans, but they’re not silent, couchbound consumers of media. The culture talks to them, and they talk back to the culture in its own language” (Grossman). Suffice it say, then, that not all of these authors are trained, or even experienced writers. As such, it would be reasonable to conclude that some stories would naturally rise above others based on the ‘quality’ of the writing. Obviously.

But, perhaps not so surprisingly, there also exists in fan fiction a community—or a number of communities—that have no use for the quality of the writing. It seems that these communities, which can be defined as one of Benedict Anderson’s imagined communities (Brown)—meaning they are able to establish a connection to and an image of the community they belong to without direct physical context” (Ross)—are more interested in the actual story: the treatment of the original universe, the introduction and inclusion of new characters, how and where this particular version of the story fits in with the original plot, etcetera, than whether or not the writer crafts the story using parallel sentences or descriptive language.

Given the incredible popularity of J.K. Rowling’s original version of Harry Potter, there is little wonder that the universe Rowling created is so popular for interpretation. And I do mean interpretation. There are, apparently, entire sub-subgenres dedicated to one or two sentences, or even three or four words, that may allow for a side-story or the creation of a new character (Grossman). Some of these stories are very well-written and are recognized as such by a community that expects a narrative that is at least recognizable in relation to the quality of language, story arc, and description that they learned to love and came to expect from the original books. Expectedly, these entries are reviewed positively by their peers with comments along the lines of “bonne fic!” (ak), and, “in my opinion, at least, this was amazing,” (Faint Brushfire). But these types of stories are only the tip of the ice burg that is fan fiction.

A more common example is stories that, although riddled with spelling and grammatical mistakes and rather unconventional in their treatment, are still appreciated by those belonging to the Harry Potter fan fiction community. Such is the case with author Kramm and user talonfoot357’s review  of Kramm’s “Harry Potter Interview” as “odd… but i [sic] liked it.”

There are also stories that are bewilderingly bad and, yet, still incredibly popular. Please, allow me to introduce ‘My Immortal,’ (Tara), commonly known as “the worst fanfiction ever.” Reportedly detested by many, the fic, created by user Tara Gillesbie (“XXXbloodyrists666XXX”), is written “as if [Gillesbie] were sending text messages (it gets so bad that it gets increasingly harder for the reader to decipher her words as the story continues). She also bombards the chapters with a series of author’s notes, all of which tell the ‘prepz and posr[s]’ to stop flaming her work. Or some would be in direct response to particular insults she received from reviews about her spelling, OOC (out of characters) characters, etc,” (Tara). According to the wiki, before her original set of stories was deleted in 2008 (after two years of public availability), her version of the Harry Potter universe received over 8,000 negative comments, which means her terrible authorship gained her infamy with at least that many readers.

However, despite the widely held belief that Gillesbie is, in a word, awful, her story—which consisted of over twenty original chapters—has served as the inspiration for hundreds of stories, cross-overs, sequels, prequels, and extended versions. A simple search for ‘My Immortal’ on the main page of will produce over 2822 results—granted, not all of those results will be based on the terrible fic, but the majority of them do pull inspiration and borrow scenarios from Gillesbie’s characters and universe.

So, back to the imagined communities that read, write, and support the work on, the question of quality, and their stipulations as such. Obviously, there are many different communities involved in the culture of this website and particular genre, and it is very likely that a member of one imagined community will also belong to another. And yes, there are some communities that assess quality much the same as the general public would—in that they expect a decently written story line, told by a coherent voice in a cohesive story arc. But much more common are those communities that forgive fan fiction  its lack of perfect grammar, underdeveloped characters, and slightly confusing plot lines. Rather, they assess the quality of fan fiction on its ability to entertain, to fill the gap, and to reimagine the story. And then, further still, there are those communities that care not whether the fiction is widely detested, written by an untrustworthy author (Tara),  or is even readable—these amazing communities put aside all preconceived notions of ‘quality’ and assess the work solely as a basis for their own creativity.

It’s these last two communities, I believe, that are the backbone of the fan fiction culture. They don’t care what society says is good or bad. They couldn’t care less if their favourite fiction writer doesn’t know the difference between ‘affect’ and ‘effect’, or if their conditions are conventional. These are the people, the communities, that are perpetuating the freedom of fan fiction. Frankly, they don’t give a damn what you say, or even what the other members of fan fiction communities say—they have their own, personal stipulations for ‘quality’ and they are perfectly happy sticking to them.



Works Cited

ak. “Reviews for Ex Machina.” Web. 29 Jan. 2014

Brown, John Seeley, and Paul Duguid. “The Social Life of Documents.” First Monday. 1.1 (1996) Web. 27 Jan. 2013.

Faint Brushfire. “Reviews for Ex Machina.” Web. 29 Jan. 2014

“FanFiction.Net.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Project. 4 Jan. 2014. Web. 28 Jan. 2014.

Grossman, Lev. “The Boy Who Lived Forever.” Time Magazine. (2011) Web. 28 Jan. 2014

KRAMM. “Harry Potter Interview.” 14 Apr. 2008. Web. 28 Jan. 2014.

Maxwell, John. “John and Tori’s debate regarding quality.” MPub. SFU Harbour Centre, Vancouver. 20 Jan. 2014. Lecture.

Ross, Emily. “Imagine that! Imagined Communities, Nationhood and Documents” TKBR Wiki. 22 Jan. 2014. Web. 28 Jan. 2014.

Talonfoot357. “Reviews for Harry Potter Interview.” 1 Dec. 2008. Web. 28 Jan. 2014.

“Tara Gillesbie.” My Immortal Wiki. Web. 28 Jan. 2014.

One Reply to “The Meaning of ‘Quality’”

  1. Tori, this is a very engaging topic! I think that you raise some fine points about how the sets of standards for quality in Fanfiction are completely different from what we would apply to common notions of literary fiction.

    I think that members of these Fanfic communities aren’t preoccupied with praise and recognition from outside of their realm. They are less concerned with experimenting with poetic devices, prizing innovative storytelling, creating beautiful but complex cadences in their sentences, or even breaking ground with original ideas. These are only a few general traits that we normally equate with ‘quality’ literature. That’s not to say that there isn’t exceptional writing in the world of Fanfic – I haven’t read enough stories to make such a blanket statement.

    Their idea of quality and success is abiding by the rules of the fictional world they are engrossed with, and seeking the approval of their peers. The mark of quality work within Fan Fiction is having a strong sense of authority in that specific world, but exercising fantasy and freedom within that code. I brought up the example of Kirk/Spock fiction in class once that I’d like to revisit. I encourage everyone to read the work of Constance Penley – she often writes about feminist, psychoanalytic studies. But her analysis of Slash fiction and the different type of appreciation that authors and readers receive in this realm is thoroughly insightful and entertaining. She talks about how the homo-erotic relationship between Kirk and Spock that they fantasize and write about still abides by the plots, characters and laws of the Star Trek universe. But the artful way that writers manipulate or spin the story of these two men says a lot about the subversive and empowering capabilities of Fanfiction.

    You’re right, it’s totally tricky using the word ‘quality’ in the world of Fanfiction. And you did an awesome job of weighing out the factors that plague this debate. I think that diegetic consistency while adding a level of subversive fantasy is probably the closest way to measure the value of these pieces of writing.

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