Who would have ever imagined that fanfiction would not only go mainstream, but be so popular? In the last 5 years since I’ve been librarianing, I’ve been to academic and pop culture panels on fanfic in the library; I’ve seen fanfic programs for middle graders and teens bring kids into the program room, I’ve seen novels like Carry On go meta and be about fanfic within a YA world, and I’ve seen my friends’ kids starting their own fanfic accounts so they could contribute to their fandom. It’s a wonderful thing to behold. One of my colleagues wrote her MLIS thesis on fanfiction. Now, University of Washington professors Cecelia Aragon and Katie Davis have given us Writers in the Secret Garden: Fanfiction, Youth, and New Forms of Mentoring; an in-depth exploration of how teens and tweens support and learn from each other through their participation in online fanfic communities like fanfiction.net and AO3.
Writers in the Secret Garden: Fanfiction, Youth, and New Forms of Mentoring, by Cecelia Aragon and Katie Davis,
(Aug. 2019, MIT Press), $25, ISBN: 978-0262537803
Writers in the Secret Garden was sparked by a conversation in 2013, after a slew of news storied claimed young people couldn’t write/weren’t writing. Aragon and Davis extensively studied what was happening on fanfiction.net from both education and human-centered data science perspectives. Some of their findings include:
Most adults either have a negative view or are unaware of fanfiction, and the impact it is having on the lives of many young people today.
On Fanfiction.net alone, 1.5 million authors have published over 7 million stories and shared over 176 million reviews of those stories.
The median age of authors on the site is 16, with over 87% between the ages of 13 and 25.
84% of authors on the site are female; and more fanfiction authors identify as gender-nonconforming (9%) than male (7%).
Young people are teaching each other how to write through the feedback they give. This new type of mentoring is unique to networked communities. Called “distributed mentoring,” it is described in detail in the book.
The quality of the writing improves in response to the amount of distributed mentoring the author received. (650 reviews predicts as much growth as one year of maturation).
Despite the fact that readers post reviews anonymously, comments are overwhelmingly positive, with less than half of one percent gratuitously negative.
The discovery of this vast and vibrant resource for kids who have something to say has been especially meaningful to Aragon as she recalls her own hidden efforts. When Cecilia Aragon was ten years old, she read The Lord of the Rings and fell in love with the world Tolkien created. But, in her opinion, there weren’t enough female characters, and she also had some ideas for scenes that should have been in the books. So, she sat down and wrote her own version in a spiral notebook that she kept hidden. No one ever saw it, and she never told anyone about it until recently, because she thought it wasn’t “real writing.”
“Fanfiction is a private universe — a secret garden — that has become a welcoming community, particularly for those from marginalized groups,” says Cecilia Aragon. “In it, young people are mentoring each other to become skillful writers and thoughtful readers – and they are doing it entirely on their time and their own terms.”
The research group at the University of Washington maintains a Tumblr about their research.