The interesting reason Princeton is teaching ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ to literature students

Fan fiction coming to an elite school near you?
Fan fiction coming to an elite school near you?
Image: Reuters/Neil Hall
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Fifty Shades of Grey is only the most notorious of many recent novels that have their origins in online fan fiction, fanfic or just fic. Although fic has been around for a long time, it has only recently become so visible in mainstream culture—and so more commercial.

It might then surprise you then, given the relatively recent explosion of the genre, to learn that it has already entered English literature departments. But Anne Jamison, an associate professor at the University of Utah, started teaching EL James’s fan fiction as part of a pop culture theory course in 2010. Her recently published Fic: Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World is a compelling account of the fallout in the fan community from James’s subsequent success.

So what happens when we talk about fan fiction as literature? This spring, Jamison taught Fanfiction: Transformative Works from Shakespeare to Sherlock as a visiting professor at Princeton. I caught up with her at the end of the semester.

Kirstie Blair: So your other courses focus on what is traditionally understood as literature—what’s different about teaching or studying fan fiction?

Anne Jamison: For one thing, not all these authors want to be studied. Many fan fic writers feel that they are writing for a specific community, not a university course. They also worry their work will be distorted by holding it to a standard it never intended to meet. But others are thrilled and even take it as recognizing or conferring literary status, which can play into power dynamics within a fan community. Fan writers tend to remain directly connected to their work through social media or comment sections, so student engagement in those spaces is another issue to consider. Some fan writers feel they should be asked for consent—and others strongly disagree.

Blair: Yes, I know that there have been heated debates in fandom about whether and how fan fiction should be included in academic courses.

 Jamison: No one really yet knows how to approach digital culture in the literature classroom. It’s a moving target, and it challenges easy distinctions between public and private, professional and amateur, text and human. It’s an area fraught with practical and ethical concerns. But that also means that these same concerns are raised in the classroom, which is only ever going to be productive and fascinating.

Blair: Many of our students will have grown up reading fiction online and in serialized format. Is this a new kind of reading?

Jamison: Serialization is nothing new—Dickens and other Victorian authors released many of their novels that way. But today, people don’t just follow Dickens’s Little Dorrit along; they read around and help to create (by way of imaginary example) the Little Dorrit universe. So sometimes Clennam works in a coffee shop with Harry Styles from One Direction and sometimes Little Dorrit has superpowers besides being pathetic and is also Chinese, and sometimes Mr. F’s Aunt is diagnosed with a spectrum disorder and finds love. These versions interact and have an impact on one another.

That’s changing the parameters of what we mean by “character,” “author,” and narrative world. I think there’s something about the digital, globally networked nature of it, the way these versions are not just successive but also coexistent and instantly accessible, that’s different from oral or even print culture in ways we can’t yet fully understand.

Blair: And what about the erotic content? The fact that many, though by no means all, fan fics include explicit sexual content sometimes seems to supply an excuse to dismiss them.

Jamison: Stories with erotic content are much less likely to be taken seriously by literary readers—unless they are written by men! If a fan fiction writer were to write a scene in which a man “cures” a lesbian with a magic green dildo in the course of a threesome, it would be idiotic. But when Philip Roth does it, it’s a comment on the human condition.

Blair: Absolutely. I’ve always thought that another reason why “literary” readers find fan fiction difficult is because of its explicit appeal to feeling—both readers and writers judge success by whether a story has emotional impact.

Jamison: Most fan fiction makes emotion central to fiction, but that’s hardly new. Goethe’s Werther, for example, chronicles almost nothing but its protagonist’s enormous “feels,” as the Internet would term them. But modernism decided sentiment was “sentimental,” cast it as both feminine and Victorian, and devalued it on both counts. That legacy is very much still with us, particularly among critics and readers of “serious” fiction.

Of course, not all fan fiction makes affect central. But overall, fan fic unapologetically places a premium on feeling.

Blair: Fan fiction has attracted a great deal of negative as well as some positive commentary in the mainstream press. If you’re encouraging a curious reader to give it a try, where should they start?

Jamison: Start with a source material you know, and Google rec lists. Archive of our Own, which is non-profit and fan-run, enables filtering (you can filter out or filter in graphic sex, for example). Wattpad will recommend stories for you, and many fandoms and interests have dedicated sites.

Like it or not, courses such as Jamison’s—and the growing visibility of academic enterprises such as the UK-based Fan Studies Network—make it clear that fan fiction is in the classroom for good. Its value in engaging students with innovative ways of thinking about “literature” is something we might all consider.

And its value in engaging fans in lively discussions about reading and writing literary works—much of Jamison’s course material was (and is) publicly available online—is equally important. If you’ve never considered reading fan fiction before, now is the time to join in.