December 16, 2013

Fanfiction, Capitalism and Draco in Leather Pants

Category: Digital Learning
Harry Potter book collection on display

Earlier in the semester, I found myself lecturing to a class and having students in my Young Adult Literature course take notes about “Draco in Leather Pants.” Stay with me.

Along with contemporary books like Gossip Girl and classics like The Outsiders and Go Ask Alice, my undergraduates at Colorado State University and I looked at how online environments in the past decade have transformed the world of teen literature.

For readers of this blog, such a focus shouldn’t be very surprising. Discussions of the Harry Potter Alliance and John Green’s legions of nerdfighters highlight the civic opportunities of youth fandom vis-à-vis technology. And while these kinds of powerful examples were shared in the class, I’d like to also share some concerns. Expanding an argument from my recent book, Critical Foundations in Young Adult Literature, I want to talk about how technology is shaping the meaning of literature for young people today.

But first I want to tell you a story (Yes, it involves leather pants).

The Draco Trilogy

Let’s try this: Imagine that everything you know about the Harry Potter series dropped after the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Instead of following Harry’s quest to defeat He Who Shall Not Be Named, the series takes a drastic new direction and follows Harry’s school rival, Draco Malfoy. The new story now revolves less around defeating Voldermort and instead focuses on foibles involving switched identities and a love triangle as a result of a Polyjuice Potion that includes Harry, Draco, and Hermione.

If this whimsical adventure sounds intriguing, rest assured it is only the beginning of a three-book trilogy. Also, rest assured that the involved and complex story is entirely unauthorized in the eyes of J.K. Rowling’s publisher. Published over the course of several years beginning in 2000, The Draco Trilogy (comprised of Draco Dormiens, Draco Sinister, and Draco Veritas) was a hugely popular contribution to the world of Harry Potter fan fiction. That last sentence is deliberately written in the past tense: in the years following the well-received fan fiction, the author of the Draco Trilogy removed the work from hosted sites. It’s unclear just how many people have read part or all of the Draco Trilogy; like most things tied to the Internet, the Draco Trilogy has a stubborn tendency not to go away just because its author wills it to do so. With a few Google searches, I found the complete trilogy hosted on a blog and as downloadable PDFs. According to one report, drafts of the Draco Trilogy had more then 6,000 comments and led to its own smattering of spin-off fan fiction often collected at the Draco Trilogy Archives (which is now defunct). That’s right: this fan fiction series had its own fan fiction.

The world of fan fiction, like most communities that meet either in person or virtually (or both), is filled with jargon that is often impenetrable to outsiders. To describe the Draco Trilogy is to locate this particular fan fiction as “het” with “harry/ draco” undertones and is the origin of the “Draco in Leather Pants” trope. To unpack that, the Draco Trilogy deals with primarily heterosexual (“het”) relationships, though some readers notice more than a brotherly bond between Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy. There is an entire subgenre of fan fiction dedicated to expressing and exploring homosexual relationships between Harry and Draco (“harry/draco”). Finally, Clare’s inversion of readers’ expectations of Draco as a whiny and sniveling bully became so popular that the phrase “Draco in Leather Pants” defines tropes in fan fiction that stretch beyond just the Harry Potter universe: “When a fandom takes a controversial or downright villainous character and downplays his/her flaws, often turning him/her into an object of desire and/or a victim in the process.”

So far, this is a typical story about the powerful nature of online communities and connected learning, right? Actually, let’s look at why the series was removed by the author.

Along with the praise for the nuanced and entertaining story are serious accusations of plagiarism. The Draco Trilogy is rife with direct dialogue and descriptions from popular works of fiction and television including Monty Python and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. However the real controversy came about when readers noted that a large passage of the third book borrowed from Pamela Dean’s 2003 novel, The Hidden Land. This is the main reason the text was withdrawn by the author.

Echoing the arch-villain of the Harry Potter series, the author of The Draco Trilogy had a nickname during the height of the plagiarism controversy: She Who Shall Not Be Named.

Online spaces were rife with controversy around this topic. And while the author may have been at the center of larger issues of plagiarism and ownership in fan fiction that continues to spiral onward today, the experience also helped her build a repertoire of YA writing tropes and an audience of fans immersed in her work.

For the many readers who may not know the identity of “She who must not be named,” I would like to announce that The Draco Trilogy was written by Cassandra Clare.

Who is Cassandra Clare?

In 2007, Clare published her first commercially available novel, City of Bones. It was the first in a planned three part series, the Mortal Instruments. The series, however, was so successful that Clare then extended the series with a fourth book, City of Fallen Angels, which continues the ever-popular Mortal Instruments series. Clare’s books have also resulted in a prequel series, the Infernal Devices, which takes the same paranormal world of the Mortal Instruments and looks at a Victorian era for teenage adventures to ensue. A large-budget Hollywood adaptation of City of Bones hit the screens earlier this year.

Like a majority of Clare’s readers, I first discovered her work through this hugely popular franchise. The books comprising the Mortal Instruments series were staples in my high school classroom library, and I quickly learned that students looking for more paranormal-riddled worlds a la the Twilight series would likely find themselves immersed in Clare’s work. As of last year, Clare’s books have sold more than 10 million copies worldwide, a number likely to continue skyrocketing since the release of the film and subsequent volumes in her series.

Looking Beyond Draco and Bones

So what?

On the one hand 2013 has been a significant year for the commercialization of fan fiction. Amazon has launched Kindle Worlds, a space for writers to publish and sell fan fiction for specifically licensed properties including huge YA titles like Gossip Girl and Vampire Diaries. While this can be seen as a powerful opportunity for writers (including our students) to engage in the publishing world vis-à-vis their fanfiction, I also wonder how such a move can hinder the YA genre in the long term. The tropes of young adult literature (like most genres including mystery and romance novels) are very familiar for readers. The teenage sidekicks, the high school gossip, the head-over-heels love triangles show up in largely the same ways book after book.

The Draco Trilogy would not have existed without the massively popular and economically lucrative books by J.K. Rowling. Likewise, based on its publication just years before the Mortal Instruments books, I would argue that the Draco Trilogy served as a kind of training grounds for Clare to practice her prose and storytelling techniques for a receptive YA audience. In this sense, fan fiction can serve as a kind of lynchpin for profit and professional writing preparation. The same way that 50 Shades of Grey first began as Twilight fanfiction, we can see these online spaces as training grounds for staking out commercial space in the book-buying world. And this is what I’m most concerned with: what does it mean that online fandom and digital participation are functioning as the spaces for writers to gain feedback and audiences for future book sales? Are these the new strategies for writing we must reveal within classrooms?

Yes, fan fiction is a playful space for those passionate about a specific book, television show, or film to extrapolate other possibilities and alternatives within these worlds. However, it is also a serious space. The implications of community, ownership and participation within fan fiction communities, is a space that is contested in regards to the capitalist model of consumerism that drives YA books sales today. It is also an area to look to when guiding the YA reading and participatory decisions for young people.

Banner image credit: bibicall