A fan-fiction site is a uniquely energetic learning environment. Unlike in the classroom, where a writing prompt is as likely to be met with groans as with enthusiasm, writers on fan-fiction websites are thrilled to be there, excited to write, and passionate about the material—because it’s based on a book, TV show, movie, video game, or something else they already love. “It’s really clear that if you have a genuine interest and a personal identification with the topic that you’re learning about, your learning is going to be more engaging and, as a result, more successful,” says Katie Davis, a professor at the University of Washington’s Information School and a co-founder of its Digital Youth Lab.
Davis, along with her University of Washington colleague Cecilia Aragon, recently spent nine months studying a couple of fan-fiction websites, focusing mostly on young authors writing on fanfiction.net. (Older, more experienced fan-fiction authors tend to prefer the website Archive of Our Own.) They published their observations in a new book called Writers in the Secret Garden, and described their theory that people on these websites are actually teaching one another to write through a kind of sprawling, communal learning that Aragon and Davis call “distributed mentorship.”
戴维斯和她华盛顿大学的同事塞西莉亚·阿拉贡(Cecilia Aragon)花费九个月的时间研究了几个同人小说网站，她们将主要精力放在研究fanfiction.net上的年轻作家身上。(年长、更有经验的同人小说作者更喜欢 Archive of Our Own)。她们在《秘密花园中的作家》这本新书中公布了他们的观察结果，她们的理论用“分布式指导”来形容这些网站上人们通过一种分散、共同的学习方式来互相教授写作的现象。
Though writers may develop traditional two-person mentor/mentee relationships on fan-fiction websites, the researchers posit that much more often, people are being diffusely mentored by the entire community. An author frequently receives many small pieces of feedback in the form of reviews (sometimes thousands on one story) that are in conversation with one another and that “are cumulatively much greater than the sum of their parts,” Aragon told me.
One example from their book is how commenters responded to a writer’s question about portraying Princess Luna, a villain from the show My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. One person wrote: “From the limited amount of stories that I have read, Luna is usually portrayed as a gamer or somewhat out of touch with modern culture.” Then another offered their take on that advice: “While I’m picky about the kind of technology that I would introduce into a story, Luna being behind the times is right on the money.”
These communities also “allow for a lot of different forms of expertise,” says Rebecca Black, an informatics professor at the University of California at Irvine who has studied fan fiction (but who wasn’t involved in Davis and Aragon’s project). “Even if you aren’t the best writer, you might know everything there is to know about a certain character in the series.” People can switch between the roles of teacher and student, depending on their strengths and weaknesses.
Generally, fan-fiction writers’ strengths are effusively celebrated, and any feedback on their weaknesses is very gently conveyed. Reviews of fan fiction are overwhelmingly positive—Aragon and Davis found that out of a sample of 4,500 reviews on fanfiction.net, only 1 percent were what they called “non-constructive negative” reviews, or “flames” (such as: “I never thought that human spawn could create such a horrible piece of crap”).
Tamsyn Muir, a science-fiction writer from New Zealand and the author of the new novel Gideon the Ninth, remembers the reviews on her early fan-fiction stories (parodies of Animorphs and long, gritty tales based on the Final Fantasy video games) as almost entirely positive. “You didn’t have to do that well to get a lot of positive feedback,” she told me. In fact, in her early days of writing and posting fan fiction online, she said, she got only one actual critique. “Somebody had said, ‘I think this story is okay, but it feels a bit template. It just feels like a very generic story.’ I was so angry, because it was the first piece of really constructive criticism.” The anonymous review turned out to be from her brother—after he watched her fume all day, he fessed up. “He was like, ‘I don’t want you getting complacent,’” Muir said.
坦森·缪尔（Tamsyn Muir）是一位来自新西兰的科幻小说作家，著有新小说《第九基甸》（Gideon the Ninth）。当她回忆起自己的早期同人小说（科学奇幻小说《动物变性人》的仿作及基于电子游戏《最终幻想》创作的长篇真实故事）时，发现收到的几乎全部是正面评论。她告诉我：“你不需要做的很好就能得到很多正面反馈。”她说，事实上，在她早期创作同人小说并上传到网上的时间里，只收到过一条真正的批评意见。“有人说：’我觉得这个故事还不错，但感觉是照着模板写出来的，好像是一个可以套在任何背景下的故事。’当时我非常气愤，因为这是我收到的第一条真正有建设性的批评。”缪尔最后发现那条匿名评论出自她的哥哥之手——在看着妹妹恼火了一天后，他终于坦白原因。缪尔说：“他当时说，’我不希望你太过骄傲。’”
While it probably takes more than unalloyed positivity to strengthen one’s writing, hearing what readers respond well to is useful for writers, and an outpouring of encouragement may well motivate writers to keep writing, which can only improve their skills. “People often discount the positive feedback, but for a lot of struggling writers and English learners, those copious amounts of positive feedback were really important,” says Black, who has studied how fan fiction helps English learners grow as writers in their new language.
Still, constructive criticism (or “concrit”) is a welcome and integral part of fan-fiction websites (although some writers or communities may specify that they’re not looking for concrit). When fan-fiction reviewers offer a specific critique, they often present it in the middle of a “compliment sandwich,” according to Muir and Black, slipping negative feedback between the bread of effusive praise, and often adding a self-deprecating comment such as “But what do I know?” to soften the blow.
Aragon and Davis’s research also found that the communal tutoring happening on fan-fiction websites leads to a quantifiable improvement in people’s writing, at least by one metric. They analyzed 61.5 billion words of fan-fiction stories and 6 billion words of reviews from fanfiction.net, tracking the “lexical diversity,” or complexity of vocabulary, of users over time. They discovered that for every 650 reviews writers received, their vocabulary improved as much as if they had aged one year. (The average age of authors in this sample was just under 17, so this may not hold true for older writers—even if they are honing other, more advanced, less measurable skills, such as story structure, pacing, or character development.)
Jemisin said she’s found several trusted readers to share her work with through writing fan fiction, and compared it to the sort of peer workshopping that happens in college creative-writing classes. “Fan-fic is one big giant writing workshop,” she said, “one that’s voluntarily joined and cranks on and on.” Fan fiction, then, is a way to instantly get extensive amounts of targeted feedback in a low-stakes environment where, unlike at school, no one’s being graded.
It also teaches something that schools rarely do: what it’s like to write for a real audience “versus a teacher who’s read the same essay topic 1 million times,” as Black says. Muir, who used to work as an English teacher, has experienced this from both sides. She credits fan fiction with helping her learn to connect with readers, and in the classroom “being a storyteller is something I’ve always struggled to teach. We don’t give kids the opportunity to be writing for an audience.”
Anne Jamison, an English professor at the University of Utah who has studied fan fiction, sometimes tries to apply its lessons to her teaching, both in college and when she works with younger students. For instance, with elementary-school students, she finds that fan fiction is a way to get them invested in writing. “I go into a second- or third-grade classroom and say, ‘Everybody start writing stories about Minecraft,’” she says. “They ask if they can keep going through recess, they’re so excited.”
“The authors whom we interviewed unanimously and unequivocally communicated their belief that fanfiction had helped them hone their craft,” Aragon and Davis write in Writers in the Secret Garden. Some felt that fan fiction had taught them things they could never have learned in school. And Aragon and Davis think that the sort of distributed-mentoring community that exists in fan fiction isn’t just useful for improving writing. They mention DeviantArt (an online community for visual artists) and Ravelry (a knitting website) as places where distributed mentoring may also thrive. “If you have this basis of interest-driven learning in a supportive community,” Davis says, “that sets the stage for learning pretty much anything.”
阿拉贡和戴维斯在《秘密花园中的作家》（Writers in the Secret Garden）中写道：“在我们采访过的作者中，所有人都明确表示，同人小说帮助他们精进了写作技巧。”其中有人相信同人小说教会了他们一些在学校里学不到的东西。阿拉贡和戴维斯都认为，如同人小说网站的这类分布式指导社区不仅仅对提升写作有益。他们提到了DeviantArt（一个在线视觉艺术社区）与Ravelry（一个编织网站），在这些网站上，分布式指导模式可能也大有用武之地。戴维斯说：“如果可以在一个充满鼓励的社区中进行兴趣驱动式学习，那么在这个平台上你几乎可以学到任何东西。”