Modern Genre Theory Examines the World of Harry Potter Fan Fiction

By HollyLime
Genre Theory

Since the 1969 cancellation of the original Star Trek television series, fan fiction has grown into one of the more popular and controversial elements of most fandoms.1 It has become so influential and standardized among the fans that its importance can easily be measured by modern academic genre theory.

Genre theory in its present form is a relatively new concept based mainly on non-literary compositions. Examples include most professional, written communication within an office structure such as memos, reports and even e-mails. It extends beyond the office, though, to include such common written exchanges as the grocery list, blog entries and websites. One of the most prominent and recent genre scholars, Amy Devitt, published her theories in her recent, 2004 publication Writing Genres. A proficient and modern scholar, researcher and teacher, Devitt explains in her book that:

¦theories of Genre can contribute new perspectives and approaches
to many endeavors within English studies as well as a better
understanding more generally of how people operate and have
operated within their societies and cultures.

In general, genre theory relies on groups of people bound together by a common cause or interest who communicate through the written word in some way. These types of communications, called genres, are typically common yet unique forms of communication that are often standardized and help mandate the participation of a newcomer. The genre standards are created by the group and yet also help to guide, maintain and perpetuate that same group. In other words, genres both are created by the groups that use them and establish the standards that maintain and sustain those groups.

A relevant example of this concept would be The Leaky Cauldron website, more specifically all the written communications used by the website for specific purposes and functions. The front page news posts, for instance, are carefully chosen and written as a quick and concise method both to inform the regular visitor of information relevant to the site's fan community, and as a draw to the newcomer to read and explore more of the site. This is a form of a genre from the journalism community, the front page news story, modified and used by the online general news community. It is additionally modified and customized for use within the large, online Harry Potter fan community and even further refined to suit the unique characteristics and distinctions of The Leaky Cauldron. The brief front page news post is an example of a genre set, incorporating many modified versions of one basic model genre. While creativity is allowed for, the basic structure remains recognizable for the many users of this genre.

In addition to the news posts, The Leaky Cauldron uses various other genre types, such as this Scribbulus essay project and the Leaky Lounge forum and posts. All of these are part of the overall genre repertoire used by site. Rhetorical or utilitarian genres (or non-literary genres) such as these and others are important in everyday, written communication because they serve as models and examples of acceptable, written conduct for both seasoned and new users. They help the users easily express what they need to by providing different sections and guidelines for questions, opinions, debate, analysis and fan reaction. They are also organic in the sense that by their continued use, they are constantly refined and modified while the basic genre serves as a reminder of purpose and function.

Harry Potter and the Fan Fiction Genre

Harry Potter fans who interact through written discussion at specific, online websites and forums form a unique, distinctive and relatively new social genre-using group. While even modern genre theory cannot answer for the massive and devoted Harry Potter fandom phenomenon, it is prepared to analyze and examine this group as a well-established micro-culture. Fan fiction was created by fans, for fans, but its existence and longevity created its own rules and expectations for the fans, thus shaping the way it is perceived and assessed by the readers, writers and other participants, typically referred to as the users.

Modern fan fiction on the Internet today3 is so prevalent that it would be unusual to find a successful series, TV, novel or otherwise, without a collective of fans producing fan fiction. According to another leading modern genre theorist, Charles Bazerman:

eventually the genres sediment into forms so expected that readers
are surprised or even uncooperative if a standard perception of a
situation is not met by an utterance of the expected form.

An examination of fan fiction using such genre ideals reveals much about the fan fiction community and its fan fiction values, which can serve as a map for how to best understand the purpose, function and possibilities of fan fiction.

Fan fiction is the creative product of a distinctive, fan community and is typically posted on sites devoted to fan fiction. Each site organizes its library of fan fiction into very important groupings that act as organizers and labels for the individual stories. These are typically referred to by the users as "the genres". Common examples include romance, humor, angst, crossover, alternative universe or adventure. While such groups of stories might better be labeled categories, according to Bazerman: "A genre exists only in the recognitions and attributes of the users." 5 Devitt expands on this thought when she writes that:

[t]he genres that develop from a group's interactions¦ reciprocally
reinforce the group's identity and nature by operating collectively
rather than individually.

This basic idea is most especially true for any group that maintains its primary existence through the internet and the online interaction of participants, or fans. Without a pool of users, those who have a desire to create Harry Potter fan fiction and those who have a desire to read it for instance, the massive online Harry Potter fan fiction community, to date still by far the largest single collection of stories in sheer numbers on alone, would not exist.7

As a genre, fan fiction is unique because of its creative, original elements juxtaposed against the fact that it is a specific tool used by a specific community to function as a writing practice tool, a place to test theories, and as imitative entertainment applicable and understandable only to avid readers and fans of the canon - the Harry Potter books in this case. It functions as a rhetorical text, following strict guidelines and models, yet performs as unique entertainment with its limited original components.

Where Harry Potter Fan Fiction Fits

Devitt divides groups that create, use, and are defined by genre into three categories: communities, collectives and networks.8 These are not by any means neat and distinct categories, as Devitt herself and other theorists expand and complicate each of these categories, and some theorists have altogether different classification methods and categories themselves. However, for simplification, Devitt's three categories are used for this analysis.

A genre community is defined as "Groups of people who share substantial amounts of time together in common endeavors¦." 9 While it might seem that this is a good way to describe the Harry Potter fandom, the community label when fully examined is typically applicable only to professional, office-working environments. A network is a group of people held together by a chain of familiarity. As Devitt points out, a network example would be one person's e-mail address book, and all the recipients of some "hilarious" forward someone just "had" to share with all those unlucky enough to be in the address book.10

The Harry Potter fan fiction culture is best categorized in her classification method as a "collective" which is formed "around a single, repeated interest¦these collectives act for a shared purpose that is often singular and focused" 11 While the focus of the Harry Potter fan fiction collective is the extension and appreciation of the novels, characters and situations, the added interest in the creative writing process is arguably candidate for a duplicate purpose, though most often it can be classified as a secondary purpose.

Though fan fiction may be mostly unoriginal, as a genre it shares many characteristics with original fiction. In fact, sharing distinct stylistic characteristics with the canon is arguably the most important and possibly most fundamental of "rules" that are applied to it. It takes not only a flair for creative writing, but also a dedicated insight into a canon to produce quality fan fiction. Perhaps even more amazing than the insight and creativity it takes to be a successful user of this genre is the power that quality fan fiction has within the collective of fans.

The Rules of this Genre

Fan fiction that is shared with an active collective of fans is subject to the public approval or disapproval of the users who function as readers. Writers are expected to follow general guidelines typically laid out somewhere within a fan fiction website. This follows with Devitt's stated theories on genre which could be identified as duel-control between the users of Harry Potter fan fiction and the genre itself:

Genres never operate independently of the actions of people,
but the actions of some people influence the actions of other
people through genres.

In other words, the continued use and, more importantly, the continued public sharing of the stories create standards within the collective that do not emanate from one glorious fan fiction god or goddess, but from the use of the genre itself. One of the more apparent results of this goes beyond the most generally stated rules such as "spell check and grammar check your work", and leads to advice such as avoiding common clichés not only in general, but clichés specifically most common and exclusively applicable in the Harry Potter online collections of fan fiction.

In the Harry Potter fandom such recognizable clichés include adding Ginny to the trio to have two convenient couples, the presumption of Sirius Black being drop-dead gorgeous, and Peter Pettigrew always being the chubby follower. While the canon does allow for such assumptions, they are so prevalent in fan fiction stories that some sites advise against reliance on them, encouraging more original thought on the part of the writers.

When questioned about advice to new writers, fan fiction users overwhelmingly give basically the same answers. Seventy percent of users questioned on this subject said: "Keep the characters the same", and "Know your characters." Devitt discusses this kind of attitude when she states that:

[o]nce genres are established by people, they exist institutionally
and collectively and have the force of other social expectations
and social structures.

Such insight accounts for the consistency of the guidelines found on Harry Potter fan fiction sites. While these guidelines can vary from suggestion to actual requirements, they go beyond typical formatting standards to include such specific admonishments as the exclusion of the "Mary Sue" character. Devitt and other theorists posit that sometimes exclusion rules alone can help identify a genre.

Though no one is paying the writers for these fan fictions, they are clearly attempting to reach the same audience as the original author or writers. Such indulgences as Mary Sue14 or self-insertion in general are best reserved for private and personal enjoyment. When sharing a fiction with a community it is clear that imitation of the original is the main desire of the users. They are reading the fan fiction for the purpose of extending their enjoyment of the original material during a lapse, such as the time between installment publications.

Such a brief examination of fan fiction using modern genre theory makes clear that fan fiction itself, and more specifically Harry Potter fan fiction, is perhaps bigger than merely one genre. Its specific functions and goals allow it to exemplify a rhetorical genre, though it does contain elements typical of literary texts. It blends multiple genres within its own distinctive structure. Elements of literary originality in the form of plot blend with strict rules exacting imitation of a canon's style, along with distinct recognition of the intended audience. Devitt discusses the study of such uniqueness:

This interaction of multiple genres within a particular text is not a
perspective rhetorical genre theory has paid especial attention to,
though close rhetorical analyses often refer to multiple genres
surrounding a particular text. Work such as that done recently by
Anne Freadman¦argues for the impact of related texts and genres
on particular texts in other genres.

Genre theorists are well aware of this multiplicity of genre and its functions, primary and secondary. It is partially because of that multiplicity and multifunction that genre theory has become so intriguing to modern theorists in the last few decades. Devitt helps to navigate the flooded possibilities of genre with many different classifications. Genre repertoire and genre set are two classifications that nicely outfit the massive world of Harry Potter fan fiction.

A repertoire of genres is generally understood as "the set of genres that exists within a particular group." 16 A group's genre set "develops with the group itself, dually aiding in defining, and guiding the group's participants or users." 17 To the Harry Potter fan collective, fan fiction is recognizable as a genre set within a larger repertoire of genres used by the fans. That repertoire includes the various forums, discussion, and even artistic methods used exclusively by the Harry Potter fandom to further appreciate, analyze, debate and understand the fictional world that unites them all.

Possible Downfalls of Harry Potter Fan Fiction

To examine fan fiction's impact on its readers reveals distinct and perhaps even disturbing effects the genre may produce.

Limited Purpose and Audience:

Fan fiction satisfies the needs of devoted and knowledgeable fans with personal unfulfilled desires from the canon. It does not serve fans happy or satisfied with the original canon in every way. To anyone unfamiliar with the canon, fan fiction is either uninteresting or perhaps even unintelligible as assumptions of canon knowledge are built into the stories themselves. Consequently, it is not very effective beyond its compact fandom, which is the major reason it will remain a non-professional, predominantly amateur genre.

Erotic Tales:

One particularly sensitive issue in Harry Potter fan fiction is the presence of sometimes age-inappropriate material. One of the major issues dealt with in fan fiction stories is sexuality. Each fan fiction site has clear rules regarding the acceptability of sexually explicit fan fiction.18 However, within the gigantic fandom of Harry Potter, with users ranging in age from six to sixty, the prevalence of sexually driven fan fiction becomes controversial at least; problematic at best.

Part of the uniqueness of the Harry Potter series itself is that its readers are not age specific. Within the fan fiction collective, stories that lend themselves to the erotic generally have a corresponding age-appropriate fandom. But the age-range of Harry Potter fans, due to the fact that the canon itself ranges from being about an eleven year old Harry Potter to a seventeen-year-old Harry Potter, has created a cross-contamination issue of immensely diverse age brackets. The fantasies and desires of a ten-year-old Harry Potter reader are vastly different from the fantasies and desires of an eighteen-year-old Harry Potter reader.

Precarious Confusion:

The original authors or writers of a fan fiction's canon have diverse attitudes towards fan fiction. In general it is quietly tolerated since its nature is primarily non-professional and exclusively shared among fans and readers of the original genre. However, fan fiction may fulfill the needs of its users so well that the entire genre ironically begins to pose a "threat" to the very canon to which it owes its existence.

It happens occasionally that similarities occur in new canon material mirroring some fan fiction, and sometimes the users of the fan fiction genre blur the lines of distinction between the canon and fan fiction, specifically due to their use or perhaps over-use of the genre.

When Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince19 was released in July of 2006, it greeted millions of eager fans. Some of the fans were so eager that they had spent hundreds of hours participating in online Harry Potter fan collectives in anticipation. Many of those fans had satiated their need for a Harry Potter-fix during the two-year wait between books five and six by writing and reading fan fiction. In fan fiction's meticulous attempts to perfectly imitate the canon, many fans had followed long, novel-length stories that tried to guess at J.K. Rowling's dramatic intentions. But in those attempts, some users began to lose sight of how much that imitation was simply that: imitation.

Though various fans claim they became users of fan fiction to "satiate" their needs between issues of new material, that satiation can and does often go so deep as to obscure the viewpoint of some. While most users would not go so far as to claim a fan fiction preference over the canon, the recent publication and reception of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince brought about some fan criticism, much of it blurring the lines between the fan fiction genre and the canon.

Over various fan forums, message boards and other similar online platforms, some fans, particularly fan fiction writers and readers, complained that the book, which was an original piece of fiction, read like a long fan fiction story, with all the "sudden" romance between Harry and Ginny and other major characters. Rather than recognizing fan fiction's successful imitation of the original canon, the original canon was judged as if J.K. Rowling herself was writing and submitting a fan fiction story, using some of the standards fan fiction users typically judge stories in their genre by, such as avoiding the "Mary Sue" and "keeping the characters in character". The fact that an author of original fiction has the right and privilege to advance and grow her characters was overlooked by many who simply were unsatisfied with the events in the book.

One reason for such dissatisfaction perhaps lies in the fact that fan fiction users are free to browse among the vast choices available to find a story and a writer whose ideas and desires closely match their own. That kind of choice and variety allows users to pick and choose how they want their Harry Potter "served" to them.

This is particularly evident within the massively popular romance category with multiple relationship pairings to choose from. The Harry Potter series is not about romance, but romance is a part of it. Fan fiction long ago began the romantic pairings of certain characters. Since the canon was not particularly dealing with romance, while also not avoiding the possibility, fan fictions became a place for not only romantic speculation, but preference and eventually superiority in some cases. So when J.K. Rowling finally did include romance in the original story of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, some fan fiction users became outraged at her creative choices. In the focus on the relationships and the romance the different groups had drawn invisible battle lines, and fan fiction was one of their most powerful weapons.

Fan fiction caused some fans to lose sight of the value of the original fiction, which belonged to a completely different genre altogether, the literary genre.

The Perplexity of Purpose

If fan fiction could be understood using rhetorical, genre theory by the users then perhaps such confusions between the imitation that guides fan fiction and the distinction which sets the canon apart would not occur. Devitt explains rhetorical genre theory in such a way that fan fiction's function and purpose is clearly accounted for:

Rhetorical genre theory¦is based in a functional, pragmatic theory of
textual meaning¦Genres exist¦in the sense that they are patterning
from repeated actions according to which¦readers and writers use language.

Literary genre, as opposed to rhetorical genre, is a distinctive and sometimes controversial area for rhetorical genre theorists.21 The pragmatic function ideally modeled by rhetorical genre goes against the very idea of what creative, original literature attempts to achieve. Literature that typically receives the highest critical praise is always that which is not formulaic or predictable, in other words, "unclassifiable". Literature that can work against the entrenched ideas of "genre fiction" is commonly lauded and rewarded within the literary community. J.K. Rowling's ability, for instance, to compel the reader with her storytelling skills, yet without obviously giving away endings by relying on common plot devices or patterns is part of what makes the Harry Potter series so successful. And while her books have been called "children's literature", "fantasy", even "boarding school novel" and various other "genre" labels, fans are sometimes resistant to the idea that the books can be easily "disregarded" as "genre fiction". This was exemplified by the outcry from fans caused by the New York Times' decision to create a separate "children's fiction" best seller list seemingly to keep the Harry Potter books from dominating the coveted "best seller" list for general literary fiction.

Literary works, such as the Harry Potter novels, resist not only genre labeling but they also resist rhetorical genre analysis. Devitt admits that:

Our genre theory is a reconceived, rhetorically based genre theory,
not the categorization of literary kinds of old, when the term genre
included only literary works. Our main concern is with the everyday
texts of everyday people¦

As far as rhetorical genre theory is concerned, the world of literary texts such as the canon Harry Potter can not be analyzed by the same theories as fan fiction can, because they reside in two distinct areas of study, the literary and the rhetorical. Therefore, it stands to reason that the users of fan fiction should recognize the guidelines and expectations that guide their stories cannot be applied to the canon. Rhetorical genres are by nature utilitarian genres, and fan fiction functions as not only imitative stories to bide the time between installments, but also to expand and explore character and story speculation and in some cases as an exercise in the creative writing process.

Fan fiction is ideally meant as imitation, not improvement or correction. No matter how much they like or dislike a work of fiction, that work stands alone as an original, artistic statement. Fan fiction should not become the basis on which to judge the original. Though accessible and popular among online fandoms, a close examination shows that too much fan fiction within a canon can and does alter the users' perception of the original literature.

The Beneficial Possibilities

As a genre, the problem with fan fiction lies in the fact that it is almost too effective for its users. It suits its users too well sometimes, refashioning and recreating the canon to suit their own desires. Eventually, it may cross too many copyright lines with its efficiency. Many of its writers are creating wonderfully original plots while borrowing characters, settings and style from a particular canon, in effect using those elements as a creative crutch.

Those original ideas, though, could serve as the basis for new original literary works if the authors simply removed the preexisting elements and replaced them with their own original creations. Tweaking and altering characteristics such as gender, history, motive and other details could create a new and unique story and would fall into an entirely different genre, one capable of more artistic integrity. Devitt discusses that

[t]he potential for genres to enforce ideology is always present,
just as the potential for genres to encourage creativity is always
present. The difference lies in its use.

Using canon pieces as inspiration rather than model is a similar but entirely different practice which could sharpen the users' appreciation and critical skills in evaluation of new literature. Fan fiction collectives could promote such original ideas by creating areas specifically for original fiction. But they are inclined to separate fan fiction from original fiction, as evidenced by's removal of the original fiction section of their site and the placing of such works on a separate and distinct site.24 If, though, users were given more prompting and opportunity to transpose their ideas from imitation into originality, they would gain a new and more refined appreciation for the original canon material.

Fan fiction is a tool used by Harry Potter fans for various reasons. Through rhetorical genre analysis fan fiction's purpose, function and possibilities become a little bit clearer. Genre analysis exemplifies the many benefits of fan fiction and it also helps illustrate the important need to focus on purpose and possibility. Being a non-professional genre, Harry Potter fan fiction is, in a sense, like an interstate loop road that may lead to and from many places, but itself goes nowhere but in a circle. Genre analysis acts as a map to help guide the users on the road, but it also can help them choose the proper exit to a road that might take them somewhere new.
Works Cited
1. Wikipedia. "Fan Fiction." Wikipedia Encyclopedia. 2005-06. Wikmedia. 16 May 2006.

2. Devitt, Amy. Writing Genres. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004. p.2.

3. 16 May 2006.

4. Freedman, Aviva and Peter Medway, eds. Genre and the New Rhetoric. London:
Taylor & Francis, 1994. p.82.

5. Ibid. p 81.

6. Devitt, Amy. Writing Genres. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004. p.36.

7. "Books." 2006. 16 May 2006.

8. Devitt, Amy. Writing Genres. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004. p.42.

9. Ibid. p.42.

10. Ibid. p.45.

11. Ibid. p.44.

12. Ibid. p.49.

13. Ibid.

14. Wikipedia. "Mary Sue." Wikipedia Encyclopedia. 2005-06. Wikmedia. 16 May 2006.

15. Devitt, Amy. Writing Genres. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004. pp. 186-7.

16. Ibid. p.54.

17. Ibid.

18. MuggleNet Fan Fiction. "Writing Tips Section." 2006. MuggleNet Fan Fiction. 16 May 2006.

19. Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic Press, 2005.

20. Devitt, Amy. Writing Genres. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004. p.169.

21. Ibid. p.137.

22. Ibid. p.163.

23. Ibid. p.169.

24. Wikipedia. "Fan Fiction." Wikipedia Encyclopedia. 2005-06. Wikmedia. 16 May 2006.


Devitt, Amy. Writing Genres. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004. 16 May 2006.

Freedman, Aviva and Peter Medway, eds. Genre and the New Rhetoric. London:
Taylor & Francis, 1994.

MuggleNet Fan Fiction. 16 May 2006.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic Press, 2005.

Wikipedia. Wikipedia Encyclopedia. 2005-06. Wikmedia. 16 May 2006.

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The Leaky Cauldron is not associated with J.K. Rowling, Warner Bros., or any of the individuals or companies associated with producing and publishing Harry Potter books and films.