In honor of the release of HP 7.5 this weekend, I bring you an excerpt of my thesis, “The Branding of Harry Potter: How Fanfiction is Challenging Concepts of Owner and Author”. Before jumping in, here’s what you need to know:
I love Harry Potter and I love fanfiction; not in the way that I sit around and read it all the time, but you know, if I’m ever in a really bad mood… I love fanfiction because it teaches people how to write and encourage people, especially young people, to find their voices and develop their skills as storytellers. Everyone knows that Harry Potter struck a chord with a generation, but not many people know how it uniquely impacted creative and bookish teenagers. Millions of their derivative works can be found on fanfiction archives across the internet. Their writing and art, based upon Harry Potter and other fictional stories that became touchstone cultural artifacts, made up some of the earliest examples of Web 2.0. And they did it all because of their love of the stories that inspired them. Here we go…
Perhaps Henry Jenkins best explains the transformation that a canon goes through when becoming a cult text when he compares it to the famous story of the Velveteen Rabbit. In this metaphor, the toy Rabbit stands in for the text. The Toymaker, the man responsible for the Rabbit’s existence is the author of the text. He created it in his own vision and for his own purposes. But, the Rabbit was gifted to the Child to play with as he liked. The Child is the fan. He plays with the Rabbit in his own ways and adapts its purpose as he goes along. His play fundamentally changes the Rabbit such that it takes on very different qualities than the Toymaker imbued it with.
Seen from the perspective of the toymaker, who has an interest in preserving the stuffed animal as it was made, the Velveteen Rabbit’s loose joints and missing eyes represent vandalism … yet for the boy, they are traces of fondly remembered experiences, evidence of his having held the toy too close and pet it too often, in short, marks of its loving use.
As well as vandalizing the story, the fans love of the text makes it Real in the way that the Velveteen Rabbit becomes Real to the Child. A quote from The Velveteen Rabbit perhaps best explains how the text becomes real to fans.
Real isn’t how you are made… It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become Real… Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand. 
The Velveteen Rabbit’s concept of Real is how many fans relate to their beloved texts. An appreciation of this attachment is necessary to understanding fan culture. Children write letters to J.K. Rowling asking to attend Hogwarts. It is real to them.
I get letters from children addressed to Professor Dumbledore [headmaster at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the books’ setting], and it’s not a joke, begging to be let into Hogwarts, and some of them are really sad. Because they want it to be true so badly they’ve convinced themselves it’s true.
This is not to say that devoted Harry Potter fans believe that Hogwarts actually exists. It is not real as it may be to some children, but it is Real through their love for it as the Velveteen Rabbit is. As the child in the metaphor changes the rabbit, so the fans change the Potterverse. Their Hogwarts is not J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts. Through their play, mostly in the form of fanfic and extrapolation, they use Rowling’s canon as a foundation to build their own worlds, to which they bring their own experiences and interpretations.
Another metaphor that Jenkins uses to describe fandom comes from his title Textual Poachers. Jenkins cites Michel de Certeau “far from being writers… readers are travelers; they move across lands belonging to someone else, like nomads poaching their way across fields they did not write, despoiling the wealth of Egypt to enjoy it themselves” (De Certeau quoted in Jenkins). This metaphor paints fans, and even more socially acceptable readers, in a negative light, saying that they damage the fantasy world that they escape to in their reading. However, fans cannot really change that world. They can edit and mark up their copy of a book, but the original manuscript remains the same. At the most, fans can change the text for themselves and share their changes with other around them. They bring new interpretations, but do not fundamentally alter the text itself.
I want stories that are Real. I want to know the characters as I do my friends and to see the places as if I’ve been there. Someday, I’d like to be able to write something that’s Real for other people. Until then, I’ll content myself with curling up with Harry Potter and some tea… and maybe some fanfiction… I don’t care that my Harry Potter is shabby and worn in some places; it’s better for it.
Question of the day: What stories are Real for you?
 Jenkins, Textual Poachers 21
 Williams, Margery. The Velveteen Rabbit.
 Jenkins, Herny. Textual Poachers, 24
MaggieCakes is a blog about social media, marketing, culture, and what’s new on the internet written by me, Maggie O’Toole. Every day (okay, I try for every day) I comb blogs and news outlets for the news about internet culture and social media to bring them to you (with my commentary, of course) here on MaggieCakes. Find anything interesting in the worlds of culture or social media that you’d like to see a post on? Leave a comment or send me an e-mail at email@example.com.