By Catherine Hall
Reading, writing, and discussing fanfiction is an integral part of online fandoms. There are 5,381,000 works available (as of November 2019) on Archive of Our Own (AO3) , which attests to the popularity of the creation and consumption of fan produced work. Fanfiction communities are interpretive communities , and online platforms such as AO3, Fanfiction.net, and Wattpad are built in ways that encourage engaged interactions between fans. Comment threads allow for engaging interactions between the readers and the texts, but also between readers and authors, who frequently reply to comments left by readers. These engaging interactions push authors (who are often themselves readers of fanfiction) to produce more inclusive responses to canon material in order to more accurately depict the desires and fantasies of the communities they represent. Fanfiction thereby emerges as a communal product that is more inclusive both in its acknowledgement of readers’ desires and its involvement of readers in the writing process. To illustrate this relation between readers, authors, and writing, I will analyze the reader-generated comments posted on determanfidd’s Sansûkh, the most popular Tolkien fanfic on AO3.
Why Fanfiction? On a Reddit thread posing this very question, readers give two main reasons for why they read fanfiction (u/tessstark33, “Why do you read Fanfiction?”). Some choose fanfiction because they want more than what is presented to them in the canon material, whether because they want to see more of certain characters or want to see other parts of the fictional world explored. Others read fanfiction because they are not satisfied with the canon material. These answers provide an insight into why there are so many ‘alternate universe’ and ‘fix-it’ fanfictions.  As Janice Radway asserts, sustained consumption of a work of fiction indicates that the readers obtain some satisfaction from it, but it does not mean that the readers agree with everything presented in said work of fiction, which is what the answers to the Reddit thread illustrate (Radway 49).
Fanfiction also allows readers to find works that satisfy their particular tastes. Publishers cannot address the specificity of readers’ demands because, as Radway points out, they tend to stick with works targeted to mass-audiences (Radway 49). On AO3, authors can use tags to categorize their fics  so that readers can more easily find material that satisfies their specific tastes. Tags also allow large communities to come together by grouping and cataloguing content so that readers with similar interests come into contact with one another. Sansûkh is the most popular fanfic in the Tolkien fandom with 526,459 hits , which is 304,616 more than the second most popular fanfic in the fandom. One reason for its popularity is that it is inclusive. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are filled with white, heterosexual males, and only very few minor female characters. Many readers are unhappy with the lack of inclusivity in the canon material. Sansûkh thereby belongs to the second type of fanfic, whose goal is to correct perceived faults or shortcomings in the canon material. Tolkien’s novels were written in a different era, but even if we take this into account, readers do not have to accept their lack of inclusiveness. Instead, they can use fanfiction to transform the canon material to fit their ideals. This is what Sansûkh is: a more accessible story that includes non-heterosexual romances as well as nonbinary and trans characters while still having the familiarity of Tolkien’s epic works.
Sansûkh presents a story that is more in touch with its audience, in part by allowing readers to leave comments on each of the chapters of the larger work. Anne Jamison argues that fandom is “about equality” and “open discourse” (Jamison). Comment threads are a perfect example of the equality Jamison speaks of because they allow the author and the readers to openly interact with each other. There are 192 comments in total on the first chapter of the fic, 24 of which are replies by the author, which illustrates the importance of interactions between authors and readers in the fanfiction community. Many of the comments left by the author are simply thanking the readers for letting her know how much they appreciate her fanfiction. As Fish asserts, “the only ‘proof’ of membership is fellowship” — though not the kind that sets out to destroy the One Ring (209). That is, in order to be a part of an interpretive community, other members must recognize the author and their work as such. Furthermore, readers often engage in open discourse about the Tolkien canon with the author in the comments. On a few occasions, this discourse leads the author to take into consideration points brought up by readers in the following chapters. Thus, recognition from fellow members of the fanfiction community is what allows both the author and Sansûkh itself to become a significant part of the community.
This recognition that Fish speaks of is further illustrated in the 168 reader-generated comments. In order to efficiently analyze these comments within the limited scope of this essay, I have decided to focus on comments I designated to be positive remarks. In any case, I designated only one comment as a ‘negative’ response, although it is essential to note that it is only ‘negative’ because the reader was upset about a particular character being absent. I have also designated the remaining comments regarding technical aspects (such as questions about the updating schedule or the unfolding of the plot) to be ‘neutral.’ There are 145 ‘positive’ reader-generated comments.
|Number of comments|
|General appreciation of the work done by the author||79|
|Mention of the number of times the reader has re-read the story||24|
|Mention of a recommendation having been made to a friend||7|
|Appreciation of the characterization of the numerous characters||35|
From table 1.1, we can see that interactions and exchanges of opinions are a fundamental aspect of this interpretive community. The comments mentioning the number of times readers have read the story (31 times for one reader) , along with the sheer number of hits, show that there is an audience — and a very dedicated one too — for fanfiction. More importantly, these comments illustrate the importance of recognition in fanfiction communities. Readers feel it is important to tell the author how much they enjoy her fanfiction. The fact that many readers also feel compelled to let the author know that they have recommended the work to friends also shows how much recognition matters in fanfiction communities.
Recognition often reflects an appreciation of the inclusivity of fanfiction, which is one of the attractive aspects of the genre for many readers. One reader points out that they keep rereading the story because the author creates a world that is filled with diversity that “directly challenges the narratives presented in Tolkien’s original” while “still honouring [the] canon and celebrating all the wonderful things in it” (comment by IceQueenKat). Praising how the fanfiction “challenges” the world created by Tolkien by making it more inclusive resonates with Radway’s comment about how readers can get some satisfaction from a work of fiction while still not agreeing with everything presented in it. Moreover, these comments are public, which allows the author to view them but also consider them as she writes the following chapters, as mentioned above. All readers can also view these comments, and since many fanfiction readers are also writers themselves, these engaging interactions can shape the overall outcome of fanfiction produced for and by a particular fandom. As readers express their appreciation for the diversity portrayed in Sansûkh, they feel compelled to be more inclusive in their writing. In other words, the lack of diversity in the canon material is recognized by the community, and to include it in fanfiction becomes a valid interpretation of that community.
This brings us back to the reasons for which fans read fanfiction. I have discussed above how many people read fanfiction because they desire to read more material than what is initially available to them. By analyzing the reader-generated comments, it becomes clear that what many readers desire is more diversity. Sansûkh gives readers what they want in terms of diversity, which is one of the reasons it is so popular within the Tolkien fandom. Sansûkh was also able to amass such a large audience because it targets its audience very carefully. In the same way that Radway identifies particularities of a romance novel, such as the amount of sexual descriptions, the historical setting, and the use of violence, to help readers carefully determine which books they might prefer, fanfiction authors use tags (Radway 53). From table 1.1, we see that 79 reader-generated comments are mentioning how much they admire the work the author has done. One reader points out that Sansûkh is “everything [they’ve] ever wanted in [a] Tolkien fic,” which illustrates how tags allow readers to find exactly what they are looking for (comment by parhelia). Moreover, the fact that many fans read the story over and over again illustrates how the specificity of the tags used by the author has allowed them to locate fanfiction that adequately addresses their tastes. Fans can thereby connect and form communities. In turn, members of these communities share opinions and partake in open discourse on public comment threads, which shapes the outcome of the works produced by members. Members of the community can share and debate what they like or dislike to see in fanfictions, thus allowing authors to consider these comments as they produce more fanfiction. Fanfiction networks allow for the production of stories that are more in touch with the desires and fantasies of the community.
Fanfiction communities are shaped by the engaged interactions occurring between readers and authors, and it is these very interactions that allow fanfiction to evolve and become more compatible with the particular tastes of the community. In some aspects, this is what makes fanfiction so unique and so different from published fiction. Readers are heavily involved in the writing process because their engagement is essential for fanfictions to be recognized as valid interpretations of a community. Through reader engagement, authors can also understand the demands of their audiences to more efficiently target them, so that a panoply of smaller communities evolve within larger communities. Fanfiction, in its attempt to diversify the Tolkien canon, for example, becomes more inclusive of the particular tastes of its community. Of course, the conclusions presented in this essay are based on a limited sample of interactions between the author and the readers, which are themselves only a small part of the Tolkien fandom as a whole. Nevertheless, I believe that a close analysis of these reader responses gives a compelling insight into the mechanisms of fanfiction communities and of fandoms as a whole.
 A popular website to share and read fanfiction.
 In Interpreting the Variorum, Stanley Fish asserts that interpretive communities are groups of people who interpret texts in similar ways (Fish 207).
 ‘Fix-it’ refers to fics in which the author removes or modifies something from the canon that they do not like. ‘Alternate universe’ refers to exploring canon events and facts in a non-canonical way; these include alternate timelines and crossovers, for example.
 An abbreviation of the term fanfiction.
 The number of times a work has been accessed.
 Comment left by TheSeabear.
Archive of Our Own. “Home.” Archive of Our Own.
Archive of Our Own. “The Lord of the Rings – All Media Types.” Archive of Our Own.
Determamfidd. “Sansûkh.” Archive of Our Own, 2013-2017, https://archiveofourown.org/works/855528/chapters/1637607.
Fish, Stanley. “Interpreting the Variorum.” Twentieth-Century Literary Theory, edited by K. M. Newton, Macmillan Publishers, 1997, pp. 203-209.
IceQueenKat. Comment on “Sansûkh.” Archive of Our Own, 25 September 2017, https://archiveofourown.org/comments/127634400.
Jamison, Anne. The Briar Patch: Fic Writers on Publishing Fanfic. Wattpad, https://www.wattpad.com/40315016-the-briar-patch-fic-writers-on-publishing-fanfic.
Parhelia. Comment on “Sansûkh.” Archive of Our Own, 27 June 2013, https://archiveofourown.org/comments/3635155.
Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance. University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
TheSeabear. Comment on “Sansûkh.” Archive of Our Own, 30 April 2013, https://archiveofourown.org/comments/9052457.
u/tessstark33. “Why do you read Fanfiction?” Reddit, 21 November 2019, https://www.reddit.com/r/FanFiction/comments/dy5a9h/why_do_you_read_fanfiction/.