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Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet

April 19th, 2008 (01:27 pm)
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current music: Kate Rusby: Village Green Preservation Society

Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet is a borrowed book which has been on my shelves too long. My first excuse was that I have been distracted by this journal, other blogs and the timesink of the internet as a whole; by other books, by television and films, by work and the rest of the tumbleweed of life; but also because when dipping into the book I often found that I didn't have the familiarity with the appropriate critical vocabulary or the complementary personal history to constructively engage with many of the essays contained within it. The gap between my intellectual background as a historian - or perhaps more accurately someone who follows a particular and personal brand of historicism founded on decisions and discoveries made in childhood, and which might be characterised as being as much a faith as an intellectual discipline - and the psychological, sociological and ethnographical assumptions and methodologies embodied in much of the writing in this book, was apparent in my reactions to many of the chapters, some of which I was unable to follow as well as I would have liked. These are at least as much my failings as they are those of the authors of this volume.

Nonetheless it's clear that Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse have assembled a range of essays which represent an important slice of the fan experience in the first decade of the twenty-first century which rewards attention. Early in their introduction, they acknowledge that the fandom of which they and their authors write is not cohesive, and they could have stressed further that fan fiction writing, specifically slash writing, is not the sole form of fan literary activity; indeed, in my principal fandom, Doctor Who, fan fiction was for most of its history the poor relation of the interview, the story synopsis (detailed reconstructions of episodes being especially valuable in the pre-video age), and the critical article. Nor is the fiction community the only form of internet fan community, though (without having undertaken my own survey) they are probably dominant in most online fandoms, and probably reward the critical models mentioned most by the editors in their introduction, bookended with invocations of Barthes (whose work I do not know, beyond being familiar with his name). They distinguish their interest in community-bulding with the 'voluntary self-estrangement' of the fan discussed by Matt Hills in his Fan Cultures; in my own experience the two modes are not mutually exclusive, but are together forcefully demand a complex negotiation of identity.

Francesca Coppa's 'A Brief History of Media Fandom' is placed first. It's understandably American-led, but argues strongly for The Man from UNCLE as having the first media fandom in the modern sense, predating Star Trek. Her argument for the primacy, by the mid-1970s, of 'buddy' stories over science-fiction in Star Trek fan literature is carried forward in her second contribution to the book, 'Writing Bodies in Space', where she quotes fandom historian Joan Marie Verba's comparison of stories of Kirk and Spock with the legend of Damon and Pythias. There were many useful insights in Abigail Derecho's 'Archontic Literature: a Definition, a History, and Several Theories of Fan Fiction'; though even taking on board the practical and theoretical reality that there are manifest Pride and Prejudice 'archives' from which writers 'withdraw' when they wish to construct new stories descended from Jane Austen's novel or subsequent adaptations or potential additions. 'Derived from', in Derecho's view, would be to misrepresent the fan fiction writing process, which is an accretion to the corpus rather than a corruption of it. Her quotation of Glissant's theory of relation, where author and audience are conscious of the influences and interplays of texts on their work and appreciation, seems more applicable to fandom than the Barthesian intertextuality used elsewhere in the book. The author is very much alive, as well as the writer.

A book by fan-scholars is inevitably personal; we are all forced to generalise from experience. Thus while Ika Willis's 'Keeping Promises to Queer Children: Making Space (for Mary Sue) at Hogwarts' comments (p. 159) that Harry Potter's reaction to his first kiss (with Cho Chang) in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is "As a portrait of teenage (hetero)sexuality... at odds with my knowledge of the world"; but for this reader it seemed very true. We have common ground with dissatisfaction with Rowling's portrayal of magical-muggle relations, as Willis explores in her own "In Loco Parentis". While I admit to finding the concept of RPS (real person slash) disturbing, given that it appears to appropriate the personal lives of real people and seems to me to depend on the manufacturing of additional weight to celebrity personae, not something I have ever felt the need to do, Kristina Busse's 'My Life is a WIP on my LJ' explains (among many other things) how RPS teases out the intermingling of the 'real person' behind the celebrity image, and the actor behind the popular character(s) they played, and addresses the anxiety of which RPS writers are aware on their own parts towards the potential invasiveness and blurring of distinctions between fantasy and reality their creativity involves.

The volume ends with Robert Jones's chapter on machinima and the adaptation of game engines to film production, confronting the blurring of fan creativity with professional writing mentioned in the context of professionals' engagement with fandom through the online publicizing of series writers' guides earlier in the book. There is a lot to get through, a variety of world-outlooks, and much to chew on for someone who wonders what a history of media fandom would look like: for example, there is no MediaWest, presented as a central point of cultural exchange, to US media fandom, in the UK; and I have known male fans of The Professionals who would reject furiously the fanon concepts Mafalda Stasi cites in her chapter 'The Toy Soldiers from Leeds: The Slash Palimpsest': "in fanon, Ray Doyle is a vegetarian; he is sensual; and he is much smaller and younger than his partner Bodie" (p. 121). To borrow and adapt Elizabeth Woledge's terminology used in her chapter, it would have to chart a number of real world and fictional intimatopias and their intersections, and actively invite challenge and point to lacunae in its own narrative and analysis to be useful.


Posted by: ms_rebecca_riot (ms_rebecca_riot)
Posted at: April 19th, 2008 11:58 pm (UTC)

I find the whole intellectual disciplinary aspect of writing or studying fanfic (or something not generally regarded as an academic subject) interesting. Are you saying that the authors lack rigour, or just that you would have approached it differently with your own discipline? I mean, how would an historian approach fan-fic? Quite a big, evil question, really!

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: April 20th, 2008 12:10 am (UTC)

I don't think they lack rigour at all - I think that I'm simply from a different intellectual tradition than the authors and, additionally, I'm from a different channel of fandom - the 'old fans' of Doctor Who (and to a lesser extent of other British fantasy and science fiction television) who first knew the series as children in the 1970s, might have joined the DWAS in the 1980s, participated a bit in a fanzine culture dominated by 'fan critic' articles even when the fanzines were edited by women who also participated in general media fandom (that icon is an issue of Queen Bat, an influential Doctor Who fanzine from the 1980s edited by women, whose regular contributors included Paul Cornell) and who went through the late 80s pain of the disintegration of the show and the cynicisation and commercialisation of the fandom. Unlike many people, though, I try not to sit around bemoaning the fact that it isn't 1976, and I want to understand the way in which other people appreciate the show, although there is very little Doctor Who in this book; it's largely only since the advent of the RTD-produced series that it's had great appeal to the female fan fiction writers, and that slash has increased in volume.

Posted by: ms_rebecca_riot (ms_rebecca_riot)
Posted at: April 20th, 2008 12:19 am (UTC)

right, I think I'm getting you there (& onto my second coffee). Yeah, I can't bemoan 1976- I was 1. I love the icon- illustration- very cool. I rather miss the old printed fanzines (though the ones I bought were music, not sci-fi). I remember when they sort of died and got replaced by online stuff. There's something about paper, and tactility & all that. The beauty of the object. & I love bats, they're awesome. When I temped in OMNH they had a bat conservationist come in with his bats. it was awesome. Anyway- back to topic- the slash is definitely a new thing isn't it? I did some music slash a very, very long time back, & wouldn't do it again, because i decided it wasn't ethical. Having said that, I did make one good friend out of it, and I think it's those things which justifies fandom for me anyway...its about the people you meet, rather than the obvious focus.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: April 20th, 2008 12:25 pm (UTC)

There are a few essays on fan identity in About Time 6 (which is in spirit a single-author Doctor Who fanzine in paperback form), one of which argues (among other things) that modern slash-led online fandom is substantially a consequence of cultural studies academics discovering slash fandom, with its interest for issues of gender as well as cultural consumption and transmission, and giving it publicity. While I think that slash went under the radar of most British mainstream Doctor Who fans - one leading fan, who had been prominent for nearly thirty years, had to have slash explained to him within the last five years, and was horrified - it's certainly increased in quantity as well as visibility.

There are still a few printed fanzines about, but in Doctor Who terms they are mainly the 'national champions' - Enlightenment from Canada, TSV from New Zealand (in production terms, as I think the present editor lives in the UK) - and others. Technology is a problem because it provides more opportunities. Black Scrolls is lovingly presented in full colour, with lots of image manipulation, but each issue takes over a year for its makers to put together.

Posted by: viala_qilarre (viala_qilarre)
Posted at: April 21st, 2008 11:07 am (UTC)

I do wish I didn't find slash so incredibly boring to read. It's not that I disapprove of it, it's just that it does nothing for me.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: April 21st, 2008 11:16 am (UTC)

I think that I'm outside the slash 'target audience', if one can speak of such a thing, and it doesn't greatly appeal to me either.

Posted by: brewsternorth (brewsternorth)
Posted at: April 20th, 2008 02:50 am (UTC)

True... I have heard rumours that there was some Eight-slash after the TVM, but probably in nowhere near the quantities present because of the new series.

I wonder if facility of dissemination (blogging!) has meant that there's simply more out there that is noticeable, as opposed to the somewhat hole-and-corner nature of slash-zines back in the day of K/S?

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: April 20th, 2008 12:27 pm (UTC)

There was certainly Eight-slash: Warm Gallifreyan Nights rings a bell...

I am sure that you are right on dissemination being a factor, but see my reply to ms_rebecca_riot above.