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affirmational fandom

[META] Writing Sandcastles Versus Playing in Sandboxes: The Writing Life in the Twenty-First Century

Rich Juzwiak recently announced on Gawker that he will no longer write recaps of currently-airing television shows. He will continue to write about television, of course, but he will never again be “a recapping machine,” because it is “thankless work” that leads inevitably to fatigue. To illustrate, he cites the fact that recapper extraordinaire Tracie Potochnik has written over 1,350,000 words about America’s Next Top Model. In another place and time, this word count could constitute multiple novels (War and Peace *2), but in the blogosphere, all is lost to the accelerated time scale of popular culture. Because they were funneled through the recap machine, her words, in Juzwiak’s view, lost value as quickly as they acquired it, thus depriving the writer of time for creative development, as well as the audience from engaging, long-form thoughts about the show. Juzwiak suffered similarly from his years of recapping, and, although he concedes that recaps helped him to build his audience, he laments that he expended so much energy and stress-inducing, time-sensitive labor on this ultimately ephemeral genre of writing.

I have a lot of sympathy (at least in comparison to some of the harsher commenters) for Juzwiak’s perspective, but I think that his disappointment offers an opportunity to explore and celebrate why fandom sustains such an important alternative sphere of popular culture criticism, including the transformational as an essential complement to the affirmational. That energy to transform is, as far as I can tell, exactly what Juzwiak is longing for when he laments that recaps are rarely crafted to the point where they can sustain their value for more than the sad few hours in which viewers will hungrily be seeking them out. I read his complaint that Potochnik could have written War and Peace twice over in the words it took her to recap ANTM as a genuine desire for writing to take form and communicate something deeper than sharp observations and topical humor. Writing can mean, and not only when it’s written by Nineteenth-Century Russian men, and, as Juzwiak himself makes clear, not only when it is a novel. He notes that there is high quality long-form television writing, for example, but that recaps, even while experimental and enjoyable, are unlikely to contribute to its flourishing.

So why not just seek out good long-form television writing? For me, it’s because the War and Peace comparison betrays transformational desires, and so, I think it’s worth taking a look at the writing landscape of transformational media fandom, in order to see if its participants offer a way out of Juzwiak’s resentment at his years spent on “sandcastles.” At the beginning of last month, lunabee34 posted a thoughtful essay on her feelings of fatigue in fandom, entitled “Fannish Trajectories: Isolation, a Sense of Disconnection from Fandom, and How We Deal.” Her piece, like Juzwiak’s, speaks of her declining energy to produce a certain kind of writing (here, fanworks) at the pace she once did. Already in the titles, though, a clear difference in focus emerges between the two authors. The Juzwiak piece, “Tune In, Recap, Drop Out: Why I’ll Never Recap a TV Show Again,” focuses on an individual “I,” and makes a claim for “never.” In “Fannish Trajectories,” however, the focus is on “we,” we who also sometimes lose steam for articulating our every thought on our favorite television shows, but we who experience this loss as temporary and social, more than we do as evidence that our mode of participation has failed us. (I should make clear that I identify strongly with the “we” of lunabee34′s piece, although it’s just as likely that any given fan will not.)

Juzwiak’s claim gains strength from its definitive refusal: Recaps are not a shortcut to serious engagement with popular culture. lunabee34′s claim gains strength rather from its openness to the many different possibilities of engagement with fandom over time. The reality is that, as RL responsibilities take away from the free time required to participate actively in transformational media fandom, one must set individual boundaries in order to maximize one’s time with her fan community. Both Juzwiak and lunabee34 rely on writing IRL. Juzwiak is a professional blogger, and lunabee34 is an English professor. Both write in a variety of genres on what I assume is a daily basis, and therefore, there’s much the two share in their descriptions of writerly fatigue. Writing recaps for a show can get old. Writing conference papers can get old. One of my favorite aspects of the blogosphere and the LJ/DW fandom sphere is the way in which they provide space for reflection on the writing life, both when it’s a narrative of fatigue that leads to a drop-off in a certain kind of production, and when it’s a celebration of inspiration, the kind that leads to War and Peace-length fanfic. (Confession: I have never read a War and Peace-length work of fanfiction.)

But there is a difference, and it’s important. One of the major problems with recaps is that they guarantee page views, which, in the world of for-proft blogging, constitute the difference between profitable and not. In fandom, we have the privilege of saying no to an episode, a show after it kills off the character we were watching for anyway, even a whole medium. We can switch entirely from television to comics without leaving fandom. We can switch from writing drabbles to writing multi-media analyses of individual episodes of television shows from the 1970s. Sure, entertaining and beloved writers will always be burdened by requests for more, but in fandom, they are welcome to change their tune at any moment. It’s simple but true that the machine-like quality that Juzwiak describes as being acquired by the recapper is more threatening in professional writing than in fandom. It doesn’t mean that fandom is low stakes, of course. Every day, people are writing their novels, and many of them, the most talented and serious, inhabiting the most-beloved sourcetexts, can be confident that they will have readers both right away and in the future. But even if they don’t, they knew what they were getting into when they added the “for fun” disclaimer at the top of the page. “Fun” is a broad enough term to account for the incredible range of pleasures fanworks can offer us, but it keeps them free from the thing that will undoubtedly make them not fun at some point — money.

[META] And it is always eighteen ninety-five [1]: Reading Sherlockian Scholarship from a Media Acafan Perspective

The focus of the current issue of media studies journal Flow is acafandom, and most of the essays included share a common theme. At some level, and to varying degrees, each discusses the tensions present in the working life of every acafan: the tightrope-walk of creating scholarship while simultaneously following one’s given fannish ethos, and the constant negotiations inherent in the work of merging and consolidating academic and fannish approaches to knowledge, analyses, and interpretation. More than one contributor cites Matt Hills, who in Fan Cultures (2002) challenges the tenet that academics and fans are effectively doing the same thing, albeit in different circles. Hills points out that as academics we tend to look for ways in which fans do work that is similar or identical to our own academic work, and that we tend to foreground aspects of fan cultures that easily mirror academic cultures; he also makes an argument that academics should resist the temptation to conflate the two. I’m not sure that I wholly agree with the distinction Hills draws between the acafan and the fan-scholar: he defines the first category as academics who engage in fannish activities, and the second as fans employing academically influenced methods to pursue academically inclined concerns; I am inclined to argue that many of us engage in both modes, switching between them situationally or topically, rather than occupying a single narrowly defined identity. However, I do value Hills’ caveat against imposing our preferred methodologies onto fan engagements, as he neither ignores nor negates the reality that many academics share not only the fannish obsession for detail but also the intense fannish affect toward their chosen field. He also does not reject the compelling and bountiful evidence that many fans regularly interpret and analyze media in ways that are strongly reminiscent of literary and cultural academic analyses. And why would he? An academic’s surprise that fans read source materials in that manner would be disingenuous. After all, that’s the way we have been trained to read and interact with texts throughout our educations, in high school, college, and beyond. I am finding the relationship between fan and academic reading practices particularly interesting at the moment because I’ve begun work focused on a fandom that has strong roots in both: Sherlock Holmes. Notable in the field of fan studies, Sherlock Holmes is generally given the nod as one of the first, if not the very first, fandoms. Whether we define media fandom as every form of transformative writing within a shared interpretive community from the Iliad and Odyssey onward or whether we emphasize the well-defined fan community that transforms televisual texts owned by various media corporations, Sherlock Holmes fandom must be acknowledged for its scope, variety, and unbroken history. Well-known and long established, activities like the public mourning of Holmes’ death, ongoing fan pilgrimages to 221B Baker Street, and the long-established convention of writing pastiches set in the Holmes universe continue to be enacted by individual fans as well as by the more famous fan circles, including the Baker Street Irregulars. Sherlockians, however, are unlikely to recognize themselves or their activities in Trekkies, much as a Verdi afficionado might not think of themselves as belonging to the same genus as My Chemical Romance fans. Notably, Roberta Pearson has discussed these very contradictions in her excellent analyses of media fandom and Sherlockians/Holmesians (It’s Always 1895: Sherlock Holmes in Cyberspace [1997] and Bachies, Bardies, Trekkies and Sherlockians [2007]). The project that has prompted me to look more closely at the fannish spectrum of Sherlock Holmes is an upcoming essay collection on the 2010 BBC series, entitled The Transmedia Adventures of Sherlock, which I am co-editing with my friend Louisa Stein. Over the decades, Holmes has prompted fannish affect and obsession across diverse groups of readers with varying forms of fannish engagements. One of the arguments of (and for) the book is the way in which Sherlock is bringing together disparate fan communities with wildly diverging histories, mores, and demographics — and the consequent clashes this may cause. I’m focusing primarily on a particular form of Sherlock Holmes fan, representing a fandom that is tracing itself for a century and that prides itself on its shared traditions as well as its focus on scholarship, in order to make a specific argument on academic and fannish reading practices. Unlike Hills’ distinction between academics and fans, most Sherlockians seem to consider their fan endeavors as fundamentally different from that of other fandoms because their subject matter is: in the best tradition of high brow vs low brow, Doyle’s work is literature (though maybe not necessarily with a capital L) whereas whatever we media fans are using as our source text isn’t. But is that really the central differentiating feature? I think I am most fascinated with the Sherlockian pastime of “the great game” (see here for a good NPR piece on it), in which fans discuss Sherlock as if he were a real person, doing research and analyzing the story as a historical document. I’ll admit to enjoying postmodern historiography and Hayden White’s important insight that the process of selecting and narrativizing facts in order to create history always and inherently requires story telling. But even if all history is a story, not every story is history. Ultimately, Sherlockians know that; however, the fact that “the game” remains a favorite shared way of doing Sherlock Holmes scholarship is certainly noteworthy, and I am strongly reminded of some of the more contentious debates in fandom: tinhats, gen-is-canon, and Rowling’s authorial interpretations are all good illustrations. In my opinion, what these and other wanks have in common is their demand of a single interpretation over all others, whether it’s the one that sees the stories as real, the one that insists their own interpretation is the only valid one, or the one privileging the author’s interpretations of her text. In the end, all of these debates come down to literary theory, scholarship, and the ways that we approach texts. Literary analysis is the bread and butter of literary scholars like myself, but the thing that fascinates me most about the game is that Sherlockian scholarship effectively continues to engage in a form of criticism that was never considered academically appropriate or, at the very best, one that was always highly contested. In the academy, the problem of treating characters as real people is often short-handed via L. C. Knights 1933 essay “How many children had Lady Macbeth?,” which juxtaposed traditional character criticism such as A.C. Bradley’s with newer forms that eventually developed into the more formalist New Criticism. (For a historical account, see here; for a defense of Bradley, see here.) Clearly, given the rapid changes we’ve seen in literary criticism, current academic scholarship is a far cry from treating the characters as real people–if it ever did so. Even though the annotated Sherlock Holmes editions by William S. Baring-Gould or, more recently, by Leslie S. Klinger look a lot like my Annotated Ulysses, I’m not sure the conceit behind these different works is the same. Perhaps all Sherlockians play the game in the same way that RPF fans play within their fandoms; maybe they play at the game with a constant underlying frisson of Holmes’ fictionality, in the same way that popslashers pretend that Justin and Lance were gay and together, even as they know better. (Or do they? ) In the end, academic scholarship extrapolates and interpolates potential information and facts in order to support an interpretative argument, whereas Sherlockians seem to enjoy the data for its own sake. In that they are a lot like media fans: we like to imagine our characters’ childhoods not solely in order to support or explain adult behavioral traits within the text but also simply for the pleasure of the exercise. But unlike the Sherlockian game where evidence is used to winnow information down to a truth, fan fiction writers build up and out from canon evidence to create myriad fictional scenarios, all of which are equally and simultaneously both true and false. By not privileging any supposed reality, single personal preference, or authorial intent, and by encouraging individual extensions that fit canon in varying degrees, media fandom offers a postmodern variant of engagement with and reading of texts that differs from the more modern desire to establish the single authoritative text and sole valid interpretation. I hope that Sherlock fandom will be able to successfully bridge these different approaches, that it can bring together affirmational and transformational fandoms and allow fans to imagine John and Sherlock as real, regardless of whether it is to establish just how much time passed between the events of “The Red-Headed League” and Watson’s account of the story or whether it is to explore one’s favorite Victorian OTP that didn’t just cohabitate in 221 B Baker Street. Literary scholarship has undergone myriad variations since Doyle created Holmes and Watson, and yet the Sherlockian approach to Doyle’s canon has remained the same. Maybe that’s not altogether surprising from a fandom that celebrates the idea that “it is always eighteen ninety-five.” In a way, for me, Sherlockians combine the best and the worst of both academia and fandom, and, as such, are indeed exemplary of the contentious relationship between the two–even as they distance themselves from either. [1] “And it is always eighteen ninety-five” is the final line of the famous 1942 Sherlock Holmes fan poem, 221 B by Vincent Starrett.