The new issue of Transformative Works and Cultures almost here, and I can’t wait to check out the content on transformative works and fan activism. It’s such an important topic, and one that’s bound to generate some energy from readers moved by direct action. However, while we wait for June 15th, I thought I’d share how valuable I’ve found the Fan/Remix Video issue, and how much I want to encourage readers to check it out. In fact, I can’t imagine a better place to start for a reader who’s new to academic writing than the editorial introduction to the issue, by Julie Levin Russo and Francesca Coppa, which, above all, showcases the pleasures of incorporating embedded video and images into academic writing. I’d recommend that any skeptical reader start by watching one of the videos that first draws her attention, and then locate what else on the page might contextualize that experience. The issue is really an art museum. At an art museum, one quickly realizes that he can’t read every description of every piece and experience them all as well, at least not within the short time he’s got to spend there. Personally, I always prefer to follow my instincts and find what moves me, even if it means I end up confused about whether the one with all the dark shadows was supposed to be about religion or not. I’m much more comfortable revealing this non-linear preference now than I would have been when I started graduate school in 2006. What changed me was teaching, and specifically, teaching in classrooms with excellent technological capabilities, which have enabled me to incorporate streaming video into almost every class I have taught. Streaming video has undoubtedly been the most helpful pedagogical aid I have found over the past five years. I started teaching in 2007, and the first thing I learned as I got to know my students was that it’s important to present information in as many different ways as possible. Everybody learns differently, and, while some do respond strongly to written texts, a lot of people do not. I had thought of my writing class as “an English class,” which, like the English classes I’d taken in college, would consist mostly of reading (literary) texts, analyzing them, and then writing papers about them. I had never really thought to question what a paper was, because it seemed to me that it was “between four and five pages,” primarily. Although my private approach to art, literature, and, of course, online fandom, was one of searching, skimming, and skipping, I’d been in school long enough to understand that my writing should disguise this fact. When I wrote about a quotation from a novel, for example, I should not reveal that I was drawn to it because it revealed the author’s secret attitude toward women, or that I had found it because I’d been looking for a new quotation for my AOL Instant Messenger profile. Instead, I was expected to claim that the quotation was clearly central to the novel, and that it would reveal itself as such to any careful reader. When I transitioned from student to teacher, I realized that I would have to find a way to explain to my students what was expected of them, in terms of reading and writing, without being hypocritical. So at first, I assigned text after text. A poem about the experience of being away from home, that’ll strike a universal chord! It did not, at least not universally. An essay about learning curves, which will inspire self-reflection on learning styles. Yes! No. The texts did inspire discussion, of course. Students are kind-hearted people who take pity on their graduate student teachers, and also, a good portion of them have the background and natural curiosity in the humanities to succeed in most contexts. But I could tell that some students simply did not feel spoken to by the material, and I knew that it was not simply a lack of interest in academic success on their part. I needed to introduce something new, and fortunately, because this was 2007, and I had a computer in my classroom, I settled on YouTube. After all, the way I bonded with my friends much of the time was by sharing a 3-5 minute video about an issue that moved us, and then discussing it, or responding with a video on a related topic. Why not try to bring that dynamic to the classroom? To be clear, I’m writing this under the assumption that the practice is much more common in composition and other kinds of classrooms now, so don’t take my rhetorical questions as though they represent actual expert advice. For that, see Table 1 in Russo and Coppa’s article, which offers a selective overview of whole university courses devoted to remix and related practices. These courses undoubtedly represent a much more sophisticated approach to teaching with digital media, as compared with my “have you guys heard about this?” approach. Even so, I maintain that there was value to my approach even when it was best described under the latter category, before I understood how important it was to keep my desire to tell people about everything interesting, contained. And that is how simple my argument in this post is. The Fan/Remix Video issue of TWC is simply inviting in a way that not every issue of an academic journal proves to be. There are much worse ways to spend an afternoon than watching every video discussed in Elisa Kreisinger’s piece, “Queer video remix and LGBTQ online communities.” I’d be amazed if anyone did this and was not moved to read the author’s notes and analysis, because these videos demand further engagement, and the article acts as an instant interlocutor. Web video, especially remix video, is as powerful for many of us as poetry is for, well, fewer of us, and this issue offers a great array of examples and reasons why. I take Andrea Horbinski’s intervention into the issue’s place within fan studies seriously, and I think that, for those of us who are committed to the central issues she raises, her post should be required reading. At the same time, I think that, for a reader wondering what academic writing might look like if it spoke about her life on the internet in the 21st Century, she might be pleasantly taken in by it. Since 2007, my goal in teaching has changed from “give them the same things I was given, because then they will follow the same path of inspiration” to “give them as much good stuff as possible, in as many different ways as possible, in hopes that something excites their intellect or desire.” Similarly, my take on this issue is, “I’d never seen that one before! People are amazing.”
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I had the pleasure of participating in the Mutated Text workshop, celebrating “informal informalities, strange writing, and eclectic ties,” yesterday at Berkeley. As usual, going as a historian to anything even vaguely non-traditional — even as a historian whose heart is firmly in the nontraditional — and going as a fan to anything academic is always a bit of a dissonant experience for me, but my fellow participants were an eclectic bunch of brilliant people who instantly put me at ease, at least as an academic uncomfortable with, in the words of co-convener Martha Kenney, how the norms of academic writing “force self-severing and ignore our personal entanglements with our research.”
As I’ve learned just since my last post, part of the constraints I sometimes feel in academic writing are assuredly unique to my chosen discipline, and perhaps even to my own subfield — certainly my colleagues in Chinese history express a positive paranoia about using the “I” in text that, thankfully, my department head (a professor of premodern Japan) has never felt. English and critical theory, a friend of mine assured me after last time (“I agree with your general argument but I disagree with you on every particular!”), are perfectly comfortable with the personal interpolating into the scholarly. More power to you, my friends!
Part of what we talked about at the workshop yesterday, however — and you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a practicing feminist sff writer (Naamen Tilahun, in this case) try to explain the concept of “meta” to a roomful of academics and casual genre readers — put me in the mind of Alex Jenkins’ last post, and her thoughts on the place of love for one’s work, and enthusiasm, in work. I commiserated with enough people at the workshop to know that the constraints people feel in academic work are real enough, even as we see more and more academic works that, as Mel Chen put it later in the day, “resist those constraints.”
Possibly even more than on the question of enthusiasm and being personal, however, I left convinced that one vital feature of fandom, and part of why, as Alex Jenkins argues, it is such an important alternative sphere of pop culture criticism and enjoyment, is that fandom is much more process-oriented than academia may ever be. From the question of works in progress [WIPs] to vidders trading tips and gripes about software and vidding workflow, fandom offers an extraordinarily transparent view on the way the creative process works. I mean “creative” here in its broadest sense, because anyone who doesn’t think that scholarly writing is creative has clearly never cudgeled their brains to pull out the better sentence, thesis, structure, conclusion that you just know is in there somewhere, if you could only find it. Whereas academics frequently feel alienated from each other while working (especially, I daresay, during that dreaded period of time in which one writes a dissertation), fandom has a lot of mechanisms to make people feel that they’re not alone — indeed, I think part of why we as fans love fandom is that it shows us that we’re not alone in our improper informalities and eclectic enthusiasms. Even if no one else has ever heard of your tiny fandom, just about everyone can understand your undying love for it.
I think the other thing is that fandom is also much better at tolerating failure. Your WIP may break off mid-chapter, and people will still read and even recommend it. Your vid or your AMV may not be all that it was in your head, but people will watch it and love it anyway. Dead ends and loops and wandering pathways are a part of what it’s about — iteration and reiteration and obsessive reworking and rereading of trope, character, plot elements. We as fans eat it up with a spoon, whereas as scholars we’re supposed to get it right, right out of the gate, every time.
Co-organizer Margaret Rhee, in her opening remarks, expressed the hope that the workshop could offer participants a supportive space for experimental writing, and it certainly did that; for that alone, to know that I’m the only one who’s willing to follow her passion where it leads, both in terms of form as much as of content, Mutated Text was awesome. And it’s that aspect of fandom, ultimately, that the academy could most stand to emulate.
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.
Within the last year, scholar Catherine Coker and writer Jim Hines both looked into the legendary controversy surrounding the late Marion Zimmer Bradley, her uncompleted Darkover novel “Contraband”, fan writer Jean Lamb, and her Darkover-verse fan novella “Masks.”
Hines and Coker report that for most of her long and prolific career, Bradley was well known for her encouragement of and interaction with fan fiction authors, until her confrontation with Lamb ended that practice in 1992. (Bradley died in 1999.)
I had heard about this controversy for years, and eagerly read about it wherever I found it mentioned, but I confess I’m still left with more questions than answers. Might be the journalist in me!
Coker interviewed Lamb and Lamb’s former beta reader (fan editor), Nina Boal, and wrote about her findings in an article for the latest issue of “Transformative Works and Cultures.”
Hines researched the controversy and wrote about his findings in his blog and mirrored the post at his Livejournal in May 2010. (The blog post garnered 23 comments; the LJ post 157, for whatever that’s worth.)
I can do no better for conciseness here than to quote Hines’ conclusions after his interviews and research:
“As far as I can tell, the following is not disputed.
1. Bradley originally encouraged fanfiction.
2. Bradley read Jean Lamb’s story “Masks” in Moon Phases [a fan zine].
3. Bradley contacted Lamb, offering payment and a dedication in exchange for rights to use the ideas from “Masks” in the Darkover novel “Contraband.”
4. Bradley and Lamb were unable to reach an agreement, and “Contraband” was cancelled.
5. Bradley changed her policy on fanfiction, stating that she would no longer allow it.”
In his post, Hines asked the same questions I want answered, questions that in my opinion the Coker article does not answer, one of which is: Why exactly was “Contraband” cancelled, and by whom? Hines says that DAW, the publisher, did not cancel it. Coker apparently did not try to get a statement from DAW, which is a big gap in her information-gathering.
Coker did not interview writer Mercedes Lackey, either, though Coker states that before her death, Bradley gave the unpublished notes for “Contraband” to Lackey.
Hines, on the other hand, links to a comment Lackey made in a discussion hosted at the SFF blog “Making Light” back in 2006. In this comment, Lackey states that Bradley “liked the ‘take’ a particular fan author had on the situations and asked to use that spin on things for her book in return for the usual acknowlegement in the front of the book. She had done this before with other fan authors (even though she didn’t have to, after all, you can’t “own” an idea). However in this case, the next party heard from was the author’s agent, who demanded cover credit and co-authorship, or there would be a lawsuit.”
Hines, like Coker, quotes Boals.
Neither Hines’ post nor Coker’s article quotes anyone from Bradley’s estate.
Another problematic element of Coker’s article was the quotes she chose to include from fans who responded to the controversy in the nineties on newsgroup threads. They seem to be stating their own opinions or impressions of the controversy, but as they are using fannish pseudonyms and are not otherwise identified as being directly involved, it’s hard to understand why they were included at all in Coker’s article, and impossible to evaluate their credibility. I found myself, as a journalist, questioning why Coker allowed them space in her article.
Personally, I would love to hear from Lackey in more detail, because she could apparently document how much of “Masks” was actually going to be in “Contraband” as Bradley envisioned it at the time “Contraband” was cancelled.
I’d also like to hear more concrete information from DAW, and from Bradley’s estate. It seems to me that the facts regarding what Lamb actually asked for and the substance of her threat to sue are documentable at this point, but neither article has complete information about that. Coker in particular talks her way all around this very important point, going so far as to include hearsay.
Coker concludes her article by talking about how the incident has been “spun” in fandom, which to me is much less important than the facts of what happened.
Hines concludes by talking about what pro writers can learn from this incident in regard to interacting with fan writers and reading fan fiction.
I think it’s important to remember that Bradley harmoniously interacted with fan writers for more than 20 years before “Masks” and “Contraband”. But it seems to me simply a wise choice for pro writers to adopt a policy of benign neglect toward whatever fan fiction is created for their canons.
Every now and then, an article catches my eye from the mainstream press (or in this case, the GLBT press) about a presumed connection between slash fan fiction and gay romance novels.
Most recently I noticed this article, W4M4M, in the online edition of “OUT”. And I got really annoyed.
I’ve yet to read an article (outside fandom) on this topic that included anything approaching solid reporting on what is presumed to be a trend — that gay romance is the next thing in the romance publishing industry. (That sweeping statement is verbatim from another poorly researched article, this one from December 2009 in “LA Weekly”.)
The OUT article also makes some pretty sweeping and unsupported assertions about who writes gay romance, and who reads it.
If I were writing such an article? Here are some of the, you know, ACTUAL FACTS I’d try to nail down before publishing:
First of all, is gay romance really the Next Big Thing in romance publishing? The OUT article mentions one publishing house, and a very outdated study of slash writers and readers. And no statistics.
My cursory google search turns up, for example, the entry “Romance Novels” from GLBTQ.com. This gives a fascinating list of famous gay romance, lesbian romance, and other non-straight romance books going back years. Maybe talking to the authors of those books, or their publishers, about the trends they see might be a good place to start?
Or, what about the big name heterosexual romance publishers? They would know what’s trendy. This website, The Passionate Pen, lists dozens of romance publishers. Again — cursory google search by me. Took five seconds. All those companies have PR people. Who have phones and email.
Further things to check: What about the traditional GLBT niche publishers, like the well-known Alyson? How are they doing with romance lines? Real sales and circulation figures? Just a thought.
What about the blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books? They’ve written about gay romance and lesbian romance, I’ll bet.
The OUT article also annoyed me with its amateur psychologizing about why in the world straight women would want to write gay porn. Yes, the article included an interview with two authors, but are those authors typical? And what about the presumed connection to slash? No documentation. At all.
Anecdote posing as journalism does not do this “trend story” justice. At all.
In 2009 there was a rather heated controversy, which I followed from a distance, about the changes in the rules for the Lambda Awards, which are literary awards given to GLBT fiction. This online discussion was only the tip of a possible iceberg to be explored in terms of documenting the author pool for stories about queer people (whether romance or Some Other Genre), the markets for such stories, and who’s reading them and buying them.
Fascinating and important questions were raised during that controversy about authorial voice, authenticity, the degree of realism and research needed in fiction, and the ethical questions that arise when writing about a culture or subculture different from the author’s own.
I have more questions than answers at this point, obviously. What do I seek? Good solid fact-finding on this story, please. Actual evidence for trends, including statistics — not just the reporter’s anecdotes and the repetition of gossip.