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[META] Fandom Makes the Front Pages

Twice this week, the mainstream media has turned its attention to issues I normally encounter only within fandom discussions. In the first instance, the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly features an article about shippers, authored by Jeff Jensen. In the second instance, I was surprised to learn that issue #6 of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 9 Comics had, within three days of its publication, generated fourteen responses from mainstream media sources, including The Guardian and USA Today. Oddly, the shipper piece focuses mostly on shippers as target market, although the author both gets in his dig about shippers being “TV’s weirdest fans,” and also cites scholars who point to the social subversion that has animated many ship-driven fan cultures. By contrast the Buffy coverage focuses almost entirely on the plot development as a feminist response to the current political climate in the United States, and spends little time justifying its reporters’ attention to the cult television (and now comics) icon.

It turns out that, although fannish behavior is generally understood in the mainstream media as mere excess, fans do, increasingly, matter in at least two situations: when we distill cultural consumption trends for cultural producers, and thereby constitute a target demographic, and when our beloved source material turns out to bring newly-layered perspectives to real political issues, thus leading commentators to visit, or at least imagine a visit to, our world. The latter version of fandom on the front pages gives us more credit, but it is also more potentially volatile. It’s exciting to be a part of the “comics fans welcoming the development”(link), but it’s scary to know that so much of what one holds dear can simultaneously be presented to a careless and unforgiving public. Could I handle (and here comes the spoiler alert for the current Buffyverse development) a public trashing of the Buffy comics and of a woman’s reproductive rights on the same day? Add to that the reversion of shipping to its earlier meaning, of human labor facilitating the transfer of resources and capital, and it all starts to sound pretty overwhelming.

But, you might counter, that day is every day. It’s not as though the Buffy comics are any kind of critical darling of any mainstream reviewing sphere, and reproductive rights are rarely afforded unqualified support outside feminist-identified media outlets. As Mark Greif has argued in his n+1 piece, On Repressive Sentimentalism, in much of public conversation, “safe medical abortion, a fundamental social good in any sexually egalitarian society, an invention to be celebrated like the polio vaccine, must disguise itself as everything but what it is—the freedom from involuntary motherhood, owed to any woman young or old, to let her shape a life equal in freedom to those of men.” Whether or not one personally agrees with the entirety of Greif’s statement, and it happens that I do without reservations, the fact that the conversation has been forced into sentimental terrain improper to policy discussion is indisputable. Should I, then, be so surprised that the comments section on The Guardian article about Buffy’s hypothetical abortion contains hostility, both to abortion, and to the Buffy comics, as well as a particular contempt for their shared page space in this instance? Of course not, but that doesn’t mean that the intensity of my emotional response is without important context.

Fandom, as the EW article makes clear, is, for many of us, a space in which to explore desire, including its enactments and their concomitant consequences, beyond the constraints of those social worlds we otherwise inhabit, circumscribed as they are by such external factors as geographic location. This is not to deny that fandom itself is volatile, in its own way, already — fandom, too, is a world inhabited by human beings and therefore all the messiness of human communication. However, its volatility is different from the often-predictable kind of the public sphere, the kind that can have so many long, unproductive conversations about reproductive rights. In fandom, however, sentimentality is given its own space, and given the freedom to flourish according to the trajectories of individuals and specific sub-groups of fans, so that it doesn’t (in the best of times) seep into conversations that are actually about something else entirely, without first making its presence known. Abortion is something of a limit case for the roped-off sphere of sentimentality, hence my anticipation of emotional upheaval of unpredictable proportions at this latest development.

As Joss Whedon, creator of the Buffyverse well knows, popular culture has an incredible power to inspire meaningful conversation about important issues, particularly when there is a visible, engaged and savvy fanbase following each new development with a critical but generous sensibility. His choice to go public about his own approval of Buffy’s decision to get an abortion was not made randomly, or, I don’t think, as a cynical attempt to make money. There are much easier ways for him to make money than by temporarily drumming up interest in an installment of the ninth season of a long-arc serial. To be clear, this isn’t to say that I think that the comics belong on the same playing field as fanworks — they are a for-profit enterprise, and they engage regularly in various kinds of sensationalist marketing, and their authors deserve many of the serious criticism they’ve received from fans. However, I think that there is a serious distinction to be made between sensationalist marketing and an incitement to public conversation about a currently-contentious political issue, particularly one which lies at the center of the feminism that has, since the beginning, informed the concept of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In a moment in which fans are being noticed more and more by the mainstream media, in more and less exploitative ways, I think it’s important that we register these opportunities to take note of the differences between the conversations we’re able to have with one another, and the conversations that happen next to us, and, if only tangentially, about us. I am a Buffy comics fan, and I am excited about this most recent development. I’m so excited about it that I’m reading comments sections in The Guardian that I know will break my heart. But I know that I want the conversation to be happening, and I have hope that even 10% of the joy that is the intersection of Buffy and feminism will somehow seep into it. Shipping, to unite my two threads, might still strike many as akin to a million schoolgirl crushes, transcribed onto a notebook during study hall. But if it is more than that — if it constitutes a veritable reconsideration of how relationships are structured within complex social worlds, then the possibility of abortion starts to look less like a topical news item, and more like a social reality worth incorporating into the unfolding canon of any story that wishes to speak directly to a contemporary audience.

[LINK] A Thoughtful and Well-Researched Article About Fanfiction

Yesterday a story by Lev Grossman appeared on the Time Magazine website, titled “The Boy Who Lived Forever” (soon to be available in print). The occasion of the story, of course, is the imminent conclusion of the Harry Potter saga, at least in movie form. However, the article is really all about fanfiction. Grossman is amazingly thorough. In his five pages he covers the various genres of fanfiction – including some of the ones that aren’t always mentioned in articles sympathetic to fanfic, like hurt/comfort, noncon, mpreg and incest – the breadth of fanfiction, the legal status of fanfiction, and even the occasional rants from published authors who feel offended or violated by the existence of fanfiction. He also touches on the aspects of fanfiction that express diverse sexualities and obsessions, and he manages it with wit and aplomb. It is obvious that Grossman did his homework and I really must commend him for it. Best of all, Grossman touches on the fundamental issue raised by fan fiction: What does it mean to be creative? He is aware (perhaps coached by some fannish informants, hmm?) that many more accepted and prestigious forms of literature resemble fanfiction in their taking up of previously existing characters and worlds to create a new work. I was very pleased to see him mentioning the fact that until the era of Romanticism in the 19th century, the prevalent cultural definition of “originality” had nothing to do with the creation of something completely new. In other words, the idea that valid artistic expression must aspire to complete originality is one of recent coinage – at least in the western context. Reading Grossman’s piece recalled the satisfaction I felt when reading a certain essay by Thomas Sobchack; how enlightening it was to learn that, before the Romantics, it was not only permitted but expected that a writer would work within previously formulas, structures, storyworlds, myths and histories! The artist’s goal was an original restatement, not a discrete new world. I’m pretty sure that if you look it up in the dictionary, the definition of creativity is “original recombination”. Sure, Grossman acknowledges the deep emotional connection an author may have with his/her characters. He can understand and appreciate the perspectives of the Anne Rices and Robin Hobbses and Orson Scott Cards out there – and so can many fanfiction authors. As someone who has written an original character now and then, I can also appreciate that rather irrational feeling of ownership. But as Grossman perceptively points out, if an author is like a parent to their characters, it is the wise parent who realizes that their children are going to go forth into the world to have lives, connections, even identities apart from them. In our current age convergence and participatory culture, this is not just a possibility – it’s a guarantee. “There may be hurt in that,” Grossman concludes, “but there is a great deal of comfort as well.” And it is a comfort to know that our stories go on and on (neverending, maybe?) – that Harry Potter will live and live forever, as will Frodo and Luke Skywalker and Buffy and the Winchesters and so many others. Note: Thanks to Baranduin for bringing this article to my attention

[META] Pop! Goes the Fanart

This guest post by fanartist Betty Anne expands on comments she made to a recent OTW news post regarding Salon’s coverage of fanart. One of the prevailing problems fanartists run into is acceptance of their art by the mainstream art world. Matt Zoller Seitz, writing for Salon.com, attempted to bridge this gap with his article, “The most extraordinary movie fan art.” Unfortunately, the article fell a bit short. Along with focusing exclusively on art created by men and related to movies, the article and slideshow tried too hard to fit fanart neatly into the Modern view of pop art. Fanart is certainly pop art, but “pop art” (as an umbrella term) isn’t limited just to that found in the works of 1950s-1970s America, which is what a lot of the works and artists selected by Seitz resemble. The difficulty in categorizing fanart is that there isn’t even a good definition for most art being created today — labels like “post-post-modern,” “contemporary art,” or “new modern” are just that: labels intended to help people niche themselves. (Artistic genres are generally defined after the art era has passed — otherwise you end up with very old art still being called “avant-garde” or the like.) A particularly problematic segment of Seitz’s article is:

But there’s a thriving subcategory that could be called “amateur professional art”: work that’s created by people with serious aesthetic and technical chops — graphic artists, Web designers, filmmakers or former art students whose day job has nothing to do with movies. The purpose of the second kind of art is much the same as the first: to communicate enthusiasm for, and understanding of, favorite films and filmmakers, and perhaps indulge the fantasy of being the person who’s paid to create the real thing: the posters and teaser sheets and DVD box art and tie-in book covers that you see in the marketplace.

In particular, the use of the term “the real thing” suggests only paid graphic designers in employ of the movie studios are real artists — everyone else is an imitator, or in Seitz’s words, “amateur professional.” Artists, Seitz suggests, are not professional professionals until they are under the heel of a studio or PR head who dictates what their art looks like and conveys. This is the antithesis of fanart. Fanartists create art that conveys their vision and their thoughts about their chosen source medium in their manner. (Yes, there are also plenty of fanartists who are just copying manga covers or screencaps for kicks and to get e-applause from their friends. The article briefly touched on that, in a somewhat disparaging comment: “crude but endearing work that’s personal, private and not intended to impress, much less sell, but merely to amuse.” It is a separate type of fanart, not something less worthy, as the Salon article insinuates.) On a broad spectrum, fanart falls into four major categories. These categories can overlap (but don’t have to) and have further nuances within them, just as any other broad category of art does. By exploring within these categories, it is possible to see that fanart really covers any and all of the range of other types of art. Art That Fleshes Out the Unseen Fanart allows many artists the opportunity to flesh out existing narratives. No story, completed or otherwise, can ever give every detail a fan may want or think of. This is where fanartists frequently step in and fill the gaps. Meliza (taichikun14) fleshed out the original story of Dragon Ball Z with an image that fits directly into both the style and the narrative of the series. This is one of those special family moments that are frequently left out of shonen (boy-oriented) series to keep the focus on the good vs. evil action dynamic. By working with simple scenes such as this one, fanartists bring attention back to the understated interactions of characters and their stories. Other works in this category include:

Art That Explores “What If” In some cases, a fan just isn’t satisfied with what the canon of a given story provides. Problematic storytelling issues, such as sexism, can arise, or the original storyteller might have a weak grasp on a concept the fanartist knows well. In other cases, the story might be left hanging, the story could take unexpected turns, or — in the case of The Dark Knight‘s Heath Ledger — tragedy can strike and interrupt a story. Perhaps a fanartist just has a different vision of the characters or plot. Some artists wonder about how the narrative would be if one or more of the characters were gay. In these instances, art becomes a venue for exploring “what if” something were different. The Joker and Harley Quinn have been a staple couple of the Batman fandom nearly since Harley’s creation as a character. It’s no wonder, then, that many fans were disappointed to discover that Harley didn’t have a role in The Dark Knight. This impact was only deepened when Heath Ledger passed away suddenly, leaving the movie franchise not only without a successful Joker, but without any hope of ever seeing that Joker with a Harley Quinn of his own in the future. This is another place where fans such as Brianna Garcia (bri-chan) step in. Garcia’s art speculates on story/continues the universe of The Dark Knight, both by direct art and by pairing the art with fanfiction that fulfills the same purpose. Other examples of art that tackle the “what ifs” of their fandoms include:

Art That is Eye Candy Aesthetic appeal has long been a driving factor in the production of art, and even among art that carries an inner meaning for the artist, many works are admired solely for their exterior beauty. These works function to entertain viewers and bring a sense of life, vitality and decoration to the world. Among eye candy art, the classic pinup is probably the most famous of the modern era. Fanartists also work in this genre of art, as demonstrated by Ty Romsa’s (Overlander) art that pleases the “male gaze” with a classic female pinup of Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman has long been a staple of this type of art, and Romsa’s work incorporates the contemporary medium of digital painting to convey it to a wired audience. Other samples of aesthetically-oriented art include:

Art That Keeps Context But Changes Styles A challenge many fanartists undertake is conveying popular characters and narratives in their own style. This pairs the struggle all artists go through — finding one’s self in art — with the need to communicate the fandom effectively. Li Kovacs (Pikmin Link) is well-known in the Legend of Zelda fandom for bringing the game franchise to life through cosplay and photography. This type of art breathes new and exciting dimensions into a fandom, both for the artist and the viewer. Other art forms that pursue this end include:

Once fanart is recognized as a legitimate form of art, it is not difficult at all to discover the true range fanart covers. Individuals from hugely diverse backgrounds all over the world become fanartists, and many of them produce large bodies of fanart over the course of their careers. Even a basic search for the word “fanart” on Google produces thousands of hits for fanart collectives and archives as well as individual images. Being an artist has never been primarily about making money or creating commercial products; it has always been first and foremost about the artist’s vision and the passion for art. Fanartists incorporate their passion for their fandom(s) into that drive toward art to produce unique creations of their own.

[META] Why, yes, sloppy journalism does provoke me, why do you ask?

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.

More TK.