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poster: Dana Sterling

[META] Fannish trees in a really big forest

Fans, of course, get intense about what they are fannish about. To use a cliche that Tolkien has already masterfully embroidered upon in his fable “Leaf by Niggle”, fans intentionally and gleefully lose sight of the forest in favor of the trees, or even one tree, or even a single leaf.

And yet it’s sometimes extremely educational and even inspiring to try to get a view of the forest — even, when possible, a bird’s eye view. Or a Time Machine view.

This is what Nancy Reagin and Anne Rubenstein urge in their detailed tour of historical fandoms in the last issue of Transformative Works and Cultures,, which they guest edited. Their opening editorial is humorously called “I’m Buffy, and You’re History”, and they give a tour of fan communities, broadly defined and extending back through time much further than I’m usually accustomed to thinking about.

This issue wanted to focus on fan communities before network TV and certainly before the internet, and the articles focus on things like female fans of British movie stars and the people who wrote fan letters to Willa Cather. And yet Reagin and Rubenstein want to show there is a historical continuity between these groups and Star Wars or Doctor Who buffs.

They write, “This special issue of TWC represents, as far as we know, the very first published collection of historical studies of fan communities and activities…. When we discuss ‘fans,’ we are referring to people who were active participants in popular culture, often decades earlier than is often acknowledged in modern fan studies.”

The questions they are interested in are fascinating: “How did changes in the material conditions of leisure, entertainment, and play relate to changes in ordinary people’s worldviews? What difference did the rise of mass media make in everyday life? How did changes in seemingly trivial everyday practices connect to larger social and cultural transformations? What was the relationship between participation in leisure activities and participation in politics? How did communities of fans contribute to historical change?”

I know I’ve been very prone to try to use fandom as a refuge from the stresses and challenges of “real life,” but they remind me that fandom and fan activities are definitely part of real life, part of history, and furthermore, worthy of study: “[A]cademic historians can offer … research and narratives that enable fans to connect their own particular fandom’s story to much broader changes over time, locating themselves and their communities in a global history of culture. We can trace important social, legal, and economic changes that set the stage for the emergence of fan communities and show how fans participated in and had an impact on broader cultural change.”

Sometimes, fannish metadiscussions trace these changes in detail — I’ve read and even been part of many fascinating and inspiring discussions about how fans, in grappling and rewriting our canons, can advance agendas of social change.

And so, Rubenstein and Reagin point out, “Historians are interested in the ways that communities develop over time. We study individuals’ struggles for survival and their efforts at making more interesting, exciting, or satisfying lives for themselves, because we understand that these efforts can add up to or reflect transformative changes in the world. ”

Their introductory editorial briefly discusses things like the impact of copyright law, mass media, professional sports and the cultural appropriation that happens in a century like the 19th, which was full of immigration and global migrations.

And they urge researchers and fan scholars to look beyond the 20th century and especially the focus on internet fandom: “This sometimes narrow focus has led scholars to ignore well-organized fan communities that indeed contested cultural authority, especially if these originated outside of the United States and Western Europe.”

So in the end, what might we learn from a birds-eye view of fandom? “We’re confident that this [historical type of] work will offer fans a broader context for their own communities and can demonstrate that fan communities have always contributed to cultural and social change. Participatory culture is, in fact, a deeply rooted phenomenon—more than today’s fans might realize—and historically grounded research can uncover how fans’ participation helped shape the world we live in.”

[META] I am Mary Sue! Pheer me!

The most recent issue of “Transformative Works and Cultures” featured a fascinating interview with Paula Smith, the fan writer and editor who coined the term “Mary Sue” in 1973. Anyone who writes fan fiction that includes original characters in any form runs into this term sooner or later. And probably all fan fiction writers spend way too much time worrying if their original female characters are somehow slipping perilously toward this stereotype! Mary Sue’s are female characters in fan fiction who, Smith says, are “wish-fulfillment characters whose presence in any universe warps it way the heck out of reality. But we don’t notice that when it involves men.” These characters are way too perfect, take over the story inappropriately, and are often author-insertion characters. Smith says: “A story demands headspace, and the Mary Sue wants to come and occupy your whole head, so the writer gets the enjoyment and not the reader.” Cynthia Walker interviewed Smith, and asked many fantastic questions. One that leaped out to me was their elaboration of why fandom and its source materials tolerate male wish-fulfilment and self-insertion characters way more readily than female characters of the same type. “Q: Why, then, do Superman and James Bond succeed, while we tend to pull back from the female version? “PS: Because the world we live in is not just a patriarchy; it’s a puerarchy—what gets focused on in the culture is defined by boys and young men. Psychologically, there’s a turning point in men’s lives. There’s a point where they need to break away from women in their youth, and then later they come back to women as grown men, but many men never make it, never quite come back to a world that includes women as human beings.” I love how smartly and briefly Smith put that! Besides the very clear-eyed and historical look at Mary Sue and Gary Stu, in fan fiction and in our source material, the interview is a wonderful tour of the early years of Star Trek fandom and media fandom generally. That’s one of the chief things I love about this journal — its attention to our fannish history. So much to learn, and so much to be proud of here!

[META] Fandoms: Virtual and face-to-face

It’s May, and besides the end of the academic spring term and Mother’s Day, the calendar has also brought in the local Renaissance Fair, conducted every weekend this month in Muskogee, Oklahoma, less than an hour’s drive from where I live.

A couple of years ago I loaded up my two boys and my mom and set off to experience it. Six sunburned, gleeful hours later, the kids were brandishing wooden pirate swords, I had the Gypsy-style ankle bells I’d wanted all my life, and we were all tired and happy and full of turkey legs.

Given this timely local backdrop, I read the article “Bowlers, ballads, bells, and blasters: Living history and fandom” in the latest issue of Transformative Works and Cultures with something approaching delight.

Most of my fannish experiences these days happen on the internet. But in this article, Mark Soderstrom draws a wide and inclusive circle around several types of face-to-face activities that he links in “style”, or perhaps in affect, with fandom. He describes his interest in Renaissance festivals, historical music, dance, reenactment, and fandom. And he writes, “The intersections of these interests in the lives of many individuals, and the way these activities organize community and create relationships of reciprocal exchange, function to create social networks that offer an alternative to modern patterns of consumptive leisure and the alienated marketplace.”

There’s been a great deal of descriptive and analytical work done about how fandom and fan works are a gift economy, how we repurpose commercial and corporate creations, texts and paratexts for our own purposes, and how community building happens on the internet. I appreciated Soderstrom’s article so much because it ties these ideas back into face-to-face activities that coexist, and have always coexisted, with internet fandom, and, of course, predate it.

Soderstrom describes, for example, someone who’s interested in morris dancing, SCA and “Firefly”, and who can find at SF cons other people who share these interests, and a venue to pursue them.

He writes, “It seems that shared dispositions bring these interests back into orbit with each other.” Because in a way, they are all fandom. Or fandom-like.

Also, he notes, the word-of-mouth communications that occur in these overlapping fan-like communities can lead to actual job leads of all kinds, based on “who you know.” Kind of an “good ole fan network” instead of a “good ole boy network”.

He speculates, “These social networks of affiliation, discourse, and material interaction account for at least some of the longevity and continuity of fandom.”

I really appreciated the reminder to include face-to-face or “real life” activities when I consider fannish community and affiliations, even though I chiefly experience fandom online these days. In my teens I attended a few SF cons, but my fourth-ever con was Escapade 2010! When I was 48 years old! In between those experiences, I discovered online fandom, but of course face-to-face fandom is equally alive and well, in all its diverse incarnations.

As Soderstrom concludes, “Shared dispositions to envisioning and exploring alternate realities historic, future, or fantastic are complemented by social and material exchanges that result in overlapped history and SF/F fan communities that endure through time.”

[META] A fan fiction controversy: More questions than answers

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.

[META] Fanlore wants you

By Rachel Barenblat

Fanlore is a wiki for, about, and by fans. Our aim is to preserve the many-threaded history of fandom. Here’s how we describe ourselves:

Fanlore is a multi-authored website that any fan can easily contribute to. We want to record both the history and current state of our fan communities – fan works, fan activities, fan terminology, individual fans and fannish-related events. Because Fanlore is based on wiki software, you may edit pages to contribute your own experience, knowledge, and perspective on your community’s activities, its members and histories, and the material it has produced. (Source: About Fanlore.)

We have a set of Guiding principles & aims which includes things like:

Fan communities – their practices, products and passions – both past and present, are worthy of both preservation and celebration.

Each fannish voice is valid and valuable; there is no single “truth” or history to fandom, but rather, each perspective contributes to & demonstrates a rich and diverse heritage.

We treasure the unique fannish style of scholarship: self-reflective, articulate, analytic, personal, passionate and tolerant, and also accessible to a diverse audience.

Fanlore operates on a Plural Point of View policy, which holds that all interpretations and experiences are of interest and deserve to be written down. Unlike Wikipedia, we’re not looking for a mythical neutral point of view; we’d rather have a many-voiced spectrum of opinion.

Fanlore aims to create a historical record of fandom. If something is part of your fannish experience, and if it’s important to you, then we want to hear about it — whether it’s on a subject which is already well-covered (Stargate Atlantis’ John Sheppard, e.g.) or something which doesn’t yet have its own page or isn’t yet mentioned at all.

Fanlore is stewarded by the wiki committee, a group of wiki gardeners (wiki users who keep a careful eye on the wiki and help fix typos and wiki code formatting as a gardener might gently prune or fertilize a garden), and a group of wiki administrators. Probably our biggest challenge is getting the word out to people who aren’t already intimately involved with the OTW’s projects. As of this writing, the wiki contains 14,549 articles written by 3,161 registered users — but we want more! In service of that goal, we host challenges on the Fanlore Dreamwidth community every two weeks, and we’re working on reaching out to those who aren’t yet contributing to the wiki in several ways…including this blog post, which is meant to be informational and also invitational. Basically: we want YOU!

Although the committee oversees the development of the wiki, the content in Fanlore comes from individuals who see a gap in coverage on a topic and are inspired to fill the gap themselves. In recent months, Fanlore editors have been hard at work on crafting 8000+ articles documenting print zines and doujinshi. One editor has been adding lots of filk information, while another has been developing the Merlin pages. And of course, many of those who edit Fanlore also enjoy reading what others have written. After the main page, the most popular pages are The Draco Trilogy, a page exploring incest in fannish sources and fannish creations, and pages about Merlin (BBC) and White Collar.

If you’re interested, check out the Portal which contains links to an Intro to Fanlore FAQ, tips for wiki editing, links to the Fanlore chatroom and Fanlore Dreamwidth community, and more. Join us in writing our history together.

[META] Saint Dale, Shy Di, and ‘Elvis Is Still The King’

Before I get into my actual post, I want to point out that our mother organization, The Organization for Transformative Works (OTW) is engaged in one of its twice-yearly donation and fund drives right now. If you enjoy fannish things and want to support a group that advocates legally and culturally for fans (self-defined), you might consider donating.

Donation information is here.

The group asked Aja Romano to post about why she supports it, and her terrific post is here.

We do good stuff around here. I’m glad and proud to be part of it.

On to my thoughts this week:

Pop culture, the pundits tell us, produces “icons.” I haven’t tracked the etymology of this usage, but it’s definitely become a cliche. I think it’s obvious that it’s no accident that “icon” started out as a religious word. Fans can indeed venerate their celebrities to the point of worship, as the barely ironic title of “American Idol” reminds us every week.

Scholars have mused for decades on the ways that fan adulation resembles religion. Lewis’ 1992 volume “The Adoring Audience” (which has some must-read, seminal articles for anyone interested in fan studies) includes a fascinating chapter on Elvis Presley, and how some people treat him pretty much like an intercessory saint.

The Beatles, Patsy Cline, Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana, and even the NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt have received veneration and adoration in similar ways. Around here in Oklahoma, it’s absolutely ordinary to see large number 3′s, sprouting angel’s wings, in the rear windows of pickup trucks. “God needed a driver,” fans of Earnhardt wistfully reminisce, and they really aren’t exactly kidding. Sharyn McCrumb wrote a mystery a few years ago called “St. Dale,” about this exact phenomenon.

Some posts I read this winter online made me realize that the fictional character of Severus Snape from the Harry Potter books is on his way to being added to this list. Although everyone I’ve considered so far was (or is, in the case of two of the Beatles) a real person, the posts to which I refer reminded me forcibly of the chapter in Lewis’ book about Elvis.

I can’t offer links to the posts, or even cite them, and honestly wouldn’t feel right even if I could, because I ran across the phenomenon of women treating Snape like an intercessory saint, and even a daemon lover, on a community set up specifically to mock ridiculous behavior by fans. In this case, the mockers might not have realized what a well-known behavior this type of veneration really is.

Many scholars have concluded that people need saints, in some form, and as the culture continues through time, we will continue to create our saints, even from non-religious sources.

So sing along with Mojo Nixon, why don’t we — “Elvis is everywhere/Elvis is everything/Elvis is everybody/Elvis is still the King.”

You can look it up.

end.

[META] Bromance rediscovered

Hannah Hamad made a recent post on the Flow TV blog about the bromance between two members of the UK pop group Take That, and considered this event as an example of the recent trend of bromantic themes in movies and television.

I kind of hate the coined word “bromance,” a conflation of “brother” and “romance,” according to Wikipedia, but I guess we’re stuck with it.

Apparently film and TV critics and scholars are definitely seeing examples of this sort of male/male friendship, marked by emotional intimacy and openness and more physical touching, cropping up everywhere these days. Wikipedia, again, notes that it’s a post-feminist expansion of what is allowable in male friendships.

What is socially acceptable for Western men to do in friendships may indeed be changing, thanks to the impact of feminism, and it makes sense that these changes would show up in the culture, and in the buddy picture genre, from Butch and Sundance to “Boston Legal” and everywhere in between. And that pop stars would spin their friendships this way in their PR.

I’m kind of tickled when I read about bromance, though, because it’s as if the “conventional wisdom” about what happens in male friendships is now basically saying that it’s okay for men to nowadays do friendships the way women always have — hugging, touching, telling secrets, being intimate. More than just getting together for shared activities or sports, the traditional “common knowledge” about how men “do” friendship. So all the dither about “bromance” seems a little obvious to me, perhaps.

And I imagine there’s a huge disregard of history going on here — weren’t there periods in Western history where male friendship looked very different from the way John Wayne or Sam Spade are depicted as conducting it? Where more intimacy was considered ordinary and not a new sign of feminine influence, or perhaps relaxed expectations of gender roles thanks to the influence of gay culture?

And regardless of this newfangled trendy attention to bromance, literature featuring male friendship — and scholarly analysis of same — go back centuries.

The same buddy pictures and buddy TV shows that serve as examples of bromance, of course, are where slash fan fiction finds its characters and stories. In this genre of movie or show, the primary relationship is between the male protagonists, and any female romance is in the background, or relegated to some sort of Babe of the Week event.

Slash fan fiction pushes the friendship seen in these shows and movies further into intimacy, of course — to sexual intimacy and love, and that is sometimes offered as a criticism of m/m slash — that it focuses too much on sex and ignores or discounts other forms of friendship and affection that aren’t romantic or sexual.

Slash, of course, is a special case when it comes to reimagining or expanding what is possible in male/male friendship. For one thing, it’s written overwhelmingly by women. I’ve pondered many times the elegant saying I heard on Live Journal years ago: “Slash is about men the way “Watership Down” is about rabbits.” I tried very hard to track down the source of that aphorism, and both the writers to whom it’s usually attributed disavow saying it, though they both remember the online conversation (apparently now deleted or lost in the mists of time?) in which it was offered.

And while I am fascinated by the way slash fan fiction reimagines or reinterprets male/male relationships, I always readily admit two things: First, slash is, unavoidably, a very small and very specialized part of whatever societal conversation or evolution is going on about men and their gender roles, whether it’s bromance or the Victorian era or Abraham Lincoln’s friendships that is being discussed. And I’m noticing that often, in conversations both about bromance and about slash, the impact or effect or input of gay men isn’t considered much. There seem almost to be three separate conversations there. And they only rarely intersect.

Of course, depictions of gay men in Hollywood are occurring with glacial infrequency, and slash until recently was usually not trying at all to accurately depict actual gay men based on real life or real communities.

But I remain fascinated by all the ways society depicts the changing expectations and roles for men, in the media and in life, and it’s interesting to compare these different conversations.

[META] Fandom: You know who you are

Once I started thinking about fandom in terms of the small group communication theories I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, more and more things from that textbook seemed germane!

As I said, I’ve been teaching this subject to college freshmen and sophomores using the Engleberg and Wynn text. Besides the idea of high-context and low-context cultures that I talked about before, there are some ideas they present about group dynamics that dovetail with some original work I did with two colleagues nearly ten years ago on the subject of community building, in face-to-face environments.

As always, it’s so amazing to see how many of the ideas that come out of face-to-face communication do indeed map coherently onto internet communication and internet fandom. Over and over I’ve been reinforced in my belief that fandom IS just like real life, only we can’t always see each other, and it’s easier to create sockpuppets!

One of the ideas my collaborators and I focused on regarding community, back then, is the fact that there always is a boundary between the community and the people who are not in the community. The boundary may be somewhat permeable or vague, but it’s there. There’s always a way to tell who’s in and who’s out. This dovetails with the Engleberg and Wynn book’s discussion of closed systems versus open systems. Groups (and communities) take in varying degrees of information from outside, depending on their purpose. A corporate board in executive session is a closed system. A city council meeting is open. A friends-locked community on LJ is more closed than someone’s personal journal if that person posts everything public and friends everyone who friends her.

All this got me thinking about how much input fandom allows from outside itself, and the ways that fandom initiates its newbies.

Fandom cred, the idea of “membership”, might depend on knowledge, on skills, on fannish creation, on self-identification, on being part of an audience, on the number of comments one makes — on a lot of things.

And being a newbie, and then watching other newbies, in the LiveJournal and Dreamwidth part of fandom has been a fascinating study of that boundary.

How do you know you’re in? Who gets to evaluate one’s participation in fandom, and the quality and value thereof?

I have more intriguing ideas than answers at this point, but again — I find it fun to use these communication models when thinking about participation in, and internet interactions in, fandom.

[META] Fandom as a “high context” culture

Stranded cheerfully at home in the snow this week, all university and public school classes cancelled all around me, and thus without my reference books, I’m writing this in brief and from memory, based on a topic that grew out of my Small Group Communication class. We use the Ingleberg and Wynn textbook, and one of the topics in the multiculturalism chapter is the idea of “high context” versus “low context” cultures. This is a useful concept for understanding fandom, and how mystifying it can be for outsiders. I continue to be delighted by the different models of communication and mass communication that I learned for my formal education in journalism, and how they often apply beautifully to fandom. “Low context” cultures, my textbook says the anthropologists tell us, rely on explicit, literal types of communication. They tend to value logical, linear thinking, denotation, and prefer to disregard subtexts, metaphor, and anything that gets in the way of “what you see is what you get.” “High context” cultures, on the other hand, always rely on more than the literal written or verbal words in order to convey the message. History, relationships, subtext, symbolism, connotation — all these things are not extra decoration that can be efficiently stripped away from the message. They are part of the message. I often have to start from scratch with the idea of the importance of “context” in these Small Group Communication classes — the idea that my sister can affectionately call me a bitch, but if a stranger on the street shouts that word at me, I will get angry. Many of my students have never thought about that in any great depth, but it’s pretty easy to understand, given a clear example. They can readily see that intention matters, timing and location matter. That meaning lies not just in the word “bitch,” but who says it, and when, and why. (Something that Dr. Laura apparently failed to learn along the way!) Fandom is an extremely “high context” culture. In fact, it can be almost incomprehensible to someone from outside, because it’s so thickly woven with inside jokes, references to past stories, past fandoms, fandoms next-door, past relationships. To ignore all that and focus only on literal, explicit, written messages is to miss a great deal. “High context” versus “low context” is not a binary, of course. It’s a continuum. But fandom is definitely on the “high” end of the scale. And I light on another binary — the idea of studying fan texts versus fan communities. The connection between them, of course, is context. You can’t fully understand one without the other. So that’s just a kind of a scrap from my “topics to post about” file — more to come later. We should be dug out by next week, but for the moment I’m hunkered down with my immediate family, the dvd’s, the snow shovels and the hoarded supply of hot cocoa, focusing on being a “closed system” and not an “open system,” which is, of course, also a fandom-related post for another day. Let it snow, and stay warm out there, you guys!

[META] How a fan sub battle is fought

Guest post by Mikhail Koulikov

I published a paper in the September 2010 volume of TWC that modeled the interaction between fan groups that create and distribute unauthorized, non-commercial translations of Japanese animation (‘anime’), and the for-profit companies that do the same under license from the original creators as a ‘net war’ (an emerging mode of conflict…, in which the protagonists use – indeed, depend on using – network forms of organization).

In my article, I highlighted several particular forms that these interactions have taken. In some cases, the for-profit companies have essentially ignored the fan group activities, for both strategic and tactical reasons. In others, they have taken specific actions, ranging from flat-out offensives such as issuing cease-and-desist letters, to adopting the fan groups’ skills and methods and hiring the fan translators to produce authorized translations, to appealing to audiences directly to educate them that access to anime is ‘not a right’ and that the interaction has to occur on commercial terms.

If you know where to look, over this past week, a major battle of this ‘net war’ has occurred.

Although the Japanese animation that most Americans are familiar with is major theatrical productions, such as the first Pokemon movie (1999, U.S. gross of $86M; $136M worldwide), or the Oscar-winning Spirited Away (2002), the vast majority of the anime that is actually released in the U.S. are television series. From the late 1980’s to the late 00’s, these were generally licensed, translated and then distributed on VHS and DVD by a small stable of specialized companies. Over the last couple of years, as the home video market essentially crashed, many of these have shut down. Several others, though, have been able to transform themselves into content management and distribution shops, with actual physical production of DVD’s being only one of their functions. The largest and most successful has been Funimation (a subsidiary of the Navarre Corporation, which according to its website, “provides computer software, home entertainment media, consumer electronics and accessories distribution, third party logistics, supply chain management and other related services for North American retailers and their suppliers.”).

Funimation’s current business model is based on acquiring the U.S. broadcast and distribution rights to a given Japanese animation series while the series is still in production. As soon as the series airs on Japanese television, Funimation is ready with an authorized translation (using the skills and services of former fan subbers now gone ‘official’); within hours of a Japanese television broadcast, English-subtitled episodes are made available on the proprietary Funimation.com website, as well as on several third-party sites (Animenewsnetwork.com, and Hulu.com, among others). Much later – usually, several months – Funimation releases the series on DVD, complete with a marketing campaign, English dub, various extras, and attractive packaging, to appeal to both the hard-core collectors and the casual watcher.

The hitch in all of this is that while Funimation and the other companies that are still operating in the field are pursuing their business models, fan groups are still pursuing theirs – the key difference, of course, being that while Funimation needs to pay licensing costs to acquire the rights to a series, pay their staff to translate and produce it, and then deal with distributors to actually get it to viewers, the fan sub groups may incur some expenses, but they are simply not thinking about revenues.

And so, we have a battle in the fan sub war.

Unlike in the U.S., the Japanese television broadcasting year is divided into four seasons, with new shows starting roughly in January, April, July and October. And every season sees the launch of a dozen or more new anime series. One that launched earlier this month, and was anticipated most eagerly, is Fractale – a fanciful story about a future where most humans choose to interact with each other using CG avatars, and a boy who decides not to, and navigates the avatars’ world in his own body. Fractale gained immediate “fan cred” by consciously referencing Hayao Miyazaki’s classic images, designs and settings; that the original story is written by the philosopher and literary critic Hiroki Azuma doesn’t hurt either.

The first episode of Fractale aired in Japan on January 13, and that same day, starting at 10:45 a.m. (CST), Funimation made a translation available on its website.

So far so good.

On January 19, the production committee that is the official copyright holder for the series informed Funimation that because unauthorized videos of the episode were available elsewhere on the Internet – on streaming sites, file-sharing networks, and file servers – it was requesting that Funimation suspend its authorized simulcast of any further episodes.

When the announcement was made public on the Anime News Network forums, it drew almost 400 comments. Speaking privately to both fans and industry professionals, though, it was clear that some perceived the situation as a rather typical instance of Japanese content-holders misunderstanding the American market. Others saw the entire situation as a well-designed attempt by the content-holders to act in an expected way. One fan comment described the situation thus: “Japanese company can look upset, Funimation can make public announcements about clamping down on unauthorized distribution. Then after a few days or a week they can then resume the simulcast and we go back to the status quo.”

In fact, it appears that this is exactly what has happened.

According to a statement that Funimation issued on Monday, January 24:

“In recent days we have been diligently tracking the online illegal distribution of the anime series Fractale and on behalf of the rights holders we have been taking the appropriate legal action. As a result, we now have the approval of the Fractale Production Committee to stream episode 2 of the series starting today.”

Will this resumption of streaming necessarily stop the fan sub groups? Probably not. But it serves as a good example of the delicate dance that takes place on a daily basis in a particular corner of the transformative works and cultures universe.

[META] Just in time for Christmas

As of this week, Fanlore is out of its beta testing phase.

This is an online encyclopedia, a wiki, which is one of the projects of the Organization for Transformative Works. It’s intended to document the history of fan communities and fan cultures. Right now, its main page says it contains more than 13,000 articles edited by more than 2,800 volunteer users.

As anyone familiar with Wikipedia, the wildly famous and enormous online encyclopedia knows, the distinctive feature of a wiki is that anyone can choose to log in and edit or add or create. Which can mean that such depositories of knowledge grow rather haphazardly, according to the interests of their users and not according to a plan or a taxonomy.

My college students are always rather puzzled that so many of their instructors don’t let them use Wikipedia as a source for papers, the thought being that the voluntary and amateur nature of the information makes it less reliable. But I have been reading that in general, Wikipedia is now considered by scholars who study it to be rather accurate. Over time, it indeed has been self correcting and stabilizing. Probably in a few years academia will lose its suspicion of Wikipedia and allow it as a source for student papers, just as it would any other encyclopedia.

One feature of Fanlore that definitely distinguishes it from the Wikipedia model is its position on what it calls “plural points of view.”

Fanlore is not and is not intended to be a neutral, objective (whatever that means in this postmodern, post-journalistic age!) compilation and description of fan activities.

This has puzzled and even offended some readers of my acquaintance.

Unlike Wikipedia, which advocates neutrality in its articles (achieved imperfectly and to the best of the authors’ ability, of course), Fanlore “contends that all interpretations or experiences are of interest and should be written down. It’s a ‘live and let live’ policy for ideas….”

At its best, this policy is intended to result in “a fan-positive, balanced synthesis of multiple points of view that fans may have on a single topic. It acknowledges and reflects these potentially dissenting perspectives and does not privilege one fannish viewpoint over any other.”

Because of this, Fanlore depends more, perhaps, than a wiki with a neutral point of view policy, on the participation of many and diverse fans, so that many points of view about a specific fandom will be represented.

It seems to me that it’s a positive in that it sets the bar to participation low, which, hopefully, will mean more writers and contributors. It absolves contributors of the obligation to do a lot of research and try to understand the full scope of the fandom they’re writing about. Contributing writers can include their own personal experience, their point of view, and simply add it to the material that’s already there. No need for bending over backwards to be fair to a ‘ship you hate, or to be unbiased about a particular fandom controversy. Someone from the “other side” of those issues will show up sooner or later to give their position its due, in any given article.

But I confess that, as a reader used to a more traditional, perhaps old-fashioned, belief in objectivity as a goal, this plural point of view approach seemed very strange to me when I first encountered it!

In short, according to the Fanlore explanation, “Fanlore is not a traditional encyclopedia that strives to establish a single account of events (as in “Neutral Point of View”). In addition to bare facts, we acknowledge that the history of fandom is a collection of personal experiences and interpretations, many of them only passed along as part of an oral tradition. Because of this, those multiple experiences and opinions are important, and we want to collect and document them as part of our fact set.”

Congratulations, Fanlore, on reaching this important developmental milestone!

[META] The where of it all

One of the things I like to do in these posts is to look back at articles from Transformative Works and Cultures, directing people to things they perhaps wouldn’t have otherwise read or things they perhaps believed might have been too academic-speak for them to enjoy. An article that I would hate for anyone in media fandom to overlook is a fascinating discussion by Rebecca Lucy Busker in the very first issue of the journal. It’s about the impact on content of changes over time in the internet platforms fans use for exchanging links, posting fic and hosting metadiscussion about fandom. It’s called On symposia: Livejournal and the shape of fannish discourse. She is the founder of the website that this blog is named for, along with the Symposium section of the journal itself. The journal section and this blog consciously pay homage to Busker’s website. The TWC journal’s Author Guidelines note: “Parallel to academia’s tradition of compact essays, often published as letters, fandom has its own vibrant history of criticism, some of which has been collected at the Symposium archive. In the spirit of this history, TWC’s Symposium is a section of concise, thematically contained essays. These short pieces provide insight into current developments and debates surrounding any topic related to fandom or transformative media and cultures.” (You can insert a recruitment plug here: Anyone who’s interested in metadiscussion or who has posted meta is always invited to submit something to the TWC Symposium! Or to suggest yourself as a guest poster here.) In her article, Busker writes about the changes she witnessed when fans, many of whom had been using electronic mailing lists, began to post on Livejournal, a new internet platform that came along around 2001. In her experience, the mailing lists tended to be less focused on critical essays, and also, on lists there was very little cross-pollination between fandoms. Besides creating a wider audience for fannish metadiscussion, Livejournal, she writes, by its nature took the focus off the topic being discussed and put the fannish posters (and fandom itself) at center stage. She believes that one result of this was a wider general awareness of the many active fandoms. It’s my impression that much fannish activity on Livejournal was posted unlocked (though this might have changed after 2007?) with a “hide in plain sight, like a needle in a hay stack” approach to privacy, so it was possible to find a lot of stuff by skipping through friend-of-friend lists and noting what communities existed. Busker writes, “Fans [on Livejournal] have an increased peripheral, and sometimes even very specific, knowledge of other fandoms. Indeed, a popular meme that recurs every so often involves posting ‘what I know about fandoms I am not in.’ The results are sometimes humorous, but are also often fairly accurate. There was a time I could perhaps identify one song by *NSync if I heard it on the radio. And yet I knew the names of all the members, I could identify them by sight.” And, she believes, Livejournal also increased pan-fandom awareness of fandom controversies. In fact, Busker asserts that fandom on Livejournal “now spends as much time talking about itself as it does talking about TV shows and movies and comics.” She also believes that this journaling platform (and what she writes is probably true of Dreamwidth and InsaneJournal, though her article was written before Dreamwidth existed), by virtue of being organized around people, and encouraging discussions that span fandoms, has contributed to the growth of serious, multi-fandom discussions of racism and other social justice issues. “If the personal is political and the political personal, then a medium that by its nature mixes the personal with the fannish must contribute to increased awareness and discussion of the sociopolitical.” Reading this essay, I was struck by the pithy quote from Marshall McLuhan that I learned as an undergraduate studying broadcast television (now the hoariest of “Old Media”), to wit: “The medium is the message.”

[META] Whose pregnancy?

Mary Ingram-Waters wrote an article in the most recent issue of Transformative Works and Cultures called “When Normal and Deviant Identities Collide”, about her experiences trying to collect information from authors of mpreg fan fiction stories at a Harry Potter fan convention. She was seven months pregnant at the time.

“Mpreg” means “male pregnancy,” and it has its own subgenre niche inside fan fiction. Ingram-Waters quotes a fan author as ruefully explaining, “It’s definitely a ‘guilty pleasure’ for some and a squick for others, and is in general not that well regarded [among fan fiction readers and writers], mostly because it allegedly turns the male characters into whiny, feminized versions of themselves.”

Ingram-Waters writes that there was a distinct difference in the way she was treated by the authors she interviewed in person compared to the authors she interviewed via email. The authors she interviewed at the convention seemed to make more mention of the stigma of writing mpreg when faced with an actual pregnant woman. They seemed defensive and took pains to note that they had done research on pregnancy before writing. One writer refused to be interviewed at the convention, after previously agreeing.

Ingram-Waters writes, “One explanation for the negative interactions is that my physical presence illuminated the extent of deviance of their mpreg stories.”

Deviance can certainly be found in fan fiction, however one wants to define the term (I immediately thought of that tag line, “You say that like it’s a bad thing!”), but I am focusing on the dictionary definition of the word, seen in the way she contrasts “normal” and “deviant” in the title of her article. I think by that contrast, we can see that mpreg is not all that “out there” in fan fiction terms. One of the things fan fiction does with mpreg is the same thing that commercial science fiction that speculates with gender roles does – it experiments. It plays. What does it mean to be pregnant – socially, culturally, personally? Would it mean something different to a man than it does to woman? What do we learn about pregnancy if we posit that it’s the men who do it and not the women, like sea horses? What is gender, anyway, and what does it have to do with reproduction?

A lot of this sort of questioning and playing goes on in fan fiction, as it does in science fiction, and I have always found those kinds of questions deeply interesting, and also at times downright entertaining.

This particular Ingram-Waters article was confined, however, to the methodological issues, and did not go on to actually examine her findings as she researched the subgenre of mpreg itself, although I am hoping that at some point she’ll publish the outcome of her research on the stories and the authors! That would be fascinating too.

She found that unlike other scholars who have conducted field research while pregnant, the experience of being a “visible normative reproducer” was of no help in establishing rapport with mpreg writers. Some scholars in other fields, she found, have written that being pregnant makes them seem nonthreatening and gives the people they meet something perceived as positive to talk about, something familiar.

Ingram-Waters also noted that she had gone to some pains to identify and establish herself as an acafan as she pursued her research into the mpreg subgenre online, but that face to face, her identity as a pregnant cisgendered woman trumped that pretty completely.

She found a silver lining in even her negative interview experiences, writing that perhaps she’d stumbled on an efficient way to elicit “stigma management strategies for mpreg authors.” I share her fascination with subjects concerning “identities of gender, sexualities and normative bodies,” and I look forward to getting to read more, someday, of her actual research into mpreg fan fiction.

In the meantime, her description of how she was received made a fascinating story.

[META] Fan fiction as play

Our guest blogger this week is: Susanna Goodin, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Philosophy Adjunct Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies University of Wyoming ~~~ No other type of writing does what fan fiction does: It allows the writer to play. Think about it. How do most of us get into fan fiction? A story captures our imagination. It doesn’t matter if the source is great literature, popular fiction, film, play, or poem. We become captivated with a setting or with characters; the original work creates a mental space within our minds that we are loathe to leave, and so we continue to think about the original work long after we have closed the book or left the theater. We can certainly enjoy or study the work without writing fan fiction. We can go out for coffee and talk about the film. We can gather in someone’s home and talk about a novel we have all read. We can go on-line and join a forum and discuss details ad naseum. If we are of a scholarly inclination, we can write a critical essay discussing themes and implications. But in all these cases we are sticking to the story itself. There remains the option of going beyond the story itself and beginning to play with it. We use the thoughts we are having about the original to write a story of our own, playing with it by continuing the tale, revising it, or using it as a jumping off point to go wherever our mind’s fancy takes us. It isn’t that I can’t create my own worlds; it’s just that, sometimes, I have something different in mind. I really like some of the worlds out there that have already been created and I want to spend time in them, see more about what is going on, discuss it with others, and get their take on it. I want to play with the world and play within the world that has captivated me. Fan fiction often consists of what are known as fixes, what-ifs, or gap fillers. A common move is to take characters from one story and place them within another, then explore what might happen. Come play the “what-if” game with me and imagine for the moment that Captain Vere from Melville’s Billy Budd were to find himself in the kitchen with the two women from Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers.” Should a person write this story, they would be writing fan fiction, drawing upon a common original source and using it to explore new possibilities. The interest is not in creating new characters or a new setting, but using, playing with, established characters to explore new possibilities. Would Captain Vere adhere so rigidly to justice if faced with the same evidence as the women in that cold, desolate kitchen as he did on a ship during wartime? Perhaps the majority of the readers of this blog do not know Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers” (or the play version of the same story called Trifles). Then the power of imagining Captain Vere in the kitchen is lost. And if I have to spend my time writing a story that sets up a similar situation to that found in Glaspell’s work, then the focus of imagining Vere in that so very bleak kitchen is lost. But what if Frodo had sent Merry and Pippin back to Hobbiton rather than allowed them to accompany him on the Quest? What if Snape went to IKEA? The point here is that, whether we are dealing with literature and asking serious questions about justice or writing crack!fic about popular children’s stories, it doesn’t matter. What we are doing involves playing with a shared, known original text, and as such it all qualifies as fan fiction. The type of writing that shows up in fan fiction couldn’t happen in any other setting because the work deals with the possibility of capturing a moment and playing with it, where the focus is on the playing (twisting, revising, exploring) rather than on the establishing, since the work of establishing the moment was done in the original work. Fan fiction can also provide a study into an otherwise minor moment in the original work, revisit the moment from a different perspective, or use the moment to tell another story entirely. Fan fiction can draw upon an established story with known characters to create a mood, moment, or story that is not possible unless there is shared knowledge of the original. It only works if the audience knows the reference, for if the reference has to be created anew each time, as an original work, the focus of the piece about the mood or the moment would be altered. For example, consider the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard. This play is fan fiction–professional fan fiction written at the highest level, but fan fiction nonetheless. (One might even argue that it counts as slash, since the introduction of the Alfred character creates a homoerotic subtext that was not there in Hamlet.) The success of the play depends entirely upon a shared knowledge of the source material. Granted, Stoppard has written a play that can be enjoyed by those who know nothing of Hamlet, but to grasp the full import of Stoppard’s work, knowledge of Hamlet is essential. In other words, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead depends upon there being a Hamlet fandom. What Stoppard does in his play is play with Shakespeare’s play. I would like to be able to refer to fan fiction writing as playing-writing, but I suspect the playwrights would object. My claim is that fan fiction is playing and that in order for that playing to occur and to be the focus of the writing, it needs a common source upon which to draw. This means that there needs to be a fandom—others out there to read and write within the same story world that I am reading and writing in. I’ll end with a final comment that is beyond the scope of this post but merits further exploration. There is a psychological component to the notion of play. One doesn’t play unless one is comfortable in the environment. There needs to be a sense of freedom and acceptance. And since playing often is improved by the presence of playmates, the play is more fun in a community of like-minded individuals. Women tend to be far more communal than men—they are less competitive and judgmental. I mention this as a partial possible explanation for why the majority of fan fiction writers are women.

[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.

[META] Genre shift?

When I started reading fan fiction, around 2002, I ran across fan fiction of all ratings right away. I had vaguely heard of fan fiction and ‘zines as far back as the seventies, but I had never read any or even seen any except in passing. When I got interested in fan fiction, I found it online, and I ran across missing scenes that could have been slotted right into the original shows or movies or books, and I also ran across triple-X rated, *fans self* porn that most emphatically rejected the fade to black — sexually explicit stories that could never have been included in the original books or movies, but showed the characters we knew and loved in bed. When I first ran across the term “slash”, I wrongly assumed it meant any adult-rated romantic fan fiction story. Furthermore, I assumed that if fan fiction were grouped in any way, it would be divided into categories I knew from mainstream movies — the G, PG and PG13 stuff would be separate from the R and NC17 stuff. I was completely surprised to learn, the more I explored list-based and Livejournal-based fan fiction, that in fact the groupings were based on other concerns completely. The categories I found were gen, slash, femslash and het, and the boundaries between them were less about ratings for explicit sex or violence than about the presence or absence of romance, and the presence or absence of same-sex relationships. My preconceptions were, perhaps, a product of my 21st-century introduction to fan works. A little history, drawn from articles on media fandom (meaning fan communities that grow up around TV, movies, and other forms of pop culture), on Fanlore, this article by Coppa in Transformative Works and Cultures, and her chapter in “Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet”. Fan fiction as written within media fandom seems to have been an outgrowth of science fiction fandom, and seems to date from the sixties and early seventies. When fan writers began weaving their own tales about Kirk and Spock and Number One and the Alien Babe of the Week, the male/male slash was hidden away in boxes under the tables, while the straight romances, even the explicit stories and the explicit art, were displayed widely at conventions, along with the action-oriented, plot-oriented fan stories whose focus was not romance and which became known as gen. Based on my readings in fan history, it seems that the first widely written femslash came out of Xena, and that fandom seems to have a separate history. (Please correct me if you have different information!) As we all know, societal attitudes toward same-sex relationships were harsh in the sixties in the USA — and still are, in many places. Because the Hollywood TV and movie canons we write about are so, so, so heteronormative, fan fiction that tells stories about intimate relationships between men or between women is usually pairing off people who aren’t presented as queer in the original shows or movies. (As an aside, the range of sexualities explored in fan fiction is limitless and often sets aside entirely the idea of sexual binaries.) So the objection to the earliest slash fan fiction often took the tack of: “Oh no! Don’t make that character gay!” Gay, lesbian or queer characters in mainstream Hollywood productions are very, very rare to this day. So if you hold out for only the romantic relationships that are present in the original canon, that means het (unless your fandom is Torchwood or one of the non-Western fandoms….). Of course, we’ll always have subtext, and certainly we are all watching different shows in our heads, and Hollywood is getting less reluctant to show us non-straight characters, but…. Let’s just say the lavender revolution is not yet in Hollywood. So my exploration of the history of fan fiction showed me a het+gen versus slash+femslash divide (and femslash is still by far the rarest category — all that history deserves a post of its own. In the meantime, I direct you to the Fanlore entry on Femslash, which is just fascinating.). But it’s my impression, and cryptoxin has written about this as well, that the het+gen/femslash+slash split is not as pronounced these days, two generations into what’s become known as media fandom. The lines that delineate the camps are blurring. Why is this? I’d love to hear your answers. I think it’s because movies and TV now include more female characters in roles other than Babe of the Week, and even occasionally pass the Bechdel Test. One reason that is sometimes advanced for the emergence of slash was the lack of strong female characters in television and movies in the sixties. I don’t know that I buy that, but it is true that fan writers now have a broader range of strong characters of both sexes from which to draw for our stories. So, my question is this: Do we have one fan fiction community now, instead of two or three or four? Or maybe we still have two, but a different two than slash+femslash and gen+het — maybe now we really do have the two categories I wrongly assumed almost a decade ago: Adult Rated, and Everything Else? And if these category lines have blurred, is it because society changed in terms of accepting queers? Or is it the shows that changed? Have vehicles like Buffy and Leverage and Stargate Atlantis and Queer as Folk and Torchwood, shows that have queer characters and female protagonists, driven the shift I see — the blurring of fan fiction genre lines and the lessening of negative judgments against each genre? For example, I rarely see today’s slash fans asserting that “there’s no good het” — and honestly, I always have a hard time understanding how bad het fanfic could be any worse than the badfic of any other genre! Another question: Did the internet accelerate the boundary crossing among fan fiction genres after, say, 1995? And, am I wrong in my additional impression that the fan enterprise of writing romances involving two people who are not traditional male/female, perhaps doesn’t horrify The Powers That Be as it once did? I do know that it was slash which captured the attention of the academic researchers, moreso than erotica of any other type, because it seemed “strange” that women would be interested in porn about two men. (Fan fiction is overwhelmingly written by women.) There’s a terrific discussion of this in Driscoll’s chapter in “Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet.” But surely, such an interest is not strange anymore to academics? Or to Hollywood? Or is my personal comfort level with this type of fanfic — and with GLBT lit in general, for that matter — obscuring for me a colder reality? There will never be an end to ‘ship wars, of course, and probably never an end to gen-only fans ruefully noting what they see as a fan fiction community preoccupied with romance and sex at the expense of other kinds of stories, but at least within media fandom, it seems to me that the het and the slash and femslash and poly and noromo and bob fans coexist much more peaceably than in earlier days.

[META] Existing settings, existing characters

We are all familiar with the elements of fiction: plot, character, theme, setting, point of view.

When a writer decides to set a story in San Francisco in 1980, or in Bonn in 1950, or in her home town the year she was twenty, there’s research involved. What did the place look like? What were the landmarks? What was the weather like? What was under construction? What blooms in which seasons?

The more familiarity the writer has with the place, the better and more vivid the story.

And, no one thinks it’s cheating if a writer uses a real place for the setting of a story. Quite the reverse.

No one thinks it’s “better” or “more creative” to make up a setting from scratch instead of using an already existing city or countryside. (In fact, the genres where making up a setting from scratch is normally necessary, like SF or fantasy, are often dissed by lovers of literary fiction.)

A large part of the joy of reading, say, Robert Parker’s Spenser novels is enjoying Boston through his eyes. The entire genre of travel literature lets us all explore, fictionally and nonfictionally, places we already know and love.

Fan fiction does exactly this same thing, but with character instead of setting.

The last go-round, this spring, regarding the legitimacy and definitions of fan fiction (and this is a topic that comes around a lot on the guitar) seemed to be very focused on copyright restrictions and authorial control. The fantasy author Diana Gabaldon, in blog posts that were mostly, alas, deleted afterward, took serious offense at fan fiction and was soundly and elegantly rebutted by another author at Bookshop, Livejournal.com, May 3, 2010.

Then, in related developments, the well-known blog BoingBoing listed a bunch of Pulitzer Prize winning works that can be defined as fan fiction, prompting cofax7 to offer a definition of the genre (Dreamwidth.org, cofax7, May 28, 2010). If you read her post, do read the comments too, for more nuances and discussion. On the other hand, the BoingBoing comments are pretty funny! In the “oh no” sort of way.

(As a tangent: Bookshop also links to one of her own comments where she addresses succinctly what is one of the biggest misunderstandings in this perennial discussion: Many people seem to keep going all bzuh at the idea — central to fan fiction — of writing something and sharing it with a community, with no intention or desire to sell said piece of writing for money.)

Like Bookshop, I’m kind of bemused every time I have to have the conversation about why fan fiction is way okay. Aren’t we there yet? So maybe I can offer yet another way of making the argument: Any writing textbook lists those five elements of fiction. Why are the anti-fan fiction critics so hung up on the presumed necessity for original characters in the best-quality fiction, but see no necessity whatsoever for original settings?

[META] A look at “Supernatural”

The most recent issue of Transformative Works and Cultures (the link is at your right) was a special issue about the show Supernatural. Many of the articles examine the way that show has “broken the fourth wall.” The idea of the “fourth wall” comes from live theater — the action of a play happens inside a sort of cube that is the stage, except the front wall of the cube doesn’t exist, so that the audience can see the action. But the wall is undeniably there, separating the actors and their imaginary world of story from the audience, which exists in the real world of time and matter. Supernatural reached out through that wall and, in a very self-aware way, involved the audience in its narrative. From what I could see at the time in various online communities, fan opinions were mixed as to whether, on the whole, this was a good thing or a bad thing. Melissa Gray writes about this phenomenon in her TWC article ”From Canon to Fanon and Back Again”. She starts out by noting that to be part of the audience for a storyteller (in any medium) is to extend trust, and to willingly suspend disbelief, to enter the imaginary world, as long as the story lasts. She goes on to describe the elements of Supernatural, what is familiar about the show and what is fantastic, and how the writers have cemented the audience’s involvement by creating emotionally compelling characters, especially the Winchester brothers. She also describes how the things fans love about the show can help them negotiate its problematic aspects — the gender politics, the separation of the brothers and their conflict, and the racism. And she also presents what to me was a fascinating description of why, in her opinion, Supernatural has changed from being classifiable as horror, to classifiable as fantasy. She writes, “Layered revelations are created [and] they are important in integrating the horror and fantasy episodes and forming them into a seamless myth arc.” And, fans who love the show have actively engaged with its material and added to it, creating, as she notes, “print, vids, comics, dolls, and other media.” She spends some time explaining what an active, engaged, creative fandom looks like — and Supernatural has this in spades. Fan-produced material, and the fan interpretations known as fanon, enrich the viewing experience while often skewing that experience away from the writers’ intentions. Unlike some shows that preserve the wall between audience and story, the show runners of Supernatural have introduced characters who are fans of Sam and Dean. Gray describes the fan characters who are featured, and evaluates them in terms of what the writers might have been trying to say about their perceived audience as well as how the fans received them. In her judgment, the plotlines that featured fan characters were not gratuitous and were well integrated into the main story. She says three of the four fan characters received a positive response from the audience. Also, the show writers included a reference to the thousands of fan stories about an incestuous relationship between Sam and Dean, and Gray says, “Many slash fans were happy to be immersed in their own world away from the mainstream [audience] and really did not want have to discuss the concept of slash fan fiction, especially incestuous slash, with their ‘mundane’ friends and family.” In short, they felt outed. Gray explains the mass media’s reporting on this turn in the Supernatural narrative: “With male/male romance being the next big thing on the romance novel front, along with the lure of the forbidden and the thrill of reporting sensational news, the media attention is not surprising.” I was disappointed that her consideration of the mass media reports on this show included a link to an L.A. Weekly article on gay romance novels. That article was poorly researched, poorly reported, shallow, and completely inadequate. It was basically very bad journalism and was not a good basis for any sort of evaluation of the market category of gay romance novels. Gray’s article was one of several in this issue that explored the breaking of the fourth wall by the writers of Supernatural, and fan reaction to those events. It was definitely a major topic of interest among the acafans who contributed to the special issue. Other Supernatural topics featured included examinations of the religious themes and icons in the show, as well as the range of plots and themes of its fan fiction.

[META] Slash does not equal porn

Science fiction author John Scalzi and TV star Wil Wheaton are getting a lot of blogospherical mileage out of their commissioning of a piece of art by painter Jeff Zugale featuring them as cracktastic SF or fantasy characters, and their asking for “fan fiction” based on the painting. You can read about their event on Scalzi’s blog, Whatever.

It’s for a good cause, the Lupus Alliance, and they are going to pay the winner of their fiction contest.

But they made a mistake that a lot of not-inside-fandom people do. They conflated slash (romantic or intimate stories about two male characters) with porn, and then when commenters objected, they realized the mistake and corrected their terminology, and also linked to the Wikipedia entry on slash.

I see this mistake in mainstream culture all the time — anything with a gay or lesbian or queer theme is automatically assumed to be Adults Only. Which is very limiting and also not true.

One antidote to this attitude is, of course, reminders like the ficathon community known as queerlygen on Dreamwidth.org, which features fan fiction about queer characters doing stuff that doesn’t involve an intensely romantic or sexual plot. Characters who happen to be queer, having adventures, being in a relationships, fighting aliens, caring for aging parents, having a bike wreck, whatever.

Its user profile page states, “We want to create a space where people can tap into the rich range of experiences that queer and genderqueer people have, which extend far beyond simply who we fall in love with or who we take to bed. We want to challenge the idea that works featuring people who aren’t heteronormative or cisgendered are automatically ‘adult’ or unsuitable for some audiences.”

Not that erotic fiction isn’t a big part of fandom. Of course it is. But it can be slash or femmeslash and G rated, and not about romance. In 2010, this shouldn’t be news.