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.”