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transformational fandom

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

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

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

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

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

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

[META] The Social Network Fandom: RPS of Professional RPF?

Over at Obsidian Wings, Doctor Science has posted an analysis of The Social Network using a fannish vocabulary. I’ve been overwhelmed by the range, quality and quantity of fan activity surrounding the film, and I thought that Doctor Science’s post would provide me with some great material to discuss in my first post for the Symposium Blog.

The idea that The Social Network can, strictly speaking, be understood as as Real Person Fic (RPF), is, in the words of Doctor Science, complicated. The argument in favor is fairly common, and can be a frustrating conversation to have with outsiders to fandom: there are discrete traditions of professional fiction written about real people and RPF; this film belongs to the former, hence the easy and ubiquitous comparisons to Citizen Kane. I don’t say this to undermine the extent to which the film’s depiction of real situations made Doctor Science “uncomfortable,” but surely there is a difference between this huge-budget Hollywood film and the fanfiction inspired by it, only some of which is, strictly speaking, RPF. (And much of the Social Network RPF is actorfic, e.g. Jesse Eisenberg/Andrew Garfield, rather than RPF about the real people behind the real facebook.)

The author nevertheless points out an interesting irony in Aaron Sorkin’s decision to write a kind of story that could be understood as more properly belonging to female-dominated fan communities online, considering the writer’s fraught history with online media fandom. I wasn’t a West Wing fan myself, but the story of Sorkin’s reaction to the TWOP messageboards is widely-circulated as an example of why creators shouldn’t crash the party. Doctor Science is shrewd to draw attention to the connections between the sexism of the film’s narrative of the founding of Facebook and Sorkin’s history of misapprehending the gender politics of digital space.

Unlike the real Mark Zuckerberg, I was not concerned with the movie’s refusal to display the actual mechanics of building Facebook, although I would have liked to see more from the perspective of users, particularly female users. Certainly, as Doctor Science outlines, the film represents female characters as more interested in actually using the site than male characters — it’s not LiveJournal/Dreamwidth, but certainly women are at least as active on the site as men.

But I’m less interested in critiquing the film in this post than I am in drawing out this connection between the gender politics of the film and the gender politics of storytelling in the age of the internet. I don’t believe that it’s helpful to label The Social Network as RPF, because it does a disservice to the thriving RPF being produced in response to the film, and thus inadvertently discounts users once again.

Aaron Sorkin made specific decisions about his representation of the founding of Facebook , presumably in collaboration with legal advisors with experience in communications law, intellectual property, and libel. Fic writers are beholden to a different set of standards, and thus, produce a different kind of work, a kind that, it should go without saying, is at least as addictive as Sorkin’s dialogue. One of Doctor Science’s critiques of RPF in general, here referring to the larger concept of stories based on real life, is one that has been voiced repeatedly by critics of the film; the Doctor describes the erasure of Mark Zuckerberg’s real-life long-term girlfriend, Priscilla Chan, from the story as “cringe-worthy.” In the context of the film, this erasure was necessary for Sorkin to tell his story about the palpable connection between Facebook’s surveillance culture and the anxious masculinity that he believes drives innovations in tech.

But the critique has been made in the context of RPF proper, too, particularly RPS (Real Person Slash, e.g. Mark/Eduardo). There are those in fandom who find it just as cringe-worthy that primarily female fic writers would repeatedly produce situations in which real-life wives or girlfriends are erased in the name of two (or more!) attractive men finding True Love with one another. There are few enough complex female characters in mainstream media, the argument sometimes goes, and fic should serve as a space of rectifying mainstream media’s oppressive erasures, rather than taking them to their logical extension by erasing the women altogether. Of course, many fans take the opposite approach: fic should be a space of exploring the fullest possible range of ideas excited in readers by the media texts we love, and there’s no reason to regulate anyone else’s kinks.

After all, there are no limits on the amount of fic that can be produced from a sourcetext: if you want to read more about the women of The Social Network, write more. While it’s true that, in some fandoms, certain slash pairings come to dominate, I think that it’s up to members within those fandoms to articulate their own values about what this means, rather than anyone from outside. RPF/RPS writers understand that they are producing fiction, rather than producing an idealized social world. Particularly because RPF/RPS is controversial even within fandom (perhaps especially, because only within fandom are people aware how much of it there is!), I think that it’s fair to assume that writers are aware of potential objections readers might have. This doesn’t mean that one has to like or actively support it, but rather that it deserves to be understood on its own terms, in its own context. As one might criticize Citizen Kane‘s representation of media history, so can one criticize The Social Network‘s. But RPF proper must be understood in the context of other fannish productions, not in comparison with Hollywood films.

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

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

[META] MTV’s The Hills as parasocial fandom

MTV’s The Hills is rapidly approaching its series finale, going out with more of a whimper than a bang. The reality show hit its cultural high-water mark in series 3, when the feud between Lauren Conrad and Heidi Montag jumped from the screen to tabloids and gossip sites to daytime and late-night talk shows. Suddenly the show and its cast were everywhere, objects of fascination, derision, adoration, and parody in seemingly equal measures, while spawning endless discussion deconstructing the status of the “real” in reality TV and celebrity culture. But The Hills‘ zeitgeist moment has long since passed, even before being usurped by Jersey Shore last year as the latest unscripted jewel in MTV’s crown.

I’m (still) a fan of The Hills, even though I’ve transferred the bulk of my affection and investment to its spin-off, The City. Rather than a typical end-of-series post-mortem, I want to talk about The Hills in terms of its fan cultures. From what I’ve seen, The Hills was almost entirely ignored in my circles of LiveJournal/Dreamwidth-based media fandom, and especially within what damned_colonial (adopting obsession_inc’s coinage) has recently described as ‘transformational fandom’ — that is, predominantly female fan communities centered around fan fiction and other fanworks. Transformational fandom is used in contrast to ‘affirmational fandom’, conceived of as focusing more on exploring and celebrating the source material and its creators. Damned_colonial notes that ‘affirmational’ and ‘transformational’ represent not so much two separate camps, but rather two alternate modes of fannishness that can co-exist in a given fan and a particular community.

In this framework, The Hills would seem to skew heavily towards the affirmational fandom mode, if only because of the relative lack of broad engagement through fanworks, but I think something else is going on that neither concept covers. For a lot of the show’s primary audience, the pleasures of being a fan of The Hills was partly identificatory and partly aspirational. Comments in forums would talk about the cast as if they were part of their extended virtual social network, chiding them, offering support, giving advice, taking sides in fights. These dynamics aren’t uncommon in soap opera fandoms or among celebrity/gossip fans, but for fans of The Hills, there was a special implied proximity and intimacy — that the cast was more accessible to them, or that it was easier to imagine themselves transposed into the world of The Hills.

In social science, this style of virtual sociality is called parasocial relationships. Fans are often mocked for talking about a celebrity or soap opera character as though they were a close friend or family member (for example, in the U.S. version of The Office, there’s a scene when Jim returns to the Scranton branch after being away and asks Kelly what’s new with her, and she replies with a breathless update on Brad and Angelina’s relationship). But those jokes rely on the assumed conflation between fantasy and reality in the minds of fans presumed unable to make those distinctions. In contrast, a hallmark of The Hills’ success and the discourse about the show among fans rested upon mobilizing the tension and blurred edges in the fiction/reality divide. Fans of The Hills had their own version of a Lost-style forensic fandom, scouring DVD extras, gossip blogs, and cast interviews to untangle a ‘true’ story from the constructed narratives of reality show editing and promotional spin. Fantasy vs. reality becomes another game, fodder for discussion and a source of pleasure in itself. Fans’ parasocial relationships with Lauren, Heidi, and company are less a sign of delusion than a space of imaginative play and a locus for social relationships between fans.

One of MTV’s innovations was to channel and frame this fannish mode of virtual sociality through The Hills After Show, a live talk show immediately following The Hills. Events from the latest episode were debated, dissected, and dished over by the hosts and a panel of fan-surrogates in front of a vocal audience, with cutaways to comments from fans in viewer parties linked by webcam. Finally a cast member would come on the After Show for an interview/interrogation about what really happened and what it all meant, bringing the “characters” themselves directly into fannish space and discussion.

I don’t think this style of fandom rests comfortably within the affirmational vs. transformational framework. Perhaps it straddles both to some extent, but I’m more inclined to see it as a third mode of fandom. Until a better name comes along, let’s call it parasocial fandom, to reclaim the term and celebrate its emphasis on relational play and pleasures.