As promised, here’s a report from the FSN North America 2018 conference by Suzanne Black, who is a PhD candidate in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. (Thank you, Suzanne!)
The Fan Studies Network has held an annual conference in the United Kingdom since 2013. Last year, the first Fan Studies Network Australasia conference was held, and from 25-27 October 2018, the very first Fan Studies Network North America conference was hosted by DePaul University, Chicago, despite contemporary fan studies having a history dating back to 1992 in the United States. As a scholar working on fanfiction, I jumped at the chance to meet some of the Big Name Researchers that I’ve been following for years.
Keynote speaker Abigail De Kosnik changed her planned paper to react to the current American political climate with the talk ‘Politics is Fandom and Fandom is Politics, So What Can Fans Do?’ and described the ways that politics functions like fandoms, particularly fan wars. Though couched in humorous terms, De Kosnik’s engagement with our precarious political climate was optimistic in its call to arms and also set the tone for the conference by emphasising the political dimension of fandom, reinforcing the fact that fan activities and products exist inescapably in and of a world of unequal power relations.
FANFICTION AS LITERATURE
Being primarily interested in fanfiction, I caught two panels on the subject. In ‘Fandom’s Challenge to the Literary Canon’ Louise Geddes (on behalf of herself and Valerie M. Fazel) promoted the idea of Shakespeare’s texts and adaptations as a multiverse, a common cultural object that is the site of multiple, competing discourses. Balaka Basu took a similarly multiplicitous approach using the concept of selvage (edges on woven fabric that can be later added to) to describe fanfiction as a post-canonical literature that can be added-on to. Geoffrey Way looked at contemporary novel adaptations of Shakespeare and their inability to engage with race in a meaningful way. He contrasted these authorised adaptations with fanfiction which, in its marginal positioning outside of publishing industries is freer to take more risks. Each speaker drew upon the potential of fanfiction – affective, offering multiple storylines, unfinished, able to critique social issues – and found not just connections with existing literature but areas in which fanfiction practices can be valuable. In ‘Fan Fiction Tropes and Genres’ Anne Jamison offered a definition of tropes in fanfiction and described a situation in which a writer acts upon a trope but a trope also acts upon a writer, a relationship she characterised as symbiotic (like Venom!). All this discussion about tropes led to a highly animated debate about the difference between a trope and a genre, which I don’t think has been resolved yet.
The second day ended with an evening screening of vids and videographic criticism, which was a great way to relax after so much stimulating debate. The programme was varied, striking a balance between being educational and super-fun. I was so happy to see ‘The Greatest’ by bironic, which I have since watched pretty much daily! You can see the full programme here.
In two panels, ‘Transnational Fan Histories and Fandom and History’, I had the pleasure of being introduced to various fans, fandoms and fan objects that I wasn’t familiar with. Kathryn Fuller-Seeley gave a tour of a fannish scrapbook of movie stars kept by Cara Hartwell in her youth, which she returned to as an older woman, while Anne Rubenstein walked us through representations of Mexican culture by Disney and by Mexican artists. Allison McCracken gave a fascinating insight into the life of Marjorie Diven, a fan of Rudy Vallée who became his secretary, and Leah Steuer introduced to us some exciting archival fan letters written to soap opera writers. The highlight, for me, was Cynthia Walker’s history of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. franchise and its fandom, one that she has been part of and has studied for many years, so that her talk was enhanced by her personal, affective perspective.
In a panel on ‘Gender Identities’ Roxanne Howes offered some analyses of the ways gamers of colour interact with the livestreaming service Twitch, Candice Roberts presented RuPaul’s Drag Race as a form of fan practice and Alexis Lothian gave a close reading of a Captain America fic that writes queer history into the MCU, addressing queer Brooklyn of the 1940s and the AIDS crisis. (Queer Cap! Be still my heart.)
In the ‘Race in Fandom and Fan Studies’ roundtable Poe Johnson, Abigail De Kosnik, Alfred L. Martin, Jr., Mel Stanfill and Benjamin Woo began with provocations about how issues of race are addressed (or not addressed) by fan studies before opening up the debate to the room. The discussion turned to talk of methodologies, which are fundamental factors in the potential for fan studies to be ethical and inclusive. ‘Methodologies’ seemed to be the buzzword of the conference, with the variety of speakers and their research demonstrating how many different ways there are to do fan studies.
From this roundtable, as well as several panels focussing on race in fandom, and another event at DePaul University that week (the launch of Rukmini Pande’s excellent new book Squee From the Margins: Fandom and Race) emerged a discussion around the tendency of methodologies to prioritise issues of sexuality and gender while minimising issues of race. Pande reminds us that race is implicated in all cultural production and analysis thereof, whether we as researchers address it or not, so that by not acknowledging issues of race we promote an unexamined whiteness as being representative of all fandom. The variety of discussions at this conference around race in fan studies points to an acknowledgement of race as a blind-spot and will hopefully lead to further attention.
The final roundtable with Abigail De Kosnik, Alfred L. Martin, Jr., Allison McCracken, Mel Stanfill and Benjamin Woo allowed the attendees to congregate, reflect and share their comments (and criticisms!) of the conference. The general vibe seemed to be that the conference was a much-needed event in the fan studies landscape but that there are significant changes that could enhance accessibility, especially for scholars of colour and those with limited ability to travel. The session ended with a discussion of how to better integrate what are seen as minority conversations within fan studies, especially regarding race, and some ideas about how to better organise the next conference (fingers crossed for an annual event!).
I have rarely been in a room with so many fans before, and certainly never in the company of so many fan studies scholars. It was such a treat to discuss tropes and ships, fandoms and methodologies without having to first explain what fanfiction and fandom is. As part of the ongoing legitimation and popularisation of fan studies, the North America conference is a much-needed complement to the more-established UK event. I hope that it will recur, and also that communication will be fostered between the fan studies communities in the UK, North America, Australasia and the rest of the world.