NEGOTIATING SUBCULTURAL VALUES
ELL: And now I find myself thinking of the fact that many people approach fandom as if it is a monolithic counterculture, very much invested in subverting mainstream notions — which certain parts are, of course — but each part operates very much as a series of small subcultural groups, thus not rejecting the larger cultural norms, but rather creating rules and modes of behaviour that fit within the larger culture. Right now, a number of fiction/art exchanges, patterned on the “Secret Santa” model, are gearing up or in progress, and it reminds me of the discussions around whether fanfic/art itself is the gift and feedback a thank-you, or the flipside of that, where feedback is the gift. Obviously within the fic exchange, there are hard and fast rules not only around participation but also in terms of how a recipient must respond (positively, since the fic/art is a gift), but in the larger community, outside of the exchange, the relation between constructive criticism and positive-only feedback is one fraught with tension and a reoccurring discussion. Despite the fact that a more formalized type of fen mentoring appears to have fallen away, the amount of time spent by active fans in discussing etiquette, values and “correct” behaviour certainly argues for a subculture that is continually negotiating its own set of norms to allow it to more easily fit in with the reigning culture.
Actually, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Fandom_Wank, a long-standing community of close to five thousand fans who exist, by their own mandate, to mock the absurdities and less-than-rational behaviour in fandom. They’re widely known past their own membership, and while they discourage trolling, as a member of fandom I know I’m potentially inviting “wank” by bringing them up in any sort of critical way, much as one expects a throat-slashing after calling for Bloody Mary. And yet despite situating themselves as extra-fandom — i.e. only there to mock, not participate — their very existence acts as a type of watchdog to enforce specific behaviours. There’s much debate over whether or not they’re a “good” or “bad” influence, whether they’re the “mean girls” (and yet I can’t help but note a top-heavy masculine moderation team) or if those that dislike them are the “nice girls,” but all issues of quality aside, there’s a clear sense within related fandom circles that one must avoid “wank” or wanking publically, lest one ends up reported on Fandom_Wank.
ELL: You mentioned your interest in CSI fic, which I think is fascinating. Given that it’s a more episodic show than many fan-favourites, do you find that there are certain issues that exist within the community that differ from those in closed-text fandoms? Or do you note any issues around writing both het and slash within one story, given that het, gen and slash communities often have rather clear boundaries between each? What are the challenges in straddling the divide between fan writer and author, especially in light of how fanfic is often charged as good for practise, but not “real” writing?
JB: My response from different fan communities has been mixed. When I was writing the OC paper, I contacted a few fic writers for permission to include their work, and often they didn’t want it published at all. They drew very clear boundaries between their professional lives and their fanfic writing. I tend to be really non-discriminating about the different genres that I write in, and I don’t mind if people come to my writing through a novel, an academic essay, or a slash-fic CSI story, just as long as they’re reading! But part of that comes from the privilege of being a middle-class white fag working in progressive cultural-studies institutions.
I like writing CSI fic because the show is so patently unsexy, at least from the standpoint of bodies colliding in bed. All of the sexuality is traced through the forensic analyses, and cadavers themselves become erotic objects (think of all the scenes where Doc Robins is gently washing and debriding a body on his autopsy table). All of the erotic subtext between Gil and Sarah (well, until a few weeks ago) was/is communicated through glances, gestures, and science. So it’s perfect for slash, since you literally have to use chemistry and science to make queer sexuality happen. Most of the CSI fic circulating is hetfic, but several authors have explored the Greg/Nick relationship, which just fascinates me.
ELL: There’s a perennial argument that goes on in the LiveJournal circles about the preponderance of slash vs. het and gen, and an odd sense that there’s far more slash in any one fandom than het and/or gen, so it’s interesting to see the flipside of it. Strangely enough, most of my interaction with CSI fanfic has been with Greg/Nick writers (apart from the one time I tried my hand at Grissom/Nick for a friend, that is), so I’d always had the skewed sense of it as a large area of CSI fanfic.
I love the idea of CSI as furthering the work of body as text, as after all, the fan writer is already inscribing on the canon body, or dissecting and reassembling it in a more pleasing manner. It’s curious that the body through which one explores the erotic/queer in CSI is so often deceased; a closed text, if you will, in a still-open canon.
JB: As some who’s always used academia to explore marginalized genres–queer writing, fantasy/sf, disability studies, children’s and adolescent lit–I feel drawn to fanfiction because it straddles so many cultural and professional divides. The thought of a tenured-prof writing mpreg or really hot slash is just so kickass to me, I love it. I want my students to read the slash that I write. I’m teaching a class on Cult TV in the spring, and one of the assignments is to write an essay on fanfiction, to see fanfic as critical theory, and hopefully I can encourage them to write their own fanfic as well.
I’m just reading Judith Butler’s new book with Gayatri Spivak, Who Sings the Nation State? wherein they exchange ideas about what makes the nation. It’s produced as a dialogue between the two, and it makes me wonder what a dialogue between two expert fanfic critics–like Constance Penley and Camille Bacon-Smith–might look like. The book itself is quite small and artfully made by Seagull Press, in contradistinction to the edited volumes on fanfic currently available. But its size also reminds me of Penley’s Nasa/Trek, which was also a slim and very pretty volume, as if its aesthetic was meant to disguise that it would seriously be talking about fan communities. It makes me think of how a lot of fanfic critics tend to do more mainstream work that’s published with university presses, and their essays on fan culture pop up in unexpected collections and online journals.
ELL: As someone who continues to struggle to find a place to do “serious” work on fan culture, I’d absolutely concur. It’s such a marginalized area that a lot of institutions simply don’t know what to do with it just yet. Hopefully with the rise in cross-discipline research in Fan and Media Studies and discussions such as these, this will stop being a hurdle, or something that almost has to be published on the sly.
JB: I was originally going to write my dissertation on Buffy. I knew that Michele Byers had done it at the University of Toronto, so there was a precedent. But I was still nervous about devoting 4-5 years on a Buffyology treatise. The only person who didn’t worry about it was my supervisor. He basically said, “I think it’s hot, you should do it if that’s what you’re drawn to, and I’ll support you.” That was so valuable. I ended up writing Blood Relations a lot earlier instead as a monograph, and then did something much broader for my dissertation, but to know that I could have done it was great. Not every supervisor is willing to give that kind of unconditional support. I was very lucky, because I developed relationships with several amazing people at SFU, and they all supported my engagements with pop culture and queer studies rather than telling me to become a Victorianist. I was originally doing an MA thesis on, of all things, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I loved the text, but hated the criticism. My then-supervisor, a medievalist, answered a frantic email from me one evening–holy fuck, I don’t think I can do this project, I’m freaking out–by telling me gently that if I wasn’t in love with the work, I needed to do something else. He even recommended someone else to work with. That’s real pedagogy. So I started getting more and more involved with pop culture scholarship, until I suddenly realized one day that I was “doing” pop culture and television studies. How had that happened?
Things are getting better for interdisciplinary studies, but there’s still a frustrating emphasis on literary canon and film studies in the humanities that makes it nearly impossible for pop culture scholars to get jobs teaching what they actually want to. Camille Paglia is up in arms because Buffy is being taught in undergraduate film seminars, and Jamieson’s new book on SF Utopias contains almost no discussion of popular SF television, comics, manga, or fan cultures. Then again, Paglia is still getting over the shock that Judith Butler is popular among grad students. We need to do away with all this bullshit about gender performativity and just do close readings again. Like that’s a viable answer. Conservative scholars see work on popular culture–work not based wholly on participatory analysis and endorsed by the stamp of Cultural Studies–as a violent movement in the wrong direction, but it’s really a lateral movement. And those are the same arguments used to enforce ironclad class boundaries. Television isn’t culture. Television promises too much access, both at the transnational and the inter-city level, and if we call it culture then we have to give it more grants, and if we do that we risk not giving money to the canonical research that actually keeps English and Film departments afloat. It’s a bad situation. So fan-culture and TV specialists end up taking jobs explaining film aesthetics, because film aesthetics is Cultural Studies and television is really just poor culture.
I’ve always been pretty open about doing pop culture scholarship. I’ve got two books out that focus on television shows, but they were hard to publish, especially when I was still a graduate student. I enjoyed sending proposals to big journals and university presses just to see what they’d say. Everyone should email Duke UP with a crazy proposal just to see if they answer. I managed to write an essay on queer hobbits having sex for Modern Fiction Studies, which still probably counts as my name-brand publication, along with small pieces I did for Canadian Literature. But a lot of my work on science fiction and fan cultures has come out in online journals like Refractory, Slayage, Jump Cut, The Looking Glass. These are great journals who publish new and exciting scholarship, but they aren’t getting indexed by MLA or HSSI because they’re not Postmodern Culture. The hierarchy of these databases just infuriates me, especially because a lot of hiring committees embrace an ethic of: “If it’s not indexed, it’s not a real publication.” Fuck that. Cynthia Fuchs has been publishing online for years. Which reminds me, I find it a little odd that Duke has suddenly decided to publish a volume of essays on Buffy, something like 8 years after scholarship on the show was being pioneered by critics like David Lavery and Rhonda Wilcox. I’m happy that Fuchs got them agree to the project, but confused by its pertinence. And why doesn’t it feature the work of critics who wrote about Buffy in Slayage and Refractory? What about grad student essays? You can’t tell me that presses like Duke, Minnesota, and Routledge haven’t gotten endless proposals for books on Buffy and Angel over the years. Why did this particular book get produced?
There’s still a resistance to work on fan cultures because academics can’t figure out if it’s sociological, psychoanalytic, literary, or what. Every university press is back-logged with proposals, and most of the time they have to choose clearly definable work that’s guaranteed to sell and get good press. That’s not shitty of them, it’s just survival. But as a result they end up passing on interdisciplinary work that blurs academic categories. If I write a book about television, for instance, is it a fan study, a literary analysis, a film analysis, or a piece of critical theory? If I include the work of online fan writers without going through the standard ethical reviews necessary for sociological analyses–since they aren’t being interviewed, but their feelings, their affective orientations, their passions are being marshaled and invoked–what kind of “study” is that? If I use Of Grammatology to talk about CSI fanfic, what “novel” am I deconstructing? It gets confusing. And, given that a lot of acafans like us produce fanfic as well, there’s a potential for scholarly incest–writing positively and uncritically about the same literature that we produce. When, in fact, most scholars are able to write critically (but not dispassionately) about texts that they love, and texts that they themselves might silently or publicly emulate. So it’s really the same thing, but acafans are more open about it, so they get targeted.
I think that fanfiction provides a crucial and even redemptive inventory of terms, energies, and affects for writers and viewers. The ability to embroider a text and make it your own, to develop a charged relationship with the characters while simultaneously producing new possibilities, new pairings–to offer up those pairings to other fans and writers, who might adhere to them, possibilities that they never foresaw or never even knew they wanted–that’s critical theory.
ELL: You make some excellent points. The interdisciplinary nature of Fan Studies and Popular Culture is a real barrier to “fitting in” with the more conservative aspects of academia, yet it provides a whole new frontier to explore in a myriad of really creative ways. I would hate to see pop culture relegated to one discipline, as I’m certain it would hobble it in ways that research more fixed in historical, social or political spheres is not. That’s why I think that debates like the one hosted here are so important. The more conservatively-oriented realms certainly aren’t going to go out of their way to make space for people interested in these areas, not even when they intersect with their own interests — and here I note that I straddle traditional and non-traditional English Literature Studies in the fact that I chose to become a Victorianist and continue to nurture those interests in tandem with Fan Studies, especially as the Nineteenth Century paves the way for modern notions of popular culture and fan behaviour — so it’s fairly important that we make an effort to take note of what we’re all up to, as well as sharing knowledge and working together to clear spaces for ourselves. Interdisciplinary projects, journals, conferences, collections, etc. are of paramount importance not just to get our names out there, but to create a solid base on which Fan/Media/Popular Culture Studies can rest and from which it can grow.
Furthermore, just as I think a lot of us are feeling our imperfect way to how to properly interact with the texts and people we study (who, after all, are often people we know personally and/or on a fannish level), it’s important that non-acafen work with us as well. It’s impossible for fandom to exist as a hidden subculture anymore, not with the globalization of the internet, and not even if all acafen stopped writing about fandom tomorrow. We’re our own best friends; anti-academic sentiment gets us about as far as anti-fan opinion does, as it just sets up more barriers to understanding and allows for more othering by the dominant culture. One of the best things, I think, about the second wave of fan culture studies is that it has become more acceptable, at least within the field, to openly declare one’s positioning as both fan and academic. Participatory studies can often bring more insight than the outsider looking in, as long as the critical eye is still in play, and as you said, most scholars are more than capable of remaining critical, even when dealing with something we love. It’s a shame that in order to remain “legitimate” in the eyes of more traditional disciplinary work, one must remain somewhat closeted. (It’s especially a shame in that I used to play a game with my officemates in which I’d make them name a text they enjoyed, and I’d find slash written in that particular universe in five minutes or less. Lots of fun, but harder to do when you’re supposed to present yourself as a serious scholar.)
I think your assessment of fanfic as a type of critical theory is an important one, and something that would benefit from more explication in surrounding research. The fact that so much of fanfic exists in a legal grey area that does not recognize it as a critical engagement with a preexisting text is perhaps one of the sources of anxiety around the threat of Cease & Desist letters and DMCA notices. If fanfic is critique, it takes on a whole new legal standing, as I understand it.
There’s a movement afoot to set up an umbrella organization under which fan fiction is recognized and defended as both transformative and creatively legitimate that I have been watching with great interest (The Organization for Transformative Works; news and updates on project process available at otw_news). I wish the organization all the success in the world. I hope it also heralds more acceptance by fans of the acafen in fandom’s ranks; one day any one of us could find ourselves in a position to help bolster up fan fiction’s claim to legitimacy, and working together, fan and acafan, can only help pave the way to wider acceptance.
Thank you, Jes, for an interesting and thought-provoking discussion.
Editor’s Note: This is the last entry in the Gender and Fan Culture discussion series. Next week, I will run closing reflections from many of the participants in this conversation and will invite you to share your own reflections about what you have learned about Fan Studies through this series and how and where this conversation should be continued.