My Inner Fan Boy Escapes, or Memoirs of a Comic-Con Newbie

Last time, I shared some reflections on my first time experience of San Diego Comic-con last month. I wanted to add a few more thoughts today.

The biggest shift in the media coverage of the convention this year has come from growing attention to the women who attended to conference. As we’ve noted here in the past, San Diego is often depicted as the seat of power in the fan boy universe and over the past few years, we’ve seen a steady stream of articles stressing the renewed influence of male fans on the decisions made by the film and television industries. Yet, this time, primarily as a result of the phenomenal turnout for the Twilight panel, the press has finally started to notice that there are ladies in the house. As I noted in my exchange earlier this week with Kristin Thompson, there were certainly still more male than female attendees. I don’t have access to any statistics but at a glance women represented between a quarter to a third of those attending the event. Yet, they made their presences felt and heard at pretty much every event I attended and to nobody’s surprise, they were interested in different things than some of the guys in the room.

At the risk of stereotyping things, the archtypical fan boy at San Diego seemed preoccupied with getting spoilers. Almost every panel started with someone explaining that they were not going to be able to tell the audience much about the coming season. And the fan boys would see this as a competition, asking spoiler questions again and again, until someone let something slip and you knew it would be all over the blogs in a heart beat. The industry has helped to create this phenomenon by using the convention as a space to roll out preview reels, clips, or even whole episodes worth of forthcoming material, seeing the gathering both as a way to gauge response and as a publicity mechanism to get buzz going around their projects. The audience has gotten so spoiled that there’s almost total indifference if the panel simply shows something that’s already been released on the web — even a few days before. The focus is relentlessly on the future — everybody wants to know something before the general population — and that’s become half the reason why you wait in the long lines and sit in the back of a packed auditorium, hoping to see a few scenes of your favorite series before it reaches the air. And be forewarned, the notes that follow probably represent the rumblings of my inner fan boy.

Female fans are certainly interested in spoilers, but my experience was that they were much more likely to ask questions designed to get greater insights into the ongoing relationships on the series — either those between characters or on the set. Rather than always racing ahead, they seemed to have a deeper interest in understanding what the series was all about and how the production staff thought about some of the issues which had sparked conversation on Live Journal or have started to inspire fan fiction. As a rule, these questions were more apt to get substantive responses from the panelists, rather than get shot down because they weren’t going to share any spoilers. The male questions are all or nothing and most of the time they yielded nothing, where-as the fan girl questions are more apt to spark a bit of fun interplay between cast members or even, heaven forbid, shed some light on the programs and films of which we are fans.

While we are on the subjects of female fan culture, I wanted to do a shout out to Francesca Coppa who was interviewed in a recent issue of Reason Magazine about the history and practices of fan vidding. It’s a very smart interview which contributes to the ongoing struggle of fan vidders to gain a bit more recognition for their historical contributions to remix culture. My bet is that anyone who’s read this far into the post will find it a rewarding read.

My big bad confession is that while I came to San Diego for the comics, I didn’t really attend any of the comics-related sessions. I was as star struck as anyone else by the sheer number of my favorite actors and creative artists in attendance and tended to camp out in the larger venues to learn more about film and television shows I liked. And to make matters worse, the one comics panel I attended — a session featuring Stan Lee and Grant Morrison — made it onto my schedule because it was right before the Doctor Who and Torchwood sessions and I was afraid I wouldn’t get a seat. I convinced myself I was morally superior to the others camping out all around me because at least I know who Lee and Morrison were, and I could even rationalize being there because the topic was supposed to be about Virgin Comics and I have a grad student doing a thesis on Virgin. But to be honest, I’ve seen Stan the Man before and once you’ve heard him do his “I’m so egotistical…” jokes once, you’ve probably heard them enough to last a lifetime. And I also have to confess that I’ve never really liked Morrison’s comics as much as I am supposed to — you might apply this to any comic which is described as “cosmic.” I don’t do “cosmic.” I like my comics to have richly drawn characters and witty dialog alongside the action scenes — and not go trapsing off into other dimensions (spirital or otherwise). If I wanted mysticism, I’d buy a pack of Tarot Cards — which some of Morrison or Moore’s worst stuff seems to resemble.

The Doctor Who panel, on the other hand, was a real treat — even if Russel T. Davies did not make his announced appearance. We still had an hour to bask in the wit and intelligence of Stephen Moffat who has not only written some of my favorite episodes of Who but also is the man behind Jekyll, a really stunning mini-series about a contemporary descendant of Doctor Jekyll. And things really came alive when John Barrowman (Captain Jack Harkness on Doctor Who and Torchwood came on stage). Barrowman is even more out-going in person than he is as a character and he brought the other castmembers and creators out of their shell. As with everything else, the audience had more fun when it looked like the actors were having fun and Barrowman was having a total blast.

But fan loyalties call me elsewhere and I had to sneak out of the room half way through the Torchwood panel in order to make sure I’d get a seat at the Middleman session. I sang this series praises after seeing only the first episode earlier this summer and I have to say it has gotten stronger and stronger with each episode, as we’ve gotten to know the characters and learned more Middleman backstory and as the writers and actors have found their voice. If you missed any episodes, get thee to iTunes. You missed what I think was the strongest television of the summer — So You Want to Dance being the other series which helped me get through the hot and sweaty months. Alas, no Natalie Morales at the Middleman panel, continuing a panel of disappointing no-shows. But I did get a chance to hear Javier Grillo-Marxuach, the series creator and executive producer, and Matt Kesslar who plays the Middleman. This was a much cozier affair — in a room that seated only a few hundred rather than several thousand — but there was a sense that all of us in the room had made a discovery together of this little known cult series which needed our support.

And we ended an exhausting day with the panel focused on HBO’s True Blood, a forthcoming vampire series created by Alan Ball (Six Feet Under), and starring, among others, Anna Paquin, both of whom were in attendance, along with pretty much the rest of the cast. Like Twilight, this is a “my boyfriend’s a vampire” story, this time with lots of local color stemming from the New Orleans location. It seemed good enough to motivated me checking it out in September, but there was little here to distinguish it from any other recent vampire series on television, other than the fact that Ball has a pretty good track record and they have a very imaginative ad campaign involving mock billboards that we had seen all over Los Angeles earlier in the trip. The big problem is that most of the folks on the panel didn’t seem to recognize that they were speaking in genre cliches and acted as if they were inventing most of these elements from scratch. If you want to read a good comic with a similar plot line, see Jessica Abel’s Life Sucks.

Friday, like everyone else at the convention, the goal was to get a seat for the Watchmen session. And we made it — barely. Zach Snyder, the Director from 300 who finally managed to get one of my all time favorite graphic novels on the screen, was there was pretty much the entire top tier cast of the movie. I had been nervous about what Watchmen was going to look like on screen, especially after the really tacky pictures which were in Entertainment Weekly, but once they got through showing the extended preview a few times and I picked my jaws off the ground, it was clear that I was going to love this movie. As someone who has taught the book more than once, I recognized pretty much every shot in the preview as coming from a specific panel in the graphic novel. And it was clear that they captured not just the look but also the tone of the story here. Snyder himself was mumbling and inarticulate. I suppose I now know why his movies are rich in images and sparse in spoken language.

We stuck through an hour’s worth of screening of film previews (which disappointed primarily because most of them were already in the theaters and because so few of them really fell into the genres that drew me to the con in the first place) and then a short session showcasing the forthcoming remake of The Wolfman. Benicio Del Toro, who plays the Lawrence Talbot role made famous by Lon Chaney Jr. in the original Universal film, and Emily Blunt, who plays his love interest, were there in person as was veteran special effects artist Rick Baker. Baker totally sold me on the film — as recapturing the spirit of the old Universal and Hammer horror films that I loved so much in elementary school, while giving them an adult spin. To be honest, I have been anticipating the release of this film since I saw the first stills of Del Toro in his monster make-up because it was so clear that the creature was crafted with enormous respect for the old style monster movies.

And then it was The Spirit session, including Frank Miller and Samuel R. Jackson, not to mention several of the actresses who played Femme Fatales in the film. This one made me a great deal more uneasy. Jackson was Jackson and that was worth all of the effort of coming to San Diego. And it looks like it should be a beautiful movie to watch, other than the fact that it looks just like Sin City. Miller was giving speeches about his long time relationship with Will Eisner and his respect for the original and so forth, but in reality, I came away seeing much more of Frank Miller on the screen than of Eisner. That’s too bad because I love when Darwyn Cooke has been doing with The Spirit in recent comics and I admire the Eisner original, and this felt so radically different from either. I could go with it if I felt it was taking us some place fresh and different but so far, it just looks like they just kept on shooting when they finished the second Sin City movie and they just wanted more of the same. Maybe I will be proven wrong, but this was probably my biggest disappointment at the Con.

On Saturday, I felt even more victorious having waited in a line which seemed to have no end that I made it into the Heroes panel. And this was the Comic-Con experience I’d been waiting for. They brought out the entire cast of the series, as well as most of the creative talent behind the series, and they seemed as excited to see us as we were to see them. And as I wrote in my earlier post, it was nothing short of heart-stopping to be able to watch a new episode of the series in a room of more than 6000 hardcore fans. In many ways, Comic-Con had been the place where the cult following of Heroes began and the first season showed that more people than anyone had expected would rally around this well-made ensemble drama. I’ve suggested before that Heroes feels more like an alternative comics take on the superhero genre, less like Marvel and DC, and for that reason, it’s exciting to see some many people get excited about its approach. I liked the second season better than most of my friends did but I still wasn’t prepared for just how good the third season opener is. It’s found its pace; it’s rediscovered its characters; it’s gone back to the plot elements that intrigue us; it’s playing around with back story and flash forwards in a compelling way. (I think last season’s Lost has probably paved the way for a discovery of how valuable flashforwards can be in serial drama but Heroes was also doing this in Season one.) If the rest of Season Three is anywhere near this good, it’s going to be a hell of a year.

And, then we saw Joss Whedon and Eliza Dushku talk about their new series, Dollhouse. They were nothing short of delightful to see on stage together. It’s clear that they really are very close friends and that the series is a labor of love which emerged from Whedon’s interest to give Dushku something to show off her range as an actress. Dushku plays an escort, who gets stripped of her memory over and over again and then reprogrammed to do what the client wants. This allows them to put Dushku into a range of different genres and to play an array of diverse kinds of characters, all within a series which nevertheless has some serial elements, as her character is starting to remember things from one transformation to the next and a detective is doggedly trying to figure out what’s going on. This one looks fun, though there was little here that showed the wit and humor that I value so much from Whedon’s earlier series.

And, then came Battlestar Galactica, with Ron Moore and most of the lead cast members, minus Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell. They had just finished shooting the final episode of the series a few weeks before and this was the closest thing to a public goodbye party you could possibly ask for. I could have done without Kevin Smith as a moderator. Smith felt compelled to perform the part of Kevin Smith and he was anything but Silent Bob. In this context, I would have much preferred a moderator who got the cast members talking and then got out of the way. In any other circumstances, I would have really enjoyed seeing Smith. I’ve been hooked on his movies going back to the first release of Clerks but this was a bit like pouring really good chocolate on raw oysters. Either by itself will tickle my tastebuds but not all great tastes belong together.

And then my final Comic-Con experience was seeing J.J. Abrams and cast talk about Fringe. Abrams was as smart and thoughtful in person as I could have hoped for. He didn’t fully sell me on the series premise but I was going to check it out before I went to the panel and nothing convinced me otherwise.

So, this was a classic Comic-Con experience — in the course of three packed days, I got to hear Stephen Moffat, Alan Ball, Joss Whedon, Ron Moore, Javier Grillo-Marxuach, and J.J. Abrams, not to mention the casts of many of my current favorite series. I spent way too much time and money in the dealer’s room. And I reassured myself that this was still a fan convention, despite its lofty trappings, by seeing bad paintings of cats, wolves, dragons, and scantly clad women in the art show. (Somethings in fandom never change!) I will certainly come back next year, though I doubt I will spend quite so much time camping out in Hall H, because I missed out on so many of my favorite comics writers and artists and on some of the smaller shows that are also programmed onto my Tivo. The absurdity of Comic-Con hit home when I found myself trying to figure out whether to stay for the Lost panel and run the risk of not getting in to see Joss Whedon who was going to be speaking right afterwards in another room. And we weren’t there on Sunday to see the Harry Potter and Supernatural panels. You can’t do even all of the E Ticket things at Comic-Con and you just have to control your hyper-fan-boy instincts.

One of the good things that came out of the con for me was discovering two blogs which offer extensive coverage of all the things that fans like — Hero Complex, run by the Los Angeles Times, did the best coverage of the convention and I’m finding myself reading it a lot since I’ve been back, and io9, which is run by an old friend, Annalee Newitz, and again covers the world of genre entertainment very well. I’m sure I’m the last fan in the universe to discover these blogs, but in case, you are also totally off in Tralfamadore, check them out.

My inner fan boy has left my body and I will now go back to more high minded topics for the next few posts, in any case.

Impressions from Two Comic-Con Newbies

By now, some of you will have seen the spot NBC has been running during the Olympics celebrating the enormous audience response to the screening of the first episode of Heroes‘ third season at Comic-Con. I was lucky enough to be there in Hall H and if anything, the advertisements underplays the excitement of watching an episode of one of my favorite series with some 6000 other fans. There were so many crowd pleasing moments in the episode and so much evidence that they had gone back to the drawing board and responded to fan reactions to the lackluster second season.

It was as if the episode had been designed and produced simply to be shown at Comic-Con!

And indeed, this may be the case, given the growing centrality of this convention to the way cult media operates in America today and given the particular history of Heroes at this convention.

I went to Comic Con for the first time this year. As it happens, a long time friend, Kristin Thompson, was also attending for the first time. Thompson, a noted film scholar, is the co-author of the Observations on film art and Film Art blog. I featured her here last year in an interview ( Part One, Part Two, Part Three) focused on her recent book, The Frodo Franchise, which studies the production of Lord of the Rings and its related media offshoots. She was speaking on a panel focused on the forthcoming Hobbit movie, while I was at San Diego purely in vacation mode with my wife and son along. We got together Sunday night after all of the events were over to record our initial impressions of the event. This transcript is being cross-posted on both of our blogs.

Next time, I am going to share some impressions of the specific previews and panels I attended.

On Different Tracks

We started off by talking about what we had each concentrated on.

HJ: It’s very clear that it’s like six or seven different conventions I could have gone to in the course of the weekend, and it would be a totally different experience depending on which one you went to.

KT: Yeah, I had that impression that there were probably people here mainly to buy stuff, some people here mainly to see celebrities and get autographs and so on.

HJ: And even on that there was a split between the film and the TV people. And there’s a whole comics track. Under other circumstances I would have just been spending my entire time at comics panels, because they’re the strongest comics sessions anywhere in the country.

Coming Alone vs. Having Something Specific To Do

KT: I was happy that I had something to anchor myself, though. I don’t think I’d like to come here, at least for the first time, alone and not having anything specific to do.

HJ: Luckily Henry and Cynthia were along, but it was overwhelming a bit, trying to negotiate and keep up with three people in a space that congested. So that was its own kind of challenge. Sometimes I was thinking it would be great just to be a single person navigating through the space and not have to have large-scale logistics! The scale of it just blows you away. I’ve been on the floor at E3, which is supposed to be one of the largest entertainment trade shows. I’ve done South by Southwest. But neither of them are anywhere near the scale of Comic-Con.

The Scale of the Event

KT: They always say 125,000, because that’s the number of tickets they sell, but then you’ve got all the exhibitors and the people who are presenting on panels. It must be another few tens of thousands packed into that building.

HJ: Yeah, at least.

KT: I was kind of amazed that it worked as well as it did.

HJ: Yeah, they did a remarkable job in just managing crowd control. Getting people in and out of things with some degree of order. Some more bullying guards than others, but it was probably necessary to keep the peace.

KT: Yeah, there were a LOT of guards and guides and so on, but people seemed really to be polite, on the whole. I was taking the shuttle bus from a hotel down the street [from my hotel] every day and then coming back by shuttle bus. This morning the bus was quite late compared to other days. It was supposed to come every ten minutes, and we were there maybe twenty. And people who were arriving made this very neat horse-shoe shaped line on the sidewalk. It was very orderly.

HJ: Almost no signs of anyone breaking in line, despite the intensity of some people’s desire to get into things. Someone commented behind me about ‘honor among geeks,’ and that’s probably a good description. There’s a strong honor code.

KT: The venue seems to be up to having that many people in it. I hardly had to wait for rest rooms at all.

HJ: No, the facilities are good.

We ended up doing a fair amount of what they call here ‘camping,’ which is sitting in several panels in a row because there was something we really wanted to see. But you end up trapped in a space with no access to food. Hall H at least has rest-room facilities in the space.

KT: I didn’t try camping myself. But I was going to this action-figure panel because it involved Toy Biz, which did the action figures for Lord of the Rings. I heard from people in line that a lot of them were there for the next panel, which was on Sanctuary, which I know nothing about, but they were very devoted and were saying, “They shouldn’t have put this in such a small room.”

HJ: There is a sense that you vote with your body at Comic-Con. One of my newest fandoms is Middleman, which is a new ABC family show, and it was in a small room, but we packed it. There was a sense of accomplishment. The producer looked out and said, ‘This may be the whole audience for the show,’ because it hasn’t gotten much publicity yet. There was a sense that just being there was show of support for things.

KT: I wonder how many of the companies have people at those panels–in the audience. I hadn’t realized it, but there was somebody from New Line–who’s probably not from New Line anymore–and then some Warner Bros. people, supposedly, sitting out in the audience for the Hobbit one. That kind of surprised me. Why bother?

HJ: At the larger sessions it seemed they had blocked off four or five rows of space just for the studio people. Rarely were they occupied to anywhere near that extent, so it was maybe overkill. But there were a few sessions where there were a significant number of people. The Battlestar Gallactica, for example. There was a large studio contingent there for that. Suits and friends and family and other writers, because that was a kind of last hurrah for that production. They just wrapped shooting the last episode two weeks ago, so this would have been a major last gathering of a lot of those people. They said they really hadn’t had a chance to have a wrap party yet, so in a sense it probably was.

The Hall H Experience

KT: Did you have the Hall H experience at all?

HJ: We went to see Heroes one morning, which was the first time, they said, a TV show had made it into Hall H. We managed to be there for Watchmen and a few of the other movies that followed it.

KT: I avoided it for a while because I kept hearing that there would be incredibly long lines, and I pictured just sitting there for hours and hours and hours reading and possibly not getting into what I wanted to see anyway. So I avoided it until yesterday [Saturday], and I went to the Terminator Salvation one. I wanted really to go to the Pixar one, so I went to get in line very early, and ended up getting in on time for Terminator Salvation.

HJ: Well, for Heroes we waited for about an hour outside and then got in. Then there was a fairly long wait to get started, but then we knew that there were several things after that that we wanted to see as well.

KT: And was it full?

HJ: It was packed. But Heroes has been a kind of success story of Comic-Con. They showed the pilot there before it debuted, and Heroes is pretty desperate at this point to rekindle fan enthusiasm. Last season is largely seen as a bust. Hence their decision not to come back from the strike. They did a partial season and put it off to the fall, because the ratings were plummeting and they were getting bad buzz from fans. So they wanted to come back this year with a killer. They showed the entire opening episode, which was definitely a fan-pleaser. They had figured out what had gone wrong the first season and had put together something that was going to please. So there was lots of extended applause at key moments. It’s kind of fascinating to watch an episode of a TV show with 6500 other people.

The Exhibition Hall

KT: I only discovered the comics section today, as I was about ready to leave, because I hadn’t really been aware of which sections were devoted to it. I sort of thought it was all random, but obviously they do devote one big section to all the people who are selling old comic books. I suppose you could just stay in one part of the hall and never see the rest of it.

HJ: I felt I barely made a dent in the hall. The first day I didn’t quite realize how big it was, so I was just going up every aisle, and the second and third day I was going on targeted missions. But it still was just so immense that there’s no way you could see it all.

KT: And it’s so congested.

HJ: Especially if you get to the studio side of things.

Autographs and Planning

KT: I could not figure out what was going on at the Warner Bros. exhibit, but they were constantly surrounded by lines and lines and lines of people who were obstructing the aisles around them. I guess they had people from their TV shows signing.

HJ: They seemed to. I kept stumbling into people. You wander around one corner and there’s Peter Mayhew of Chewbacca fame sitting there, and Will Frakes suddenly would pop up at another table. Neither was particularly advertised. Then there were all the advertised autographed stuff. There were a lot of people there that you would know in another context.

KT: I don’t know how you would find out about all of those things in advance. I don’t think Lynda Barry was listed in the program as doing autographs, but she was at the Drawn and Quarterly booth at certain times. I missed her entirely. I got her autograph because I was sitting in the audience before her presentation and she sat down beside me.

HJ: They seemed to have a certain number of people who were there to do autographs, but then there were all these other people randomly. I guess you had to follow a particular company and maybe they posted on the Web.

KT: Yes, I was doing autographs at certain times for my book, and it was just on and The Frodo Franchise. You have to really investigate, go in with a plan.

HJ: It seems to be the case: The more you plan, the more you can get out of the experience.

KT: We were selling copies of my book at this very small booth, and I was there for an hour at different times of day on three days. I think almost everyone, if not everyone, who bought a copy came to the booth specifically to buy it. There were no impulse purchases. I don’t think people buy books at Comic-Con.

HJ: I looked at comics while I was there, but I would buy them from my dealer back in Boston or online at Amazon or Mile High Comics. Why I would weigh my suitcase down with comics in the age when it’s so easy to buy stuff digitally?

KT: Not new ones.

HJ: Not new ones. Collectibles, sure.

KT: Unless you have them signed.

Fan Culture hangs on at Comic-Con

HJ: Usually the cons I go to are small-scale, very intimate, you know a high number of the people who are coming. It’s fan-driven and fan-focused. This was like Creation Con on steroids!

KT: Though technically speaking, it is run by fans; there’s a committee.

HJ: There were still places and niches and corners where the fan stuff still ruled. You wouldn’t see fanzines there, but then you wouldn’t see them at most fan-run cons these days, since everything’s moved to the Web.

KT: Well, there’s Artists’ Alley, which is way over in the corner. That seems to be fans who are aspiring to be pros but haven’t really made it yet.

HJ: Well, it was a mix. I mean, you’d see Paul Chadwick there [author of Concrete series, published by Dark Horse Comics] or Kim Deitch [author of graphic novels such as The Boulevard of Broken Dreams and Shadowland], who were independent and weren’t necessarily going to be there with a company, but yeah, it’s definitely a lot of wannabes in some of that space.

And then fans show themselves through costumes. For all the jokes about women in Princess Leia costumes–and I saw maybe a dozen Princess Leia slave-girl outfits–it was still a way in which fans asserted their presence. There were some quite remarkable pieces of fan performance going on there. There was someone doing Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, which had quite a spectacular Beast costume–a little more arty than one expects at a fan con.


KT mentioned having seen Focus Features’ Hamlet 2 preview.

HJ: The role of comedy here interests me a lot. I’m always intrigued: What’re the borders of what a fan text is and what isn’t a fan text? Here comedy seems to creep into fandom in a more definitive way than I’ve seen elsewhere. So there was the focus on Hamlet 2, there was Harold and Kumar, The Big Bang Theory [TV series, 2007-08], but then just a bunch of panels on writing for sit-coms. So it’s probably just the industry’s priorities, but it’s interesting that it doesn’t extend to drama. You can imagine a lot of people there being into The Wire or The Shield or some equivalent, and it didn’t cross over in that direction.

KT: I suppose it’s what the studios think the fans want. It’s true there was a lot of comedies, and martial arts, and war material.

HJ: I think martial arts probably has crept into fandom pretty definitively over time. But it’s interesting to see where the boundaries are. We stumbled across one booth that had just a porn star signing her pictures, and it sort of outraged my son. Pornography isn’t fandom in his world view, but he thought nothing of going up to get wrestlers to sign autographs. Probably in any other fan con, the strong presence of wrestling performers would be out of keeping with fandom.

The Economics of It

KT: I was struck by how cheap it is, basically. How much was it for a single day pass?

HJ: Twenty-five dollars for a single day pass. It’s not bad at all for the scale of what you get. [Four-day passes are $75.]

KT: Some of the smaller tables rented for something like $380 for the full period, which I thought was kind of cheap. But obviously they need both sides of it. They need the exhibitors to attract the people and they need the people to attract the exhibitors, so keeping the cost down makes perfect sense.

HJ: The scale at which companies brought in people was also truly remarkable. I certainly have been to cons where they might have two or three performers from a show, but they brought the entire regulars of Heroes down, as well as the entire writing team. And Heroes is a large, large cast. They scarcely had time for anyone to say anything, but all lined up there on a panel, it was a pretty spectacular display. And Watchmen did pretty much the same thing. All the main characters in Watchmen were there with the director.

KT: That reminds me of the coverage that the film events and I suppose the television events, too, get in the trade press. I’m sure you read some of these articles about how, ‘Oh, it’s all becoming so much Hollywood. The big media companies are coming in and taking over,’ and so on. It struck me that Hall H is really kind of a world unto itself.

HJ: It is.

KT: It’s separate. You have to go out of the building and get in this line, and then you have to go out of the building when you exit. It’s quite a hike to get there if you’re around D or C in the exhibition hall. I think probably they don’t see much of the rest of the con.

HJ: It does seem largely cut off. That’s the sort of classic place where people camp. And so there’s almost an interesting tactical advantage in being one of the filler programs between the main events, if you can really maneuver into that. It’s like being right after a hit TV show or between two hit TV shows. You’re going to get exposure to people who wouldn’t otherwise. Yesterday Chuck was between Battlestar Gallactica and the Fringe panel. I’ve never seen Chuck, but I wanted to see Battlestar and I wanted to see J. J. Abrams [executive producer of Lost and one episode of Fringe], so we stuck through it. And we’ll probably give Chuck a shot come fall as a result of being exposed to it in that way. There’s lots of things that get sandwiched in that probably get a boost off of this. Or they could hurt themselves.

KT: Bring the wrong scenes or whatever.

HJ: Wrong scenes or just the people are inarticulate. There’s certainly a range of comfort level up there.

In terms of the press coverage, the fact that Entertainment Weekly put Watchmen on its cover this week a year before the film comes out, purely on the basis of it playing at Comic-Con, says something about the publicity value of this thing.

KT: Yes, for the films there’s no doubt about its publicity value. I just think that if the big entertainment journalists plant themselves in Hall H and don’t pay a lot of attention, then you get coverage that makes it sound as though the movies are just taking over everything.


strong>HJ: It’s odd. It’s certainly every bit as spectacular a place to do TV as it is to do film. And comics. I couldn’t believe the betrayal I was committing in not seeing the full writers of Mad magazine in the 1960s or seeing Forrest J. Ackerman and his staff–things that were really significant to me as a kid. But they were competing with other things that I valued even more. So there are things that you would have killed to get to in any other context that you pass up because there’s so much going on at once. You can’t get to it all.

The Gender Composition of the Attendees and the Industry

HJ: One of the things that struck me was the gender composition here was much–well, certainly there were more guys than girls, but compared to, say, E3 or many other cons I’ve gone to, the gender balance was surprisingly solid. There were an awful lot of women there.

KT: Yeah, they remarked on that on the Harry Potter panel this morning, saying that, unlike those cons, there were probably more women than men in that particular room.

HJ: That makes sense.

KT: When I went to the One Ring Celebration, it was maybe 95% women. I suspect it’s partly a factor of whether a con has gaming facilities. Gamers will come, and they’re mostly going to be guys, although probably not as much as it used to be.

HJ: Historically, if you go to Creation cons, which are more star-centered, men turn out much more, whereas if you go to a fan-driven con, which is fanzine oriented, women turn out much more. But because this combines everything, you’ve got just such a spread of people.

I’ve seen people argue that Comic-Con is becoming powerful and it’s exaggerating the power of fan men at the expense of fan women, that the fan-boy mafia is taking over the entertainment industry. Certainly you see it on the producers’ side, that an awful lot of the guys onstage would have been in the audience a decade before–and they’re mostly guys. But what’s interesting is to see the audiences that they’re trying to respond to and engage with has a large female component, and that’s got to have an impact over time on what plays here and what doesn’t.

KT: One of the people on the ‘Masters of the Web’ panel on Thursday morning was making the point that now the younger studio executives are either people who had their own Websites a few years ago or they were in college when the big Websites were being formed. Now they’ve grown up into adulthood reading that stuff, and they’re now in position of power and will continue to be in the industry.

HJ: It was fascinating just to watch the producers, writers, stars, to see which ones were really comfortable in the space and which ones weren’t. Someone like Joss Whedon just grew up in that space. That’s his world. He was totally in his element, and he would understand what questions were being asked and how to respond to them and could use in-joke references to the culture, whereas someone like Alan Ball (executive producer), who no doubt in another context would be totally articulate and interesting, seemed to feel uncomfortable. Moving from Six Feet Under to True Blood, he doesn’t yet know how to “speak fan.” On the other hand, Zack Snyder [director of 300] has got to be the most totally inarticulate person I’ve seen on a stage in a long time. Watchmen is going to be his second movie, and he totally works with images, but the ability to use words did not seem to be his strong suit. Some of them who have done multiple fan shows seem really comfortable, and others just looked in shellshock up there.

McCain to Obama Supporters: “Get a Life!”

One of the most powerful tools in the Karl Rove arsenal was a form of political Judo: take your opponent’s strengths and turn them into vulnerabilities. For example, coming into the 2004 convention, Democrats had seen war hero John Kerry as pretty much unassailable on issues of patriotism and they made it a central theme of their event. Within a week or two, the Swift Boat Campaign made Kerry’s service record an uncomfortable topic to discuss, flipping Kerry’s advantage (that he had served in Vietnam and neither George W. Bush nor Dick Cheney had done so) on its head. This added the phrase, “Swiftboating,” to the language of American politics.

Coming into the Primary season, several things stood out about Barack Obama: First, he had developed a reputation as the Democrat who was most comfortable talking about his faith in the public arena; many Democrats felt that he gave them a shot at attracting some more independent-minded evangelical Christians, especially given the emergence of more progressive voices that linked Christianity to serving the poor, combating AIDS, and protecting the environment. (Indeed, we saw signs of that pitch during Obama’s appearance at the Saddleback Church Forum last week, when he clearly knew and deployed evangelical language better than McCain). Yet, the circulation of the Rev. Wright videos — not to mention the whisper campaigns charging that he is secretly Islamic — blunted his ability to use faith as a primary part of his pitch to voters. Similarly, the Obama campaign showed an early comfort with talking about American traditions in lofty and inspirational values, so he has been confronted with attacks from reactionary talk radio questioning his patriotism.

Over the past three weeks, we’ve seen the McCain campaign take aim at a third of Obama’s strengths — the so-called “enthusiasm gap.” Basically, pundits have been talking a good deal about the lack of enthusiasm for the Republican nominee among his rank and file in comparison with the extraordinary passion Obama has generated, especially among young and minority voters. To confront this “enthusiasm gap,” the McCain campaign has clearly decided that it needs to pathologize enthusiasm itself, suggesting that emotional investments in candidates are dangerous, and thus positioning himself as the only “rational” choice. In doing so, he has tapped deeply rooted anxieties about popular culture and its fans.

This is not the old culture war rhetoric where candidates accused each other of being soft on “popular culture,” a tactic which Joseph Lieberman has turned into an art form. No, this time, the attack is on politics as popular culture. Both tactics strike me as profoundly anti-democratic. After all, how do you found a democratic society on the assumption that the public is stupid and has bad judgment?

In my concluding chapters of Convergence Culture, I argue that there is an increased blurring of the lines between popular culture and civic discourse and that our experiences within participatory culture may be raising higher expectations for participatory democracy. In a new chapter I wrote for the paperback edition of the book, which is due out in late September, “Why Mitt Romney Wouldn’t Debate a Snowman,” I extend this argument to examine the Youtube/CNN debates last year to illustrate the many roles which popular culture — parody video in particular — played in establishing public perception of Obama and the other candidates.

In some cases, parody was deployed within the campaigns itself — such as the Clinton campaign’s spoof of the final moments of The Sopranos — and in other cases, parody was deployed by outside groups who were not directly affiliated with the candidate — as in the Obama Girl spots or the 1984 spoof. Such parodies speak to voters who are turned off by the policy wonk language of conventional politics, offering a new way of connecting with the candidate, and mobilizing their knowledge as consumers to make sense of the political process.

The recent round of McCain commercials, by contrast, uses a language of parody not simply to spoof the candidate but to discourage democratic participation, telling the many first time voters who have been excited by the Obama campaign to “get a life.” Consider, for example, this spot, “Obama Fan Club.”

In Textual Poachers, I examined some of the core elements of the anti-fan stereotype, one which surfaces in news articles and comedy sketches depicting science fiction conventions. It’s striking how many of these same tropes surface in this particular commercial. The Obama supporters might as well be wearing Star Fleet uniforms and rubber Spock ears! Stereotypical fans:

  • Are brainless consumers who will buy anything associated with the program or its cast.
  • Devote their lives to the cultivation of worthless knowledge,
  • Place inappropriate importance on devalued cultural materials.
  • Are social misfits who have become so obsessed with the show that it forecloses other types of social experiences.
  • Are feminized and/or desexualized through their intimate engagement with mass culture.
  • Are infantile, emotionally and intellectually immature.
  • Are unable to separate fantasy from reality.

Such anti-fan depictions are often drawn towards nerdy guys and over-weight women as standing in for fandom as a whole. And metaphors of religion run through this anti-fan discourse. “Fan” is an abbreviated form of the word, “fanatic,” which has its roots in the Latin word, “fanaticus.” In its most literal sense, “fanaticus” simply meant “of our belonging to the temple, a temple servant, a devotee” but it quickly assumed more negative connotations, “of persons inspired by orgiastic rites and enthusiastic frenzy” (Oxford Latin Dictionary). As it evolved, the term “fanatic” moved from a reference to certain excessive forms of religious belief and worship to any “excessive and mistaken enthusiasm,” often evoked in criticism to opposing political beliefs, and then, more generally, to madness “such as might result from possession by a deity or demon” (Oxford English Dictionary). Its abbreviated form, “fan,” first appeared in the late 19th century in journalistic accounts depicting followers of professional sports teams (especially in baseball) at a time when the sport moved from a predominantly participant activity to a spectator event, but soon was expanded to incorporate any faithful “devotee” of sports or commercial entertainment. One of its earliest uses was in reference to women theater-goers, “Matinee Girls” who male critics claimed had come to admire the actors rather than the plays. If the term “fan” was originally evoked in somewhat playful fashion, and was often used sympathetically by sports writers, it never fully escaped its earlier connotations of religious and political zealotry, false beliefs, orgiastic excess, possession and madness, connotations that seem to be at the heart of many of the representations of fans in contemporary discourse.

In short, the word, “fan,” when deployed negatively, seems to be a rhetorical tool designed to exclude some groups from participation — in this case, from participation in the political process — or to describe some works as unworthy of recognition — in this case, to depict Obama as unprepared for public office.

For the most part, mainstream journalism over the past decade or so has moved away from the most extreme deployment of these anti-fan stereotypes as more and more people are entering fan communities on line and as a growing number of journalists have had first hand experience of fan culture. Yet, given how deep these stereotypes run through our culture, we should not be surprised to see that they can still be effectively deployed to express discomfort with the excitement and enthusiasm which has surrounded the Obama campaign in some sectors.

This connection between fans and “false worship” is especially potent in this spot. Speaking on the Sunday morning news shows, Joseph Leiberman, who was once a Democratic Senator and Vice Presidential candidate, defended these spots as “funny” and “playful,” suggesting that you can scarcely call comparing someone to Moses an attack ad. Explicitly the spot targets Obama, who is struggling to overcome the “elitist” charge which Hillary Clinton leveled against him in the spring, and implicitly the ad targets his associations with Oprah, who coined the term, “The One.” But just beneath the surface is a barely suppressed contempt for the public that has embraced this candidate with such passion as if such enthusiasm was dangerous and out of control.

The news media was quick to pick up on the analogy between Obama and Paris Hilton in the original “Celebrity” ad, which they have read as part of a longer history of racist discourse which links white women and black men. It might be more accurate to suggest that the ad reflects the reality that for much of the 20th century, African-Americans could enter the public eye primarily by becoming athletes or show business personalities and thus we are more comfortable seeing them as celebrities than as political leaders.

The Obama campaign has sought to reverse the charge, using the metaphor of “celebrity” to suggest that McCain is a Washington Insider and that like many celebrities, he re-invents himself periodically in order to remain in the public spotlight. There’s also an undercurrent here suggesting that McCain may simply lack the charisma to become a true celebrity and that this may be why his campaign wants to take aim at Obama’s popularity. And we might read this spot as also deploying a bit of that Rove Judo — transforming McCain’s claims to be the more “experienced” candidate into evidence that he is too entangled with the Washington establishment, not to mention linking him with the current president whose negative ratings the GOP candidate hopes to escape.

But so far, the best response has come from Paris Hilton, who seems bemused at being pulled into the political campaign, and has fun with audience expectations that she is an air head who knows nothing of public policy. In fact, this spoof suggests, all of us have a responsibility to become more politically aware, all of us should participate in the political process, and we should be open to a range of different languages through which to speak to our fellow voters.

We can see all of this anti-fan rhetoric as part of the McCain effort to deflate media coverage of Obama’s trip to Europe and to anticipate the excitement which will surround his speech next week to the Democratic National Convention. Keep in mind that Obama’s speech will fall on the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and that Obama had opted to build on his public support by moving the acceptance speech from the convention center to a sports arena so that he could open the event to the general public. Now, for at least some viewers, the huge showing of popular support represented by that event will be tainted by anxieties about this “celebrity” and his “fan club.”

MacArthur’s Participatory Learning Initiative Goes International

I’ve been showcasing this week some of the work we’ve been doing with the MacArthur Foundation on new media literacies. If you are feeling inspired, you might consider submitting something to the second round of the foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Competition. Here are the details which were just released this week:


Chicago, IL (August 18, 2008) – The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, in collaboration with the University of California, Irvine, Duke University and the virtual network HASTAC, announced today a second annual open-call competition that will provide $2 million in awards to innovators shaping the field of digital media and learning. The Digital Media and Learning Competition, supported through a grant to the University of California, Irvine and administered by HASTAC, has been expanded to pilot international submissions and introduce a new category focusing on young innovators aged 18-25.

“Digital media are helping to make the world smaller, spread ideas, and encourage collaboration across borders and among people who otherwise might not have an opportunity to work together,” said MacArthur President Jonathan Fanton. “To ensure support for the freshest thinking and most innovative applications of digital media to learning, we have expanded this year’s competition to include international submissions and ideas from young people, who are often the pioneers of the digital space.”

Awards will be given in two categories:

* Innovation in Participatory Learning Awards will support projects that demonstrate new modes of participatory learning, in which people take part in virtual communities, share ideas, comment on one another’s projects, and advance goals together. Successful projects will promote participatory learning in a variety of environments: through the creation of new digital tools, modification of existing ones, or use of digital media in some other novel way. Submissions will be accepted from applicants in Canada, People’s Republic of China, India, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States, countries in which HASTAC or MacArthur have significant experience. Winners will receive between $30,000 and $250,000.

* Young Innovator Awards are designed to encourage young people aged 18-25 to think boldly about “what comes next” in participatory learning and to contribute to making it happen. Winners will receive funding to do an internship with a sponsor organization to help bring their most visionary ideas from the “garage” stage to implementation. For this competition cycle, submissions will only be accepted from applicants in the United States. Winners will receive between $5,000 and $30,000.

This year’s competition will include an online forum where applicants can post their ideas, solicit feedback, offer their services, and connect with other applicants and potential collaborators. All material posted to this “Digital Media and Learning Scratchpad” is publicly accessible. Participation is voluntary and not required for application.

“Participatory learning allows people to work together online toward some collective purpose, sharing knowledge, insights, and expertise, and most important, learning together,” said Cathy N. Davidson, John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute Professor at Duke University and HASTAC co-founder.

The open competition will be administered by the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC), which was founded and is primarily operated at two university centers, the University of California Humanities Research Institute at the University of California, Irvine and the John Hope Franklin Center at Duke University. Applications will be judged by an expert panel of scholars, educators, entrepreneurs, journalists, and other digital media specialists.

“With the digital media and learning initiative, the MacArthur Foundation is playing a leading role in reshaping both institutional and informal learning practices,” said David Theo Goldberg, HASTAC co-founder and director of the University of California’s Humanities Research Institute. “Traditional learning practices are being supplemented and supplanted by new digital media, which both enable and extend their reach through virtual institutions like HASTAC. This is a natural partnership.”

Competition winners will join an existing community of 17 awardees from last year, including a mobile musical laboratory, a digital humanitarian assistance game derived from existing military simulation technology, and a mobile phone project hat connects young African social entepreneurs with young North American professionals. Winners also will be invited to showcase their work at a conference that will include venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, educators and new media experts seeking the best ideas about digital participatory learning.

Applications are due Oct. 15, 2008 and winners will be publicly announced in April 2009. Detailed information on the competition is available online at

How Fan Fiction Can Teach Us a New Way to Read Moby-Dick (Part Two)

Last time, I shared with you part of our teacher’s strategy guide on “Reading in a Participatory Culture.” Today, I am running the second part of our discussion of fan fiction. This time, we apply concepts from the study of fan reading and writing practices to talk about the teaching of Melville’s Moby-Dick.

I’ve received several questions off-line about the context of this material in the guide itself. We’ve heard two conflicting pieces of advice, which I think reflects two different kinds of teachers. On the one hand, we hear that teachers want lesson plans they can rip and read which are carefully calibrated to the standards and indeed, the first part of the guide provides precisely that. Because we are focusing on local schools for our testing phase, we’ve focused on our own state standards, though we are also attentive to national trends in this area. We’ve already started a small scale teacher training program for the folks field testing our guide this year. Teachers at our workshop were able to take some of our lessons, go straight to work, and produce good results without reading the rest of the guide.

We also hear, though, that certain teachers want to learn a new approach to teaching and want to understand more fully the philosophy behind the approach. While we are offering a wealth of resources specific to Moby-Dick, we also very much want the exercises and philosophy to be flexible enough that they can be applied to the full range of books that get taught in high school English and language arts classes. We’ve produced a seperate “expert voices” section that provides more detailed background. The material I am running on the blog right now is from that section. We have heard from some teachers so far that they do find this material very helpful but my bet, from interacting with them, is that other teachers won’t ever look at it because the pace of their work life won’t allow it. We’ve tried to design things so teachers can dig as deep as they want or work only on the top level.

One of the goals of the guide is to draw on several decades of ethnographic work on how and why people read in order to encourage teachers to be open to a much broader range of interpretations through their classes. One of the ways we do so is being very self reflective about the reading practices that shaped the guide itself. We have foregrounded four different readers who were involved in producing the guide — Wyn Kelly as a literary scholar; Rudy Cabrera as a performer; Ricardo Pitts-Wiley as a creative artist; and myself as a media scholar and fan. I thought you might enjoy this video, created by Deb Lui, for the Guide, which introduces these four readers and the ways they approach Moby Dick.

Now, enjoy Part Two of the section on fan fiction and literature. And again, I would appreciate any feedback you may have about the approach we have taken to this section of the guide. Here, I introduce a new conceptual framework for thinking about what aspects of texts provide the most fertile openings for fan interventions.

Reading Moby-Dick As a Fan

Fans are searching for unrealized potentials in the story that might provide a springboard for their own creative activities. We might identify at least five basic elements in a text that can inspire fan interventions. Learning to read as a fan often involves learning to find such openings for speculation and creative extension. [1]

  • Kernels — pieces of information introduced into a narrative to hint at a larger world but not fully developed within the story itself. Kernels typically pull us away from the core plot line and introduce other possible stories to explore. For example, consider the meeting between the captains of the Pequod and the Rachel which occurs near the end of Melville’s novel (Chapter cxxviii). Captain Gardiner of the Rachel is searching for a missing boat, lost the night before, which has his own son aboard. He solicits Ahab’s help in the search. In doing so, he tells Ahab, “For you too have a boy, Captain Ahab – though but a child, and nestling safely at home now – a child of your old age too.” The detail is added here to show how much Ahab is turning his back on all that is human in himself. Yet, this one phrase contains the seeds of an entire story of how and why Ahab had a son at such a late age, what kind of father Ahab might have been, and so forth. We may also wonder how Gardiner knows about Ahab’s son, since the book describes him as a “stranger.” The John Huston film version goes so far as to suggest that Gardiner was also from New Bedford, which opens up the possibility that the two men knew each other in the past. What might their previous relationship have looked like? Were they boyhood friends or bitter rivals? Were their wives sisters or friends? Did the two sons know each other? Might Ahab’s wife have baby-sat for Gardiner’s son? Soon, we have the seeds of a new story about the relationship between these two men.
  • Holes — plot elements readers perceive as missing from the narrative but central to their understanding of its characters. Holes typically impact the primary plot. In some cases, “holes” simply reflect the different priorities for writers and readers who may have different motives and interests. For example, consider the story of how Ahab lost his leg. In many ways, this story is central to the trajectory of the novel but we receive only fragmentary bits of information about what actually happened and why this event has had such a transformative impact on Ahab, while other seamen we meet have adjusted more fully to the losses of life and limb that are to be expected in pursuing such a dangerous profession. What assumptions do you make as a reader about who Ahab was — already a captain, a young crewmember on board some one else’s ship — or where he was when this incident occurred? In fandom, one could imagine a large number of different stories emerging to explain what happened, and each version might reflect a different interpretation of Ahab’s character and motives.
  • Contradictions — Two or more elements in the narrative which, intentionally or unintentionally, suggest alternative possibilities for the characters. Are the characters in Moby-Dick doomed from the start, as might be suggested by the prophecies of Elijah and Gabriel? Does this suggest some model of fate or divine retribution, as might be implied by Father Mapple’s sermon about Jonah? Or might we see the characters as exerting a greater control over what happens to them, having the chance to make a choice which might alter the course of events, as is implied by some of the exchanges between Ahab and Starbuck? Different writers could construct different stories from the plot of Moby-Dick depending on how they responded to this core philosophical question about the nature of free will. And we can imagine several stories emerging around the mysterious figure of Elijah. Is Elijah someone gifted with extraordinary visions? Is he a mad man? Does he have a history with Ahab that might allow him insights into the Captain’s character and thus allow Elijah to anticipate what choices Ahab is likely to make?
  • Silences — Elements that were systematically excluded from the narrative with ideological consequences. As Wyn Kelley notes in “Where Are the Women?,” many writers have complained about the absence of female characters in Moby-Dick, suggesting that we can not fully understand the world of men without also understanding the experience of women. Some works — such as the John Huston version — call attention to the place of women in whaling culture, if only incidentally. Melville hints at this culture only through a few scattered references to the families that Ahab and Starbuck left behind. These references can provide the starting point for a different story, as occurs in Sena Jeter Naslund’s novel, Ahab’s Wife; we might imagine another version of the story where Ahab was female, as occurs in Moby-Dick: Then and Now, or we might use the plot of Moby-Dick as the starting point for creating a totally different story set in another kind of world where women can play the same kind of roles as the men play in Melville’s novel, as occurs in the Battlestar Galactica episode, “Scar.”
  • Potentials — Projections about what might have happened to the characters that extend beyond the borders of the narrative. Many readers finish a novel and find themselves wanting to speculate about “what happens next.” As Pugh writes, “Whenever a canon closes, someone somewhere will mourn it enough to reopen it….Even though we may feel that the canonical ending is ‘right’ artistically, if we liked the story we may still not be ready for it to end, for the characters and milieu that have become real to us to be folded up and put back in the puppeteer’s box.” For example, we might well wonder what kind of person Ishmael becomes after being rescued. Melville offers us some hints — even if only because Ishmael chooses to tell this story in the first place. Yet, in our world, someone like Ishmael might be wracked with “survivor guilt,” feeling responsibility for the deaths of his friends, or wondering why he alone made it through alive. How might Ishmael have dealt with these powerful emotions? How might these events have changed him from the character we see at the start of the novel? Might we imagine some future romance helping to “comfort” and “nurse” him through his “hurts”?

The examples above suggest several additional aspects of reading a narrative as a fan. First, fans generally focus on characters and their relationships as their point of entry. Clearly, Melville’s novel, with its digressions and fragmentation, raises many more character issues than it resolves — for example, the richly drawn but only occasionally explored friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg or the comradeship between Queequeg, Daggoo, and Tashtego, or the relationship between Ahab and Fedallah or… Second, fans look for worlds that are richer, have greater potentials, than can be used up within a single story. They are particularly interested in back story — the untold narratives that explain how the characters became the people we encounter within a particular story. Many contemporary television series reward this fan interest by parceling out bits and fragments of back story over time. Here, again, part of the pleasure of reading Moby-Dick is absorbing all of the incidental details about the ship, its crew, the other ships, and life in New Bedford, and through chapters such as “The Town-Ho’s Story,” Melville tells us again and again that this world is full of stories beyond the ones the novel tells.

For the most part, fan reading practices are directed at popular television series or films, but there’s no reason why they can’t be applied to works from the literary canon. Teachers might find that students respond well to being asked to look at Moby-Dick and other literary texts through this lens. Here’s a process you might follow:

  • Encourage students to find examples of Kernels, Holes, Contradictions, Silences, and Potentials.
  • Ask them to consider what purposes these elements play within the original novel.
  • Invite them to speculate on how these elements might provide the basis for additional stories.
  • Tell them to find other passages that shed insight into the core character relationships here.
  • Discuss what elements would need to be in place for a new story to feel like it belongs in this fictional world.
  • Have students write stories reflecting their insights.
  • Share stories between students, especially those working with the same elements, so that they have a sense of the very different ways writers might build upon these same starting points.

Ricardo Pitts-Wiley took a very similar approach with the students in the Rhode Island correctional program, asking them to select a character and explore the novel from their point of view. Students were encouraged to develop a character sketch which described what kind of person the character would be if he or she were alive today. These character sketches were then combined to construct a plot in which these characters met at the Spouter Inn and set out on a quest together. Such an approach might tap the techniques of fantasy role play games to sketch out the events of the story, and then the student writers might contribute to a shared narrative of the experience. Such techniques led to the writing of the Wild Cards series of fantasy novels, for example. [2]

The “Transformative Work” of Fan Culture

Fan stories are not simply “extensions” or “continuations” of the original series. They are constructing arguments through new stories rather than critical essays. Just as a literary essay uses text to respond to text, fan fiction uses fiction to respond to fiction. You will find all kinds of argumentation about interpretation woven through most fan-produced stories. A good fan story references key events or bits of dialogue as evidence to support its particular interpretation of the characters’ motives and actions. Secondary details are deployed to suggest the story might have plausibly occurred in the fictional world depicted in the original. There are certainly bad stories that don’t dig deeply into the characters or which fall back on fairly banal interpretations, but good fan fiction emerges from a deep respect for the original work and reflects a desire to explore some aspect of it that has sparked the fan writer’s imagination or curiosity.

Fan fiction is speculative but it is also interpretative. And more than this, it is creative. The fan writer wants to create a new story that is entertaining in its own right and offer it to perhaps the most demanding audience you could imagine — other readers who are deeply invested experts about the original work. The new story may operate within any number of genres that have emerged from the realm of fan fiction and which represent shared ways of reading and rewriting favorite works.

Novelist Michael Chabon is a fan of the creative works of fans and has written an essay discussing the value of fan fiction in relation to Sherlock Holmes. He argues:

All enduring popular literature has this open-ended quality, and extends this invitation to the reader to continue, on his or her own, with the adventure….It creates a sense of an infinite horizon of play, an endless game board; it spawns, without trying, a thousand sequels, diagrams, and web sites….Through parody and pastiche, allusion and homage, retelling and reimagining the stories that were told before us and that we have come of age loving — amateurs — we proceed, seeking out the blank places in the map that our favorite writers, in their greatness and negligence, have left for us, hoping to pass on to our own readers — should we be lucky enough to find any — some of the pleasure that we ourselves have taken in the stuff we love: to get in on the game. All novels are sequels; influence is bliss.


Not all writers would agree that writing fan fiction is a logical or legitimate extension of critical interpretation. Fantasy writer Robin Hobb has raised sharp concerns about how fan fiction impacts her own creative process:

Every fan fiction I’ve read to date, based on my world or any other writer’s world, has focused on changing the writer’s careful work to suit the foible of the fan writer. Romances are invented, gender identities changed, fetishes indulged and endings are altered. It’s not flattery. To me, it is the fan fiction writer saying, ‘Look, the original author really screwed up the story, so I’m going to fix it. Here is how it should have gone.’…The tragic ending is re-written, or a dead character is brought back to life, for example. The intent of the author is ignored. A writer puts a great deal of thought into what goes into the story and what doesn’t. If a particular scene doesn’t happen ‘on stage’ before the reader’s eyes, there is probably a reason for it. If something is left nebulous, it is because the author intends for it to be nebulous. To use an analogy, we look at the Mona Lisa and wonder. Each of us draws his own conclusions about her elusive smile. We don’t draw eyebrows on her to make her look surprised, or put a balloon caption over her head. Yet much fan fiction does just that. Fan fiction closes up the space that I have engineered into the story, and the reader is told what he must think rather than being allowed to observe the characters and draw his own conclusions.


By contrast, consider this statement from the introduction to an important anthology of scholarly essays about fan fiction:

Work in progress is a term used in the fan fiction world to describe a piece of fiction still in the process of being written but not yet completed….The appeal of works in progress lies in part in the ways fans engage with an open text; it invites responses, permits shared authorship, and enjoins a sense of community….Every fan story is in this sense a work in progress, even when the story has been completed….In most cases, the resulting story is part collaboration and part response to not only the source text, but also the cultural context within and outside the fannish community in which it is produced….When the story is finally complete and published, likely online but perhaps in print, the work in progress among the creators shifts to the work in progress among the readers….The source text in many cases are serial, in progress, and constantly changing, as are the fan stories set in these universes.


These writers see both the fan text and the source text as open-ended, subject to revision and expansion, providing raw material for further speculation and creative elaboration. This idea of the text as open and collaborative contrasts sharply with Hobb’s notion that writers should have the last word on what happens to their characters and that any addition by fans is to be understood as signaling a flaw or error in the original work. Fans would find Hobb’s suggestion that their stories tell the reader “what he must think rather than being allowed to observe the characters and draw his own conclusions” particularly baffling: since no fan story is regarded as in any way definitive or as precluding other acts of authorship. To the contrary, fans take great pleasure in reading and writing a broad range of different interpretations of the shared characters, and fan authors often may construct a number of mutually contradictory conceptions of the characters or situations even within their own body of work.

Some fans have adopted the legal term, Transformative Works, to defend their creative practices against such challenges. A transformative use is one that, in the words of the U.S. Supreme Court, “adds something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering the [source] with new expression, meaning, or message.” Moby-Dick: Then And Now is a transformative work in so far as it revises and updates Melville’s novel. Moby-Dick is a transformative work in so far as it takes sources, such as the story of “Jonah”, as raw materials for its own storytelling. And fan fiction is transformative in so far as it transforms the critical insights we are discussing here into the starting point for new stories, developing new conceptualizations of the characters or expanding the narrative in new directions.

The Organization of Transformative Works ( has emerged within fandom as an advocacy group defending the rights of readers to remix and rewrite the contents of their culture for the purposes of sharing their own interpretations and speculations. Here’s part of the mission statement of the Organization for Transformative Works:

  1. We value transformative fanworks and the innovative communities from which they have arisen, including media, real person fiction, anime, comics, music and vidding.
  2. We value our identity as a predominantly female community with a rich history of creativity and commentary.
  3. We value our volunteer-based infrastructure and the fannish gift economy that recognizes and celebrates worth in myriad and diverse activities.
  4. We value making fannish activities as accessible as possible to all those who wish to participate.
  5. We value infinite diversity in infinite combinations. We value all fans engaged in transformative work: fans of any race, gender, culture, sexual identity, or ability. We value the unhindered cross-pollination and exchange of fannish ideas and cultures while seeking to avoid the homogenization or centralization of fandom.

The Organization for Transformative Works has been developing a series of short documentaries in partnership with Project NML that are designed to introduce students to the basics of another fan remix practice — vidding. Vids are music videos which combine footage from the source text with music — sometimes original, more often also appropriated — for the purposes of critical commentary or artistic expression. The tradition of vids goes back to the early 1970s when fan artist Kandy Fong first began to set slides of scenes from Star Trek to music. [6] Through the years, this production practice has spread across many fan communities and in the process, fans have refined their craft and embraced new technologies that support their production and distribution. In these videos, vidders talk about this kind of transformative work in their own words, explaining what motivates them to re-edit the footage, discussing what they see as good or bad practices, and sharing some examples of their work. The videos excerpted in these documentary segments reflect some current popular fandoms, including Harry Potter, Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Will and Grace.

As with fan fiction, these vids start with a recognition of an unrealized potential in the original source material. While the fan fiction writer can create new situations for the characters, the vidder works with found footage, trying to use the images to illustrate a particular interpretation of the original text. The footage may be removed from context or shift perspectives to suggest alternative ways of understanding the characters. Some vids are playful and parodic, encouraging us to laugh with and sometimes at the original (see the Will and Grace video sampled here which has fun with the relationship between the music and the character’s gestures); many others strive for a more serious and sometimes melodramatic tone.

The Organization for Transformative Works is seeking to document the history of this amateur media production practice and to provide a shared portal through which fan video makers can share their work. These videos are an extension of their effort to educate the public about their fan practices. The Organization for Transformative Works is mounting a legal and political defense of fan culture, one which acknowledges fan culture as a site of creative expression, as an alternative way of thinking about how stories get produced and circulated, and as a space which supports diversity and experimentation.

There has also emerged a strong set of arguments about the educational benefits of the fan community as a space of informal learning, especially for younger fans. [7] James Paul Gee has described the fan community, alongside other sites of informal learning, as “affinity spaces,” asking why people learn more, participate more actively, engage more deeply with popular culture than they do with the content of their textbooks [8]. Affinity spaces offer powerful opportunities for learning, Gee argues, because they are sustained by common endeavors that bridge across differences in age, class, race, gender, and educational level, because people can participate in various ways according to their skills and motives, because they depend on peer-to-peer teaching with each participant constantly motivated to acquire new knowledge or refine his or her existing skills, and because they allow each participant to feel like an expert while tapping the expertise of others.

More and more literacy experts are recognizing that enacting, reciting, and appropriating elements from preexisting stories is a valuable and organic part of the process by which children develop cultural literacy. Educators like to talk about ‘scaffolding,’ the ways that a good pedagogical process works in a step-by-step fashion, encouraging kids to try out new skills that build on those they have already mastered, providing support for these new steps until the learner feels sufficient confidence to take them on her own. In the classroom, scaffolding is provided by the teacher. In a participatory culture, the entire community takes on some responsibility for helping newbies find their way. Many young writers began composing stories on their own as a spontaneous response to popular culture. For these young writers, the next step was the discovery of fan fiction on the internet, which provided alternative models for what it meant to be an author. At first, they might only read stories, but the fan community provides many incitements for readers to cross that last threshold into composing and submitting their stories. And once a fan submits, the feedback he or she receives inspires further and improved writing.

Many fan fiction website provide a process of mentoring, known as “beta-reading,” through which more experienced writers critique and support emerging contributors. Fans learn both from the feedback they receive and from the process of sharing feedback with others. As a consequence, fans become better readers and writers. As educational researcher Rebecca Black argues, the fan community can often be more tolerant of linguistic errors than traditional classroom teachers and more helpful in enabling learners to identify what they are actually trying to say because reader and writer operate within the same frame of reference, sharing a deep emotional investment in the content being explored. [9] The fan community promotes a broader range of different literary forms — not simply fan fiction but various modes of commentary — than the exemplars available to students in the classroom, and often they showcase realistic next steps for the learner’s development rather than showing only professional writing that is far removed from anything most students will be able to produce.

Much of what works here works because fan fiction exists outside of school and the people who participate do so out of deep personal and social motivations, rather than because they are assigned to write a story for a grade. Yet, this does not mean that educators can not learn a good deal from fan fiction, and this Teachers’ Strategy Guide has been informed by our own research on fan cultures as sites for reading and creating stories. We believe strongly that there is a value in learning to engage with works of fiction creatively as well as critically, that the process of creating a transformative work often motivates much closer reading of the original text, that it is empowering for young people to think of themselves as authors and thus to find their own expressive voices, especially in the context of today’s participatory culture. Pitts-Wiley’s work with the incarcerated youth shows a similar understanding of how we might motivate reading by encouraging young people to look at established literary texts as the springboard for their own creative expression.


[1] Camille Bacon-Smith, Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth (Philadelphia: University of Pennsyvania Press, 1992).

[2] George R.R. Martin, “On the Wild Cards Series,” in Pat Harrington and Noah Wardrip-Fruin (eds.) Second Person: Role Play and Story in Games and Playable Media (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007).

[3] Michael Chabon, “Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes,” in Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands (San Francisco: McSweeneys, 2008)

[4] Robin Hobb, as quoted in Justin, “In Defense of Fan Fiction,” Swifty, Writing, November 9 2005 (link).

[5]Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson, “Work in Progress,” in Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse (eds.) Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2006).

[6] Francesca Coppa, “Celebrating Kandy Fong: Founder of Fan Music Video,” In Media Res, November 19 2007 (link)

[7] Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006).

[8] James Paul Gee, Situated Language and Learning: A Critique of Traditional Schooling (New York: Routledge, 2004)

[9] Rebecca Black, Adolescents and Online Fan Fiction (New York: Peter Lang, 2008).

Announcing Media in Transition 6: Stone and Papyrus, Storage and Transmission

Media in Transition 6: stone and papyrus, storage and transmission

International Conference

April 24-26, 2009

Massachusetts Institute of Technology


In his seminal essay “The Bias of Communication” Harold Innis distinguishes between time-based and space-based media. Time-based media such as stone or clay, Innis agues, can be seen as durable, while space-based media such as paper or papyrus can be understood as portable, more fragile than stone but more powerful because capable of transmission, diffusion, connections across space. Speculating on this distinction, Innis develops an account of civilization grounded in the ways in which media forms shape trade, religion, government, economic and social structures, and the arts.

Our current era of prolonged and profound transition is surely as media-driven as the historical cultures Innis describes. His division between the durable and the portable is perhaps problematic in the age of the computer, but similar tensions define our contemporary situation. Digital communications have increased exponentially the speed with which information circulates. Moore’s Law continues to hold, and with it a doubling of memory capacity every two years; we are poised to reach transmission speeds of 100 terabits per second, or something akin to transmitting the entire printed contents of the Library of Congress in under five seconds.

Such developments are simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. They profoundly challenge efforts to maintain access to the vast printed and audio-visual inheritance of analog culture as well as efforts to understand and preserve the immense, enlarging universe of text, image and sound available in cyberspace.

What are the implications of these trends for historians who seek to understand the place of media in our own culture?

What challenges confront librarians and archivists who must supervise the migration of print culture to digital formats and who must also find ways to preserve and catalogue the vast and increasing range of words and images generated by new technologies?

How are shifts in distribution and circulation affecting the stories we tell, the art we produce, the social structures and policies we construct?

What are the implications of this tension between storage and transmission for education, for individual and national identities, for notions of what is public and what is private?

We invite papers from scholars, journalists, media creators, teachers, writers and visual artists on these broad themes. Potential topics might include:

  • The digital archive
  • The future of libraries and museums
  • The past and future of the book
  • Mobile media
  • Historical systems of communication
  • Media in the developing world
  • Social networks
  • Mapping media flows
  • Approaches to media history
  • Education and the changing media environment
  • New forms of storytelling and expression
  • Location-based entertainment
  • Hyperlocal media and civic engagement
  • New modes of circulation and distribution
  • The transformation of television — from broadcast to download
  • Backlashes against media change
  • Virtual worlds and digital tourism
  • The continuity principle: what endures or resists digital transformation?
  • The fate of reading


Abstracts of no more than 500 words or full papers should be sent to Brad Seawell at no later than Friday, Jan. 9, 2009. We will evaluate abstracts and full papers on a rolling basis and early submission is highly encouraged. All submissions should be sent as attachments in a Word format. Submitted material will be subject to editing by conference organizers.

Email is preferred, but submissions can be mailed to:

Brad Seawell

MIT 14N-430

77 Massachusetts Avenue

Cambridge, MA 02139

Please include a biographical statement of no more than 100 words. If your paper is accepted, this statement will be used on the conference Web site.

Please monitor the conference Web site at registration information, travel information and conference updates.

Abstracts will be accepted on a rolling basis until Jan. 9, 2009.

The full text of your paper must be submitted no later than Friday, April 17. Conference papers will be posted to the conference Web site and made available to all conferees.

How Fan Fiction Can Teach Us a New Way to Read Moby-Dick (Part One)

I’m back after an extended time on the road — most of it I was able to spend off line, recollecting my thoughts. This is the longest time I’ve spent off line in almost a decade and I consider it a major moral victory. Don’t get me wrong — digital technologies have dramatically expanded my productivity, the computer has become an extension of my mind, but it also means that I sometimes can’t hear myself think or separate out my own priorities from those that others, more insistent than I am, want to impose upon me. For that reason, I have come to really appreciate time when I am not online, time when I am out in the natural world and engaged with my closest friends and family all the more.

I have lots to report on both my thoughts and experiences during this downtime and it’s going to take me several weeks to fully catch up.

The weeks before the trip were a mad frenzy. I have spent a good portion of my summer focused on developing a Teacher’s Strategy Guide on “Reading in a Participatory Culture,” which will be deployed by six schools in the coming year and will eventually roll out to a much larger public. My partners in crime on this particular project include Wyn Kelly, a Melville scholar and colleague in the MIT Literature department; Jenna McWilliams, Project NML’s Curriculum Specialist, and Deb Lui, a recently graduated CMS Masters student who is our primary documentary producer on this project. The initiative is funded by the MacArthur Foundation. The Project nml team is headed by Erin Reilly.

I’ve mentioned the guide here before. It is inspired by the remarkable pedagogical and artistic approach taken by Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, the Artistic Director of the Mixed Magic Theater. Ricardo worked to get incarcerated youth to read Moby-Dick by having them rewrite and update Melville’s novel for the 21st century. Here’s a section from an interview with him which I did for the guide:

I had an opportunity–and this was probably the best part of the experience for me–as a teacher to release their imaginations. Boy oh boy, no matter how much I write I’ll never be able to fully capture the degree to which their imaginations were released and they released me, too, to say you don’t have to play by the ABC game. You don’t have to go by the numbers. You can rethink these characters and it’s okay, and you can honor them and rethink them at the same time. When we started the writing process, I started by saying, “Pick a character and write a story about the character.” They all chose their favorite character in the novel and wrote a story about just their character.

One of the young men who chose Ahab–it was a great story, too! Ahab was at home. He had just come back from a very successful voyage of drug dealing for WhiteThing, his boss. It was so successful that he worried that he was now a threat to the great omnipotent WhiteThing. He was making some decisions that it was time for him to either challenge the boss for control or to get out of the business. He’s home, he’s got this young wife, she’s pregnant, and the drug lord sends agents looking for him. In looking for him, they kill his wife and unborn child. They don’t get him. His revenge is based on what they did to him.

Another one chose Elijah, the prophet, and the awful dilemma of being able to see the future and no one believing or understanding what you’re trying to tell them. “I’m going to warn you about this, but if don’t heed my warning this is what’s going to happen,” and the awful dilemma that you face. His story was about 9/11. “I’m trying to tell you this is going to happen,” and then nobody listened, and how awful he felt that he knew and couldn’t stop it.

Another one chose Stubb, who is kind of cantankerous. He started his story, “I’m Stubb, linebacker, middle linebacker.” That just was so right. I mean, you take a character and you sum it up just like that. He’s playing a football game. His girlfriend, a cheerleader, gunned down on the sideline, drive-by.

Another one chose Queequeg and he made him a pimp. Wow, why a pimp? He says, “Well, when we meet Queequeg he’s selling human heads, shrunken heads,” so he’s a peddler in human flesh. He’s exotic. He’s tall. He’s good looking, and fiercely loyal and dangerous. That’s a pimp.

Another kid chose Ishmael. He started off by saying, “Ishmael was a Navy Seal who was so high strung they kicked him out of the Navy.” If you know anything about Navy Seals, I don’t know how it’s possible to be too high strung, but he was. Then you go back and you see he read that first chapter where Ishmael is saying, “I feel like I’m following behind funeral processions. I feel like I need to get into a fight with somebody. I better get out of here and go handle my own anxiety before I either commit suicide or lay a whole community of people to waste because I’m mad. Time to get out. Time to go to sea. I’ll get away.” It’s a brilliant description: he was a Navy Seal who was too high strung so they kicked him out. That’s exactly what Ishmael is. If you go back to Ishmael in the Bible, the discarded son, the one who got nothing, it makes a lot of sense.

Those are just examples. They were extreme, but at the same time the more extreme they got, the closer they got back to the root of the characters. And they met at the Spouter’s Inn. Ultimately all these characters met at the Spouter’s Inn and they rallied around Ahab who had been wronged and they knew it. In his story Pip was a soul singer, an entertainer, and they all came. He was there, but everybody thought Pip was crazy, but they took him on the voyage because they needed levity and entertainment even though they recognized that there was a message in his music, so to speak.

He later used these character sketches as loose inspiration for the creation of his own stage production, Moby-Dick: Then and Now, which remixed passages from the original novel with a more contemporary retelling set in the world of the drug trade. We are using the Mixed Magic Theater production as a point of entry into understanding the creative process and the relationship between readers and writers in new ways. When I first met Ricardo, I was taken by how much his approach had in common with what fan fiction writers do with more contemporary works. He was inviting his young students to become better readers by getting inside Melville’s novel and reworking it on their own terms. What emerged might, in fan terms, be described as an alternative universe story, one where we understand the characters and their relationships better by inserting them into a new context. As the Strategy Guide has evolved, fan practices have come to play a larger and larger role in our pedagogical approach. We have, for example, been working with Laura Shaprio and Francesca Coppa (as a collaboration with the Organization for Transformative Works) to develop a series of short videos about fan vidding as part of the mix of materials we make available to teachers.

Today, I wanted to share with you a section from the guide which is intended to explain to teachers what fan fiction is and how it might inform their classroom practices. I am not so much advocating that they take existing fan fiction into the schoolroom. I suspect what is valuable to young fan fiction writers is precisely what would get lost if we imposed teacherly standards on their production. Rather, I am interested in drawing on the reading and interpretation practices that inform fan fiction to open up new ways for students and teachers to talk about fictional works. My hope is that we can teach students not only to read critically but also creatively and free them to make the books they read for school into resources for their own imaginative speculations.

I want to know what fans think of this material and so I am posting it here in hopes of soliciting your comments. There are so many teachers and librarians in fandom that I suspect you have a special stake in making sure we get this material right and a special insight into how we might bridge between these two worlds. We are in a process of iterative design with this material; we will be collaborating closely with the teachers and students involved in our study to refine and revise this material over the coming year. So, let me know what you think. Pass along your thoughts and suggestions — through the blog comments or through personal e-mail at

Reading Critically and Reading Creatively

If there is a shared agenda within the diversity and fragmentation that has often characterizes the American media literacy movement, it has come through a focus on five core questions students and teachers have been taught to apply to a range of texts:

  • 1. Who created this message?
  • 2. What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?
  • 3. How might different people understand this message differently from me?
  • 4. What lifestyles, values, and points of view are represented in, or omitted from, this message?
  • 5. Why is this message being sent?

Throughout the Teachers’ Strategy Guide, we address each of these core questions, although not always in the same language. When we talk about context in our discussion of remix, we are really trying to consider who created the message and why; we also encourage students to identify the techniques deployed within the remix. Our discussion of Motives for Reading helps to explain how and why “different people understand this message differently from me,” and that recognition of differences in interpretation and experience are central to our understanding of how to negotiate a multicultural space. Throughout, we have reinforced the value of close reading. Through various case studies, we’ve applied these skills and inquiries to a range of different kinds of media texts including music videos (“Ahab”), films (several versions of Moby-Dick, Pirates 3, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan), musical recordings (Oceana), and television shows (Battlestar Galactica) as well as our central texts — a novel (Moby-Dick) and a stage production (Moby-Dick: Then and Now). Within various media, we have focused on different critical approaches, including considerations of narrative (Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan), acting (Patrick Stewart in Moby-Dick), art direction (Pirates 3), and camera work/editing (John Huston’s Moby-Dick). We have embraced the core goals of the media literacy tradition, but we are also expanding its vocabulary and introducing some new perspectives. We are trying to reflect through our pedagogy some significant shifts in the media environment at a time when more and more young people are entering the participatory culture.

In this section, we want to turn our attention to question 4 — “What lifestyles, values, and points of view are… omitted from this message?” Here, pay attention to the word, “omitted.” What’s not in the text is seen here as consciously or unconsciously excluded; often there’s a hint that certain ideas or perspectives are being silenced, marginalized, or repressed. This formulation sets the reader in ideological opposition to the text while maintaining a clear separation between producers and consumers. This understanding reflects a moment when the power of mass media was extensive and the average consumer had no real way to respond to the media’s agenda except through critical analysis. In a participatory culture, however, any given work represents a provocation for further creative responses. When we read a blog or a post on a forum, when we watch a video on YouTube, the possibility exists for us to respond — either critically or creatively. We can write a fierce rebuttal of an argument with which we disagree or we can create a new work which better reflects our point of view.

Schools have historically taught students how to read with the goal of producing a critical response; we want to encourage you to also consider how to teach students how to engage creatively with texts. Under this model, we should still be concerned with what’s not in the text; the difference is in what we do about it. Yochai Benkler argues that we look at the world differently in a participatory culture; we look at it through the eyes of someone who can participate. [2] Just as we saw in the Motives for Reading unit, we read for different things depending on our goals, we also watch for different things if we want to use the experience of reading as the starting point for writing criticism or as a springboard for creative expression At its worst, reading critically teaches us to write off texts with which we disagree. At its best, reading creatively empowers us to rewrite texts that don’t fully satisfy our interests. Keep in mind that we may rewrite a text out of fascination or out of frustration, though many writers are motivated by a complex merger of the two.

Reading Fan Fiction

Fan fiction represents a vivid example of reading creatively and critically. Fan fiction refers to original stories and novels which are set in the fictional universes of favorite television series, films, comics, games or other media properties. Some of the earliest fan fiction was inspired by Star Trek in the 1960s. Today, fans write thousands of stories each year devoted to hundreds of different media texts. The writers are often amateur; the stories are labors of love. Many of these stories are distributed online. Historically, women wrote the majority of fan stories, though men have become more actively involved as fan fiction has moved onto the Web. Some stories are written by teens; many more are written by adults. Harry Potter and various anime/manga fandoms have become central sites for youth expression.

Some of the stories are appropriate for high school students; some are more sexually explicit. Fans typically include some kinds of rating at the start of the story indicating its graphicness, often using the same G, PG, R, and X ratings used for motion pictures. There is no consistent relationship between the ratings of the “source text” (the original work which inspired the story) and the ratings of the fan text — so one can imagine a Sex and the City story that only deals with shopping and a Harry Potter story depicting carnal relations between the characters.

Fan authors and critics have developed their own vocabulary for talking about these works with many of the terms reflecting fan-oriented genres or describing the complex set of negotiations between the fan text and the source text. Some of the terms reflect the desire of fans to be as respectful as possible to the original work, such as the distinction between stories that are “in” or “out of character”; others, such as “alternate universe,” signal works which break more dramatically with the original material. Fans generally scorn “Mary Sue or Barry Sue” stories where authors insert idealized conceptions of themselves into the fictional world often at the expense of the more established characters. Fans often use Author’s Notes (AN) to explain the relationship of their stories to the source text. Even the concept of the original work as a “source” tells us a great deal about the ways fans think about the creative process.

In her book, The Democratic Art, poet Sheenagh Pugh discusses what motivates large numbers of women to write fan fiction. [3] She suggests that some fans want “more from” the original source material because they felt something was missing and some write because they want “more of” the original source material, because the story raises expectations that are not fulfilled. Pugh discusses stories as addressing two related questions — “what if” and “what else.” Pugh’s discussion moves between fans writing about science fiction or cop shows and fans writing about literary classics (for example, Jane Austen’s novels). She focuses mostly on the work of amateur writers yet she also acknowledges that a growing number of professional writers are turning their lenses on canonical literature and extending it in new directions. She opens her book, for example, with a discussion of John Reed’s Snowball’s Chance (2001) which rewrites George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Other examples might include Isabelle Allende’s Zorro (based on a pulp magazine character), Gregory Maguire’s Wicked (The Wizard of Oz), Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (Jane Eyre), Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (Hamlet), J.M. Coetzee’s Foe (Robinson Crusoe), Linda Berdoll’s Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife (Pride and Prejudice), Nicholas Meyer’s Seven Percent Solution (Sherlock Holmes), Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone (Gone With the Wind), and Sena Jeter Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife (Moby-Dick).

While such works are sometimes described as post-modern, such practices run throughout the history of literature and as Abigail Derecho notes, this mode of creative reworking of canonical literature has been a way some female authors have asserted their perspectives onto their culture. [4] If anything, modern conceptions of copyright have slowed down a long-standing tendency of people to retell existing stories. Fan fiction revitalizes that creative impulse, operating in a world where many different people might retell the same story and in the process, expand the range of potential interpretations of the source material. Here, for example, a veteran fan fiction writer speaks about what motivates her to read and write such stories:

What I love about fandom is the freedom we have allowed ourselves to create and recreate our characters over and over again. Fanfic rarely sits still. It’s like a living, evolving thing, taking on its own life, one story building on another, each writer’s reality bouncing off another’s and maybe even melding together to form a whole new creation. A lot of people would argue that we’re not creative because we build on someone else’s universe rather than coming up with our own. However, I find that fandom can be extremely creative because we have the ability to keep changing our characters and giving them new life over and over. We can kill and resurrect them as often as we like. We can change their personalities and how they react to situations. We can take a character and make him charming and sweet or coldblooded and cruel. We can give them an infinite, always-changing life rather than the single life of their original creation. We have given ourselves license to do whatever we want and it’s very liberating…. If a story moves or amuses us, we share it; if it bothers us, we write a sequel; if it disturbs us, we may even re-write it! We also continually recreate the characters to fit our images of them or to explore a new idea. We have the power and that’s a very strong siren. If we want to explore an issue or see a particular scenario, all we have to do is sit down and write it.


This statement beautifully captures our participatory model of reading: the text as written is the starting point; readers may be motivated to respond to the work by creating new works. Literary works do not simply enlighten us; they also inspire us or perhaps more accurately, they provoke us.

To understand this provocation, we might consider two closely related concepts — negative capability and the encyclopedic impulse. The term, “negative capability,” emerges from the writings of the poet John Keats, who first coined the term by explaining: “I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” We use the term to refer to any meaningful gap or detail in a text which allows readers to draw on their own imaginations. [6] Consider, for example, a horror film where the monster remains in the shadows and thus becomes more terrifying as we flesh it out in our minds. The less the filmmaker shows us, the more we are able to imagine something that terrifies us. The minute the monster comes into the light, we are stuck with whatever the filmmaker thought we would find fearsome.

As we have seen above, all art works are incomplete and depend on the “beholder’s share” to put together the pieces, to read across the gutter, to fill in the gaps, choose your own metaphor. Some artists purposefully create nooks and corners for their more creative readers to play in, while other authors want to close things down as much as possible. We might read J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter) as an author who is torn between these impulses — sometimes wanting to encourage fan readers and writers to take the story in their own directions, increasingly attempting to close off speculations that differ with her own interpretations through verbal response or continued annotation of her fiction, even through legal action.

Closely related to this artistic practice of negative capability is an encyclopedic impulse on the part of readers who want to know all of the details of a favorite story. For a work to become a cult movie, Umberto Eco suggests, it must come to us as a “completely furnished world so that its fans can quote characters and episodes as if they were aspects of the private sectarian world.” [7] The work must contain a rich array of information that can be drilled, practiced, and mastered by devoted fans. Yet, the text will ultimately fall short of the fan’s hunger to know everything, and so part of what motivates fans to write their own stories is this desire to get “more from” and “more of” a work that has given them pleasure. Negative capability describes this phenomenon from the point of view of the producer, who wants to create opportunities for audience engagement and participation; the encyclopedic impulse describes it from the point of view of the consumer who demands coherence and continuity and who is motivated towards further speculation and expression.

Many literary critics would describe a great book as one where everything is there for a reason and nothing is missing that wouldn’t detract from our experience as a whole. Director’s cuts and DVD extras suggest otherwise. At least in the worlds of film and television, many things remain on the cutting room floor — some of what gets left out improves the work by its absence, some of it might have made a meaningful contribution, and some may radically transform our understanding of the whole. DVDs often label these segments “deleted scenes,” inviting us to take pleasure in seeing behind the scenes in the production process and second guessing the creative decisions of the producers. For example, the DVD for Aliens includes a scene where Ripley reacts to the news that her daughter has grown up and died during the time she has been in suspended animation in space; the scene can provide a different understanding of what motivates her intense efforts to protect and rescue the young girl Newt. A scene added for the Director’s Cut of Bladerunner, linking Deckard’s dream of a unicorn (in the original cut) with a shot of an origami unicorn left outside his dorm (in the director’s cut) implies that he may be a replicant, because people from the Corporation know the contents of his dreams.

We might contrast this focus on deleted scenes with a genre of fan fiction called “missing scenes.” Here, fans add to the fiction, offering their own versions of what might have happened during scenes absent from the original source. These scenes may be as simple as showing how other characters reacted to the news of the events shown in a particular episode; they might show us what happened before or after a key turning point, allowing us a deeper understandings of the character’s motivations or the impact of their actions. So, the term, “deleted scenes,” holds onto the idea that authors get to determine what belongs in their story, while the term, “missing scenes,” allows fans to decide for themselves what parts of the story they want to see. Both can represent creative contributions to our understanding of the work but they have different kinds of status because our culture tends to value the original author over their readers. Many fans will distinguish between canon (elements contributed by the author) and fanon (speculations proposed by fans), with the first providing an agreed upon baseline in their conversation while the second is taken as apocrypha.

[1] Center for Media Literacy, “Five Key Questions Form Foundation for Media Literacy,”

[2] Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).

[3]Sheenagh Pugh, The Democratic Genre: Fan Fiction in a Literary Context (London: Seren, 2006) . See also Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (New York: Routledge, 1992).

[4]Abigail Derecho, “Archontic Literature: A Definition, a History, and Several Theories of Fan Fiction,” in Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse (eds.) Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2006).

[5] Henry Jenkins, “‘Normal Female Interest In Men Bonking’: Selections from the Terra Nostre Underground and Strange Bedfellows,” in Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2006).

[6] Geoffrey Long, Transmedia Storytelling: Business, Aesthetics, and Production in the Jim Henson Company, Master’s Thesis, Comparative Media Studies Program, MIT,

[7] Umberto Eco, “Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage,” in Travels in Hyperreality (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1986).