On Anti-Fans and Paratexts: An Interview with Jonathan Gray (Part Two)

In the second part of the interview, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Jonathan Gray talks about his new book, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts. Don’t know what a Paratext is — you will soon, as Gray explains how everything from “Oscar Buzz” to action figures help to shape the meanings and emotional experiences we have in relation to the films and television shows we watch. There was not an Oscar given last night for best paratext — as long as the evening was and as outraged I was to see that Roger Corman (who happened to have trained two of last night’s best director nominees — Cameron and Bigelow — as well as such recent winners as Martin Scorsese and Ron Howard) and Lauren Bacall (Lauren Fraking Bacall) were given their special Oscars at a separate event! Yet, it is hard to imagine Avatar making the money it did, a low budget genre film like District 9 making the list at all, or for that matter The Hurt Locker building up the critical support it did in the absence of well-crafted campaigns designed to warm us up to these particular projects. And given the huge grosses that Alice in Wonderland took in this weekend, we certainly might pause to pay respect to the creative promotion that the film has received in the months building up to its release, even though much of the press is going to ascribe the box office purely to the growing public interest in all things 3D. So, this interview seems particularly well-timed, even though, in fairness, I should note that Gray answered these questions some weeks ago and might have new things to say today precisely on these topics.

Your new book, Show Sold Separately, centers around “media paratexts.” While this concept has a long history, it is apt to be unfamiliar to many of my readers. Can you define it and explain why you prefer it as a category to other ways of talking about these phenomenon?

I draw the word from a book of that title by Gerard Genette, a French literary theorist. He was interested in all those things that surround a book that aren’t quite the “thing” (or “the text”) itself. Things like the cover, prefaces, typeface, and afterwords, but also reviews. His subtitle to that book – “Thresholds of Interpretation” – is the intriguing part, since it suggests that meaning might be constructed and might begin at these textual outposts, not just at the site of “the thing itself.” And that in turn offers a pretty radical proposition, namely that the item that we’re studying, whether it be a film, television show, book, or whatever, becomes meaningful and is interpreted in many sites, some arguably even more important than the site of thing itself. The purpose of the book, quite simply, then, was to examine those sites.

I prefer the word paratext precisely because it has a pretty academic background, and from within textual studies at that, and thus isn’t encumbered by a lot of the connotations that surround many of the other words that we usually use. Your readers may be more familiar with “hype,” “synergy,” “promos,” “peripherals,” “extratextuals,” and so forth. But hype and synergy frame paratexts too definitively as wholly industrial entities. Certainly, paratexts are absolutely integral in terms of marketing, and in terms of grabbing an audience to watch the thing in the first place. But we’ve often stalled in our discussion of them by not moving beyond the banal observation that hype creates profits. What I wanted to look at is how they create meaning, how our idea of what a television show “is” and how we relate to it is often prefigured by its opening credit sequence, its posters, its ads, reviews, etc. Meanwhile, “peripherals” belittles their importance, since they’re not at all peripheral, at least in potential. “Promos” is fairly innocuous, and yet I’m interested not just in how the things that surround a film or show create an image of it before we get there, but also in how reviews, DVD bonus materials, fan creations, and other after-the-fact paratexts might change our understanding later on, so that too seemed inadequate. And though I like “extratextuals” (the title of my blog!), “extra” means “outside of,” whereas “para” suggests a more complicated relationship to the film or show, outside of, alongside, and intrinsically part of all at the same time. Hence my fondness for that word in particular.

You write in the introduction, “While many consumers deride the presence of hype and licensed merchandise as a nuisance, we also rely upon it, at least in part, to help us get through an evening’s viewing or a trip to the multiplex.” In what sense? In what ways do such materials shape our experience of films and television programs?

Let’s take the trailer as an example. We’ve all seen thousands of them. And when you do, you often hear evaluations from the crowd around you. That’s because everyone is judging the film before it’s even been released. But they’re not just saying “wow” or “ugh” – they’re learning something about the characters and whether they can identify with them, about the genre of the film, about the kind of world that it’s set in. In short, they’re getting a pre-view of the film’s basic components, and it’s thus being constructed as a meaningful entity for them. When the film finally comes along, it doesn’t begin with a fresh slate; rather, its viewers have a history with it. They’ve come with expectations, with engagements with certain characters, and with an idea of how to make sense of it. Indeed, in many cases, they’ll already be enjoying the film, as played with in a beautiful way by an Onion News Network parodic item about Iron Man trailer fans being worried about the studio making the trailer into a feature-length film.

But all sorts of other things might happen along the way too. Perhaps the trailer confused us into thinking that the film was something different, and so we sat down to watch an action film and got a drama instead. Or perhaps the hype and paratexts annoy us, and so we decide that we don’t want to see the film – we don’t need to, since we already know it to be junk. Or perhaps paratexts clash – the trailer looks awful, but then you hear an interview with the director and you’re fascinated. The frame of mind that we bring with us to any viewing experience is remarkably important, and paratexts often play the key role in creating those frames. Meanwhile, the story doesn’t even end after watching, since other paratexts might reframe an experience. Perhaps a “making of” special or a podcast asks us to think of it in a new light, maybe a fanvid, item of fanfic, or other fan creation challenges our understanding of a character. The great Russian theorist of narrative, Mikhail Bakhtin, poetically wrote that no meaning is ever dead, and that every meaning will have its homecoming. So too with all items of media, which aren’t just framed; they can be reframed.

I’ve spent some time in the blog over the past few months reflecting on the benches that were erected in anticipation of District 9 and the ways they contributed to narrative exposition and shaped emotional reactions to the film, well beyond their roles as pure promotion or publicity. I take it you would read these as classic examples of paratexts. How would you explain their contributions to District 9?

Those are great examples, since they put you into the world. When you’re faced with a bench that tells you one kind of being isn’t allowed there, it opens up a history, at least in the U.S., of segregation, and of racial intolerance. We like to pat ourselves on the back and think that it’s all behind us, but such benches haunt us with the notion that it’s not. If you’re Black, I’d guess there’s a sore wound that’s opened. And if you’re liberal and White, there might be some liberal White guilt over your potential complicity with the segregation: do you really want to sit on that bench now?

All that can happen before you even know there’s a movie. Now when you’re told there’s a movie, and that these benches are part of it, they’ve given you an experience of that world. You’ve set foot in it and had an experience in it. The narrative, in other words, has begun. Your allegiances are being pulled on. Or, to point to another classic example from film history, the Jaws poster scared the crap out of me as a kid. I couldn’t swim without thinking that a massive great shark was about to gobble me up, as I moved on unaware, just as with the woman in the poster. So the horror and fear began long before the film (and, damn the designer, continued long after!).

You note that paratexts can be “entryway” or “In medias res.” Early discussions of transmedia storytelling focused on nonlinearity — suggesting that the parts could be consumed in any order — but more recently there’s been a focus on notions of seriality and temporarily. What might your book contribute to that discussion?

What I’d hope readers would see is how many different media the story can be told over. It’s not just the “big” media, like film, television, books, comics, and videogames – trailers can also play a part here, as can opening credit sequences, or DVD bonus materials, posters, ad campaigns, or, as we’ve discussed, benches. When we recognize that, we move towards realizing how audiences have always been intimately familiar with serial storytelling and with transmedia. We’re all already well-trained to keep shows on hold for years, inbetween trailers and film and bonus materials, so I’m dubious when I hear complaints about audiences being unable and unwilling to deal with seriality and transmedia.

But if I talk of “us” needing to realize that, meaning “us” as analysts or fans, it’s also production cultures that need to learn from it. Towards the end of the book, I draw on several interviews I conducted with transmedia producers, and they all point to an industry that isn’t currently set up to facilitate discussions between the marketing department, the writers, the DVD producers, the videogame designers, and so forth. Let’s imagine a future in which communication improved, and thus one in which all these paratexts and sites didn’t work against each other or simply in spite of each other, but instead contributed to the serial development. Then, as audiences, we could have a much richer product, and I imagine the producers would be much richer too.

You suggest that audience-produced artifacts — such as fan vids or spoilers — can be paratexts that help shape the meaning of the work. Your emphasis there is not so much on how they resist official meanings but rather how they shape our interpretations of the primary text. An old school cultural studies approach might talk about this as a struggle over meanings or as competing bids for interpretations. How do you think about the relationship between commercial and amateur paratexts in the age of participatory culture?

I don’t mean to foreclose the possibilities of resistive readings. But someone very smart and way more knowledgeable about fandom already wrote Textual Poachers, and if there’s only one thing that many people in cultural studies know about slash fanfic it’s that it’s supposed to be doing interesting, resistive things with gender and sexuality (I say “supposed to” only because some don’t believe that). So when I came to the chapter on fan-created and -circulated paratexts, I didn’t need to make that point. Instead, I wanted to focus on how one can use paratexts to cut one’s own groove through a text in a way that isn’t necessarily working against the producer’s version, but that is personalized nonetheless. Many relationship and character study fanvids, for example, don’t necessarily repurpose a character, but they do ask us to stop and think about that character and his or her history in ways that the official text, in its breathless progression, may not have time to do. I don’t mean to suggest that this is either the dominant form of fan use of paratexts, or even one that’s necessarily changed in a more obviously convergent media era. But it might help cultural studies to back away from some of the desires for an orcs vs. hobbits style bad-and-good battle between The Industry and The Fans, and to focus on smaller, humbler moments of repurposing.

Critics in the 1980s talked about television series such as He-Man, Masters of the Universe as half hour commercials for toy lines, suggesting that the commercial tie-ins stripped them of any real meaning or narrative interest. Your work suggests something different — that the toys become vehicles for extending the meanings of a series into everyday life. How have action figures impacted our interpretations of blockbuster movies like the Star Wars franchise?

Star Wars is a great example here, since what we had was a text that was seemingly put on ice (or should I say put in carbon-freezing?) for three years between each film. That’s a long time in a child’s life, so excellent or not the trilogy likely wouldn’t have held the attention of those of us who were kids at the time if it weren’t for the toys. The toys kept Star Wars alive by transferring the story and the world to the playground, and hence by keeping that galaxy from drifting far, far away.

However, precisely because the text entered the body of the toys for such a long time, we need to ask how they contributed to the popular understanding of Star Wars. On one level, for instance, I think they worked to gender the text. When all the toy boxes and ads were showing boys playing with them, when FAO Schwarz in New York required one to march through a tunnel of GI Joe figures to get to the boys’ palace that was their Star Wars section, and when all the figures had guns (even when all we see them do is drink or press buttons in the films), the toys were strongly framed as for boys. The toys also helped, I’m sure, to amplify fans’ nostalgic feelings towards the texts, since those of a certain age can think back to countless days spent playing in school yards or excitedly opening a Millennium Falcon for Christmas or so forth, and all of a sudden Star Wars seems such a huge part of our childhood … courtesy of the toys as much if not way more than the films. So toys contribute to how we make sense of all these films and shows, and to the cultural meanings that surround them.

But more than that, they also teach kids to expect transmedia and participatory culture. When I talked to Lost showrunner Damon Lindelof about what got him into transmedia, he told me the tale of the Boba Fett toy. When I asked Jesse Alexander of Heroes and Day One the same thing, he too waxed eloquently about Star Wars. Licensed toys let us into fictional worlds, and I’ve yet to hear of a company send a cease and desist letter to kids for playing with toys, even if they’re wedding Han to Luke. So if many of us grew up expecting to be able to play with texts, and move their characters into new realms, let’s look to toys for where it may’ve all started.

We’ve just ended The Oscar season. To what extent is “Oscar buzz” a kind of paratext for more “serious” or “middlebrow” forms of cinema?

I’m glad you asked, since I find it amusing when people hear the topic of my book and quickly pronounce that they hate “that stuff” (hype and paratexts). They’ll often list the blockbuster of the moment for illustration, so right now everyone claims to despise Avatar when they want to impress me with the height of their brow. But there is no such thing as a text without paratexts. So it’s not a question of preferring a text without paratexts – it’s a question of which paratexts are one’s poison. Oscar buzz is great for the middlebrow audience, New York Times reviews, buzz at Cannes, or even what their film prof says works for some, and for others it’s trailers and huge billboards. So there’s no escaping paratexts. If we think we live in a media saturated world, the films and shows are only a fraction of that world – the paratexts are everywhere.

Jonathan Gray is Associate Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he researches and teaches on various aspects of television, film, and convergent media, including satire, comedy, audiences, and textuality. His most recent book is Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (NYU Press, 2010), though he has also written Television Entertainment (Routledge, 2008) and Watching With The Simpsons: Television, Parody, and Intertextuality (Routledge, 2006), and is co-editor with Jeffrey P. Jones and Ethan Thompson of Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era (NYU Press, 2009), with Robin Andersen of Battleground: The Media (Greenwood, 2008), and with Cornel Sandvoss and C. Lee Harrington Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World</em>. He also blogs at The Extratextuals and Antenna: Responses to Media and Culture.

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