Acafandom and Beyond: Week Three, Part Two (Kristina Busse, Flourish Klink, and Nancy Baym)

Kristina: I think it’s interesting to look at three of us and how our different background quite strongly affects not just the way we do research but also the things we worry about. Coming from a straight up literature department (in the middle of High Theory no less) and teaching in a philosophy department, I worry a lot about what represents, both in research and in teaching. Meanwhile, my fan life feeds directly into my academic research, so that I feel a strong responsibility toward my fan friends to neither exploit nor to misrepresent them.

Unlike Nancy, I was trained to analyze texts, and it actually took me a long time to negotiate my solely text-based background with, for example, ethical concerns for my research subjects/fan friends. In other words, it was my fannish background that made me create a research ethics that to most social scientists is probably totally obvious. At the same time, though, moving back and forth between studying texts and studying people, looking at blog posts as textual artifacts and looking at them as revealing material about a person, has forced me to address these issues in ways I feel many literary scholars don’t (they often subscribe to the notion that everything that’s accessible online is citable and in an almost New Critical way follow an author-less text model) and many social scientists don’t (insofar as they erase the identity of individual fans when they don’t name names).

As for Flourish, I can’t really speak to her experiences except that for me fandom is something that isn’t connected to production and industry. As a fan I don’t want to engage directly with actors/writers/directors, and as an academic, I don’t care about that side either. I know it’s an important area, and I’m very happy that we have good and smart people explaining and representing fandom, but to me fandom is mostly about what we as fans do. I’m passionately and hopelessly in transformational fandom, and I am interested in tracking and analyzing what fans do on their own rather than how fans interact with the industry. [And I am well aware of the gendered aspects of that attitude and its drawbacks!]

The other thing that I notice a I’m looking at the three of us is generational. I don’t know Nancyís age but I know she published already when I was just entering English grad school, so I think of the three of us possibly representing not only different disciplinary backgrounds but different fan studies generations. And maybe that means that Flourish’s industry collaboration indeed is the future?

Flourish: At least within transformational fandom, I do think that you’re right about the generational issue, Kristina. Right around the time that I was getting involved with fandom, my friends began getting cease and desist letters about their Harry Potter fanfiction – this would be around 1999 or 2000. Partially, I think, because Harry Potter was a more or less “feral fandom,” people resisted rather than going underground – and it worked. So, on a personal level, I’ve never experienced fandom as something separate from industry; it was always very clear that industry knew about us, cared about what we did, and often misunderstood us. Even the most transgressively transformative works, for me, are inextricably tied up with issues of industry and production – recall the ëTwins Against Twincest sign, held up by the actors who play Fred and George Weasley! I think that that experience is probably more common among young fans, especially young fans who didn’t grow up going to media fan conventions.

Nancy: Uh oh, I think I’ve just become a grandmother! Give me a few more years! I published my first piece about fandom in 1993. Like most of that work, until it took book form in Tune In, Log On: Soaps, Fandom and Online Community (Sage, 2000) it was being positioned primarily as work about online interaction, not as work about fandom (even in the book, it is at least half and half). Again this colors why the term “acafan” has never seemed relevant to me. I wasn’t positioning myself as a fandom scholar, I was a qualitative internet researcher who studied what fans do.

I like Flourish’s points about industry and I appreciate her bringing them in as a third party to the personae we balance as people who study and participate in fandom. I love that people like Flourish are working with industry. In the last several years I have begun to speak at industry events and talk more with people in industry, particularly the music business, and the more I see, the more convinced I am that we really need fans represented in those rooms where Flourish sits with her teal hair (and I sit with my asymetrical hair with streaks of color that don’t belong there). As fans we are constantly being viewed as ATM machines – “let’s connect so we can monetize you!” – and I believe that the sustainability and long term future of the entertainment industries relies on a new kind of engagement with fans that must be informed both by those within fandom and by academic research.

I keep going back again though to the notion that these concerns are not unique to fandom in any way. It’s always incumbent on researchers to recognize the different audiences who have a stake in our work and to figure out the ethics of treating them all appropriately. These are rarely problems with obvious answers that fit everyone. They are ongoing processes we all work through on moment by moment and project by project bases.

I don’t think we all have a responsibility to speak to industry, and I totally get where Kristina is coming from in saying she wants to keep fandom for the fans. I do think, though that we have some responsibility within fandom to listen to the voices of the industry. Actors, musicians and writers are also real people with real feelings. I interviewed a woman in a band who had stumbled across fan fiction about her having an explicit erotic encounter with another female musician whom she knew in real life. She read it and the fan responses (which were along the lines of “wow, what a cool pairing”) and felt both violated and kind of mortified about ever having to see her friend again without thinking about that. I believe in transformative works, but to me, this is a problem. As I’ve interviewed musicians about their interactions with fans, it’s become clearer to me that some of the things fans do to gain status within fandom hurt the musicians. I’m not saying they shouldnít do them, and I do advise musicians to toughen up and let things go, but I do think it’s worth thinking about how we might raise fans’ awareness of how they affect the people they are discussing as well as the industry’s awareness of how they affect fan discussions and academics discussions about both.

Kristina: Oh, Nancy, I apologize, but then academic generations!=actual age 🙂 I think I may indeed be older than you, but I didn’t even start studying fans and fandom until almost a decade after you, so that’s where my generational idea came from. In fact, what made the analogy so enticing is that we do indeed represent such different views in terms of where fans, academics, and industry relate to one another. And I must sidestep the academic aspect for just a second to focus on the fan-specific engagements with industry that both of you brought up. Like Nancy I see a problem in having a celebrity reading about fantasized sexual encounters. Unlike Nancy, however, I do not think that writing and even sharing the fan fiction is the problem. Instead, I think that fans behaving inappropriately is the issue and, just maybe, celebrities connecting to fans in likewise too intimate ways.

In other words, when you present a version of yourself that may make fans believe that you’re open and accessible to reading about your hot steamy romance and then google yourself, it might be in part your responsibility. In turn, I’m a big fan of warning pages and robot/spider blocked pages so that you need to be looking and knowing how and where to look in order to find the material. So, in the end, I blame a celebrity culture and a fan/industry intersection that makes it seem OK to erode boundaries that I am perfectly happy and comfortable keeping up. I don’t think it’s appropriate to shove sex toys, references to underage incest, or manipulated sexualized images into actors’ hands–just like I wouldn’t give those things to strangers or random acquaintances unless in an environment where this is collectively acceptable.

In turn, I feel like I don’t owe the industry all that much and so for myself I kind of disagree with Nancy that as a fan I need to (or that all fans need to) listen to the voices of the industry. My particular corner of fandom, for example, is mostly not that interested in industry and production or even the actors and celebrities in themselves, even if we’re not naive about the intersections. I’m pretty indifferent to industry that has yet to prove itself to me in any way, shape, or form, so I feel like we’re left as fans to create the characters, characterizations, and plots that move beyond the interests of white, straight, cis, male able-bodied 18-34 year olds. Given that this industry still doesn’t speak to and for me and mine, I frankly have no interest in being “their” version of interpellated fan and play by their rules.

And that may indeed be my age showing: maybe, Flourish, you have better experiences, and maybe, Nancy, your situation is different when you engage with musicians one on one, but my creative heroes, the people I want to meet and talk to, want to engage with and write fan letter to are my fellow fans. And I’m perfectly happy not sharing our conversations with the musicians who form the blueprint for potential fictionalized adventures, or the actors whose characters we extrapolate and interpret, or even the writers who provide the characters and worlds we continue to play with. And I know that there are fans who love that interaction, but for myself, that’s not where my fannishness is.

Shifting back into acafan mode, I think that there’s a lot of different fan communities and fannish ways of interacting with industry (including not interacting at all) that we need to study. But I also think that the way we approach academic fan identities is deeply affected in the way we think about our fan identities by themselves, isn’t it?

Flourish: Nancy, your story about the band member makes me think about fans’ reactions to the academic articles they themselves are in. That’s a productive comparison, I think – “fans are to acafen the way that band members are to RPF writers” – because I think it opens the door to discussing the competing ethical responsibilities we have. Part of defining oneself as an ‘acafan,’ I think, is about making an ethical commitment to the fan community, yes? So that when they read your academic work, they don’t feel like that band member – misrepresented and kind of miserable. On the other hand, as a fan, Kristina is eager to reject any responsibility towards the creators of source texts for transformative works (or the actors and musicians whose lives provide source texts).

Obviously, there”s some important differences – an academic is making truth claims, whereas a fan is not; academics have cultural power, whereas fans rarely do; fans do not (usually) put themselves forward as public figures, whereas musicians and actors must by the nature of their work. But ultimately, academics and fan fiction writers both mine preexisting texts and come up with narratives that make arguments about our world, right? They aren’t the same, but they are similar.

While I’m sensible to the argument Kristina is making about industry’s interests not intersecting with hers (and the implicit argument I think she’s making about industry’s power and desire to control fannish behavior), I think it’s interesting to think about the question of whether academics’ interests actually match up with fans’. For many years, I pooh-poohed the idea that academics publishing about fandom would have any impact at all on what industry understood or thought – but now I see people in industry independently bringing up articles that have appeared in the journal Transformative Works and Cultures. (One result of having an open-access journal is that, yes, fans can read the articles published therein, but so can folks in industry.)* If there are fans who truly want to be left alone, they haven’t been helped by academics, not one bit.

Besides, that horse has already bolted. Whether fans like it or not, there are more academics studying fandom than ever, and there are more people in industry sniffing around than ever. At this point, there’s no reversing it. As Nancy suggests, the only thing that’s left to do is to think about how to create some kind of balance – how to make sure that everybody can co-exist. Academics do play a role in that, whether we want to or not – which is one aspect of being an acafan that’s not usually highlighted.

*Yes, I realize that this somewhat contradicts what I was saying above about industry having more of an impact on daily life than academia. I am large, I contain multitudes.

Nancy: I’m not sure how major a point it is for this discussion, but I am troubled by the idea that a performer who presents herself as willing to engage fans is thus obliged to be written about in public spaces in explicit sexual terms and, should she encounter that work, obliged to ignore it. I have no issues with people imagining and writing sexual encounters between fictional characters, but I do think that for fans to treat real people as fictions for their own and one anothers’ imaginations can be selfish and even cruel, and that is not the fault of a musician for daring to be nice while looking good. I stand by my sense that one thing academics ought to be doing is giving fans frameworks for at least thinking critically about the ethics of what they do, just as we are well positioned to argue to the industries about the ethics of the choices they make towards fans.

Our conversation seems to have revolved largely around ethics and accountability. When I first started studying fandom and read much of the textual analytic work on soap opera fans I was mortified by the willingness to make claims about what fans got out of the genre without ever actually looking at what fans did or talking with them about it. Not surprisingly, these textual analyses often led to analyses of fans as deeply screwed up people living vicariously through texts. I was also struck by the fact that so much of that work was written in language that was borderline incomprehensible without a Ph.D. in the area. In response, from the start, my core obligation has been to write about fans in a way that honors their perspectives and in a way which they can read easily [as a sidebar, open access publishing is an increasingly important part of this]. But ‘honoring’ does not mean ‘fawning.’ When fandom misbehaves, when there are fan works that are problematic or poorly done, when there are fans within communities who pull weird power plays or whatnot, we mustn’t paper over that in order to make sure fandom looks good. We are often eager to criticize previous research in order to situate the value of our own, we need to be willing to criticize the fandoms we study too. Similarly, there are temptations to paint fans as good guys and industry professionals as bad guys, which is just as intellectually sloppy.

What academics contribute isn’t necessarily “truth” as Flourish said – I’d argue truths are multiple and contestable when youíre talking social behaviors and meanings – but insight. I see my role as an academic as doing systematic and rich analysis that provides a basis for understanding social phenomena. All of the relevant identities we experience as researchers can be mined for their contribution to understanding if we are reflexive throughout the research process.

We invite your comments and contributions over on our mirror site here or send comments to me at and be sure to indicate if they are for publication.


Kristina Busse ( is an English Ph.D. who teaches in the Department of Philosophy at the University of South Alabama. Kristina is co-editor of†Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet (2006), and of the forthcoming collection†Transmedia Sherlock.† She is founding coeditor of the fan studies journal Transformative Works and Cultures.

Nancy Baym ( is a Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Kansas. Her recent work on independent Swedish musicians, labels and fans has been published in Popular Communication, The International Journal of Cultural Studies, and First Monday. She blogs (now and then) at and collects links about artist-audience relationships at

Flourish Klink leads the Fan Culture Division at The Alchemists Transmedia Storytelling Co. She writes transformative works of fiction – both interactive and non-interactive – and studies fandom and popular culture. She is also a lecturer in the Comparative Media Studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and earned a S.M. in that same program; before that, she earned a B.A. in religion from Reed College. By the time she was 14, she had helped co-found, a Harry Potter fan fiction website. Most recently, she has been secretary of the board for HPEF Inc., which puts on educational conferences centering around Harry Potter.

Acafandom and Beyond: Week Three, Part One (Kristina Busse, Flourish Klink, and Nancy Baym)

Kristina Busse

Being an acafan to me means constantly negotiating two often quite competing codes of conduct and ethical expectations. In particular, I worry about the compromisesóboth fannishly and academically when I do acafannish research. I have a pretty strong fannish ethos in my research, i.e., I tend to not cite and reference material without the permission of its fannish creators and I am well aware of the limitations that may put on my research material (Fan Privacy and TWC’s Editorial Philosophy). Not only am I restricted by texts I know but I self-restrain to texts where I can easily contact the creator and likely get a positive response. In addition to this limitation, there still remains a desire to present fandom in its best guise; after all, if another scholar gets to read one story, sees one vid, I want it to conform to traditional aesthetic notions. My selections are thus restrained not only by the textís possible representativeness and accessibility, but also by my desire to not embarrass my community. There are enough shoddy journalistic pieces who point and mock, and the fan in me desires to impress the academicís colleagues.

The result, however, is that we as acafen are faced with not only the general problem of any qualitative scholar of popular culture on which texts to pick, but also compound the issue by having a variety of vested interests that complicate that selection. In my presentation at the SCMS acafandom workshop, I addressed “The Ethics of Selection: The Role of Canonicity in Acafannish Pedagogy and Publication,” and it is this conflict I continue to worry about. The problem is one of choice and selection and the responsibilities this entails. Doing qualitative research one has to pick and choose, and unlike my initial discipline of English literature, there isn’t a ready-made canon of important texts that anyone is expected to recognize if not know.

And yet, fan studies tends to create its own version of a canon, and while I don’t think that this is necessarily a bad thing, I do worry about the fact that we do it seemingly unthinkingly. In fact, given the a wide variety and such idiosyncratic choices, it is surprising how small numbers of vids, for example, dominate academic vid shows, class showing, and academic papers. I’m just mentioning Lum and Sisabet’s “Women’s Work” and Lim’s “Us” here, two vids that might indicate that there is indeed a vid canon, after all.

The reason for that has a lot to do with what fans like and what academics like. In fact, these two criteria beautifully intersect in these two vids, making them ideal representatives, so to speak. And yet I see some danger in creating our own academic canon, so to speak, of texts that fit our theoretical frameworks, texts that are sufficiently experimental, queer, political, or whatever else we may decide to focus on. the problem is not that there shouldn’t be an essay on “Women’s Work.” There totally should! The problem is that by showing the vid every single time and namechecking it (as I’m doing right now :), we’re effectively construing a canon, a canon that then gets reflected back on fandom who, of course reads and responds to academic canon formation. Moreover, in so doing, we are on some level ignoring the thousands of vids not as experimental, not as political, not as well edited.

And the question is then whether there really is a problem in that and what political implications that may have. When we choose fan works that fit into our arguments, that make fandom look more creative, more political, more subversive to outsiders because that’s the image we want to give to the world at large, are we ultimately misrepresentating and betraying fandom? When we decide on picking exceptional texts, are we properly studying the fandom? How do we justify picking the three most excellent, most politically progressive genderswap stories while ignoring the dozens of stories that are misspelled and poorly plotted, that are reactionary or right out offensive?

Of course, it’s more fun writing about stories we like, stories we consider aesthetically and ideologically pleasing. I can spend time with a text I like; I can present my fandom in the best light; and I can get easy permission, because I can show my analysis and not offend the author. I can please academics, fans, and myself in the process. But I’d like to ask what texts and what forms of cultural expression we may ignore in the process, and that we remain vigilant to our vested interests when we decide to choose one text over the many available others.

I am certain that any subcultural member and scholar faces similar ethical concerns to remain true to their two competing codes of conduct: not to betray/expose/embarrass one’s community and not to do bad scholarship. But I also fear that the danger is always there that one part compromises the other. Constantly acknowledging and evaluating that balance is at the center being an acafan to me: I cannot let my academic side exploit my community yet I must be careful to remain aware of my biases without letting them control research.

Nancy Baym

I have to say I don’t feel like I’m trying to reconcile competing sets of expectations and codes of conduct in being a fan studying fandom within academia.

One reason for this may be the primary fandoms with which I’ve aligned myself. I was never involved in fanfic or vidding communities. I’ve always been involved in and studied fan communities where we talk about and critique what we’re into and it seems like the dynamics are different than in communities based on fans’ creative works.

I think it also has to do with the fact that I study people, not texts, and I study the relationships between people, so I come at fandom research from a different set of background contexts and assumptions. For me, canonizing within fandom just isn’t an issue since I’m not looking at fan texts per se. The parallel concern I encounter is how to sample examples of fan discourse or sites, but, I see my first obligation as both scholar and member of fan communities as trying to come up with a sampling that will leave fans saying “yes, that’s a fair take on what we do” and academics saying “I trust that she’s given me a representative view.” We always have a responsibility to situate what we study and teach within a wider context that includes some analysis of how representative our choices are.

Throughout much of these discussions (including those already posted) I feel like so many of the issues raised are not unique to academics who are fans and who study fans. The term “acafan” has never resonated with me. I’ve never felt that a disconnect between the two that was problematic or that called for special language to label, nor have I ever understood the problems in what we do as different from the core problems everyone encounters in doing qualitative ethnographic styles of research. “Acafan” was a response to a tradition of media research that I didn’t come from. I started in interpersonal communication and online interaction with methodological training in ethnography and qualitative methods. I’ve never thought of these issues as being any different from those that, say, people who enjoy using the internet and also study people who use it face – yes it colors our perspective and gives us access to some points of view and inside knowledge, and yes it makes some other perspectives harder to palate, but research is always guided by points of view. We always speak from perspectives. If fans who study fandom lack critical distance, that is a failure of their academic training, not of their being fans, and the same charge can be leveled against anyone who studies anything they are part of. This is what theory and methodology are for, to help us step beyond the everyday experience into an analytic mode that takes advantage of what we know and feel without being limited to it. In that regard, I do think methodological training is very important.

I will say, though, that I have often felt there is a risk to studying my pleasurable passion in that it can come to feel like work. That is the identity risk for me, not seeming not fannish enough, or not academicy enough, but not loving the music I write about as much because I am also interviewing some of the people who make it. I worry more about burning out on the pleasure than I do about not having the academy think it’s scholarly enough or the other fans thinking it’s too scholarly.

Flourish Klink

I come from an unusual place: by the time I was really involved in fandom, the term “acafan” had already come into general use. I knew the term “acafan” first from the fan’s perspective and not from the academic’s. What’s more, the conflict I experience regarding fandom and professional life is much more general than concern about acafandom.

The reason for this is because while academics do influence others’ thought about fans and fandom, the moment that they really begin to make immediate changes in fans’ lives is when they begin to work with the industry. I realized this when I began to work with the Alchemists: holy shit, people really take my advice about what to do. I had better make sure it’s good advice! Publishing an academic article, or a purely academic book, is one thing: it may change what people think about fans twenty or thirty years down the road. Actually getting into a room with entertainment execs is another thing entirely. The decisions that get made there will go into effect next quarter, and they may determine whether fan sites are harassed with C&Ds or whether they’re ignored or whether they’re solicited for advice.

It may seem silly and self-absorbed, but my concerns with regard to how to represent fans in these situations have even dictated whether or not I should dye my hair. If I am the only self-identified fan that a network exec meets in a year – should I have teal hair? Or not? Unlike the traditional scholar, my very embodiment of fandom is one of the things that helps me get my professional message across. To be honest, it’s part of my personal brand. With each client, I have to ask myself: what aspects of my personal fandom should I emphasize to most effectively get my points across? And that’s a worrying state of mind to get into: so calculating, it doesn’t feel fannish to me…

In comparison to these ethical conflicts (or “personal angsty excrescences,” if you’d like), concerns over the term “acafan” seem to me to be – not unimportant, but certainly not immediate, personally. My current contributions to scholarly work are not likely to go much further than a really good meta might. My contributions to the Alchemists, on the other hand, might influence the policies of next year’s TV lineup – which I think most people would rightly be concerned about! But there’s no pat term to speak about the conflict of professional and fannish responsibilities outside the academic realm.

We invite your comments and contributions over on our mirror site here or send comments to me at and be sure to indicate if they are for publication.


Kristina Busse ( is an English Ph.D. who teaches in the Department of Philosophy at the University of South Alabama. Kristina is co-editor ofFan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet (2006), and of the forthcoming collection†Transmedia Sherlock. She is founding coeditor of the fan studies journal Transformative Works and Cultures.

Nancy Baym ( is a Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Kansas. Her recent work on independent Swedish musicians, labels and fans has been published in Popular Communication, The International Journal of Cultural Studies, and First Monday. She blogs (now and then) at and collects links about artist-audience relationships at

Flourish Klink leads the Fan Culture Division at The Alchemists Transmedia Storytelling Co. She writes transformative works of fiction – both interactive and non-interactive – and studies fandom and popular culture. She is also a lecturer in the Comparative Media Studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and earned a S.M. in that same program; before that, she earned a B.A. in religion from Reed College. By the time she was 14, she had helped co-found, a Harry Potter fan fiction website. Most recently, she has been secretary of the board for HPEF Inc., which puts on educational conferences centering around Harry Potter.

Three Reasons Why Pottermore Matters…

Yesterday, J. K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame announced a bold new online venture called Pottermore which has sent shock waves through multiple communities which I follow closely and I’ve had more than a few people already ask me to weigh in on my initial thoughts about what’s taking place. Keep in mind that, as Will Rogers used to say, all I know is what I read in the newspaper. I have no knowledge of what’s taking place here other than what’s already in the press and what I can speculate about from my knowledge of the announcement’s fit within a range of trends impacting social media, transmedia entertainment, Web 2.0, and fan culture.

Here’s the video of Rowling’s announcement, which you should watch, if you haven’t already, so the rest of this makes sense.

Now, let’s consider what this announcement means from several perspectives.

Pottermore as Transmedia Storytelling: This may be the most highly visible transmedia project to date — after all, Harry Potter is as big a media franchise as we are likely to see anytime soon. I’ve blogged before about the paradoxical nature of Harry Potter fandom:

Harry Potter is a massive mass market success at a time when all of our conversations are focusing on the fragmentation of the media marketplace and the nichification of media production. There has been so much talk about the loss of common culture, about the ways that we are all moving towards specialized media, about the end of event based consumption, and so forth. Yet very little of it has reflected on the ways that Harry Potter has bucked all of these trends….But in many other ways, the success of Harry Potter demonstrates the power of niche media. Start from the fact that this is a children’s book, after all, and a fantasy, two genres which historically have attracted only niche readerships. Scholastic surely wouldn’t have predicted this level of popular interest when it chose to publish the original novel. By traditional industry talk, much of Harry Potter‘s success came from so-called “surplus consumers” — that is, consumers who fall outside of its target demographic. Traditionally, much of fan culture involves these kinds of surplus consumers — female fans of male-targeted action adventure series, adult consumers of children’s media, western consumers of Japanese popular culture, and so forth. Indeed, it is this attraction to works that are in some ways mismatched to our needs that encourages fans to rework and rewrite them.

Relatively little of the official Harry Potter media produced to date has been transmedia in the sense that I use the term — as an extension of the information we have available about the world rather than as a replication of the story from one medium to another. I’ve been suggesting lately that we might identify transmedia projects through the combination of two factors – radical intertextuality (that is, the complex interweaving of texts through the exchange of story-related information) and multimodality (that is, the mixing of different media and their affordances in the unfolding of the story). Pottermore works at both levels.

On the one hand, Rowling is making a commitment to provide fans with a large chunk of additional information about the world of Harry Potter, nuggets which, as she puts it, she’s been “hoarding” during the writing process. We might think of this as a more interactive version of the kinds of “further stories” or notes on the mythology that J.R.R. Tolkien’s estate has been slowly feeding Lord of the Rings fans in the decades since the author’s death. Some estimates suggest that she’s already got 100,000 words of new material which is going to be inserted into the interstices of the original novels — that’s more or less the length of a typical book (not as much as a Harry Potter book, but still) — and she’s hinted that there may be more where this comes from. During the Harry Potter lexicon case, it came out that she had been planning to publish her own encyclopedia which would expand our knowledge of her fictional universe. It is not clear whether this will supplement or replace that original conception.

By far, this is the aspect of the announcement which has caught fire with fans, especially those who have been worried that the intensity of the fandom will fade once the last film is released into the theaters. Trust me, there’s been lots of mashing of teeth about this. No one thinks that Harry Potter fandom will go away completely — we’ve seen many fandoms long outlast the production of new material — but there is apt to be less intensity and visibility once the final film hits the theater. For these fans, Pottermore is a game changer. Here, for example, is some of how HPANA, one online Harry Potter fansite, responded to the news:

“Does this announcement and the looming launch of Pottermore hold enough weight to keep together a fandom that is showing signs of deterioration? To me, Pottermore will act as an integral part of the fandom for the next few years. Yes, years. If Jo were to have announced a print encyclopedia, the immediate impact would have been greater. But because of the interactive nature of Pottermore, and the fact that each novel’s storyline will be released months apart (Sorcerer’s Stone in October, Chamber of Secrets in early 2012), the Pottermore storyline may not conclude for at least two years – extending active fandom discovery until the end of 2013 at the earliest….What does this mean? The Harry Potter fandom is on the verge of embarking on a new, monumental journey, something which has never occurred and probably will never happen again, as Rowling has been famously private about her writings in the past. Pottermore will be truly a one-of-a-kind experience where fans will have the opportunity to dictate what they want to see come out of it, both from Jo and fellow fans….I believe the whole fandom discovering brand new canon together is the most important aspect of Pottermore. The ingenious sorting, play-along aspects and digital store with the first ever Harry Potter e-books? That’s merely icing on an already delicious cake.”

Those are high hopes for the author to meet.

On the other, there is the promise of multimodality represented by what’s been described as interactive “moments” introduced around the books — including a sorting hat process and a wand shop — which allow fans new ways of interacting with the story. For literary critic Lev Grossman, who has been a key enthusiast for the books, this aspect of transmedia causes him to pause:

When publishers mix reading with other media, the way Pottermore does (or the way that The 39 Clues, another Scholastic creation, does), I find it confusing. Every time I see more of the Potterverse realized in other media, as video or audio or even still images, it undoes the work I did by reading about it. It takes away from the marvelous, handmade Potterverse I’ve got going on in my head and replaces it with something prefabricated.

Those of us who are more enthusiastic about transmedia see it differently: we see these materials as expanding our knowledge and deepening our experience of the story (at least in so far as they are done well and everything about Potter has been done well) by allowing each medium to do what it can do best. There’s been lots of talk about whether there has been a killer demonstration of the potential of transmedia — this may well become that killer demo, for better or for worse, and I for one am going to be watching closely to see what happens next.

Pottermore as eBook: The Wall Street Journal has read the Pottermore story through the lens of ebook publishing and the future of authorship, and it’s a pretty significant story from that perspective also. Here’s part of what they speculate:

While her publishers and major online book retailers will continue to sell her physical books, Ms. Rowling has reserved for herself the digital editions, the fastest-growing segment in the book world. The move could inspire other authors, large and small, to pronounce themselves independent agents in hopes of tapping more lucrative paydays. Ms. Rowling refused for years to release her books in electronic format, retaining the digital rights for herself. While most other authors have already handed over their digital rights to their publishers–most recently, John Grisham–Ms. Rowling’s deal could prompt them to self-publish when their deals come up for renewal or demand higher royalty rates than the 25% of net sales that most publishers offer today on digital editions. Some may even choose to forgo all traditional means of book publishing and set up their own bookstores, reaping 100% of everything they sell.

I am following the world of epublishing closely these days, thanks to my affiliation with the Annenberg Innovation Lab which is launching its own epublishing division. Few authors at this point can exert such power over their own publications and few have the ability to set new terms of professional compensation. Read through this lens, it may be a comparable to when George Lucas took a smaller salary on Star Wars in return to a percentage of the revenue from ancillary products, a decision which helped paved the way for Star Wars as a ur-text for transmedia storytellers and entertainers.

Rowling recognizes that it is not enough to offer a digital offset of the books via Kindle but that ebook publishing represents its own kind of event, which enables her to further expand the reader’s experience through new content and new ways of interacting with the material. Her continued involvement with the social network of her fans moves the ebook from a product to a process – not a one time thing, but something which can draw back people who have already read the seven books and watched the eight films to have a new set of relationships with the story. So, again, the announcement is big news.

Pottermore as fan relations: This is where things start to get a little more complicated. I’ve been mapping this fandom for years and there are many different kinds of Harry Potter fans who have different expectations and different relationship to the material. So, as critics such as Suzanne Scott and Julie Levine Russo have noted, transmedia practices tend to priviledge some kinds of fans over others, constructing model fans and thus seeking to set the terms of how fans relate to the material.

This has become increasingly true for Rowling, who has shown many signs that she wants to continue to shape and control how fans respond to her work well after she finished writing it. We can see this in the epilogue to the last novel, which seems to pointlessly map out futures for all of her characters, including shaping the “ships” (relationships) between them, in what amounts to spraying her territory. Many fans would have preferred a text which was more open ended on that level and allows them more freedom to speculate beyond the ending. She decided to “out” Dumbledore not through the books but via her own discourse around the books. She tried to shut down the Harry Potter Lexicon. So, it is abundantly clear that she likes some of her fans more than others and that any effort to facilitate fan interactions also represents an attempt to bring fandom more under her control.

Two key phrases stood out for me in the announcement: “digital generation” and “safe,” both of which require some glossing here. Harry Potter has attracted a very strong adult readership, many of whom would not conventionally fall into the digital generation. Even among those who come from the digital generation, many of those who grew up reading the books, are now young adults, even in some cases, parents on their own. And then, there are the children readers who were the targeted audience for the books. The most active fans, as noted above, are often a “surplus audience,” and may well not be children. This doesn’t matter when the book can be purchased at a range of different locations, read in a variety of contexts, but if you try to bring that readership together online, then the tensions are apt to become more of an issue.

That’s where the term, “safe,” is a red flag. In this case, it can mean two things — first, a space where you can read the stories without encountering any of that dratted “pornography” that some (many actually) of the adult fans have been producing. I remember talking to Warner executives when I was working on Convergence Culture who kept saying they wanted to distinguish between the “fans” and the “pornographers,” and I couldn’t bear to tell them that most of the erotica is produced by the fans and is part of what it means to them to be a fan. So, “safe” in those terms means censored, regulated, or policed. So, the promise is that “You,” “Us,” will help shape the future of the franchise but only in terms specified by Rowling and by the companies involved in overseeing this site.

Here enters a second potential meaning of the word, “safe,” which is that the site will comply with the Children Online Privacy Protection Act (or its British equivalent) which sets restrictions on the exchange of personal information, especially by minors. (For a useful discussion of how the desire to protect children may also restrict their ability to meaingfully participate, check out this recent post by Anne Collier.) So, does this mean that Pottermore will become the literary equivalent of Club Penguin, social media without the potential for off-line social interactions, and how does this fit within the larger framework of social relations upon which Harry Potter fandom, like all other fandoms, depends.

Moving beyond the word, “safe,” there’s the potential that this follows the logic of Web 2.0 more generally which seeks to capture and commodify participatory culture. There are multiple concerns here, which I need to know more to be able to address. While the language of the video hints at a more open-ended structure of participation, wherein fans share their thoughts, speculations, and creative works with each other, the only features specifically described constitute preprogramed interactivity — such as the Sorting Hat — which sets the terms of our engagement with the storyworld. I might note that Harry Potter fandom has been among the most innovative in helping fans make the transition to the era of social networks — having developed their own platforms and practices since the book was first published — including several very sophisticated versions of the Sorting Hat. Which house you identify is deeply personal to Harry Potter fans. I strongly identify with my affiliation with Ravenclaw, so why should I cede to Rowling and Sony the right to decide which house is mine! So, in this case, Rowling is offering fans what they already have on their own terms and using the release of information as a bribe to pull them into her walled garden. (Keep in mind that the information is going to get spoiled and leaked the moment it is posted.)

If, on the other hand, she does allow for more creative and participatory engagement of the material on the site, that opens other questions already hotly debated along the borders between Web 2.0 and Participatory Culture. Abigail DeKosnik, for example, has described the bargain fans often are forced to make — ceding all rights to their own intellectual property in return for the promise, easily revoked, of corporations not suing them for their efforts. Others have described this in terms of issues of fan or free labor — people are doing creative work for free which benefits corporations without getting any revenue in return. Lawrence Lessig has gone so far as to describe this as a modern form of “sharecropping.” This is a complicated issue and we have a lot to say about it in my forthcoming Spreadable Media book.

I am not prejudging the terms that Rowling and Sony are offering here. I am just saying that the platform as described raises these questions and we need more information before we can really weigh whether Rowling is treating her fans fairly here. She’s been surprisingly supportive of fan culture in the past, but on a selective basis, which does not give us much guarantee on how this one is going to shape out. The devil is going to be in the details here and those are going to be rolled out over the next few months.

Could Rowling’s “gift” to her fans turn out to be a Trojan Horse? Hell yes, but it may also open the door for some other creative opportunities along the lines discussed in the earlier sections of this post.

Acafandom and Beyond: Week Two, Part Two (Henry Jenkins, Erica Rand, and Karen Hellekson)

Erica Rand:

Karen, I’m really struck by your passage: “My writing of slash fan fiction must be subsumed under the rubric of interpretation; how else to explain the overwhelming pleasure of the (writing of the derivative) text, without resorting to “it was confusing and I hated it! So I fixed it!” I hate to sound so simplistic but is it partly liking to do a different kind of writing? I’ve recently gotten the chance to reprise a previous sideline of queer sex advice columnist. I just love the different style of it. But I see what you’re saying about how for you, fan fiction has a bit of the same function as critique.

Also, is there also something about people’s relationship to being “an academic”? Little anecdote: I was just at a workshop on teaching first year seminars and the person leading it did the icebreaker of having us discuss in small groups an incident in college where we first identified as scholars. (Not my idea of an icebreaker, which I think of as more like, “Name a cheesy song you would stay in the car to listen to if it came on the radio.”) Anyway, it made me realize that I don’t think of myself as a scholar. I think of myself as a nerd because I think superb punctuation is hot and like to watch number patterns emerge on my odometer–although not so much since the numbers don’t turn mechanically. But scholars, they work down the hall from me; a crazy disconnect like describing the family weirdness of one’s siblings as if one didn’t come from the same family.

Karen Hellekson:

I do think that that creating fan texts is an interpretive response: fan fiction, fan vids, and other fan artifacts are really just analysis–exegesis with a point, and a point of view. The kneejerk emotional response (which I articulate here, obviously simplistically, as “it was confusing and I hated it!”) can be pretext, but it’s just the jumping-off point for exploring the why. It usually isn’t particularly valuable by itself. Like or dislike–it doesn’t matter which, because either can provoke a response. It is hard to engage intensely with something that leaves you neutral. I usually write academic texts about things that I like or that I find intellectually interesting. I usually write fan fiction about things that bother me or to explain things. My essay here was a chance for me to bind together the affective and scholarly voices.

My relationship to being an academic: it’s fraught. I tend to feel insecure about it because I am unaffiliated, and people’s reactions (when they see “independent scholar” on my name tag; when it comes up when I’m chatting with a professor-colleague of my husband’s at a university party) are often weird, like they’re not sure how to deal with me, and then I get flustered and say stupid things and overshare. My job as a freelancer is isolating. This academic thing is a way to get out of the house, to talk about things that really interest me, to engage with fabulous like-minded people, and to have substantive, thought-provoking conversations. If “what I am” is what comes out of my mouth when people ask me about myself, then I’m a consumer of media and a copyeditor in the sciences. My scholarship, including writing articles and books and editing an academic journal, is basically unpaid service that I can’t explain in a sentence at parties.

(A cheesy song that I would stay in the car to listen to is Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz.” I first thought of myself as a scholar when I delivered a paper as a MA student at KU at the Campbell Conference and was delighted that everyone seemed genuinely interested. It is because of that honest interest, now maintained especially through the Science Fiction Research Association, that I have kept a foot in that academy.)

Henry Jenkins:

Karen raises some important questions about the discipline specificity of the acafan position, which is one of the real value of having such a diverse set of contributors in this exchange. In Literary Studies, fan-scholars have had to overcome the affective fallacy, which has historically rendered our emotional responses to literary texts mute and irrelevant.

By contrast, in film and media studies, almost all writing starts from some kind of theory of spectatorship, whether media is understood as propaganda, art or popular culture. There are times that I think films would not exist if they were not projected to a viewer just as a tree falling in the forest would not make any sound if there was no one around to hear it. Even our formalist theories, or at least the version I was trained in, starts with the issue of defamiliarization, which assumes a viewer who is shocked or startled out of their habitual norms of viewing by some element in the text.

The question is whether your theory of spectatorship starts from the attempt to accurately capture your own emotional response to the work or whether you are, in my book, speculating about someone else’s emotional responses. And the danger is that when you start speculating about someone else’s feelings, you end up imagining that someone else as more vulnerable, gullible, and susceptible to influence than you see yourself, and that’s why media studies was so pathologizing in its construction of fans in the absence of the acafan move. So much of the dread of popular culture from the academic perspective is precisely that it demands our emotional engagement as compared to the more distanced viewership imagined to be the domain of high culture (whether distanciation is imagined as a political position a la Brecht or a class-based posture a la Bourdieu).

You cannot write about soap operas or melodramas without a theory of tears, about horror without a theory of fear and dread, about Hitchcock without a theory of suspense, or comedy without a theory of laughter. And again, work which writes about someone else’s feelings is apt to distort the nature of what it is describing in relation to popular culture, to be dismissive and simplistic.

Of course, one hopes that such a theory goes beyond your “”It was confusing and I hated it!” and the real test of the acafan perspective is not where it starts, but where it ends up.

Even on the level of its affective grounding, I would argue that the goal is to be more complex and sophisticated in describing our emotional responses and what sparks them within the work (or its context). And that points us towards some of the issues Erica raises, which I want to address more fully next time. For the moment, let me note that for me, a theory of fandom minimally tries to capture both fascination and frustration, both of which seem to be present in the best fan writing, whether fanfic which writes beyond the ending or Meta which challenges the ideological construction of a beloved text. Look at some of the responses I’ve run in my blog to the ending of Smallville — the best of which have been critiques of gender politics or simply genre expectations which start from an impassioned and by no means uncritical perspective but which build out a fuller description of what provokes it.

For me, perhaps the most nuanced and challenging acafan posture to achieve is one of ambivalence, which is not at all “wishy-washy” but rather tries to deal with deep and conflicting responses to the work. A hallmark of ambivalence in cultural critique would be Laura Kipnis’s extraordinary essay about Hustler — which offends her and fascinates her and she’s trying to work through this conflicted response. I can imagine this being part of what Erica is trying to capture in her work on figure skating (or at least seems to be part of what I am reading from her provocation here).

Karen Hellekson:

I’m struck by Henry’s and Erica’s remarks about pathologizing and addiction–terms with negative connotations that hint at fan studies’ tendency to be perceived as extreme and therefore suspect, both by outsiders and by ourselves as we get our fix. Joli Jenson, in “Fandom as Pathology,” sees this insider-outsider debate as central: fandom must be pathologized because “once fans are characterized as deviant, they can be treated as disreputable, even dangerous ‘others.'” This othering permits separation in the field of play: “Fans, when insistently characterized as ‘them,’ can be distinguished from ‘people like us’ (students, professors and social critics) as well as from (the more reputable) patrons or aficianados or collectors. But these respectable social types could also be defined as ‘fans.'” Here Jenson gestures to status and taste. The mode of othering and taste making inherent in the default view Jenson is working against still remain. Those of us who work in media studies must traverse these discontinuities: high and low culture, fan and academic, insider and outsider. Henry’s coining of the term acafan is one way to mediate these oppositions.

I’m struck by my own tendency to be drawn to these so-called maligned fields: my literary specialty is science fiction, and no sooner does SF get all mainstreamed and I no longer have to defend myself, when I decide fan studies is tons of fun and I have to start all over again. Luckily there are many wonderful academic organizations where SF and fan studies are welcome, where acafans can go and have substantial conversations under the reassuringly default view that of course these modes of inquiry are valuable and useful. We can’t spend all our time justifying ourselves or explaining that we are not pathological; we have to have time to interpret our world too.

Henry’s term acafan filled a void: its very creation and then its subsequent deployment suggest that such a word was needed (and as a dealer in words, I very much enjoyed Henry’s description of the context of its creation). I like linguist-novelist Suzette Haden Elgin’s explanation of neologisms that fill a needed gap: she calls it Encoding, “the making of a name for a chunk of the world that so far as we know has never been chosen for naming before … and that has not just suddenly been made or found or dumped upon [our] culture. We mean naming a chunk that has been around a long time but has never before impressed anyone as sufficiently important to deserve its own name” (Native Tongue, chap. 2).

The term acafan is thus wonderful, a naming of something that had been whose cultural context was suddenly right to explore the issues–and is still right, and thus this conversation. Although I find the word ultimately self-referential, I appreciate its generative aspects, which deploy from its overt linking of scholarship (aca) and affect (fan).

Erica found her work “an acafan-type call to find theorizing that matters in sources around us.” I love this articulation of making meaning from things that we decide are interesting: Wordsworth found meaning in a cloud, whereas we might find it in, well, the cloud. Yet the same modes of interpretation resonate. English still owes perhaps too much to New Criticism in its approaches (valorizing the text), just as media studies still bases critical approaches on the spectator (valorizing the viewer), yet all fields concerned with making meaning rely on the complex interplay between the elements of the rhetorical situation: text, creator, consumer, context. Ultimately that is what the acafan conversation is about: what can we learn about these things when viewed through this particular lens?

Erica Rand:

Karen, I love the point you took from my comment about finding theorizing that matters all around us. But actually, I meant something related to what Henry wrote about how important it is to promote avoiding presumptions that professional critics and academics have more rich and complicated interpretations of culture than the people in pronouncements about what something means: means to whom? how do you know? Most obvious when reading student essays about how “society feels” or how raunchy music videos threaten to corrupt one’s younger sister (always the sisters, somehow), but, as Henry notes, underlying a lot of work and whole fields, certainly the one I was trained in, art history.

And yes, to respond to Henry’s comment just above Karen’s, that ambivalence is part of what I’m trying to get to. Except with skating, it’s different than I’m used to. Not so much like loving pop songs with sexist lyrics, but in addition to that, a layer of deeply felt contradiction in the practice. For example, in figure skating I’ve found my own femininity, as I understand it, alternately fed, trashed, and unrecognizable as femininity under figure skating’s dominant codes of femininity, partly because queer femme dyke codes don’t work with them. (Thus I might stand out as unfeminine for being the only female in our annual recital who chose to wear pants for her solo–gasp–and the pants is what people notice not the sparkly tight low-cut top that reads out differently, I think, if your underlying opposition is femme/butch (where showing/hiding protrusions might be a big gender marker) as opposed to a model locating an ideal in that ballerina(or ballerina/slut) look.

So I keep being slammed, hurt, judged–in a hugely educational, productive way–by being smacked up against standards I don’t meet despite finding my pleasures in what I perceive to be living inside their essence. Somehow despite going on and on, in course after course (“legislative, judicial, executive, legislative, judicial, executive, legislative, judicial, executive . . . .” as the sometimes tedium of repeating basics is represented in the movie Election), about gender being complicated, vexed, painful, a story even if not centrally with trans content, being in the middle of it made a big difference. The sports studies version of acafan maybe.

Separate: I want to go back to something I brought up earlier about whether there is an acafan pleasure in adopting modes and voices for different contexts. I bring it up because I’m a bit hooked on this bit of weirdness: This season’s Bachelorette is from Maine, and the Portland Press Herald, every Tuesday, has a FRONT PAGE article, at least below the crease, recapping the previous night’s show as if it were a sports or news event. Tuesday the 14th, from Ray Routhier’s article: ‘The Bachelorette’: Trip to Thailand helps mend a broken heart: A restaurant owner named Constantine helps Ashley Hebert put Bentley behind her”:

The second date in Thailand was a “group date,” in which Hebert and 10 men helped renovate an orphanage. On the night of that outing, Hebert was seen with J.P., kissing again. “Kissing J.P. is magical, the best kisses I’ve had here by far,” Hebert said into the camera. “J.P. is one sexy man. That shaved head? Mmmm.”

I’m very taken with what we might call this news-o-fan production (maybe without the hyphens when the term catches on). It’s not quite the same as the now taken for granted celebrity news as news, because the author seems to be a guy trying on gendered writing and interests in ways that interest me.

Henry Jenkins:

The circumstances which Erica describes above hint at some of the difficulty with binary descriptions of participant-observation or insider ethnography. They sound like they cover more than they do. There are different forms of belonging and participating, different degrees of inside and outside. So, Erica belongs to the group she is studying but for many reasons, does not fit comfortably within their aesthetic and gender norms (or at least as she describes it). Similarly, as we are pulling this acafan discussion together, we relied on multiple kinds of connections with people, in relation to different communities and different scholarly traditions, and then purposefully mixed and matched them, so that we are all part of this conversation, but my bet is that each participant has reasons to feel somewhat inside and somewhat outside the “core” of the community being represented.

So, the goal is not simply to check a box and say “I am inside the community I study,” but rather to use the provocation that “acafan” terminology represents, to dig deeper into where your knowledge comes from and how the work you are doing intersects your professional and personal identity in various ways. I think as we’ve become more familiar with writing in the first person, which high school and college writing teachers try so hard to discourage, then we have started to toss ourselves into more complex situations, which require more fancy footwork (to choose a metaphor appropriate to the situation that Erica is discussing),

And if there’s a risk to the acafan label, it may be that it starts to feel too comfortable as a way of explaining or justifying what is always a much more complicated relationship to our object of study. At the same time, we want to avoid writing which amounts to nothing more than navel gazing. I struggled with this in writing Textual Poachers. It seemed vital to me to “come out” as a fan and yet at the same time, as a male writing about a predominantly female community, I did not want my voice to drown out the community I was studying and claiming that I was a member of the community did not seem adequate to explain my much more complex relationship to this group. I can never belong to that community in a simple way, given the gender composition, but I also do not want to be simply a “fan husband” given my wife’s very active participation in this space. It’s something I’ve continued to struggle with through the years and am not convinced I got anywhere near the right balance in my published writing on fan studies.

It seems uncomfortable not to acknowledge our participations and affective investments, these relationships are complex, and the minute we start to talk about them at all, it can start to feel like we are saying too much, either because we are directing attention away from our objects of study and onto us or because we are “oversharing” things which academic culture tells us should be private matters. What was so powerful about the first generation of queer studies folks is that they refused to be invisible, refused to keep quiet, when their silence could be read as complicit within a structure based around patriarchal and heteronormative power. In that circumstances, personal revelation was a vital part of the critique, and that was what I had hoped the acafan concept might help achieve.

Karen Hellekson:

Erica notes that she wants to avoid promoting “presumptions that professional critics and academics have more rich and complicated interpretations of culture than the people in pronouncements about what something means: means to whom? how do you know?” I agree that it doesn’t take a professional critic to create valid interpretation. Professional critics have nothing on fans and their meta. Fans talking among themselves have some of the densest and richest text-based and self-referential analyses I’ve ever seen. I still remember the fabulous conversation about the TV show Leverage at the first Muskrat Jamboree fan con (“Hardison!”), and sitting on a panel about Margaret Atwood at Toronto Trek that had a great Q&A. Both experiences were like attending a really awesome English class, with excited students and detailed text-based analyses. Fan jargon may be different, but the analysis is fundamentally the same. In both worlds, my pronouncements are just as valid as anybody else’s.

Science fiction critic Damon Knight, in In Search of Wonder, famously defined SF thus: “Science fiction . . . means what we point to when we say it.” Part of this definition refers to the impossibility of adequately defining SF. But an important part of this is the self, pointing and making a declaration. So it is with the fan, and with the scholar: we self-define. Erica’s good questions of means to whom? and how do you know? are answerable within the context of the conversation. It means to me and it means the object of study as defined in my text, and it also means to the audience of the text. I know because I studied it and thought about it. It has less to do with credentials and more to do with common agreement of appropriate modes of analysis: supporting ideas with text; placing the text within its context; juxtaposing modes to effect; perhaps constructing a critique within an established mode of theory. Fans and academics have different versions of these strategies, with fan fiction, fan videos, altered artwork, meta, and critical analysis all requiring community-valid construction and support.

I realize that Erica’s real point here is that we must question what is at stake when such pronouncements are made. Fans analyze for the love of the source text; they may also analyze for some personal self-valorizing notions of thinkiness, networking, and credibility. (This isn’t meant negatively. Many fans perform meta as their primary fannish activity.) Academics analyze basically for cultural capital, to be exchanged for jobs, publications, promotions, tenure. Both fans and academics may have authority, but it has a much-needed tangibility for academics in a way not necessarily relevant for fans. But analysis is not more pure because done for love and not profit; it is not more authoritative when done by a scholar and not a fan.

Henry points out in his Response 2 how the term acafan might be used as a pretext for navigating this binary that can result in an uncomfortable (because excessive) sharing. Yet it is polite to acknowledge your debts (to fans; to spouses). Likewise, it is common, even required in scientific writing, to acknowledge limitations that may affect understanding (as a person of a certain gender; as a person of a certain sexuality). Part of the problem is the difficulty in studying something that you’re a part of. It’s a Schroedinger’s cat kind of thing, where the viewer always affects the thing being viewed, except it works vice versa too. Analysis leads to self-analysis, knowledge of imbrication in taste, class, authority, power, gender, and affect. That is as it should be.

It may be too much for the term acafan to carry such a heavy load, to meld together disparate practices and communities. All we can do is stand where we stand; point to what we point to; and call it like we see it. I think that’s enough.

We invite your comments and contributions over on our mirror site here or send comments to me at and be sure to indicate if they are for publication.


Karen Hellekson ( is a freelance copyeditor who lives in Maine. For her posts, she looked up the words name tag, kneejerk, exegesis, and imbrication. She studied with James Gunn and at the Institute for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas. She is founding coeditor of the fan studies journal Transformative Works and Cultures. Involved in face-to-face fandom from 1982 to 1996 and then online fandom since 2001, she writes slash and runs a fan fiction archive.

Henry Jenkins blogs…here. He is the Provost’s Professor of Communications, Journalism, Cinematic Art, and Education at the University of Southern California. He has recently completed Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture with Sam Ford and Joshua Green, due out in 2012. His current fannish interests include comics, Disney, silent movies, The Walking Dead, Castle, Game of Thrones, Doctor Who

Erica Rand teaches in Women and Gender Studies and in Art and Visual Culture at Bates College. Her most recent big project, which brings the aca, the fan, and a lot of ice time to sports studies, currently titled Red Nails, Black Skates: Gender, Cash, and Pleasure On and Off the Ice (Duke U. Press), is forthcoming in 2012. She also serves on the editorial boards of Criticism, Radical Teacher and Salacious: A Queer Feminist Sex Magazine (submit, submit, submit) , and shares the Salacious Advisor job, in print and on the blog.

Acafandom and Beyond: Week Two, Part One (Henry Jenkins, Erica Rand, and Karen Hellekson)

The Origins of “Acafan” — Henry Jenkins

I have been “credited” (or “blamed,” depending on your perspective) with coining the term, “Acafan.” Unfortunately, I don’t remember when or how this occurred. Like many rich concepts, the term took shape over time, refined through conversations with students, colleagues, and fans. By the time Textual Poachers was published in 1992, I was moderating a short-lived discussion list called Acafan-L, involving mostly fans working on graduate degrees exchanging what we would today call “metafan” comments. “Acafan,” however, does not appear in Textual Poachers which starts with my personal declaration as someone who is both a fan and an academic. I had been a fan for well over a decade, I was newly minted as an academic.

While built on the foundations of the Birmingham School, fan studies emerged in 1992, with the publication of Poachers and Camille Bacon-Smith’s Enterprising Women, of Constance Penley’s key essays on slash, and Lisa Lewis’s The Adoring Audience (which included Jolie Jensen, John Fiske, Larry Grossberg, and others). Bacon-Smith may have been the most immersed of all of us into the fan community, yet for methodological and temperamental reasons, she presented herself as “The Ethnographer” who observes but participants only through formal experiments to see how the community practices work. The fan community itself embraced those more willing to signal affiliation, the relationship the term, aca-fan, was intended to capture, and many found Bacon-Smith’s self presentation off-putting.

I’ve always thought some bright graduate student should systematically compare Enterprising Women and Textual Poachers: two ethnographies of more or less the same community, published only a few months apart, but so fundamentally different in approach and attitude, accessing different voices, reaching different conclusions, both capturing (but not adequately predicting) a moment of transition when digital media was reshaping what had long been a print and postal focused subculture. Some of the differences reflect the move from second to third wave feminism and some, shifts in our understanding of the relationship between personal and scholarly experiences.

I do not remember when or under what circumstances we first used the term, “acafan”, but I do recall why we felt such a word was necessary.

A small but significant body of pre-existing scholarship about fandom pathologized the enthusiasms and participations so central to our work. Often, fans were depicted as inarticulate, incapable of explaining their motives or actions. This claim of inarticulateness was typically coupled by the scholar’s refusal to engage with the community (and thus a rejection of the value of ethnographic methods). Instead, there was a focus on textual or ideological analysis of cult television, often framed around episodes not significant and often despised within the fan canons formed around these same series. Part of what allowed this pathologization of fandom was that the researchers were not implicated in their own analysis and were not accountable to a fan community. Many researchers treated fans less as collaborators than as bugs under a microscope. At the time, many fans and fan practices were behind closed doors, especially in a pre-digital era. For example, one of the first online communities focused on slash specifically prohibited academics and men (so I was doubly out of the picture).

The new “acafen” (fen has been the plural of fan within the science fiction fan culture) sought to distinguish themselves from the previous generation by signaling their own affiliations with and accountability to the communities they were studying. At the same time, many of us were also being accused of being “inauthentic” when speaking as fans, accused of “slumming it” or “going native” when we claimed to be part of the world we were studying, reflecting assumptions about intellectual and cultural capital that separated high culture academics and pop culture fans. We wanted to signal a dual allegiance — to treat our subcultural knowledge as part of what informed the work we were doing as scholars. We were not simply fans and we were not simply academics – we were acafen.

A later generation would claim our sense of fandom was too rationalized (Matt Hills), not sufficiently focused on issues of passion, desire, pleasure, and affect, and Derek Johnson would question whether we papered over the “fantagonisms” which occured within fandom. Perhaps, but at the time, the fight was to get rid of this taint of irrationality, seeing being a fan as a meaningful rather than trivial pursuit.

As writers like Jolie Jensen noted, this mixture of passion and knowledge was what qualified one to speak about classical music, serious literature, or high art, but because of the legacy of critical studies, being passionate about popular culture was seen as being duped by the culture Industries. Many of us felt that there were things we could not understand about popular culture from the outside looking in.

Tapping our lived experiences, we argued, returned cultural studies to its roots. Take a look, for example, at how Raymond Williams mobilizes his personal experiences as a scholarship student and his working class childhood in “Culture is Ordinary.” Think about what he has to say about his youthful embrace of libraries and museums as opposed to the way he got treated when he went to tea shops. Think about how his anger shaped his theories.

Or think about the ways Angela McRobbie shook up the Birmingham boys club working on subcultures, calling out Dick Hebdidge and others for not owning up to their own relationships to the groups they study, and asserting the importance of her own knowledge as a woman about what took place in adolescent girl’s bedrooms rather than in the streets.

And of course, the Birmingham tradition was only one place we could have turned for examples of the subjective turn in cultural analysis. “Writing from a standpoint” was a feminist issue, and Jane Tompkins was asserting the right to tap the language of affect and fantasy, to write in first person, arguing that what she knew about literary texts was being excluded from male-dominated critical practices and institutions. Within anthropology, Renato Rosaldo’s book, Culture and Truth, was asserting a potential link between academic distance and the colonialist project of earlier anthropologists. The only way forward, he argued, was for ethnographers to describe their own subjective experiences and to be more accountable to the communities they studied.

For me, perhaps the most important influence, though, was the emergence of queer studies as a theoretical paradigm closely linked to the experience of scholars making decisions about whether or not to come out of the closet in their professional lives. My office at MIT was across the hall from David Halperin, who referenced my discussion of slash in his work in queer historiography; I was deeply informed by his stance as a scholar who openly acknowledged his own desires and sexuality as a source of insight and knowledge. In media studies, I was also inspired by the work of Alex Doty, Erica Rand, and others, who were insisting on the value of “making things perfectly queer” (as Doty’s book title suggests). At the same time, Rand’s work on Barbie was suggesting the ways we selectively mobilize and retrospectively construct aspects of our own lived experience in order to reconcile them with our current self-perceptions.

Queer politics was being felt within fan culture itself during the early 1990s, with the rise of a global AIDS pandemic and debates about Robert Mapplethorpe’s federal funding representing turning points in terms of how slash fans in particular saw themselves and their culture. Many were talking about “coming out” or being “outed” as fans. Reading as a fan was often a queer practice, and many fans joined pride parades and spoke out for gay rights. Queer scholars often signaled their identities through their introductions, feeling that there was an ethical obligation to be honest about how you knew what you knew and what motivated your work. And for me, this commitment spilled over into how I wrote about fandom. I do not mean to see the stakes of queer studies in the age of AIDS as comparable to fans trying to defend the value of their cultural identities but one informed the other. In some cases, they were linked, as when young fans were thrown out of their houses when their parents found their slash zines hidden under their beds or when adult women had to hide their involvement in fandom from husbands who saw their reading and writing of male-male erotica as sexual betrayal.

So, I can’t tell you when Acafan was born, but these are the ideas and feelings from which it was born.

Is the term still useful today? I don’t know, and that’s why I am eager to host such a conversation. I know that the term has become so much a part of my identity through twenty years of use that I am going to be one of the very last to abandon it. “Acafan” should not be abandoned unless we can hold onto what has been gained by its deployment through the years.

Pleasure/Politics; Twirling/Defence — Erica Rand

For the past five years, I’ve been trying to work my way out of the problem represented by the prompt: “Have we found a way to talk about pleasure [that] no longer requires self-reflexivity about our politics?” I know how long it’s been partly by the date of a 15 December 2007 Dear Abby column that I grabbed from The Portland Press Herald, my local paper, early into my participant-observation project grounded in adult (grown-up vs. xxx) figure skating. “Abby” told the “Woman Search[ing] for Reason to End her Guiltless Affair,” that “when something feels good, it is easy to become addicted . . . and then you’ll be in for a world of pain.” I used the comment in my first essay derived from this research, writing that pleasure had a bit of a bad rep among theorists of pleasure from Barthes (Pleasure of the Text) to Abby. In that context, I think, Abby functioned as a funny anti-model and the pairing with Barthes functioned, implicitly and a bit to the contrary, or so I hoped, as an acafan-type call to find theorizing that matters in sources around us.

I hadn’t quite intended the first exactly, however, or lived up to the second. Revision changed things. The first draft I’d submitted began with a personal anecdote positioning myself as a surprised, somewhat rueful compatriot of Abby and Barthes. It concerned discovering that my adamant pro-pleasure stance was not as solid as I had imagined it to be before I took up a project where the brief summary didn’t have “I fight oppression” as an obvious subtext. “Migration policing,” even “Barbie,” serve the purpose in a way that “figure skating” simply does not. In response to feedback from the editor/gatekeeper, which I interpreted to require me to make my theorizing more visible (to him, I thought crankily but not necessarily fairly), I frontloaded words like “neoliberalism” and some theoretical engagements that I’d originally positioned later.

It worked on him and, consequently, for me, especially after a series of conference paper and article rejections suggesting that either the work was terrible or that pleasure was indeed still a discredited topic as I’d heard. (I couldn’t even interest the p.r. people at my own institution, formerly so interested in my work.) But the capitulation had some negative effects. Most important to me at the time was that even though the primary theory-engagement-demonstrator I used was pretty juicy–Kiss and Tell’s Her Tongue on My Theory (Press Gang, 1994), one of my favorite texts–the beginning became far less reader-friendly. Even my academic skater friends commented “your article was so interesting–after I got through the first few pages.” I wished I had fought more for the pleasure of my own text. The article lives in my own head as not quite the one I would have written and I shrank from inviting people to read it, fearing that it would turn them away from reading more.

By the time I finished the to-copyediting book manuscript on the topic (shameless ad in the bio below), I saw Abby’s advice differently. I’m no fan of applying the label “addiction” to anything pleasurable that one does a lot. Why is a lot of pleasure a problem? What and whom does medicalizing stigmatization benefit? But I came to see the interconnections between love, money, and time that give so many adult figure skaters–including me–the ingredients for a classic addiction narrative. As I put it in the manuscript,

It can come upon you the way that bumming a cigarette at a party can turn into a pack-a-day habit: bit by bit before your very eyes, yet before you know it and while you half-deliberately missed what was happening. It begins, perhaps, with a group lesson every week, that you attend if nothing else is up. A few years later, skating has shunted other activities to the side, involving cash, prioritizing, and sacrifices that would have seemed unimaginable at first. Maybe they seem lunatic still. But the bar for sanity, or justifiable lunacy, has surely risen. So has the bar for satisfaction. You need more to have enough. You scheme to get it. Maybe you cut your expenses by getting in on the delivery. Perceived wants become perceived needs. You can’t quit, or moderate, even when you know you’re hurting yourself (or others). Shame and guilt–about having, spending, wanting–dampen, or fuel, the thrills.

There’s something to learn from how well the analogy works that isn’t “(say) you need to go to rehab if you sext outside of marriage.” I’m still thinking through about what.

I’m also still trying to think through attaching “politics of” to “pleasure.” I want to study political matters about pleasure, but came to think that describing my topic as the “politics of pleasure” was especially a way to butch it up, aligning with bad histories of gendered dichotomizing. Pleasure/politics; art/science; sex/war; twirling/defense (as in offense-defense); the first term in each has been denigrated in numerous contexts for allegedly feminine attributes. Plus, there’s the creepy aura of alibi a la cause-related marketing (Product (RED)): notice all the white people around you and buy permission to skate your life away.

From that angle, the “politics of pleasure” seems like an excuse for no self-reflexivity about one’s politics. Plus, here is one of many ways that immersing myself in figure skating brought me to rethink my relation to a political position I really believe(d): put simply, people should not have to rely on the Oprah-style largesse, parodied in Bring it On, for fun or survival. Yes but who am I to toss out someone else’s pleasure with a disdainful “ugh, neoliberal” because a 501 (c) 3 is buying them figure skating lessons in Harlem?

Five years into it, I’m still rolling around with it, now mixed with a bit of self-absorbed sadness and panic: fieldwork is done, now what?

Affect and Interpretation– Karen Hellekson

As a scholar trained in the field of English, which is all about interpretation and not so much about affect, I tend to be unconcerned about how people feel about ideas or texts. Back in the distant mists of time, when I taught, I was annoyed by student writing that dealt with emotion alone as though it were a valid response to a text. A response like, “It was confusing and I hated it!” to a complex novel is not in any way useful, despite what students clearly seem to think. Get to the formal aspects that made you feel that way! I exhorted them. What about the text made you hate it? What characters, what situations, what textual choices, what aspects of the authorial voice? If you must valorize your emotional response, use it as a doorway into interpretation!

I actually stand by that assertion, even as I left students behind when I happily left the academy more than ten years ago. In terms of critical engagement and analysis, feeling may certainly exist–in fact, it must, or where is the love, joy, and interest that compel active engagement? Academics are nothing if not fans, although for people who work in science fiction (like me) or media or fan studies (like all of us posting today), the term fan may have a slightly different articulation than the average Jo, thanks to the formal structures that have sprung up to permit fannish expression, including things like fan fiction and fan conventions and fan online message boards. Suffice it to say that for me, the pleasure of the text seems occult and forbidding, even forbidden. My writing of slash fan fiction must be subsumed under the rubric of interpretation; how else to explain the overwhelming pleasure of the (writing of the derivative) text, without resorting to “it was confusing and I hated it! So I fixed it!”

As someone who thinks that everything ought to have either use or beauty, and preferably both, the term acafan falls short. Positioning oneself in relationship to the text seems delightfully old-fashioned. Why use up an essay’s precious words explaining an obvious relationship? Isn’t the disinterested scholar a thing of the past? Has postmodernism taught us nothing?

Aca has a snooty connotation: I have been trained to interpret, and I know better than you. Fans are immediately suspicious. Fan has the connotation of unthinking, uncritical adoration. Academics are immediately suspicious.

The portmanteau word so constructed must bear a heavy load, mediating the disinterest of the scholar with the passion of the fan. Further, the term’s use does not necessarily benefit. To fans, acafans may be treated with suspicion. To some fans, to become an object of study by someone you thought of as a friend or community member is fun, even flattering; to others, it is threatening, something to be shut down. To academics, it signals a level of immersion that may confer credibility even as it may cause a fear of bias, along, perhaps, with a raised eyebrow.

What unites the academic and the fan is the unbearable pleasure of the text–unbearable yet faced and negotiated, a (pre)text responded to with text. As a practitioner, I prefer to focus on the aca side, but that is the result of my discipline’s biases and my training. By such a focus, I think I become a better practitioner because I try not to be partisan. While researching, it helps me negotiate the terrain. I am horrified by certain aspects of the fan world, like incivility and name-calling (in my defense, some of my recent work has been on fan kerfuffles and wank, where incivility can be the order of the day), even as I am struck by fans’ thoughtful, decisive analyses (known as meta), performed in a different register than acafannish work–personal, biased, honest in a way that acafannish work tends to dance around because of its use of a dispassionate tone and its choice of publication venue.

I suspect–I know–that aca work and fan work are the same work, performed for different audiences. I perform them both: I write fan fiction to critique the source text in my fan work, but my academic work performs the same function. For me, “It was confusing and I hated it!” is the same thing as “It made me think and I loved it!” The text I generate is the why.

Acafan is a created structure that serves to gesture mostly to itself, a term whose use speaks to a relatively small subset of researchers who recognize the bifurcation inherent in the term and exploit that bifurcation. Its power lies in the academic’s power; the fan gains little or nothing from its deployment. Within the realm of fan studies, the term has become a shorthand that indicates a particular approach and stance–one that involves affect, thanks to the fan, and power, thanks to the academic, yet it is deployed at an academic moment (at least in English) where such self-positioning is not considered useful. Its use announces the interweaving of affect and scholarship and signals the topic as fan studies.

The instability between fan and scholar provides endless modalities to play with, gaps to fill, and openings to exploit. To close them is to shut down a conversation that is still generative as it explores notions of authority and affect. For this instability alone, acafan is a useful term; and for me, as I consider the word, flung at my feet, for me to dance with or not, it can be beautiful.


Karen Hellekson ( is a freelance copyeditor who lives in Maine. For her posts, she looked up the words name tag, kneejerk, exegesis, and imbrication. She studied with James Gunn and at the Institute for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas. She is founding coeditor of the fan studies journal Transformative Works and Cultures. Involved in face-to-face fandom from 1982 to 1996 and then online fandom since 2001, she writes slash and runs a fan fiction archive.

Henry Jenkins blogs…here. He is the Provost’s Professor of Communications, Journalism, Cinematic Art, and Education at the University of Southern California. He has recently completed Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture with Sam Ford and Joshua Green, due out in 2012. His current fannish interests include comics, Disney, silent movies, The Walking Dead, Castle, Game of Thrones, Doctor Who

Erica Rand teaches in Women and Gender Studies and in Art and Visual Culture at Bates College. Her most recent big project, which brings the aca, the fan, and a lot of ice time to sports studies, currently titled Red Nails, Black Skates: Gender, Cash, and Pleasure On and Off the Ice (Duke U. Press), is forthcoming in 2012. She also serves on the editorial boards of Criticism, Radical Teacher and Salacious: A Queer Feminist Sex Magazine (submit, submit, submit) , and shares the Salacious Advisor job, in print and on the blog.

Keeping Your Sanity While Engaging Your Audience Through Transmedia

One of the questions I am most often asked about transmedia is whether this is a game for multinational media conglomerates or whether this strategy has something to offer independent and alternative filmmakers. This post, which was sent to me by the fine folks at Tribeca Film, tells the story of one such film and how they dealt with the challenges of creating a transmedia property on a shoe-string budget.

Keeping Your Sanity While Engaging Your Audience through Transmedia.

by Jen Begeal

Summary: A successful transmedia project doesn’t require a big budget or a large team. It just requires patience and foresight.

Cross-posted from The Future of Film blog at, where leading filmmakers and experts within the film industry share their thoughts on film, technology and the future of media. Click here to follow commentary on the changing media environment on Tribeca’s Future of Film blog.

Transmedia projects have multiple points of entry that follow multiple storylines across several platforms. This kind of attention to detail can be overwhelming to a small team, and let’s face it, most transmedia projects function on micro budgets. Asking your audience to jump down the rabbit-hole with you requires finesse, timing, and above all energy. With so many moving parts it can be a daunting task to keep a project from becoming completely overwhelming.

In the spring of 2010 I joined a transmedia project already underway, called Zenith. Focused around a film (which was not set to release for months), our small team was tasked with designing and building a campaign that would invite our audience to engage with the film’s central themes and incorporate them into their own stories. This is how we did it.

Zenith is a science fiction thriller, which takes place in two separate time periods: the present day and the year 2044. The film alternates between the realities of the two main characters: Ed Crowley, a paranoid conspiracy theorist, and his son Jack, a drug-dealing ex-neurosurgeon. Ed predicts a future where a hidden society controls the minds and actions of the population. Ed’s future – Jack’s present – has become a bleak reality where people are permanently numb, yet pay dealers like Jack for pain from expired prescriptions. Jack is pulled into his father’s quest for the truth behind this genetic experiment when he is presented with the first in a series of ten VHS tapes that Ed has left behind.

Zenith‘s director, Vladan Nikolic, first conceived the concept of multiple entry points for a project years before the advent of Facebook and Twitter. It wasn’t until production got underway in 2008 that Internet technology had reached a point to where it could lend itself to an engaging multimedia experience. The term “transmedia storytelling” was the latest buzzword in the film community and its definition closely matched that of the filmmaker’s vision of a new form of storytelling.

The transmedia project was multi-tiered. The first tier, an outreach campaign, was developed to connect with bloggers in the gaming, film, science fiction and conspiracy theory communities. The initial goal of the campaign was to get people talking about the conspiracy theory portion of the project, called Stop Zenith. With a tag line of “What is Zenith?” the outreach garnered mixed reactions, some bloggers were afraid they had been accosted by a group of conspiracy theorists while others embraced the deception with the understanding that this was all part of a much larger project. Partnerships with other websites were also developed, like that between Zenith and Above Top Secret (ATS), a conspiracy website with a multi-million member fan base. These partnerships were instrumental to attracting a larger, more engaged audience. They also showed our team that to keep the conspiracy plot moving, we had to think fast and build out our story lines with intelligence.

The second tier of the project was to develop online personalities who we would use to encourage conversation about Stop Zenith. One of my roles as a member of the transmedia team was to create over a dozen Twitter, Facebook and YouTube personalities to carry out the Stop Zenith message. While the concept was easy enough to start, we quickly found that managing so many feeds with such time and budget constraints were nearly impossible. Shortly afterward we scaled back the number of characters as well as their functions, limiting them to posting on The Conspirist, a transmedia blogging site.

Another concept we fleshed out was the VHS tapes. Ed’s creation of and Jack’s hunt for the tapes is a core component of the film. Our hope was that by releasing portions of the tapes from the film across video platforms like YouTube, we would attract an audience that would want to create their own versions of the tapes and continue the story. We started by asking friends and colleagues to create and post their own videos, and then reached out to others in the community. Though a few people were happy to jump on board, the reality was that many people were still not comfortable with downloading a video file from an undisclosed source to edit on their own and re-post. We released six tapes in total, the final of which correlated with the film’s release.

After the initial theatrical release of the film we scaled back on the Stop Zenith project, which had been planned early on. We instead turned our focus onto the second part of our distribution strategy, a cross-platform launch that incorporated the DVD with a VOD release while the film screened in independent theatres across the country. This unique strategy earned a lot of press for the film and the transmedia project. Filmmakers began to question whether a festival release (which Zenith chiefly avoided) was still a necessary requirement for an independent film. As Zenith made its calculated progression across platforms we took the time to build a new social media presence in the form of a singular Facebook page and Twitter feed to provide updates on the film’s distribution, showings, release information and reviews.

Zenith was met with both rave reviews and harsh criticism, which is to be expected with any experimental project. Some members of the audience embraced the transmedia component; others found it clunky and difficult to navigate. Overall, based on our viewing numbers and the amount of press we received, it can be concluded that we achieved success beyond any of our expectations. While certain components of the transmedia project worked before the release of the film, such as the outreach campaign, the partnerships and the websites, others benefited from the film’s theatrical release and distribution, including the campaign with the tapes and the social media element.

While I don’t believe every film needs a transmedia component, independent filmmakers shouldn’t rule it out. Transmedia storytelling is a creative way to engage with a film’s audience and Zenith proved that you don’t need a big budget or large team to pull off a project that gets noticed.

ZENITH 2011 TRAILER from Surla Films on Vimeo.

Jen Begeal is a Social Media Strategist for Ride5 Media Group an award-winning creative agency in New York. She has worked as a Transmedia Producer for films such as Zenith and mindFLUX, and she is an active member of the New York Transmedia community. Follow Jen on Twitter @jlbhart or @zenithfilm.

How Do You End a Cult Series?: Fans Respond

I asked for your thoughts about how cult series should end and in particular your expectations and responses about the resolution of Smallville. Here are your responses:


Read the twitter from Allison, then read your blog. Very interesting stuff.

I watched Smallville at the beginning and kind of faded out when Jonathan died. I left it alone for a couple of years and picked it back up again in season 8. I’ve since watched all the episodes in order and truly love the series for so many reasons. The messages were so positive, family was important, good, truth, justice and all the things that we seem to be lacking or maybe I should say we’re trying to uncover again.

I thought the end of the series was excellent. I truly was not disappointed other than learning it took another seven years for Clark to marry Lois. I’m not a comic book fan so I don’t know what’s happening in that reality. As far as Chloe goes, my impression was she was happily married to Oliver, she’s a mother and she’s still involved in the Justice League albeit in a role that keeps her anonymous for her protection and the team’s. Given her propensity to stick by Clark no matter what, I can’t imagine Chloe doing anything else with her life. It would have been nice for them to work Lana in there somehow. I wanted to know what happened to her but I wasn’t disappointed per se.

Hope this is what you were looking for. I’m just so grateful not to have a St. Elsewhere or Dallas kind of ending.

As it was done, Smallville and Superman live on.

Happy writing!

Kim Kloes

Smallville fan

Prof. Jenkins,

Thanks for your recent blog post about Smallville‘s ending and more specifically, character Chloe Sullivan’s ending. As a Chloe and Smallville fan myself, I’ve been engaged in some passionate discussions about this ever since the finale aired.

First of all, I was so happy to see Kelly Souders’ statement about Chloe’s career:

First I have to give a big “HUH?” to the Chloe part. As a woman who has a pretty demanding job and two children at home under the age of four, I have to say I was floored by that one. I’m not sure why anyone thought her reading a book at night meant she wasn’t going to her computer down the hall to check in with the JLA.

This is precisely the point I have been making to people arguing the converse. We were shown nothing in the finale to contradict what had been established in “Fortune”: that Chloe was going to be a reporter and a JLA headhunter/recruiter. Working mothers still read bedtime stories to their kids. How anyone could think that the Chloe we have been shown for the past 10 years would ever give up all her personal goals and career ambitions just because she became a mother is beyond me.

I know that some fans were disappointed that Oliver did not appear with Chloe in the scenes with their son, and it was not stated outright that the child WAS their son and they were still happily married. It seemed clear to me that Smallville was operating under some constraints from DCU and the producers still did their absolute level best to push those to the limit to show Chloe’s happy ending: her prominent wedding rings, the child actor obviously cast for his resemblance to both Allison Mack and Justin Hartley; accessories in the child’s bedroom including the bow and arrow set and the carpet decorated with targets (!).

I know there are Oliver/Dinah fans (and Chloe haters) who continue to argue that we don’t know the child is Oliver’s, they might be divorced despite the wedding rings, she might be married to someone else, etc. Some fans have claimed that a close-up screenshot of the envelope Chloe sent the blue ribbon to Lois in, postmarked from Singapore, with a return address of Chloe Sullivan (rather than Queen) is proof they are not married. Despite the fact that a happily-married Oliver called his wife “Sullivan” affectionately in the finale and it’s been established that they both travel internationally for business and own a jet. Some posters on a SV fanboard pointed, apparently without irony, to a quick closeup of a supply locker at Watchtower containing both Oliver’s and Dinah’s equipment as proof that even in the SV-verse, they ended up together. (Yeah, I don’t even know.) I guess what it boils down to is that some viewers need things spelled out very, very literally and concretely and specifically, and some of us are happy that the writers and producers actually trust the viewers NOT to need very heavy-handed expository dialogue to Get It.

As for where I’d like to see Chloe go in the future? Easy. The DCU reboot offers a unique opportunity to give Green Arrow a fresh start. Disgraced, isolated, divorced from Dinah, he really seems painted into a corner right now comics-wise. Why not do a reboot or at least a Smallville Alternate Universe spin-off with an Oliver Queen/Green Arrow who is younger, less of a bastard and has more possibilities for redemption? And all the better if a young reporter named Chloe Sullivan, already introduced in a Jimmy Olsen title, came along to verbally spar with him, tell him when he’s being a jackass, and ultimately become something of a partner for him?

What I loved most about the Chloe/Oliver relationship is that they started out as teammates and friends first; knew everything about each other, both the good and the bad; weren’t afraid to call each other on their crap; and still saw the hero in each other. They elevated each other; together they were more than the sum of their parts. Contrast that with comics Oliver cheating on Dinah repeatedly, having at least 2 out-of-wedlock children with other women, and the ultimate failure of their marriage. I don’t like that Oliver Queen much, and thrilled as I was that Chloe was being introduced into the comics, I hated that it was in a Jimmy Olsen title, since the Smallville Chloe/Jimmy relationship was largely reviled by fandom. Give Chloe and Oliver a fresh start with each other in the comics, and let’s see all the interesting new stories to be told.

Thanks again for the interesting topic–I plan to go back and read more now that I’ve found your blog.


Hi Allison I have been watching Smallville since my dad had me watch it with him which was “Justice” in season 6 as my starting episode. It was awsome and I have loved your character ever since. And just between u and me I think chloe was more fun with Oliver then Jimmy. Besides the Finale what episode do u think u liked the most of the ones u were in for season 10? For ur role I think the best was probably “Masquerade with Desaad” but u looked like u had a lot of fun with “Fortune.” What kinda props did u take home when the season ended? Did kristen and erica not like each other that much because after season 5 they actually (and i looked back) had only 6 scenes together in 2 whole seasons. Or was it the writers who did that? Im sorry if this is a little akward and u dont have to answer but i always wanted to know was it akward that u and tom knew each other for 9 years and u guys did a naked scene together in season 9 in “Escape”? With Silver Banshee? I think thats enough questions and I loved Smallville and I will always love it. I also was happy with Chloes ending being a recruiter of heros, a mom, and still a reporter. Your character always developed in fun ways and whats good is that it never changed it just kept adding on. Thanks, Justin your Smallville fan

My 1st response is about the show: The most awesome part about it is that, because of it’s origins of Comic books, it already had it’s core fan base; Those that weren’t comic book geeks are more abstract/contemporary viewers.

I think with these ‘types’ of Shows, you have to stay true to the skeleton of the story line, though one can be creative with the flesh part, if I can put it in those terms. I don’t mean to cast out the other viewers, their opinions count too (they add to the success), but because their perspective is more abstract/contemporary (where they want to change/challenge the very skeleton, I think there has to be that standard without apology, because then you disrespect the whole origin of the comic book storyline & it’s genre (especially since the origin of the show is birthed from that, what an insult to the artist). It’s always a bad idea to step on creative toes, or hands- lol!

If you want my honest opinion, opinions fluctuate so often, there is just no pleasing [everyone]. I think if the agenda is upfront in the beginning, eventually everyone will respect the outcome.

However, to alleviate the abstract/ contemp. crowd, I think there could’ve been a more consistent forum on the shows website. I think it lacked an online team specifically for that purpose (it’s very time consuming). It could’ve used consistent interviews with the actors (both personal & the show), people like that personal connection, even if it was sharing one piece of personal information that isn’t commonly known, along with the interview about the character on the show. You’d be surprised how most people are forgiving/fickle with their perspective if they like the interview & if they feel the actor was personable-Fans don’t feel so “used”….and they forget they were upset. LOL!!

As for the continuation, wow! That you’re even asking that question, cause in my opinion your heart & soul reflected your passion off screen! Wow! You could also sense the heart of the writers & basically everyone involved wanting to finish well. I think y’all (excuse the Texan in me-hehe) did the best you could.

I am curious though since the Chloe character was integrated into the comic’s chorology, I wonder about the chain reaction in all the comics now? In Smallville the super heroes from the future came and said they never heard of her, How about now I wonder?

It would be cool to see THAT dynamic on a web series to start. Showing the ending of Smallville‘s “likeness”, where Chloe is reading the book to the child as the beginning of the series (much like Clark being found as a child scene), whether the child that Chloe is reading to, is one she had with the Green Arrow, or the one that Green Arrow is supposed to have mentored and becomes “Speedy”(Red Arrow), his sidekick (a lot of content there in that relationship between Speedy & Green Arrow and how he grew from “Speedy” to “Red Arrow”). It would be great to see THAT Dynamic of the family type effort with the other Heroes: Ardimus (Arrowett) & Batman, Green Arrow was known to work them the most, on a show! I wouldn’t cover the child growing up though, just that intro. (no one wants to see Chloe as a mom, just knowing she was) everyone knows she could do that & run a country from another galaxy. LOL! (Did I make sense? Sorta rambled in my brainstorm lol!)

I would love to see Chloe’s part in the whole integration. Making Chloe a solid place to fit inn would be AWESOME! I think there is a pool of creativity yet to be discovered & written!!! I would LOVE!!! L-O-V-E- to take part in it’s writing!!

I think it would do better as a web series, because of it’s un-explored (to my knowledge) content. Man! It would be so killer!

love you woman!



Wow, you are a brave person, opening up your inbox to comments from a horde of Sci-Fi fans 🙂

I appreciate the opportunity to weigh in, so I’ll keep my comments brief. I’ll lead off my comments by pointing out that there’s obviously no way they could have satisfied everyone with the finale, especially with a Canadian TV show budget. If you did everything all of the fans wanted, you’d spend a hundred million dollars, which was clearly not in the cards.

I also note that many folks appear to be quite satisfied with the finale. For my part, though, I found the finale to be monumentally unsatisfying, but not for the reasons that are being cited by many. My only expectation was that I expected the producers handling the finale to deliver a cohesive, meaningful story that wrapped up the TV series, its characters, and its plotlines during their last outing, and it is in this basic storytelling respect that it really came up short.

The best example of this fact is the way in which the Lois and Clark wedding was handled. The fact that Lois and her relationship with Clark was so important to his destiny was one of the truly innovative and memorable things about this season and a really novel, welcome addition of the Superman mythos; the storyline and accompanying great performances by the two actors really enhanced the show. They ultimately built up the wedding into one of the prime narrative drivers of the season, to the point where it took up half of the time in the series’s final episode. The Lois and Clark wedding was, of course, also heavily hyped by the network. If you spend that much time building up to something, you have raised audience expectations to the point where you really, really, need to cohesively deliver a satisfying resolution onscreen.

Instead, the wedding gets interrupted at the halfway point to the show, we get to the end of the final episode, there’s a brief 7-year flash forward sequence, and the two main characters still aren’t married. As a viewer, my response to that moment was roughly: “WHAT?!!! Are you kidding me? All that buildup and this is what we get?”

The fact that the ending of the show establishes that they are still trying to get married is really just a bad storytelling decision. It rudely snaps the viewer out of the story. This ending raises a host of uncomfortable questions that the viewer really shouldn’t have been induced to ask, since they completely ruin the “suspension of disbelief” that is absolutely required for a show with an (admittedly zany) premise like this one.

Questions like: Why didn’t they just finish the wedding in the parking lot with the minister 7 years before? Why did it take so long for them to try to get married again? More importantly, why haven’t Superman and Lois Lane, of all people, not been able to find a day–or heck, even an hour–in seven years to finish their 90% done wedding, which had been portrayed as immensely important to them both for an entire season? You make time for what’s important, and waiting seven years is very much out of character for them.

The Lois character in particular goes from “never accepting defeat” just two episodes prior to apparently blithely accepting defeat in the case where her own wedding doesn’t get finished. Bottom line: the whole thing just defies belief, and having a prime narrative focus of the series be handled in this fashion really makes no sense.

What makes it even more frustrating is that there are any number of ways this plotline could have been handled more satisfyingly; I for one would have been A-OK if that last scene had just established that they were were married offscreen at some nebulous point beforehand, which would have been shockingly easy to do (a simple “Hello, Mrs. Kent” would have worked just fine…). Instead, although we did get lots of wedding-related character moments and the ending clearly shows that the two characters are still together, the viewers categorically did not get a satisfying onscreen narrative conclusion to the season-long wedding plotline. You spend that much time building up to something, you have to deliver, and they did not.

It would be interesting to hear about the thinking that went into this decision; to a completely average TV viewer such as myself, it is absolutely befuddling, and I just felt insulted by the way that the wedding plotline was handled. It felt like my time had been wasted for an entire season.

Now, I don’t know if the non-wedding was mandated by the studio or was a misguided effort to leave the viewer “wanting more”, but no matter whose responsibility it is, it was a huge mistake to end that plotline (and the show) in such a nonsensical and unsatisfying manner, especially when handling it in a more straightforward and crowd-pleasing way would have been just as easy and let them tell the same story.

The completely illogical conclusion to the wedding plotline is emblematic of other, similar problems in the finale, like (for example) the bizarre Chloe-and-the-comic book framing story that gives away Clark’s identity already noted by many, as well as the fact that (despite two seasons of some pretty thick foreshadowing) we never get to see Lois name Superman and reveal him to the world, a fairly important and defining moment for both characters.

In the cosmic scheme of things, of course, it doesn’t really matter. Griping about the final episode is of course a symbolic gesture at this point since the show is over, we’ll never see the actors in these roles ever again, and everyone (myself included) is moving on.

But, that’s just why I think some people remain frustrated. The producers apparently took the position “We don’t need to show [insert really important Smallville character milestone here] on our TV show, since we all know from [insert comic book or movie here] that it will eventually happen!”. Well, that’s just lazy.

As a fan of the TV show, I wanted to see these iconic story moments with “our” versions of these characters, and that’s what the viewers really didn’t get. I had always held off buying the Smallville DVDs, because I knew there would inevitably be a big box set at the end of the series, and I knew that for me the payoff from the destination (the finale) had to be worth making the journey. Let’s face it, this show had some real clunkers along the way.

Unfortunately, the final episode (and in particular, that final scene, where the two main characters are inexplicably not married after a whole season of buildup) was such a let down that I’m not going to waste my time and hard-earned money on the DVDs in order to relive a journey that has such an unsatisfying destination. Which is kind of a shame.

Thanks again for the opportunity to offer an opinion! I don’t mind if you utilize the preceding paragraphs for public consumption, but I would request that my identity remain anonymous.


Samuel Lawrence

I am a huge Smallville, Superman fan and have been from day one. I am also

involved heavily in the online fandom on various sites including Twitter and Kryptonsite forums so I have a very good idea of how the Finale of Smallville was perceived. Generally, I’ve only come across a small minority who didn’t enjoy the finale for various reasons and unfortunately these people are also the most vocal.

Many people loved the episode, myself including. I couldn’t have think of a more perfect way to end the show after 10 years. Clark Kent, the boy who was so scared of being alone finally became the man he was destined to be with the woman he loves by his side. The show is about Clark Kent, not Chloe or Lex and he was the reason I watched from beginning to end.

The only thing that offended me was having Chloe being the only one to call him ‘Superman’ by name. I waited till the end to hear Lois call him that so I was disappointed. In my opinion, only Lois deserves that.

I don’t have a problem with the way they ended Chloe’s storyline. It was ambiguous, yes but that’s what makes it interesting. For those that want it, they can imagine her and Ollie married, in love and happy. My scenario for Chloe would be to have her successfully raising her son away from the heroes and carving a life for herself outside it all. For too long, she’s been defined by the heroes that surround her and sacrificed so much of herself to their cause. Working for JLA doesn’t make her successful. She could be a

editor, painter, journalist and be more powerful, successful because success comes with inner happiness and strength in what you do.

Since I was a little girl, Lois Lane has always been my favourite character. I wouldn’t love her any less if she wasn’t the Pulitzer winning reporter that she is. Her character, integrity, her never-ending faith in others is what draws me to her.

With shows, movies, books – there is always controversy to who belongs to who and the right way to end characters. You’re never going to satisfy everyone. When JK Rowling ended her 7th Harry Potter book, there were people who said it was the worst book written but it doesn’t make it any less a work of brilliance. But such is life that the negatives always get the focus over the positives.

I wanted to use this opportunity to thank everyone involved with the Smallville and for 10 years of love, laughter, tears and magic.


I wish I could write a logic piece analyzing bit by bit how the writers broke the contract with the audience they established in the pilot.

I’m a writer myself (in Spanish, English is not my first language as you probably can tell in my bad grammar) and I studied for years creative writing, plot points, chekhov guns, the journey of the hero and the heroine….so many other treaties about the art of writing and if the writers really think they did their job I pity any new fans that engage into their projects because they lack basic storytelling skills.

But I can’t. I’m still mourning.

The connection the first five years created with this characters and me was strong and powerful, and it was downhill from them on and in the end they just destroyed it, to a point that all I can feel is rage thinking about it. I wish I could be more rational about it, is just a TV show that no one will remember in 10 years (maybe because of the horrible ending), but I can’t.

I was in love with Smallville.

I usually call it my only abusive relationship, always believing the promise that the good times will come back and kept coming back for more mistreatment almost every week, like a beating husband that brings you flowers and promises not to hurt you again and you forgive because you are in love, but then the beatings continue coming and in the end you end up dead.

This is what Smallville did to me. It killed my faith on TV series.

I will say I haven’t seen any other series and I don’t plan to, I can’t have faith again. Heroes started great and also ended in a mess, and the perfect TV series Pushing Daisies was canceled. There are many other great series that also suffered the same faith so is obvious that TV shows are stale like Hollywood movies are becoming now with nothing new or original just rehash, unlikeable characters and bad writing that they cannot see it for the life of themselves.

I really hope the producers of Smallville are really happy about being part of the many problems I have with TV that lead me to quit it altogether. For as much as they say this is the planned ending for the last 10 years I would love to see the original planned ended script or layout, I’m pretty sure it was totally different.

As for my kids I will be buying DVD of good TV shows of the past for them to actually enjoy watching good stories. Star Trek TNG for example, also finished in its own terms and their ending was perfect, IMO. It got closure for all the characters, gave us a glimpse of the future that was logical for them in most ways and opened new possibilities, organically integrating even the special guests….just perfection in writing.

But new TV shows and cable networks can keep airing bad written shows and Reality TV 24/7 if they want to. This viewer, that was willing to purchase the special 10 seasons package of Smallville if only the ending would had been…decent, Is going to take her disposable income and investing on good stories and people that are willing to actually do their homework and keep their promises, YMMV as usual.

Thanks again for the chance and who knows I might be able to write something proper in the future, at this point I just can’t.

Ana Bastow

Editor’s Note: Thanks to everyone (whether fan or professional) who took the time to share with me your thoughts on Smallville‘s ending or on the ending of cult series more generally. There were many different and sometimes conflicting perspectives expressed here, and it’s worth remembering the range of production contingencies and restrictions which also figure into this process.

I’ve always contended that cult series are often most satisfying in the middle when these diverse sets of expectations can all be put into play and where fans feel free to speculate and generate a range of possible endings through their conversations which open the series to many diferent potential interpretations. The minute a series starts to close down, some of those possibilities will be rejected and some heavily invested fans will be crushed. In part, this is because even though fans ultimately play a huge role in how a series will be remembered, fans ascribe much greater value to canon, the officially generated storyline, than fanon, their own interpretations, speculations, fantasies, and productions.

Another theme here that interested me a lot was the sense that the ending determines the value of the series. My own views as a fan are rather different. I know I’ve been disappointed in the resolution of certain series but it also doesn’t take that much away from the pleasures I had in the process of the series. If I had a series which had 100 plus great episodes and a bad ending, I’d be rewatching and remembering fondly the 100 great episodes, which was my primary experience of the series, and if my frustration was too high, tossing the disc of the final episode. Fan communities as a whole have developed purposeful amnesia, denying the existance of plot twists which they disliked, and writing their fan fiction starting just before the plot twist occurs. Blake’s 7 fandom developed a whole genre of fan fiction involving writing beyond an ending which many found frustrating (though which I found especially provocative and clearly, given the number of stories fans wrote, generative.) We need put only as much weigh on the ending of the series as we chose to in our personal and collective imagination, and for me at least, a bad ending doesn’t take that much away from the experience I had with the series as a whole.

Thanks again to our friends at the Alchemists for helping us to organize this exchange between fans and producer/actress.

Acafandom and Beyond: Week One, Part Two (Anne Kustritz, Louisa Stein, and Sam Ford)

In this second installment, the participants engage in back and forth conversation intended to extend upon the ideas contained in their opening statements.

Louisa Stein: Anne and Sam, I’m struck by the harmony in our three separately written pieces. We all seem to recognize the perceived dangers or negative connotations of the term acafan, and yet feel a value in holding on to the term because of its potential as a self-reflexive signpost, a bridge between interconnected disciplines or subject positions, and even perhaps a politicized position.

One question I have is from where this perception emerges that acafan is an essentialized standpoint or identity connected to identity politics? All of our three responses here indicate that that none of us relate to the term acafan in this way, though we are all wary of these associations. Why and where does this negative perception of acafan as a divisive concept take root and how can we counter this narrative? Or is this perception an unavoidable part of the project of acafan work?

Anne Kustritiz:My concern stems from the universalizing tendency behind the aca-fan construct, when one might be tempted to lose sight of aca-fan as a discursive marker and act as though it identifies some kind of shared experience. Several times in the past (and perhaps in this discussion’s future as well) I’ve seen dismissals of the aca-fan concept because it fails to account for that individual’s lived experience, often either because of a mismatch in object (i.e. what kind of fans), discipline, or method. If fandom only refers to participation in active face-to-face communities, many of our colleagues would not qualify. If aca-fan relates only to those who directly interact with fans during the course of their studies, likewise many may see the concept as irrelevant. Partly, this may result from the preponderance of aca-fen from community-oriented fandom who use and reflect on the label, which sometimes makes it seem as though the concept only applies to them (not necessarily by ideology or design, but by sheer numbers).

Particularly for those engaged in literary analysis, aca-fan terminology may seem like an unwelcome imposition of social sciences concerns, and it could be useful to consider how reflections on the researcher’s identity might still offer enrichment for those who see themselves pursuing primarily archival or textual work.

For me, identifying as an aca-fan certainly incorporates a political stance because of my object, method, and disciplinary position: for example, identifying with and as my work identifies me as queer, and copy-left, among other things (which is not to say all slash participants identify as such, but these are strong associations). However, aca-fan describes only one aspect of my fan, scholarly, and other identities and experiences, and it would not mark other scholars in the same way (an aca-fan doing textual analysis of wrestling fans’ twitter accounts would find that telling academic colleagues about personal interest in wrestling and telling wrestling fans about discourse analysis have very different stakes and consequences than my positionality).

Even the suggestion that the term “aca-fan” always offers a relevant and contradictory identification to some extent implies a false universal. In cultural anthropology, for instance, the relevant term would be native anthropology, which does not offer a new or challenging intervention into existing disciplinary practice, but rather adds to an established field of study. Film scholars who also make films or passionately follow film similarly go without notice. However, even in both of these instances, their positionality also shifts if one begins to term them “fans” of urban youth culture, Portuguese jazz bar culture, Hitchcock, or horror. While the experience and passion may remain the same whether we are scholars, buffs, aficionados, or fans, the social positioning alters significantly, thus opening the possibility for solidarity (often with class implications) through fan identification.

Sam Ford: In Soap Fans in 1995, Lee Harrington and Denise Bielby made compelling points about the necessary balance between private and social fandom. I agree with Anne that, just as fan studies has often privileged the fan community over private consumption practices, the term “acafan” has come to hold particular meaning to participants in a community. The implications that being an acafan might have for those doing textual analysis, for instance, is strong.

I primarily study (and am a fan of) areas of entertainment whose cultural value is often missed by anyone who would not consider themselves a fairly ardent “fan” of the genre in question: soap operas and pro wrestling. From the “outside,” both are often considered of no artistic merit, and the trouble that fans of either genre find is that even explaining the artistry of the genre or what makes for “good” vs. “bad” wrestling or “quality soap opera storytelling” is lost on someone outside the genre.

I remember in particular, after the cancellation of As the World Turns, being interviewed by a television critic for a prominent publication about the death of long-running soap operas. I was explaining what was unique about the soap opera storytelling model and what might be lost as daytime soaps go off the air. In the interview, she could detect from my passion and the depth of my knowledge that I did more than “study” soap fans or write “about” the genre: the “fan” side of my “acafan” was showing through. I could instantly tell that her radar went up. As she detected that I liked what she saw as lowbrow and lower-grade programming, she began to completely dismiss all that I had to say. After I finished, she said, “I’ve watched soap operas before, and I didn’t see any of what you saw.”

My point was exactly that: that the language of soap opera and the ability to see what DEFINES “good storytelling” and high quality texts within the soap opera genre can only be seen by someone who understands the genre deeply enough to know its lexicon. And, similarly, for soaps, I’ve written before about the fact that doing textual analysis for that genre (with 260 new episodes a year, for decades) is so complex that it’s hard for those who aren’t intimately familiar for the genre to follow and not see it as totally ridiculous.

All this is to say that, for textual analysis in genres like these, being an acafan provides a great wealth of experience and understanding of a genre that those who aren’t dedicated viewers just wouldn’t have. So I certainly believe that we too often, in using the term “acafan,” privilege the social side of “fan” without thinking about the “aca” part.

And part of what we are questioning here, I suppose, is whether “acafan” becomes a label for a scholar’s relative position to an object of study; a mode of engagement with particular methodologies and approaches; or a label for a distinct kind of scholar or a sub-field of work under “fan studies.” Sometimes, there seems to be slippage across these uses.

Louisa Stein: Anne, I want to focus in on a very valuable point in your response that I’d like us to unpack further. You wrote: “Even the suggestion that the term ‘aca-fan’ always offers a relevant and contradictory identification to some extent implies a false universal.”

This strikes me as very significant; I didn’t mean to imply that there’s always a contradiction between the academic and fan positions, but rather that they always exist in relation to each other, but what that relation is is in constant motion, and for me personally my acafan positioning pushes me to constantly probe at that relationship, to expore whether it is one of solidarity or conflict or more likely a mix and match of contradictory and aligned values.

So for example in going to Vividcon, or in my approach to vidding more generally, I come with a strange mesh of aesthetic values as a film scholar who has studied both mainstream and experimental film and as (perhaps resultingly) a fan who appreciates both highly polished vids by the most acclaimed vidders within fandom and vids that circulate in other spheres on youtube and don’t adhere to the same vidding value sets. So to me the one universal that the acafan position brings with it is the need for a constant self reflexivity in regards to considering one’s relation to one’s object. Maybe that’s why acafandom for me can encompass personal fans, anti-fans, community fans, and everything in between.

And this connects with your final comment, Sam, which I think also gets right to the heart of things. You write that “part of what we are questioning here, I suppose, is whether ‘acafan’ becomes a label for a scholar’s relative position to an object of study; a mode of engagement with particular methodologies and approaches; or a label for a distinct kind of scholar or a sub-field of work under ‘fan studies.’ Sometimes, there seems to be slippage across these uses.”

Yes, and yes, and I think that perhaps the problem comes in when that slippage goes unnoticed–or rather, where we move from slippage (which could be productive if it is recognized as such) and conflation. When these three elements become conflated or equated, we do have a vast narrowing of what one might understand as acafan, a narrowing that could easily become quite alienating. So how do we (or can we) rescue the term acafan to mean all three of these elements (among others) in tandem and multiplicity, rather than as a overly-simplified unified front?

Anne Kustritz: I agree that allowing for a variety of life experiences and disciplinary approaches to populate the aca-fan concept is the primary challenge. Partly, this may require that a case be made for what self-reflexivity has to offer, in tandem with the importation or creation of methods for critically evaluating aca-fan self-reflexivity, because as with any mode of writing, some authors will offer more nuanced, sophisticated, and productive analyses than others.

In the first case, this blog conversation will hopefully amplify the diversity of experiences and approaches taken by aca-fen, which will hopefully allow for all of us to be in broader conversation with the field as a whole. In the second instance, the aca-fan concept will be defined by perhaps the most simplistically “confessional” works unless we create a theoretical frame for understanding and evaluating how scholars employ self-reflexivity to separate justifications of the aca-fan concept from the success with which it is employed in various pieces.

Perhaps this addresses Sam’s concern about the relatively unexamined “aca” end of things. As I’ve mentioned, because of my background in cultural anthropology, I tend to draw upon that literature for its specialization in analyzing the researcher-participant relationship, but it would likely behoove us to collectively build a literature of our own specifically on the process of scholarly analysis for aca-fan works. Thus, perhaps instead of questioning whether one ought to be an aca-fan, which as a question of identity and identification seems problematic to police, and instead move toward creating principles for thinking through aca-fan works. Which aspects of an aca-fan text make it more or less successful or useful?

Sam Ford:I think both of your suggestions are key here and get back to one of my concerns of what would be lost if the ideas surrounding “aca-fan” were to be lost: a space for academics from a wide range of traditional disciplines to come together to share work that both study fans/fan communities in a way that shows respect, nuance, and an acknowledgment of autonomy for those fans–and a space that allows for the intersection of academics and fans to converse with one another on high-level concepts surrounding the reception and socialization of texts that draw high levels of engagements from their viewers/listeners/readers/players.

There has been compelling work in the past few years to, for instance, look at the intersections (or lack thereof) in work about sports fandom and media fandom. I think we should always strive to continue expanding the inclusivity of fan studies, and part of that requires–to Anne’s point–drawing together collections of methodologies, “best practices,” etc., of what constitutes using an “aca-fan” methodology or including an “aca-fan” positioning of one’s own relationship to a work. This doesn’t necessarily require too much formalization–treating fan studies as a discipline all its own in ways that puts too much rigidity for an area study which I believe is all the richer because it crosses disciplinary bounds. But I think it does require being able to present grad students, undergrads, fans, and young scholars with ideas of what constitutes an “acafan” mode of engagement.

We invite your comments and contributions over on our mirror site here or send comments to me at and be sure to indicate if they are for publication.

Anne Kustritz will be a Visiting Assistant Professor at The University of Amsterdam in Media Studies as of fall 2011, after teaching in Women and Gender Studies at the College at Brockport, SUNY. Her work focuses on slash fan fiction, internet ethnography, and queer reproductive politics. Her articles include “Slashing the Romance Narrative” and “Postmodern Eugenics” (forthcoming), and she sits on the editorial board of the Journal of Transformative Works and Cultures. Anne is a fan of Michele Foucault, baking, fruit forward red wines, Ani DiFranco, hatha yoga, sustainable agriculture, Ruth Behar, international travel, and fan creative works, among many other things.

Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy with Peppercom Strategic Communications, an affiliate with both the MIT Program in Comparative Media Studies and the Popular Culture Studies Program at Western Kentucky University, and a fellow with the Futures of Entertainment group. He is also a regular contributor to Fast Company. Sam is co-author of Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Society (NYU Press, forthcoming) and is co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era (University Press of Mississippi, 2011). He lives in Bowling Green, Kentucky, with wife Amanda and daughter Emma.

Louisa Stein is Assistant Professor of Film and Media Culture at Middlebury College. Her work explores audience engagement in transmedia culture, with emphasis on questions of gender and generation. She has published on audiences and transmedia engagement in a range of journals and edited collections including Cinema Journal and the Flow TV anthology (Routledge, 2011). Louisa is co-editor of Teen Television: Essays on Programming and Fandom (McFarland, 2008), and of the forthcoming collection Transmedia Sherlock. Louisa is also Book Review editor of Transformative Works and Cultures. You can find Louisa on twitter here and on wordpress here..

Acafandom and Beyond: Week One, Part One (Anne Kustritz, Louisa Stein, and Sam Ford)

This is the first installment of our summer-long discussion of “Acafandom and Beyond.” Many readers ask me what “Acafan” means in the title of this blog. This conversation will be a chance to dig deeper into this concept and explore its relationship to more general concerns of the place of subjectivity and self-reflexivity in cultural critique. In the first segment of each week, we will be reading opening statements from the three invited participants.

Anne Kustritz: My interest in aca-fan identity derives from two main concerns. First, I envision the aca-fan construct as the demarcation of a site of cultural and political struggle and an opportunity for solidarity; yet it often seems to be represented as a coherent or even essentialized standpoint or identity (and identity politics). Secondly, the issues I imagine as most central to theorization of aca-fan identity have also been elucidated significantly in the works of post-structuralist, post-modern, feminist, queer, post-colonial, and native ethnography/ethnology, and those conversations would significantly enrich our dialogue.

It seems to me that arguments about or discussions of aca-fan identity often work at cross-purposes because they reveal the lack of a shared object and method: that is, the material incoherency/heterogeneity of both the “fan” and the “studies” of fan studies; basic disagreement about the organization and definition of these terms means that scholars (and fans) discussing aca-fan identity lack a shared vocabulary. The stakes involved in embracing, repudiating, or entirely avoiding the aca-fan construct remain localized within particular geographical and institutional spaces. Thus, the conversation looks almost entirely different depending upon which fans one studies, using which methods. For example, in my own work I’ve tried to make a distinction between “creative” and “as is” fans who either treat the canon as open to fan transformation, or a closed system to be interpreted and commented upon but not altered. In past aca-fan discussions I’ve also come to see the critical importance of studying enculturated versus unincorporated fans as a locus of disagreement, i.e. those fans who participate in communities and define themselves through that participation, and those who act within a less fixed network, or none at all.

Both of these distinctions as well as numerous others repeatedly unseat our attempts to determine who is a fan, and thus what may be gained or lost by identifying as such. Subsequently, the methods one uses to study “their” type of fans also structures beliefs about the aca-fan concept, particularly between those who see fans as primarily a textual phenomena and those who see fans as a primarily socio-cultural phenomena, as well as those who balance the two perspectives. Even then, significant disagreement still persists over whether fans primarily pose artistic, psychological, cultural, legal, or political questions. Our investments in who defines a fan, how they should be studied, and why we study fans all become ventriloquized in discussions about the value and nature of aca-fan identification. In other words, a little self-reflexivity about our thoughts on self-reflexivity might be in order.

Secondly, our discussion of aca-fan identity occurs in the wake of two decades of debate in cultural anthropology about the trials and tribulations of studying a group to which one belongs, as well as over a century of thought on the unique political, ethical, and psychological implications of studying people. While it may seem strange to turn to anthropology, especially to those who study unincorporated, “as is” fans, it would behoove us to take these conversations into account and allow them to enrich our dialogue. We need not invent this wheel. Just as a sample, post-structuralist anthropology, particularly the works of James Clifford, warn against allowing our observations of some behavior of one group of people to construct a coherent, ahistorical, or essencialized notion of “culture” – or “fans.” Rather, it is through the act of naming and narrating both our participants and ourselves as fans that these scattered activities seem homogenous and inherently meaningful.

Ruth Behar’s work, thought by many to mark the beginning of cultural anthropology’s self-reflexive turn, deeply probes the layers of hierarchy and difference at play when the life story of a researcher comes into contact with the on-going life stories of her group of interest. She notes that while self-narratives of the heroic, self-determined researcher feel reassuring, it is more honest and affords deeper human connections with participants and readers to acknowledge our fallibility and partiality while engaging in what she terms “vulnerable observation.”

Similarly, many critical ethnographers, including Gelya Frank, Gayle Rubin, and Kamala Visweswaran, argue that doing work within our own communities does not resolve the inherited colonial and class based baggage inherent in “studying down,” but rather often intensifies them because one begins to study the very system of hierarchy within which one’s own life remains entangled.

Scholars like Julie Taylor who use ethnographic methods at the disciplinary margins challenge us to reconceptualize the value of academic work by refusing to mystify its necessary partiality, limitations, and personal/somatic origins, instead celebrating the inescapable fact that academic work comes from unique subjectivities. Thus Taylor describes her work as “her tango,” and makes the specific enunciation (rather than inherent nature) of Argentine tango danced by herself and her participants as inflected by the widespread terror of the dirty war and the gendered terror of sexual abuse the very focus and strengths of her study. In general, critical cultural anthropologists, ethnographers, and ethnologists offer a long literature problematizing the culture concept, probing the construction of researchers’ identities both “in the field,” and at home, as well as while doing “homework,” and imagining a type of scholarship not based on the false empiricisms of absolute, essential, or ahistorical knowledge.

Therefore, I find it important to start by stating that I study enculturated, creative fans using an interdisciplinary array of mixed methods including critical theory and ethnography. My feelings about the aca-fan concept are thereby conditioned by my training in both cultural studies and critical cultural anthropology. I am wary of allowing the aca-fan construction to imply any homogeneity of culture or identity construction among either fans or academics, and instead find it most useful as the description of a site of struggle between the dominant constructions of each, pointing toward many disciplines’ remaining investments in “objectivity,” and the social stereotype of “the fan” as masculine yet emasculated, overly emotional yet analytic and socially inept, educated yet enraptured with the detritus of the popular.

Although I emphasize the heterogeneity of experience and investment among the group and my own idiosyncratic place therein, I identify as a slash fan and an aca-fan because these are labels of solidarity for me. Like queer, these offer an opportunity to claim and stand with a set of socially marked investments in sex, sociality, research practice, and classed cultural tastes.

Louisa Stein This August I will be going to my first fan convention. It’s a very specific fan con, not one that is focused on any particular series, but rather a con that brings together practitioners and appreciators of the practice of fan remix video known as vidding. The con is called Vividcon, and for three days fans and vidders gather to screen vids, discuss vids, assess vids, critique vids, and dance to vids.

Vividcon represents a turning point for me, as does the writing of this piece. I have always found negotiating my fan and academic personae to be a fraught process. As a result I have steered away from directly sharing my fannish narratives or experiences in academic contexts and vice versa. Indeed, for a long time I maintained not one or two but four online journaling spaces, including an academic blog, a fannish journal, a personal journal, and an acafannish journal. In recent years I’ve begun to question whether this level of split personality management might be the healthiest thing, and so I’ve worked to bring together these different dimensions of my cultural participation.

Vividcon will be the first embodied experiential union of these two sets of perspective, both of which I claim as mine. Not that I’m going to go in waving academic credentials–indeed, I am as worried about negative fan response to the “aca” part as I am about academics to the “fan” part (a worry that is perhaps exaggerated, as I am certainly not the only academic attending the conference, and there is in fact a workshop being held on academic work on vidding).

But regardless of my own uneasiness, if I’m going to Vividcon, I am going as myself, and that means as a fan, a vidder, and an academic, in no particular order. These positions may seem distinct and contradictory, but when I poke at them I find they are not; I produce both as an academic and as a vidder, but in one case I create with words alone, the other with music and image. And crucially, in both cases I engage in dialogue with others who similarly care about thinking in sustained ways about media, media culture, and media reception.

The term “acafan” in all its messiness suggests an unexpected and in many cases uneasy (and from some perspectives, unwanted) combination. The aca side conveys notions of academic knowledge–knowledge of and by the academy–knowledge hashed out in peer reviewed journals and modes of thought schooled in classrooms and conferences, sustained, rigorous, tested knowledge. The fan side brings (overtly) to the table investment, fantasy, unabashed emotion, focus and devotion, abashed emotion, consumer willingness, consumer un-willingness, consumer anger, mainstream engagement with popular culture, non-mainstream engagement in popular culture, de-centered authorship, online peer culture, visible female authorship, queer engagement.

My dual allegiance to both sides has forced me to realize from the start that this uneasy synthesis of perspectives is part of my position as a media scholar and as a media lover and as a fan. In the end I believe this dynamic of productive tension or uneveness isn’t relevant only to people who identify as fans and academics, but to academics who study culture more broadly.

Maybe acafan is an imperfect and now loaded term, but any term that gets at this dual, conflicted union will accumulate baggage because of the nature of the concept, and this one has a specific history and history of scholarship that I would be loathe to erase in an attempt to get away from problems that are, from another perspective, core strengths, contradictions and all.

The concept and term “acafan” do not in themselves offer an answer: far from it. Rather they lead us always to key questions: how do I balance investment and critical analysis, how do we usefully acknowledge our particular positioning in relation to a given text or community, and what insights come from a given situated position (be it casual observer, lurker, personal fan, fan-creator, community participant, antifan)? I (and I am sure I am not alone in this) face these questions as part of an ongoing process, and the questions change along with the community contexts, media texts, and my investment. Thus to me “acafan” is not a category of scholar or a defined community, nor even a fixed position, but rather a descriptor of an ongoing, ever shifting critical and personal process.

Sam Ford: Over the past few years, the term “acafan” has been picked up for a variety of uses. For academics, it’s been a way to discuss a particular type of fan studies. By that, I mean pieces more qualitative in nature, more informed by in-depth knowledge of a particular fan culture because it’s been written by someone who is a member of that community, and which often use an inductive sort of logic, focusing on the rich details of a particular fan community and then looking at what that case might tell us about fan practices at large.

It’s also become a way to be more up-front about one’s own complicity in what he is writing about (as Anne discusses), encouraging academics to both admit the limitations their “embeddedness” causes but also to be able to draw from the knowledge they have as a participant of some sort in a particular fandom or as a self-professed “fan” of a media property.

But, of course, both “academic” and “fan” are loaded terms. There’s plenty of anti-fandom in academic culture (as Louisa alludes to), which the “acafan” has been a construct to rail against. And there’s plenty of anti-egghead feelings in fan culture, both conceptual (not seeing the value in “overanalyzing” or questioning the “privileged”/heightened position an academic is perceived to be taking on) and based on real experience (for any of us who have ever ran into an “acafan” who believes their fannish opinion “superior” because they are “not just a fan but also an academic.”)

As fan communities face members who see their positions as enlightened because of their “superior” knowledge–and as academic conferences, programs, and journals are flooded with people who see fan studies as a justification to make a living writing about their hobby without worrying so much about any critical intervention or generating compelling insights–it’s perhaps no surprise that the term has “grown” to the point that people are now questioning whether its use has been stretched past usefulness.

Hence, we have this series over the summer here on Henry’s blog: what I hope will be a helpful intervention to figure out what can’t be lost about the position, methodology, and type of writing/discussion implied by the “acafan” construct while hopefully helping weed out ways that the term has come to be used in counterproductive ways.

While I don’t have deep investment in whether the actual term “acafan” is retained, I do have reservations about what could be lost in abandoning the term. As Anne points out, there is a lack of boundaries in fan studies that is both freeing (being able to draw from multiple disciplines/methodologies and encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration) and constraining (a lack of shared vocabulary, etc.) But, even as we celebrate the interdisciplinary nature of fan studies, I think it’s crucial to think about all the areas of what might be considered “fan studies” which our field has not intersected with: sports studies and music/folklore studies, for instance, both of which are areas where many of the academics writing in these areas likely have deep personal/social investments in their objects of study. The “acafan” construct still might act as a means through which we can connect many academics who “fan studies” as a “field” has not yet intersected with.

Even more fundamentally, I fear a dismissal of “acafandom” outright might miss opportunities for collaboration, conversation and debate between fan studies academics and fan communities members who deeply invested in larger discussions about fandom, the politics of affinity communities, etc. I feel that the idea of “acafandom” have come to represent spaces of collaboration where academics studying fandom can learn from fans and vice versa, and I’ve participated in a variety of conversations, online and in-person, that have been strengthened by collaborative discussion between those who study fandom professionally and those who primarily approach fandom through “vernacular theory” (to borrow Thomas McLaughlin’s term).

As someone with a deep investment in “applied humanities” (to use a popular term from my alma mater, MIT), I long to see an academia more inclusive of a diverse range of “non-academic” opinions, just as I long to see the insights of media studies academics reach audiences outside journal readership and media studies conference attendees. For me, acafandom has represented sites for such collaboration, and I feel that fan studies loses significant ground if we accidentally raze spaces for interdisciplinary and academic/fan dialogue in reconsidering our use of the term.

We invite your comments and contributions over on our mirror site here or send comments to me at and be sure to indicate if they are for publication.

Anne Kustritz will be a Visiting Assistant Professor at The University of Amsterdam in Media Studies as of fall 2011, after teaching in Women and Gender Studies at the College at Brockport, SUNY. Her work focuses on slash fan fiction, internet ethnography, and queer reproductive politics. Her articles include “Slashing the Romance Narrative” and “Postmodern Eugenics” (forthcoming), and she sits on the editorial board of the Journal of Transformative Works and Cultures. Anne is a fan of Michele Foucault, baking, fruit forward red wines, Ani DiFranco, hatha yoga, sustainable agriculture, Ruth Behar, international travel, and fan creative works, among many other things.

Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy with Peppercom Strategic Communications, an affiliate with both the MIT Program in Comparative Media Studies and the Popular Culture Studies Program at Western Kentucky University, and a fellow with the Futures of Entertainment group. He is also a regular contributor to Fast Company. Sam is co-author of Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Society (NYU Press, forthcoming) and is co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era (University Press of Mississippi, 2011). He lives in Bowling Green, Kentucky, with wife Amanda and daughter Emma.

Louisa Stein is Assistant Professor of Film and Media Culture at Middlebury College. Her work explores audience engagement in transmedia culture, with emphasis on questions of gender and generation. She has published on audiences and transmedia engagement in a range of journals and edited collections including Cinema Journal and the Flow TV anthology (Routledge, 2011). Louisa is co-editor of Teen Television: Essays on Programming and Fandom (McFarland, 2008), and of the forthcoming collection Transmedia Sherlock. Louisa is also Book Review editor of Transformative Works and Cultures. You can find Louisa on twitter here and on wordpress here..

Going Beyond the Ending: A Wrap Up

This week, this blog has been using the debate about Smallville’s ending to raise some larger questions about how cult series ends and how producers might deal with fans who are disappointed or frustrated or enraged or betrayed or… with the outcomes. Seeking to place this debate in a larger context, I reached out to Flourish Klink,who graduated with a Masters from the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program (where I was her proud mentor) and now, alongside teaching at MIT, works as the Chief Participation Officer for the Alchemists, advising this transmedia company about fan relations and participatory culture. She always has interesting things to say about the interplay between producers and fans, so I wanted to give her a chance to weigh in on this discussion.

Cult series always seem more satisfying to fans in the middle than at the end. How do you think producers should deal with the expectations which have built up over the run of the series? Are there classic mistakes which producers make in trying to respond to fan frustration with the ending of a program?

One of the most important aspects of dealing with expectations is to be honest about the situation, the possibilities, and the fact that not everybody is happy. One of the most classic mistakes that producers make is to become very defensive about their own work, suggesting that the way the show (or book, or…) ended is the only way it could have ended. Obviously, producers and writers and actors get just as wrapped up in their own long-running projects as fans do, so sometimes they become very certain that they’re doing the right thing!

But fans also have a perspective on the series, and if the producers are too staunch that the series ended the right and correct and only way possible, it can be very insulting to fans. It is much better to frame discussion about the end of a series in a more open way. “We decided to make character X and character Y together, because that’s what everybody in the writer’s room was feeling… Character Y and character Z might have a romance in an alternate universe, for sure, but we could only tell one of a million possible stories about these people.”

An example of a writer who dealt with this very badly is J.K. Rowling (OK, she’s a writer, not a producer – but it’s a similar idea). Many fans viewed the epilogue to the final book as a slap in the face, intended to shut down any speculation about what might happen to the characters in their adult life. It would have been very easy for Rowling to mitigate some of those frustrations with a few well-placed words!

What roles can/should transmedia play in shaping the future of a cult series?

Transmedia can provide a wonderful way to explore the future of a series that ended too soon – but it can also play a wonderful role in exploring alternate universes, alternate ideas of how characters could be. That’s an old idea in fanfic, but it’s a new idea for Hollywood. (Here, we ignore the Star Wars extended universe – it’s been doing this for years, but very quietly.) On its simplest level, changing media can allow fans who liked the ending of a TV show to enjoy that ending and consider the new medium “noncanonical” – but it can allow fans who didn’t like the ending, especially an ending that centers around a romantic pairing, to continue the story until it reaches a place they find more satisfying.

What roles can/should fan fiction play in allowing fans to “repair the damage” done by the “Powers That Be” when they end a series on what some fans feel is the wrong note?

It seems silly to me to ask questions about “should” when it comes to fan works. Fan works are not really the kind of thing that “should” or “should not” exist – they do exist, and there we are. That said, I think that fan fiction is vital for this purpose. Fans are extremely invested in their shows, and fan fiction can be a way to put your money where your mouth is: instead of just saying “damn, why didn’t they do X, Y and Z,” you can write it yourself instead. By that stage of a show, fandom is often as much about frustration as it is about fascination; fan fiction gives one a way to work out both those emotions.

What franchises do you think have done the best job in resolving the competing expectations that surround the final episode of a favorite series?

Even though lots of fans disliked the final season, I think that Buffy the Vampire Slayer did a very good job – and it did a good job of using multiple shows and multiple media to let fans choose what view of the universe they wanted to take. Fans can choose to only watch Buffy – or also watch Angel – or also read the Season 8 comic books. Depending on what they chose to do, what they choose to consider their own personal “head canon,” they can enjoy their own ideas about the series. What’s more, whether you liked or disliked the final episode of BTVS, nobody was able to say that it wasn’t climactic. BTVS somehow managed to have an apocalypse every season and still raise the stakes every season. If that’s possible, no other show has an excuse for not having a climactic final episode!

For those who want to have a better understanding of how one can be a fan, even a very loyal fan, and actively seek to write around or think around disappointing elements in the original series, I’d recommend checking out my chapter on Beauty and the Beast in Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. Here was a series that many, though not all, fans thought took a wrong turn which violated the genre contract the producers had made with their viewers and many chose to disavow an entire series and proceed with the fandom as though it had never existed as part of the canon.

Now, I want to share two letters I received from other fans who wanted to share their thoughts on the ending of cult series. I would be happy to see more such letters at and will publish more if they come. Do let me know if you intend your letter for publication.

Dr. Jenkins,

The ending of series can certainly be a challenge for everyone involved, especially the fans. I remember well when the original Star Trek television series moved to less-favored time slots and eventually went off the air. It is probably fortunate that they did not have the inclination at the time to do a major “wrap up” episode, which left fans and professional writers alike the opportunity to continue the storyline and expand it into many other series set in the universe that Gene Roddenberry built.

I was, by the way, one of those fans who continued the series in dreadful, typed fan-fic stories that circulated in small eddies, a practice that also got me through the long dry-spells between Star Wars movies. I’d never be rival to Timothy Zahn, but my own imaginings and characters satisfied my desire to know what happened in a way that did not detract from what became the official story line. My friends and I enjoyed our now-online “alternate universe” versions, and the challenge of creating believable plots and character development arcs gave me new sympathy for professional writers.

This is not to say that I do not understand the sense of disappointment and loss when a series – or character – is terminated before I am ready. I still consider Firefly the best series that should never have ended. The movie Serenity explained many of gems Josh Wheaton had hidden in store for us, but I will always grieve that we did not see the interplay between those 9 superb characters (and actors!!) beyond the first season. But I also wonder if, in the need to turn out an episode on schedule, the cast and crew would have started moving in directions that disappointed me and the rest of its many fans. As it is, we have our memories, favorite lines, and our mental model of who these characters would have become.

Art, after all, is a cooperative enterprise – while the television presents us with episodes in our favorite characters’ lives, the audience also fills in and extrapolates for itself meaning of whom these people “are” to us. For some of us, myself included, they can be more than entertainment. If we follow them for years and invest them with importance to us personally, then they do have deeper meaning. They may be role models or exhibit a part of our personalities that we do not or cannot express in the “real world” of our socio-cultural reality. Watching them gives us an opportunity to play with identity, perhaps in ways not open to us normally. We might not have a strong, professional woman in our “real” lives, but seeing that character on the screen can help us imagine being one … and then becoming one in a case of a projected identity becoming actual.

In retrospect, considering all the series and characters I have followed, I wonder if cult series should avoid conclusive wrap up episodes. The last episode (heck, the last season) of Lost, for instance, felt like a cheat – not answering the questions that I did have while also not advancing the characters in a way that felt authentic, to me. While, at the time, a series’ sudden end (as with the very uneven Odyssey 5) leaves me with questions, it also leaves me freedom to imagine for myself what would have been if only the series had continued. And in many ways, the audience’s own imagination – as Hitchcock demonstrated – is more powerful than laying it all out on the screen in vivid, authoritative, bound-to-disappoint-someone conclusion.

Barbara Z. Johnson

From Eugenia:



Sometime during Season 3, I had decided that there were three types of resolutions to this series. These were:

  1. Everyone dies.
  2. Most of the main characters survive.
  3. The postmodern non-ending ending.

1. Everyone dies

According to the laws of narrativium and story logic [1], this was the most likely resolution. Hints, or what other writers call “foreshadowing”, in this direction were themes such as humanity wasn’t fit to survive and children didn’t come into their own until their parents were eliminated. Minor plots centered on schisms in the population leading to violence, characters suffering fatigue both mentally and physically, and characters becoming addicted to mind-altering substances. Logically these actions would have led to depleting resources to the point the fleet would be unable to defend or sustain itself.

2. Most of the main characters survive

Given Moore and Eick’s manifesto [2] which described their “re-imagining” as “Naturalistic Science Fiction” and which stated, “Our goal is nothing less than the reinvention of the science fiction television series”, something resembling an optimistic ending was the least likely resolution. After several seasons of “gritty realism”, bleakness, and despair, the reversion to something resembling a traditional ending where the “good” guys win would be tantamount to an admission of failure of their “re-imagined” series.

Rationalizations of following the original series are mere excuses. Moore and Eick never felt obligated to follow anything in the original series beyond the title, the character names (even then demoted to “call signs” or last names), and the general design of the eponymous spaceship. It’s absurd to even bring up Galactica: 1980 to justify the ending; that series wasn’t titled Galactica: 148,000 BC.

3. The postmodern non-ending ending

In light of the “critical acclaim” of the series in the first two seasons, this conclusion to the series was possible if Moore and Eick sought to reinstate their favoured position with the critical intelligentsia.

The typical ingredients of postmodern works are evident in the series: style over substance, juxtaposition of different elements, references to past works, combination of the “lowbrow” and “highbrow”, ambiguity, nihilism, and self-awareness of the artificial contrivance involved in creating the “work”. Frequently accompanying postmodern literature or art is the author’s stated intention to make it “difficult” for the reader or viewer. Not only difficult in interpreting it, but also even reading or looking at it due to the revolting subject matter.

These traits were evident in the series with its use of documentary (cinema-verite) camera work, the “re-imaging” of a “cheesy, 1970’s TV show” into something “complex” with “layers of meaning”, the disjointed narrative which frequently shifted time frames leaving gaps in the storyline, the monotone colour scheme of the costumes and sets making it difficult to distinguish characters, and viewers constantly being referred to deleted scenes and podcasts to fill in the gaps. Adding to the difficulty in understanding the storyline was demanding the viewer to shift frames of reference in quick succession. At times it was space opera, at others it was contemporary drama, and at still other times abstract symbolism. A frequent trait in postmodern literature is the author making an appearance in the story itself, so Moore’s cameo in the final scenes was not unexpected.

What is claimed as sophisticated and erudite is merely confusing as the postmodern approach repeatedly disrupts the “suspension of disbelief” which narrative fiction relies on. The conclusions of such works are often self-referential or circular in that they return to the beginning.


Basically the conclusion was a traditional “happy” ending in which most of the main characters survive and a quick addendum of the postmodern self-referential with a few final swipes at the original series.

Moore and Eick just couldn’t resist making the “Guardians” (old-school Cylon centurions) all on the “evil” side and obliterated. They just couldn’t resist pitching the whole fleet into the sun accompanied by the original 1978 series title music played at the tempo of a dirge [3]. They just couldn’t resist one last potshot regarding the original Baltar’s beheading/non-beheading [4].


It contradicted the underlying assumption of the science fiction genre. Underneath the spaceships, lasers, funny-looking makeup, etc. is the ideal that the scientific method enables progress through a greater understanding of the physical world. As such, it allows humanity to determine its own destiny by surviving threats of extermination from disease, natural disasters, and predators.

The finale succumbed to the romantic notion of the “noble savage” living in harmony with nature by giving up material possessions, advanced technology, and accumulated knowledge. In essence, these Colonials sentenced their direct descendants to ignorance and a minimal existence. This is the antithesis of the science fiction genre’s foundation. The series conclusion reveals that the “optimism” that Moore and Eick criticized as unrealistic in Star Trek was actually a lack of understanding on their part of the values inherent in the scientific method and Western civilization.

The cyclical “what has happened before, will happen again” typifies Eastern traditions. Destiny is preordained meaning when it come right down to it, an individual or civilization having no “free will”. References to the “Head” people as angels who are acting in accordance with God’s instructions is actually in direct opposition to the original series “Beings of Light”. The “Beings of Light” represented the possibility of humanity’s evolution to a higher state yet they could not “interfere with freedom of choice [5]”, unlike the “re-imagined” series “Head” people who directly interfered and acted in the capacity of fate or destiny.

Various comments regarding comparisons of the original series to the “re-imagined” series indicate that some viewers weren’t paying attention or were not able to recognize recurring themes without a character pontificating at length. When the original series mentioned that Kobol’s [6] civilization migrated and abandoned technology, it stated: “And when they settled the Colonies, they turned on the very technology that could have saved them had they used it properly [7]”. This theme is later alluded to in dialogue referring to the Cylons as “a race of beings who allowed themselves to be overcome by their own technology [8]”. Technology wasn’t considered evil in and of itself, but that it could be misused either intentionally or through over-reliance.

The original series connected the themes of “free will” and the use of technology. These themes are intertwined in the episode “War of the Gods” and complement the surface mythic storyline. In being seduced by technology, there is the danger of losing one’s humanity or soul. To retain “free will”, and thus humanity, it was deemed necessary to maintain family, community, and knowledge through religious, educational, political, and military structures. To submit blindly to another power is to lose “free will” and the ability to determine one’s future. This point was again visited in the episode “Experiment in Terra” with the words: “I came from a world where the people believed the opposite of war was peace. We found out the hard way that the opposite of war is more often slavery. And that strength — strength alone — can support freedom [9]”.

[1] The force that holds the story together as defined by Terry Pratchett.

[2] Ron Moore, Battlestar Galactica: Naturalistic Science Fiction or Taking the Opera out of Space Opera 2002

[3] Has this series ever used the 1978 Stu Phillips title music theme at the original tempo in all of its orchestral glory? Especially the trumpet fanfare?

[4] That one was for me, wasn’t it, Ron?

[5] Being of Light, “Lost Planet of the Gods, Part II”

[6] Incidentally, the Akkadian word for planet or star is kakkabu, which doesn’t take much effort to transform into Kolob or Kobol.

[7] Adama, “Lost Planet of the Gods, Part II”

[8] Baltar, “War of the Gods, Part II”

[9] Apollo, “Experiment in Terra”