Where Fandom Studies Came From: An Interview with Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson (Part Three)

Your definition of fan culture emphasizes “a specific amateur infrastructure for its creation, distribution and reception,” yet this infrastructure is part of what may be shifting in an age of Kindle Worlds and Wattpad. How should the study of fan fiction respond to those shifts? You seem ready to deal with the shift from printed zines to online distribution, not to mention a range of different kinds of online distribution practices (of the kind that Gail De Kosnik discusses in her forthcoming book). Are there some changes that would be so dramatic that they would fundamentally alter our understanding of what fan fiction is?

KB: Louisa Stein’s and my “Limit Play” (2009) discussed the vital importance of interfaces to the actual fan works themselves. One of the examples is LiveJournal role-playing games, a form of fan fiction but also an interactive performance. Recently I’ve been looking at Storium, a storytelling RPG that doesn’t come from the media fan perspective but rather a gaming approach, where the storytelling is basically how you play and succeed.

Likewise, Francesca Coppa’s (2006) argument about fan fiction as a type of performance effectively argues that we write fic in part because we can’t make films. Since then, however, vidders have begun using digital tools to manipulate footage into creating their own images (just like constructed reality vids have done for a while now). In other words, fan fiction is already interactive and multimedia and collaborative and all these things. As long as fans create texts about their favorite characters and universes and plot lines, we’ll probably continue to call it fan fiction and will continue to study it.

The issue with commercial platforms is actually less one of interfaces and technology as it is of profit and community. Karen and I have always foregrounded the role of community for fan fiction—while we obviously wouldn’t exclude, say, drawer fic from fan fiction, we’d consider it more an exception than the norm. We instead believe that our approach to fan fiction should include the community that produces, disseminates, and receives these artifacts. Given the social community structure of fandom, we cannot simply divorce fan fiction from its context and equate it with other forms of derivative creativity. Karen, in fact, has argued in regard to Kindle Worlds that “if you define fan fiction as ‘derivative texts written for free within the context of a specific community,’ then this isn’t that”. Interestingly, Jamison (2012) argues that Fifty Shades loses something when taken out of the context of mutually influential Twilight human AUs (and human BDSM AUs), an observation that reflects Woledge’s close textual study of fan turned pro fic (“From Slash to Mainstream,” in Fan Fictions and Fan Communities). The lines are obviously murky, but again, however interesting the border cases are, the fact remains that they only gain importance because we endeavor to properly define fan fiction.

KH: In a word, no. Fan fiction—the thing itself—connotes written texts, regardless of platform (zine, LiveJournal post, Tumblr entry, Wattpad post). I imagine there will be some Next Big Technological Interface Thing that fandom will rush toward, just the way that Tumblr caused much of fandom to leave LiveJournal, but the platform is independent of the writing, and the writing won’t stop. Further, technological considerations don’t seem to be adding all that much to what we’ve been seeing. It’s less sheer novelty and more old wine in new bottles.

When the Internet came along, everyone thought threaded stories, sort of like the old Choose Your Own Adventure books of my childhood, would be a Thing, but they never caught on. Likewise, it’s easy to embed illustrations, but to my eye, they evoke the hard-copy zines of yore to me, albeit with more color—occasional images, often by an artist who is not the same person as the text’s author.

The things I like best about technological tools are, first, the ability to comment, which basically takes the old SF zines’ Letters of Comment section and appends it to the item in question, which really helps build the fan community; and second, indexing, categorizing, and tagging, which makes it far easier to find texts of interest.

I’ve been doing work on World War II–era SF zines, which involves a lot of cross-zine discourse among relatively few players, and it’s amazing how little has changed. I could thread these in a LiveJournal-hotlinked post with dates and everything. I am always excited to see what new toys technology comes up with; but I would not be surprised if the shiny new toy was used to create a new mode of expression for an existing activity. Wattpad’s great innovation, for instance, is to have text in little short bursts that are ideal for reading on phones. That resulted in (created? self-selected to?) a particular kind of writer and writer.

Kristina cites my blog post about Kindle Worlds. I like the definition of fan fiction that I make there. The element of “community” is the most important. (We can argue about “free.” Suffice it to say that if it isn’t, it had better be a solution created by and for the community.) If I write a story for Kindle Worlds, then it would be work for hire (under monetary terms that most freelance writers would not accept), not a gift written for my fandom.

Kindle Worlds used the term fan fiction in its initial marketing (it no longer seems to use this term) as a shorthand for marketing purposes that targeted potential writers and readers, but the texts are derivative stories written as work for hire, with great limitations placed on what can be written—no overt sex, no crossovers, no death of major characters, that kind of thing. These limitations are no fun for lots of fan writers.

Kindle Worlds also seems to be struggling. The Daily Dot, for example, notes that Kindle Worlds seeded one World by commissioning a pro writer, Neal Pollack, to write for it, which hints at quantity and quality issues; and a post at Bustle addresses Kindle Worlds’ failure to catch on. The Bustle directs us to Rebecca Tushnet’s legal article about Kindle Worlds and fair use, which is a must read.

What could be changing is the meaning of the term fan fiction. I’m seeing a linguistic shift whereby the term’s connotation is broadening to mean “any derivative work,” not “a derivative work written by a self-identified fan within the context of a fan community, often as an item of exchange, and often for free.” I object to this broadened definition because the division conflates fan activity within a specialist community with nonfan commercial activity, and I personally value the distinction.

The study of fan fiction (used in its classical limited sense) will continue to address the ways that the interface affects the classic rhetorical situation of author–text–reader, as criticism always does; it will address concerns of power, gender, race, and class, as it always had; and it will continue to apply to fan fiction theories from various disciplines. Thus work on fan fiction will be ultimately evolutionary, not game-changingly disruptive. I’d personally like to see the focus on fan text rather than fan fiction, because it connotes a far wider range of fan expression: vids, artwork, comics, poetry, whatever.

Feminist and queer studies perspectives were key in defining the field of fan fiction studies, and rightly so, for many reasons your book does a good job of describing. Yet, there was from the start a serious neglect of what fandom studies might learn from critical race theory. Today, there is still a remarkable shortage of work which deals with racial politics in and through fandom. I know as editors you have been actively concerned about some of the silences around race, so I wanted to get your perspective on how those structuring absences have impacted our field and what might represent some generative approaches for re-engaging with those topics today.

KH: TWC published a special issue in 2011 guest edited by Robin Reid and Sarah N. Gatson on Race and Ethnicity in Fandom . I’d direct you particularly to the editorial and to Mel Stanfill’s essay. Fans are also intensely concerned with issues surrounding race. The huge Racefail imbroglio in 2009 is a good example. But I’m not seeing a lot of scholarly work being done on the topic in fan studies, and we’ve had bad luck with TWC when we’ve tried to solicit contributions in that arena, including a poor showing under open calls for submissions, an inability to directly solicit, and a guest editor of a proposed issue related to the topic of critical race theory pulling out. Right now I’m liking work on the topic done by fans, particularly for race in comic book depictions and race-based film-casting issues. I would love to see some of that formally theorized in an academic setting, but until then, check out Racalicious.

The absences have left a vacuum in the field that skews perceptions of fans as comprising primarily middle-class white girls and women (if media) or as middle-class white boys and men (if gaming or comics). Nonwhite concerns are perceived as outliers.

Further, I worry that white scholars don’t want to address the issue, in part because they have no lived experience and thus they feel inauthentic, and in part because they don’t want to be attacked. Yet of course scholars of color ought not shoulder the topic solely themselves. One important thing to do to generate more criticism and thought may be to reconfigure the Other oppositional binary: if a fan is an Other and not-white is an Other, than the fan of color is doubly Othered. How can this potential estrangement be turned? How is it useful? I’m also a big fan of cutting to the chase in any topic by assessing the power dynamics, what I call following the money. Why is it important to the white majority for it to retain and apportion their authority? What is at stake? How can that authority be usefully challenged?

KB: One of the more amusing things for me as an interdisciplinary scholar is the way different departments canonize different pieces by the same writer. Mention Deleuze in media studies, you get Cinema I and II. In English you’ll see a lot of references to Anti-Oedipus and Mille Plateaux, whereas in philosophy Difference and Repetition or even his books on Kant and on Nietzsche would be considered his central work.

Likewise, we have embraced “Encoding/Decoding” in fan studies without ever fully engaging with the fact that Stuart Hall, in fact, was not only a founder of the British Cultural Studies but also of BLACK British Cultural Studies (that was the name of the 1996 reader where I consciously read Hall for the first time). This is a really long way of saying that mostly US, mostly white, mostly middle-class fan scholars have done much better at addressing concerns of gender rather than race or class in the notorious trifecta. Given the overlaps between gender and queer studies (and possibly the larger number of GLTB acafans), we have done much better with queer issues than with race. Maybe a generative mode would be overlapping/applying critical race theory with gender or queer studies.

A fan review called the Fan Fiction Studies Reader “whitewashing” and commented that they’d like to see bell hooks write on fandom. Anyone’s response would be: ME TOO! bell hooks may have other things she wants to write about, but it behooves us to address this huge gap, both as a topic in our own essays and by creating an infrastructure that invites a focus on race as a dominant framework. I hope, though, that an increasing diversification, more awareness, and an (ever so slowly) changing media landscape may allow us to address these issues more. As always, acafans who are teaching the next generation of students must give them the context, background, and tools to help fill these gaps.

As you note, there have been significant shifts in the politics around gender and sexuality since the 1980s and 1990s. There have also been factors which have made fans and fan cultural production much more visible in the mainstream of the culture. In this context, what is still transgressive about fan fiction? In what senses might we still see its production as a kind of resistance to dominant values and institutions? Or is resistance still a useful frame for thinking about what fans do?

KH: The resistance paradigm is definitely falling among scholars, although it’s still useful. Much work has been done on how fan fiction is not subversive but actually reinforcing of dominant values and institutions. Fan-written mpreg and curtain fic, for example, may be read not as critiques of traditional marriage, setting up house, and having children (even if it’s the man getting pregnant) as they are genderswapped or all-male reproductions of the trappings of middle-class life.

However, if the content of fan fiction isn’t necessarily truly subversive and resistant but rather affirmational of traditional institutions, its locus of power may be: unauthorized, in conflict with The Powers That Be. One reason that Kindle Worlds is interesting to discuss right now is that Amazon is attempting to get rid of resistance by providing a paid, controlled, circumscribed outlet—one with a built-in community and fan base to drive sales.

This isn’t to argue that all fan fiction is ultimately nontransgressive or can be read as such. Of course that isn’t the case. But the unequal power relations reside less in the text than in the opposition between a minority gift culture and a majority commerce culture.

KB: Fan fiction scholars (all of us included) have probably done the practice—if not the field—a disservice by focusing so much on resistance, opposition, and transgression. Obviously there are real political, cultural, and academic reasons for picking one example over another, for foregrounding the more literate pieces of fan fic or the more transgressive ones, but generalizing is thus often problematic, because we picked the text for its exceptional rather than representative value. But the question is whether that minimizes these stories’ value.

There always are a huge number of stories that make us feel good and happy, and that may not all be that progressive. (In fact, if one only knows fan fiction through the lens of academic discourse, reading the examples described by Lamb and Veith’s essay in our reader may indeed sound strange.) But I’d argue that if you go to any fandom tag on AO3  or Fanfiction.net, you will find that many of the stories with the most kudos and comments are exactly like that—comfort fic. On the other hand, the stories that often get discussed or cause controversy are those that transgress, whether thematically or politically. Coppa wrote about asexuality fic in Sherlock (2012), for example—a subgenre that fandoms don’t really have.

Conversations on Tumblr are often politically transgressive, questioning cultural values and challenging cultural norms. Not all of it translates directly into fic, but some of it does. Head canons for most characters may include characters who are intersex, asexual and/or a-romantic, disabled, aneurotypical, DFAB or DMAB, genderqueer, or mixed race. All of these are identities not previously well articulated or represented in fan fic, and clearly it is important—and, we’d argue, transgressive—if not to culture than at least to the text to explore them.

If the value is as much in the process of production as it is in the end result, if the transgressions are in the conversations surrounding it as much as they are in the fic itself, then the continued critical engagement with media texts remains as important as ever. Thus, while fan fiction may not be as resistant in terms of cultural values any more as it may have been, it becomes ever more important as a form of resistance in terms of economic and labor issues. Given that we’ve already talked about Kindle Worlds, fan fiction is transgressive now more than ever.

Whether it’s E. L. James publishing “pornography for women by women, with love” and topping best seller lists everywhere, or hundreds of OTW and AO3 volunteers providing a free not ad supported interface to share ALL THE FANFICS (RPF, explicit and all!)–fandom remains a way for people who are not mainstream and center to write back to the text. If their version becomes popular, all the better. Ideally, at some point, there may be no more need for oppositional readings anymore on a larger culture scale. But just looking at the debates surrounding a potential Black Widow movie, it is clear that day hasn’t come yet.

Kristina Busse has been an active media fan for more than a decade. She has published a variety of essays on fan fiction and fan culture and is, with Karen Hellekson, founding coeditor of the academic journal <em>Transformative Works and Cultures</em>.

Karen Hellekson (karenhellekson.com) is, with Kristina Busse, founding coeditor of the academic journal <em>Transformative Works and Cultures.</em> She has published in the fields of alternate history, science fiction literature, and fan studies.