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

With your new book, your focus is looking backwards, tracing some of the earliest works to address fan fiction, as well as their impact on today’s scholars. What led you to this focus on forming a canon of sorts around the study of fan fiction? Why the focus on fan fiction as opposed to a more inclusive notion of fan cultural production? After all, you have also been involved in promoting more scholarship around fan vids, for example.

KB: Both of us are really traditionalists. We were both trained in English literature. Karen is now a copyeditor and I teach in a philosophy department. All of these fields relate to sources, quotations, terms, and ideas. We are heavily diachronic in an age where both culture itself (and with it fandom) and academia (and with it fan studies) often focus on the synchronic. It seemed important to us to share where we are all started. Really, we’d have loved to include Leslie Fiedler’s “Come Back to the Rat Ag’in, Huck Honey!” (1948) in our slash section, but clearly we had to pick and choose. The fascinating thing about going back to the original texts is how very different they are from how they get represented now in hindsight.

We had made a few decisions early on: (1) We would stay with fan fiction, because even though other fan works were discussed here and there early on, the nexus of different approaches and disciplines and the majority of academic work was on fan fiction. (2) We would stay with “media fandom,” because, again, that was where a lot of the early work was focused on and that was our own background. We felt that we would do better to strive for comprehensiveness rather than inclusion where one essay or two would stick out and not be representative of anything. (3) We would keep it in the early years and represent more recent essays with a very inclusive bibliography. That last one was basically a numbers game. For every current essay, we’d have to drop one of the more foundational texts, but those were the ones we wanted to share. Moreover, as we said above, fan studies exploded in the mid-2000s, and deciding on one particular text out of the many on a given topic with a given approach would have become even more impossible.

KH: Part of the impetus was to create a single text that would collect the things that we wish people had read. As editors of TWC, we see essays that don’t engage with the literature—that don’t seem aware that they are in dialogue with something, or that cite your Textual Poachers but don’t seem aware of the stuff that came after that critiqued and expanded those ideas (including your own work!). In addition, we’d heard from college-level teachers that they would like such a book. When we ran the draft table of contents by scholars in the field for their feedback, we got several “I would assign this right now!” comments. I am hopeful that master’s and PhD students coming up in the field will find it a good resource. I’m actually not uncomfortable with being in on some canon formation: I figure I have invested a lot of time learning about the field, and what I have to say is perfectly valid. Plus the good thing about canon is that someone will come along and bust it. (Yes!)

The Fan Fiction Studies Reader brings together foundational essays while also pointing to trending ideas. We worked hard on the headnote contextualizing essays that precede each of the reader’s sections, but of course the essays could be swapped around and reconfigured at will to form new topic blocks. Our choices were forced on us because of the difficulty in getting reprints; some were shockingly expensive, others too long. As editors of reprint anthologies everywhere know, “best of” doesn’t mean “best of.” It means “what we could get that we could afford and that was the right length, with certain key authors represented.” It’s not the ideal table of contents that we pitched to the press! However, that may be a feature, not a bug. We had to think outside our “best of” box. The press insisted on the Fan Fiction part of the title, in part because we couldn’t fit in everything we wanted to for it to be truly representative of the field in its broadest sense. However, although the words fan fiction are in the title, it could easily be used as a more general reader. Fan fiction is one kind of text and vids are another, yet the strategies for reading/assessing them are the same. I encourage teachers who assign the book to broaden “fan fiction” to mean “fan-created texts in general,” and to mess with the blocks we created to find new connections.

You reproduce in the introduction an increasingly widespread distinction between affirmative and transformative fans: “Affirmative fans tend to collect, view, and play, to discuss, analyze, and critique. Transformative fans, however, take a creative step to make the words and characters their own, be it by telling stories, cosplaying the characters, creating artworks, or engaging in any of the many other forms active fan participation can take.” I’ve also used this distinction—in Spreadable Media for example—but I am becoming more and more uncomfortable with it, going back to an earlier formulation which talked about all fandom as born of a mixture of fascination and frustration, and suggesting we look case by case at the different ways any kind of fan cultural production moves between these two polls. There are no forms of fan production by definition that are purely resistant, but they may also be none that reflect uncritical fascination without other factors entering the picture. You can make an argument that many forms of fan speculation and critique are also already transformational in that they encourage new ways of thinking about the fictional world and in the case, say, of a mystery series, they often construct quite elaborate explanations for why something is occurring which may, in their own right, be deeply transformational. Thoughts?

KB: The spread of this terminology is actually a perfect example as to why we should always read the original source. Obsession_inc, the person whose blog post pointed out this dichotomy, actually prefaces the definitions with the following: “I see both sections as celebrational fandom, first and foremost, and that there is a lot of joy and effort and creativity put into both, and that there is a certain amount of crossover.” It is useful to acknowledge the motivations as much as the results—that is, a critical, resistant, frustrated affirmational response is possible, just as a noncritical, fascinated, loving, transformational one is. (Let’s say, the first one is reblogging from the official Tumblr pics of a neglected character, the second one writing a missing scene that completely supports and expands the accepted/intended/TPTB-supported canon interpretation.) The two spectrums are maybe less in competition with one another and more perpendicular, creating a two-dimensional space.

For us, the dichotomy was useful because we wanted to look at resistant/critical/creative transformative fan works, and the essays we included all addressed this. Clearly, other approaches may need different distinctions. Yes, the term has been used a lot recently, but we are already beginning to complicate it—not just you, but also Matt Hills’s recent essay in TWC on “Mimetic Fandom and the Crafting of Replicas“, in which he studies fan works whose very “value” more or less rely on their mimetic accuracy.

The original articulation remains useful, especially when considering when and why Obsessive_inc coined it. The essay is a belated response to Racefail ’09 and other creator/fan conflicts: “in all of my fandoms, there have been battles between creators (backed up by their affirmational fanbase) and their transformational fanbase.” When looked at it from that perspective, the term transformative takes on yet another meaning that is neither fully about being oppositional readers nor about the “purportedly feminine cultural spaces of many media fandoms and fan studies,” as Matt Hills describes it. Instead, it is more closely linked to the notion of transformational works that are implied in the names of OTW and TWC—transformation in the legal sense. For better or worse, we are stuck with US copyright law and fair use exemptions.

You are of course correct that we shouldn’t fall into false binaries, and the sexier a shorthand is, the easier it is to fall into it. I love my “Man Collect; Women Connect,” but I certainly know that fan cultures are much more complicated—as are genders! Likewise, we are increasingly realizing that even generalizations, such as “straight middle-aged women” about the writers and readers of fan fiction zines, may not be as accurate as we used to think. But this is why it is useful to actually go back and reread the early texts—to know our intellectual antecedents, and maybe to realize that their arguments were already more complex and differentiated than we remember.

KH: I find the dichotomy useful, as it handily categorizes two perfectly valid forms of fan activity. More scholars are problematizing it than not, which is all to the good, but we also have to acknowledge how true Obsession_inc’s point feels. The gender issues inherent in her critique show that all the scholarly work in the world may not help the fan on the ground. Her essay is interesting not only for what she says and the impetus that caused her to write (as Kristina describes so well), but for what it reveals about fannish engagement, not to mention the terms of engagement she chooses. Power, appropriation, award, context—all these are inherent in her argument, and it may be useful to spend less time figuring out why the point is wrong and more time about why she made it.

Fifty Shades of Grey gets referenced often in your introduction as a text which has helped to change the public’s perception of fan fiction. Now that the dust has settled a little, what are your thoughts on Fifty Shades of Grey? Has its impact been largely positive, negative, or mixed? (As they say in the news, “Good thing or bad thing?”) And has its impact been short-lived or lasting?

KB: If nothing else, Fifty Shades‘s success now allows any fan scholar anywhere to point to it to explain what we do. Even my 90-year-old German grandmother has heard of it. Seriously, though, it feels like the publication was both the culmination of a general mainstreaming and mainstream acceptance of fans and fan fiction, and by its sheer overwhelming success, it is a watershed in ultimately settling whether fan fiction can become a commercial success.

Of course, given this specific text, I take its “success” with some ambivalence when we look at fan fiction communities and at erotic women’s writing in general. The fact that it so clearly is removed from its contextual cultural community ties (as Anne Jamison argues in her great essay in Fifty Writers on Fifty Shades of Grey, 2012) makes it ultimately less interesting as a work of fan fiction. (The seeming rejection of the fan community, unlike other fan fiction-turned-pro writers, doesn’t help much either.) Its mere existence as an explicit erotic work, as “pornography by women for women, with love” is crucial, but enough ink has been spilled about its problematic feminism and contentious portrayal of BDSM culture.

As for how lasting it will be: Let’s hope a generation from now, the “inner Goddess” will go the way of the “zipless fuck”, an interesting historical footnote rather than a perennial classic.

KH: The whole Fifty Shades thing fills me with weariness that is quickly becoming annoyance. Nonfan friends now have this whole idea about what I read and think and do that doesn’t reflect my lived reality. Something about the “nonnormality” (scare quotes intended!) of BDSM makes fans seem even more fanatic. Many books written by fans have had the serial numbers filed off and then were published professionally; it’s not like she did anything new, and she really did throw her fannish community under the bus, as Bethan Jones argues in an essay in TWC . However, the book has definitely highlighted fan fiction as a literary form and as a cultural phenomenon.

I have no idea if the impact will be lasting. It’s too soon to tell. Certainly many best sellers of yesterday are not remembered today. If Fifty Shades is remembered, I predict it will be cited (by people who do not go back to read any of the books in the series!) as the text that changed the publishing landscape for fan-written texts.


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.