Do Fans Generate Transtexts?: An Interview with Benjamin Derhy Kurtz and Mélanie Bourdaa (Part One)

Over the last few installments, I’ve been sharing an interview with Matthew Freeman, the author of a new book which takes us into the history/prehistory of Transmedia entertainment. Today I will introduce a second interview also focused on current research which revises our understanding of the concept of Transmedia entertainment – Benjamin W. L. Derhy Kurtz and Mélanie Bourdaa, editors of The Rise of Transtexts: Challenges and Opportunities, which was published late last year. This is a rich collection which includes new essays by some of my favorite thinkers about all things transmedia, including Louisa Ellen Stein, Geoffrey Long, Matt Hills,Aaron Delwiche,  Paul Booth, Sam Ford, and yours truly. My contribution explores what it means to locate transmedia production within particular media ecologies and economies, asking for example whether transmedia looks different in a public service based media economy as opposed to a commercial economy.

The book’s primary contribution and provocation is to broaden the category of transmedia storytelling to include works produced by the audience and in particular by fans. For me, this is been a somewhat vexing question. Early on, what drew me to transmedia entertainment was the degree to which producers were replicating forms of extensions that I previously only seen in fan fiction and other fan works. Fans had long demonstrated a fascination with back story for example or with fleshing out secondary characters or exploring uncharted corners of a fictional world. Heck, in Textual Poachers, I noted that fans were pushing for a more serialized form of storytelling at a time when network television was still highly episodic. So initially, what seemed important about transmedia storytellingg was that these fan reading practices are being recognized and replicated within the official Canon. So in that sense, transmedia and fan works operate in parallel with the difference that one is authorized and the other is not.

That said, if we think of transmedia stories less in terms of continuity and more in terms of multiplicity, then it is hard to argue for a sharp distinction between fan works and other kinds of transmedia extensions. More and more, transmedia entertainment has become a sprawling inter-textual system which includes text that are not easily located within a master plan for the unfolding franchise. When readers encounter the franchise online, their experience of say Star Trek includes both authorized and unauthorized works.

Building on our observation, The Rise of Transtexts ask us to consider this new category – transtext – which can be used to discuss the relationship between the two. Many of the contributors here are making a strong case for factoring audience produced text into our consideration of the transmedia system as a whole. I’m going to be very curious to see how people respond to this argument. My hunch is that the new concept is more likely to be embraced by academics and active fans rather than industry insiders and creative practitioners.

Regardless of how you fall down on that particular question, The Rise of Transtexts represents an important next contribution to the growing literature around transmedia entertainment. One could not reduce its contributions to the question of fan works, since it has much to say about the history of transmedia practices, the genre categories in which transmedia production operates, the industrial context that yields transmedia entertainment, and much much more.

This interview with the books editors opens up a wide range of such topics and offers some preview of the challenges and opportunities the books title describes. I will be running it over the next three installments of my blog.

Let’s start with some core concepts from the book’s title. What do you mean by Transtexts? What does this concept include that might normally be excluded from our understanding of transmedia storytelling?

B.W.L. Derhy Kurtz: Ok, let’s go. First, thank you for inviting us to do this interview, it is a pleasure to be featured here. The questions were challenging (as they should) and enjoyable to answer, and so very relevant in this day and age when talking about transmedia and transtexts.

The term Transtexts first appeared in 2012, for a study proposal I had made (with the same title / subtitle of the book, and of which this book would be a spin-off, if you pardon me the TV-pun), as I felt it a necessary step to build on, or rethink the existing concept of Transmedia by reinserting the agency of power of engaged audiences within the concept (which, incidentally, is very much the purpose of this collection. The term ‘transtexts’, in fact, could be seen as an ‘acronym’ / abbreviation for ‘transmedia storytelling and fan-produced texts’. Because, of course, two types of transmedia texts can be identified (and were thus addressed in the book).

Firstly, industrial transmedia texts, produced by supposedly authoritative authors or entities (we go back to canon and what is seen as ‘authority’ in this interview and in the book), and directed at active audiences, in order (hopefully) to foster engagement. Secondly, there are fan-made transmedia texts, which are made by the very engaged audiences which are targeted by transmedia strategies. Fans are, therefore, making and spreading original texts across various media (and social media platforms) which, in turn, expand the content and presence of this narrative universe. As such, as explained by several of the book’s contributors (especially Louisa Stein), such fan-made texts could / should be considered as transmedia narratives, on the same level as industrial transtexts.

This new concept was introduced to provide a category where they can both fit, and giving equal attention to the audience’s texts. Since the concept of transmedia storytelling, as generally understood, mostly positions itself on the side of institutional transmedia practices and thus leaves little place for fan-produced transmedia narratives, using the same expression while widening its scope would not be enough (due to this inherent industrial connotation). It thus seemed that a term encompassing both notions at once could be of use.

Finally, Hélène Laurichesse argued in this collection that it was this twofold nature of transtexts (industrial and fan-produced), rather than transmedia storytelling alone, that constituted the foundation of a text-brand’ identity, while Aaron Delwiche provided a fourfold typology of transtexts. Nothing is ‘lost’, therefore, by this new terminology, which simultaneously allows the study of wider-ranging phenomena than were usually studied, and encourages the search for more precision through in-depth analyses or case studies.

There’s a productive tension running through the book. On the one hand, you discuss transmedia or transtexts as something that urgently must be addressed because it is exerting such a strong influence on the contemporary entertainment industry. On the other hand, many of your authors seek to situate today’s transmedia in relation to a much broader history of telling stories across media. Given this tension, how much weight should we place on the idea of “the rise of transtexts” as opposed to the persistence of transtexts? What factors contribute to the increased visibility of such practices at the current moment?

B.W.L. Derhy Kurtz: I think this point is a key one. As explained in the introduction, the term rise does not refers to a supposedly new start of the phenomenon, as transtexts must be understood through a complex framework involving a history and development of this form and use, a recent one, and a much older one (as demonstrated by Denzell Richards, for instance), since we can find examples throughout history dating back even to Biblical times and state propaganda in Ancient History; this rise of transtexts refers to its incredible expansion over the past few years.

As stated in the introduction, and further in Melanie’s chapter, it is the combination of these three revolutions, I believe, which has fostered, and continued to encourage, this increased visibility – but also development in use (which is undeniably becoming increasingly widespread) – of transtexts.

M. Bourdaa: Of course, the art of extending narrative universes existed before what we are witnessing today with such pieces as Star Wars and even before that with the Disney Universe, the Wizard of Oz or the Marvel and DC stories, with ancillary contents spread across radio shows, novels, cartoons, comic books and comic strips. A history and archaeology of Transmedia strategies is needed to understand why and how they have been evolving, as Matthew Freeman proposes in his more recent book or as Denzell Richards publishes here in this collection.

I agree with Benjamin on the evolutions of the media landscape. As I have stated in my article on The Hunger Games in this book, I think that three mutations paved the way for a more systematic use of Transmedia strategies in the entertainment industry, bringing awareness on a rise of Transmedia and transtexts.

First, we have witnessed the implementation of technologies in production strategies, mixing traditional media with new ones, leading to what Jennifer Gillian calls “must-click TV”, and to stories spread across multiple media platforms.

Then, narrations have evolved into a complex system and more seriality, developing cliffhangers and negative spaces, where fans could fill the gaps with their own productions and creations.

Finally, fans and audiences are more and more engaged in narrative universes, leaning on a convergence and participatory culture. They work together, share, discuss, create, organize in their communities and often productions rely on these fans’ works to promote their shows, as it is the case with Game of Thrones, Orange in the New Black or Hannibal when they ask fans to create artworks that would later be used to advertise seasons of the show.

So of course, transmedia and transtexts are not new strategies in the entertainment industries, but there are definitively factors and mutations that are leading to a more visibility and acceptance of these practices and tactics.

 In his Foreword, Toby Miller raises some ethical considerations about transtexts: “In moving rapidly between platforms, genres, and sites in order to tell stories, how good and how well-informed are those stories and those involved in telling and reading them?” Up until now, the focus has been on identifying models and practices associated with transmedia. Transmedia has been read as something like a talking dog — who cares what it says. But at some point, we need to be asking the kinds of evaluative questions Miller is pointing us toward. What criteria might we use to evaluate whether a given transtext is good or more importantly whether the shift towards transtexts is good for the society?

M. Bourdaa: The question of evaluating transmedia strategies, especially around audiovisual contents such as TV series or blockbusters, has been a problem since the beginning because it implies economical and marketing issues. How many people follow the strategy? What are the rates of engagement?

The only way to measure that is to look at the number of likes on a Facebook page or the number of people following a Twitter account and that is not very reliable, because people can like a page and never come back on it or have no interaction with the content.

Transtexts are focused on creating storyworlds both by the production teams, thus deploying stories that are canon, and by the fans themselves, expanding the universe in a fannish approach. One criterion to evaluate transmedia projects could be the degree of engagement by fans, and by that I mean what fans do with the media text, how do they re-work it, what meaning do they produce with it. Fans are the target audience of transmedia projects, because they are the expert audience and because they will share the canon content within their communities and via social networks. But they will also create new content, using fan fictions, viding, fan arts, discussion boards, games.

Louisa Stein gives a good example, when she analyzes the way Jane Austen’s fans re-worked the stories in a more contemporary setting and produced the webseries The Lizzie Bennett Diaries, focused on the iconic character of Pride and Prejudice. Fans can also resist the marketing aspect of the transmedia strategies and organize themselves to produce transmedia activism, as it was the case with fans of Hunger Games.

Geoffrey Long in this collection offers a framework to analyze such successes by evaluating the negative spaces left in the storyworlds, spaces that will later be filled by fans’ productions. He sums it up here: “the key lesson is that successful vast transmedia storyworlds find a balance between saying what they say in a unique fashion, such as in the unique franchise characteristics at both the storyworld and character levels, and in strategically not saying everything there is to say, both inviting audiences in to imagine who they themselves would be in these storyworlds and filling in the negative spaces in the storyworld with their own imaginations”.

Melanie Bourdaa is an associate professor at the University of Bordeaux Montaigne in Communication and Information Sciences, and a researcher in Transmedia Storytelling and fan studies. She ran a MOOC entitled « Understanding Transmedia Storytelling » in France. She created the GREF, a research group gathering scholars working in the field of Fan Studies.  She co-created the CATS, a consortium on Transmedia Storytelling, gathering researchers and professionals in this field of expertise. She runs the research program “MediaNum”, dealing with the valorization of Cultural Heritage via Transmedia Storytelling, funded by the Region d’Aquitaine.

Benjamin W.L. Derhy Kurtz teaches at Sorbonne Nouvelle (Paris 3), Sciences Po (IEP) and Ecole Polytechnique (X), as well as at various communication and business schools. He created undergraduates/postgraduates courses, including on Transmedia, and holds experience in marketing and in institutional/promotional/political communication and consulting. His PhD, at the University of East Anglia, explores ‘success’ in the TV industry.