Fan Studies at the Crossroads: An Interview With Lynn Zubernis and Katherine Larsen (Part One)

Lynn Zubernis and Katherine Larsen's new book, Fandom at the Crossroads: Celebration, Shame and Fan/Producer Relationships is already generating buzz in the academic and fan communities where I travel. For one thing, it is an academic book about Supernatural. Some years back, when I asked my fan readers to "pimp their show," on this blog, I was met with a systematic campaign on behalf of this CW-hosted drama. Following the sound advice of my readers, I checked out the first season of DVD and shared my impressions here. I still consider Supernatural one of the most under-appreciated genre shows on American television -- at least among critics and mainsteam viewers -- but I have also come to appreciate the dedication, creativity, and passion of its fans. This book, however, is more than the study of a single fandom. It raises some substantive challenges about the theories and methods which have shaped fan studies as a field over the past twenty plus years.  I will be honest: Parts of this book made me a little uncomfortable, because they trod close to either spaces which I made conscious decisions not to discuss in my own work (real person slash and incest themed stories, among them) or because they are returning to old debates which have ended badly before (fandom as therapy, primarily), but I think Zubernis and Larsen handle these issues with sympathy and nuance and in the end, I felt some important new insights emerged as a consequence of revisiting some of these spaces. I especially appreciated their ongoing engagement with the concept of the Aca-fan and the ways that this framing has and has not brought about better relations between fans and academics. And the authors had unprecedented access to the cast and producers of the series, interviewing them at great length about the ways they perceive and interact with their fans and also the ways that those interactions have impacted the production of the series.

One very valuable contribution the book makes is to revisit Camille Bacon-Smith's Enterprising Women, which came out the same year as my Textual Poachers and remains, to my mind, one of the defining works in the field of fan studies. Over the years, the book has been controversial within the fan community for several reasons: its rhetorical structures (which cast Bacon-Smith as "The Ethnographer" exploring the fan phenomenon from the outside), its treatment of fan productivity through a therapeutic lens, and its focus on Hurt/Comfort as the "heart of fandom." All of these are issues worth raising, and Zubernis and Larsen offer some fresh new perspectives on these topics in Fandom at the Crossroads, but I also think there is an enormous amount of valuable material in Bacon-Smith's book, which sometimes has gotten unjustly neglected by more contemporary researchers. She offers us a vivid picture of a key moment in the history of American media fandom. I always recommend that my students read Poachers and Enterprising Women side by side to see how researchers with different theoretical and methodological commitments deal with the same topics. Fandom at the Crossroads returns to Bacon-Smith and mines it productively, building on and reworking some of its key concepts, and considering how they might help inform our engagement with such issues as "fan shame" and going back to a theme central to Enterprising Women, the "management of risk."


In the interview that follows, Zubernis and Larsen share some core insights about how they approached the project, how it relates to the larger Fan Studies tradition, and how and why aca-fen need to work past their discomfort with certain aspects of their subject matter. I am sure people will find what they have to say here both thoughtful and provocative, and I look forward to the response this post will generate.


In many ways, Fandom at the Crossroads is as much a book about Aca-fandom as it is about fandom. You are critical of some of the ways that Aca-fans describe their relationships to the academy and to fandom. What are your primary concerns here?


Kathy: We began the project out of a feeling that academics weren't "doing it right" in the sense that there was a lot of theorizing going on that seemed to have little relation to what fans were feeling and doing in fandom.  We were concerned that pleasure had been taken out of the equation and that fans' voices were being lost in the rush to apply theory.  While some of that theory definitely applied, and still applies, there are also other reasons people come to fandom that did not always fit neatly into the dominant theoretical models.


Lynn: We were also frustrated with how little aca-fans wrote about the ‘fan’ side of their identity; while it seemed most theorists were now proclaiming that they were fans as well as academics, few were talking about what they actually did as fans. This seemed to imply a lingering sense of shame about the fannish part of the aca-fan identity, or perhaps a fear that cosplaying as a Klingon or waiting in line at Comic Con at 3 am or spending money on photo ops with Jensen Ackles might negatively impact one’s credibility as a researcher. We wanted to “confess” the fan side of our identity up front and in detail, instead of in general claims of “I’m a fan myself.”


We also felt that some types of fannish motivation were under-theorized – that there had been an early emphasis on fandom as subversive in a societal sense, challenging gender and other norms, which had continued, but less on fandom as individually transformative. We wanted to build on some of Bacon-Smith’s early ideas about fan participation, community and writing as a source of emotional expression and narrative change, but as a site of individual change as much as cultural change. We also wanted to explore the drive for individual change as healthy and universal, not pathological – while at the same time recognizing the very real impact of oppressive societal norms and the realities of women’s experiences of violence, pain and loss.



How do you deal with your own fan participations throughout the book? You write, for example, "the Squeeful Fangirl...has no place in an academic text, and yet it is precisely that fangirl who informs everything we write about. How do we go about banishing our subject from our text?" And you conclude, "What we learned is that 'co-existence is futile."  Is there no way to write as an academic about how we know what we know as fans?


Kathy: Yes, but we are then writing as academics and not as fans. It's like trying to speak with two different accents at the same time. It can't be done.  And in any other field, I don't think we'd even try it.  I love Byron, but I wouldn't write an academic paper about how I have fallen hook, line and sinker for the "bad boy" persona he projected.  I could perhaps analyze the reasons that persona was so appealing during his time, but I would not discuss my own infatuation.


And I also think there is always a danger that we do disservice to one group or the other.  We've certainly been guilty of this no matter how much we were aware of it and tried to avoid it. Even the act of trying to describe the split runs the risk of privileging one group over the other. To say that I "write like a fan" when I'm participating in fandom and that I “write like an academic” when I write about fandom has the appearance of placing one above the other rather than simply acknowledging that there are two different audiences involved.  The moment we pull ourselves out of fandom to begin writing about it as academics, we assume a superior position - we are outside and above.  It's no wonder fans distrust us.  On the other side, if we didn't write as academics, then our colleagues wouldn't take us seriously.  It's impossible to please both audiences simultaneously.


Lynn: There is, but as Kathy’s comments make clear, it requires a lot of painful fence-straddling. We attempted to write from a hybrid perspective, because we felt it was important and would add something unique to the knowledge base. Writing from an outside perspective, as Bacon-Smith acknowledged thirty years ago, affords a different, and necessarily limited, view of a culture. While ethnographic accounts of fandom uncovered and explicated an amazingly detailed study of the culture, even after years of immersion in the community, there were things that remained hidden to an outsider. What Bacon-Smith refers to as the “heart” of the fandom community, the hurt-comfort genre, is eventually understood by her as an ethnographer on a rational level, but she remains someone who had to overcome an initial revulsion, describing the process as having to desensitize herself to the content and wanting to cover her eyes and ears at one point. The difference between writing from the outside and writing from the inside is similar to the difference between sympathy and empathy. We didn’t need to work towards understanding; we understood many fannish motivations already. We had no need to imagine ourselves in the shoes of fans. We had our own.


What we didn’t realize, at first, was that attempting such an insider perspective distorts one’s point of view as much as taking an outsider one. We were often too quick to assume we understood something simply because we’d experienced it ourselves – or so we thought. In reality, while we gave frequent lip service to the vast variety of ways to “do fandom”, we repeatedly fell into the trap of using the lens of our own experience too broadly, obscuring the reality of fans who were participating in fandom indifferent ways and in different spaces than we were. Ultimately, the attempt to write from both an academic and a fannish perspective turned out to be much more difficult than we’d anticipated. And all that scrambling back and forth over the fence left us with a lot of splinters.

Lynn Zubernis is a clinical psychologist and teaches in the Counselor Education program at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.

Katherine Larsen teaches courses on fame, celebrity and fandom in the University Writing Program at George Washington University. She is the principal editor of the Journal of Fandom Studies.

Dr Zubernis and Dr Larsen are co-editors of the forthcoming Fan Culture: Theory and Practice. They have also published four articles in Supernatural Magazine.