I feel like I tell my origin story for fan studies a lot, but it starts with Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. They famously thought media controlled the minds of audiences (kind of unsurprisingly, since they had fled Nazi Germany where mass media was used to great propagandistic effect). An excerpt from their book Dialectic of Enlightenment, called 'The culture industry: Enlightenment as mass deception, was assigned in my undergraduate Literature and Popular Culture course. And it made me have this moment of “Nuh-uh, Xena got gayer because of fans, so clearly it’s not just all industry controlling audiences. It goes both ways at least sometimes.”
In some ways, the contours of that moment describe me to this day in fan studies. The two places where I feel like I’ve contributed the most to the field are a) the intersection of fandom and industry and b) the role of social inequality in fandom. On the fandom-industry side, I’ve published on how the history of sampling in hip-hop can help us understand how media industries tend to think fans aren’t adding any value to their products but rather stealing from them, I’ve written about the relationship of fandom and labor, I’ve talked about how to make sense of the way fans share around their fanworks freely with each other but don’t want industry to extract them out of fandom. Most recently, I wrote about how moves to publish fan fiction in the formal economy like Kindle Worlds can be seen as a bid to redefine fandom as docile and useful. With regard to inequality, I’ve also published work on the ways fandom is constructed as a practice of heterosexual white men, the ways some media are slashier than others, and the ways the whiteness of fandom as a population and fan studies scholars as a population need to be reckoned with. At the intersection of the two threads, I have a forthcoming article about how TV fans use hashtag campaigns to contest the mistreatment of LGBTQ+ people. Terms like labor, copyright, whiteness, and heteronormativity run through my whole body of work.
And it may just be because it seems that way from where I stand, but I also think what I’ve said above points to two important directions in fan studies: 1) fandom and industry, and 2) identity, but specifically race, since gender and sexuality are actually fairly well studied. Of course, that work has been going on for a few years now—I’m certainly not the only one who has been doing it—but I think that is what has been lacking in fan studies up to this moment, and there’s still a lot to be explored.
I feel like I also tell my story a lot, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that I came to this a bit differently from a lot of other fan studies folks. I stumbled onto internet fandom in a kind of teaching desperation. I was a TA for a course on musical theater, and I had seven sections. That’s a lot of discussions—even about the Buffy musical episode, which I love. I was a single mom with a messy divorce and a dissertation, and I felt completely out of ideas and energy. I found both on fandom discussion boards. I dreamed of getting my students to care as much about close reading as these fans cared. At Princeton, I was immersed in a culture that heavily prioritized achievement over process and pleasure in learning and so I think I was primed, as a reader and writer and lover of all kinds of texts, to be captivated by what I saw going on in fandom. After all, I had always thought there was something really fun about picking apart texts and movies and here I found people who agreed with me. None of my engagement was at all systematic or anything I even considered research at the time, but I became more and more interested.
I began to realize that vastly more fiction was being written as fanfiction than for commercial publication—let alone what was actually being commercially published. I wasn’t finding many people who did what I did (studied literature professionally) who were writing about fic, and I thought that was a big oversight. I began by incorporating fanfic in my classes in part because it seemed appropriate to think about collective fictional activity in a collective way, a structure I also insisted on for my book Fic. I was lucky to be able to do Fic as a trade book so fan writers could be credited and paid as authors and contributors rather than appearing solely as topics or subjects, and so fans could afford it (most academic books are incredibly expensive). It does make it quite different from an academic book, though.
As a literature scholar, I’ve been interested in two main questions: a) what is fanfic doing that other kinds of writing are not doing and b) what can fanfic teach us about other kinds of writing, how can it reflect back on them to show us new perspectives? Both questions emphasize collective modes of authorship, writing from sources, and strangely hybrid organic-technological systems of creating and interpreting texts. You might say I’m interested in fiction-media interaction, even fiction-human interaction, especially along axes of power.
It’s interesting that you bring up Horkheimer and Adorno. Although I knew that essay long before I knew anything about fandom, fan practices immediately struck me as a way to push back against its indictment of popular culture as only ever supporting the status quo. But it’s back on my mind recently in a different way, because I think that the relations between entertainment corporations and fans (and the art each produces) are worthy of concern and skepticism even for very positive developments around, for example, diversity in casting, production, storyline. On the one hand, that kind of progress is huge, and important, and powerful. On the other, if one of the products Disney can produce and sell to you is the validation of your own identity, we might really be in a Culture Industry nightmare. It isn’t that I don’t think representation in popular culture is important—I think it’s so, so, so important. But its importance is also scary. One of the things I think those Marxists get right is that power structures aren’t super-motivated to sell us the means by which to topple them.
I think it’s safe to say that I share your interests in corporate/industry-fan relations, including economic and power relations, as well as issues of representation, especially with regard to race. I would add to that a more international perspective on fandom and fan studies.