Fandom Beyond: Reconsidering Genre and Fan History

Engagement with a text has been always been a part of human behavior, from well before the ideas of fandom and fannishness and remix culture. It’s in our very natures to change a story to reflect ourselves in it. There’s an old German tale about a printer who is printing a Bible, and his wife comes into the shop and changes the lines of type in Genesis from “and he shall rule over thee” to “and he shall be thy Fool!” In the story (related in Moore, p 73) she is supernaturally struck down and dies, and the moral is that women shouldn’t work in the print shops, they shouldn’t change the text, but what we should take from this is a rather profound example of a woman literally changing the narrative of the dominant culture to empower herself. When we look at fan works, this is what we see over and over again: people changing the stories to see themselves, and so there are stories where all the men on the bridge of the Enterprise are women (and the official comics even played with this idea themselves in an issue!), and art where Harry Potter and Hermione Granger have brown skin. When mainstream culture acknowledges fan culture, it is recognizing that this need for representation is not only valid but absolutely necessary in our contemporary society, and that this is how positive change happens. In Star Trek: Beyond, a fifty-year-old franchise finally got a canonically gay character onscreen; in Ghostbusters we get women action heroes who aren’t in conspicuously sexy outfits.

 When it comes to the use of fan culture in teaching, one thing I’ve always tried to do is point out how genre and fandom generally go back much farther than the Internet would have us believe. Consider the mother of modern science fiction, Mary Shelley, and Frankenstein being published in 1818, and then consider how Jane C. Loudon writes her 1827 novel The Mummy!: Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century in response: Shelley had described the Monster saying that “A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch,” and Loudon a wrote a new novel around this idea; she further confronted Shelley’s (shocking, for the time!) near-atheism with more Christianized concepts, and so two of the greatest stories of genre were meant to be in cultural dialogue with one another!

Another example is Edgar Allan Poe’s 1838 novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket,which was left unfinished until Jules Verne decided to finish the story in 1897 with Le Sphinx des glaces. There’s many more examples than these, but it’s important to note that all texts talk to one another, and it’s really only with Twentieth Century publishing practices that we see the introduction of power hierarchies which destabilize authorship such that one body of work is considered lesser than another, fan writing—and that it is absolutely no mistake that the disempowered persons writing in fandom are women and minorities. Moreover, mainstream response to texts that have openly fannish origins—like Fifty Shades and the numerous Twifics that make up full tables in bookstores today—is so violently antagonistic and derisive as to make the old German story above seem quaint, but it reinforces how the notion of women changing texts remains genuinely frightening to some.

As a final thought regarding fan history, what I would like to encourage is thinking of fan culture as going beyond media franchises and online interaction. There are vast bodies of print zines from the SFF, pulp and comics heydays of the 1930s-1990s that need to be included in our discussions, and looking even farther back we can see social reading and writing groups that are perhaps not who we would identify as fans but who nonetheless perform what we consider fan practices. Above all, take notice of what seems to be gaps. It could be that the people and texts you are looking for are right in front of you; they just haven’t been identified…yet.


Recommended Reading

Camille Bacon-Smith, Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth (1992).

Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse, Eds., The Fan Fiction Studies Reader (2014).

Anne Jamison, Ed., Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World (2013).

Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture (1992).

Sam MoskowitzThe Immortal Storm, A History of Science Fiction Fandom (1954).

Sheenagh Pugh, The Democratic Genre: Fan Fiction in a Literary Context (2005).

Harry Warner, JrAll Our Yesterdays (1969).


By chance, I saw your post after talking to a undergraduates about Wide Sargasso Sea and how it calls the happy domesticity of Jane Eyre into question - which is exactly the process that you describe with pre-internet authors responding to other authors' work to fill in gaps in the original and shift parts that are no longer relevant.

It is true that it an overt hierarchy exists between fan writing and published writing exists today, however it is also important to note that the most disenfranchised groups prior to the 20th century would not necessarily have literacy to write, nor the social capital to be published. This points to something implied in your post, which is that prior to the internet, it took a number of years or decades for a response to one work by another - perhaps a reading public that would hve generated responses in a short duration did not exist in the same way. What is different now is the simultaneous self-publishing of many divergent responses, immediately following the publication of the original. Sometimes industries (such as the film and game industries) would even give active fans or fan groups material prior to official release so they can generate hype. This brings me to the part of the survey question that asks about generational studies of fandom - what do we consider a generation today, and how can we define cycles of cultural production when things are happening so fast? (This article describes a phenomenon in China where generations have been divided by decade because post-1970s China has developed so quickly)

I would hesitate to say that prior to the 20th century, changes didn't happen as quickly as today, since we are biased to perceive our time as richly textured, and history as a foregone conclusion neatly divided into eras. Your call to study fan culture aside from franchises is an important one. What fan studies seems to be interested in at the core is networks of meaning making - thus it would be possible (at a stretch) to view social groups that we don't think of as fandoms through the lens of fan studies - for example, returning customer of a particular craftsman, or illiterate Medieval pilgrims as fans of their religion (after all, "fan" does come from "fanatic"). 

Ooh, great questions!! I think there's two ways to think about publishing and generations:

1) What do we mean by publishing? From the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries (more or less) coterie writing, in which women wrote and privately circulated manuscripts, was the default for women writers--and this was by no means as limited as it may seem, given that really popular manuscript works such as poems or songs could and do have upwards of a thousand copies in different hands. I liken this to both fanzines and locked online fan communities where writing can be shared with a similarly limited and intimate audiences. These texts are simultaneously private and public, shared and not shared, which is I think interesting on its own.

2) How do we think about generations--years or technology? The thing I really see right now is how contemporary fandom has split along gendered lines, with a lot of male fans still writing and producing in the fanzine format--title pages, numbered pages, table of contents, multiple authors--even for digital-only texts and women fans being almost completely online in digital archives and communities. And when it comes to the online communities I know so well, I see fans of all ages interacting in the same ways whether on Livejournal or Tumblr or AO3--there are established norms of behavior that we generally follow.

Right now  what strikes me about Fan Studies is how it has historically looked at the people rather than the texts to make meaning--asking "who" creates and "why?", and only more recently asking "what?" I think we should look more closely at the whats--what are the fics and art being created and what do they mean writ large!

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