booknotes: jenkins, hellekson and busse on fandom

I've been on a kick lately reading about fanfiction and fandom -- it's what with that addictive habit of footnote mining we're taught to do in academia? -- which has been both inspiring and a little bit wistful in that the muse seems to have deserted me this year. Apparently I find time to write porn really easily when I'm procrastinating on graduate thesis revisions, but less so when I'm coping with family loss, moving house, and some major work responsibilities.

Not that I haven't been thinking about a Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries Jack/Phryne three-parter, and a couple of Doctor Who Vastra/Jenny one-offs. Not to mention the outstanding sections of my Eureka series "25 Ways to Kiss a Naked Man." I considered returning to that one back in the spring, but all I wanted to write was end-of-life fic involving hospice care ... which I know would have been good but for which people would hate me eternally, and for which my wife would probably have divorced me. So. There's that.

But in the meantime, I've been reading in the fan studies literature (it's a thing! a wonderful, glorious thing!). The two latest books I've read were both anthologies: Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, edited by Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse (McFarland, 2006) and Henry Jenkins' Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture (New York University Press, 2006). While both assembled by acafen -- fans who are also academics; academics who embrace their identity as fans -- and both well-worth the read, these are two quite different volumes.

Jenkins, whose seminal fan studies work Textual Poachers (1992) I have yet to read, is a skilled writer whose ability to own his expertise without appearing self-important is too rare and to be prized. Despite his renown in the field of popular culture studies, his work is approachable, readable even to those unfamiliar with every theorist or creator whom he cites, not to mention every popular cultural artifact. Fans, Bloggers, Gamers is a collection of essays written after Textual Poachers and before Convergence Culture (2006) and explore topics as diverse as women writing m/m slash ("Normal Female Interest in Men Bonking," with Shoshanna Green and Cynthia Jenkins) the anti-gaming sentiments that flowered after Columbine ("Professor Jenkins Goes to Washington"), and the experience of parenting a teenager who met and courted his first girlfriend online ("Love Online"). Each essay is prefaced by a short introduction/reflection on the context in which Jenkins produced the piece -- and how his thinking has changed (or not) since. I particularly appreciate Jenkins' ease with a mode of thought we would today identify as "intersectional." Perhaps born out of his use of framework that takes fan expression seriously, he is constantly working that tension between dominant-culture narratives and marginalized stories, and how the two interact. Whether he's looking at the queer community response to Star Trek's queer baiting ("Out of the Closet and Into the Universe," with John Campbell) or questioning our cultural obsession with teenage rebellion and dysfunctional teen-parent relationships ("The Monsters Next Door," with Henry G. Jenkins, IV) his perspective invites us to question conventional wisdom about cultural power and the limits of popular narrative.

Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet is an anthology of many voices, and one which is perhaps better approached as an opportunity to graze than a volume to be read from end to end. As Busse and Hellekson explain in their introduction ("Work in Progress"), this is an anthology in which one will find work by fans who are using their academic hats to theorize their fan works and experiences. Each reader will no doubt find particular essays which speak most powerfully to their own experience of fandom. In my case, I was particularly moved by Elizabeth Woledge's "Intimatopia: Genre Intersections Between Slash and the Mainstream," and "Keeping Promises to Queer Children: Making Space (for Mary Sue) at Hogwarts," by Ika Willis.

Challenging conventional wisdom that holds fan fiction erotica to be amateur contributions to the pornography or romance genres, Woledge makes a convincing argument for slash fanfic to be understood as part of a new "intimatopic" genre. "Intimatopic" fiction, Woledge argues, focuses on the development of intimacy between characters; it breaks the genre boundaries of romance fiction in going beyond the get-together plot, and breaks pornography convention by insisting that sex is intimacy first and foremost, even in moments of violence, casual connections, or other "plot what plot" narratives. She argues that in foregrounding character intimacy, writers in this genre challenge us to value the work that goes into building and maintaining intimate relationships. I admit that this framing of fanfic resonates strongly with my own experience as both a reader and a writer. When I write fan fiction I have an emotional agenda, at least part of which is making visible the labor that goes into establishing and sustaining sexual intimacy with another being.

Speaking of emotional agendas, Ika Willis, in "Keeping Promises," explores the queering of mainstream texts -- in this case Harry Potter -- and asks us to question the conventional wisdom that views slash as a form of self-insertion or wish fulfillment: inserting queerness into a heterosexual narrative as a form of "resistance." Instead, she argues, those of us who are queer read the narrative as we read the world around us: as a location in which queer beings exist, and are likely in the closet, in denial, or lacking the self- or worldly knowledge to act on their desires. In this reading, slash doesn't insert queerness into the text; instead, it inserts knowledge of queerness into the text, so that characters can act upon that new layer of information. While Willis is writing particularly about Harry Potter, her essay echoed a lot of more recent discussions about canon queerbaiting in television shows such as Supernatural, where one group of viewers brings their knowledge of queerness to their viewing -- and sees the signs of potential queer desire everywhere -- while another group (at times, frustratingly, those officially associated with the show), denies that there is any canonical ambiguity or room for queerness within character behavior or portrayal. "Keeping Promises" points out the way in which queer fans can bring their subcultural knowledge to the characters (in this case through fan fiction) and enable them to explore what, to us, is an authentic and legitimate part of human experience. As a bisexual lesbian fanfic writer I'm most definitely on a mission to do just this: offer up narratives of same-sex intimacy contained within the boundaries of canonical texts that don't otherwise overtly acknowledge its existence.

Take, for example, my Downton Abbey fic that offers up a moment of sexual intimacy between Isobel Crawley and Violet Crawley ("Between the Elements of Air and Earth"). On the one hand, yes, I wrote it as straightforward porn, because I wanted those two characters in all their respect-hate complexity to get naked and work it out. But part of the energy and passion I brought to that writing was my trifold mission to 1) get more women having sex with women into fan fiction, 2) get more elders having sex into fan fiction, and 3) push fan fiction erotica beyond the typical narratives of sexual intimacy -- narratives that rely heavily on normative, youthful bodies doing penis-centric things. Part of why f/f slash tends to be less explicit; as a culture we still have a difficult time answering the question "what do women do together in bed, exactly?" Consider the work linked above, and all of my other f/f slash, a response to that question.

Sure, on way of understanding "Between the Elements" would be that I inserted a lesbian sex scene (between two bisexual women, or at least women with bisexual histories) into the universe of Downton Abbey. But Willis is suggesting -- if I am reading her essay correctly -- that we could also argue that, like in real life, the lesbian and bisexual narratives were already there, in the closet, like they are for so many of us. And all they needed was the "Mary Sue" insertion of outsider knowledge or vocabulary to give it the opportunity to flower. And hopefully, of course (from the perspective of queer adults), the more queer narratives we encourage to flower, the fewer queer children will grow up without the knowledge or vocabulary to construct their own lives -- without the cobwebs of cultural demurral or denial, straightwashing and gaslighting still rampant (don't kid yourself) today.

So. Go forth and read Fans, Fan Fiction, and fan works themselves!


  1. Anna, you might also want to try Anne Jamison's "Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over The World".

    I didn't know you wrote fanfic! The things you learn about a person....

    1. It's was Jamisonwho led me to Jenkins, and so on down the line! Ah, the rabbit hole of scholarly research ...

      And yes, I do write fanfic! For which you can thank my wife, who courted me by sending me links to her favorites from the Harry Potter and Gundam Wing years. Also Buffy, and not forgetting Supernatural... You can find me at AO3 under the pen name "elizajane" and I've also blogged about why I write fanfic, erotica specifically, if you're interested in the TRULY TRULY TL;DR version of my life :)

  2. Oh, that is SO neat! And here I am an archivist who does a lot of work with fanworks and fanfic in particular. Wheels within wheels.... :)

    1. Ooh, I'll have to make time to find out more from you sometime! Assuming you're familiar with Archive of Our Own and their parent org. Organization for Transformative Works? Really love their archive-minded activism for this ephemeral material...

  3. Yep, I know them. I've worked with OTW on some archiving stuff, and now here at Texas A&M I'm archiving all kinds of fanworks - digital and paper. Fun stuff!

    1. Ooh, Hanna and I will have to catch up with your work down there at A&M sometime -- sounds awesome!