‘The Fan Fiction Studies Reader’ Offers an Illuminating Overview of an Evolving Field of Study

[6 May 2014]

By Jon Lisi

Above: Purple haired trekki from Shutterstock.com.

After the publication of Henry Jenkins’ Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture in 1992, a scholarly revolution had taken place. In his groundbreaking work, Jenkins demonstrates that fans are more than just passive consumers, and that they actively make meaning out of the texts they interpret. This insight prompted a new wave of scholars to examine audience reception and revise the previously misunderstood relationship between producer and consumer.

Much has changed since Jenkins’ book, including the mass proliferation of the internet and social media, but its influence hasn’t diminished. In fact, it is responsible for a new academic anthology, The Fan Fiction Studies Reader, edited by Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse. The editors define fan fiction as “historically situated in the last forty years, tending to respond to a specific form of media texts, and encompassing a specific amateur infrastructure for its creation, distribution, and reception” (7). Their goal is to offer a “variety of essays that showcase the different modes and approaches as well as the theoretical shifts and changes of the last two decades” in an effort to engage students in the classroom (5).

As an introductory text, the anthology is incredibly successful. The introduction by Hellekson and Busse contextualizes fan fiction studies within a historical context and ultimately highlights its interdisciplinary nature, and gives readers a clear comprehension of what it is, where it began, and why it matters. The essays that follow are interesting and insightful, and offer an illuminating overview of an evolving field of study.

The first section, Fan Fiction as Literature, focuses on “fan-created works as literary artifacts” (19). The section begins with an extract from Jenkins’ Textual Poachers, in particular his engagement with Michel de Certeau’s concept of “poaching”. The second essay, “It’s Always 1985: Sherlock Holmes in Cyberspace”, finds Roberta Pearson describing the way Sherlock Holmes fans engage with Doyle’s text on the internet. Cornel Sandvoss rounds out the section with “The Death of the Reader? Literary Theory and the Study of Texts in Popular Culture”, in which he concludes that “the synthesis of fan studies and reception aesthetics enables us to explore aesthetics as a subjective category with objective criteria” (74).

Section 2, Fan Identity and Feminism, calls attention to slash, or homoerotic fan fiction, and the significance of its “mostly female community of readers and writers and its same-sex romance narratives, discussions of gender, sex, and sexuality” (76). “Pornography by Women, for Women, with Love” by Joanna Russ identifies how female fans of Star Trek illustrate their sexual fantasies in “K/S”, anthologies of fan-written stories about the relationship between Kirk and Spock.

The next essay, “Romantic Myth, Transcendence, and Star Trek Zines”, by Patricia Frazer Lamb and Diana L. Veith similarly focuses on Kirk and Spock, and argues that female slash writers subvert traditional gender paradigms. However, “The Sex Lives of Cult Television Characters” by Sara Gwenllian Jones counter-argues that slash actually isn’t as subversive as Lamb and Veith claim.

The next section, Fan Communities and Affect, “foreground the fan fiction communities and their affective behavior” (132). Camille Bacon-Smith’s ‘Training New Members” discusses the importance of the Mary Sue, a genre of fan fiction that features a young, attractive, nearly perfect female heroine. In “Fans and Enthusiasts,” Nicholas Abercrombie and Brian Longhurst “suggest a set of terminological distinctions which involve the redefinition of some of the terms” in studies of fandom. The last article in the section is “Future Men” by Constance Penley, and it questions why female fans are “so alienated from their own bodies that they can write erotic fantasies only in relation to a nonfemale body?” (177).

Fan Creativity and Performance is the final section, and it “moves away from text and toward the ways fans perform their fannish identity within and outside of the fan community” (193). The first of the two essays in this section is “Performing in Babylon—Performing in Everyday Life” by Kurt Lancaster, which is interested in issues of performativity associated with J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5, with special attention to the interactions between Straczynski and his fan base. The second article, “Writing Bodies in Space: Media Fan Fiction as Theatrical Performance”, by Francesca Coppa, claims that fan fiction should be understood as a form of theatrical performance in which individuals who typically lack access to film production equipment use the written text as a substitute.

Whether we identify fan fiction studies as its own academic field or a subset of other, pre-existing fields (it is, after all, interdisciplinary in nature), The Fan Fiction Studies Reader is a useful resource for students and professional academics. Hellekson and Busse introduce key concepts clearly and without unnecessary jargon, and they select arguably the most important and influential works on fan fiction to date. Even casual readers who don’t take a course on the subject will find the anthology interesting and useful, especially as the internet has allowed nearly everyone to express their fandom in new and exciting ways.

None of us are certain about what the future of fan fiction will be, but that’s okay. The Fan Fiction Studies Reader demonstrates that before we think about where we’re going, we need to understand where we’ve been.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/181310-the-fan-fiction-studies-reader/