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'Fanfiction and the Author' Gives Well-Blended Discourse for Maximum Fan Enjoyment

Garret Castleberry

Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.


Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Cultural Texts

Judith May Fathallah

(University of Chicago Press)

April 2017

Fanfiction and the Author represents the latest addition to the Transmedia: Participatory Culture and Media Convergence series from Amsterdam University Press. As the title suggests, Fathallah analyses fan communities and their traversing patterns online. Specifically, the scholar identifies patterns where fan fictions orbit mainstream and cult television properties including The CW's Supernatural, BBC's Sherlock, and HBO's Game of Thrones. The texts are selected based upon researcher familiarity, but the artifacts also contain highly active fan communities. Meeting the tenets of what Henry Jenkins dubbed participatory culture, the author employs online ethnographic data collection while rigorously coding patterns that emerge over time. Rather than cherry-picking from outlier comments or fan behaviors, Fathallah effectively identifies patterns of significance that arise from the text (think episodic genre conventions) and the paratext (innovations provided by fan fictions that circulate online).

Fanfiction and the Author dskews toward academic audiences, but unlike many frothy offerings from the Ivory Tower, this work never tries on the insular trope of its contemporaries' ring-kissing. Indeed, there's plenty for fans of these texts to devour. The author writes from personal experiences, as fan, and her personal passion for the subject matter will no doubt tap into designated fan factions familiar with the literary/televisual series dissected under Fathallah's scholarly lens.

Mixed Method Framework

In terms of research grit, the author-scholar utilizes a mixed methods approach, which strengthens her overall assessment. Earlier pages suggest this work intends to draw heavily from vanguard postmodernist Michel Foucault. Fortunately, Fathallah steadies a relatable and digestible understanding of Foucault's contributions to discourse analysis. The researcher combines an assessment of discourse analysis with taut reviews of Internet Studies and Fan Studies. As a trained academic, her work is robust and impressive. Delving through the research references will be a treat to grad students and faculty readers alike. Fathallah remixes old and new sources that showcase a quality of fit between the author and her subject. In effect, she's practicing meta-genre mixing in textual and mixed methods form.

Blurring Textual Boundaries

Some of the strongest articulations come from Fathallah's close reading (and subsequent coding) of the texts themselves. For example, the researcher frames a shared understanding of masculinity in Sherlock by isolating recurrent themes of mind, body, position, and place (53-64). She then juxtaposes these textual patterns (considered canon) against those re-appropriated by fan communities, primarily through the creation and circulation of alternate narratives collectively identified as fan fiction (fanfic). The results spotlight how mainstream texts that skew toward heteronormative white male modes of power and privilege come to bend based upon alternative readings.

These textual renderings blur concepts of "canon" and provide contrary interpretations that extend narrative potentialities. Such a negotiated framework extends textual meaning whereby previous heteronormative standards hazily reject or limit alternative readings invitational to dialogic meanings. Suddenly, the core elements that construct "masculinity" within the Sherlock diegesis (BodyàMindàPlaceàPosition) expand and contrast in destabilizing ways to the shared notion of authorial intent. Examples stressed include characters swapping gender or sexual orientation, as well as re-imaginings of the titular character as humane enough to emit paternal love. Ultimately, these new renderings communicate as much about fan needs and contemporary cultural shifts as they work from outdated or problematic figures and conventions in literary history.

Locating Authority and Authorship in a Game of (Pwns)

Fathallah next explores authority-ownership in HBO's Game of Thrones (or GoT). Currently the most popular global brand of the three texts assessed—the author infers that GoT's online fan base is "smaller" with "less variation" (155)—the GoT analysis chapter tenders considerable reader appeal due to naturally occurring tensions between text, author, and audience. These tensions can be read on two fronts. First, GoT involves tensions between previous-current fans (book readers) and new-current fans (TV viewers). Second, tensions now exist between the "Author-God" of the still-unfinished books, George R.R. Martin (103), and the TV showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, who have eclipsed Martin's narrative and the book series' popularity with their televisual translation. Thus, the text itself becomes marred by point-counterpoints and fractured interpretations. It only makes sense, then, that fanfic texts further mar a central interpretation of the A Song of Ice and Fire world (101).

Given that Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire popularity arises from his own genre mixing and critiquing of vintage medieval tropes and conventions (princesses fighting for agency, heroes cut down in atypical tragic fashion, etc.), the possibility for fanfic contra-readings sparks curiosity. Fathallah observes how online fanfic bends notions of Martin's authorial claims (115), as well as the showrunners' TV boundaries (117), to suggest "fluid" recombinations between "TV and book text" (119). Fan readings bestow fascinating processes in how they attempt to predict or interpret certain character deaths from an ongoing show, which may or may not align with its sacred source material.

There's a sense of catharsis making on the part of Fathallah's highlighted fanfic excerpts. Such insights enrich fan studies' understanding of patience-impatience as well as predictive behaviors steeped between narrative logistics versus personal preference. The scholar goes old school with callbacks to classical rhetoric and variations between traditional / patriarchal, relational-legal, and charismatic approaches to authority and power (104-119). As with the Sherlock genre study, Fathallah's analysis of GoT representations and subsequent fanfic renderings cultivate the book's most insightful sub-sections.

More Meta Than Meta

In the author's final analytic chapter, she tackles an elite meta cult TV text in recent decades, the indefatigable Supernatural. The series builds its internal mythology, like most popular culture, by referencing and reassembling concepts already prevalent in genre storytelling: monster, horror, and fantasy tropes, religious figures and their symbol systems, television's history as a medium that toggles between episodic and serialized formatting, the repackaging of a "family drama" and of course, the metatextual presence of the TV writer-author's voice within the series. Supernatural is known for its metatextual relationship between author and text, as well as increased self-aware writing that recognizes Supernatural's distinct fandom. Such reflections become baked into the storytelling itself, particularly in the seasons following the initial narrative arc's completion in season five (157).

It may or may not come as a twist ending, then, that Fathallah's concluding analysis encompasses one in which the researcher incorporates her own autoethnographic experiences. In other words, as aca-fan (academic superfan), the scholar charts her own meta-involvement as a fanfic author alongside alternative fanfics produced by Supernatural's fandom communities. The topical nature of "researcher bias" is a traditional critique to raise. However, a strong argument exists that only an insider would have the sustained passion and liturgical devotion to follow leads betwixt and between fanfic subgenres. Would an unbiased coauthor counterbalance investigative insights into fan discourse without becoming ensconced within the flurry of textual expressions? Perhaps. But what fun would that be? for the neutral observer or the reader.

The author contests the traditional boundary between authors, their texts, and the roles audiences play. Fathallah suggests, "the legitimacy of authorship itself begins to be questioned" (10) as fans and fandoms gain paratextual hold over what semiologist Roland Barthes identified as the pleasure of the text. Fathallah's passion flourishes amidst the cumbersome academic writing style (cumbersome if only to readers outside the academy; I gain personal pleasure from smoothly performed academic style structural form). Such passion elevates this analytic text beyond fanfic naval-gazing toward something sustainable and usable.

Ultimately, this work offers several companions essays that could be broken up to satisfy varied interdisciplinary reading packets. Or taken as a whole, Fanfiction and the Author could strongly function as a co-lead textbook for special topics courses emphasizing audience-reception studies, television studies, or ethnography readings on fanfic and Internet studies.

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