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Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet: New Essays

Editor: Karen Hellekson, Kristina Busse
Publisher: Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2006
Review Published: March 2008

 REVIEW 1: Lan Xuan Le
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Karen Hellekson & Kristina Busse

This collection of essays, edited by Karen Hellekson and Kristine Busse, contributes very useful, needed perspectives on the current cultural practices of fans and fan collectives. Since the first major fan studies texts (Bacon-Smith, 1992; Jenkins, 1992; Penley, 1997, 1992, 1991) were published in the early 1990's, fan collectives have moved the majority of their activity online. This collection provides an insider's view on how new information technologies such as the Internet have changed the way fans engage with texts and each other. This volume principally examines the ways in which fan texts -- fan fiction, art, music videos, and "meta" discussion -- are complex, inter-textual products that are collaboratively and communally produced. Although the volume focuses primarily on fan fiction as the creative output of fans, the collection approaches the subject with a wide variety of literary, social, and performative perspectives.

The first two-thirds of the volume focus primarily on literary treatments of fan fiction. The essays in Parts I, "Different Approaches: Fan Fiction in Context," and II, "Characters, Style, Text: Fan Fiction as Literature," position fan fiction in relation to genres such as romance and porn, and relate fan fiction to previous literary practices. All of these essays examine fan fiction writing as a literary practice that arises out of multiple, collective, and constantly shifting readings that constitute the fan text, or the body of fan fictional interpretation surrounding media texts. Abigail Derecho's essay, "Archontic Literature: A Definition, a History, and Several Theories of Fan Fiction," is an especially provocative model of texts as essentially archives that house infinite iterations of a story through successive (re)reading and (re)interpretation. Imagined within the context of communities of readership, the model of archontic texts suggests processes of public curatorship and collective annotation of communal fan texts may occur in online communities.

In addition to literary examinations of fan texts, part III, "Readers and Writers: Fan Fiction and Community," discusses the para-textual practices of online fan communities. This section of the collection presents new expressions of affective social engagement, both textually and interpersonally, that arise out of the meeting of particular technological interfaces and previous communal fan practices. Angelina I. Karpovich's study, "The Audience as Editor: The Role of Beta Readers in Online Fan Fiction Communities," for example, maps the social norms of beta reading, a process wherein fan editors contribute to the writing of fan fiction through criticism and feedback, forming a social layer of engagement above, beyond, and around the fan fiction itself. Eden Lackner, Barbara Lynn Lucas, and Robin Ann Reid's essay, "Cunning Linguists: The Bisexual Erotics of Words/Silence/Flesh," highlights the layering of homo-social play between the authors' text messages on top of the co-written fan text. Co-editor Busse's essay "My Life is a WIP on My LJ: Slashing the Slasher and the Reality of Celebrity and Internet Performance" also discusses para-textual practices afforded by blogging services and the inter-textual implications of performing online personas simultaneous to the production of slash fan fiction about real celebrities. The major implication of this essay is in the intertwining of the personal and the fannish, resulting in the enmeshing of personal performance as a commodity into the cultural exchange of fannish gift economies.

While this volume primarily focuses on the content of media fan productions, part IV, "Medium and Message: Fan Fiction and Beyond," examines the medium through which fan expressions take place -- the actual computer and online interface of fan interaction, the hijacking of video games to create music videos, and the mind as a stage for theatrical and dramatic performance. Francesca Coppa's "Writing Bodies in Space: Media Fan Fiction as Theatrical Performance" analyzes fan fiction through the lens of performance theory, providing a compelling argument for fan fiction as directorial, behavioral script that moves the bodies of a shared visual and aural lexicon through the space of the audience's imagination. The application of performance studies to creative fan productions is a positive move, especially because fan studies as a whole would greatly benefit from the expansion of critical approaches. Besides the lens of feminist and queer theory which are well represented in this volume, post-colonial literature and critical race theory with its investment in storytelling/counter-storytelling may also be very productive avenues of inquiry.

One of the strengths of this volume is the emphasis on the history of fan practice as it migrated from primarily printed fanzines to the Internet. The historicity of transition events is often obscured when writing about media change. David Thorburn and Henry Jenkins discuss in the introduction of their volume, Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition, the ways that de-historicized accounts of media transition often focus on disruption, which obscures the thread of continuity that enables us to separate media phenomenon into practices that inform and shape media and the properties of media technology itself. This historical overview, which is provided by Coppa's "A Brief History of Media Fandom," allows us to trace how some practices have been adapted and translated to the new online technology -- the continued writing and circulation of fan fiction -- and highlight the new para-textual practices that enable collective storytelling and that, in some cases, may arise uniquely out of the technical affordances of new media platforms. Rather than focus on the way things changed, there is much more in the history of fan culture that was adapted and translated across time and space.

One minor criticism I have regarding the conceptualization of this volume is in the use of the word "community" to describe the social organization of various fan elements and relations. I am not arguing the salience of "community" as a descriptive term for the relationships that fans have to one another, but to what extent is it applicable? What does "community" truly mean within the context of online, participatory fan culture that focuses on, say, American and British television texts?

The authors of these essays often refer to the blogging service LiveJournal, since it has become the major infrastructure of media fandom according to Coppa's "A Brief History of Media Fandom." A possible trajectory of future study suggested in this volume by Louisa Stein is to both interrogate the technological affordances of the media platform as well as fan practices to understand what unexploited potential remains and the implications of that on the construction of fan communities. To what extent does the architecture of the technological service define the way community is performed and the social norms arising from this understanding of community? Where do these fan collectives act more like loosely networked publics and where do they form more "classic" formations of "community?"

Future work in the area of fan and media studies would greatly benefit from further interrogation of the use of "community," especially insofar as issues of race, class, and nationhood intersect with the object of inquiry. Additionally, the concept of communities as an organizing principle behind inquiry into fan formations may obscure the migratory allegiances of fans to various media texts and the spectrum of fannish participation and skill sets in online subcultures.

Overall, Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet is an excellent volume that contributes to our understanding of the field. The essays are very illuminating and constitute a must-read for students and academics interested in fan studies, as well as fans seeking perspectives on their subculture. Because of its academic tone and reliance on frames of academic knowledge, however, lay readers may find this a difficult collection as they are not the intended audience. This collection of essays provides an important snapshot of current fan practices on the Internet and will hopefully inspire continued research in this area of fan studies.

Camille Bacon-Smith, Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.

Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992.

David Thorburn and Henry Jenkins, Rethinking Media Change: the Aesthetics of Transition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003.

Constance Penley, NASA/TREK: Popular Science and Sex in America. London/New York: Verso, 1997.

_____, "Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Study of Popular Culture," in Cultural Studies, eds. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson and Paula Treichler (New York and London: Routledge, 1992).

_____, "Brownian Motion: Women, Tactics, and Technology," in Technoculture, eds. Constance Penley and Andrew Ross (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991).

Lan Xuan Le:
Lan Xuan Le is currently a graduate student in the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT, where she studies the aesthetics of anime, Asian television, and global fandoms under Henry Jenkins. Lan also designs educational video games for MIT's Education Arcade as part of her research, and is interested in transmedia game franchises. Her thoughts on life, the universe, and knitting can be found in her new blog here.  <lan.x.le@gmail.com>

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