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Last month I was invited to write a brief essay as part of an online discussion of fan texts by various scholars. There's going to be one such post a day for the next two weeks, so you guys should go check them out. :)

Crossposted at MediaCommons:

Fandom Beyond: Reconsidering Genre and Fan History

ccoker's picture

by Cait Coker — Texas A&M University
November 18, 2016 – 16:38

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 Moskowitz, The Immortal Storm, A History of Science Fiction Fandom (1954).

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

Harry Warner, Jr. All Our Yesterdays (1969).

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