July 1, 2007
Gender and Fan Studies (Round Five, Part One):Geoffrey Long and Catherine Tosenberger

As Sam has noted here on the C3 blog, there has been a series on my blog for the past five weeks focusing on gender issues in relation to the study of fan culture, drawing on a variety of male and female scholars who examine fans. C3 Consulting Researcher Jason Mittell has participated in this dialogue, and C3 Alum Geoffrey Long participated in the latest round this past Thursday and Friday. I thought that Geoff's con versation with Catherine Tosenberger might be of particular interest to C3 readers, so I will post the two parts of that conversation here on the C3 blog as well.

Introducing Our Protagonists

Geoffrey: Hi, I'm Geoffrey Long, and I recently completed my Master's degree from the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT. Back in 2003 I read this article in the Technology Review about something called transmedia storytelling, written by some guy named Henry Jenkins. The piece really resonated with me, so I sent Henry an email to ask him some more about it -- never imagining that the resulting conversation would last for over four years and culminate in Henry being the advisor for my Master's thesis, which wound up being about, surprise surprise, transmedia storytelling.

For anyone who hasn't read Convergence Culture yet, transmedia storytelling is the crafting of a narrative that spans multiple media types. Chapter one might be told in a book, chapter two might unfold in a film, chapter three might be done as a video game, and so on. Telling a character's adventures in multiple media is nothing new, but until recently most cross-media storytelling was done either as adaptation or as franchising, and most of these extensions weren't considered officially in canon. Contemporary transmedia storytellers like the Wachowski Brothers or Joss Whedon are telling stories that were designed from the start as cross-media narratives, and are deliberately taking advantage of the strengths of each media type to enrich each project. The Enter the Matrix video game, for example, wasn't created just as a cheap grab for more money but as an actual chapter in the larger narrative of The Matrix, and the second and third Matrix films only truly made sense if you'd played the video game.

That's a complex example, but simpler ones can be just as rewarding: earlier this year Joss Whedon resuscitated his extremely popular Buffyverse with a new 'Season Eight' being told in comics. Whedon was excited not only to return to his characters, but to take advantage of the unlimited special effects budget afforded by comics; fans were excited because while there had been Buffy comics before, they hadn't been written by Whedon and weren't considered to be official canon.

Obviously, this distinction between canon and non-canon storytelling is an area rich with potential for academics interested in fan fiction and fan culture, but my thesis focused on how stories designed for transmedia expansion differ structurally from 'stand-alone' narratives. In my thesis I examined a number of narratives that gave rise to transmedia franchises, from the Jim Henson films The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth to Star Wars, Firefly, Hellboy, Final Fantasy and so on. What I found is that most of these stories made excellent use of what the poet John Keats' called 'negative capability,' which he defined as the capacity for "being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason". In a narrative context, 'negative capability' can mean the reference to characters, events, or places that exist outside of the story, and rely on the imaginations of the audience to fill in the gaps until the author can return to those 'seeds' for later extensions. Examples of this include the Clone Wars, the Old Republic, and the fall of the Jedi in the original Star Wars trilogy: although Lucas only made passing references to these events, they took root in the minds of fans and created a rich mythology for hundreds of comics, books, games, TV shows, toys, and so on to explore until Lucas returned to tell their story in the prequels. In a way, these types of stories are what Roland Barthes might call more 'writerly' texts than more purely 'readerly' texts, which don't leave nearly as much room for fans to flesh out the worlds themselves.

I didn't really get into it in my thesis, but I'm extremely curious about how fans' expectations, contributions, and passions concerning these stories can be embraced, not ignored or, as is all too often the case, largely derided, and I'm also curious about what role, if any, gender plays in how fans engage with this type of text. Do women concentrate on the personal history of characters while men focus on the history of the world? Are men more concerned with canon and authorship, while women have a more fluid attitude towards those factors? That sort of thing.

Catherine: Hi, I'm Catherine Tosenberger. I have an MA in English (folklore) from Ohio State University, and as of this August, a PhD. in English (children's literature and folklore) from the University of Florida; just last month, I defended my dissertation on Harry Potter fanfiction on the Internet. I had always been plagued with the desire to know more, more, more about my favorite characters and texts -- it's the reason I went to grad school in the first place -- but I didn't discover actual fanfic until 1999. I was a terribly vanilla Mulder/Scully shipper in those days, and read primarily as a respite from school. When I started my doctoral work, I initially planned to write my dissertation on fairy tales retold for young adults; I was still reading fanfiction -- I'd since passed through Homicide: Life on the Street and popslash, and had alighted in Harry Potter -- and mentioned this to my dissertation director, who encouraged me to write about fanfic instead.

I'm especially interested in fanfiction's connections to broader literary discourses, both in general and in specific fandoms; for example, how does Harry Potter's status as a text originally published for children affect the types of fanfiction written, and the various responses to that fanfic within the fannish community? I get very excited about the fanfictional idiosyncracies of different fandoms -- how fanfictional trends happen, which genres become mainstreamed or marginalized, and so forth. My current fannish obsession, Supernatural, is particularly interesting in this regard, because its two dominant genres -- incest narratives and gen fic -- are often minority tastes in other fandoms.

Negative Capability

The first thing I'd like to address, Geoff, is your concept of "negative capability" as applied to fanfiction. I think it's really interesting that you picked a term with such impeccable Western Literary Canon credentials to apply to the activities of fans, because it suggests that fanfiction is not some kind of freakish, marginal activity that bears no relationship to what we think of as "real" literature. That's something I'm very sympathetic to; while I love and appreciate that fanfic operates out of a specific community context -- as I mentioned above, the micro-level development of fanfictional literature within specific fandoms is a big hobbyhorse of mine -- but I think it's very important to recognize fanfiction as something that does not exist in isolation from literature as a whole.

As Joli Jensen points out, there's a strong tendency to posit texts which acquire fandoms as *lacking* in some way, and the activities of fans as supplements to texts that are fundamentally inadequate, which has a great deal to do not only with the hierarchizing of genre, but also acts as a commentary on the types of people -- fans -- perceived to engage in such activities. Jensen talks about the "aficionado"/"fan" divide, not just in terms of the texts fixated upon -- "aficionados" choose texts of high cultural capital to devote their energies to, while fans scrape the bottom of the barrel -- but also the manner in which each group responds to the chosen text: aficionados respect the authority of the original author, while fans get rowdy and stake their own claims on the text and characters. What Jensen doesn't say is that there is an enormous amount of literary precedent for exactly that kind of claim-staking, for texts both high and low. And that claim-staking isn't just limited to texts that "belong" to everyone, such as the Odyssey or Arthurian legends, but also to texts produced after modern ideas of authorial ownership come into being -- for example, David Brewer talks about the roughly eighty gazillion "unauthorized sequels" produced, in the eighteenth century, to works such as Gulliver's Travelsand The Beggar's Opera, and explicitly links those to modern fanfiction. You can also add all those 19th-century "alternative" Alice in Wonderlands; every Sherlock Holmes pastiche ever produced; Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea; Maguire's Wicked; Naslund's Ahab's Wife; Rawles's My Jim; Randall's The Wind Done Gone; Brooks's Pulitzer-Prize Winning March; and on and on and on.

Anyway, I think that concept of negative capability is an interesting way into some of these issues, since it talks about "gaps" in texts not in terms of *lack* -- with all the value judgments that implies -- but in terms of *possibilities*. It doesn't pathologize fans as deviants interacting in bizarre and unhealthy ways with inadequate texts, but articulates fans as belonging to a tradition of artistic innovation through explorations of pre-existing texts, both high and low. I think the insistence that fandom is an activity marked by its focus upon "inadequate" texts reifies the ghettoization of genre fiction, cuts off fanfiction from broader literary concerns, and renders fannish activities surrounding "highbrow" texts (such as Jane Austen's works) invisible.

Gender plays a *huge* part in these hierarchies, of course; most fanfiction is written by women, and if one paints the fanfictional impulse as somehow divorced from literature as a whole, it plays into misogynistic genre hierarchies; it's no accident that romance, which is written by and for women, is the most vilified of mainstream genres. I think fanfictional writing has enormous liberatory potential, not just for women, but also for queer folk, young people, and any anyone not plugged into the cultural elite; but I also think that exploiting the negative capability of texts needs to be understood as something that isn't *new*, but can be harnessed in new ways.

Geoffrey: I totally agree with you, and I think that you put your finger on something problematic about gender in fandom. If we consider those eighty gazillion unauthorized sequels 'fanfic', then it seems that we can no longer assert that "most fanfiction is written by women". Is that a direction that you think we want to go, as academics?

Unauthorized, Unpublishable, Unauthored?

Catherine: This is why I think it's important to articulate fanfiction's relationship to literature as a whole -- recognizing the fact that this does have a literary pedigree, but not subsuming it under the rubric of general literature without making what is unique about fanfiction clear. I agree with Abigail Derecho's approach: she identifies a category of literature, that she calls "archontic" (a term I find problematic for a number of reasons -- I prefer "recursive," and can elaborate on that if necessary), which consists of any literary text which makes extensive use of identifiable characters and plots from a specific pre-existing source that is meant to be recognized as such. That category includes all those literary works I listed above, and fanfiction. For me, the chief differentiation between fanfic and those texts is not what kinds of source texts they write from, but the *means of distribution*: fanfiction is any literary text which makes extensive use of identifiable characters and plots from a specific pre-existing source that is meant to be recognized as such *that circulates unofficially* -- that is, outside the realm of commercial publication.

Because fanfiction circulates unofficially, it isn't bound by the conventions and limitations of institutionalized publishing. And that's a big deal; it allows people to stake claims over texts that they wouldn't normally be allowed to if they wanted to publish, and frees them to tell the stories they want to tell. You can do things in fanfiction that would be difficult or impossible to do in fiction intended for commercial publication, such as experiments with form and subject matter that don't fit with prevailing tastes. This freedom is especially felt in representations of romantic and sexual relationships -- and this is a major reason, I think, why women, queer folk, and young people have found fanfic so appealing, because these are all groups whose sexual expressions have been heavily policed. It's a way of asserting rights of interpretation over texts that may be patriarchal, heteronormative, and/or contain only adult-approved representations of children and teenagers.

Freedom from standards dictated by particular mediums, and the issue of who has access to each of those mediums, seems to me to be a huge factor in transmedia storytelling; do you see anything like this going on?

Geoffrey: To me, the primary shared issue of transmedia storytelling and fanfic is the idea of canon -- and I don't mean that in the 'literary canon' sense of the term, but in the 'canonical continuity' sense. As I mentioned earlier, what sets Whedon's new Season Eight of Buffy comics apart from earlier Buffy comics is how events in the new S8 comics are very clearly and deliberately declared to be canonical. They are a continuation of the larger story of the Buffyverse -- and if the Scoobies were to return to television or film in the future, the characters would, could and arguably should make reference to events that occurred in this new series of comics. The events depicted in the other comics, such as the Tales of the Slayer and Fray, exist in a kind of 'alternate universe', and may or may not have any real impact on the 'canonical' Buffyverse.

George Lucas handles this in an interesting way with the Star Wars universe. He establishes multiple degrees of canon -- so that anything that happens in his films are de facto "hard and fast" canon. One step beyond that is a second degree of canon, which includes the animated Clone Wars miniseries and the two TV series currently in production. Beyond that is what Lucas calls the "Expanded Universe", which has to go through the Lucas empire for authorization before it can be officially released; this includes things like the Timothy Zahn Heir to the Empire trilogy and a number of the comics currently being published by Dark Horse. The events that occur in the Expanded Universe give George the right to 'pick and choose' what he wants to accept into official canon by incorporating it into future films or TV shows -- so it has the potential to become canon, but isn't truly official canon... yet. Beyond that lies further degrees of expansion, which might include things like the Marvel comics that were published in the 1980s, and even further out lies the unauthorized expansions, which simply aren't canon at all. I think this is where fanfic falls in the hierarchy. (Please keep in mind that I'm merely a fan of Star Wars and not a hardcore Star Wars geek, so folks should feel free to post in the comments here about how I'm getting the whole Expanded Universe/Star Wars Holiday Special thing wrong; I promise to take your advice to heart and improve in future articles.)

Do the fans have a right to stake a claim on the Star Wars universe? Do 'women, queer folk and young people' have a right to interpretation of the Star Wars universe, up to and including really kinky S&M slash fiction featuring Luke, Han, Jabba the Hutt and a crowd of cheering Jawas? Probably -- but just as how these degrees of canon are set up to keep the continuity of these stories clear, degrees of authorship and authorization are also required. The unauthorized are, in effect, unauthored -- which, as you noted, requires it to circulate unofficially.

Getting back to transmedia storytelling, I think it's this issue of canon and authorship that determines whether or not something qualifies as a transmedia narrative. I can't make a film sequel to Romeo and Juliet ("The Capulets Strike Back!") and call Romeo and Juliet a transmedia narrative, because I'm not "authorized" to do so. A transmedia narrative isn't a transmedia narrative unless the whole thing is authorized and canonical; that's what makes transmedia narratives new and exciting.

The examples I give here are mostly straight white guys, but I could just as easily create a comic book to serve as a sequel to any given work by Chinua Achebe, Jamaica Kincaid, Virginia Woolf, Nora Ephron, etc., and the same reasoning would apply. The question in my mind concerns this hierarchy of canon and rights to authorship, but I'm uncertain as to whether or not gender enters into this. Some proponents of fanfic seem to declare that anyone has the right to write anything about any character invented by anyone and the results should all be considered equally viable as literature, thus obliterating the hierarchy of authorship and canon, but this seems problematic for all sorts of reasons. What do you think?

Catherine: Well, I do believe that anybody should be able to write about any character and have it considered equally viable as literature. What do you mean by "unauthored"? But I'm in full agreement with you that it needs to have the Official Creator Stamp of Approval for it to become *canon*. And this is where we get into some interesting issues, because creator-approval/authorization is what makes a specific item -- a book, a comic, a film, whatever -- part of the official canon, but when it comes to what, exactly, those agreed-upon-as-canonical texts/comics/games/films are actually saying, especially about nuances of character and relationships... well, that's up in the air. As Mafalda Stasi puts it, "beyond the bare factual minimum, canon constitution and interpretation are a highly debated and controversial critical activity in the fannish milieu." What's canon, what's "fanon," what's a "viable" interpretation? Are House and Wilson/Sam and Dean/Remus and Sirius harboring a Secret Passion for one another? And that issue of canon/fanon isn't confined to fandom, even though the terms are fannish: Is Satan the "real" hero of Paradise Lost? What I find interesting is that, in fandom, the discourse of canon-interpretation and argumentation often includes appeals to authorial intent: the producer says House/Wilson is always a possibility! One of Supernatural's major writers calls the show "The Epic Love Story of Sam and Dean," which means Wincest is (possibly) totally canon! (I am RESISTING making some lame crack about being of the Wincest party without knowing it... damn.) And I think those appeals to creators' authority aren't because those silly fans don't know that we've moved on from the intentional fallacy, but are part of that complex negotiation of claim-staking that happens when you're writing someone else's characters. How do you think transmedia storytelling affects those interpretations? (She says, looking at the Supernatural comics where I know that guy is Dean because Sam keeps calling him that; when did he become a blond?)