February 3, 2008
Fandom in the Age of Franchising (2 of 2)

In my previous post on the topic, I voiced my frustration about Virginia Heffernan's combining a variety of "convergence culture" activities that I feel can't be so easily conflated in her recent piece on Friday Night Lights for The New York Times Magazine. Heffernan devotes a lot of attention to the lack of fanfiction in particular, and her take has been both praised and derided in fanfiction communities. While I think that some of her speculations on why Friday Night Lights doesn't have a lot of fanfiction do make sense, the way they are presented, and the reasonings behind them, are somewhat flawed and speak to a somewhat shaky grasp of fanfiction as both a social and artistic practice.

For instance, I think there's some truth in the proposition that Friday Night Lights doesn't generate a lot of fanfiction because it is such a thoughtful, character-driven piece that is so tightly written that it might quell the urge to run for our computers, but not because its outcomes are too "haphazard and lifelike" to be guessed at by fans. That sort of speculation of possible futures and outcomes that she describes makes up only a minor portion of the fanfiction being produced, even in sci-fi and fantasy fandoms and fanfiction. One might argue slash fiction in particular is as much focused on the development of characters and relationships as it is on world-building and speculation. I think rather than the narrative and quality of Friday Night Lights being forbidding to fanfiction writers, it instead fills the role of fanfiction in many ways, providing the kind of intricate character and story development and subtlety that many fanfiction readers and writers go to fanfiction for, thus in a way satisfying a very fannish desire and in fact catering to fans more than it shuts them out.

In addition, Heffernan's article seems to presume that fan practice is somehow dictated by the media producers--that they can encourage and deter fan writers as easily as all that, when the reasons for production of fanfiction are heavily social and largely unpredictable.

I got the sense, in fact, in reading the article -- with the comparisons to "museum-fatigue" and the "sense of uselessness and enervation in the face of art that doesn't need us," as well as the seemingly unnecessary marking of fans as "lay people" -- that what it was trying to say was that Friday Night Lights was simply too good to participatory fan cultures to appreciate. I felt it was saying that fans, on some level, were petty enough to turn "aloof and passive" in the face of high quality television and complex narratives that don't explicitly cater to certain fan practices.

But Friday Night Lights fans, at least the ones that I know, are anything but aloof and passive, even if they aren't writing fanfic or editing wikis. To use fan-produced content as the single measure of fan engagement and devotion strikes me as the same kind of misunderstanding of fans that companies like fanlib.com had when they managed to alienate a significant portion of the people they were trying to court. That viewpoint is that fandom is just a targeted form of user-generated content that can be easily translated into a promotional franchise, measurable by the volume of tangible deliverables (fics, vids, websites) produced. In reality, every fandom is its own complex social system, with its own customs and many roles and processes of which fanfiction writing is only one.

To say that Friday Night Lights "shuts fans out" because the tightness of the writing does not allocate room for fan stories and speculation makes me wonder what exactly that makes the crying, DVR-owning grown-ups cited at the beginning of the article. Or, for that matter, what does it makes people like Virginia Heffernan herself and Sam Ford and all the other critics and bloggers and fans who keep singing the praises of Friday Night Lights to anyone who'll listen? Am I a less engaged fan for telling everyone I know to watch the show, but not writing installment 47 of Tim Riggins and Smash Williams' locker room hatesex-filled epic, yet angsty, love affair?

The object lesson, it seems to me, is not that no production is an island, however true that may be. It's that no fan is one either, and no fan practice is any one thing.