Last month saw the first half of my interview with Fan Studies Scholars and authors, Katherine Larsen and Lynn Zubernis. This month the conversation is continued! As I noted last time, they run the site Fangasm, edit The Journal of Fandom Studies, and have published several books on Fan Studies and fandoms. One of their main fandoms, which is one I certainly share, is of the television series Supernatural. I hope you awesome readers enjoy the continuation of this interview as much as I do!
There are a lot of negative stereotypes of fans (and, even more so, fan fiction). There is also a lot of in-fighting within fandoms (I’m thinking of Johnlock stuff recently and, often, fighting around different ‘ships). How do you both feel about this? Do you think it’s important to study/ dwell on the negative aspects? Or does that get in the way of what is positive about fandoms?
K: I think one of the most damaging stereotypes of fans is that somehow fan communities should be the exclusive stomping grounds of ponies and unicorns and there is always a rainbow in the fannish sky. Fan communities are no different than any other community and of course there will be factions, splinter groups, dissension. I don’t see this as a negative. I see this as variety.
In the same vein, I think we started writing in the first place because fandoms, early on, were too often described as being one unified group who all arrived there with the same agenda. The wonderful thing about any extremely varied group of people is that they all arrive via different paths with different stories. As academics, it’s important to be mindful of *all* of those stories and resist pigeon-holing fans according to what we as academics think they should be or want them to be.
L: I agree that wank and in-fighting are inevitable any time you have a group of humans together. There are hierarchies in fandom just as in any group, and with passionate investment also comes passionate disagreement. I tend to get stuck in my psychologist viewpoint often and get upset when I see fan-on-fan aggression (and have been known to reach out to the upset person, whether it’s virtually on Tumblr or following a fan upset by the reaction to her question at a convention into the bathroom to be sure she was okay).
I think that not talking about it isn’t particularly helpful, although I understand the sentiment of sometimes just not wanting anyone to ‘harsh my squee.’ Studying those negative dynamics is important, because understanding why someone feels so passionately about something can help people find common ground. Sometimes.
Having spent so much time examining fans, does that have a lot of impact on your own ability to enjoy being a fan? I know it’s hard for me to shut down my academic head-voice when reading sometimes. Is that the same for you both when at a fan convention or on Tumblr or the like?
K: This wasn’t a problem for me early on in the research, but as time has gone on, it has definitely impacted my ability to enjoy the fandom at times. At fan conventions we are often squarely in the middle between fans and producers and that’s an odd and often uncomfortable position to be in. I’m not going to lie – it’s also kind of nice, and a bit of an ego stroke to sit down for drinks with someone who just appeared on stage. But it also makes you question whose “side” you’re on. If you’re talking to actors one minute and then trying to slide back into fan mode the next, it can get a bit confusing. Away from the conventions, I also sometimes have difficulty separating my academic reading of a situation/episode/piece of fanfic from my fan reading. Times like that I just tell myself I’m engaging in meta. Or maybe it’s meta meta?
L: It’s difficult at conventions, because we’re often going back and forth – literally – between fan mode and academic mode. It’s less difficult than it used to be, though, after going to so many conventions. I’ve found a comfortable in-between space in which I can still be a fangirl (and get lost in the bliss of the moment watching a panel and cheering along with everyone else), but can slide into the role of interviewer or writer afterwards. It helps that we are now acquainted with many of the Supernatural actors, and believe it or not, they are a bunch of great people – I can now be more real with them, so there’s not so much a sense of being on a “side”.
Online I mix up my fannish and academic identities too, especially on Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook. I post photos and interviews and episode reviews with an academic slant, but my “voice” on those platforms is a fannish one, with all the enthusiasm and passion that come with it. People know me as both fan and academic and seem to be comfortable with the mixed identity at this point.
You edit the Journal of Fandom Studies. I’ve had the chance to read an issue and was so delighted/ stunned to see the huge variety of fandoms being represented. Have there been subjects that you were surprised to find that people had built fandoms around?
K: One article on Retrophiles introduced me to a fandom I might not have ever classified that way, but in general I haven’t been as surprised at objects of fandom as I have by some of the many fascinating and creative ways fans have found to manifest their fandoms. I didn’t know much about customized action figures or the craft and cosplay aspects of fandom before, so I’m learning more with every article that comes in.
L: I think we all tend to think of “fandom” as consisting of the ways in which we happen to participate in our own fandom. I started out only knowing about fanfiction, but have since had my eyes opened to the amazing variety of fannish creativity and expression. I’m in awe of the talent and passion of fans and the myriad ways in which they express themselves.
You’ve had the opportunity to talk with many of the people involved with Supernatural. What has been the most surprising thing you’ve learned about the show? They definitely seem like a show that loves its fans. Do you think that’s one of the reasons for their success, in terms of how devoted their fan base is?
K: Definitely. I don’t think it’s necessarily why anyone lands in the fandom to begin with (the show does that all by itself), but what a bonus to find a group of people who so genuinely cares about and relates to its fans! Fandom has created a safe space for fans, but I would say that in the Supernatural fandom in particular, it’s also created a safe space for the performers. Actors will share with fans – their joys, but also their insecurities, they will take chances in the presence of fans that they might not take under any other circumstances. I’m thinking of D.J. Qualls onstage telling us what it was like growing up in the south being so very different from his peers, or Osric Chau performing a song for the first time in public at a fan convention. Those, and many more moments like them, are powerful and emotional and in some cases cathartic for both fan and performer. Where in “real life” does that happen?
L: I think the most surprising thing about the Show is that nine years later, the people who make the show are still so excited about it! There’s a genuine enthusiasm that pervades the set, the cast and the crew, and instead of waning over the course of nine years, it’s burning brighter than ever. That is extraordinary!
The other thing that surprised me about Supernatural is how the cast and crew work together – they really are like a well-oiled machine. The first time we were on set to watch filming, I was struck by how seamlessly everyone worked together, everyone doing their part and doing it happily, even when it was well after midnight on a Friday. Every time I’ve been back to watch filming again, it’s been the same.
I think the show’s desire for a reciprocal relationship with its fans, from the very beginning, has been a major factor in its success. When we were doing the interviews for “Fangasm,” everyone who made the show was as eager to ask us questions about the fans as we were to ask them about the show. Eric Kripke wanted to know what fans were thinking and doing and loving (and hating), and then he brilliantly incorporated some of that into the Show to express his affection (through poking fun) right back.
The actors have also been instrumental in developing that reciprocal relationship, interacting with fans at conventions that sometimes run every other weekend. It’s an extraordinarily consistent amount of contact, and they seem to genuinely enjoy being able to connect directly. Most of the actors have actually read our books, to the extent that they can discuss them quite thoughtfully. Misha Collins and Richard Speight Jr. even contributed chapters to Fan Phenomena: Supernatural. They get it.
What would you suggest as the best way for people to get more involved with Fan Studies as an academic discipline?
K: More and more departments are entertaining the possibility of allowing students to do work in fan cultures, even departments outside Media Studies and Cultural Studies. The best way to get involved is to be a fan and then figure out how it relates to your own discipline if you are already in academia (and it will – I guarantee it). And if you’re just starting, do your due diligence, look for the programs and universities where there are people you know you want to work with.
L: Agreed. Most people coming to the field are still coming from related disciplines – and if your discipline isn’t “related” on the surface, dig a little deeper and you might be surprised to find connections.
What was the process of writing your book, Fangasm, like? It covers quite a span of time, how long did the actual writing process take? What about your other books (which I feel have a different feel to them—maybe more academic in nature, whereas Fangasm feels more personal)?
K: Fan Culture: Theory/Practice and Fan Phenomena: Supernatural are edited collections, so the process of putting those books together was pretty straightforward. It’s different when you are co-authoring texts and especially something that winds up being a personal journey. I think we both wanted to make sure that we found the right balance of both of our voices. In some ways it helped that we are so different in our approaches to being a fan – especially when it came to meeting and interviewing the actors. We became each other’s foils but we also – I hope – presented two different faces of fandom.
L: Writing Fangasm took a very long time – the story itself covers the span of about two years, but the actual writing process took much longer, close to four years. This is partly because we were first writing a book that The Powers That Be wanted to publish themselves, and then later when that fell apart, we were again writing for ourselves and telling the “real story of fandom,” which had been our goal in the first place. We also had to struggle mightily with writing a book about fandom that that was also a memoir – neither of us wanted to put ourselves out there like that! We were eventually talked into it, but it was terrifying!
Our first book on fandom and Supernatural, Fandom At The Crossroads: Celebration, Shame and Fan/Producer Relationships, was written simultaneously with Fangasm. It tells a parallel story, but from a more academic perspective.
I would love to read a book, by you both, on Supernatural fan fiction (which you have talked about in your books). I’m seeing fan fiction discussed in more and more academic ways and think that it’s becoming something less “silly” to the outside eye. How do you feel the world of fan fiction is different, in relation to fandoms, in a general sense? Do you see it as something worth discussing as literature? Or should it have its own academic focus separate from a literary one?
K: I do think of fan fiction as literature. And like all literature (good and bad) it’s a window into both the culture of the particular fan community and of contemporary culture. There are academics sitting in libraries all over the country, hunting down the ephemeral literature of one, two, three hundred years ago. This is the ephemeral literature of our own time. I see no reason to wait one hundred years in order to acknowledge that it has value. The great thing about fan studies is that it is multi-disciplinary and it can be seen through so many lenses. Literature is one, but not the only one.
L: I would love to write that book! Just in the past five or six years, since we’ve been studying fandom and this fandom in particular, mainstream awareness of (and acceptance of) fan fiction has increased dramatically. Many published authors have come forward to say that they gained experience writing fanfiction, and of course some have gotten rich on their fanfiction turned Fifty Shades of Gray. Amazon even has its own fanfiction enterprise, for better or worse.
I remain fascinated by fanfiction as a means of expression and a displaced way of trying out alternate narratives and different endings, as well as a way to just have fun or celebrate the hotness of Sam and Dean and Cas.
These two questions are ones I’ve been pondering a lot since beginning this column and I’ve been asking many types of fans for their answers. So: What do you think makes you a “fan?” And: What is the best thing to you about belonging to a fandom?
K: I really like this definition of a fan: “To be a fan is to be excited, interested, devoted and knowledgeable about a piece of the world.”( From Mike Rugnetta on the future of fandoms on You Tube ). I think this sums it up for me for all of the fandoms I’ve been involved with and it’s what make me a fan. I get excited. I want to know more. And then some more after that. And then I want to delve deeper. And as far as the best thing – I think I’ve already mentioned this, but it’s the validation that comes with knowing you are not alone.
L: I like that definition too – I think you’re a fan when you’re passionate about something, when you care enough about it to want to be involved in it in some way, and want to find other like-minded people to share your passion. The best thing is the sense of community. I’ve seen fans come together to raise money for all kinds of causes, and to help a down-on-her-luck fan be able to buy groceries for the next week. I’ve seen people confess all sorts of doubts and fears, and others say “me too” with empathy. I’ve sat in an auditorium of hundreds of people and screamed with glee together when Misha Collins comes onstage or Jensen Ackles grabs the microphone to sing or Jared Padalecki takes off his hat to shake his hair. It’s a pretty amazing feeling.
I think that is a perfect note to sign off on. Remember to check out Fangasm’s site, read their books, or follow them on Twitter @FangasmSPN. Next month, I’ll be back with a look into more fan-tastic stuff.