Communities: You Got Your Industry in my Fanwork
9 September 2013
One of the lessons I took from media fandom back in the ’90s was "don't talk about fanwork with creators." Don't show them your fanfiction or send them links to fanart, and generally keep fanwork away from creators because the fanwork isn't for them, it’s for us. I never ran into this problem personally, because my fandoms were a) Japanese anime and b) Japanese video games, and those guys were often more interested in torturing me with footage of Final Fantasy games that wouldn't drop for years than worrying about sexy fanfiction of their characters.
Since getting into television fandoms, I've heard secondhand stories of fans presenting actors with explicit fanwork, emailing them links to fanwork and asking for commentary, or other potentially disastrous things that might bias a creator against the fandom. I grew up in a time when technology was bringing us ever closer to the creators of the media we were remixing, but it still felt like there were vast distances between us. These days most, if not all, that distance is gone, depending how large, well-known, or infamous a particular fandom might be.
And of all the fandoms I've been in, SF book blogging fandom is running out of fannish fourth wall—fast.
I am probably a minority in considering nonfiction reviews fanwork, but I approach all media from a place of fannish inquiry. I am interested in what I can extrapolate from a source myself, rather than relying on external canonical information from creators. Coming to book blogging fandom, and SF fandom in particular, is downright weird: book bloggers and creators interacting on social media; book bloggers and creators hanging out at conventions; and book bloggers sending review links, both negative and positive, to publishers and the creators! The classification between book bloggers as "fans" or "professionals" continues to shift and become increasingly nebulous as we adapt to the industry noticing us. This has contributed to what I see as creators and publishers carving out a space inside fan communities for themselves and settling in for the long haul. My eye is on the fact that sometimes creators will comment on my reviews and I'll have to go breathe into a paper bag, because all those "do not engage with creators over fanwork" warnings I took to heart as a teenager are exploding in the name of technological and fannish cultural progress. Because I'm aware of how badly things can go when fans seek to engage with creators, I'm intensely dubious that some creators think it's acceptable to walk into book blogger fan spaces featuring their work and argue about intentions and readings without an explicit invitation.
After watching many of my favorite book bloggers shift from primarily fanwork toward the industry, I contextualized what I see happening in book blogging amid all the debates about where book bloggers fit. Book bloggers are fans, but as book blogger culture has grown and the ability of blogs to create "buzz" for books has increased, they've continued to grow closer to the publishing industry, which can be a detriment to the fan community around those blogs. It's hard to build a robust fan community when The Powers That Be are so close, and discussions can easily feel observed, or even interrupted, by creators. The very basic idea is a scale, with "industry track blogs" on one end and "fannish track blogs" on the other. I think of fannish book blogs as having some, all, or more of the following characteristics:
- Primarily purchasing books for themselves, requesting them through libraries, or via book exchange programs for the bulk of their review base. ARCs are supplemental or not accepted.
- Content is often reviews of books for their own use, such as records of yearly reading, statistic tracking, or personal reading projects. Critical analysis, gaining experience writing, and learning more about genre(s) as a whole can also be factors.
- Other types of publicity beyond reviews are generally absent in favor of personal reviews, in-depth discussions, and community reading projects.
- Attending events, such as signings and conventions where creators will speak is often tied more to bloggers' experience as fans, and less to any attempt to develop an ongoing working relationship with creators/publishers or to develop a blog's brand.
- These blogs tend to not always focus on "new" titles, but perhaps draw from to-read lists, focus on back catalogues, and follow recommendations from friends.
- Scheduling tends to be more relaxed, less structured, and based on personal schedules of reading/reviewing, rather than connected to street dates.
- There's a focus on wanting to share thoughts about reading primarily with their existing social networks/friends, rather than attempting to bring in a larger or different audience by "growing" their influence.
Industry track book bloggers (who may have started as fans) may do the above as well as some, all, or more than the following:
- Support the industry and creators with guest posts from creators, giveaways, cover reveals, release announcements, reviews, round-table discussions, and interviews.
- Attend industry events. They attend in some ways as fans, but they also attend as fans who have created a recognizable brand and use it to acquire new capital and network with people within the industry.
- Own interactive online spaces where subscribers inform the direction of the site. "What do my readers want to see? What's relevant to them?" are driving factors in content decisions.
- They accept review copies on a regular basis, both for themselves, to follow market trends, and to let their readers know what's upcoming.
- New book releases are a high percentage of review content.
- Organization includes a certain level of scheduling and planned events, and a level of consistency that persists over time.
- There's more explicit interaction with creators and the industry (editors, publicists, etc.).
Over the last few years many previously fannish book blogs I follow have slowly shifted into industry track blogs. I suspect it's why the industry can step into these spaces, which are ostensibly fan spaces because their owners are not being compensated. Some parts of the industry feel comfortable doing so because these blogs parlayed their fannish excitement into looking appealing to publishers/creators. Creators can comment on fan conversation that they were not explicitly invited into, sometimes with interesting discussions, but sometimes with really terrible results.
I saw this happen recently in SF at The Book Smugglers: "Smugglers' Ponderings: On the Peter Grant Series by Ben Aaronovitch". To me as a fan, this looked like a case of an author walking into an explicitly fannish discussion to throw around his canonical weight. From my perspective, the blogger (Ana Grilo) reacted much better than I know some fans (including myself) would have if an author had made that choice. The fact that Grant preceded his comment with "Authors commenting on reviews is usually a mistake but . . ." suggests to me he knew that the playing field was not level, yet he spoke, anyway. The nature of the shift from fan blogs to industry blogs is making creators bolder, and perhaps, allowing them to think less complexly about their positions.
What happened was a direct result of The Book Smugglers as a fannish project being subsumed by the industry. As the parts of The Book Smugglers that were explicitly fannish when they started became muted over time due to their excellent work with the publishing industry, parts of the industry may feel that space belongs to them even without an outright invitation. I can't imagine a creator walking into critical fan space like this and not bringing the force of whatever fandom down on their head. For example, Jeff Davis and the race issues surrounding Teen Wolf casting did not leave another fandom I'm in very happy at all. When Davis took to his short-lived tumblr to defend his casting decisions by engaging directly with fan criticisms, he was quickly buried under hundreds of rebuttals by fans with their own interpretations and experiences of the canon, especially those invested in portrayals of minorities. Because tumblr often "equalizes" fans and creators, it likely felt safe for Davis to enter that space. In reality, it rankled many fans who found his reasoning flawed, his assurances empty, and felt that he had invaded their space only to cast himself and his work in a more positive light.
SF fandom is much smaller in scope than big, sprawling television fandoms, but the takeaway remains the same—sometimes fan criticism is not meant for creators to engage with at all, and they shouldn't comment even if they read it, no matter how much the environment of the discussion looks open to interaction. Fans have open conversations about work online with other fans because they trust creators not to punch down; that trust needs to be respected by the people with the canonical power.
As a book blogger who identifies primarily as a fan; with only author signings under her belt, without the review copy (except as a special treat); with the lack of explicit organization in my writing; and with my history as a member of media fandom, I'm dubious about the crumbling of this wall between fans and creators. I call this my Fourth Wall Complex; I am intensely uncomfortable in fan/creator interactions because I'm never sure where the conversations about the work will go. Will it cause a fandom pileup with creators and fans at odds, or worse, different groups of fans? Will it challenge fannish interpretation in negative ways? Because once I read a work, that work is mine. I'm going to interpret it my way, disregard authorial intention, embrace alternate readings of the canonical facts, and probably consider writing explicit fanfic about characters an author likely never intended to be together. Years of fanwork debates, watching creators discover fandom, and horrible characterizations of fans have made me guarded against creators. I promise, industry/creators/publicists/editors: it's not you (okay, sometimes it's you; please stop comparing fanwork creators to thieves, okay?), it's me.
Over the last few years, we've been watching creators slip into our communities and our social circles; sometimes we invite them in and sometimes we don't, but as some book blogs, born from fannish beginnings and with fannish goals, become industry blogs, we'll continue to see incidents where creators step in and find themselves the target of severe discomfort that takes form as anger and hostility. The line between fan/professional has blurred, and I think we're in for even more breakdowns of the fannish and authorial fourth walls as fandom expands and spreads across more platforms, as fans continue finding ways to be fannish and support their fandoms at the same time, and as technology improves. For me, the takeaway is still, and probably will always be, that creators have canonical power and fans have interpretive power; bringing them both into a critical discussion is a recipe for fireworks.