Fans: You got your fannish preconceptions all over my critic’s space
September 15, 2013 § 12 Comments
Renay makes some rather strong claims early in her article. This one in particular made me pause and reflect for a moment:
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.
There is quite a bit to unpack here. For starters, the claim she makes that she considers “nonfiction reviews fanwork” is one that flat-out baffles me. I just do not, cannot accept this line of reasoning, as it appears to begin from an assumption that those who write commentaries or reviews, particularly those who do not often get paid for their writing (as it seems reasonable to infer that Renay does not consider those who are regularly paid for their reviews in the same light, as this would dilute her argument), begin from the vantage point of being “fans,” whatever that might ultimately mean if examined closely. This too-close association, to the point of conflation, of online reviewer (the term “book blogger” I believe has too many misleading connotations attached to it now, or at least it is not a term that I personally think is applicable to what I and certain others write, at least as how the term is understood to be in regards to its application) with “fan” is rather disconcerting. It is acceptable, perhaps even desired in some quarters, for some to approach this from “a place of fannish inquiry,” but Renay in outlining her stance on the issue appears to leave too little space for those of us who prefer to be skeptics when it comes to the works we are considering as we read. In blunter terms, I am no f’n’ “fan” when I read something. Perhaps I choose to read things that might bring me some enjoyment, but I reserve judgment at all times as to the considered work’s aesthetic qualities. This difference, I believe, colors quite a bit of what follows.
Leaving aside the differences in perception regarding those who write reviews and commentaries, Renay’s concerns about the mixing and mingling of “creators and publishers carving out a space inside fan communities” is something that represents only the perception of a vocal (perhaps too vocal?) segment of this so-called “fandom.” Maybe it’s because I am a history Ph.D. dropout who was exposed to academic journals long before I ever knew of organized SF/F groups, but the presumption that there should be this sort of “sacred space” (my words, not hers) for fans to discuss their works of choice is rather ludicrous. Any body that rejects the inclusion of a significant segment (whether it be readers/viewers, writers, critics, etc.) risks creating something that is incomplete and unstable.
For years, the notion that authors should not discuss their works in a public forum has been a rather bemusing bromide. No, what worries some people is that the author, far from dying a Barthian “death,” may present an argument that threatens the sanctity of their own views. Yes, it seems that authorial presence does seem to destabilize certain aspects of “fan” discussions and that it is irritating to those who would rather wish that the author “died” at the limns of the text and that s/he couldn’t have interpretive stances that could alter a reader’s understanding of the text. I almost even empathize with that desire to avoid having an authoritative person or body around, as that could, in some cases make certain readers (fans? Whatever…) reticent to respond. But no, ultimately I have to reject this view.
Why? Because what such opinions do is seek to shut down particular voices. In understanding a text, I do not believe that one should discount authorial intention in toto. Nor should readers accept what an author says about his/her work uncritically. Instead, there should be, in those cases of potential disagreement, a lively debate about what was intended versus what was perceived or executed within the bounds of the narrative text. Sometimes this “liveliness” breaks down into pejorative commentaries replete with ad hominems, but often it does not (but I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit to enjoying the occasional round of harsh recriminations. See the 1980s Historikerstreit.) Granted, it may not be conducive to fannish discussions and that this is largely what Renay is arguing here, but on the whole I believe it is much better for the health of literary discussion (and yes, there is a paradigm shift that accompanies this) for there to be a more “open market for ideas” than sequestered, almost cloistered “communities.”
Renay elaborates further on what troubles her about the “intrusion” of “professional” elements into fannish quarters:
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.
Needless to say that I reject, almost with vehemence, the presumption that “book bloggers are fans.” Renay’s dichotomous presentation of “fannish track” and “industry track” blogs distorts a rather more complex situation into simplified groups that it is hard for me to look at her points here and not conclude that she fails to present a wide swath of critics and readers who do not fall into her assigned categories. “Editorially independent” reviewers (while not a great term, it does take into account the times that reviewers such as myself have been assigned books to review for publications, with payment to follow) choose generally what they might think would be an intriguing work, but this occurs within and even outside the bounds of the two “tracks” that Renay postulates above. Very few, if any, would meet the exact descriptions above, particularly this one: “[o]wn interactive online spaces where subscribers inform the direction of the site.” What in the blue hells does this even mean? I presume there is the assumption of a sort of puppet/puppetmaster role, but personal and second-hand experiences alike have shown this to be more akin to a complex set of negotiations along the lines of “hey, would you consider this? Thanks. And if not, no problem.” There is nothing “pure” about any interactions. But this also means there is nothing that completely “sullies” what that site/reviewer intends to cover. Renay’s apparent bemoaning of this “shift” of some toward “looking appealing to publishers/creators” I believe is rather overblown. Yes, there are always going to be some (like the too-often-cited case of a visible blog run by a Canadian) SF/F reviewers appearing to be corporate shills, but even that reduces matters into too simple, too neat categories when I suspect the actual situation is much more diverse (and messy. Messiness as a good trait is a theme here, by the way).
Again this goes back to the issue of party involvements. I believe it is foolish to reject out of hand the involvement of what Renay calls “creators,” just as I believe it to be asinine to accept without skepticism what said people present. Yes, it may be desirable in certain times and contexts for there to be walled off, segregated corners for discussion, but it should not be a hard-and-fast rule that governs all interactions between interested parties. Renay does acknowledge the potential for interesting discussions when all parties are present, but I believe she overplays the moments when things become “really terrible.” Nothing is “really terrible” unless there is no honesty of expression, no moment where one cannot at least learn that some texts (and their authors) are not infallible but only flawed, works of human hands.
And then there’s this:
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.
Ehhh….so it’s now pretty much about power relations? Does it matter any if the discussion is right or wrong? The use of the term “canonical weight” reveals a few things. First, that despite the annoyance presented at the author making a comment about his text, that he has a “privileged” view of the narrative. I’m guessing there’s a sense of intimidation present, a belief that it is hard to argue against authorial intent? But perhaps Renay is right in concluding that “the playing field was not level.” If one does not want to pitch intentional battle with/against writers, then perhaps the readers in those cases are to be reduced to secondary roles in narrative interpretation.
This is a very different interpretation than what I suspect many derived from that paragraph, but it does strike closer to what I found to be deficiencies in Renay’s article. Her view is consistently that of the aggrieved “fan,” the reader who feels somewhat threatened when a writer (or “creator” in her parlance, which I presume takes into account TV/film in addition to written stories) makes his/her own assertions regarding the narrative being considered. This view does not seem to take into account those who view themselves foremost as critics, those who want to tear into the text and to pry it apart, exploring its innards. For these readers, authorial involvement does not necessarily lead to a sense of being threatened, but rather as an opportunity to delve further, to question and perhaps interrogate the authors, to see in what ways the text itself may be “independent” (in terms of interpretation) of its creator/s. “Fans” often just get in the way of this because they frequently are not as concerned about what interests the critics and some just refuse to recognize the value of intermingling. Maybe it’s the Hegelian-influenced thinker in me, but I prefer to synthesize information and that involves the occasional conflict with others.
Renay concludes by noting:
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.
As I said above, while I can be sympathetic to an extent toward the desire for separate conversations regarding a text, I just do not accept the premise she lays out here. Yes, there have been some disagreeable conflicts and yes some “fans” are viewed in a less-than-positive light (not that this is anything unique to writers/publishers). But what Renay seems to be lamenting is the lack of clear lines between the self-identified “fan” and the labeled “professional.” I just do not share that concern. Yes, there is an increased risk for too-cozy relationships, but the solution is not to wall off those interested parties who might have an informed opinion. No, instead it probably would be better to be skeptical of what is presented, to kick its metaphorical tires and bite its presumed gold coins, and to question everything, including one’s own preconceptions, in order to arrive at a synthesis that incorporates a wider body of viewpoints. A good narrative should not only survive this lively debate and vivisection, but it should be strengthened as a result. This is why, as an occasional lit critic, that I reject several of the premises behind Renay’s article. It is one thing to be a fan and to desire “fannish” things. It is another, however, to extrapolate from that viewpoint and to include others who likely will not consider themselves part of the matter. Sometimes critics do need fans to stop smearing their preconceptions of textual analysis all over our spaces. Or rather, it’s OK to do so as long as they can accept that those preconceptions might be questioned and shredded as need be. The results might astound and enlighten all of us.