As much as I hate to start any review (or any piece of published work) with any kind of reference to Fifty Shades of Grey, I must, lamentably, concede defeat this one (and only!) time, as the topic at hand unfortunately necessitates it.
E.L. James’ trilogy (Fifty Shades of Grey and its two sequels) has caused quite the furor over the past few years: originally penned as a work of fan fiction, the title brought its author a seven-figure publishing deal, the top of the bestseller list, and international acclaim. Amid flying accusations of plagiarism (she did, after all, start working with another author’s characters) and criticisms of the novel’s portrayal of BDSM (which ranges from inaccurate to outright disturbing), the whole endeavor did also serve to bring the existence of fan fiction into the limelight – and probably give it a bit of a bad name in the process.
Fic: How Fan Fiction is Changing the World follows on the heels of this whole fiasco, and it seeks to set the record straight about fan fiction. It’s an attempt at a comprehensive look at the history of fan fiction (with the caveat that fan fiction is too broad for any book on it to be truly comprehensive), as well as an exploration of its merits, its significance, and the communities that surround it. And, for the most part, it’s an articulate, informed, and engaging text, providing a respectful and non-judgmental overview.
Author Anne Jamison takes as her premise the idea that fan fiction is transformative work rather than derivative work (an important distinction), which allows her to proceed on to exploring fan fictions’ power to question cultural norms, resist patriarchal conceptions of gender, sex, and sexuality, respond to, critique, and parody source texts, and to create communities. Of course, the way that fan fiction’s done these things has changed over time, as new cultural texts and new technologies have come into being, their interaction often fundamentally changing the landscape of fan interaction with source texts, its creators, and each other. Thus, Jamison’s book is laid out in chronological order, examining the history and developments of fan fiction in relation to new literary and media works, new technologies, and new cultural climates, and raising any issues relevant to a particular period or fandom as she goes.
Jamison’s more than qualified to write this history: she’s a professor of English and a literary historian who also teaches classes on popular culture and fan fiction. She combines literary analysis with literary history, while not eschewing a good handful of other fields and their perspectives, and the result is a more than excellent account. She begins this chronology at what is arguably fan fiction’s very roots – ancient Greece and Rome, where Virgil borrowed Homer’s characters and all the poets wrote about the same gods and heroes, and runs through a quick literary history ranging from medieval romance to Shakespeare and George Eliot.
But the true beginning of the story is Sherlock Holmes, and Jamison gives an interesting and engaging account of the Sherlock Holmes phenomenon since the time of the publication of the stories; even I, an avid Sherlockian, found new pieces of information to absorb. Sherlock Holmes is an even more complex case to study, what with a BBC show that calls itself fan fiction, which then inspires its own fan fiction, and the fact that there’s a Sherlockian trend to pretend Holmes was real and Doyle was but a literary agent. Sherlock Holmes “fan fiction” piles layers upon layers of complexity, as a hundred years of advancing technology have changed fan fiction and yet haven’t changed it. Jamison both understands this and explains it in accessible ways, but, though endlessly intriguing, the section on Sherlock Holmes is woefully, lamentably short. It’s like the richest chocolate cake you’ve ever had, but served as the thinnest possible slice.
Following Sherlock Holmes, Jamison moves through the history of literary science fiction and sci-fi fanzines, touching upon the interaction and blurry lines between fans and authors back in the day of said fanzines. She then delves into Star Trek, the first show with a real media fandom, and the stunning impact that had on, well, everything. From the way media fandom arose as a reaction to science fiction fandom and the reasons why it became largely dominated by women to its explorations of sex and sexuality, it is, again, engaging, and also very clear that Jamison’s done her research. As an academic who dabbles in this area of study myself, I can often pinpoint exactly what Jamison’s sources were and what ideas she’s articulating. That isn’t a bad thing, because it means that Jamison knows exactly what she’s talking about, and manages to articulate it in an elegant and engaging way for the layperson rather than the academic.
After Holmes and Star Trek, Jamison moves on to the X-Files, Buffy, and Harry Potter. These are the fandoms that marked the beginning of the Internet age, which is likely how we know fandom today, and so it’s eye-opening to read about what fandom looked like when everyone was only just beginning to have their own (dial-up) internet access (ah, the memories…), as well as what impact this groundbreaking new technology had on creativity and community.
Lastly, Jamison moves on to the Twilight fandom, and that’s where the book starts to slide downhill. Though she presents a compelling argument for the way this “Saga’s” fan community has changed the fan fiction landscape, the same could well have been done in half as many words. Of course, Jamison’s area of expertise is precisely Twilight fan fiction, so this 100-page chunk is no surprise; despite her expertise, however, this section of the book quickly spirals into an endless repetition of the same ideas: Twilight as a fandom removed from other fandoms, a new relationship with the source text, and seemingly endless concerns about publishing fan fiction (precipitated by a focus on Fifty Shades of Grey).The problems that the publication of fan fiction creates for fan fiction’s ability to resist the narrow norms of popular culture are endlessly raised, and every page of it feels like a blow to the other fandoms Jamison’s covered, which are arguably equally important.
The last section of the book is by far the weakest, lacking any coherency besides the theme of “Fan Fiction Today.” It provides a quick overview of a number of modern fandoms (Supernatural, My Little Pony, and others) that contribute little besides a cursory introduction to a particular text. There’s also a section on “conceptual writing,” which has the dubious merit of being so dull that even an academic had to painfully plough her way through it.
However, the book isn’t all Jamison, but is also sprinkled with a variety of other voices throughout the text. It moves away from the traditional format of a SmartPop book (a collection of essays by different people on one topic), and instead lists Jamison as the author who provides the overarching narrative while including a handful of contributions from other authors. Jamison’s correctly understood that fan fiction is too broad a term for one person to generalize about it, and so, in the spirit of fan fiction and the community of collaboration inherent to it, she invites some incredibly important figures to contribute. There’s an incredibly impressive list of contributors, and yet the parts of the book not written by Jamison are spectacularly hit-and-miss.
On the plus side, Jacqueline Lichtenberg (an enormously important figure in the Star Trek fandom, especially back when it was getting off the ground) provides an overview of what fandom and fan fiction culture was like in the day of the fanzines (imagine having to collate your fanfic and sent it out via the actual mail). Chris Rankin (who played Percy Weasley in the Harry Potter movies) provides an interesting overview of Harry Potter fandom, as does Heidi Tandy, an intellectual property lawyer. Frencesca Coppa provides an incredibly compelling history of An Archive of Our Own (for the uninitiated, it is a much neater, more effective, and more usable version of FanFiction.net). But many of the contributions are unhelpful and unnecessary, ranging from a variety of fic authors repeating the same ideas of why they write to uninteresting interviews (either it’s the questions Jamison asked or the writers’ hesitation, but there’s little insight in these pages). Kristina Busse, despite editing an excellent collection of essays on fan fiction, provides an unfortunately useless overview of fan fiction tropes, and a few actors talk about their personal experiences with fan fiction.
Overall, however, I feel much more highly informed, and pleased about the fact. I do, however, wish that Jamison had included some sort of bibliography. This may not be a rigorously academic title, and certainly there’s sources scattered throughout the endnotes, but this title is nevertheless much more scholarly than many of SmartPop’s other titles, and would have benefited from sharing its sources with its more academically inclined readers. Nevertheless, this book is an important contribution, neither uselessly re-iterating well-entrenched ideas nor providing an outsider’s inaccurate account. It’s an important and necessary contribution to a collection on the study of popular culture, elucidating an important cultural phenomenon and doing it well.