Saturday, November 16, 2013

At The Crossroads with Two Books on 'Supernatural' Fandom: Which To Read?...

Arguably we all just want a place to belong in life, among people we feel we have things in common. Community creator Dan Harmon perhaps said it best last year at a fan convention for his show when he spouted: "I think the most important thing as an individual is to figure out who you are but know nobody wants to be alone...There is no one who wants to be alone-- nobody. We take hardened criminals, we put them in solitary, and they go insane. They start banging on the walls and go 'Please let me out!' They want to be let out because they want to stab somebody with a toothbrush, but they want to be let out; they want to be near somebody. I'm not saying everybody is going to hug each other when they're near each other, but nobody wants to be alone. That's a starting point; that means something; and that's what this show's about." But really, that's what all shows are about because they bring people together-- people from potentially all walks of life, all countries, all races, all socioeconomic backgrounds. But once they are together, they may form a group of like-minded individuals over their common love, but they don't form a mindless, opinionless collective of sheep. The very real individuals that make up this group still look for ways to set themselves apart, to be known, perhaps even to be special. Fandoms are a microcosm of this behavior because they perfectly identify creative and intelligent individuals who want to actively participate in something rather than just sit back and watch the pre-produced programming wash over them. It is a phenomenon not everyone understands, but Lynn Zubernis and Katherine Larsen want more people to, and so they have written not one but two books on the subject, using Supernatural as their test case and representative of fandom.

Admittedly the studying of fandom is bound to be a bit biased even if the author(s) come into that particular completely blind to the material and the people. There is the very real chance they will get swept up in the excitement (it is infectious, after all) once among the fans and therefore drop a little bit of the strict and straight "observer" angle. But more importantly, the bias comes simply from the show being chosen to study. Every fandom is different in that the way the show or the star at the center of it is celebrated is different. Zubernis and Larsen selected Supernatural to be their line of study because they were both hooked on the show already, but they also managed to select one of the most diverse fandoms out there when it comes to age, race, and active participation. The fans of Supernatural (as evidenced deeply in this book) of course talk about their love of the show through various online forums and social media platforms, but they also get extremely creative with it-- from making fan art to writing fan fiction, as has become commonplace within just about every fandom, to the more refined cosplay and acting out said fanfiction through custom dolls or figurines, to attending conventions that celebrate the show and its stars but also attending conventions that (maybe not so simply) celebrate the fans. As Zubernis and Larsen show in their books, fandom really can be a full time job when you put your whole heart and soul into it.

The most fascinating thing about Zubernis and Larsen's books are actually reading them side-by-side. The same stories are told in both "Fandom at the Crossroads: Celebration, Shame, and Fan/Producer Relationships" and "Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls" but through slightly different lenses. In truth, if you read one, you don't necessarily need to read the other because you already know what they have to say and what examples and quotes they will use from the various interviewed talent (from the boys themselves to Jim Beaver, Misha Collins, Eric Kripke, Sera Gamble, and so on). However, as fandom proves, if you truly love Supernatural you'll inevitably want to devour both books. If you are someone who isn't a huge fan of the show but simply loves the written word, you should definitely read both, as well, because the nuance in language in how the stories are told are what separate the books and make each unique enough to stand on its own.

"Fandom at the Crossroads" is the academic book, written like a thesis and including the more scientific precursors to chapters that simply tell you what the chapters will explore. Zubernis and Larsen have been careful to remove any overt language of "squeeing" in order to allow the heavier weight of the research and professional angle to seep in-- to make this book potentially one that could be used in courses on fandom at various universities. It is a perfect way to ease someone into the idea of fandom-- someone who isn't sure what it is really all about or maybe is a little uncomfortable with the idea of it. In many ways, it keeps the audience at a slight arm's length also simply studying a phenomenon rather than truly being a part of it. Zubernis and Larsen are fans at their core, though, so the squees are implied even when writing this way, and on many pages you can feel them almost begging to be let out. After all, the reason fandoms flourish so greatly are because of the strong connections to the characters in the story. While thankfully not just dryly focusing on statistics, "Fandom at the Crossroads" does keep a lot of the personal off the page.

That is why the follow-up book "Fangasm" seems so necessary. For anyone looking for a peek behind the velvet rope of studying fandom, this book will provide that. Zubernis and Larsen are candid in a way that kind of makes this book their pop culture memoir (albeit for a very select and specific time in their lives). While in "Fandom at the Crossroads" they pose the question of why fandom is so important, to whom, and how fandom-- and different levels of fandom-- is perceived among the fans themselves, with the creatives actually making the show, and in the wider world, "Fangasm" turns the lens on the authors themselves and shares their own struggle to walk the line between fan and professional as well as just how they went about getting so many of the interviews for their book(s). The squees are abundant here-- as are the feels-- and anyone familiar with fandom of any kind knows both are equally important to a successful and satisfying experience. 

If you are a fan of Supernatural who wants to read snippets of Zubernis and Larsen's interviews with the aforementioned people (and more), they are in both books. But if you are such a fan of Supernatural you want to hear about what it was like for two fans to actually sit down and interview said people, "Fangasm" is for you. Zubernis and Larsen are very much the focus of the narrative in their second book, whereas their first wouldn't allow that. They talk openly about the differences in treatment when on set as a lookie-loo, a guest of production, and a guest of another fan's; they share experiences of going to Beaver's house or Padalecki's trailer to sit down and talk about the show with the ones who actually make the show; they admit to spending a lot of money and missing out on family moments to constantly travel to do more interviews, more set visits, more conventions; and they pontificate about the studio's understanding, acceptance, and treatment of fans.

Admittedly it was a little striking to see both books dive heavier into the world of fan fiction than one might expect, but it has become such an important (and dare it be considered more mainstream!?) part of fandom it's not completely surprising to see it reflected.

Because Zubernis and Larsen did involve so many members of the Supernatural family in order to write "Fandom at the Crossroads", they became an extended and accepted part of it by the cast and crew in a way that many other fans cannot necessarily relate and of which may even be envious. Their story, therefore, is certainly unique enough to warrant a book about it, but may leave some readers living vicariously. Zubernis and Larsen understand the uniqueness of their situation, though, and they countered those moments of awe at their adventures with very deep and personal admissions.

Fandom is usually seen as a uniting force: something that can bond complete strangers just based on a shared interest. But it can also be an experience akin to high school in that there are "cliques" of fans, especially within this particular fandom, it seems, and each one may take the attitude that only they are "doing fandom right." What is great is Zubernis and Larsen's willingness to be open and vulnerable and talk about their own dalliances with fan fiction, with set visits, with other fans, and with themselves rectifying this fear within themselves. They are fans, but they actively sought to set themselves aside as researchers, academics, professionals.

Setting one's self aside that way develops a very different rapport with other fans, as well as the show's talent. These women are academics and professionals in their daily lives, so they knew that going in, but what they were not prepared for was just how emotional and involved things would get. In "Fandom at the Crossroads" they are very much covered by their academic veil, but in "Fangasm" they let their hair down and their true inner fangirls come out. What results in both books are interesting observations, but it is the latter that has the most honesty without pretense.

1 comment:

Jeanne said...

So...why are reading these books? Are you a fan?