Book Review

Post-object fandom: Television, identity and self-narrative, by Rebecca Williams

Bethan Jones

University of Huddersfield, Huddersfield, United Kingdom

[0.1] Keywords—Audience studies; Endings; Ontological security; Transitions

Jones, Bethan. 2017. Post-object Fandom: Television, Identity and Self-narrative, by Rebecca Williams [book review]. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 25.

Rebecca Williams. Post-object fandom: Television, identity and self-narrative. London: Bloomsbury, 2015, hardcover, £80 (235p) ISBN 978-1-623-56463-6.

[1] Recent years have seen numerous revivals in film and television. January 2016 saw The X-Files (1993–2002) return to our screens after a 9-year absence, while the release of Ghostbusters during the summer of 2016 saw hosts of blog posts and articles about the original films and their impact on the authors' childhoods. With this resurgence of older texts has come much discussion about fandoms: when people first became fans, what the texts mean to them, and how they will introduce their children to the fandoms. These "becoming a fan" stories have been analyzed by scholars interested in the moment that everything changes (Hills 2002; Cavicchi 1998), significantly less work has been done on fannish endings and the impact that these have on fans. Rebecca William's Post-object Fandom is thus a timely intervention into the field, offering an acute analysis of a range of case studies and drawing on research conducted with fans of texts from Doctor Who (1963–89, 1996, 2005–) to Firefly (2002).

[2] Williams opens by noting that it is the final scenes of shows that perhaps stick most clearly in the viewers' minds, from the divisive ending of Lost (2004–10) to the premature conclusion of Twin Peaks (1990–91). Williams argues that the endings of these shows, and programs like them, offer scholars an opportunity to examine key moment of fandom, transition, and endings, as well as offer a rich examination of the role that industry and transmedia products play in these. Key to Williams's analysis is the concept of postobject fandom, which she articulates as being "the specific moment when a fan object moves from being an ongoing text into a dormant one which yields no new instalments" (266). She deftly links this to Anthony Giddens's concepts of ontological security and pure relationships, and this theoretical approach informs the case studies chosen.

[3] The book itself is divided into nine chapters. After a short introduction that encompasses a discussion on methods, Williams offers an overview of ontological security, self-identity, and postobject fandom. She highlights the ways in which fan studies has previously conceptualized fans and fandom, from textual poachers to transitional objects, and furthers the notion of fandom as a transitional object by drawing on Giddens's work. In particular, she proposes that "at the core of fandom lie two types of 'fan pure-relationship': fan/object pure relationships (fan attachment to fan objects) and fan-fan pure relationships (fan attachment to fellow fans)" (21). Fans perform identity work through finding points of identification with televisual texts, yet when those televisual texts end fans may struggle to negotiate their identity as a fan. Fans' self-narratives can change over time as their fandom ebbs and flows, and their relationship to their fan object can similarly grow or lessen. These self-narratives can be affected by the ending of a televisual text when the fan is not prepared for the show's conclusion (as well as when they are), and the following chapters examine these reactions in more detail.

[4] Chapter 3 focuses on specific aspects of a show ending, rather than the show as a whole. Williams uses examples from cult and drama series, rather than soaps, pointing out that "character departures are not always as expected as in long-running soaps and that the loss of specific points of identification may be more shocking or surprising" (47). In particular, she focuses on Angel (1999–2004), The West Wing (1999–2006), and Doctor Who, and analyzes the responses of fans to characters leaving the show, characters being written out thanks to actors' off-screen deaths, and the same character being played by a different actor. Each of these cases includes comments from fans drawn from message boards, forums, or surveys, and these supporting comments serve to illustrate the depth of feeling fans have toward characters and texts. Williams argues that each of these examples demonstrates shifts in ontological security and self-identity, and these little endings can be just as significant for fans as big endings.

[5] Williams examines these big endings in chapters 4, 5, and 6, and outlines three different discourses that fans may draw on in dealing with the ending of a show: the reiteration discourse, the rejection discourse, and the renegotiation discourse. The reiteration discourse, Williams argues, is where fans "offer lengthy stories about their involvement in shows and post goodbyes to them at online forums" (79). The author examines this using The West Wing and Lost as case studies, providing a wealth of fan reactions with which to support the analysis. Williams argues that the reiteration discourse reiterates the importance of the show to fans' sense of self-identity and ontological security, as well as the importance of fan forums to fans' relationships with their fandom. The chapter on the rejection discourse continues with the case studies of The West Wing and Lost but demonstrates the approach taken by fans who actively sought the end of the shows rather than see a decrease in quality. These fans argue that shows are past their golden age and contend they are glad to see them end—a discourse that, Williams notes, "allows fans to distance themselves from a show, discursively positioning themselves as critical and non-emotionally involved" (104). Williams suggests that these fans are similar to the antifans whom Jonathan Gray (2003) examines, and that this offers fans a way to cope with potential ruptures to a sense of identity that comes with the cancellation of a series.

[6] The reiteration and rejection discourses are positioned as opposite ends of a spectrum, and Williams examines the middle ground of the renegotiation discourse in chapter 6. Here the notion of multifandom is explored to consider how being a fan can provide security in identity, even when one fan object is canceled, and the ways in which fans move from one text to another are discussed. In particular, Williams focuses on fans who move to a new text because of its links to those associated with the show that is ending, such as specific actors (John Barrowman), writers (Aaron Sorkin), and producers (Joss Whedon). The West Wing is again utilized as one of the case studies, with comments from fans demonstrating their intention to watch Sorkin's new series because he, rather than the show, is the fan object. Williams also argues that examining the ways in which fans move on after shows end through the renegotiation discourse sheds light on how fan objects are found and on the multiple intersecting interests that fans have. Survey data are again drawn on in depth to illustrate why, where, and how fans find new objects of fandom.

[7] Chapters 7 and 8 move away from fan reactions to the ends of programs to examine how fans continue to engage with the shows after their cancellation. Chapter 7 focuses on why fans rewatch on DVD and Blu-ray, and why watching reruns may provide fans with as much if not more pleasure. Williams engages here with debates about new and old media platforms and types of access that viewers have. The chapter opens with a discussion of how fans of The West Wing watch the DVDs as well as how the box set functions as an aesthetic object. The box set was met with disappointment because of its lack of special features, which Williams suggests was compounded by the show's status as a dormant text; she argues that box sets released after a text becomes dormant can fail to provide fans with the ability to fully maintain their fandom. Despite this, however, fans do watch episodes or full seasons on DVD, but this is a different form of fandom to that of watching a live show. Yet the ability to watch on DVD is complicated by the desire of some fans to watch reruns, considering such watching better than watching the DVDs of a box set. Here Williams suggests that fans seek to replicate the experience of first viewing by watching reruns, and she draws parallels to some music fans' desire to experience an authentic first listen of a new album by a band. This section of the chapter, as well as that on streaming services, felt brief compared to the detailed analysis elsewhere in the book, but Williams does note the data used come from 2013, when streaming services were less frequently used. This would certainly be an area worth examining further in future work, however.

[8] Chapter 7 closes with an analysis of fan practices, which is taken up and further examined in chapter 8. Here Williams focuses on official and unofficial resurrections of TV shows; she notes that over 50 percent of fans had interacted with official paratexts, yet less than a quarter had created their own fan works. Williams suggests that these findings "appear to indicate a preference among respondents for official continuation of the program universe over fan-created works" (165). The case studies offered in this chapter include Firefly, 24 (2001–10), and The X-Files and draw on fan discussions to examine how scholars understand fans of returning shows when they return in a different medium; how fans themselves keep a text alive in the postobject era; and Torchwood (2006–11) as an example of a text that has not been officially canceled but is not returning to television. Examining cinematic and TV revivals, as well as fan works and interim fandom, this chapter strives to cover a wealth of data, and, as with chapter 7, Williams could easily have written more on each of these areas. The concept of interim fandom, however, forges new ground in examining texts which are neither dead or alive and the effect of this on fans. Williams makes a strong case for programs whose status is not clearly defined to be examined by TV studies and not to fall through the cracks. Indeed, examining programs like this can also afford us the opportunity to engage more closely with industry and production contexts as well as fan reactions.

[9] Post-object Fandom's focus on fans places it firmly within the field of fan studies, but Williams covers an array of issues that would also appeal to those working in TV studies and those with an interest in the industry. As I have suggested, there are areas where further examination could have been provided; although Williams notes in her introduction that "favoured bands split up [and] movie franchises come to an end" (2), Post-object Fandom focuses solely on television shows. Further exploration of the ways in which these endings affect fans would be productive and add to the field of fan studies. This is, however, a minor complaint about what is an otherwise excellent book, and one that pushes the field to engage with old texts and new ways that fans interact. There is much to recommend in Post-object Fandom, and scholars will gain much from its incisive analysis. Williams's plea to rethink the ways in which we view older texts and to integrate approaches to self-narrative identity with postobject fandom will resonate with scholars working in the field, and her work opens up doors to previously underexamined aspects of fandom and fannish identity.

10. Works cited

Cavicchi, Daniel. 1998. Tramps Like Us: Music and Meaning among Springsteen Fans. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gray, Jonathan. 2003. "New Audiences, New Textualities: Anti-fans and Non-fans." International Journal of Cultural Studies 6 (1): 64–81.

Hills, Matt. 2002. Fan Cultures. London: Routledge.