Book review

Framing fan fiction: Literary and social practices in fan fiction communities, by Kristina Busse

Abby Waysdorf

Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands

[0.1] Keywords—Acafan; Fan practice; Fan works

Waysdorf, Abby. 2019. Framing Fan Fiction: Literary and Social Practices in Fan Fiction Communities, by Kristina Busse [book review]. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 30.

Kristina Busse. Framing fan fiction: Literary and social practices in fan fiction communities. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2017, paperback, $45 (262p) ISBN 978-9888390809.

[1] For better or worse, fan fiction is seen as the emblematic fan practice. It is a symbol of either the extreme strangeness of fans or their admirable creativity, something to be mocked or something to be celebrated. Fan fiction and its communities were at the heart of the first wave of fan studies, with understanding what fans wrote and why centered as an important way of understanding media fandom. As fan studies expanded, the focus on fan fiction and its practitioners fell away somewhat. After all, those who write fan fiction are only one kind of fan, and fan fiction is only one practice, so why should it maintain its central position?

[2] Kristina Busse's Framing Fan Fiction: Literary and Social Practices in Fan Fiction Communities makes the case for fan fiction—and the study of fan fiction—playing a central role in contemporary fan studies. Bringing together both new work and older material from her decades spent studying the subject, it creates a strong case for the importance of not only analyzing fan fiction itself but also for the particular kind of fan studies that Busse espouses. Busse emphasizes a subcultural understanding of fandom and fan practice (in a cultural studies sense), with a focus on "the continuous entanglement of fan works and their community" (10). This is front and center of her analysis of fan fiction, a position built out of her own long experience not only writing about fan fiction but also participating in its communities—a stance she makes clear in the first paragraphs of Framing Fan Fiction. While the acafan position is not without its critics, Busse shows the strength of it here, drawing on her deep knowledge of the communities and practices in question in order to explain what fan fiction is and why it (still) matters.

[3] The book is laid out in three sections, each dealing with a different aspect of fan fiction practice—"Slash as Identificatory Practices," "Canon, Context, and Consensus," "Community and Its Discontents"—and a beginning chapter provocatively entitled "The Return of the Author." This opening chapter lays out Busse's way of looking at fan work as writing, tracing the idea of the author (in a Foucauldian sense of the author function) throughout the decades. It argues that it is in fan works that we see the current state of the author—from ideas of ownership and control over texts (also the focus of chapter 5) to the importance of authorial intent and identity in the contemporary age to the potential of anonymity. It is here that Busse's vision of "why fandom" and "why fan fiction" become clear; these are ways to analyze much bigger issues in contemporary society, and fan fiction is the clearest example of the ways in which texts are internalized, transformed, used, and debated by those who encounter them. This opening chapter shows the book's twofold purpose: to understand fan fiction as a literary and a social form, and to understand how these aspects are intertwined.

[4] This opening chapter also lays the theoretical groundwork for the strongest aspects of Framing Fan Fiction: how literary theory may be applied to analyze fan fiction as literature in its own right. Indeed, Framing Fan Fiction is an excellent exploration of different genres of fan fiction, from genderswap to real person slash to fan fiction that deals with fans themselves, treated with a depth and rigor that makes this book a valuable resource for those interested in fan fiction. Busse draws on deep analysis of specific fan works to make her points about the particular things that fan fiction authors are doing with their writing, such as particular articulations of gender, romance, and fandom itself, or the way in which structure and limits promote rather than restrict fannish creativity. The work on real person slash is of particular interest, as this topic remains relatively unexplored despite the extensive body of work on fan fiction.

[5] This strong literary focus also carries into Framing Fan Fiction's discussions of fan fiction as a form of negotiation between the original text, writers, and readers, and what these negotiations can tell us about how texts are understood and made. The book's second section, "Canon, Consensus, and Context," provides three insightful essays on how fan fiction, as a literary form, is constructed. The way fan fiction writers determine what is actually canon, for example, involves not only how fans draw on the original text but also on community interpretations of a character or relationship. Showing the duality of canon construction strengthens Busse's argument that fan fiction needs to be understood as a literary form that involves the community as much as the individual. Fan fiction is written for the community of other writers and readers, and it is this community that fan fiction is in dialogue with. In showing how fan fiction writers and readers interact, and how this interaction shapes the form and content of fan fiction, Busse makes a strong argument for the subcultural nature of media fandom, situating it as a space unable to be fully absorbed by the media industry. This is echoed in Busse's interest in fan hierarchies, which tend to put fan fiction writers and other female fans at lower levels. Their works are considered stranger than other fan productions, and their identities more extreme. Busse's analysis of these hierarchies suggests that if we do not respect the community-oriented, subcultural aspects of fandom, so well represented by fan fiction and its authors, we run the risk of ceding fandom entirely to a promotional arm of the media industry.

[6] Much of this work, as mentioned, has been previously published over the last two decades and has been collected here, but that does not limit its interest or utility for those interested in fan fiction as a form or its relevance to media fandom. Busse's analysis of fan fiction texts and fan fiction practice seems justly foundational, and it will continue to be relevant for scholars. Indeed, it makes the case for fan fiction to continue as an integral part of fan studies. However, and perhaps ironically considering Busse's insistence on the necessity of understanding fan fiction as part of its community, it is in looking at this community that Framing Fan Fiction could use an update. As Busse herself points out, her perspective on fan fiction, while established over the long term, is highly specific: Western media fandom as developed on mailing lists and blogging sites like LiveJournal. It is this space that Framing Fan Fiction represents, and it is here that its limits (and perhaps the limits of the acafan concept) are potentially an issue.

[7] While Busse generally examines her fan fiction community with the same care as she does their works, there is a universalizing tendency to her work that is acknowledged but unexamined. The dynamics of these particular groups are generally treated as the whole of fan fiction communities, leading to a necessarily incomplete understanding of the practice. This is particularly glaring in her decision to not update her earlier works on fan fiction communities themselves, which operated under different conditions and customs than the ones of a decade later. While this has a great deal of value to fan scholars as a record of this time and its practices, Busse's decision not to revise or update her previously published essays means that some of her observations seem dated or inaccurate, particularly in regard to the language and habits of fan fiction writers (such as in chapter 8). While I understand why Busse might not have wanted to significantly change the essays in order to address newer scholarship, not addressing these shifts at all is somewhat jarring. I would have appreciated further contextualization of these aspects of the book, and the better situating of some of these pieces as belonging to a particular time and place rather than presented as the way that fan fiction authors operate. We might also question whether these times were as unified in their interpretations and understanding as Busse depicts. She is understandably unwilling to go into the "dark underbelly of the personal" (11), for valid reasons, but it is worth considering what is being left out in presenting fan interpretation as (relatively) uniform.

[8] However, this does present a clear opportunity for future research to build on Busse's work here. While fan fiction itself, as a literary form, might be similar to how it was ten or fifteen years ago, its context has changed greatly. Providing an understanding of particular practices from a previous era is a useful resource for scholars wishing to look at how things have changed and how they have stayed the same, and what might be left out (as Busse herself acknowledges in the afterword).

[9] Framing Fan Fiction is an important work in the study of fan fiction, drawing together key threads about the practice and presenting important arguments about what fan fiction is and why it matters in a fragmented fandom landscape. There is a compelling argument in Busse's depiction of media fandom as a particularly valuable practice—not just for scholars but also for people who encounter media and texts. Busse depicts media fandom as a space of deep engagement with popular media, one that encourages its participants to think about the texts they encounter. Studying the works that come out of it demonstrates this aspect of fandom to scholars, while for audiences, fan fiction and its community provide one of the few remaining noncommercial spaces for this kind of textual exploration and experimentation. While there are certainly question marks over how universal the kind of fandom she depicts is—or ever was, for that matter—Framing Fan Fiction makes the point that fan fiction itself is an integral part of understanding the potential of fandom. Perhaps fan fiction is emblematic for a reason.