Book review

Fanfiction and the author: How fanfic changes popular cultural texts, by Judith May Fathallah

Balaka Basu

University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte, North Carolina, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Discourse theory; Foucault; Game of Thrones; Sherlock; Supernatural

Basu, Balaka. 2020. Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Cultural Texts, by Judith May Fathallah [book review]. In "Fan Studies Methodologies," edited by Julia E. Largent, Milena Popova, and Elise Vist, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 33.

Review of Judith May Fathallah. Fanfiction and the author: How fanfic changes popular cultural texts. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017, hardcover, €99 (234p) ISBN 978-90-8964-995-9, eISBN 978-90-485-2908-7.

[1] In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Cultural Texts, Judith May Fathallah ingeniously draws upon Foucauldian discourse analysis—the study of the relational dynamics between authoritative and subordinate powers within and through language—to examine the complex relationships between the authors, fans, canons, and fics of contemporary popular media texts. Her analysis centers around three television programs: the BBC's Sherlock (2010–17), HBO's Game of Thrones (2011–19), and the CW's Supernatural (2005–20). She argues that the fan works generated within these fandoms, especially racially, gendered, or sexually transformative other-text(s), appear within the context of what she calls "the legitimation paradox" (9). This means that even while performing radical transformations of canon, fan fiction relies upon the cultural capital that the white male authors and heroes of these canons typically possess. This book is particularly notable in that it excitingly juxtaposes literary analysis of canonical and fan texts with significant quantitative analysis of fan reception as understood through aggregated reviews and comments. As a writer, fan, and academic, Fathallah manages to deftly move through her various subject positions, transparently addressing her autoethnography as both a scholar and a fan writing about her own community.

[2] Fathallah is no stranger to such an autoethnographic approach, as can be seen in one of her early works, "H/c and Me: An Autoethnographic Account of a Troubled Love Affair" (2011). Her more recent work, such as "Digital Fanfic in Negotiation: LiveJournal, Archive of Our Own, and the Affordances of Read–Write Platforms" (2018a) addresses some of the concerns that this volume raises, describing how fics, which generally reside within the space of the legitimation paradox, can assume some of the cachet of print culture when played out on platforms such as Archive of Our Own (AO3). Meanwhile, "Polyphony on Tumblr: Reading the Hateblog as Pastiche" (2018b) pursues another theme very clearly laid out in this book: to wit, the need to view fan fiction as both praxis and fiction. This perspective animates Fanfiction and the Author, demonstrating how social and literary analysis need to work together to provide an accurate picture of authors, fans, and fan works.

[3] Published as part of the Transmedia: Participatory Culture and Media Convergence series from Amsterdam University Press, this book is beautifully produced. Its attention-grabbing bright pink cover, complete with its illustration of a fan drawn image of Game of Thrones's Sandor and Sansa on a modern-day motorcycle, is graphically striking. Fathallah also includes several diagrams and charts that visually express her ideas. For example, she illustrates her methodology with a flowchart (41) and demonstrates "the discursive construction of masculinity in Sherlock" (64) and "fandom's reconstruction of masculinity in Sherlock "(67) with diagrams that intriguingly combine word clouds, sequences, and versions of Venn diagrams to cleverly explain the construction of broad concepts like masculinity: the canon associates it with brilliant, penetrating, and central, while fans construct it as eroticized, queer, and damaged. She uses the same type of diagram to show the way Supernatural fandom reconstructs both authorship and fan writer. Authorship is associated with words like prophet, truth, and God, while the concept of fan writer is associated with terms like excessive, juvenile, and guardian of text (169). When appropriate, she illustrates her work with stills from the show; a picture from Game of Thrones, for instance, shows (the white) Daenarys being hailed and lifted by a teeming mass of people of color (111), communicating the white privilege embedded in the series contained in a single image. This use of iconography and design to convey complicated critical theories makes the book extremely readable, from both an amateur and a professional perspective.

[4] After laying out her theoretical framework, Fathallah digs into the meat of her book: a close reading of the media texts Sherlock, Game of Thrones, and Supernatural and the fics (complete with comments) that surround them. In chapter three, "The White Man at the Centre of the World: Masculinity in Sherlock," she identifies "four discursive branches" (53) along which the discourse of masculinity is constructed within the series: mind, body, position, and place. Fathallah writes, "the discourse of masculinity in Sherlock is constructed through the controlling, ordered, penetrating mind, complicated by the suggestion of vanity or pretension; the hard, defined, singular body whether pale and smooth or scarred; and the position of mastery complicated by imbrication in various social networks. It is placed firmly in London, England, and London is the centre of the world" (64). While Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss operate within this framework, fans complicate the discourse. Fathallah demonstrates through a close reading of various Sherlock fics that in fandom, conversely "the male body is constructed as leaky, penetrable, reproductive and with far more malleable borders than canon would allow" (73). Fandom, here, works to "radically denaturalize" the central position of the straight, white man. Fathallah also astutely observes that "fandom does a much better job de-naturalizing the authority of maleness than it does whiteness" (99). While she is cleawWhiteness, both in fandom and out, tends to be the default, and thus disturbingly invisible.

[5] After chapter three's focus on masculinity, chapter four, "'I AM YOUR KING': Authority in Game of Thrones," turns to consider how authority itself is constructed within Game of Thrones and its fan works. She argues that it can be understood through five discursive branches: traditional/patriarchal; rational-legal; charismatic; the commons; and finally, authorial. All of these forms of authority make their appearance within the book series, the television program, and the fan fiction as well. Most significant, perhaps, is the last of these, authorial. Here, intradiegetic authorship is already tensely shared between George R. R. Martin and David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, even before it is vexed by fandom's extradiegetic contributions. These works already defy Martin's edicts against fan fiction of his work, even as Benioff and Weiss simultaneously perform transformations that often contradict the novels. One might assume that the destabilization of authorship caused by adaptations would indicate a higher level of deconstruction on the part of fans. Oddly, this is not the case. Fathallah notes that in contrast to Sherlock fandom, Game of Thrones fandom does not dismantle these official authorities in the same radical way. She writes, "the fic that constructs text as stable and inevitable, at least in its endings, is received much better than those which deconstruct it totally" (154). While fan fic, by nature, deconstructs the canon, the content of popular stories remains mostly within the bounds determined by the traditional white male author.

[6] The final research chapter, "'I'm a God': The Author and the Writing Fan in Supernatural," examines how within the text of the series, the author-god (representing Eric Kripke and represented by Chuck) and the fan writer (representing fangirls and represented by Becky) meet. The weaving of these metatextual authorial figures into the canon adventures depicted in the series means that the concept of the author is more intertwined with the narrative than either masculinity in Sherlock or authority in Game of Thrones. Thus, she concludes that this dyad is governed by "a consistent power relation: (1) That the author-god's text is canonical truth, and (2) The fan's text, though permissible, is secondary, derivative, false" (160–61). Even more than Sherlock and Game of Thrones, Supernatural functions as the clearest expression of the legitimation paradox. We know fans gaze at the show, but, with its portrayal of the relationship of fan writer and author and what Fathallah calls its "textual provocation" (162), Supernatural suggests that the show is also gazing at its fans, playing out the legitimation paradox on screen. While the distinction between author and fan writer in the television show is hierarchical, suggesting a primary/secondary or original/derivative binary, it is within this prolific fandom that we find fics in which "the legitimation paradox begins to be tentatively deconstructed" and we "see fics that specifically address the questions of originality, authorship, and the value of fan fic as transformative work that opens categories of interpretation in broader society" (198).

[7] Fathallah's contribution to critical theory in general is significant, as she adds original quantitative reception analysis based on comments and reviews to her Foucauldian methodology. In her conclusion, she stresses the importance of approaching fan fiction in a way that is neither overly celebratory of its radical potential nor overly cynical about industry co-option. She concludes that "by adding its own statements to discursive formations, undermining, contradicting, and consolidating canonical constructions, fandom can and does work to legitimate what is culturally othered, including and especially itself […] but, by the very fact that those transformations depend on a canonical source, the legitimation becomes paradoxical" (200). Within this paradox, all transformational work can be understood, reframing our understanding of author, fan, canon, and fanon.

[8] The book as a whole is thematically arranged in an ascension narrative for both fan writers and authors. The figure of the author moves from Man to King to God, while the fan writer subtly challenges and complicates their power. This journey is engaging and Fathallah is an excellent guide through these theoretical and fannish waters. While probably not for the casual reader—the book presumes some knowledge of Foucault, for instance—members of the fandoms analyzed, anyone interested in fan studies, narrative theory, media studies, and/or critical theory ought to obtain a copy. As one of the most rapidly expanding genres, fan fiction is going to undergo more and more critical examination. Suitable for both the undergraduate and graduate classroom, this book, which begins by situating its argument within the history of fan studies to date, would be an excellent place to start.


Fathallah, Judith May. 2011. "H/c and Me: An Autoethnographic Account of a Troubled Love Affair." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 7.

Fathallah, Judith May. 2018a. “Digital Fanfic in Negotiation: LiveJournal, Archive of Our Own, and the Affordances of Read&8211;Write Platforms.” Convergence.

Fathallah, Judith May. 2018b. "Polyphony on Tumblr: Reading the Hateblog as Pastiche." In "Tumblr and Fandom," edited by Lori Morimoto and Louisa Ellen Stein, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 27.