Book review

Playing fans: Negotiating fandom in the digital age, by Paul Booth

Gregory Steirer

Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Fan labor; Fan representation; Industry; Methodology; Play; TV

Steirer, Gregory. 2016. Playing Fans: Negotiating Fandom and Media in the Digital Age, by Paul Booth [book review]. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 22.

Paul Booth. Playing fans: Negotiating fandom and media in the digital age. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2015, paperback, $45 (242p) ISBN 978-1609383190, e-book, $45, 978-1-60938-320-6.

[1] How do media companies operate? How are media markets constituted? How are media properties shaped by economics and regulation? How do creative and managerial workers labor? Fan studies, as a field, has typically avoided such questions—and not without reason, since these questions do not appear, on the surface at least, to have much to do with fans. Indeed, given fan studies' longstanding interest in legitimizing, if not valorizing, fan communities and practices, these questions about industry might rightly be seen as incompatible with the politics of fan studies itself. Jenkins' foundational Textual Poachers (1992) is a case in point, as the book's theory of poaching, derived from de Certeau, is founded upon a vision of social practice that explicitly positions the powerless (fans) against the powerful (media companies, copyright owners, educational institutions, etc.). Recent work in fan studies has begun to complicate this vision, primarily by attending more closely to the political economies of what John Banks and Mark Deuze have called "co-creative labor" (Banks and Deuze 2009; Milner 2009; Stanfill and Condis 2014; Busse 2015).

[2] Although this turn toward labor has been especially generative for fan studies, it has not yet entailed a complementary turn towards industry itself—and with it, the kind of questions with which I opened this review. The use in recent scholarship of Lewis Hyde's notion of the "gift economy" (Hellekson 2009; De Kosnik 2009; Scott 2009; Jones 2014), for instance, has tended to reaffirm fandom as a realm of activity and exchange that is fundamentally different and, except in cases of cooptation, separate from industrial practice. This is, to some extent, surprising, as Hyde's book (1983), like other theoretical examinations of the gift economy (Mauss 1990; Derrida 1992; Schrift 1997), works to problematize giving as both an idea and an isolable social economy. From another perspective, however, we might see fan studies' particular construal of Hyde as indicating an uncertainty on the part of fan studies scholars (amongst whom I count myself) as to how to incorporate industry-oriented questions and research without losing what is distinctive—conceptually, methodologically, and politically—about fan studies in the first place. Indeed, the prospect of bringing industry into fan studies—refusing, in John Law's language, to "other-ize" it (Law 2004)—raises a number of difficult questions. What kind of methodologies will we need to employ? What kind of identities might we need to adopt? What ethical issues might we face in interacting with media companies? And, most importantly, how might we look to industry without losing sight of our primary research object: the fan?

[3] Paul Booth's Playing Fans: Negotiating Fandom and Media in the Digital Age, published by University of Iowa Press, bravely attempts to answer some of these questions. Arguing that "fandom is best understood as a continual, shifting negotiation and dialogue within already extant industrial relations," Booth sets out to replace overly Manichaean constructions of industry–fan interaction with a more nuanced conception of how various stakeholders practice fandom (1). "[B]oth media fans and the media industries," he explains in the book's Introduction, "must continually negotiate, navigate, and adjust to the presence of each other in tandem with changing paradigms of technological discourse in our digital society" (1). Though dependent upon a qualitatively inconsistent construal of its key actors (fans implies individual human agents; industries implies giant amorphous entities—a conceptual level above that even of the company), Booth's starting point is especially generative. Not only does it suggest a broadening of fan studies' scope; it also implies a useful muddying of its politics.

[4] The problem Booth faces, of course, is putting this theory into practice. To do so, he turns—at least, at first—to play, the key concept of one of his earlier books, Digital Fandom (Booth 2010). "I use the term 'media play,'" he explains in Playing Fans, "as a characteristic of contemporary media culture to focus on those instances in which individuals create meaning from activities that articulate a connection between their own creativity and mainstream media, all the while working within the boundaries of the media text" (15). Though play, defined in this manner, seems applicable only to fans—not media industries—Booth asserts its relevancy to both: "Both fans and the media industries (role-)play in the spaces and sites of the other" (16). For scholars working in the field of media industries, this is an unusual—though also intriguing—way of describing what media workers do, to say nothing of what media industries do. But Booth himself seems to recognize this, as the book quickly de-emphasizes the concept of play, replacing it instead with the concepts of pastiche and parody.

[5] What does Booth mean by these terms? Although Playing Fans reflects upon the critical genealogies of these two practices throughout its pages, ultimately the book employs pastiche and parody rather simply (and somewhat ingeniously) to reduce "fan-industry interaction" to two basic modes. In "fan pastiche," fans imitate the practices of media industries. In "media parody," media industries imitate (while distorting) the practices of fans. A host of assumptions are built into these concepts—as well as the old Manichaean vision of industries versus fans—but pastiche and parody are nevertheless effective in providing the book a structure built around clearly defined case studies. Chapters 1 and 2 examine fan pastiche through SuperWhoLock fandom and Inspector Spacetime, respectively. Chapters 3, 4, and 5 explore media parody: chapter 3 via representations of fans in Supernatural, Doctor Who, and the film Fanboys; and chapter 4 via an autoethnographic study of The Doctor Who Experience. Chapter 5 explores what Booth calls "sociocultural parody" by analyzing professionally produced pornographic parodies in the context of fan-produced slash fiction. Finally, in chapter 6, Booth "synthesizes" fan pastiche and media parody through a study of the website Polyvore, which Booth identifies with the practice of "digital cosplay" (23).

[6] Though the case studies provide Playing Fans with an exceptionally clear structure, they also raise a number of methodological questions. How were the primary data for each chapter collected? What criteria were used to select these data? What are the limitations of each data set? And, lastly—but perhaps most importantly—why were the methods used appropriate, given the primary research questions? I've admittedly phrased these methodological questions in the terms of social science research, which is somewhat out of keeping with Booth's more humanities-oriented approach for the book. Nevertheless, the question of how we do our research is a vital one for fan studies, in large part because of the field's interdisciplinarity, but also because of our general politico-ethical commitment to fans themselves. Indeed, our need to wrestle reflectively with method is part of what has made fan studies such a dynamic and ever-evolving field. That Playing Fans forgoes such wrestling is thus one of the book's main weaknesses. Offering little in the way of methodological reflection, the book leaves it primarily to the reader to determine what has been done, why, and to what (or whom).

[7] All of the chapters—including, to some extent, the "autoethnographic" study of The Doctor Who Experience—are built around extremely brief close readings of individual texts. Playing Fans provides few direct explanations of why the texts analyzed were selected, but for the most part the reasoning is self-evident: the texts were selected because they support Booth's arguments. Given the varieties of identities, practices, and texts that make up fandom (to say nothing of media industries), this is a problematic approach to data selection, as it ensures that Booth need not wrestle with texts that complicate or challenge his hypotheses. It also arguably misrepresents the communities and practices depicted in the case studies. The Polyvore chapter, for example, is built upon close readings of six "images," one produced by gapeach97, three by summeranne, and two by a single unnamed site user. This seems to me simply too small and too homogenous a sample on which to build a convincing argument about the way fans use Polyvore—at least not without first providing some explicit acknowledgement of and justification for the limitations of the data set.

[8] The book's failure to reflect upon its own method, I suspect, is also ultimately responsible for the somewhat shallow form of textual analysis that it frequently employs. Though Playing Fans sometimes provides thoughtful and suggestive formal analyses of fan-produced texts (for example, some of the GIF fics in the SuperWhoLock chapter), at other times the analyses are frustratingly abbreviated. In the Inspector Spacetime chapter, for instance, a Tumblr post (also reproduced as an illustration) receives only one sentence of analysis (63–64). Such ultra-fast readings suggest that texts are being used less as opportunities for analysis than as a means of quickly "proving" larger claims. Though this method of using texts may at times be helpful or even necessary, it also increases the chance that a text will be misread. When these misreadings occur in Playing Fans, they are sometimes minor and easy to look past. In the Polyvore chapter, for instance, Booth uses an image that depicts a female costume for Marvel's Loki character as a means to suggest the kind of novel gender play in which female users of the site engage (154–55). This seems a reasonable conclusion, but one that may need to be slightly altered, given that Marvel Comics had itself turned Loki into a woman in 2008 and has regularly played with the character's gender in comics and other media since then (see Straczynski and Coipel 2008; Gazillion Entertainment 2013).

[9] In other places, the misreading is more serious. Chapter 4, which focuses on the different ways media industries represent fans, employs a quick reading of episode 5.9 of Supernatural to argue that the series frequently reproduces inaccurate stereotypes of fans as excessively invested weirdos (or hyperfans). I quote Booth's reading in full:

[10] In her fannish enthusiasm for Sam and Dean, Becky lies to them in order to get them to appear at a Supernatural convention in episode 5.9 ("The Real Ghostbusters"). Yet the fans depicted in this episode are more akin to representations of Star Trek than Supernatural fans. As Zubernis and Larsen note, the fans in this episode are mostly male and arrive in costume—unlike most actual fans at Supernatural conventions. The stereotypical representation continues as the fans are depicted as being out of touch with reality, and it's only with the input of the real Sam and Dean that the fan protagonists of the episode are able to defeat the monster. Crucially, the only way the fans are personified here is through their interaction with the media text; the implicit assumption is that fan identity remains tethered to the show. (92–93)

[11] As a scholar familiar with this episode—and also, I'll confess, as a fan of Supernatural—I was surprised by this reading, which seems to simplify the episode to the point of misrepresenting it. Two of the episode's main fictional fans, Damien and Barnes, are "personified" not only, as Booth claims, through their interactions with "the media text," but also with each other. Indeed, the surprise revelation at the episode's end that the two fans are gay and romantically involved serves, at least potentially, to suggest an alternative frame of analysis for the representations of fandom the episode has previously shown. Less a form of antisocial (or subsocial) behavior, fandom is shown as a way for individuals to creatively manage, at both the personal and the interpersonal levels, the "rules of play" imposed upon them by a variety of social institutions (economics, education, family, etc.). At least, this is what the episode itself suggests has happened for the protagonists Dean and Sam, who are depicted leaving the fan convention with a new appreciation not only for Supernatural fans, but also, thanks to the example of Damien and Barnes, for each other. Though it is true, as Zubernis and Larsen note, that Damien and Barnes do not accurately represent the female Supernatural fans who typically attend fan conventions, neither are they the simple reproductions of fan stereotypes that Booth suggests.

[12] Methodological problems and misreadings notwithstanding, the individual chapters of Playing Fans are nevertheless original and thought-provoking, particularly in their attempts to theorize how fandom works in the digital era. In this, Playing Fans resembles Booth's earlier work, Digital Fandom, which was a sometimes-dazzling theoretical riff on fandom's integral involvement with new media. There's some theoretical carryover here—for instance, the concept of the carnivalesque and Baudrillard's notion of hyperreality—but overall, Playing Fans employs a more controlled and practice-oriented approach to high theory. Though I often wished Booth would have supplemented the literary/cultural theory on which he draws by adding explicitly sociological meta-theory (particularly that of Bourdieu and Latour) to the mix, part of the pleasure of reading Booth is seeing how he's able to take the former and apply it to a research object for which it was not originally intended: fandom. This aspect of Booth's work makes it especially valuable for those attempting to teach or produce work on fan studies from within a literature department.

[13] For all its value, however, Playing Fans' dependence upon literary/cultural theory ultimately renders the book ill-equipped to handle the "industries" side of its thesis. Though Baudrillard, Jameson, and Bakhtin are, to be sure, useful in thinking through certain types of cultural and aesthetic phenomena, they don't provide a particularly useful lens for studying how media industries—or, more specifically, media companies and media workers—function, let alone interact with fans. Indeed, relying on this form of theory may even encourage overly utopian or politically progressive representations of fan practice. In chapter 1, for example, Booth describes one of the key differences between industry and fandom in the following terms: "The time frame of publication means that a book about digital technology is outdated before it even sees the light of day…Fans are under no such schedule of publication; they work at the speed of imagination" (41–42). Sociological theory might have helped here, as might have some form of ethnographic or human subject research—though neither is essential for studying industry or production culture.

[14] What is essential, however, is some meaningful engagement with industry as a research object. In this regard, Playing Fans would have benefited immensely from some sustained interaction with media industry studies scholarship. Despite the book's stated interest in industry, almost no work from this field is cited or meaningfully incorporated into the chapters' analyses. In fact, with the exception of Derek Johnson's work on franchises, the only industry research employed in the book's discussion of media industries is critical political economy scholarship on neoliberalism. As a result, industry is portrayed throughout the book as a slightly nefarious abstract force, borrowing from fans or attempting to discipline them, and reinforcing, through its economic power, hegemonic value systems. This is a shame, as the phenomena Booth chose for case studies—Inspector Spacetime and Polyvore in particular—seem well-suited for more nuanced examinations, perhaps by way of actor network theory, of industry–fan interaction.

[15] In the end, Playing Fans demonstrates the very real challenges involved in trying to align fan studies with the study of industry. While Playing Fans fails at fully modeling an "industrial turn," Booth's instincts regarding this turn are right, and we as fan studies scholars would benefit from following them. "To learn about the media industry," he writes, "we must develop a methodology for understanding fandom; to understand fandom, we must concentrate on the ways the media industry understands fans" (23).

Works cited

Banks, John, and Mark Deuze. 2009. "Co-creative labor." International Journal of Cultural Studies 12 (5): 419–31.

Booth, Paul. 2010. Digital Fandom: New Media Studies. New York: Peter Lang.

Busse, Kristina, ed. 2015. "In Focus: Feminism and Fandom Revisited." Cinema Journal 54 (3): 110–54.

Derrida, Jacques. 1992. Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money. Translated by Peggy Kamuf. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

De Kosnik, Abigail. 2009. "Should Fan Fiction Be Free?" Cinema Journal 48 (4): 118–24.

Gazillion Entertainment. 2013. Marvel Heroes. Massive multiplayer online role playing game. San Mateo, CA.

Hellekson, Karen. 2009. "A Fannish Field of Value: Online Fan Gift Culture." Cinema Journal 48 (4): 113–18.

Hyde, Lewis. 1983. The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. New York: Vintage.

Jenkins, Henry. 1992. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge.

Jones, Bethan. 2014. "Fifty Shades of Exploitation: Fan Labor and Fifty Shades of Grey." In "Fandom and/as Labor," edited by Mel Stanfill and Megan Condis, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 15.

Law, John. 2004. After Method: Mess in Social Science Research. New York: Routledge.

Mauss, Marcel. 1990. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. Translated by W. D. Halls. New York: Norton.

Milner, R. M. 2009. "Working for the Text: Fan Labor and the New Organization." International Journal of Cultural Studies 12 (5): 491–508.

Schrift, Alan, ed. 1997. The Logic of the Gift: Toward an Ethic of Generosity. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Scott, Suzanne. 2009. "Repackaging Fan Culture: The Regifting Economy of Ancillary Content Models." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 3.

Stanfill, Mel, and Megan Condis, eds. 2014. "Fandom and/as Labor." Special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 15.

Straczynski, J. Michael, and Olivier Coipel. 2008. Thor, vol. 3, no. 5. Edited by Alejandro Arbona. New York: Marvel Comics.