The Sunday Salon: What Makes a Fandom?

But it had—crucially, to my theory of what makes great mass art—the powerful quality of being open-ended, vague at its borders. Onto its simple template of horses and apes and humans, of quest and pursuit across a simplified landscape, a kid could easily project himself and the world he lived in. In its very incompleteness, born of lack of budget, the loose picaresque structure, and even of cancellation itself, it hinted at things beyond its own borders. There was room for you and your imagination in the narrative map of the show. (80)

Michael Chabon, Manhood for Amateurs

Let’s get my Chabon fangirling out of the way at the top—aren’t we so lucky that one of the best writers I’ve ever witnessed is part of fandom and one of us? It totally makes up for that time Diana Gabaldon called us all white slavers. (As to why white slavery is worse than, say, black slavery, I haven’t the foggiest.) This quote comes from an essay in Manhood for Amateurs (I stupidly didn’t write down essay titles in my commonplace book) where Chabon discusses a show he and his friends watched as a child and expanded upon once it was cancelled. I remember immediately writing down “so this explains Firefly” in my notes upon reading it. Nobody quite knows what makes a fandom; for every Star Trek and The Lord of the Rings, whose fandoms probably outrank some countries by population, there’s a plaintive cry of “Where’s the fandom for this?” in anonymous posts. There’s no correlation to length of the work—the entirety of Firefly, whose fandom is still going strong, runs 749 minutes or 12 hours and 48 minutes, short enough that my campus hosts an annual marathon of it through one night. Even genre isn’t an indicator; contemporary fiction shows like How I Met Your Mother and House have fairly strong fandoms. Everyone comes to fandom for a different reason, but I think Chabon has hit upon something extremely important here.

I’ve never been shy about the fact that I love The Legend of Zelda; I’ve been known to argue with teenage boys on the Internet about it. (Their fear of me is downright sweet. As in delicious.) The way the fairly straightforward story of good versus evil and the traditional roles of each of the main three characters (hero, princess, villain) are complicated and subverted fascinate me. In one game, the hero can’t do anything without the backing of the princess and community leaders; in another, the villain reveals how the privilege and luck of the princess’s people drove him to try and make a better life for his people, which ended up taking him down the path that led him to immortality and dark power. The stories grab me by my heart. But just as Chabon says, there’s room for me, my imagination, and the narrative in this space. I’ll spare you my myriad theories and ideas, but just know that they are prolific.The most direct manifestation of this phenomenon in fandom is fanon—when a fan posits something that is soon accepted as factual, true to the story, and, by some people, actually canon. And nowadays, creators often take these theories and ideas, and, upon realizing that they’re fantastic, putting them into canon. The best example that you probably know of is Keith Richards’s casting as Teague Sparrow, Jack’s father, in The Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End; screenwriter Terry Rossio even said that “the world collectively woke up one day and decided that Keith Richards was going to be in these films” (Holleran). It’s a classic example of texts interacting with texts. Dreamy. (There’s more where that came from. Kiss your productivity goodbye!)

While I don’t think cancellation per se is a marker of a property that will end up having a sizable fandom, I definitely think Chabon is right in positing that a property that has enough room for the imagination of its creators and its fans is ripe for fandom.

I’ve just finished with midterms and I’ve settled at home for my spring break. My The Lord of the Rings costume patterns are in, as well as my Éowyn action figure—she came with a “wall-climbing action” Gollum. For five bucks, it was a pretty good deal. I’m still getting through Tigana, but I’ve finished Phantastes, so I’ll start on Jane Eyre and The Rock and the River for class soon.

Don’t forget about my giveaway of Monstrous Regiment until March 25th! Tor.com is giving away three complete sets of A Song of Ice and Fire (so far) until tomorrow, so hustle! Eli at The Tainted Poet’s YA Book Review is giving away copies of Need, Wings, and Blue Bloods until April 14th. The Baen Free Library is full of free downloads, including The Shadow of the Lion and On Basilisk Station. Night Shade Books is offering Butcher Bird and Grey as free downloads at the moment. Vertigo Comics is offering free downloads of the first issue of several series, including Fables, The Unwritten, and Y: The Last Man. (And you will go download The Unwritten.) If I’ve missed your giveaway or freebie, drop me a line!

What do you think makes a property—be it novel or film—that ends up with a fandom?

5 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: What Makes a Fandom?

  1. Fandom needs a few things to work. First, it has to reach a broad cross-section of the population. Firefly appeals to men, women, young, old, and several races. Star Wars does that too.

    Second, fandom needs good characters to latch onto. Name a Star Trek character? Worf, James T. Kirk, Kahn… There’s usually a great strength of character in any property that has a fandom. If you watch How I Met Your Mother, you know how vengeful Lily can be, how pretentious Ted can be, and how lecherous Barney is.

    The story has to be there as well. If the audience can’t get involved in what those cool characters are doing, it doesn’t have a prayer.

  2. I love that quote. And interestingly enough, John Carey makes the exact same argument about good literature in general in What Good Are The Arts – but of course, it also goes for other media. I’m a total Michael Chabon fangirl myself. Maps and Legends has to be one of my favourite essay collections ever. Clearly I need to get my hands on Manhood for Amateurs.

  3. I think there need to be gaps for fandom to work; the author (or writers) need to not have stated everything, to have made their characters a little bit opaque, for the timeline to have gaps in it where all of the characters could have been doing other things, and to refer to past events but never explicitly state what happened. If the characters are set very firmly in a particular universe, that also helps, since it grounds the characters and gives a foundation for outside interpretation.

    • I hadn’t thought of that Ela. The Star Wars Extended Universe thrives off the gaps left in the movies, filling in blanks the viewer may or may not have thought of.

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