Review: Fangasm

Fangasm by Katherine Larsen and Lynn S. Zubernis


While I love all fans equally (including and sometimes especially the tumblrinas), I have been known to give the Supernatural fandom a hard time. From where I stand in fandom, it’s an easy thing to fall into—a lot of the cases covered on fandom wank (a community dedicated to rubbernecking at bizarre fandom arguments, like John Ringo and John Scalzi’s recent disagreement) tend to come from that corner. But, I say to myself, it’s all in good fun. At the end of the day, being a fan means you’re part of the overarching family of fandom, and we look out for family. Even if it’s occasionally out of the corner of our eyes.

Katherine Larsen and Lynn S. Zubernis offer a different viewpoint on how I feel about the Supernatural fandom—I think they’d call it fan shame. By measuring herself against “crazy fans” and coming away feeling like a rational, mature fan, a fan feels more assured about her own fannish identity in a world that devalues not only fandom but also women doing “frivolous” and unproductive things. After all, this line of thinking goes, you’re not that teenage girl who jumped on Jensen Ackles at his first convention appearance. While I would hesitate to characterize as shame and more me indulging my inner rubbernecker, it’s still inspired me to lighten up on the ladybirds. After all, there’s no one right way to do fandom.

Given my love for fandom, fandom history, and media studies, it’s no wonder that I steamrolled right past Fangasm’s title (which reminds me of nothing so much as the fannish world of the early aughts and not its current brave new incarnation on tumblr, Archive of Our Own, and Dreamwidth) to get to what I thought was going to be a history of Supernatural fandom mixed with some personal anecdotes about Larsen and Zubernis’s involvement in fandom.

The first third went swimmingly, as Larsen and Zubernis, determined to write about fandom from a fan’s perspective, discuss how people (including themselves) are attracted to fandom, how it’s a community space, and exploring fandom, especially the practice of writing slash fiction, as a safe space for women to explore their sexuality. In shades of Aja Romano’s “I’m done explaining why fanfic is okay” post, they even list off accepted classics that qualify as fanfiction, appealing to my reader-response theorist heart. They also provide an interesting portrait of fannish mothers trying to fit in something that one of their husbands deems “immature” into their busy lives because they find it so fulfilling. (Said husband is soon dropped, mercifully.)

And then Fangasm switches focus to its authors’ experience in fandom and itself. Inspired by the documentary The Big Break, Larsen and Zubernis decided to include themselves in their book, making the bulk of Fangasm about their ascent to Big Name Fan status, their challenges in negotiating their fannish identities with their professional identities, their conflict with the producers of Supernatural, dealing with imposter syndrome, and their struggles with their family. Oh, and interviewing a great deal of the production team about slash fanfiction, which, in the Supernatural fandom, is often incestuous. Their point is to challenge the barriers between creator and fan, which I can appreciate, but my upbringing as a fan when the fannish fourth wall was sacrosanct still made me feel uneasy.

It’s not that this isn’t interesting, per se—I’m charmed by the microgenre of the fannish memoir, inspired by Nerd Do Well, even if I cringed occasionally at Larsen and Zubernis being unable to separate business and pleasure (although, it must said, that’s their point, so perhaps that’s more a personal thing ). It’s just that I was wondering where the rest of the book was, where all the media studies stuff I’d picked this up for had gone. The book really felt like it was a companion volume to something else. Finally, at the very end of the book, they mention that the research mentioned in this book can be found in Fandom at the Crossroads. Mystery solved! Although I would have very much appreciated a mention of this in the introduction.

In trying to knit their narratives together, Larsen and Zubernis take the odd tact of writing about themselves in the third person, although they still insist on using “we” instead of “they.” It reads very oddly. They also sweep by any accusations of misogyny, homophobia, and racism leveled at Supernatural. Sure, they say, women and people of color are killed a lot on the show, but so are white guys! (Never mind that the bulk of the major cast on Supernatural is composed of white men.) Given that critique is the beating heart of fandom for me, I found the omission of this glaring, as well as the omission the dark side of “slashwink” (playing up queer subtext to attract an audience), queerbaiting.

Lastly, I was a little perturbed by the behavior of their friend Lana, whose friendship with both authors ended over the course of events described here. While, at the very end, all parties agree that there wasn’t enough communication, it’s a little hard to read Larsen and Zubernis lamenting that they should have known that Lana was upset from her passive-aggressive behavior. This may be a personal thing, having formerly been a passive-aggressive person, but it’s still hard to stomach.

Bottom line: Fangasm is a fannish memoir about the authors’ involvement in Supernatural fandom and conducting the research for the academic companion to this volume, Fandom at the Crossroads. If you like reading about fans in the wild, this is your bet; if you want something more academic, Fandom at the Crossroads is yours.

I read this book on NetGalley.

Fangasm comes out October 1st.

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