Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Book Review: "The Politics of Fandom" by Hannah Mueller

The Politics of Fandom by Hannah Mueller (McFarland, 2022)

If you recently read Jeffrey Redmond’s article “Politics in Science Fiction” in Ionisphere #34 or my piece “Fanatiquette: The ‘New’ Fan Etiquette,” you might also be intrigued by this book, published just this year. Originally offered as a dissertation at Cornell University, the book explores in depth the kinds of conflicts that can threaten and sometimes unify the various people and communities involved in fandom.

Similar to most recent fandom studies texts, the book distinguishes between literary or affirmational fandom (those who like to read and publish fanzines) and media or transformative fandom (those who like to watch and create). (I know that’s an oversimplification, but I’m suspicious that transformative fan terms are mostly used by transformative fen and academics. Affirmational fen have an opportunity to discover new forms of fan activity and new ways to communicate.) The book, written by the managing editor of Diacritics, considers both types of fandom through a transformative lens and offers several ideas for those interested in bridging the older generations of fen and newer, younger fen. Those opportunities for bridge building are welcome and inspiring to at least this fan, who increasingly feels at home in both camps.

Over the course of the book, Mueller considers a handful of case studies offered as instructive examples of political conflicts dating back to the earliest days of fandom. In fact, there are at least two issues of Tightbeam included among the citations, as well as Donald Franson’s 1962 N3F Fandbook Some Historical Facts About Science Fiction Fandom. The N3F also shows up in the index.

The conflicts considered by Mueller include the Great Exclusion of 1939, in which the Worldcon organizing committee ostracized politically outspoken participants. That con lobby skirmish led to the formation of New Fandom and eventually the National Fantasy Fan Federation. Mueller does well to compare the two groups’ approaches to considering the role of politics in sf, fantasy, and horror. She also considers the Breen Boondoggle in 1964, in which fen decided to exclude Marion Zimmer Bradley’s husband Walter Breen from Pacificon II and the Fantasy Amateur Press Association (or its wait list, at least). While less explicitly political in nature, that controversy again highlighted aspects of inclusivity and exclusivity in fandom, focusing on how adults interact with children in fannish and other settings.

The book then fast forwards to several more recent political movements within fandom, including RaceFail ‘09, which took place primarily on LiveJournal rather than in fanzines—highlighting transformative fandom’s move online to platforms such as fan fiction repository Archive of Our Own—in which fen and professionals alike considered the role of race (and by extension, the working class, the poor, and women) in literature and media, as well as within fandom itself. Of special note in this chapter is Mueller’s consideration of fan-pro relationships and the role of authority, hierarchy, and power in political conflict within fandom. While several newly popular authors have emerged from RaceFail, the pros challenged at the time didn’t necessarily hold their own with grace and charm.

Also considered in the text: Puppygate and its impact on Hugo voting; how an influx of Twilight fen affected cons and fandom; the role of cosplay and other transformative fan activities; Glee fen and their criticism of the television show when it started to stray from topics and themes that initially attracted fen; and the transmedia marketing of The Hunger Games, which enabled fen to participate on both sides of the novels’—and movies’—narrative politics, introducing questions about and concerns with the commercial aspects of fan activity.

All in all, Mueller does well to examine the cohesion of community and ideals of tolerance within fandom, the tensions between hierarchical organization models and looser online networks of fen, and the desire for entertainment as well as social change. “[T]ransformative fans are starting to appear as equal to, and in some ways even more influential than the affirmational fans of literary science fiction and fantasy,” Mueller wrote. “[T]he divide between politically progressive and politically conservative fractions of fandom has in fact deepened once more, and the feuds that are carried out between different camps in the fannish sphere are more directly and openly connected to national and global political developments than perhaps ever before in fandom history.”

What’s missing in the book, through no fault of the text itself, is a solution—or solutions. One of the things that struck me is that requests to not discuss politics in fannish spaces are often arguments for the continuation of traditional politics, even if not positioned explicitly as such. Perhaps it’s not whether we talk about politics in fandom but how we do so. This book is a lively, wide-ranging first step toward finding such solutions.

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