I met Sarah Gailey at Easy Creole, and despite living in Oakland for five years, it was my first time there. My friend Sunil Patel orchestrated the lunch, but this was not the first time I’d been introduced to someone awesome through him. We ate fantastic Creole food, spoke about The Force Awakens at length, and freaked out about dogs, a common conversation when in my presence. After over an hour of conversation, Sunil remembered why he had made this lunch happen.
“Mark,” he said, turning excitedly to me, “talk to Sarah about getting popular on the Internet.”
Just a week or so prior, Sarah had live–tweeted her first run through the Star Wars trilogy. And now, she existed in a world where she had fans herself. She had become a fan very publicly, and in the process, she’d discovered just how complicated that phenomenon was.
My introduction to fandom came through The X–Files, a show I tuned into for seven seasons before the demands of high school (and the show’s declining quality, if I’m being honest) pulled me away from it. That community introduced me to fanfiction, to fan art, to headcanons, and to the perils of fandom bickering. Any time I became a fan of something, I sought out the community online. When I was lucky enough to score a press pass to Comic–Con in 2006, I got a chance to experience genre fandom in person. Years later, Comic–Con provided me with the inspiration for what would become my own critical review series. These days, I exist in a unique space within fandom itself; I am both a fan and a professional, despite the fact that my original content is based entirely off of someone else’s creation.
This fact complicates practically everything. I often just tell strangers, for the sake of brevity, that I am a writer, and if they press me on a category, I’ll say I do literary criticism. That’s not a lie, but it’s increasingly challenging to define the work I do in terms that a non–fandom person might understand. It’s also my job and my primary source of income, and those same people are baffled this is even possible. It is, though, and the line between what we consider a professional writer and a fandom writer has blurred significantly. I cannot imagine living and thriving as I do now twenty years ago, but the truth is that this has been a long–standing element to fandom. It’s not new; it simply evolved.
I’ve witnessed that evolution, and I’m now part of it. I know people who make a living off fan creation, who travel around the United States or Europe and sell their crafts at conventions, or who have published their fan writing professionally. So where is the line drawn? How can we distinguish between these two groups, and should we even do so?
Socially, the history of fandom felt far more defined when I was younger, though I admit that my perception of it was flawed. It had to be. My young age made it easier for me to celebrate creators or celebrities as if they were demigods. When I discovered online communities, I even transferred that same adoration to the recognizable Big Name Fans within those fandoms. Yet the lines were clear. There were fans, and then there were all the professionals. Obviously, I had no vocabulary to properly describe this, but I knew the distinctions then. I assumed as most people do: there was only one way to enter the other side. You had to cross the line.
What fascinates me about the evolution of this phenomenon is how fans are now able to exist in relation to professionals. It’s not so much that fans and professionals are one and the same; there’s crossover, sure! But in my experience, I’ve seen how the Internet and convention culture have evened the ground, so to speak. I don’t want to come across as ahistorical about this change since conventions have long provided the means for this sort of parity to exist. There’s a long history within science fiction and fantasy of fans transforming themselves into professionals, for example. Lois McMaster Bujold, Lillian Stewart Carl, and Jean Lorrah were all instrumental members of the Star Trek fandom, and all of them are now well–recognized creators on their own. While many may now view them solely by their fictional work, I believe that more and more people are able to exist as both fans and creators without having to usurp one of the labels. They’re not mutually exclusive by any means!
I exist in a space where I consider myself a professional fan. Through Mark Reads and Mark Watches, I’ve come to learn why existing series or fictional works have such passionate fan bases. (And I often count myself among those fandoms.) However, I can’t ignore the reality that I now have a fandom for myself. There’s fanart. There’s an entire website (MarkSpoils) devoted to discussing my work. A friend of mine created a Tumblr just to collect all the GIFs and meta from my writing and videos. I had to grapple with all of this fairly rapidly, too! When the Harry Potter fandom discovered “Mark Reads Harry Potter” back in the summer of 2010, I had to accept that I wasn’t writing for a few hundred people anymore. I admit that it changed how I wrote, how I engaged with my followers, and what I put of myself online. It’s not that I hadn’t ever practiced self–censorship in my writing or social media posts; I think that most of us do. But there was a weight to what I was doing that didn’t seem to be there before.
I find it intriguing that social media, for all its faults and flaws, helps to flatten the social landscape. It’s true that many creators will carry more social weight online, and I don’t expect that to change. However, if you take a look at the way a creator like Lin–Manuel Miranda has engaged with the fandom around his musical Hamilton, it’s possible to observe the elevation of fan creation in a way that values transformative works in a similar manner to the original, canon creation. Lin–Manuel is heavily active on Twitter and Tumblr, and frequently uses his power to share the works made in response to Hamilton. This isn’t necessarily uncommon in a creator, but he does so as a celebration of the fandom itself. He adores fan fiction and fan art, and he’ll often praise meta–textual commentary as an art form itself. That’s easy to understand once you accept that Hamilton and its creator are both meta–textual in nature. Lin–Manuel references wide swaths of musical theater canon, history, and hip hop within the musical. That’s the vital component of his relationship to his work and his fandom: Lin–Manuel understands the joys of being a fan and getting to create AS a fan. You can’t divorce the two concepts from one another.
Truthfully, there’s a misconception that people who are part of a fandom want to merely consume the original work as if it is the sole way to be a fan. There are a myriad ways that a fan can engage with what they love. If you’d told me a decade ago that people would pay money to watch videos of some dude reacting to their favorite television shows, I would not have believed you. It seems an absurd suggestion, and yet that’s the reality of fandom creation. There is a market for niche fan creations and that existence allows fans to become professionals just by being fans.
All of this should not ignore that there’s still a stigma within many circles of being a fan writer or a “professional fan.” I’m certainly aware of it, given that my own work continues to appear in academic circles, yet is simultaneously devalued at times because I am not an “educated” writer. Does fan writing count as journalism, or is there gate–keeping occurring there as well? What of the ongoing separation of those who criticize media properties, yet view themselves as agents outside of fandom? (Have a conversation with a professional critic/reviewer, and ask them if they consider themselves a fan or a nerd. ENJOY THE SUBSEQUENT DISGUST THAT INEVITABLY WILL ARISE FROM SOME OF THOSE PEOPLE.) There are still people who believe that these worlds should be separate. Are they fading out of fandom consciousness? I’m not sure that I could answer a question like that, given that there are still people interested in genre works who don’t consider themselves fan or fen by any stretch of such words. But I don’t find it impossible to imagine a world where the line between a fan and a professional becomes so completely blurred that we have to start inventing a new language to describe this kind of evolution.
Social media is certainly pushing us into a new direction, and I have no qualms about designating this as an exciting development. I don’t say that just because I find myself within a new paradigm of fandom engagement. I am simply thrilled that the social environment of fandom is, in essence, expanding. There are new ways to be a fan, and there are new ways to also make a living from it as well. I don’t see any harm in that.
I was invited to speak at Comic–Con for the first time back in 2013, and I remember how surreal it felt to see the convention from the opposite side of things. I’d been attending as a fan (and as a journalist) since 2006, but I suddenly found myself backstage, waiting to speak about Harry Potter, and I couldn’t ignore how nervous I was. Despite how much public speaking I’ve done over the years, I was overwhelmed by the size and scope of Comic–Con. It somehow felt so much bigger after I’d been escorted down a long hallway full of security personnel and staff members. How had my life come to this?
But as I waited for the panel to end and ours to start, my experience was complicated by a revelation: the speaker before us was Neil Gaiman. I’d recently completed reading The Sandman, Good Omens, and American Gods for my site, Mark Reads, and I’d been lucky enough to have a number of pleasant interactions with him through Twitter during that time. None of this is exceptional or all that interesting because it’s common in our digital age for us to interact with creators and those we admire and adore. However, that didn’t provide much comfort to me when Neil came off the stage to thundering applause and was quickly ferried over to me. Over the years, I had met many people whose work I had loved, but this was the first time I was meeting someone whose work I had reviewed. How would he react? Would he bring up any of the negative commentary I had given?
I wasn’t prepared for Neil to sweep me up in a hug, tears in his eyes, and tell me how much he enjoyed my work. I think that this reversal of roles—a creator figuratively and literally embracing a fan for their transformative work—is a perfect demonstration of what our world is coming to.
© 2016 by Mark Oshiro