A bookish history of Fandom

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Fandom is a catch-all term for various communities around media. Fandom’s origins may go back to ancient history, but now it really means a group of people organizing around one thing they love. For books, the history of fandom is long and varied.

Specifically, I define fandom as a participatory culture that creates transformative work based on original material. I basically agree with Henry Jenkins’ definition of fandom as participatory culture and how it creates new media topics. Contemporary fandoms are everywhere, from books to boybands to Minecraft YouTubers. The origins of bookish fandom provide a roadmap for how participatory culture shapes fandom around media.

The main strength of participatory culture is writing. Fans write letters to the editor or writer and exchange letters. With magazines and zines, fans could engage in fandom speeches and write fanfiction through discussion sections. The book’s fandom is sustained through fans’ love of the written word, through discussion and transformative creation.

Early history of fandom

Before BookTok and Bookstagram, there were fan-hosted forums and websites, and LiveJournal accounts where people posted their theories, headcanons, and fan fiction for discussion. Prior to this time, zines were a dominant force in the fandom exchange. These types of exchanges, especially the written ones, have existed in the reading fandom space for generations.

Photo by Bruno Martins on Unsplash

The invention of the Gutenberg printing press in 1450 changed the way people related to stories in general. Before the press there were 30,000 books all over Europe, and 50 years later there were over 12 million books. Reading became a common thing people could do instead of a specialized skill.

An early short story that still has an active fandom today was the 1872 short story carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. It was an extremely popular novel in the “thriller” genre. These types of melodramatic and thrilling novels were popular in the second of the 19e century in England. carmilla is the one that still inspires transformative fan work today, most recently the Carmilla web series, film, and its associated novel.

Carmilla preceded Bram Stoker Dracula about 25 years old, and supernatural monsters still garner big fandoms nowadays. The effects of Carmilla are still being felt two and a half centuries later.

One of the first fandoms people point to is the explosion of excitement around the sherlock holmes mysteries, first published in The Strand Magazine in 1887. An important aspect of fandom that continued with Holmes was that fans wrote letters as if they were Holmes or Watson—certainly an early precursor to fan fiction.

Arthur Conan Doyle was far less interested in Holmes than in spirituality and fairies, so he killed Sherlock Holmes in The last problem in 1893. The Strand Magazine lost 20,000 subscribers after this story. Fans wrote letters to Doyle calling him a bully, and fans organized “Let’s Keep Holmes Alive” clubs. Doyle eventually relented and wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1901 (set before Holmes’ death) and wrote another story in 1903 which explained how Holmes had survived the fall of Reichenbach.

Science fiction and the establishment of fan conventions

In 1926, the science fiction magazine amazing stories started circulating. Stories from famous authors like HG Wells, Jules Verne, and Edgar Allen Poe were included in the first issue, and the magazine essentially defined the concept of genre editing.

In The world of science fiction, 1926-1976: the story of a subcultureLester del Rey documents the Discussions section of the amazing stories magazine, where fans could tune in and comment on stories back and forth. Communities around genre fiction have continued to grow in popularity and thrive in subcultures. Fan works that are central to fandom’s participatory culture have also become popular: “From the 1930s through the 1990s, hardcover and print fanfiction was circulated, read, and discussed by many social communities in science fiction fandom (and fantasy).”

In 1939, the World Science Fiction Society held its first WorldCon. This event now includes the Hugo Awards, the biggest SFF and fandom awards of the year. The Hugo Awards are named after Hugo Gernsback, founder of the amazing stories magazine. The Hugos affirmed the legacy of many science fiction/fantasy writers, such as Octavia E. Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin.

It’s hard to underestimate the importance of WorldCon and the Hugo Awards to SFF fans. They celebrate fandom’s participatory culture and gave awards to SFF books at a time when genre fiction was widely shunned by the literary world. Intra-community support is necessary for a fandom with a participatory culture. Conventions are also a huge marker of fandom as we know it today.

star trek and Fan Fiction to Books

the cover of the novel Star Trek how much just for the planet

star trek as a television show is a major turning point in the history of fandoms. Henry Jenkins identifies the Kirk/Spock ship as the birthplace of slash fan fiction. Fans created fanzines and exchanged fanfiction by mail to follow each other.

Fanzines were major projects: there were reprints of fan-favorite zines and hundreds of copies of some of them. Star Trek fans were constantly creating works that commented on and transformed the original series.

Due to this popularity, Star Trek Novels also had great success. They cover everything from exploring the character of Chekhov to developing the lore and background of the future in which star trek takes place. The authors of star trek the novels also did the very fannic thing of inserting themselves and their friends as characters in the novels.

Participation in underground fandoms

camp blanket man

One book fandom that doesn’t have a lot of written history is that of the queer pulp novel. Susan Stryker’s book Queer Pulp: The Perverse Passions of the Golden Age of the Paperback documents the publishers who distributed these books: many of them got their start in gay porn and “male physique” magazines. Like the Trekkie magazines, these magazines were the ones who were already in the know.

Gay and lesbian novels began to appear in the United States in the 1930s. In the 1960s, Greenleaf Press published Victor J. Banis’ The CAMP manwhich was a spy parody of the super popular show The man from UNCLE The show also had a notable fandom of dedicated writers in the 1960s. The rise of gay pulp fiction in the 1960s was a way for gay men to engage with each other and learn more about gay life without needing to be in the exact spot. It showed the participatory culture of fandom with a queer lens.

Book cover of The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

On the side of lesbian pulp fiction, The price of salt by Patricia Highsmith (originally as Claire Morgan) has been making waves for shut-in queer women. It got the traditional salacious marketing for a pulp novel, but fans wrote letters to “Claire Morgan” via her editor because they felt the novel was a tender portrayal of a queer woman’s life in the 1960s. 1950. Queer women could also participate in queer culture by being fans of books.

The Ever-Evolving Book Fandom

The fandom around the books has only accelerated and grown in importance in the entertainment industry. With the wide range of books and their associated fandoms, production companies are always on the lookout for content to turn into movies and TV shows with built-in audiences.

At present, book fandoms have revived the importance of the printed book. I think this is probably due to the aesthetics of book transports on Bookstagram, BookTube, and BookTok. It’s more enjoyable to watch a stack of beautifully designed covers than a video of someone scrolling through an eReader.

woman reading a book
Photo by Emily Rudolph on Unsplash

Currently, book fandom is also about commodifying fan work, which means supporting online works created by fans so that authors can incorporate their work into traditional publishing. The rise of works like Anna Todd’s After series, originally a One Direction fanfic, and the greater recognition of authors on the world of fan fiction is what I am referring to here. Twenty years ago, a popular author like Naomi Novik openly embracing fanfiction would have been unthinkable.

Reifying fanworks through recognition through publishing or the Hugo Awards was the essential goal of fan historians. Star Trek fans who tried to index all of Trekkie’s zines and fanfiction would have loved how many fans were able to transition from fan engagement to mainstream print culture. Fanfiction including the author and his friends is also very common these days, as the writers of the star trek novels.

Queer fandom is also a much larger and more accepted part of fandom in general. You don’t necessarily stand out by participating in fandom, but there are more and more queer books coming in every year for book fans to discuss and form a participatory culture around. The fandom on the run for the Heart stroke webcomic, books and TV show are a great example. This fandom also recreates the fanzine culture of the 1970s because Alice Oseman includes fanworks in their ongoing projects. Heart stroke webcomic between new pages.

Fandom gatherings, writing and reading fanfiction, and discussions of developing the book’s fandom will always be hot topics. There are always rhymes between past and present in fandom.

About Cedric Lloyd

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