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The loyalty of book fan communities

Jared Shurin

Writer and Critic

What do fans do between books by their favourite authors now that they’re able to meet up and create communities more easily than ever? Or when series have finished? How do stories and worlds begun in books develop in the hands of fans? What happens to the audience when the lights go out?

For shows like Twin Peaks and Buffy and films like The Matrix and Star Wars, fans have kept amusing themselves for years – debating and analysing the existing material and even creating their own content. The communities created when the shows were on the air keep thriving even when the official reason for their existence ceased (or took a very long break).

These same fan communities exist for literary properties as well – loyal readers that work together to fill the gaps between books. To the property owners, publishers and authors, this is a double-edged sword. Fan-generated momentum takes a burden off the marketing department and keeps the series fresh in people’s minds. The communities keep enthusiasm buoyed, pass word of mouth and ensure that no official announcement – no matter how trivial – goes unnoticed. The communities can also act as an informal loyalty program – crystallising middling fans into hardcore fans by offering the social incentive of friendship and a place to hang out (virtually speaking).

The community, however, can gradually seize ownership of the property. Warner Brothers stirred the hornet’s nest with their misguided “cease and desist” barrage of Harry Potter fan sites. In that instance, probably the most famous fan-fiction “incident” to date, the studio not only demonstrated the scale and reach of the fan communities, but also their fervour.

This vigour can help keep a property valuable long past its natural expiration date. For authors like J.K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin and China Miéville, active fan communities are hard at work, keeping their worlds fresh, whether or not they ever return.

Prefects: How The Fans Run Hogwarts

Although a series like Harry Potter will remain newly accessed by generation after generation of reader, the fact remains that the canon is firmly and finally established. For the first generation of readers – the ones that helped fuel the record-breaking sales and, just as importantly, keep the “buzz” alive with endless speculation – this is the end.

However, the lateral explorations of Harry’s world have near-infinite possibility. As Henry Jenkins notes in Convergence Culture (2006), Rowling’s “richly detailed world allows many points of entry. Some kids imagine themselves as related to the characters, the primary ones… also minor background figures, the authors of the textbooks, the referenced agencies, classmates of Harry’s mother and father, any affiliation that allows them to claim a special place for themselves in the story” (174). Rowling’s world is also notably open – the canon itself allows for racial, gender and national inclusivity.

Whoever you are, wherever you live, it takes very little effort for you to shoehorn yourself into the canon. Beyond being one of the reasons for Harry Potter’s commercial success, this is a vital part of Harry Potter’s longevity as a fan-fiction property. It is extremely easy to generate secondary characters – only one step removed from the primary narrative – and step into their shoes. Adventuring as Harry may be complete, but adventuring with Harry can continue indefinitely. The publisher and toy manufacturers have noted this as well – the products (including books) still coming out help endorse this style of play.

Waiting for George: Self-Entertainment in A Song of Ice and Fire

A little delay is a valuable thing. The rapid pace of production for books can stunt communities from forming – at least for fan-fiction based on speculation. Why bother guessing when the trilogy concludes in months? This is especially true in the young adult category, where the publisher is keen to have the trilogy out while the audience is within a narrow age bracket. The properties that have been more conducive to fan fiction have been those not only with the richness noted above, but also a decent-sized padding between them – e.g. Harry Potter or Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.

For George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, fans have passed the seven year delay between books by entertaining one another. Martin’s largest fan site, Westeros, has over 15,000 members who contribute their own games, stories and competitions daily. Like Rowling’s, Martin’s world is large enough for fans to continue exploring indefinitely in a non-canonical way. If no single person can carry around a depth of A Song and Ice of Fire’s lore, a community can – each not only bringing their factual speciality with them, but also their own interpretation into the debate. The more, the merrier, and a community the size of Westeros’ could be self-sustaining for quite some time.

A Song of Ice and Fire is also aided by a wealth of professionally-generated halo products.  A “Game of Thrones” begins on HBO this April – meaning that fans have received comic books, miniatures, role-playing games, short stories and a television series all since the last volume in the series. Although the narrative of Martin’s world hasn’t extended, its breadth has – but how long before the commercial break threatens to overtake the broadcast?

A Different Sort of Fan: Academic Analyses of China Miéville’s Bas-Lag

Another property is China Miéville’s Bas-Lag series – Perdido Street Station, The Scar and Iron Council (2004). Like Martin, it has been seven years since the last canonical work set in this world. But there the similarities end. Miéville is not writing a sequential series and whether or not he even intends to return to Bas-Lag is a closely kept secret. In the meantime, fans have indulged in numerous artistic representations and RPG contributions (some even with his blessing) but, unusually, the prose contributions are overwhelmingly academic.

As well as a recognition of Mr. Miéville’s literary merit, the volume of these contributions also reflects his unusual storytelling tradition – in which the heroic types are unapproachable figures (Uther Doul – The Scar) or are swiftly removed from the scene (a group of mercenaries in Perdido Street Station). By writing about the secondary characters, Miéville is essentially writing his own fan-fiction and telling the story from tangential narratives. Fans are challenged to write on the same level as the canon’s creator – an extremely different situation to Harry Potter, where the primary narrative is exclusively Rowling’s. The announced creation of a New Crobuzon role playing game may be the invitation that many fans are waiting for – giving them the tools to create their own stories from scratch.

Miéville is intentionally cryptic about the future of his world, but admits having “a very intense curiosity of what would or will happen if/when I do write another Bas-Lag book. I don’t believe it will be unalloyed joy.” However, since fans have not stepped into a stewardship role and lack a self-entertaining community like Martin’s or Rowling’s, any future Bas-Lag book faces the opportunity – and the challenge – of being judged solely on its merits. As the fans have been unable to speculate, they can now do nothing but wait.

“Harry Potter Should’ve Died”: The Clock is Ticking

While the vigour of fans can help keep a property valuable long past its intended expiration date, publishers can only rely on them so long. A collapse into disinterest could happen at any time – when the book or series is finally overshadowed by something new. Or, with the more engaged fans, the communities can develop a dangerously unselfish mentality: instead of taking part for their own entertainment, they begin guarding the property “for one another” and, ultimately, for the “good of the property itself”.

After decades of indulging in their own speculation, the conclusion to Harry Potter has proven disappointing for many. Although the fan-fiction continues, new readers will come online to find, not a dead world, but a less dynamic one. Similarly, the growing disillusionment with the delays in Martin’s series is easily seen in places like Amazon. Over a seven year period the comments evolve from anticipatory to desultory to embittered. On the series’ largest fan site, the off-topic conversations threaten to surpass the on-topic ones – fans are still engaging in a branded space, but their loyalty is becoming increasingly social, not topical.

On the series’ largest fan site, the off-topic conversations threaten to surpass the on-topic ones – fans are still engaging in a branded space, but their loyalty is becoming increasingly social, not topical. The publisher has announced – again – a release date for Martin’s latest book, but many fans remain skeptical about seeing the series completed.

More crucially, the expectations for the series have been continuously rising – after seven years of squatting, a fan could have a home – getting them the book they desire may be a much more demanding task.

You can read Jared Shurin's interview with China Miéville here.

This article commissioned by Peter Law, Games Editor, The Literary Platform

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One Response to “The loyalty of book fan communities”

  1. New Media in the University Curriculum « twcampbell1 Says:

    December 12th, 2011 at 5:40 am

    [...] multiple narrative choices) or even transmedia marketing campaigns that consider ways to develop “fan communities” via interactive [...]

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