Last Friday I happened to go to two very interesting talks hosted at City University London, one led by Simon Attfield, and the other by Blaise Cronin. The latter was a walk through library and information science research and meta-research, given with the usual charismatic flair of the speaker. The latter was a talk about how we make sense of material via user-generated representations, which I’m going to talk about here because much of it feeds into my research into fans and their information behaviour.
When presented with raw data, people choose to implement different strategies in order to make sense of what they are seeing/reading/witnessing etc. They have to break down that raw data and arrange it in some ordered, coherent way that aids in transforming what is implicit into something explicit. This is called schematising, and may take the form of diagrams, flowcharts, formulas, or narratives. Attfield et al.’s studies showed that narrative was one of the more successful forms of user-generated representation when it came to making sense of a problem and the events related to it. For example, witnesses to a crime were able to use narrative to better comprehend and cohere their thoughts and memories, even if their narrative did not follow any particular chronological order. Witnesses would fill gaps in knowledge through narrative-making devices using what might be assumed to be their prior experience or understanding of the facts. Whilst perhaps not strictly accurate, these sense-making strategies were successful because they were engaging and could explain investigatory activities more efficiently. In other words, the more complex the sense-making process, the easier it is to elucidate our own cognitive processes.
This interests me because narrative structures are a significant proportion of fan sense-making activities. Yes, I’m thinking of fanfiction in particular, but that isn’t the only form of narrative fans engage in. There are also fan comics, poetry and essays, for example. Chapter 5 of Henry Jenkins’ seminal Textual Poachers (2012; 1992) focuses on fanfiction and lists ten ways in which fan writers rework, remediate and renegotiate the source text. It is striking just how many of these ways have to do with making sense of the inconsistencies in that text.
Producers of media narratives often do not have the same vested interest in a product and its characters that the fans do. The entertainment industry is ratings-driven and therefore it is prone to tweaking characterisations, leaving plot threads untied, or cancelling a product before its narrative arc has been resolved. Examples of this might be The Legacy of Kain series in videogames, Firefly in TV shows, and numerous comic titles that never found a readership. This can leave many fans, who felt they had a personal stake in the characters and their development, or indeed, in the universe or narrative itself, feeling frustrated and let-down. In some cases they may be left with many disparate fragments of a story or a character, that defy an easy or common-sense solution. In other cases the producers will develop a narrative or a character in a way that some fans feel to be OOC (out of character), or outside the logic of the metatextual narrative (that is, the fan’s textual comprehension of the narrative as a whole entity). In all these cases, fans may feel impelled to explore these shortcomings and fill in the gaps in their knowledge. As Jenkins, referencing Star Trek: The Next Generation, opines:
[Fans pool] the information explicitly given about the character on the aired episodes… to offer a succession of speculations designed to account for a perplexing gap in the narrative information. (pp. 101-102)
Just as other fan extrapolations override gaps in the narrative information, these speculations focus on kernels of excess information, background details tossed into ongoing stories. Repeated viewings have placed increased attention on these narrative gaps and kernels, requiring fuller integration into the fans’ metatextual comprehension of the narrative world and character relationships. (p. 103)
In other words, the fan attempts to make sense of what they are presented with. A series of television programmes, movies, books, comics, etc., can present a far more complex world, set of personalities or circumstances than we might encounter in our everyday sense-making activities. For example, the Marvel Universe, its chronology and its hundreds of characters presents an entire world with its own internal logic, one that is often broken when a writer who has not done their research properly gets something wrong or develops a character in a way that ‘goes against the grain’. Sometimes this may lead to a formal retcon by a later writer; mostly, fans – for whom these kinds of misrepresentations are important – struggle to fit them into the metatextual narrative they have of the Marvel Universe. Mentally negotiating decades’ worth of a favoured character’s existence can be as challenging (if not more so) for the fan as arranging a witness statement of, say, a traffic violation or a criminal offence.
It is my contention that fanfiction is just one of the many sense-making tools that fans use to gain a better purchase on a complex body of information, or to reclaim a complex body of perceived conflicting information. As Attfield et al. found in their studies, narrative structures better aid in the cohesion and exploration of complicated information ecologies, and, where there are gaps in knowledge, people draw on life experience to fill these in. Considering this, it is perhaps natural that fans should choose to navigate their way through the metatextual narrative of fandom via narrative itself. Indeed, fans seem to find this creative, expressive kind of documentary practice uniquely satisfying, engaging and rewarding. Whether it is successful in terms of sense-making would make a fascinating area of further research.