Episode 3: Kavita Mudan Finn & EJ Nielsen

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In this episode of “It’s a Thing!” I talk with Dr. Kavita Mudan Finn and EJ Nielsen about acafandom, fanfiction, AUs [alternate universes], academic publishing, and the TV show Hannibal.

Show Links


Dr. Kavita Mudan Finn
E.J. Nielsen
Nick Acosta
Janice Poon
Matt Sorrento
Vincenzo Natali
Michael Doherty
Dr. Suzanne Scott
Dr. Rukmini Pande
Samira Nadkarni
Dr. Amanda Ewoldt


Finn & Nielsen, eds., Becoming: Genre, Queerness, and Transformation in NBC’s Hannibal
Poon, Feeding Hannibal: A Connoisseur’s Cookbook
Scott, in Fandom: Second Edition
Nielsen, “Dear Researcher: Rethinking Engagement With Fan Authors
Jones, “Affect, Activism and Ambivalence: Anti-Fandom in Relation to MTV’s The Valleys and Lostprophets
lareinenoire & Winter_of_our_Discontent, “Denn die Todten reiten schnell
Conkie & Maisano, eds., Shakespeare and Creative Criticism
Finn, ed., Fan Phenomena: Game of Thrones

Terms, Concepts & the Rest

Orlando Jones and fandom
Fan Studies Network
Archive of Our Own

Transcript (and a few self-indulgent fangirl photos)

Lori Morimoto: Welcome to “It’s a Thing!”, the podcast where we talk about fan studies and how it’s a thing. I’m your host, Lori Morimoto.


LM: On this episode of “It’s a Thing!” I’ll be talking with Dr. Kavita Mudan Finn and EJ Nielsen, co-editors of the recently published book, Becoming: Genre, Queerness, and Transformation in NBC’s Hannibal. So stick around!


LM: I want to welcome you both, EJ and Kavita, to the show, and express my appreciation for you being here. 

EJN: Thank you for having us. 

KMF: Yeah, we’re pleased to be here. 

LM: The book is Becoming: Genre, Queerness, and Transformation in NBC’s Hannibal, and I wanted to start first, since this is a fan studies podcast, you know, there’s a lot of academic books that deal with specific shows. We have Breaking Bad, we have books on Mad Men, we have, you know, all the- especially the sort of so-called Prestige Dramas. By and large those are academic anthologies through and through. In this book, you’ve included an interview with screenwriter Nick Acosta and also a preface from Janice Poon, who was the food designer for the show, but who also has a very special place within the fandom of the show, and I was wondering if you could talk about your decision to include them in the book. 

Janice Poon and me (fangirling over Janice)

KMF: Well part of it was luck, for a start. We happened to get a proposal from Matt Sorrento very early on after we put out the call for papers, asking if that was something we’d be interested in, and EJ and I – it wasn’t even a question. We were like, “Oh hell yeah, we want an interview with the screenwriter.” We would- it’s not something we would have been able to get on our own. So the fact that someone showed up, Matt Sorrento, the television scholar, and he knew Nick from from ages ago. I think they’re like old friends or something, and so he offered to interview him for our book and it was just a great bit of good luck. 

EJN: Yeah, but I mean we were interested in different perspectives and in some level of knowledge and expertise, and I can’t imagine a better perspective or knowledge to get than from one of the people who was involved in that on the level of a screenwriter, because of course the screenwriter is thinking about the themes and how the show works and how the pieces work with each other, and the overarching arcs, and how to do characterization, and … I mean the screenwriter is one of the people, like a director, that is going to be thinking about those aspects of the show, some of which are the most interesting aspects to us.

LM: One of the more interesting things I noticed at the last FannibalFest, which is held in Toronto, was the organizers managed to get one of the directors, Vincenzo Natali, and one of the editors, Michael Doherty, to basically do a sort of live commentary on a couple of episodes, and I have never seen – maybe it’s just because I’ve never been, you know, exposed to this – but I have never seen fans so excited about something at a con that didn’t involve, you know, actors or something, ever. It was really an interesting experience seeing how interested the fans were, and I include myself in that, in the behind the scenes aspects of the show.

Me, Vincenzo, and Michael – it was SO COOL

EJN: And I think that speaks to why we had Janice do the forward, also. I mean, Janice is, in addition to being an incredible cook and a lovely human being, but it’s clear when you talk to her that she was very involved in helping Bryan Fuller create the vision that he wanted for that show. You know, it wasn’t just a matter of he told her what to do and she did it, you know. They worked together, she thought through things, she solved problems, she offered suggestions. That it was a very collaborative process and, you know, all of the writers, especially Nick, Nick and all of them were clearly all very much involved in that process. 

LM: Yeah. It’s interesting to me with Janice, in particular, how much she clearly loves the show, but also how supportive she’s been of the fandom and how fan-directed her interactions have been, with her blog during the show, where she talked about the different recipes and things like that, with the cookbook [Feeding Hannibal] afterwards, and just in her interactions. And so your choice of her to have her do the preface, to me, seemed really interesting, especially in the context of fan studies, where there’s some debate over the role, or even the propriety, of engaging with creators as fan study scholars. In the context of work on fan studies, is there any situation in which you feel like, either of you, that communication with a creator would be detrimental or otherwise inappropriate to your academic purposes? 

KMF: Hmm. 

EJN: I would say it goes down to what are you attempting to accomplish with it? Yeah, if you have a good reason to talk to the creator, then by all means talk to the creator. If you don’t, you don’t. I don’t think you necessarily have to talk to the creator. I think a lot of times, when problems come up, it’s because of unclear goals or- 

KMF: Yeah. 

LM: I think what I’m trying to get at is sort of adjacent to what you’re talking about. I’m thinking of, for example, when Orlando Jones was very vocal about fandom, Sleepy Hollow, and his own role as what he at the time, and probably still would, described himself as, which was a fangirl. Obviously, there’s attendant issues, and those have been discussed particularly nicely by Suzanne Scott. But I’m curious, you know, there were people who, when he was announced as a keynote speaker for the second Fan Studies Network Conference, there were sort of grumblings of, fan studies scholars have no business talking to creators or actors, you know, we need to keep separate from that. And I think that’s sort of what I’m getting at. 

EJN: Yeah … yeah, I mean, I guess I see that as an arbitrary boundary. I mean, it’s sort of like that, you know, where celebrities can’t have political opinions. I mean, I don’t have to respect their political opinions, but they’re people, they’re certainly allowed to have them. Creators don’t exist in this weird bubble. They’re responding to other things within the culture. They are most likely fans of something themselves or influenced by something. So trying to say this weird, you can talk to this person but not this person or … a celebrity is going to come with attendant baggage. A creator is going to come with attendant baggage and power dynamics that I think you have to be aware of, but the idea that you just can’t talk to creators because there’s a weird invisible boundary has never been true, and I think it’s even less true now because we do have the creators that became creators because they were fans of something else. We have, again, the fact that no one exists in a vacuum. People like things. People do things. People talk to other people. It’s …

LM: Yeah. Thinking back to what I had observed a minute ago about fans being very interested in the mechanics of the show, of the behind the scenes of the show, of thinking about the show – and I say that as a participant on a academic panel at a Hannibal convention where people were really enthusiastic. And it was, I mean, it was the best presentation audience I think I personally have ever had. And that includes every conference I’ve ever been to. 

EJN: Well it was certainly better attended than many of the other panels I’ve been on.

The academic panel at FannibalFest, with Nickie Michaud Wild, Leila Taylor, Karen Felts, me, and EJ Nielsen

LM: Oh my God. I have never given a talk to that many people and had them be, you know, interested in what I was saying. But I’m curious, you know, I know that quite a few fans bought the book when it came out. They were excited for it when it was announced. And I’m wondering, first off, if there’s … if you think there are any essays in the book in particular that especially might resonate with, or otherwise appeal to, a fan audience? And, in general, what’s your take on sort of fans as readers of academic work? 

KMF: Well, I mean one of our goals as editors for this volume was to produce a book that would be accessible to a general audience. We didn’t- we wanted it to have the rigor of something that could be academically peer-reviewed, but we wanted the style to be clear enough that someone who wasn’t a specialist could follow it. 

LM: Was that something that you had to work with with any of the authors? 

KMF: A little bit here and there, but most people were pretty content to drop the jargon and write a little more clearly. Hopefully that will continue in academic prose. I would like to see that.

EJN: It’s a good trend. 

LM: Mm. 

KMF: But as far as any essays in the book that work particularly well, I mean, I think your essay is a great one for fan readership, just because fans … I find they have this … or at least – and I count myself among them in this – there’s this sort of twofold reaction to finding out that an academic has written about you. On the one hand you think, “Oh God, what did I do?” And on the other hand … 

LM: Like, “Oh no, no.”

KMF: Well, I mean, I’ve had that reaction to finding myself in another academic essay.

LM: Oh yeah, no, me too! Totally. 

KMF: “Wait, what? How did I – what did I do? Nobody told me!” Which is why, at least, my policy as an editor and as an author is to always get advance permission from fans if I’m using their work. And anytime I have asked for advance permission, the answer has always been yes and the fan has always said, “Oh my God, please send me a copy of this when you’re done.” 

LM: Right, right.

KMF: And so, treat them like you to treat anyone else that you’re going to cite. If it’s, if you’re going to cite your friends, then you tell your friends that you’re citing them. 

EJN: I mean, I definitely didn’t write an entire journal article about this or anything, so … 

KMF: Yeah, you definitely didn’t do that. It’s in the Journal of Fandom Studies

LM: So tell us about what you didn’t write. 

EJN: No, I have an article in the Journal of Fandom Studies called “Dear Researcher,” where I talked about the ethics of basically doing research on fan authors and how I wasn’t happy with some of what I was seeing, right now. There was a tendency to treat them first and foremost as vulnerable populations and not as experts in their area. I was just frustrated with the level of almost infantilization I was seeing in research on fans, toward fans, especially fan creators. Because while there are absolutely power dynamics that you have to be aware of, like, I’m allowed to publish and copyright my work, fan authors generally are not for various involved reasons.

But treating them as simply a vulnerable population, where the ethical thing is to obscure their information and not talk to them and pretend you’re just looking at them through a glass, and I think that’s infantilizing and unreasonable. And I feel like instead of treating them always as a vulnerable population, we should also be engaging with them as experts, in which case we are citing them. We are acknowledging them. We are sharing with them what we produce from what they produce, and of course the analogy is gift economies within fan studies. 

LM: What would you say to criticism that, in basically adopting a sort of, you know, approach to fans as experts, as creators, what would you say to criticism that that would sort of necessarily skew your work away from quote-unquote critical distance?

EJN: I think Bethan Jones has done some fantastic work on anti-fandom that is relevant right here. Where she’s talked about what do you do, if you’re talking about hateful stuff, what do you do if you’re talking about, you know, what do you do if you want to talk about things that fans might prefer you not talk about? So I think it’s complicated and nuanced, and a lot of it is just going to have to be on a case-by-case basis, looking at what you’re doing. But I think, just as it would be wrong to say I have to get permission from everyone before I do something, it’s also wrong to say I know better than everyone in this group what is in their best interests. 

LM: Kavita, did you want to add to that? 

KMF: My rule of thumb, as I said, is I like to ask in advance, because one of the things that I find tremendously useful whenever I ask in advance is I always ask, did you have … I always ask a fan author, because I have access to the author. This is not something that I’m used to having in my normal day-to-day work on medieval and early modern literature. I can’t call up William Shakespeare and ask him what he meant by a thing. So I use fan authors as a resource, and a lot of them will offer me, “Here’s what I was thinking when I was writing this story. Here’s what the story was originally written for.”

Because one thing that I always take into account when I’m writing about fic is, was it written for an exchange? Was it written in a very specific context? Is it for a specific person? Because that’s always … that’s something I take into account when I deal with published work as well. I just treat a work of fanfiction the same way that I treat a published work to a very large extent, except that since a fan author isn’t getting any kind of compensation for their work, I like to talk to them and get their permission and ask if there’s anything I shouldn’t mention. Like I always ask, do you want to be referred to by your name? By your pseudonym? Anonymously? However you want. 

LM: One of the things you both circled around, or talked a little bit about, was the specific context of a given fan practice, and I’m thinking, Kavita especially, of, what you were saying about, was a fanfiction story part of an exchange, was it a gift? And that seems to be something that is very specific to this acafan identity in that you know enough to know that these are things that exist. What would you say to that and what, both of you, what is your sort of general take on acafandom, if you will.

KMF: I mean one of the things that I have been seeing in fields outside of fan studies, the other fields that that I kind of move around in, is finally a greater acknowledgement of researcher subjectivity. The fact is that we all come from somewhere. We all have our own our own unique backgrounds, and that is going to impact the way that we read texts and the way that we interact with our subjects of study. In one of my two fields, one of my two primary fields is medieval studies, and there has been a lot of controversy about racism and white supremacy in that field. And it has made people, it has forced people to really look at themselves and think about where they’re coming from. What kinds of biases and assumptions they’re bringing with them.

And so I feel that the whole idea of critical objectivity in academia is coming under scrutiny, and rightly so. Because academia for a very long time has associated neutrality and partiality, critical distance, with whiteness and with maleness. So I feel that fan studies is, to some extent, ahead of the game, because acafans are essentially, they are essentially stating upfront that this is our perspective. We are personally involved in this. It does not make us any less rigorous in our research, but we do, we at least acknowledge.

EJN: We acknowledge. We are, yeah, we are these bodies in this space. And objectivity is a lie. 

KMF: It is.

EJN: Affective disengagement in research is kind of a lie. No one gets a PhD in something they don’t passionately care about. 

KMF: That’s for sure. 

EJN: Yeah, no, it’s way too much work otherwise. Like there’s always affective engagement. Fan studies at least does its best to be upfront about what it is and what it looks like. And I would much rather, I think, deal with those issues of subjectivity and positionality honestly and upfront, than try to pretend there is some kind of cold, white peaks of intellectual distance that one must attempt to climb and then peer down at one’s research subject from. But, I mean, the fact that you get this pushback on acafans because we are willing to be honest about our positionality, and you look at the field of fans studies and it’s one of the more diverse fields I’m aware of. 

Obviously we need work. There’s still a lot of problems in the field, especially around race, but work is being done, and the fact that we are field that gets hit harder for having emotions about what we do, or enjoying what we do or whatever, it’s hard to not tie that in with a larger cultural distrust of feminine interests, of female interests, of interests of younger people, interests of a lot of groups that are almost – I don’t want to say over-represented, because they’re not, it’s fantastic – but are much more common in fan studies than in other fields. 

LM: With that in mind I kind of wanted to ask you both, I know from fannish experience that you’re both active in transformative fandom, and that in particular you’ve co-authored fanfiction that you were, you began working on, I believe, while you were co-editing the book? 

EJN: Uh, yeah sounds right. 

KMF: Yeah, they were around the same time. Yeah, I would say so.

LM: How was that experience of sort of co-authoring and co-editing at the same time? 

KMF: Well, I’m very good at procrastinating on both.

EJN: I mean, I I like working with Kavita. This isn’t our first, actually, we’ve been betaing for each other for years, both fanworks and-

KMF: EJ, we’ve known each other for almost 20 years. 

EJN: Oh God. Oh God. No, um, I- 

KMF: There have been a lot of collaborations over those years. 

EJN: Yeah. Apologies to Kavs in advance for telling this story, but she once wrote this fanfic that she wanted me to beta, and I had not seen the movie that it was based on. And she sat my ass down and made me watch the movie right then so that I could beta that fan work for her. 

KMF: That’s right. It was The Last of the Mohicans, though. 

EJN: It was The Last of the Mohicans

KMF: It was a legit good movie. It’s a legit good movie.

EJN: Yeah, even better soundtrack. So I mean, she and I go way, way back for doing this kind of work, and it’s not even our first co-authored fan work. We did one …

KMF: No, it’s not.

EJN: … previous to that in a different fandom that is complete. So … we’ve also co-authored an academic work or two, so we’ve, we do pretty good at knocking the kinks out. It really helps, the technology really helps because we can have those shared Gdocs of our work. 

KMF: Yeah.

LM: Yeah. 

EJN: But you know, you have to be honest, you have to be open, you have to trust the other person. You have to be able to say to them, like, you have to be able to disagree with them, yeah, when you need it. 

LM: Yeah. Well, it seems like betaing, and would either of you like to explain for anyone who’s not familiar with it, what betaing is? 

KMF: Okay, so a beta reader can function as anything from someone to bounce initial ideas off of, someone to help you outline, to help you iron out kinks in a plot, all the way up to just a gra- like, sentence-level grammar proofreading, all of that stuff. A beta reader can be just one of those things or any of, or all of those things at once. It honestly depends on the beta reader. And it is a very interesting relationship that I personally want to take and apply to other literary periods, because I think that that’s what’s going on in some cases – cough Shakespeare. Anyway.

So I think it’s a very interesting relationship, and it’s very interesting power dynamic, because the beta, unlike, say, an academic peer reviewer, the beta does not have any power over whether or not the final story gets put online, or archived, or published or wherever you’re going to put it. But the author offers the beta a great deal of power just because they’re soliciting input. And at least in my case, I, nine times out of ten I’ll take what the beta says and I won’t even question it. Sometimes it’s like, sometimes I use it as kind of a springboard and say, “Okay, I can explain this a little bit better. I still want to do it my way, but I can finesse it so that it makes more sense.” Ofttimes, it’s just another pair of eyes on what you’re writing and sometimes that’s all you need. 

LM: Yeah. Well it seems like, so the reason I wanted you to explain what a beta is, is because it seems to me, thinking about it, that having an existing relationship where you have done critical reading for the other would only benefit a relationship in which you’re co-editing something. 

EJN: Yeah.

LM: Insofar as you’ve already got, as EJ was saying, the trust built in, that you can listen to each other’s opinions whether you agree or not. Is there some overlap there? Does it help, does it not really make much of a difference? 

EJN: Yeah, there are very few circumstances where you don’t benefit from having another pair of eyes on what you’re doing. 

KMF: Mm-hmm.

EJN: And there’s trust, there’s also, I think, a pretty good working knowledge of the other person’s strengths and weaknesses, which is incredibly useful. I know I’ve got a better sense of what I’m good at relative to Kavs and vice versa, which means you know, “Can you handle this? You’re good at it.” You know, I’ve got this thing … that sort of relationship is is incredibly helpful, especially because there’s just, you’re juggling so many things in an edited collection, and so much of it is just organization and keeping track of what’s going on. Like, you have a lot of cats you’re herding and- 

KMF: Many many cats. 

LM: Yeah.

EJN: So many cats. 

LM: Fielding people who keep sending in updated drafts of their essays. [note: it was me, I did this]

EJN: Those guys are the worst. 

LM: I know. 

KMF: Yeah. Well, I also, I have been that person. I’m also that person who constantly forgets to attach attachments to emails. 

LM: Oh yeah, yeah.

KMF: Yeah. But no, like, having, yeah, having this sort of prior relationship, especially one where we’ve been working together on a variety of different genres of writing as well? That also helps. 

LM: Well, speaking of genres of writing, can I bring up the story? Is that all right?

EJN: Knock yourself out. 

KMF: Yes, you can.

LM: Do you mind if we give the title of it? 

KMF: Not at all. 

LM: I can’t say it. It’s not in my language.

EJN: Kavs, you want to do it? It’s German.

KMF: Oh God. I can try. I can’t make any … I make no promises for my German. I believe it’s “Denn die Todten reiten schnell.” 

LM: What does that mean? 

KMF: It means, “For the dead travel fast.” 

LM: Ooh, nice. 

EJN: Which is, of course, a quote from the original novel.

LM: The original novel being Dracula

KMF: Yes. 

LM: And this is a Hannibal adaptation, if you will, of the Dracula story. I’ve been following it as a fan since it started being posted on Archive of Our Own – on the Hugo Award-winning Archive of Our Own. I feel like, with all the controversy, I need to get that in there. 

KMF: Very true. 

EJN: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.

LM: And it’s, I mean, one of the things about it that is so remarkable, to me, is that it’s written so beautifully in the style, or styles, of the book itself. I mean, in a way, it seems like you would need two people to be able to capture all of the nuances of the language. But I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the process of writing that particular story?

EJN: Well because one of the things I enjoy very much about Stoker’s Dracula is it’s an epistolary novel, even if he’s somewhat loose in what epistolary actually means. So we’re trying to mimic that ourselves, with it being journal entries and news clippings, and what have you. So to help keep the voices more distinct, we’re each kind of assigned certain characters that we write, and the other one does go through and edit make sure things are going smoothly. We’ve got overarching, very complicated documents that lay down all the dates, because the dates in the novel are mess.

KMF: My God, yes. Timelines!

EJN: Timelines!

KMF: So many detailed bullet point timelines. 

EJN: Yeah. So, but in order to make sure that each character kind of has their particular voice, I think it helps that one person is doing the brunt of the writing of that person, and also helping keep them different from each other as much as possible. 

LM: So can I ask who is Will and who is Hannibal?

EJN: Well, we don’t actually, because it’s Dracula, we don’t actually have any Hannibal POV. 

LM: Oh right! Yeah, it’s all Will, right.

EJN: Yeah.

LM: Right.

EJN: Just like there’s no actual Van Helsing POV, which is going to get shifted around because we’re not doing a one to one replacement. 

LM: Yeah, well, talk a little bit about that, because I’m not sure people are familiar, you know, if you’re not familiar with fanfiction, you wouldn’t be familiar with sort of the different ways that people adapt existing texts. 

EJN: Yeah. Well technically I would consider – and not everyone in fandom will agree with the definitions I’m giving – but I would say a crossover would be a X meets Y. So, Laurel and Hardy meet the Wolfman. Where everything and everyone is in the same space. The Avengers go to Hogwarts, but they meet Harry Potter and the other characters there.

LM: Right.

EJN: And then you have something that’s what I consider more of a fusion, which is a bridge between those stories where characters are taking on different roles. Like maybe you get these characters, but this world. It’s not just adding them together. It’s kind of mushing them together. 

LM: Mm-hmm.

EJN: So you don’t have red and blue, you have purple. 

LM: You’re seeing a lot of that in Good Omens with Supernatural. And also Lucifer

KMF: Oh goodness. I’m sure, yeah.

EJN: And so in this case, we are kind of doing redoing Dracula, but with Hannibal cast, versus if it was the Hannibal cast vs Dracula. 

KMF: Yeah, I think actually a not-terrible way to conceptualize it is, the other fic that EJ and I collaborated on is a more classic crossover, where you have the character, where you have characters from both fandoms existing in the same space. They don’t necessarily all interact with each other, but they are all within the same universe. Whereas with the Hannibal and Dracula story, we’re taking the structure of Dracula and we’re kind of filling in different characters from Hannibal as much as we can. But we’re also taking into account the fact that the characters from Hannibal would make different choices. 

EJN: Yeah. 

KMF: Yeah.

EJN: If you put this character in this place, what would they do? They wouldn’t do the same thing as the person whose spot they’re taking. That’s not how characters work. So-

LM: It puts me, yeah. It puts me in mind of a story in Hannibal fandom that I love, and it’s Jack Crawford point of view, and he’s basically, it’s sort of Jack Crawford, you know, has his Groundhog Day, which is sort of a common – not common, but it’s a fairly popular trope. But in it he ends up one day, he keeps ending up in sort of fanfiction scenarios. And one day he ends up in Adam, the Hugh Dancy film, and he has been cast as a black character that has nothing to do with him. And he sort of cries out in agony, you know, ”Not all black characters are interchangeable!” You know. That, to me, seems like one to one sort of equivalency that, you know, “Well we have to we have to plug in everybody somewhere, so, Jack, you’re going to be the black guy” kind of thing, as opposed to what you’re talking about, which is more … yeah. 

EJN: Yeah. One of my pet peeves as a reader, I see this all the time especially in … Pride and Prejudice seems to be the worst of it. 

KMF: Oh jeez, yes.

EJN: You’ll find a Pride and Prejudice AU in almost every, multiple, in almost every fandom. But often with those it feels very much like we take one character, they’re Mr. Darcy. They do almost, you know, the plot is exactly the same or too close to call, and that seems odd to me because these characters should not act exactly like the book characters. It should not feel like you did a find and replace in your word doc for the character names and that’s it. And again, completely, not as a scholar but as a fic reader, that always frustrates me a little bit. So we tried not to do that and we, but there’s just so many wonderful themes that show up in both Dracula and Hannibal about gaslighting, about perspective, about darkness. And I mean, they’re both just wonderful evocative Gothic texts, so we just mush them the heck up together.

KMF: They are.

LM: Yeah. That’s one of the things I think that’s interesting about that kind of adaptation, that in the sort of translation of the one to the other, it seems like that actually helps sort of sussing out some of the underlying or foundational themes or ideas that might be familiar to a reader of Dracula, but would only occur to you in the context of Hannibal by thinking about it in those terms. 

EJN: I think my favorite thing about AUs, when I’m reading them in other things, is that it’s a chance for the author to let you know what they consider foundational to the characters. You know, you see what they think the essence of that character is by putting them in a different scenario and saying, “This is what I think would happen in this setting.” But it’s about the core of how they see the character, the relationships, the whatever, and I always find that really interesting to see.

KMF: Yeah. I’ve, I mean, I’ve written about AU fanfiction in Shakespeare fandom specifically, and that was something that came up. That was actually an article that I co-authored with someone else, but it was something that had occurred to both of us, and one of the fun things in that particular piece, which is coming out, I think, in another month or two, was that we had, we got to do a critical introduction, and then we each got to include a work of alternate universe fanfiction. 

LM: Oh, interesting.

KMF: So she did one that, basically, it was in response to a Tumblr post that said, what if all of these Shakespearean characters were in high school together? So she did this giant high school AU, with all of these different characters sort of mimicking different things from different plays. It was very cute. And I did a complete AU that transposed Richard III to a crime procedural.

LM: Oh wow!

KMF: And it’s the entire play. I actually managed to finish the fic for this. I hadn’t finished it when I posted it on AO3 and then I had to take it down because now it’s going to be in print. But yes, I did manage to finish the entire thing. And one of the things that you can do in an AU that it is, that I argue in the critical intro, is you can take this, take a text that, for instance, like, Richard III kind of keeps its female characters confined to certain scenes and sort of limits their agency, because obviously, for a number of valid and understandable reasons. And, for instance, I took a bunch of characters and genderswapped them. Half the cast is now no longer men. I also did some racebending in there as well, and it was because, because I transposed it to a modern AU, obviously a lot of things change. There’s no crown involved. There’s no royalty. But a lot of the class issues still come through. So I feel like-

LM: What journal?

KMF: This is, it’s not in a journal actually. It’s a book. It’s called Shakespeare and Creative Criticism

LM: That sounds fabulous. 

KMF: It should be fun. 

EJN: Yeah. I mean, AUs act as either, can act as either a prism or diffraction. Distillation. You know, their way of approaching things from a different angle that can allow you to see things you didn’t notice before, think about things that you didn’t before, or by removing some elements allow you to focus on others. 

LM: I wanted to sort of nudge us back in the direction of fan studies a little bit, since this is ostensibly a fan studies podcast. In about, I guess it’s three of the essays that have a sort of explicit connection with fan studies. One is “Hannibal and the Cannibal: Tracking Colonial Imaginaries,” by Rukmini Pande and Samira Nadkarni. One is “Fannibals Are Still Hungry: Feeding Hannibal and Other Series Companion Cookbooks as Immersive Fan Experience,” by Amanda Ewoldt, and then the other is mine, which is “Hannibal… “

EJN: “Hannibal: Adaptation and Authorship in the Age of Fan Production,” by Lori Morimoto.

LM: “Hannibal: Adaptation and Authorship in the Age of Fan Production.” And one of the things that interested me, reading through the book, was that the conclusions concerning, in particular, cannibalism and fandom – which seems like a strange combination, but in the context of Hannibal it is not, not that we’re all cannibals – the conclusions that Pande and Nadkarni reach and that Ewoldt reaches seem rather oppositional. Could you speak to, I was wondering if you could speak to how both are legible as fans studies work and, in particular, fan studies criticism?

KMF: No.

EJN: That’s, no, it’s just that … that’s a lot. That’s a lot all at once to address. I will say that they kind of look at different areas of praxis to one degree, with Ewoldt talking about kind of a fan act and, over simplified but, you know, Ewoldt is discussing a fan activity in that context, while the other, the “Hannibal the Cannibal,” the Nadkarni and Pande essay, which is incredible, I think what it does is it points out things in the fandom that the fandom likes to kind of elide, because it does deal with something that makes people uncomfortable, which is issues of race and fandom. And in a primarily white fandom. Certainly not a fully white fandom, but … and I mean, I think that speaks to a larger issue in fan studies, where sometimes we are so busy being really happy and proud of fans, we’re sometimes a little bit less willing to interrogate some of the things that we should be interrogating as scholars, which is itself a knee-jerk reaction to having to justify the fact that we’re studying fans in the first place, so. 

But, you know, just with this, I love Hannibal. I think it’s fantastic text. Do I think there are issues with race in the show and the fandom? Absolutely. Absolutely and I do think it’s important to interrogate that, especially because Hannibal is a different show in its approach to cannibalism. It’s, I think Janet Poon, actually, at one of the conference, conventions, talks about it through the lens of like Levi Strauss, where Hannibal sees himself as as purifying or perfecting through cannibalism, rather than kind of kind of refining the raw material, the rude, into this thing. And when you consider traditional treatments of cannibalism, the very, kind of The Hills Have Eyes, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, where it’s considered … that one’s not race, but that’s very much class. It’s very much a class and a cultural thing, where it’s it’s local or its Other, where historically you accuse other groups of being cannibals because eating other people makes you not a person yourself. And so if you’re trying to tag another group as being non-human, subhuman, whatever, you tag them with cannibals and you accuse them of cannibalism.

Obviously, this is this is completely eliding actual, historical cannibalism as practiced by various anthropological groups, but we’re not going there right now. So then in Hannibal you had that subversion, and I think it’s a really interesting subversion, but you do kind of have to address the fact that that’s possible because Hannibal is coded in so many ways as being upper-upper everything. You know, he’s white. He’s European. He’s rich, he’s cultured, he plays musical instruments. He can cook. 

LM: The essay itself argues, very simply put, that, as you were saying, Hannibal is only possible because of his whiteness. That the central conceit, that we have this cannibal, that he’s living in plain sight, that he can be funny, that we can root for him in some circumstances even though he’s a terrible, terrible person, all of that is predicated on the fact that he’s white, and that a non-white cannibal would simply never fly in the same way with an audience or otherwise. 

EJN: Yeah, absolutely. 

LM: So Kavita, I wanted to ask you, it’s, you know, it’s too early right now for reviews of Becoming, so we can’t really speak to those. But you do have a prior publication in the Fan Phenomena series put out by Intellect Press on Game of Thrones, and I was wondering, you know, this is also a collection of essays, but I know that the mandate, if you will, for Fan Phenomena is that it should be both scholarly, but also accessible to a general audience. And I was wondering, first, how you manage that, and what was, what has been the response to that book from academic readers? 

KMF: Well, because academic publishing is what it is, there aren’t that many reviews out yet. The book came out in the summer of 2017, and I think there are maybe one or two reviews that have gone into print so far that I’ve seen. It could well be that there are more and I just haven’t found them. Until recently I did not have much in the way of university library access. The one review that I have definitely read, it reviewed several fan studies books all at once, so it wasn’t just a single review for this book, and it was in, I believe it was in Participations [pdf]. And the critique that it lodged about about the Fan Phenomena book was that it was a little too uncritical, which, I don’t know. I’m not sure if I agree with that, because I did, I feel like we did actually, we did offer some criticisms of both the show and the fandom within the, within our discussions. Particularly the chapters that were written about kind of Game of Thrones in feminist discourse and that kind of thing. But of course, I mean everyone, everyone’s opinions are going to be different. So far the reaction that I’ve had from fans of the series, people have, people seem to like it a lot. 

LM: Why do you think that is?

KMF: I think because it didn’t pathologize them. This is a book that was written by a number of scholars who are also fans of the show and exist within, and are accustomed to, fan spaces. These are people who are invested in not pathologizing fans. And so I think it does make a difference when people, again, to go back to one of the things that we that we discussed earlier on, when people acknowledge their own subjectivity and their object of study. 

LM: Could the refusal to pathologize fans ever be read as a lack of criticism?

KMF: It could be. I mean, it would surprise me to see that in a fan studies journal, so I don’t necessarily think that’s what was going on in this particular instance. But I am sure that I could, I could certainly see that criticism coming up and then having to respond to it. I’ve certainly had my, had certain aspects of my work questioned in that in that way from journals that are not fan studies journals. I’ve certainly had to deal with that, but usually I’ve been able to kind of come back with with a better approach or a better phrasing or what can be done. 

LM: Well before I let you go. I did want to ask you both – this is something that I seem to be asking everyone – if you could tell people one thing about fan studies to understand it better, what would that be? 

KMF: I guess what, I mean, it’s not an unknown thing and a lot, and it’s been a long-standing trope in the literary and the fan studies to talk about how we’ve always done transformative works and that kind of thing. And while I certainly agree with that in general and in principle, I think a more useful way of potentially formulating that argument is to think about how works circulated. The kind of readership, and also fanfiction not just as something that’s being written, but as kind of a conversation between the author, the original text, and an unknown reader/audience. In short, just looking at it the same way you look at any other kind of adaptation.

I think one of the issues with fan studies is that people think of it as navel-gazing, as something that’s too close to your own personal interests, that kind of thing. Self-indulgent. It’s viewed as very self-indulgent. It’s like it’s the same thing you get if you study romance novels or popular television. And I think what I would probably like people to take away from fan studies is that fans are not uncritical. Fans are very, very critical of the things they love and that criticism doesn’t mean that they don’t love it. It means, it’s the idea … I’d like to push back against the idea that criticism is not rooted in love. That you hate something, that in order to critique something you need to dislike it. 

EJN: I mean, studying how people have aspect of relationships with with objects with ideas with media is always going to be relevant because it informs how we interact with the world. 

LM: Absolutely. Well, that seems like a note to end on. I really would like to thank you both for taking the time to talk with me today. This has been a really interesting … and I think … you know me. I like talking to you guys. Anyway. Yes, we know each other. Anyway, I would really like to thank you both for participating today. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.

EJN: Well, great. Thank you so much for having us. It was, this is a lot of fun. 

KMF: Yeah. Thank you so much for having us. This has been … yeah, always a pleasure.


LM: That’s all for this episode of “It’s a Thing!” Next time, I’ll be talking with Dr. Mel Stanfill, an Assistant Professor at the University of Central Florida and the author of the recently published book, Exploiting Fandom. See you then!


Music: “Neck Pillow,” by Silent Partner

To cite (Chicago): Morimoto, Lori. 16 Oct 2019. “Kavita Mudan Finn & EJ Nielsen.” Podcast audio. It’s a Thing! MP3, 1.3. [Accessed date]. https://itsathing.net/2019/10/15/episode-3:-kavita-mudan-finn-and-ej-nielsen