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Why Academic Fandom Journals like AO3’s Transformative Works and Cultures are Important

R. Nassor

Senior Contributor

R. Nassor may spend more time with books, tea, and ceramic mugs than recommended by professionals but it hasn’t failed her so far. Nassor has a MA in English Literature from Georgetown University, where she looked at the way medieval and early modern literature reappear in fantasy books today. She’s been writing about romance, fantasy, science fiction, and pop culture for quite a while, starting at Book Riot in 2020. She’s also written for Tor.com. You can follow her on Tiktok and contact her through her website.

Surprise, I am here to tell you why academic fandom journals like AO3’s Transformative Works and Cultures are important. So, you may be asking yourself a very important question: Wait, Archive of Our Own (AO3) has an academic journal? I am here to tell you, “Yes, yes they do, and it is gorgeous.”

Transformative Works and Cultures (TWC) publishes articles that examine media studies as well as fandom and fan works. While they are at it, the journal really challenges what is and is not academic writing. As an English master’s student in the academy, TWC is who I want to be when I grow up.

It might not be a big surprise that TWC is run by the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW), a nonprofit org run by fans, for fans. OTW is explicitly interested in “providing access to and preserving the history of fan works and fan culture in its myriad forms. We believe that fan works are transformative and that transformative works are legitimate.” They support a range of free fan sites like AO3 (known for their fan fiction), Legal Advocacy, Fanlore, Open Doors, and yes, TWC. The organization is an incredibly efficient non-profit that helps monitor and curate fandom-related content available for other fans for free.

From early zines in the 1960s, fans have created their own media about fan properties distributed to other fans. Unsurprisingly, Fanlore has a wonderful history of the creation and distribution history of fanzines in the 1900s. Fans have been shipping and writing about their ships for a long, long time. It was typical to find fanzines that offered nonfiction fandom articles. Other zines shared fan fiction, fan art, and other fan works. By-fan-for-fan content is not new. It is only natural to assume that moving into the internet era, fandom and the study of fandom would take place online.

The Online World of TWC and Academic Fandom Journals

OTW was founded in 2007. They developed and launched sites like AO3 that pick up the mantle of fan works, fandom, and other transformative works for the public. To put this in perspective with other internet history, that was also the year Tumblr founded, Twitter was created a year before, and YouTube started a year before that.

The first volume TWC published was in 2008, and they have been in operation since then. Their articles consistently speak to pushing discourse boundaries in fandom.

Transformative Works and Cultures Vol. 23 journal cover

TWC Publishes some real gems

Some lovely articles published in TWC examine the form of fandom spaces and their impact on culture. Take Eve Ng’s “Between text, paratext, and context: Queerbaiting and the contemporary media landscape,” Judith May Fathallah’s “Polyphony on Tumblr: Reading the hate blog as pastiche,” and Leah Steuer’s “Structural affects of soap opera fan correspondence, 1970s–80s.”

They also publish articles looking at the intersectionality of queer and/or BIPOC fans in articles. I have to mention Poe Johnson’s “Transformative racism: The black body in fan works,” Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’s “Race, storying, and restorying: What can we learn from black fans?,” Jessica Pruett’s “Lesbian fandom remakes the boy band,” and Edmond Ernest dit Alban’s “I also eat the straights: Male heterosexual fandoms writing LGBTQ+ media history in Japan.”

TWC has also been known to publish articles that look at old, specific fan communities and fan works. Erica Haugtvedt’s “Victorian penny press plagiarisms as transmedia storytelling,” Andrew Crome’s “Considering eighteenth-century prophecy as transformative work,” and Ellis Khachidze’s “Women’s fan writing and transformative works in eleventh-century Japan” all detail deep fan histories. The articles are, quite frankly, wonderful.

The Academy’s Relationship to Fandom

the 1933 cover of Weird Tales

I believe the tools the academy uses to study traditional academic topics should be used to look at fan works. Journals like TWC publish work that has developed out of a variety of humanities disciplines that include but are in no way limited to English, history, art history, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and film studies.

I will readily admit that the work I tend to do in English academic spaces leans towards TWC‘s bread and butter. I’ve researched the popular, the lowbrow, or whatever word you would like to use for media without much scholarly debate — think YA books, fantasy novels, and Weird Tales magazine short stories. I am interested in the work TWC is doing because it is a growing field that still needs further exploration.

There’s More Than One Academic Fandom Journal?

Other academic journals look at fandom. First published in 2012, the Journal of Fandom Studies looks at the critical exploration of fandom and pop culture. Participations has been publishing articles that look at media, culture, and audience since 2003. Popular Communication looks at media, everyday life, culture, and internet-based communication among other popular content, and has been doing so since 2003. Then you have M/C – A Journal of Media and Culture publishing, you guessed it, articles about media and culture since 1998.

Today, we are just looking at TWC as a primary example, but I would be remiss to not mention the fact that the journal is in communication with other academic scholars. TWC is part of a larger movement to study, research, and preserve the development of fandom.

Why are Academic Fandom Journals Important?

As fans and researchers, what we choose to give our time and attention to matters. We are saying, “Hey you! Yes, you. Come here and look at this thing. Isn’t it odd? Don’t you want to know more?” We contribute hours, months, or years of our lives to documenting and examining fandom and fan works. We believe there is something special there that deserves a critical look. It’s a place where we dissect the body of the work, extract and examine all the interior hidden bits, and connect them to a larger picture that is easier for everyone to see.

So, in the fashion of the academy (and honestly traditional story structure), we loop back around to my claim. Academic fandom journals like AO3’s Transformative Works and Cultures are important. They are an expansion of existing fan discussion from communities that I am sure stretch back further than 1900s fanzines. It is important that academic fandom journals fill a gap in humanities research — that gap being their examination of not only new media, but the media fans create about that media. Finally, it is important to treat our fans and our fandoms with sincerity.

Fandom will grow and change in odd ways whether or not we are looking closely, so someone has to pay attention to it. As a fan and researcher, I am also biased. But still, isn’t TWC an odd little piece of the internet you want to know more about?