Understanding Fandom (2013), written by Mark Duffet and published by Bloomsbury, offers an in-depth overview of fan studies and elaborates upon core concepts in the field. In many ways, the book is similar to Matt Hills’ pivotal work Fan Cultures (2002) and Cornell Sandvoss’ Fans (2005) but includes more recent studies and overviews of how the field has developed. Duffet, however, offers a rich overview of central topics, concepts and points of concern in fan studies. This approach can be contrasted to the more psycho-analytical approach of Hills and Sandvoss’ interest in textual analysis. Understanding Fandom is a good handbook. The study is helpful to researchers who are new to fan studies and, in line with Duffet’s expertise, also includes music audiences and sports fans.
About the book
Understanding Fandom starts with a foreword by Matt Hills which emphasizes the relevance of Duffet’s work and the new concepts or arguments that we may find in it. The book then sets off with an introduction which identifies key research themes (consumerism, identification, performance), defines fandom and traces its history. After that, a short chapter on stereotypes follows and then a more in-depth chapter on how fandom alters our ideas of textuality and narrativity. How can we study this? Duffett works his way up from early audience research, to Textual Poachers and finally discusses Gray’s ideas on paratext and Sandvoss’ understanding of polysemic texts. After this exhaustive chapter, Duffett goes into particular fan practices and research that has been done on them. The next chapters are more focused on core topics in fan studies, such as gender, the role of actual spaces and memories, the fan community itself. It struck me that he ends with methodological recommendations.
The handbook is a fascinating read, supported by a clear layout. Each chapter starts with a box with core research questions and important concepts are highlighted in the text itself. The book is exhaustive and inclusive. As Matt Hills remarks in his foreword, Duffett keeps his understanding of fan and fandom rather vague, but this can also be understood as an interesting analytical move.
What Duffett adds to his observations on existing studies, are a couple of new concepts that come from his own research. I found his discussion of the ´imagined memory´ fascinating: ‘The product of a fan’s desire to have experienced one of the early performances of their favourite star’ (p. 22). Fans, Duffett argues, have a kind of collective memory. Even though they have not seen the first concert of the Sex Pistols, this experience is important fan lore and something they can access through second-hand material such as photographs and videos. The imagined memory is not a real memory but a pseudo-memory that solidifies a sense of fan identity and community.
In his methodology section, Duffett also recommends that scholars drop the issue of whether or not they are fans themselves. ‘I would prefer scholars to reach a place where the issue is dropped and we just take it for granted that anyone – fan or not – can potentially write with insight about fandom if they do so with respect’ (275). What Duffett wants to see is a ‘fan-positive resarcher’. While I would hardly agree with this statement, it makes for a provocative debate. Personally, I want to see more reflexivity in any type of cultural and social study. Especially in the humanities, such methodological reflection and awareness of one’s interpretive stances is often lacking. Still, the idea of a fan-positive and openminded researcher is appealing.
Critically, I was not always convinced by the structure of the book. I felt that some of the chapters, such as the discussion of stereotypes, could have been skipped or embedded in the introduction. Other chapters, such as the overview of audience and fan studies, are included very late in the book. Overall, Duffett is careful in including many fan practices and kind of fans. The downside of this argumentation is that the book is sometimes a bit too full, with many observations and different types of fan practices lumped together. When reading the book, I often felt that a slightly different handbook – perhaps focused solely on music audiences – would have been more compelling. The arguments on music fandom clearly appeared to be Duffett’s forte.
For a scholar who is well-versed in fan studies, there may be little new to gain from this book, but the overview itself is a helpful tool in classrooms. Moreover, it makes the field insightful for scholars who wish to conduct a study on fans themselves. Next year will mark quite some interesting and related publications in fan studies (e.g., The Companion to Fan Studies by Ashgate Publications) and I look forward to comparing these different handbooks and monographs. I found Duffett’s book worthwhile and can definitely recommend that even the more experienced fan scholars give it a shot.