When she pops in the finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the 19th time or settles in for the latest episode of Fringe, Anne Moore isn’t taking a break. She’s doing research.
Moore, a Ph.D. English student in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, is examining the connection between serial narratives and fan communities, focusing on contemporary television shows like Buffy and Battlestar Galactica and Victorian novels like Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone and Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, which were originally published in installments.
“They’re both really commercial art forms,” says Moore, but what’s equally important to her is that the stories they tell first reached the public bit by bit. “There’s this potential that opens up in terms of the way that readers have so much more space to sort of intervene in a narrative when it’s published serially. You have this idea, true or not, that you might be able to influence the direction of the story.”
Masters of the (Fictional) Universe
In her dissertation, currently in progress, Moore uses each chapter to compare a Victorian novel and a contemporary television series, exploring open questions in each text. After all, such questions are largely what get the fans of any era hooked.
“There’s this famous but probably untrue story of this crowd of people greeting the boat that brought all of the copies of Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop to America, saying, ‘Does Little Nell die?’ ” she says. “That doesn’t seem that different to me from Twin Peaks fans asking ‘Who killed Laura Palmer?’ I think that’s the thing, a cultural obsession with a fictional question, and I think it’s the gap between installments that makes that question grab hold of people’s minds all at the same time.”
Today, open questions are mined in fan fiction, where they spawn fascinating new plot twists (one of the earliest being a romantic relationship between Captain Kirk and Spock), and show recaps, where they serve as points of departure for wide-ranging discussions (such as followed each mind-bending episode of Lost). In both activities, fans are trying to “make some kind of coherence out of a serial,” says Moore.
“The thing that defines a fan, to my mind, is a desire for mastery of a fictional world,” she explains. “The way that that gets worked out can be really different, but it’s often based in either attempting to achieve some kind of totalizing knowledge of that world or expanding that world and making it what you want it to be.”
Will Video Kill the Literature Star?
Moore calls television the “red-headed stepchild of lit studies,” but points out that it “is at a really interesting place culturally right now, sort of in between high and low culture,” just as novels were in the Victorian period. She notes, for instance, that audiences of serial television shows are more savvy and literate in the formal elements of storytelling than one might think. Just look at TVTropes.org, a fan wiki that analyzes literary devices employed in television shows.
Indeed, it is the fan community’s inclination toward narratology—the study of narrative structure—that accounts for why, after getting her master’s in English from the University of Vermont, Moore was drawn to the Tufts Ph.D. English program. She knew she’d be able to treat narrative structure as a subject in itself here, delving into a range of different works, unlimited by genre or historical period.
“It seemed that there was a lot of space for work that was more focused on narratology,” she says. “People did work on a really wide variety of texts. I knew I wanted to work on serials, but I also wasn’t clear if I was going to be a Victorianist, or do media studies. Joe Litvak, who’s my advisor now, started as a Victorianist, but now does film and much more contemporary cultural studies work.”
Of Identity and Affinity
It’s worth noting as well that Moore’s interest in fan communities is not just intellectual. It’s also personal.
She first began exploring them academically in her undergraduate thesis at Middlebury, which was about fan interpretations of race and gender issues in Star Trek. She recalls attending a Star Trek convention where actor Michael John Berryman, most famous for his role in the 1977 horror film The Hills Have Eyes, was speaking. “He gave this talk that sounded like it was from a Pride rally,” she says. “He’s like, ‘We’re here because this is a place where it’s safe to be different.’”
It was a statement that hit her where she lives. “I’ve been obsessed with dragons and everything that makes you unpopular since I was in the seventh grade,” she laughs, harkening back to her old preoccupation with the Dragonlance fantasy book series. “I became obsessed with being a completist around a lot of things like Dragonlance, and I do think that that was my own first foray into fandom, that notion of being a completist.”
Fandom has its challenges, however. For Moore, being a completist does not just mean ownership of works, but ownership of all knowledge about the world in which those works transpire—a Sisyphean task.
And there are other frustrations, too. “What actually satisfies us about serials is imagining the perfect ending,” she says. “But when the ending comes, it’s never what you want.”
Georgiana Cohen can be reached at email@example.com.