The term fan, first used in 1889, is commonly assumed to derive from the word fanatic. Etymological study reveals, however, that it actually comes from the noun fancier, in the sense of someone being a dog or tobacco “fancier.” Despite the widespread pejorative use of fan to describe someone who fervently admires without much thought, most academics who study fans have chosen to focus on the ways in which they act as “fanciers” who possess discrimination and fine sensibilities. Such positive attributes of fans, these scholars assert, make them people who should be listened to carefully. John Tulloch, for instance, has asserted that fandom “marks . . . the society where experts are dethroned,” and, indeed, many scholars who have studied fans’ writing have used these long-neglected sources to argue that they represent rich evidence that differs from, and often works against, the emphases and conclusions of scholars, the supposed “experts.” Many years ago in a seminal essay, for example, Robert Darnton demonstrated how letters to Jean-Jacques Rousseau reveal not only tremendously intense and perceptive reactions to novels such as Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse, but also feelings about the reading experience that differ greatly from modern attitudes. Numerous scholars have since followed Darnton’s lead to demonstrate how fans’ written interpretations of various cultural products vary widely from those offered by academics in a number of fields. Reception researchers who have taken a more ethnographic approach, including Janice Radway, [End Page 3] Annette Kuhn, and Daniel Cavicchi, have learned much the same thing by interviewing fans directly.1
Fan mail and interviews are not the only means by which scholars have attempted to gauge fans’ responses; a number have studied fans’ shrines to a given celebrity, soap opera luncheons, “cosplay,” websites, and other resources. Greatly vitalizing the study of fandom more recently has been the advent of numerous electronic means of recording fans’ opinions: e-journalism, blogs, Facebook, discussion circles, the “Customers’ Reviews” space on websites such as amazon.com, and Twitter—as long as screenshots are taken to protect against “second-thoughts-are-best” deletions. Examination of such materials has added exciting new dimensions to the field, not only because e-communications are often more easily accessible to researchers but also because they represent new types of response protocols and conventions. Equally important, e-fan writing can dramatically alter the relationship between fans and their objects of adulation by allowing fans to be acknowledged as producers rather than mere passive recipients of cultural messages, thereby often replacing the celebrity-recipient with other fans.
Research on fans has progressed a great deal from the era in which no one questioned a scholar who offered his or her judgment on a work’s reception without having consulted any resources detailing readers’, listeners’, or viewers’ responses to the work. It is unlikely, too, that any modern scholar would belittle the significance of fans’ responses by titling an article “Disraeli’s Fan Mail: A Curiosity Item,” as was done in 1954. Today the list of those taking fan mail seriously is steadily growing. Marsha Orgeron, Amy Blair, Karen Hellekson, Matthew Hedstrom, Emily Satterwhite, Corin Throsby, Barbara Ryan, and others have in the past decade published thought-provoking works that have revealed not only a great deal about fans but also about how responses to films, fictions, poetry, advice literature, and other materials function in society.2
Such research, though, has revealed weaknesses in the materials used to gauge fans’ responses. Writing about fan mail in particular, for instance, Jonathan Rose highlights the implicit bias and nonrepresentativeness of letters caches, noting that though fans’ letters “can offer an especially intimate portrait of a particular author’s reading public,” it is imperative that researchers “remember that these samples over-represent enthusiasts and under-represent disgusted or lukewarm readers.” Charles Johanningsmeier, too, has identified several additional issues that need to be taken into account when drawing conclusions from fan mail. In his work on the fan mail sent to—and saved by— the American author Willa Cather between 1908 and 1947, he points out that the majority...