An interview with Catherine Tosenberger

Transformative Works and Cultures, the academic journal project of the OTW, has just released its fourth issue, a special issue on Supernatural guest edited by Catherine Tosenberger. The special issue contains academic articles, shorter academic- and fan-written Symposium pieces, interviews with Supernatural fans, and book reviews all on the topic of Supernatural. We’re incredibly excited to release this special issue because there is so much interest in this topic—and in this fandom.

Guest editor Catherine Tosenberger is an acafan who works as an assistant professor at the University of Winnipeg in Canada. Her PhD is in English from the University of Florida. She specializes in folklore and children’s lit, and she is active in the Harry Potter, Glee, and Supernatural fandoms. She’s interested in slash, incest, seriality, and the issues surrounding young people on the Internet.

Catherine published an article about Supernatural in TWC No. 1 in 2008 entitled “‘The epic love story of Sam and Dean’: Supernatural, Queer Readings, and the Romance of Incestuous Fan Fiction.” It is the TWC article with the largest number of hits: 22,786 as I write this. She has also published several articles on Harry Potter fan fic, which is the topic of her dissertation.

We asked Catherine five questions—read her answers, just below the cut!

1. Why Supernatural (SPN) for a special issue topic?

The obvious answer is: I’m a huge fan of the show and a participant in the fandom, and I wanted to get a bunch of people together to talk about the show and the fandom, to satisfy my own fannish and academic urges. (For me, they’re often one and the same; the fannish part just squeals a little louder. :D)

Speaking more broadly, Supernatural is one of the most active and dynamic fandoms going these days. There are a lot of academics and fans who are excited about the show, and I thought it would be great to showcase some of those discussions in a space that can reach those dual audiences.

Plus, Supernatural, the show, is just so rich and layered, and there’s so much to talk about. (Including the various ways in which the show fails on issues of gender, race, etc.) The show started out with a tiny audience that has gradually become considerably larger, and that’s interesting in and of itself.

2. Why did you decide to pitch a special issue to Transformative Works and Cultures instead of, say, editing a book?

Actually, I did originally pitch it as a book! I e-mailed Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson [the editors of TWC], as well as several other scholars who were fans of the show and who had either written about SPN or could maybe be cajoled into writing about SPN, to see whether they’d be interested in doing an essay collection. It was Kristina who suggested the special issue, and I thought it was a great idea. There are tons of advantages to going in this direction.

First, there is less time between writing and publication—with published collections, essays can get held up for years and years, long past the moment when people are interested.

Second, the academic presses that often publish fandom/pop culture studies might not be especially receptive. SPN isn’t as visible a pop culture presence as, say, Buffy or Battlestar Galactica. With TWC, the editors needed no convincing that this was an awesome idea!

Last—and for me, this is the big one—TWC, as an open-source journal on the Internet, is accessible to anyone. Interested fans, whom I considered a sizable chunk of the potential audience, would be more likely to find and read the work than if it were published in a small print run by an academic press. Also, it’s free!

3. Describe your aca and your fan cred for SPN.

Like I said, my fannishness has always been entwined with my aca-ness. I went into academia out of what was essentially a fannish impulse—I get obsessed with texts, and want to know more about them and talk about them with like-minded people. So I guess it’s fitting that I discovered participatory fandom during my first year of grad school. It was 1999, and I was in the English program at Ohio State, specializing in folklore, looking for something to distract me from worrying about school. I picked up the first Harry Potter book and loved it immediately. I went on the Internet to find someone to squeal with, and found fan fiction.

At the time, I was concentrating my folklore research on the European fairy tale canon. Because fairy tales have been absorbed into children’s literature, my adviser suggested that I look at doctoral programs in that field. I wound up at the University of Florida, where I could do both children’s literature and folklore. I had initially planned to write my dissertation on fairy tales retold for young adults. In the meantime, I was inhaling vast amounts of Potter fan fic, and writing it as well. I mentioned my hobby to my dissertation director, the great Kenneth Kidd. He thought it was awesome, and he suggested that I write my dissertation on Potter fan fic, which I did.

(Incidentally, this is why I always roll my eyes at the periodic cries of “SPN! is the wankiest! fandom! ever!” I have over ten years in the Potter trenches, dude. My standards are shaped by a fandom in which “fan gets sued by creator, Epic Courtroom Drama ensues” is merely the cherry on top, rather than the whole freaking wank sundae. SPN has its moments, but overall, I question their dedication to the cause. Also, damn kids need to get off my lawn.)

In 2007, I was feeling at loose ends, fannishly and academically. I was almost done with my dissertation, and, like all dissertation writers, I was thoroughly sick of it by that point. Potter fandom was in the home stretch; I was bracing myself for the end and looking around for something else to lavish my affections on, to soften the blow when the seventh book came out. My LiveJournal friends list had been taken over by SPN, and people whose work I’d enjoyed in the Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings fandoms were squeeing over this show. I was vaguely interested—unlike other fandoms that Potter fans were drifting into, this one had no spaceships, which was a plus.

Then friends started actively recruiting me: “You NEED to see this show. It’s about folklore! and incest!” (My friends know how to prepare the ground, obviously.) So I rented the first season and fell madly in love. And the fan fic was amazing. I loved analyzing it as much as I loved reading it, and that’s where my first SPN article, on Wincest, came from—honestly, that article could just be retitled “SAM/DEAN OTP 4EVAH <3!!1!" SPN also got me going creatively, as well—I signed up for Big Bang this year, which is my first time writing something long. In this issue, I'm returning to my folklore roots: my article is about fairy tales in SPN and its fan fic.

4. The papers had to be written before SPN finished airing, and the issue will come out just as SPN starts its countdown to its last few suspenseful season 5 eps. Although the show seemed to be facing imminent cancelation, it has just been renewed for a sixth season. What are the benefits and the drawbacks of this timing?

This was something we discussed when I initially pitched the idea. My initial instinct, when I was still thinking about a book, was to wait until the series finished—at that point, SPN had just been renewed for the fourth season, which very well might have been the last. Given the long lead time with books, it was likely that the series would have been over before the book actually appeared. With SPN, cancellation is always a possibility, and the common experience of SPN fans is waiting with our fingers crossed for the announcement of the network’s fall lineup. Waiting until then would have given writers access to the entire canon, and the benefits of that are obvious.

On the other hand, that very uncertainty is a good reason to strike while the iron is hot. The huge benefit of publishing before the series ends is that both potential writers and potential readers are still involved and still emotionally invested. If we kept pushing things back until the series finished—”Oh, wait! We got renewed. Tack another year onto your deadline!”—then writers would have had to plan quite far ahead.

Too many exciting things were happening on the show, and in the fandom, that risked getting lost in the shuffle if we had to wait. SPN fans are enormously productive right now, while the series is still going, and by calling for papers now, we could tap into that momentum. If we had waited, by the time the issue came out, many fans may have moved on already, and they would not be as interested in reading. When I’m mourning the end of a series I love, I need quite a bit of time before I can go back to it. (This is why I’m taking so long on my Harry Potter book. :D)

On a more theoretical note, seriality and open texts are great things to study in and of themselves. And this is fandom, where the text goes ever on and on! If you’re talking about, say, fan fiction, just because a particular fan story gets jossed (kripke’d!) by the show doesn’t mean that it ceases to exist, to have fans, or to influence future stories. In Harry Potter, which had that three-year summer, some of the big influential fan stories, the ones you have to include if you want to talk about Potter fan fic at all, were completely negated by the release of the fifth book—but they were still a force in the Potter fan fictional landscape. And there’s nothing wrong with hitting them at their moment of greatest influence.

Some of the articles in this issue are incredibly timely: we have a couple great essays that discuss the show’s swipes at fandom in seasons 4 and 5. The emotional responses to this in fandom are still fresh—raw, even—and I think a lot of fans will be interested in reading about that. I’m still annoyed about 5.09 “The Real Ghostbusters,” and am pouring those feelings into my editorial.

5. Wincest. Explain.

Well, the production of fan fiction is a worthy end in and of itself! But the reason I think it’s so popular, and why it works so well, is because I really do think a Wincestuous approach is a useful, productive way to read the show.

There are always multiple ways to read a text; what makes any given interpretation of a text a good one is that it is both supportable and illuminating. Wincest throws some of the central issues of the series into sharp relief—issues that also happen to feature in many incest narratives in our culture. SPN is about brothers who are cut off from normal society, who understand themselves as freaks. They are isolated and alienated; they were subject to the whims of their unreliable father. This caused them to turn inward, to focus all their energy and love on each other, because they were never able to make any real, lasting connections to others. There’s a genuine claustrophobia to their relationship. Sam, desperate for normality, abandons his beloved big brother for a shot at bourgeois heterosexual monogamy—which is shown, in the first episode no less, to be futile.

V. C. Andrews’s Flowers in the Attic—the best-known incest narrative in contemporary pop culture—hits almost identical emotional notes. And SPN does Flowers in the Attic one better. Where Andrews physically confines Cathy and Chris in an attic, SPN is more subtle, and more cruel. Sam and Dean are just as confined, but they can move about in the world where normality is always present, but always out of reach. Wincest takes Sam and Dean’s preexisting relationship and just intensifies it. It raises the emotional stakes. As a storytelling impulse, it’s not much different than Kripke going from “looking for Dad” to “oh, shit, it’s the apocalypse!” Both turn the dial up to 11.

A great deal of Wincest fic—especially during the first three seasons—really brings out what for me is the controlling mood of the series: in the midst of all their isolation, misery, and general fucked-up-ness, they have each other. As fucked-up as their relationship might be, it is theirs, and they’re going to carve out some happiness for themselves. There’s a really fantastic article in the special issue that discusses this hopeful Wincest—which was dominant especially during seasons 1 to 3—in relation to darker Wincest narratives, which became more common in seasons 4 and 5, as the Sam/Dean relationship on the show was no longer a source of comfort to the brothers.

As tone-deaf and annoying as SPN’s depictions of fandom are, I can’t entirely hate them. It’s kind of endearing that Kripke and Co. see how much fun we’re having in the peanut gallery and are trying to get in on the action—even if they wind up looking like that awkward teenage guy at a cool party, the one who drinks half a beer and sticks a lampshade on his head to show how wild! and crazy drunk! he is. Embarrassing, but kind of funny.

Basically, it boils down to this: Wincest is intellectually and emotionally engaging, and reading and writing it makes me happy. It makes lots of other people happy too, and an awesome time can be had by all.

Spotlight, Transformative Works and Cultures
  1. Kelios commented:

    Awesome. I love your explanations and ideas about Wincest and the show in general. Thank you for showing that we wincest fans aren’t crazy, socially stunted freaks that the other fans need to shun as if we were catching.

  2. DarkEmeralds commented:

    they wind up looking like that awkward teenage guy at a cool party, the one who drinks half a beer and sticks a lampshade on his head to show how wild! and crazy drunk! he is. Embarrassing, but kind of funny.

    Thank you! That’s the best description of The Real Ghostbusters (and to some extent, the other fourth-wall-breaking eps) that I’ve seen. I’ve experienced all of Kripke’s fanservice not as the goodnatured ribbing that some fans see, but as one more girl-hating slap from a show that I adore despite the fact that it hates me. I’d much rather envision him as the lame uncool outsider. :D