Monday, March 28, 2016

Forensic Fandom in Abram’s “S” and “Harry Potter”

            I love books, movies, or shows that get me involved, that make me feel like I’m an important part of the narrative, even though, logically, I’m not. Being able to continue the story outside the text can often result in a more meaningful and strong connection and experience with the book itself.  I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the most clever when it comes to solving mysteries in anything (I tend to read “in the moment”), so when I do figure something out on my own or with only partial help from others, I feel pretty accomplished. In “Lost in Time? Lost Fan Engagement with Temporal Play,” Lucy Bennett discusses how the creators of the hit television show Lost inspire this time of involvement in their audience through what she calls “forensic fandom”. 
Lost is not the only show to encourage its viewers to look closely and find clues to solve different mysteries. Many shows, movies, and books ask their audiences to do the same thing.  With the rise of social media and Internet forums, readers and viewers can connect even better with each other and help each other uncover new and exciting facts that otherwise would have been missed. J.J. Abrams’ novel S takes this idea of forensic fandom to new levels, giving the readers literal tools to use to solve the mysteries. In a smaller way, so does J.K. Rowling throughout the Harry Potter series.
Of course,

            Fans love to get involved in what they love, and they especially love when creators encourage that involvement. I recently contributed to a Kickstarter campaign to fund the YouTube group Team Starkid so they can create a new show this summer called Firebringer (fund here). While I do enjoy that I will get rewards for donating, I also love that I get to be involved in the creation process, albeit in a mainly monetary way. We were also given the chance to raise money in certain time frames in order to unlock special rewards for everyone, and again, I felt like part of a group working together to accomplish a common goal. Even though this time of involvement is not what Bennett is discussing, it is related because creators are giving the audience (or potential audience) a role to play in the creation/production/literary process.  Team Starkid involved people at the beginning. The creators for Lost involved its viewers after production.

As for the type of participation that Lost and S employ, Bennett describes forensic fandom as a “mode of storytelling…that involves ‘research, collaboration, analysis, and interpretation’” (299).  Viewers must work together to collect as much information as they can and make connections to each others’ findings and actually go investigate outside sources in order to understand the clues. Then they must analyze and interpret these clues and evidence into one cohesive explanation that fits with the original text.  In fact, Bennett compares this type of engagement to the participation found in video games, quoting Jones, who argues, “The writers seem to have based the formal structure and narrative possibilities of the show itself on video game conventions . . . in order to better create the kind of networked community or fanbase usually associated with games–a potential audience ready not just to watch but also ‘play’ Lost” (Bennett 300). Video games naturally require active participation. Gamers must use knowledge collected throughout the game to understand and decide where to go next and how to solve the next level, platform, world, et cetera. Even though readers are limited in how they can decide the story should progress or how they get there (or the fact that they get there at all, which for me is often quite the accomplishment), unless it’s a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, readers can still actively look for clues, make connections to outside sources, and feel as if they have a stronger connection to what they are reading.

It’s not surprising that the same individual, J.J. Abrams, created Lost and S.  Abrams deeply recognizes how to use narrative to make his audience think and explore. He understands what tricks to use, what hints to leave that make his audience excited when they figure out his clues, even if they discover them after the fact. Bennett writes, “This forensic inspection of the show is therefore encouraged by the narrative structure and form of the program, which is often littered with clues left by the writers to puzzle and engage these detective-like fans” (229). Abrams is very adept at leaving these clues for his audience:
However, as part of the learnt familiarity for many rested in engagement with the program as a puzzle or game, some fans used their forensic detection skills to work out the flashforward before the revelation in the final scene, solving clues left by the writers. For example, the make and model of the mobile phone used by Jack in the episode was immediately discovered by a number of fans as dating from 2006, therefore indicating that the episode was set in the future or present and not the past. (Bennett 300)

Following that example from Lost, S is definitely also littered with clues, written clues from two different narrators in the form of marginal notes. Through these writings paired with the “actual” text itself, readers are encouraged to use the “outside resources” that Abrams actually gives the reader in the form of loose inserts between the pages of the book. He also gives the readers literal physical tools to accomplish their sleuthing. In the very back of the book is a wheel that the reader can use to try to find out coordinates of various places and unravel other mysteries. I admit that I was completely horrible at this “mission.” I could not figure out how to use the wheel on my own. Reading the marginal notes allows the readers to feel as if we stumbled upon this book on our own and are doing our own type of research to find out what happens/happened to the two note-writers. The added inserts make us feel more like detectives on a mission that we feel confident we will eventually solve.

Rowling also sends her readers on detective missions, although not as specifically and literally as Abrams does in Lost and S. It seems as if every week, fans are coming up with new theories and explanations supported by hard evidence from the text and from outside research. To name a few: Trelawney, a (usually) hack divination professor, had a great-grandmother named Cassandra. As many of us English majors know, Cassandra was a seer during the Trojan War cursed with the ability to tell true predictions that no one will believe…which ultimately happens with Trelawney, as many of her predictions came true in ways no one really expected or noticed until years after the books were published. Many people guessed before the last book came out who R.A.B. was and what happened to the locket, due to their own sleuthing through past books. Readers even investigated small details that didn’t affect the plot in anyway but made for interesting discoveries, such as how a few readers researched past full moons and found out that Remus Lupin’s last Christmas at Hogwarts took place on a full moon, which meant he was a werewolf for his last happy Christmas. Sirius Black, instead of getting ready to celebrate his birthday (which we recently found out last year), instead was carted off to Azkaban (wizard jail) for a crime he did not commit (we are really good at finding the super depressing facts, apparently). Fans take it on themselves to see the million genius little secrets Rowling added in that foreshadowed future events or added to the narrative in small, almost unnoticeable ways. She would put some small detail in the first book and carry it through so that it would be revealed as important in the last book, and the investigative work that provides for her fans is incredibly fulfilling, even if we are not necessarily solving a puzzle in the conventional sense or how Bennett describes. No matter what kind of investigation is set forth for us as readers or viewers, we enjoy the opportunity to wrestle with the text and create our own connections.


  1. I shared these links with Dr. Ames, but your post seems an appropriate location for them. As I was researching, I found two websites/blogs devoted to S. Who is Straka? (and the author of the site also maintains a Lost site/blog) and S. Files22 by a "bunch of J.J. Abrams/Bad Robots fans" that has been following the book before it was published (when the promo materials began to mysteriously appear). On the home page for S. Files22, they have documented a book giveaway that appears to be constructed by Doug Dorst in which he provided clues and people searched in real life for the books. While I mentioned on Katy's post that I enjoy reading books that require cognitive energy and I enjoyed S. especially for its creativity, I am not interested in devoting numerous hours of my time to deciphering the book and viewing it as a game.

  2. Kristie, I love that you point out "Viewers must work together to collect as much information as they can and make connections to each others’ findings and actually go investigate outside sources in order to understand the clues" because this is exactly how "S." works as a narrative in at least two different ways. Firstly, Jen and Eric are doing just that, often trumping one another on sources they can't find anything about or articles they can't find (and then providing them to the reader). Secondly comes from the readers of the novel being able to discuss different aspects of the novel (S.), including the meta-novel, and talk about different allusions, intertexts, notes about the commentary (or, perhaps, information hidden in the commentary by Dorst/Abrams). Bennett likens the "Lost" fandom's detective work to that of the video game community, which brings about the connection to "Alternate Reality Games, or ARGs, which exist as real-world games that exist in and around other games (often PC games); an example of this can be seen in the Halo franchise as well as the Portal 2 release (all of which can be found through a quick google search, well worth the read/adventure!)