In Jonathan Gray’s Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts, he explores the increasing phenomenon of media paratexts as being critical components in shaping audience viewing practices. A “paratext” refers to media extensions for film and television including, trailers, fan-fiction, online discussion boards, bonus DVD extras, interviews, spinoffs, reviews, and other peripheral material (1). In Chapter 1, “From Spoilers to Spinoffs: A Theory of Paratexts,” Gray notes how:
Each paratext acts like an airlock to acclimatize us to a certain text, and it demands or suggests certain kinds of reading strategies…Thus, paratexts tell us what to expect, and in doing so, they shape the reading strategies that we will take with us “into” the text, and they provide the all important early frame through which we examine, react to, and evaluate textual consumption (26).
In other words, paratexts become the entranceway into a text, helping to determine both how, and the way in which, one will engage with a text. The study of paratextual material in digital humanities, cultural studies, and literary studies, therefore, is critical because these texts help contextualize the social, cultural, and political implications of consuming different types of media.
Though industry-created paratexts continue to thrive, digital publishing has granted fan-based communities the platform to be some of the most active and influential contributors to paratextual material. In this essay, I will look specifically at audience-created paratexts as being fundamental in influencing media consumption practices. In relation to the courses theme, “Stories in Play,” fan-based paratexts demonstrate how digital publishing is challenging traditional publishing practices. Expanding on Jonathan Gray’s discussion of viewer created paratexts, this essay argues that the influence of digital audience-generated paratexts embodies how digital platforms are shifting the way audiences navigate their consumption of film, television and literature.
- AUDIENCE-GENERATED PARATEXT: “GREET OR TURN AUDIENCES AWAY”
Jonathan Gray argues, “the study of paratexts is the study of how meaning is created, and how texts begin” further suggesting that paratexts provide access for audiences on how to understand a text before, during, and after consumption (26). Since paratexts serve as gatekeepers to a text, often paratexts are the only encounter audiences have with a text as potential fans can decide through the paratext whether or not they want to invest their time in the text (17). Therefore, the most obvious, and arguably most successful type of paratext is industry-created paratexts. For years, marketers have continued to use hype, marketing, spinoffs, and merchandizing as the primary way of increasing the success and longevity of a film or television show (143). For example, movie studios invest millions of dollars and up to a year of labour on the creation of movie trailers to ensure that the initial narrative lens for a film captivates audiences (49). Gray quotes Clint Culpepper, president of Sony Screen Gems, who states, “You can have the most terrific movie in the world, and if you can’t convey that fact in fifteen-and thirty-second TV ads it’s like having bad speakers on a great stereo,” showing the vitality for media conglomerates to package their product successfully (48). Therefore, in order for a film or television show to be successful, the paratextual material that “we must pass on our way to the film or program” must be even more captivating (3).
As Clint Culpepper reveals, industry paratexts have an inherent financial motivation since an effective paratext will increase the commercial success of the text being sold. Fan-made paratexts, however, are not generated with the same degree of monetary investment implying that these paratexts are more reflective of a cultural rather than commercial investment. In other words, fan-made paratexts serve as an indicator of the type of communities and ideologies that associate themselves with a certain text rather than those ideologies projected onto that text by the media industry (Gray 173). The exposure of potential audiences to fan-made paratexts, therefore, becomes an important indicator of individual viewing practices as people look towards such paratexts to see whether or not they identify with the community associated with that text.
Different genres are often associated with different viewing practices and often genres such as science fiction and fantasy ask viewers to enter into the narrative world at a deeper level than a film classified as a romantic comedy or slapstick comedy. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, for example, are narratives that have constructed alternative worlds filled with new languages, species, epistemologies, lineage, and histories. This kind of depth has resulted in meticulous and exhaustive fan-produced paratexts dedicated to orienting and discussing the universes Martin and Tolkien have created. A group of Tolkien fans from around the world called The Elvish Linguistic Fellowship (E.L.F), for example, have assembled as an online community devoted to studying Tolkien’s invented languages. Similarly, a group of A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones fans, created an unofficial wiki called The Tongues of Ice and Fire Wiki that is dedicated to Martin’s invented Dothraki language.
Thousands of other online fan-created paratexts committed to expanding on the fictious worlds created by Martin and Tolkien continue to proliferate the web, creating a certain expectation of the types of fan associated with these texts. As Jonathan Gray notes:
Many fan-made paratexts, in particular, address only those within the fandom. Other paratexts will scare away potential audiences, as the semblance of being a “Fan text” is often enough to detract some. In such cases, though, the paratexts create the text for the fleeing would-be audience, suggesting a “geek factor” or an undesired depth that may turn them away. (17)
By looking at the level of investment towards audience-generated paratexts from Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones fans, it may “detract” potential fans from engaging with the text due to the type of fan intensity associated with these paratexts. Therefore, for a potential viewer of Lord of the Rings, they may wish only to watch the Peter Jackson film adaptation because the fan-created paratexts associated with Tolkien’s books are linked with the “geek factor” of that fan community. Audience-created paratexts, therefore, perform a significant role in terms of helping people define whether they wish to engage with a fan community and where on the spectrum of “fandom” they wish to associate with.
3. COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE AND DIGITAL COMMUNITIES: GEORGE R. R. MARTIN AND FANDOM
In “Bonus Materials: Digital Auras and Authors,” Gray quotes scholars Robert Brookey and Robert Westerfelhaus who suggest, “Individuals involved in the film’s production are presented in the extra text as having the privilege insights regarding the film’s meaning and purpose, and, as such, they are used to articulate a ‘proper’ (i.e. sanctioned) interpretation” (88). However, as Paul Booth argues in Playing Fans: Negotiating Fandom and Media in the Digital Age, the realities of the digital age have forced media industries to negotiate their relationship with audiences and fan communities regarding what is accepted as the proper interpretation. Booth notes that, “As media fandom becomes more commonplace, both media fans and media producers co-opt each other’s methods, inherently problematizing an either/or in fan/industry relations” (1). In other words, the increasing development and activity from online communities has blurred the authoritative line between audience and industry created paratexts.
This suggests that although audience-created paratexts serve an entryway purpose to help potential viewers decide whether or not they wish to engage with a text, paratexts also serve a pedagogical function in terms of creating a pool of “collective knowledge” within the fan community (Gray 135). Gray notes how fan-created paratexts rely on the notion of collective intelligence to generate meaning. Media expert Henry Jenkins explains the idea of “collective intelligence” in relation to the Twin Peaks series exclaiming how “Collective intelligence expands a community’s productive capacity because it frees individual members from the limitations of their memory and enables the group to act upon a broader range of expertise” (Jenkins qtd. in Gray 137). Therefore, viewers rely on the collective knowledge of audience-created paratexts found on platforms such as Fandom, a database sponsored by Wikia, as a primary tool when looking for expertise on a specific text. The dependence and popularity of these fan-generated paratexts, demonstrates how viewers are looking towards fan-paratexts rather than industry-paratexts as a way of deepening their relationship to a text.
The ambiguous division of authority between producers and audiences can be seen further through digital paratexts such as blogs, online discussion boards, and social media networks that are used to foster conversation between industry creators and audiences. For example, many authors including J.K. Rowling and George R. R. Martin have an active online presence and open-dialogue with their fans. For almost eleven years, Martin has used his LiveJournal, “Not a Blog,” to connect with fans, answer questions, and develop ideas for his story world. Martin has even established friendships with fans he met online, including Elio M. García Jr., who co-wrote The World of Ice and Fire with him. In a 2014 interview conducted with García, he notes how “[Martin] calls when has an idea and he wants to make sure that he hasn’t used this character before, or he hasn’t mentioned this particular detail previously, because he doesn’t want to contradict himself or trap himself” (D’Addario 2014). Martin and García’s relationship demonstrates how the binaries between producers and consumers are being reconfigured due to the digital platform, as fans are able to have a deeper level of involvement in the creative process where authors are looking towards fans for their expertise.
The collaborative effort between Martin and his fans documented on his blog is an important paratext for framing how his audience engages with his text. Considering that Martin is still writing and developing A Song of Ice and Fire, his dedication to his fans and their dedication to his work can be seen as a way of legitimizing the knowledge found in the fan community through Martin involving his fans in his creative process. In contrast to the DVD bonus material that is driven-by establishing a division between industry and audience, Martin is using his blog to disrupt that binary and champion an ongoing, collaborative community between him and his fans. Therefore, the digital platform is challenging traditional publishing that renders audiences and industry as oppositional and instead looks towards fan communities for insight and guidance.
Online fan communities and changing digital publishing practices have provided fans with an unprecedented platform for creating paratexts that are considered narratively legitimate and authoritative. However, Gray suggests that despite audiences and fans creation of their own paratexts, it is important to avoid considering fan paratexts as holding the same amount of cultural capital as paratexts creation by television and film producers and their marketing teams (163). Although communities of creation continue to grow, media industries remain advantageous in terms of superior infrastructure, monetary access, and resources, ultimately, making their paratexts more culturally pervasive. Despite the predominant influence of industry paratexts, however, fan paratexts are beginning to shift in terms of holding cultural authority. As Gray notes, “The power to create paratexts is the power to contribute to, augment, and personalize a textual world…Many media firms’ restrictive reactions to fan creativity tellingly reflect on the degree to which they realize the power of paratexts” (165). Through looking at examples of fan-created paratexts as influencing potential-audiences viewing practices, as well as the influence of such paratexts on the production and reception of various texts, this essay demonstrated how audience-generated paratexts are finding a new position of authority in our cultural imaginary. As technological advancements continue to negotiate the relationship between audience and industry, the paratexts that surround cultural texts such as film and television will inevitably experience a similar shift. Therefore, when looking at texts in various fields of scholarship, it is equally important to consider the paratextual material surrounding such including the ever-growing area of audience-generated paratexts.
 Although paratextual material is extensive in other realms of media such as videogames, literature, music, and art, Gray’s book looks fundamentally at paratextual material in relation to film and television. Although this essay will also look at film and television when talking about paratexts, I will be extending my discussion to consider digital paratexts in relation to literature.
Booth, Paul. Playing Fans: Negotiating Fandom and Media in the Digital Age.
University Of Iowa Press, 2015. Web. 8 March 2016.
Cogman, Bryan. Inside HBO’s Game of Thrones: Season 1 & 2. California: Chronicle
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D’Addario, Daniel. “Daniel D’Addario Interview with Elio M. García, Jr.: Meet the
“Game of Thrones” superfan who knows Westeros better than George R.R. Martin” Salon.com 28. September 2014. Web. 12. March 2016.
Gray, Jonathan. Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts.
New York: New York UP, 2010. Print.
Hostetter, Carl F. “The Elvish Linguistic Fellowship Homepage.” The Elvish Linguistic
Fellowship: A Special Interest Group of the Mythopoeic Society. 2015. Web. 13 March 2016.
Martin, George R. R. “Someone is Angry on the Internet.” LiveJournal Posting. GRRM
Not A Blog. 07. May 2015. Web. 08. March 2016.
Tongues of Ice and Fire Wiki. Wikipedia. Wikipedia Foundation. 27. Feb. 2015. Web. 14 March 2016.