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scholarship

[META] Harry Potter, History, and Endings

Like much of the rest of the world, I went to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 last weekend. The Harry Potter books, and fandom, hold a very special place in my heart, and the seventh book in particular holds a very special place in my reading experience as well: namely, it’s the only book I can recall in years that, while reading, I deliberately forbade myself from flipping to the back of and reading the ending. Just about every other book I read, especially fiction, after about twenty pages I find myself turning to the ending and reading the final chapter or so. I’ve gathered from people’s reactions that this is something of an odd reading practice. The only other person I’ve met who does make a habit of it, actually, is a professor in my department, and we had a satisfying moment of solidarity when we discovered that we both read the endings of books before reading the rest of the book. I’m frequently asked why I read this way, and I often answer that, for me, the plot of a book is often the least interesting aspect. Did I suspect that Harry would (eventually) vanquish the Dark Lord when I started reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in 1997? Yeah, I had an inkling. Whether or not there are only seven stories in the world, there are certainly a limited number of plots; for me, how the author gets there–language, characterization, style, subject matter, setting–is usually far more important than the actual ending itself. My professor, however, told me that I should be taking the same approach to academic works that I do to fiction: namely, reading the introduction and the conclusion before the actual core of the book, to see whether an author actually fulfills the claims they make. This is certainly good advice; I’m constantly surprised at how many scholars’ introductions and conclusions don’t quite match what their books actually say. But, as is perhaps inevitable, the entire conversation got me to thinking about fanfiction. To wit, part of the pleasure of fanfiction in general–and Harry Potter fanfiction in particular, because there are oceans and oceans of Harry Potter fic out there, as befits a rich, sprawling, transcendently popular canon–is how much we as readers and writers already have in common when we come to the text: we’ve read the books, we’ve seen the movies, we’ve sampled the Chocolate Frogs and Every Flavor Beans and we’ve listened to our wizard rock. So we’re free to focus our attention on other things: characterization in light of whatever canonical aspect has been transformed, whether the fic is critiquing or celebrating a particular aspect of the text, the hotness of any included sex scenes. No matter how many brilliant fics I read, I’m never unhappy to read another fic covering the exact same emotional territory or scenario, for the pleasure of getting a new spin on a concept I love. All this being said, I’m glad I didn’t spoil myself for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows when I first read it, though I hardly wept any less in the theater than I did at the resurrection stone scene in the book. Just as in fanfiction, one of the pleasures of the Potter films has always been the simultaneous impossibility and possibility of spoiling them. We walked into the movie theater already knowing the plot every time, and yet how the filmmakers would transform the books into movies remained a mystery. And even in this final film, which only covers the last half of the final Potter book, my friends and I were quite happy to be unspoiled about just how the filmmakers would interpret everything. (We were, on the whole, quite satisfied.) I’ve come to believe that this same fascination–not what but how, not actual events so much as means, causes, and consequences, hidden realities within familiar stories–is part of why I enjoy studying history. History too offers us a closed, finite narrative that most of us are familiar with at some level of detail; it’s the historian’s job to dig in to the inner workings of that narrative and explicate how events took the shape they did, to excavate forgotten, actual and possible pasts while illuminating possible futures. Lacking a Time-Turner, a Pensieve, or a position in the Department of Mysteries, more often than not for my own research I’m following Hermione Granger’s lead to the library, but even magic takes effort and study. We in fandom know well that canon is only one possible version of any given story; similarly, just because the past worked out the way it did doesn’t lend that past any authority beyond that of the actual. Both are crying out to be disassembled, remixed, and transformed.

[META] Fannish trees in a really big forest

Fans, of course, get intense about what they are fannish about. To use a cliche that Tolkien has already masterfully embroidered upon in his fable “Leaf by Niggle”, fans intentionally and gleefully lose sight of the forest in favor of the trees, or even one tree, or even a single leaf.

And yet it’s sometimes extremely educational and even inspiring to try to get a view of the forest — even, when possible, a bird’s eye view. Or a Time Machine view.

This is what Nancy Reagin and Anne Rubenstein urge in their detailed tour of historical fandoms in the last issue of Transformative Works and Cultures,, which they guest edited. Their opening editorial is humorously called “I’m Buffy, and You’re History”, and they give a tour of fan communities, broadly defined and extending back through time much further than I’m usually accustomed to thinking about.

This issue wanted to focus on fan communities before network TV and certainly before the internet, and the articles focus on things like female fans of British movie stars and the people who wrote fan letters to Willa Cather. And yet Reagin and Rubenstein want to show there is a historical continuity between these groups and Star Wars or Doctor Who buffs.

They write, “This special issue of TWC represents, as far as we know, the very first published collection of historical studies of fan communities and activities…. When we discuss ‘fans,’ we are referring to people who were active participants in popular culture, often decades earlier than is often acknowledged in modern fan studies.”

The questions they are interested in are fascinating: “How did changes in the material conditions of leisure, entertainment, and play relate to changes in ordinary people’s worldviews? What difference did the rise of mass media make in everyday life? How did changes in seemingly trivial everyday practices connect to larger social and cultural transformations? What was the relationship between participation in leisure activities and participation in politics? How did communities of fans contribute to historical change?”

I know I’ve been very prone to try to use fandom as a refuge from the stresses and challenges of “real life,” but they remind me that fandom and fan activities are definitely part of real life, part of history, and furthermore, worthy of study: “[A]cademic historians can offer … research and narratives that enable fans to connect their own particular fandom’s story to much broader changes over time, locating themselves and their communities in a global history of culture. We can trace important social, legal, and economic changes that set the stage for the emergence of fan communities and show how fans participated in and had an impact on broader cultural change.”

Sometimes, fannish metadiscussions trace these changes in detail — I’ve read and even been part of many fascinating and inspiring discussions about how fans, in grappling and rewriting our canons, can advance agendas of social change.

And so, Rubenstein and Reagin point out, “Historians are interested in the ways that communities develop over time. We study individuals’ struggles for survival and their efforts at making more interesting, exciting, or satisfying lives for themselves, because we understand that these efforts can add up to or reflect transformative changes in the world. ”

Their introductory editorial briefly discusses things like the impact of copyright law, mass media, professional sports and the cultural appropriation that happens in a century like the 19th, which was full of immigration and global migrations.

And they urge researchers and fan scholars to look beyond the 20th century and especially the focus on internet fandom: “This sometimes narrow focus has led scholars to ignore well-organized fan communities that indeed contested cultural authority, especially if these originated outside of the United States and Western Europe.”

So in the end, what might we learn from a birds-eye view of fandom? “We’re confident that this [historical type of] work will offer fans a broader context for their own communities and can demonstrate that fan communities have always contributed to cultural and social change. Participatory culture is, in fact, a deeply rooted phenomenon—more than today’s fans might realize—and historically grounded research can uncover how fans’ participation helped shape the world we live in.”

[META] And it is always eighteen ninety-five [1]: Reading Sherlockian Scholarship from a Media Acafan Perspective

The focus of the current issue of media studies journal Flow is acafandom, and most of the essays included share a common theme. At some level, and to varying degrees, each discusses the tensions present in the working life of every acafan: the tightrope-walk of creating scholarship while simultaneously following one’s given fannish ethos, and the constant negotiations inherent in the work of merging and consolidating academic and fannish approaches to knowledge, analyses, and interpretation. More than one contributor cites Matt Hills, who in Fan Cultures (2002) challenges the tenet that academics and fans are effectively doing the same thing, albeit in different circles. Hills points out that as academics we tend to look for ways in which fans do work that is similar or identical to our own academic work, and that we tend to foreground aspects of fan cultures that easily mirror academic cultures; he also makes an argument that academics should resist the temptation to conflate the two. I’m not sure that I wholly agree with the distinction Hills draws between the acafan and the fan-scholar: he defines the first category as academics who engage in fannish activities, and the second as fans employing academically influenced methods to pursue academically inclined concerns; I am inclined to argue that many of us engage in both modes, switching between them situationally or topically, rather than occupying a single narrowly defined identity. However, I do value Hills’ caveat against imposing our preferred methodologies onto fan engagements, as he neither ignores nor negates the reality that many academics share not only the fannish obsession for detail but also the intense fannish affect toward their chosen field. He also does not reject the compelling and bountiful evidence that many fans regularly interpret and analyze media in ways that are strongly reminiscent of literary and cultural academic analyses. And why would he? An academic’s surprise that fans read source materials in that manner would be disingenuous. After all, that’s the way we have been trained to read and interact with texts throughout our educations, in high school, college, and beyond. I am finding the relationship between fan and academic reading practices particularly interesting at the moment because I’ve begun work focused on a fandom that has strong roots in both: Sherlock Holmes. Notable in the field of fan studies, Sherlock Holmes is generally given the nod as one of the first, if not the very first, fandoms. Whether we define media fandom as every form of transformative writing within a shared interpretive community from the Iliad and Odyssey onward or whether we emphasize the well-defined fan community that transforms televisual texts owned by various media corporations, Sherlock Holmes fandom must be acknowledged for its scope, variety, and unbroken history. Well-known and long established, activities like the public mourning of Holmes’ death, ongoing fan pilgrimages to 221B Baker Street, and the long-established convention of writing pastiches set in the Holmes universe continue to be enacted by individual fans as well as by the more famous fan circles, including the Baker Street Irregulars. Sherlockians, however, are unlikely to recognize themselves or their activities in Trekkies, much as a Verdi afficionado might not think of themselves as belonging to the same genus as My Chemical Romance fans. Notably, Roberta Pearson has discussed these very contradictions in her excellent analyses of media fandom and Sherlockians/Holmesians (It’s Always 1895: Sherlock Holmes in Cyberspace [1997] and Bachies, Bardies, Trekkies and Sherlockians [2007]). The project that has prompted me to look more closely at the fannish spectrum of Sherlock Holmes is an upcoming essay collection on the 2010 BBC series, entitled The Transmedia Adventures of Sherlock, which I am co-editing with my friend Louisa Stein. Over the decades, Holmes has prompted fannish affect and obsession across diverse groups of readers with varying forms of fannish engagements. One of the arguments of (and for) the book is the way in which Sherlock is bringing together disparate fan communities with wildly diverging histories, mores, and demographics — and the consequent clashes this may cause. I’m focusing primarily on a particular form of Sherlock Holmes fan, representing a fandom that is tracing itself for a century and that prides itself on its shared traditions as well as its focus on scholarship, in order to make a specific argument on academic and fannish reading practices. Unlike Hills’ distinction between academics and fans, most Sherlockians seem to consider their fan endeavors as fundamentally different from that of other fandoms because their subject matter is: in the best tradition of high brow vs low brow, Doyle’s work is literature (though maybe not necessarily with a capital L) whereas whatever we media fans are using as our source text isn’t. But is that really the central differentiating feature? I think I am most fascinated with the Sherlockian pastime of “the great game” (see here for a good NPR piece on it), in which fans discuss Sherlock as if he were a real person, doing research and analyzing the story as a historical document. I’ll admit to enjoying postmodern historiography and Hayden White’s important insight that the process of selecting and narrativizing facts in order to create history always and inherently requires story telling. But even if all history is a story, not every story is history. Ultimately, Sherlockians know that; however, the fact that “the game” remains a favorite shared way of doing Sherlock Holmes scholarship is certainly noteworthy, and I am strongly reminded of some of the more contentious debates in fandom: tinhats, gen-is-canon, and Rowling’s authorial interpretations are all good illustrations. In my opinion, what these and other wanks have in common is their demand of a single interpretation over all others, whether it’s the one that sees the stories as real, the one that insists their own interpretation is the only valid one, or the one privileging the author’s interpretations of her text. In the end, all of these debates come down to literary theory, scholarship, and the ways that we approach texts. Literary analysis is the bread and butter of literary scholars like myself, but the thing that fascinates me most about the game is that Sherlockian scholarship effectively continues to engage in a form of criticism that was never considered academically appropriate or, at the very best, one that was always highly contested. In the academy, the problem of treating characters as real people is often short-handed via L. C. Knights 1933 essay “How many children had Lady Macbeth?,” which juxtaposed traditional character criticism such as A.C. Bradley’s with newer forms that eventually developed into the more formalist New Criticism. (For a historical account, see here; for a defense of Bradley, see here.) Clearly, given the rapid changes we’ve seen in literary criticism, current academic scholarship is a far cry from treating the characters as real people–if it ever did so. Even though the annotated Sherlock Holmes editions by William S. Baring-Gould or, more recently, by Leslie S. Klinger look a lot like my Annotated Ulysses, I’m not sure the conceit behind these different works is the same. Perhaps all Sherlockians play the game in the same way that RPF fans play within their fandoms; maybe they play at the game with a constant underlying frisson of Holmes’ fictionality, in the same way that popslashers pretend that Justin and Lance were gay and together, even as they know better. (Or do they? ) In the end, academic scholarship extrapolates and interpolates potential information and facts in order to support an interpretative argument, whereas Sherlockians seem to enjoy the data for its own sake. In that they are a lot like media fans: we like to imagine our characters’ childhoods not solely in order to support or explain adult behavioral traits within the text but also simply for the pleasure of the exercise. But unlike the Sherlockian game where evidence is used to winnow information down to a truth, fan fiction writers build up and out from canon evidence to create myriad fictional scenarios, all of which are equally and simultaneously both true and false. By not privileging any supposed reality, single personal preference, or authorial intent, and by encouraging individual extensions that fit canon in varying degrees, media fandom offers a postmodern variant of engagement with and reading of texts that differs from the more modern desire to establish the single authoritative text and sole valid interpretation. I hope that Sherlock fandom will be able to successfully bridge these different approaches, that it can bring together affirmational and transformational fandoms and allow fans to imagine John and Sherlock as real, regardless of whether it is to establish just how much time passed between the events of “The Red-Headed League” and Watson’s account of the story or whether it is to explore one’s favorite Victorian OTP that didn’t just cohabitate in 221 B Baker Street. Literary scholarship has undergone myriad variations since Doyle created Holmes and Watson, and yet the Sherlockian approach to Doyle’s canon has remained the same. Maybe that’s not altogether surprising from a fandom that celebrates the idea that “it is always eighteen ninety-five.” In a way, for me, Sherlockians combine the best and the worst of both academia and fandom, and, as such, are indeed exemplary of the contentious relationship between the two–even as they distance themselves from either. [1] “And it is always eighteen ninety-five” is the final line of the famous 1942 Sherlock Holmes fan poem, 221 B by Vincent Starrett.