This post came about as the result of a Twitter conversation with Anna Reser, a student of the History of Science at University of Oklahoma. Her post, “Fan Studies, Cultural Memory, and Digital Pedagogy” should be read for context… and let’s face it, it’s a fantastic entry.
[note: In this post, I do focus most often on literature as it is the area in which I am most knowledgeable, but I do firmly believe that this applies to art (fanart) and drama (Shakespeare, Stephen Schwartz musicals) as well.]
Humanities are often taught as a way to “elevate” the human mind, to enlighten, to inspire… instead of ways to relate and empathize. In libraries, a Readers’ Advisory librarian began first as a way to “improve the reading level” of the community by introducing readers to tiers of books, eventually leading away from “trashy” romance novels and penny dreadfuls to volumes of philosophy and religious texts. (Maatta, 2010) On one hand, this mindset says “Hey! Maybe you’ve been intimidated by Plato’s Utopia, I’ll help you build your confidence by giving you other books. Let’s start with The Chronicles of Narnia and we’ll go from there.” On the other hand, it diminishes an individual’s tastes and forays into reading. It says “Your curiosity is not enough.” [relevant gif] It implies that the only interest of value is one which is not born of enthusiasm, but of ambition. In a word, it’s elitist, and this idea that reading one form of literature over another is pervasive in our culture.
Ever the underdog, the humanities are being pushed aside by administration for athletics and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields. Not only is it underfunded and increasingly ignored, its stereotype is a lecturer in a tweed jacket with patched elbows, surrounded by books (as one of my supervisors once referred to them, “dead trees”). Inaccessible to the digital age in which we now live. This stereotype is (like all stereotypes), not indicative of the field as it truly exists today. STEM fields are no less welcoming to women than the humanities, but often we are taught that they are skill-based. that if we “work hard enough”, we’ll make A’s and get through calculus. Keep your head down and do well and people won’t bother you. In contrast, the humanities require a “spark of divine fire”, as George Bernard Shaw so beautifully put it. We are taught that in order to take part in the great and terrible act of literature, we must have unique insight… much as in art, originality and the ability to appreciate are seen as vital, as is the drive to contribute to A Greater Conversation, a conversation in which many feel unwelcome and ignored. In actuality, subjects taught in the humanities are also skill-based and a natural inclination to one can help, yes, but each skill is valuable in its own right. Writers and artists work hard for their craft just as engineers and mathematicians do.
The most depressing discussion I remember from my undergraduate degree was in my Intro to English Lit class in 2007. My teacher, Pauline Fry, was lecturing on researching and close readings, when one of the students (new to the humanities) raised his hand and said, “So… if everything’s already been said, why are we studying this?” Pauline smiled enigmatically (she always looks as if she has all the answers, and I imagine she actually does), folded her hands, and peered at him over her Dumbledorean glasses. “Why do you think we are still studying literature?” The discussion that followed was one of fumbling words and learned phrases among our group. A few students thought literature was simply the words of the dead, that there was nothing applicable to the modern life. Literature was a step to a diploma, nothing more. Others (like myself) read for the the joy of it. Still others read because they felt that it improved them, made them better. Here’s what we all grew to agree on during the course of the class: it’s not just about the originality of our papers, it’s about our own individual relationship with the material and how it affects us.
[note: by the end of the semester, the person who asked the question grew to adore Langston Hughes, and eventually badgered us all into reading him aloud in class. Happy ending, yay!]
And here’s the next point. Readers have that relationship already, independent of required courses, syllabi, and tuition assistance. They aren’t just going to pick up a book and then stop when they find out what happens at the end of the chapter. No, they keep reading until the end of the fourteen-volume series. They’ll read anthologies of short stories because of Charlaine Harris, and then end up reading Jacqueline Carey and Neil Gaiman, too. Eventually they’ll end up reading Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, and Bram Stoker. Why? Because readers don’t stop. Many readers become fans, and fans are unstoppable.
[Topic for another post: More recently the MOOC has become popular, and these are fantastic! They offer structure to enthusiasm, a series of guideposts and a forum in which to converse. Many readers enjoy this kind of organized progression and are grasping the online format with both hands. It’s pretty sweet.]
Fandoms and fan culture epitomize this idea of the individual’s connection with the material. They even go beyond this and transform it into a shared experience. Rarely have I met a fan who didn’t want to talk about their interests with others, even if they disagree with each other or have incorporated some non-canonical materials into their theories…. There’s something about Lord of the Rings that exists beyond the page, and the same can be said of the books of Tamora Pierce, Christie Golden, and Garth Nix. Fandom makes literature (yep, I just referred to Christie Golden as literature—deal with it) accessible by introducing people through worlds that readers want to live in, heroes they want to be friends with, and adventures they want to experience. A fandom mindset is less one of unwavering adoration but more of interest, curiosity, voracity. How many fans of Dickens do you know who would perform close readings of the author’s complete works in order to ponder the motivations, ethical code, or sexuality of a supporting character? Yeah. Not many. Do a search on Archive of Our Own (Ao3) for Jubal Early, Lestrade, or Tybalt, and I assure you will find the imaginations of writers who have done intensive close readings/viewings to support their stories and theories, and many are writing cooperatively with their friends and fellow fans. (Roozen, 2009)
Lest you be tempted to diminish the quality of the writing by the voracious nature of the writers, Dante’s Inferno is The Bible fanfic, Shakespeare wrote Plutarch fanfic when he penned Coriolanus, and Tolkien pulled a significant amount of inspiration for Lord of the Rings from The Kalevala and Prose Edda. Even famous works of music (Die Nibelungied, My Funny Valentine, Baba O’Riley) are derivative of other works. Mendelssohn’s famous opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream is based off of Shakespeare’s play of the same name, itself a mashup (or remix, if you will) of fairy tales and pantheons. In case you forget where you know that opera from, it’s because The Wedding March has been played at almost every wedding EVER since its composition in 1842. I say all this to say that fanfic is not a new phenomenon, or really a phenomenon at all, and should not be dismissed lightly. (Thomas, 2011) Let’s not even talk about comics and graphic novels because believe me, we could talk all day.
Yet somehow, the creators of these works are looked down upon for their enthusiasm. This incredible attitude of curiosity and passion has lead fans of popular culture (looking at you, Hiddlestoners and Cumberbitches) to get out of their comfort zones and dive into classic literature without losing sight of their friends and collaborators. They go to see live theatre shows, they watch 9hrs of Shakespearean history plays on PBS on a weekend, they attend conventions in droves just to talk about their theories and works and carpool for hours to see Kelly Sue DeConnick. They critique each others’ writing and check for accuracy and plagiarism. Is this not what people do in the humanities? [relevant gif] Scholars read volumes in order to analyze them in depth and come up with the most original arguments they can, they attend conference to discuss their papers, they go out of their way to hear a debate between scholars at distant universities. Fans are not very different, but for one key facet: they do this to connect with others, not to distinguish themselves or get better grades. It’s not competitive, it’s not for that diploma or for that A+. They do it because it’s bonding, because they want to share.
I’m sorry, but THAT. IS. SO COOL. That’s precisely what I love about the digital humanities. The same air exists in both areas. I hope this enthusiasm increases and becomes more evident as these fandoms grow and expand.
In this, I believe the humanities have a great opportunity to reach out and cultivate these people. Fandoms will create communities wherever they find themselves. These people are smart, and any university would be fortunate to have them in their programs. They know how to market themselves, how to share with others, how to speak about their interests in a way that is both inviting and inspiring. Trust me, you want them in your academic programs. You want them as your teachers and faculty, because they will continue doing what they do best: connecting.
[There’s an entire topic here that I am not addressing of gender and diversity, and that’s for another post, another time.]
Works cited in this post:
Maatta, S. L. (2010). A few good books: Using contemporary Readers’ Advisory strategies to connect readers with books. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers.
Roozen, K. “Fan Fic-ing” English studies: A case study exploring the interplay of vernacular literacies and disciplinary engagement. Research in the Teaching of English, 44(2). 136-169
Thomas, B. (2011). What is fanfiction and why are people saying nice things about it? StoryWorlds: A Journal of Narrative Studies, 3(1), 1-24.
Suggested Further Reading/Viewing:
Albanese, D. (2004). The popular mechanics of rude mechanicals: Shakespeare, the present, and the walls of academe. Shakespeare Studies, 32, 295-321.
Malamud, R. (Jan 30, 2011). Monty Python’s academic circus. The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Saler, M. (2003). ‘Clap if you believe in Sherlock Holmes’: Mass culture and the re-enchantment of modernity, c. 1890 – c. 1940. The Historical Journal, 46(3), 599-622.
Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl (2013).
The Vlogbrother’s Crash Course Literature (Link to YouTube playlist)