Calling all fans

I submitted a proposal for a panel discussion on fandom as part of my university’s English Department Colloquium Series for next year, and last week the selection committee gave me the go-ahead to begin planning the event.  I started by emailing a number of colleagues (including my thesis student who just graduated, and whom I’m proud to call a colleague now) I thought might be interested in participating, and within a few hours of sending the email, I had more than enough people to make up a panel.  And these weren’t just “sure, I’ll help an academic sister out” responses; these were “OMG I’VE BEEN WAITING MY WHOLE LIFE FOR SOMEONE TO ASK ME ABOUT THIS” responses.  That’s only a slight exaggeration–I had co-workers coming to my door within minutes to share their thoughts; I got email replies filled with multiple exclamation points, and I even had one student (now alum, as of Saturday’s commencement) who is so keen on participating that he plans to fly back here from Texas to be on the panel, even though I told him we could easily Skype him in.

So if I wasn’t already excited about the panel discussion, I am now, and I’m even wondering if this could turn into a conference eventually.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  The reason I’m telling you about all this, dear readers, is that I need your help.  I posed a number of questions in my proposal, but they’re very broad, so I’m looking for more specific questions that I can actually ask the panel–as well as other questions on fandom that I may not even have considered.  If you have questions you’d like to hear the panel address, comment on my blog or tweet them in my direction (@Tessarama).  I’ll see if we can get the discussion live streamed or recorded, and if for some reason those options don’t work out, I’ll definitely write a summary post.

Here are the questions I posed in my proposal, along with some off-the-cuff and by no means exhaustive answers from me:

  • Why do people become fans (of texts, fictional worlds, celebrities, teams, etc.)?  Another version of this question: Why do some people/things seem to inspire fandom more than others?  One possible answer to the second question, in the context of stories: The stories that have major fan followings often, but not always, have a large cast of characters, meaning that even if you don’t connect with the supposed protagonist, there’s almost guaranteed to be a “minor” character that you can identify with, fall in love with, or otherwise latch onto.
  • How does people’s fandom contribute to their identity construction? A very intricate psychological question, of which I’ve merely scratched the surface in previous blog posts, but here’s a personal answer: I am proud to identify myself as a fan of Harry Potter, especially.  It’s one of the first things I tell people about me when I meet them.  And at some level, I consider it integral to the person I’ve become over the past eight years.  (Harry and I are going to celebrate our eight anniversary this summer.)
  • Can a person be both a fan and a critical scholar of the same text or cultural phenomenon? Yes, as I’ve striven to show in my own academic work and on my blog.  See also Henry Jenkins’s much better blog, Confessions of an Aca-Fan.
  • Are fans passive consumers or active contributors? Often, and contrary to early, negative assessments of fandom, the latter.  See Henry Jenkins’s book, Textual Poachers.
  • What is the relationship between fans and authors, especially as traditional notions of authorship become blurred? Oh, jeez.  This is a big one.  See my dissertation. 🙂
  • As Christian scholars, what can we learn from fandom about belonging, passion, and critical engagement, and how can we best minister to people (including each other) who strongly identify as fans? I posed this two-part question not only because Christian worldview engagement is expected in my English department, but also because I think it’s important to think about this.  Without viewing fans through some sort of distant, haughty, anthropological lens (“let’s study these weirdos who are totally Other than us”), I think it is important to think about fan communities as “people groups” (“unreached people groups,” in some cases) who need Jesus’ love just like everyone else, and who can be ministered to in unique ways.

Send me your thoughts!

Have you thought about your Hogwarts house recently?

Maybe it’s time you revisited that topic.  If you’re even moderately involved in online or in-person Harry Potter fan discussions, today’s post isn’t going to tell you anything you don’t already know, but I hope my personal examples will make reading it worth your while.

You’ve probably heard it said that your Hogwarts house (whichever house you identify with most–whether selected by you or by Pottermore) is more indicative of what you value than of the person you currently are.  That statement now seems incredibly obvious to me in light of not only the books (e.g., Harry’s choice not to be placed in Slytherin) but also my own house and those of my friends and family, but I had never heard the idea articulated until recently.

Let me illustrate it with my own story.  If you’ve been reading this blog long enough–or if you go back through the archives to around 2012-13–you may know that I used to consider myself a Ravenclaw (and still have a Ravenclaw blog title and tagline, which probably won’t change) and had a bit of an identity crisis when Pottermore placed me in Hufflepuff.  But over the years since then, I have become a very proud Hufflepuff.  There’s a bit of a chicken and egg question here–did I realize that I was really a Hufflepuff all along, or did I accept the Pottermore pronouncement as fate and write myself a personal narrative to fit?  Or–a third option–did my house identity lead me to aspire and strive to become a person who belongs in Hufflepuff?  I think this last theory best explains what happened.  Before being sorted, I already valued loyalty, hard work, and kindness (a quality not specifically mentioned by the Sorting Hat but popularly associated with Hufflepuff) to some degree–otherwise I wouldn’t have answered the sorting questions the way I did–but being sorted into Hufflepuff pushed me to articulate these values more clearly than I ever had before and to begin consciously striving to emulate them.

Now, here’s the key–I don’t always exemplify these traits, but I strongly admire them when I see them in others, more than I admire traits associated with other houses.  I think that’s a big reason why I loved Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them more than a lot of people did–because, as I argued in this post, it’s a movie about one actual Hufflepuff and (as I see them) his very Hufflepuff-like friends.  People don’t necessarily think of Hufflepuff when they think of me, but when someone does place me in the correct house (this happened a couple of weeks ago), I’m very happy, and I take this as a sign that I am becoming the kind of person I want to be.  We see this with Harry Potter.  He probably could have fit into any of the houses, but his choice placed him in Gryffindor.  And throughout the series (especially in Chamber of Secrets, but later too) we see him worrying about whether he’s really brave enough to be in Gryffindor or whether, instead, he’s simply foolhardy.  I think we see it with Neville too–he doesn’t immediately appear to be a brave person, but being brave is important to him (because of his parents, we later learn), and he eventually becomes brave.  We could think of it this way: If you’re constantly thinking, “I don’t deserve to be in this house,” you’re probably in the right house.

This theory explains why I know some very sweet people who strongly identify with Slytherin–maybe they’re tired of being pigeonholed as sweet people.  It probably explains a lot of other things that I haven’t thought about yet.  How about you?  Do you think you belong in the house where Pottermore placed you, and why or why not?  I know this topic gets discussed a lot, but I never get tired of it, because I think it can be a fascinating and useful tool for understanding who we are and who we aspire to become.

on listening to presentations

I just came from the penultimate session of a class I teach (facilitate, really) during which students complete the research and writing of their senior honors thesis.  Today I listened to the seven students in my all-female class (the Magnificent Seven, as I’ve been calling them in my mind) give short presentations about their thesis research and post-graduation plans.  These are students from majors as diverse as journalism, exercise science, and English/Spanish with teacher licensure, but they crossed disciplinary divides to convey their passion for their topics.

Earlier this afternoon, I served as a judge for five presentations (from history, English, and theology) that were part of our university’s Research Week competition.  Yesterday, I was a moderator in a room of presenters from exercise science and sports management.  Although the topics diverged widely, all the students, in spite of limitations in some of the presentations, showed a clear enthusiasm for their research and its implications in the real world.

On Tuesday, I watched my first master’s thesis student (i.e., the first student for whom I’ve served as thesis chair) defend her project, on moral maturity in the Harry Potter series, with flying colors.  It was a delightful meeting not only because we shared cookies and baked apple bars, not only because all three committee members and (of course) the student herself were Harry Potter fans, but primarily because I got to see the culmination of over a year’s worth of work and my student’s relief as she realized that she knew her stuff really, really well.  It was as if I could see her becoming an expert before my eyes.

Finally, three of my children’s lit students gave in-class presentations on nonfiction books yesterday, and four more will do so tomorrow.  So I’ve spent most of this week listening to students talk.  And although there’s a significant difference between a 10-minute undergrad class presentation and an hour-long master’s thesis defense, I love hearing students at any level talk about what they love, especially when they’ve done the work to know what they’re talking about.  In fact, I love hearing people in general talk about what they love.  Maybe we should all do more asking and listening–we might hear something really cool.

I’m a church lady.

I hinted last week that I might post about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them this week, but after watching the Blu-Ray, including the deleted scenes (which were enjoyable  but didn’t fill in any of the story gaps I’d hoped they would), I found that I don’t have a whole lot that’s new to say about the movie, except that I still love it, story gaps and all.  I will briefly mention, however, that I now have a favorite sequence: the one in which Newt and Jacob work together to catch the Erumpent in Central Park.  It starts off with that lovely little scene in which Newt does the Erumpent mating dance, showing that he has no problem making himself look ridiculous for the benefit of his beloved beasts (and making us love them too, vicariously).  After that, it’s a well-paced, purely fun caper through the park that solidifies the partnership between Newt and Jacob–at the end, the latter puts out his hand as if they’re meeting for the first time and finally says, “Call me Jacob.”  The music is also perfect in this sequence; it’s beautiful and sounds like something that should be in a ballet, but it has just enough of a sense of humor to fit the tone of the events.

But that’s not the topic of today’s post.  Instead, I want to write a little bit about the wonderful time I had this past weekend at my church’s women’s retreat at the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove in Ashville, NC.  I think I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I’m a mountain lover, so it should come as no surprise that I enjoyed my surroundings, especially the feeling of being enveloped by the woods while zip-lining on Saturday.  I also enjoyed The Cove’s gourmet meals, the music and teaching sessions, and getting to sleep in almost total darkness and quiet.

But my favorite thing about the retreat was looking around and realizing just how many women from my church I recognize and, of those, how many I can call my friends.  This is significant to me not only because I belong to a large church, but also because for a long time, I didn’t think I was a “church lady.”  During college and for a number of years after that, I did not consider myself the type of person who would go to a women’s retreat–nor who would attend a Beth Moore Living Proof event (which I did last fall) or who would wear a piece of jewelry inspired by a book from a women’s Bible study I participated (and I love my necklace pendant that looks like the bird’s nest on the cover of Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts).

Now, when I look back on the period when I thought I wasn’t a church lady, I realize that my attitude largely stemmed from pride and prejudice.  (I promise that was not an intentional Jane Austen reference, but I decided to run with it.)  I had a very narrow definition of what a church lady was.  Although I couldn’t have pointed to one person who fit this description, my stereotyped mental image of a church lady didn’t like to read non-Christian fiction, hugged everyone who came across her path but didn’t really know them, would have considered me unspiritual and just plain weird for liking Harry Potter and rock music, and used Bible verses in all of her decorating.  She was also, although I may not have ever articulated this is a verbal thought, intellectually and spiritually inferior to me.

Of course, I was wrong, not to mention lousy with pride.  My erroneous thinking derived from two main problems.  First, I was forgetting that the true definition of a “church lady” is any woman who belongs to Jesus Christ, even if she lives in a country that doesn’t have a single Lifeway.  Second, I didn’t know very many women from my local church.  It took me a long time and some deliberate actions–serving in various ministries, becoming an official church member, deigning to attend Wednesday night Bible studies–before I really started getting to know some of them.  Now, in my church, I have running buddies, I have fellow Harry Potter fans, and I have women who may not have any superficial interests in common with me but with whom I can have a genuine conversation about life.  It was beautiful to look out over the crowd in our sessions over the weekend and realize that.

Beauty and the Beast

I wanted to come up with a clever title for this post, like “A Tale as Old as Time and as Fresh as 2017,” but that’s actually pretty cheesy, and since I’m surely the millionth blogger to enter this discussion over the past few days, there’s no point in trying to be original.

Well, I really enjoyed Beauty and the Beast.  For me, it struck exactly the right balance between appealing to the nostalgia of people who were seven-year-old vicarious princesses when the original animated Disney movie was released (e.g., me) and providing the psychological depth and historical detail that has come be expected of fairy tale adaptations in recent years.  I want to focus on the latter and tell you about an innovation that I appreciated in each of the two categories that I just mentioned.

  1. Psychological depth: In the animated film, Belle and the Beast–and even Gaston–were already surprisingly fleshed-out characters, but many of the minor characters were pretty flat (and I’m not talking about the 2D animation).  One of those characters who gets some new depth in the new adaptation is Maurice, Belle’s father.  The animated Maurice was exceedingly absent-minded and a rather clueless father, leading us to wonder where Belle got her good sense from.  (I also always wondered why he was half Belle’s height and perfectly spherical.)  When Gaston had him thrown into the asylum wagon, I felt bad for Maurice, but I kind of saw Gaston’s point.  In the live-action film, Maurice (played by Kevin Kline) is still a bit of a dreamer–perhaps even more so, since he’s now portrayed as an artist rather than an inventor (in a neat twist, Belle is the inventor!)–but his speech and mannerisms are abundantly rational, which underscores the cruelty of Gaston’s and the townspeople’s insistence that he is crazy.  Maurice gets added depth from the film’s revelations about Belle’s mother, who (this is not a spoiler; you find out very early in the movie) died of the plague in Paris when Belle was a baby.  I like how many of the recent Disney movies are either showing two-parent families or at least making it clear that it takes two people to make a baby.  (At the end of this one, we discover that there’s a Mr. Potts!)
  2. Historical detail: The fact that Maurice and Belle came from Paris is also significant because it explains why Belle is even literate, let alone the insatiable reader that we love her for being.  The first few scenes of the new film subtly but clearly demonstrate the low priority that has been placed on reading and writing, especially for girls, throughout much of history and even in many places today.  (I have a feeling that Emma Watson, a well-known campaigner for women’s rights, including the right to education, may have had some influence on this aspect of the movie.)  Notice, especially, the tiny collection of books Belle has to choose from in her town in this version.  Instead of the good-sized bookshop of the animated film, here we see a single shelf of volumes that appear to be owned by a clergyman, probably the only other educated person in town besides Belle and Maurice.  The literacy theme comes back in the Beast’s castle, when we learn that not only does the Beast have a really nice library (cue all the Hermione references you can think of) but that he also has apparently read most of the books in it.  I think this is the moment when Belle starts falling in love with the Beast–when she realizes they’re intellectual equals.

I don’t think I’ve quite done justice to the film yet, so I’ll probably return to this topic next week.  Meaenwhile, go see it, and let me know what you think!

children’s lit roundup

Last week I told you about my new resolution to read one children’s book every weekend.  Well, my resolution-keeping streak lasted exactly one weekend.  Although I contemplated reading the shortest children’s book on my bookcase (The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman) this past weekend, I decided I had too much other stuff to do, like making a pot of pasta e fagioli soup.  (So I did continue my Italian cooking streak.)

However, I did buy a children’s book on Saturday.  At a local store with the perfectly explanatory name Estates and Consignments (where I also found a nice drop-leaf table that I’m thinking of buying if it’s still there next time I go), I found a copy of 1971 Newbery Winner Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.  It looks like an early edition, and if it is indeed a 45-year-old paperback, it’s in really good shape.  So that’s got to count for something.

And although I didn’t read an entire children’s book over the weekend, I did make progress on a children’s book I’ve been working on for a little over a week: Inkdeath, the final book in the Inkheart trilogy by Cornelia Funke.  I’ve been disappointed with these books because I really wanted to love them, especially after witnessing the enthusiasm of one of my students who claims them as her favorite books and who is doing a major project on them this semester.  Although the story has kept me enough engaged that persevering through these three massive volumes hasn’t been a complete drag, I can’t say I’ll be sad to finish the series.  I find the translation from German clunky, with isn’t Funke’s fault, but I don’t think the translation can be blamed for the unlikeable (in some cases) and forgettable (in most others) characters.  There are a few minor characters with interesting psychologies, but I still don’t really care if they live or die.  The quasi-medieval Inkworld is by turns beautiful and gritty (which is why I think the second and third books, which are set in it, have been better the first one, which is set in our own world), but I kind of wish I could get rid of all the existing characters (except maybe Dustfinger; he’s okay) and create my own story set in the Inkworld.  Which I guess makes me no better than the villain of this third book, who’s basically trying to do just that.  All right; I’ll just own it.  I’m a bad guy.

I am also listening to a children’s book, the recent Newbery Honor book The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz.  Here’s the premise of this bizarre (and, like Inkdeath, extremely long) story: In medieval France, three kids with superpowers (though nobody actually uses that word), accompanied by a greyhound who’s been resurrected from the dead, are trying to get to a far-away monastery and escape the corrupt knights who are hunting them.  Actually, right now they’re just trying to get to an inn where one of the boys left his donkey, which he calls his ass, which led to some Chaucer-esque broad humor that I have to admit made me LOL.  The structure of the novel is also Chaucer-esque: The “inquisitor” of the title is a writer (voiced in the audiobook by Gidwitz himself) who keeps asking questions while drinking in an inn, and the story gets pieced together by a colorful cast of adult characters who seem to be in awe of the plucky trio–and who are just as interesting as the kids themselves.  I’m enjoying this book for several reasons: It’s funny but it also has a real sense of danger (a balance that many good children’s books strike); the characters are likeable, except the ones we aren’t supposed to like; and the most of the readers are good, which, as I’ve noticed since I started listening to audiobooks recently, can make a huge difference in my appreciation of a book (which, I suppose, isn’t entirely fair to the author).

Well, that’s about all the children’s lit I can handle in one week.  Let me know if you’ve read any of these books or if you have any suggestions for ones I should read next!

my favorite fictional couples that never happened

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, and some of you may be feeling like your true Valentine is out there somewhere (maybe in a very specific location whose exact address or coordinates you know) and just hasn’t found his or her way to you yet.  This is kind of the way I feel about Tom Hiddleston, and I now know, since I read that article about him in GQ that came out last week, which part of London he lives in.  (Like Charles Dickens, he comes straight outta Camden.)  In honor of all of you who are feeling frustrated in love, here are a few fictional couples who never get together despite my best shipping efforts.

  1. the unnamed narrator and Frank Crawley in Rebecca.  *spoilers ahead* My book club just read this 1938 Gothic novel by Daphne du Maurier.  I described it as “creepy Downton Abbey,” so if you like stories about rich people with no jobs, and their household staff who know way too much about the family, you will probably enjoy this book.  (I also thought the writing style was beautiful, the setting haunting, and the human psychology spot-on.)  I had several theories about what was going to happen in this book, some of which were based on superficial resemblances to Jane Eyre, and all of which turned out to be wrong.  The theory that I clung to the hardest was that the narrator’s husband, Maxim, was going to either go to jail or get the death penalty for having killed his first wife, the narrator was going to realize that he never really loved her but was just using her to try to have a normal life, and she was going to end up with the longsuffering and loyal estate agent Frank Crawley, whom I pictured as the subdued and diplomatic Tom Branson of the later seasons of Downton Abbey.  It just seemed so clear to me that the narrator was much more comfortable around Frank than around her preoccupied and moody husband.  I went so far as to go back and make sure the first chapter, which occurs chronologically at the end of the story, didn’t have any proper nouns in it–“We thought she was talking about Maxim, but she could have been talking about Frank!”  I was wrong; she stuck with the wife-killer.  Poor Frank.
  2. Liesel and Max in The Book Thief.  I’ve read Markus Zusak’s remarkable Holocaust-era novel in two different book clubs, and both times some people, including myself, have stated that we wished Liesel, the book thief, and Max, the young Jewish man who hid in Liesel’s family’s basement, had gotten together at the end.  I get all the reasons why that relationship wouldn’t work: he’s older (not that much older, though); she sees him as a brother; it’s not really a book about romantic relationships, but at the same time Liesel will always carry a torch for Rudy.  I do get all that, but I can’t stand to think of Max being all alone for the rest of his life.  Liesel, we learn, marries some random guy and ends up having a bunch of grandchildren, so I’m not worried about her.  But Max is such a lonely figure throughout the book–he arrives alone; he leaves alone; he has to stay in the basement when everyone else is going to the air-raid shelter.  It breaks my heart to think he’ll have to stay that way forever.  He made you a book, Liesel.  Did your random guy do that?
  3. Harry Potter and Luna Lovegood. Speaking of the trope of marrying a random-guy-ex-machina, I’m sure I’m not the only Harry Potter fan who used to think it was a total copout when J.K. Rowling declared that Luna Lovegood, one of my favorite fictional characters of all time, ended up marrying some guy named Rolf Scamander.  Now that I know and love Newt Scamander, I guess I’m okay with Luna marrying his grandson.  But still, like everyone else, I wanted her to get together with Neville.  And yet, there’s a part of me that also thinks Harry and Luna would have been a great couple.  I think she would have helped him not to take himself so seriously, and he would have helped her get some street cred at Hogwarts (not that Luna cares what people think of her).  They have some sweet exchanges in the books (like when Luna tells Harry about her faith that she’ll see her mother again) and the movies (like when Luna says that hanging out with Harry is “kind of like being with a friend,” and Harry says, “I am your friend, Luna”), and I think this mutual kindness and confidence could have gone somewhere romantic.

I’d love to hear about your adventures in shipping.  Meanwhile, don’t forget that chocolate goes on clearance February 15!